‘Wonder Woman’ and the transformative power of undeserved compassion

wonder woman
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

[Note: This article contains one maybe-kinda-spoiler and one minor spoiler that’s flagged in advance as **SPOILER**.]

“We are all to blame.” —Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman

Ever since Wonder Woman’s record-breaking opening weekend, fans everywhere have been waxing ecstatic about how empowered the film has made them feel and how ready they are to kick some serious butt.

The enthusiasm behind these reactions is endearing and definitely justified. It certainly isn’t surprising. Anthropologically, mythic tales of heroes have always been meant to not just entertain but, at their best, to galvanize the members of a human tribe into courses of action that were desirable for the survival and health of that tribe. This was true in ancient times and it remains true, to a degree, today (though the process now is less overt and more complicated by complex cultural dynamics). Since these tales are often driven by action/violence, when a superhero film is done well a viewer can’t help but feel inspired to channel all that excitement and energy into something.

But since so many Wonder Woman fans out there are feeling ready to go out and kick some a**, whatever form “kicking a**” might happen to take, I’d like to offer a very humble plea—call it a friendly challenge, if you will. And since this plea/challenge will involve social-political areas that many find sensitive, it’s very possible you will disagree. While it goes without saying that it’s completely fine to disagree, I ask only that you see and recognize the basic sincerity and positive intent behind these words, just as I would do the same for you.

In fact, that’s what this entire piece will be about. It will be about the way we go about our chosen battles. It will be about how many, in these troubled times, go about their battles in ways that do not always serve their causes in the best ways. It will be about how certain ways of fighting for your causes honor the values that Diana stands for, and how certain ways—in my genuinely humble opinion—do not. And even as I recognize and respect that Wonder Woman holds a very special significance for many people, I respectfully maintain my own right to love and celebrate one of my favorite superheroes in my own personal way, and to hold certain opinions about her just as much as anyone else. Like all mythic heroes, she ultimately belongs to everyone and no one at the same time, just as Superman or Spider-Man also belong to everyone and no one at the same time, regardless of gender, race or sexuality (and if anyone has ever tried to make you feel otherwise, that reflects their own failure to live up to the values these heroes represent). So please know that I’m not trying to dictate how you relate to Wonder Woman. You are free to relate to her however you want. I am only sharing my ideas for people to consider and accept or reject as they please.

“It’s not about deserve.”

wonder woman - no man's land
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

Essentially, everything I have to say in this piece is embodied in a single sentence that Diana utters in the film:

“It’s not about deserve.”

How striking and unequivocal a statement that is. Take a moment to think about the various social and political causes that you feel most fired up about, the ones that most compel you to take some kind of action. Now try to recall some times when, while fighting for those causes, you crossed paths—physically or virtually, and for however briefly—with someone whom for whatever reasons you felt did not deserve one or more of the following things: your love, your compassion, your courtesy, or your respect.

You probably won’t have to think back very far to remember a few examples. I think that for many of us even just the past several months alone would yield plenty of examples. Finally, try to think of at least one instance in which your emotions may have somewhat gotten the better of you and you shouted when you merely needed to state, disparaged when you merely needed to deflect, insulted when you merely needed to insinuate, or insinuated when you merely needed to ignore. If we’re honest with ourselves we can all probably think of at least one example.

Now here’s the thing. On that occasion when you felt this person wasn’t deserving of your compassion, or even just basic civility, maybe you were right. Maybe he or she really did not deserve your compassion or civility. But that’s where Wonder Woman and her beautiful statement come in: it’s not about deserve.

Throughout her evolution one thing about Diana has remained fairly consistent: her undying compassion. (from ‘Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman’ Vol. 1 / art: Phil Jimenez)

What’s great about this line when she says it is that unlike, say, Batman v. Superman in which the titular heroes behave contrary to what we know they stand for, this statement is completely aligned with everything that over a half-century of canon has shown that Wonder Woman stands for. Perhaps more than any other superhero save Superman and Captain America—and perhaps, sometimes, even more than them–Wonder Woman represents unconditional love and compassion. Certainly there have been writers who have sought to creatively push the envelope of her personality in different ways but when you view the totality of the character’s history one thing that stands out over time more than anything else is her all-encompassing love and compassion. **MAYBE-KINDA SPOILER** While many films show the hero assuming the sacrificial pose of Christ on the cross, when Diana does it in this film it feels genuine and deserved for she has performed the ultimate Christ-like act: she has forgiven and shown kindness and mercy towards those who truly do not deserve it. That is a self-sacrificing (or rather an ego-sacrificing) act second only to literally laying down one’s life. **END OF MAYBE-KINDA SPOILER**  

Where two or three are gathered together in her name

wonder woman - votive candle
Hail Diana, full of grace. (image: GreasyCreatures / via Pinterest)

Wonder Woman fights, it is true. And so too should you fight for what you believe in, by all means. But let Diana’s values guide your words and actions, not the pumped up, aggressive feelings you get of wanting to kick everyone’s a** after you see the movie. Because with all due respect, some of the interactions I’ve seen between people over various disagreements about Wonder Woman are ironic in that they are not very Wonder Woman-like. Whether it’s heated arguments over the Alamo Drafthouse’s woman-only screenings of the film (and, yes, I agree that men who were complaining about it were overreacting so don’t yell at me, please) or arguments about the sexuality of Diana and the Amazons (why can’t we just let people interpret Amazonian sexuality as they wish so long as they don’t impose that view upon others?), once vilifying each other enters the picture I think the spirit of Diana is no longer present. I’m sure you’ve heard the Biblical quote attributed to Jesus in which he states, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Well, I would argue that where two or more are gathered in Diana’s name but are being mean to each other, there in the midst of them Diana is not.

Superhero fiction is and has always essentially been an action genre and is thus constrained in certain ways by commercial considerations (i.e. an action story in which a superhero beats people up is more entertaining and marketable than a non-violent story in which a pacifist goes around stopping fights). But the violence is always symbolic. Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, and Gandhi all fought too. But they fought peacefully without malice, for underlying all true acts of violence is the underlying emotional and spiritual violence from which the physical violence emerges.

I once attended a talk by Arun Manilal Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas  K. Gandhi. He talked about how his grandfather taught him to recognize the many subtle forms that violence took. He said he learned to see how even those who refrain from physical violence often commit emotional violence towards each other all the time through their words and attitudes. They don’t see it as violence. But the problem is that these words and attitudes, over time, plant the seeds for what can eventually erupt as outward, physical violence.  

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that as you go about crusading for your causes you should always be universally nice and friendly to everyone. As I’ve already made clear, I agree that there are those who may not deserve it. And certainly if you feel genuinely threatened, whether physically or mentally, you should take reasonable measures to protect or defend yourself.

But I do believe that being at least respectful and civil, even or especially towards those who disagree with us, would go a long way towards healing the present schisms of the world. These schisms divide us every bit as uncompromisingly as the No Man’s Land regions of World War I in which neither side could gain ground for being cut down to pieces by so much machine gun fire. How like those machine gunners we are towards each other with our anger and judgement such that even when someone is stepping onto the field, not to charge at us but to wave a white flag, we still mow her down with rapid fire streams of bitter, resentful words.

Dare to step into No Man’s Land

wonder woman
Is this a World War I battlefield or social media in the age of Trump? (Warner Bros. Pictures)

The cathartic No Man’s Land sequence in Wonder Woman has earned its place in superhero cinema and is a scene that is sure to be talked about for a long time to come (it’s hard to believe that Patty Jenkins actually had to fight the studio to keep the scene in). Especially with those words, “No Man’s Land,” it is the type of scene that practically begs for in-depth analysis and interpretation.

For me, at least in my first viewing, what the No Man’s Land scene represented more than anything else was the courage to be vulnerable, and nothing screams “vulnerable!” more than taking the risk to be kind or at least civil to one who is engaging you with the intent to be rude, uncivil, or even outright hateful. You’re vulnerable when you do this because you risk getting hurt or appearing weak. And the other side will often not understand or appreciate what you are trying to do.

Diana was vulnerable too against those bullets in the No Man’s Land scene. It wouldn’t have been half as powerful a scene if she hadn’t been. One reason (among others) why people everywhere are being moved to tears in that scene is because Diana is demonstrating the courage it takes to be vulnerable in the face of an onslaught of aggression and hostility when no one else is willing to do so. Her facial expression is one of focus and determination but also of calm. There is no hate or aggression there. She is doing this because it must be done, because there is no other way to help the people she’s trying to help, but she takes no joy in fighting the soldiers on the other side. It does not boost her ego. It does not make her feel superior. She does not dehumanize or vilify them (“Your bullets are pathetic! Take that, you repugs/libtards/snowflakes!” )

People don’t want to let themselves be vulnerable for fear of appearing weak or complicit to bad behavior or, worse, to injustice. They feel vulnerable enough as it is reaching out towards people who share their temperaments and ideologies, let alone those who oppose them. But being civil in the face of another’s lack of civility is not weakness.  Try it and you will see just how much strength it actually takes. **SPOILER** How much strength do you think it took for Diana to resist the temptation to drop that tank onto Doctor Poison? **END OF SPOILER** To act compassionately in the face of another’s hostility is also not being complicit of their behavior. It is emotional aikido. You’re deflecting their hostile energy to let it wear itself out instead of responding to it with brute force which would only feed the negativity.

Again, it’s not about “deserve.” Your adversaries may attack you in ways that are uncalled for. Maybe they really don’t deserve a civil response. Maybe they deserve your ire. And if you give them your ire it would certainly be understandable. Many others would do the same. But there’s a reason why Wonder Woman isn’t many people. She’s one of a kind because she is willing, determined and able to do things that others can’t—not her physical feats (which are mostly symbolic anyway) but her emotional feats of undeserved compassion and forgiveness which are equally if not more impressive than her physical feats.

We are all Wonder Woman

(Warner Bros. Pictures)

It is sometimes said, “We are all Wonder Women” or, “Every woman is Wonder Woman.” Both statements are true but they are true in terms of potential. Everyone has the potential to be as compassionate and forgiving as Wonder Woman. It takes extraordinary effort, there’s no question. It is far easier to channel Diana’s ferocity than it is to channel the unconditional compassion that guides that ferocity. But such compassion is inherently a revolutionary act in so many ways that I can’t cover in this article because I’ve run out of space.

So let’s try to be compassionate as much as possible to everyone we come across, even those who, by their words and attitudes, are clearly asking for the opposite of compassion. And if compassion is just too difficult in that moment then go for civility. This too takes great strength and it’s a good start. Civility alone might actually be enough to save us from ourselves. And if even civility is too much then simply ignore. Take cover or hide, even, if you must for there is no weakness in hiding when you know the power and damage you are capable of (a very different kind of hero, Bruce Banner, does it all the time – would anyone call him weak?). Engaging unnecessary and unconstructive hostility is not the same thing as fighting for your cause. The latter is important; the former is a waste of time and I’ve never seen any evidence that it actually solves anything. 

None of this is to dictate what to do in a given situation for situations are far too diverse. I seek only to provoke thought and introspection. When confronted with a situation where your emotions are flaring up, just try pausing for a moment and reflecting on these things before reacting. Think of the aforementioned tank scene. Even if you end up attacking, if you’ve at least taken a moment to pause before doing so I think Diana would be proud.

So let’s say you just saw Wonder Woman. Now you’re pumped up and wanting to kick a**. You want to crush all the bad guys out there. That is good. Your passion for social justice indeed reflects Diana’s noble heart. But if you channel that passion in ways that insult, malign or dehumanize those who do not share your views then I would argue that does not reflect her noble heart. Seek therefore to emulate not just Diana’s passion for justice but also her passion for compassion. After all, humanity didn’t deserve her compassion and she gave it to them anyway. The highest way to honor her is by making the valiant attempt to do the same. Not because you’re obligated to but because you have the ability to.

Like Wonder Woman says, “Only love will truly save the world.” Not liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans, white or black, man or woman, straight or gay. Love. Love so courageous that it can stare in the face of hate and stand its ground, love so fierce and noble that it becomes its own shield against a hailstorm of hostility. And the day we can truly, finally, see this and live it in our words and actions is the day that we will save the world. Together. As Wonder Women and Men.

About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.