Compassion and Strength Collide in Wonder Woman

"We are all to blame" | Art by jyongyi. Used with permission.
After watching Wonder Woman, a friend and I were talking about an image I’ve been seeing around the web: it shows a picture of Robin Wright and Carrie Fisher as Princess Buttercup and Princess Leia, next to a photo of them as General Antiope and General Leia, with the caption, “I’ve lived to see my childhood princesses become generals.”

I love this because of the cultural shift it represents. Though Hollywood has been moving away from this, princesses have traditionally been depicted as weak characters, damsels in distress who are just waiting for a prince to save them. But generals are symbols of strength, leadership, and authority. Not only that, generals are active; they affect the plot of their story lines and have agency over their own decisions.

For someone who has disparaged the lack of substantial roles for women in Hollywood, seeing Diana finally get her own movie—a movie that was done well and subverted a whole bunch of sexist tropes, mind you—is a big deal.

Even more encouraging is the fact that young girls are growing up with big movie franchises, like Star Wars and Ghostbusters, giving them the role models boys have had for decades.

Not everyone sees this as a good thing. The discussion around strong female characters always includes some who argue that strong female characters, like Black Widow or Katniss Everdeen, aren’t “real” women because they don’t display traditionally “feminine” characteristics. These writers bemoan the fact that strong female characters don’t follow their male counterparts’ leads or accept their femininity by embracing their nurturing sides (and, in doing so, completely ignore that these characters often do act out of love for their family, like Katniss sacrificing herself for her sister). They insist that it’s unrealistic for female characters to fight in these fictional battles because they are physically smaller and weaker, so what are they doing in the middle of a war anyway?

“Wonder Woman – No Man’s Land” by (used with permission).

And therein lies something I’ve never seen these writers address. I’ve never seen them ask why our geeky stories are always war stories in the first place.

While my friend and I discussed the image I referenced earlier, she mentioned that, as a pacifist, she struggles with supporting war stories. So many of our geeky stories take place during war, whether it’s during a historical war, like Wonder Woman in World War I or Captain America in World War II, or a war between earth and aliens, or a war in a galaxy far, far away. I can see why; any great story needs conflict and a war in which our heroes are fighting to stop world domination or to gain their freedom is bound to capture audiences. But, in these stories, the protagonists are almost always warriors.

I tend to think of “equality” in these situations as equal numbers of male and female warriors, especially if I’m thinking about a superheroes or high fantasy; if a high fantasy movie ever shows more than one token female warrior (I’m looking at you, The Hobbit movies), I might start to think we’re seeing equality. But then I think about what my friend said and I pause. I don’t want all of my strong female characters to be warriors; I’d like to see female characters in all sorts of roles. But, I think the problem is that war stories are the ones making money, so they are the movies getting made. And, if our warrior default is male, then where is there room for female characters if we don’t make them into warriors too?

The thing I loved most about the Wonder Woman movie was how it portrayed who Diana is outside of her armour. Don’t get me wrong: a lot of that movie is devoted to just how hard she kicks ass. But she is also unfailingly compassionate and kind. The first time she sees a baby, her reaction is to gush over it, and when her companion Charlie is dealing with his PTSD, she makes him feel valued as part of the group even when he feels like he’s failed.

“Wonder Woman” by (used with permission).

Even more than that, she doesn’t let anyone else define who she is. When she leaves Themyscira and steps into 1914 London, she enters a world in which women are literally second-class citizens (women in the U.K. didn’t get the vote until 1928). And yet, Diana walks into a room full of officers and politicians and it doesn’t even occur to her that she shouldn’t be there because of her gender.

Diana is both nurturing and a warrior, and the movie doesn’t downplay one side for the other.

Though Steve Trevor’s first instincts are to keep her quiet, he gives up the need to conform to the traditions of his time as he gets to know Diana. When they get to No man’s land, Diana defies his orders not to cross. This scene is important because it shows Diana becoming Wonder Woman, but it also solidifies her partnership with Steve; when she gets stuck under heavy fire, he has her back and helps her get the rest of the way across instead of trying to save her from the situation. From there on out, they work together as a team.

Diana is both nurturing and a warrior, and the movie doesn’t downplay one side for the other. She is everything I hope to see in female characters in that she has multiple facets to her character and is an active participant in her own story.

I’ve been a geek for a long time, and too many of the superhero movies I’ve seen or the fantasy books I’ve read have featured one-dimensional female characters who don’t add much to the story. Diana is a “real” woman because she is allowed to show all aspects of her character, not just the traditionally feminine ones. Princesses are becoming generals, and I think that’s great. But I want to see princesses given the same depth to their characters as well. Diana gives me hope that such a thing is possible.

Kyla Neufeld

Kyla Neufeld

Contributing Writer at Area of Effect
Kyla is a poet, writer, and editor. She writes about various sci-fi and fantasy series, and is interested in the intersections between geek culture, feminism, and social justice. She lives in Winnipeg with her husband, the Sith Lord, and her daughter, the Nazgûl child.
Kyla Neufeld