Wonder Woman as an Apologetic Tool

It is generally the man who is not ready to argue, who is ready to sneer.” –G.K. Chesterton

Wonder Woman opened last month with the highest box office opening weekend ever for a female director, beating out the openings of the first Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man movies according to The Hollywood Reporter.  It did so despite the fact that “the movie skewed female (52 percent), while most superhero films rely on 60 percent or more of the audience being male.” Though Wonder Woman attracted a lot of women, it wasn’t the usual chick flick. It’s interesting that this movie is the one that put women on the map for their ability to tell a story that competes so well in a male-dominated industry.

Back in the day at Mars Hill Seattle, Pastor James Harleman led Film and Theology, a ministry that looked at well written movies to investigate their creative themes in light of the first Author and Creator. He now runs a website called Cinemagogue, which he defines as “the recognition that the creative impulse for storytelling and cinematic expression is a reflection of our Creator’s passion, as well as a progressive wrestling with life’s ultimate meta-narrative.” As a deacon at Mars Hill, I led a Film and Theology night on The Matrix Reloaded, looking at the impact of chaos theory on its story and imagery, an intersection of math and theology I still find fascinating. I am now working on a manuscript on the story of Mars Hill Seattle and the lessons, for good and bad, we can learn through its years in existence. As I rehash old memories long tucked away, I can’t get away from Mars Hill’s vision of cultural engagement like the Apostle Paul’s in Acts 17. For all the harm done by the ministry of Mars Hill Seattle, that initial vision of cultural engagement was good and right, and I have been blessed to reexamine it.

I am burdened for the culture revealed by both Wonder Woman and the Women’s March. Both give insight into our cultural moment and should prompt us to engage concerns and longings of a large group of women revealed by both. In this post, I will focus on the apologetic insights and tools in this year’s modern retelling of Wonder Woman.

Rumor has it that Joss Whedon, whose storytelling I often love (Firefly, anyone?!), wrote a sexist screenplay for Wonder Woman back in 2006 that never saw the light of day. In contrast, many consider 2017’s Wonder Woman a feminist dream come true. And there is great insight to be gained by understanding why Wonder Woman fits modern feminist sensibilities. Here are some general themes I noticed. There are spoilers below. You are forewarned.

  1. This superhero woman is kick-ass.

Pardon that language, but I’ve always resonated with women who value strength, physically and emotionally. I call them “kick-ass babes,” and I have a number of godly Christian friends in my life who fit that descriptor. They don’t have to be physically strong, but strength and perseverance characterize them in some way. It isn’t that Wonder Woman “kicked ass” in terms of beating up others. She did beat up others, but it wasn’t a gratuitous focus of the movie. Instead, she generally is “kick ass” herself, in pop culture slang meaning she is powerful, strong, and persevering. She and the Amazonian women in early scenes reminded me very much of Beyonce’s Superbowl halftime show. That was an in-your-face, strong-woman, all-woman performance, and I bet anything that the director of Wonder Woman loved it. Beyonce, like Wonder Woman, was surrounded by other strong, talented women, including an all-woman band that rocked the stands. Feminists in Hollywood and elsewhere value strong women.

  1. But this superhero woman is also compassionate.

This is a noteworthy fact in this Wonder Woman screenplay that distinguishes her from the majority of other comic superheroes, male and female. Interestingly, Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow exhibits no compassion at all. Most women I know find Black Widow in recent Avenger movies simply a sexist, female foil to an all male superhero team as written by misogynist men who don’t realize how out of touch they are with a female audience.

In contrast, Wonder Woman is feminine in ways Black Widow is not, beyond a stereotypical sexy feminine physique. She is deeply troubled by suffering, stepping into it to stop it without thought. She runs to a crying infant, a small but significant scene in this version of Wonder Woman. This superhero woman is drawn to children.

The interplay of points 1 and 2 point well to our longing, even in secular society, for womanhood as God created it to be in perfection. This strong but feminine warrior woman mentality is so BIBLICAL at its root. She wants to help! Others have written about Wonder Woman as ezer, so I won’t rehash all of that. But it’s worth reading through the Bible’s language around God’s example as ezer which is quite often in the context of battle and distress.

Deuteronomy 33: 29. Blessed are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD ? He is your shield and ezer and your glorious sword. Your enemies will cower before you, and you will trample down their high places.

  1. Finally, superhero woman is both god and god killer.

This is where we get helpful cultural insight into the idols of our heart. Wonder Woman in the end is an unbeatable goddess, designed to be the killer of the god of war, Ares. Instead of being a strong woman in the image of the one true God that the Bible presents, Diana of the Amazons IS the god. She was made by Zeus, but not as a mere mortal. Of course, Wonder Woman is just a story, and there are limits to the parallels we can draw. But I am willing to ask if this points to a feminist desire to be one’s own god? Maybe. Maybe not.

It does remind me of the great coping mechanism for the gulf between the strong, compassionate womanhood that many clearly value and the realities of our fallen lives—female autonomy. Men become superfluous. The men needed Diana, but she didn’t really need them. The Amazonians didn’t need men. They didn’t need them in battle. They didn’t need them in bed. And though Diana said men were necessary for procreation but not pleasure, in today’s world we don’t even need them for that. A jar of semen in a sterile clinic will suffice.

This autonomous coping mechanism fails humanity in reality. It fails women, and it fails men. Though there is great conflict between the biological sexes after the Fall of Man, the hope of Jesus includes our reconciliation to God’s vision for both manhood and womanhood. In the gospel, men like Paul or Peter rely on the strong help of Phoebe and Priscilla. But Phoebe and Priscilla stay engaged with Paul and Peter, Aquila and Apollos, as well. Why?

While I try again and again in the household of faith to remind men that they need women, let me also remind women that we really do need men. While women need to be strong, we need also to value the strength of the men in our lives. Though men need our compassion, we can learn from their concerns as well. Though fallen man might only want a woman’s body, the answer is not to require only man’s sperm in a sterile jar for procreation.

Though men need women’s help in most every context, women too need men’s, particularly in leadership in the home and church.

And in that statement comes a fork in the road for many women. In our fallen world, male leadership is often not good for women. In Is the Bible Good for Women? I spent an entire chapter on a Biblical manhood that is good for women. I have been fortunate to experience positive Christian masculinity by way of my father and my Presbyterian pastors in Seattle and South Carolina. But I know many women have not. I encourage you to first know how the Bible portrays a man after God’s own heart, which is often a bit different than manly man caricatures among some Christians. Then, second, look for those kind of men around you. We need such men, as they need us. The interplay of Christian relationship between the sexes, brothers and sisters, sons and mothers, and fathers and daughters, are good and right and necessary for the full flourishing of humanity in the kingdom of God.

Eden was better than Amazon. And Eden is where we are heading again in Christ.

If you have a friend who cried when Wonder Woman took all the fire during the scene in No Man’s Land, ask her why. Don’t dismiss her. Don’t mock her. Don’t sneer. If she’s not a believer, be ready to point her to the one true God who created her in His image. He is the One who gives purpose to her created longings. He is the One who reconciles the sexes, so that Amazon isn’t utopia, but Eden is. Like The Matrix years ago, Wonder Woman is an apologetic tool, friend, a springboard for understanding the deep longings in our culture in many women’s hearts instilled by our Creator.

13 Responses to Wonder Woman as an Apologetic Tool

  1. Sarah July 10, 2017 at 6:52 am #

    Wendy, this is beautifully written, as always. Thanks for your thoughtful commentary.

  2. Allison July 10, 2017 at 12:07 pm #

    As a fiction writer, movie/TV fanatic, I love and resonate with the idea of film and story as apologetic tools! I always enjoy reading your posts and I’m so thrilled to see Wonder Woman showing up on your blog. Thank you so much for drawing attention to her emotional strength and the ways in which she is a feminine hero in a typically male-dominated franchise.

    That said, I’d love to open a discussion about your third point.

    I think the idea of autonomy is relevant, but I wonder about this interpretation of Diana’s autonomy. I do think that Diana needed the male characters in the film. That was one of the things that struck me about the story: her power didn’t take away from anyone else’s. She worked with an all-male team to enter France, cross No Man’s Land, get into the German party, and the base. She didn’t charge off into the world alone. In fact, she couldn’t have crossed No Man’s Land alone. She was pinned down under machine-gun fire until Chris Pine’s character Steve took out the machine gunner, and then they all moved forward together. She didn’t abandon the Scotsman with PTSD when he couldn’t shoot. She encouraged him, cheered him up, kept him part of the group. She worked with the men around her. Diana killed Ares, and Steve and the rest of the gang kept London safe from the chemical attack. (Because in spite of Diana’s beliefs that all fighting would stop if Ares died, I’m not sure the plane on an automated timer would drop out of the sky, its bombs inert…)

    I think the gender of those Diana needed/didn’t need is superfluous, both to her and to the story. It’s not that she didn’t need men, it’s that she didn’t view people as the sum of their genders. She valued the voice of the refugee woman as much as the voice of Steve and as much as the voice of her inner conscience.

    In my mind, the fact of Diana’s divinity is more a reflection that in our storytelling culture, a woman has to be literally a GOD in order to be able to be so emotionally, physically, and mentally strong.

    Thank you again for writing about Wonder Woman. I believe strongly that “the creative impulse for storytelling and cinematic expression is a reflection of our Creator’s passion, as well as a progressive wrestling with life’s ultimate meta-narrative,” as you say.

    And, FIREFLY. Yes. <3

    • Wendy July 10, 2017 at 12:40 pm #

      Yes, I see what you are saying, Allison. Female autonomy is more the theme of the Amazon scenes but not so much afterwards, though in the end Diana only superfluously needed men to guide her to Ares but did not need their help to defeat him. But I get what you are saying about the other scenes.

  3. Tamie July 12, 2017 at 9:47 am #

    I loved this Wonder Woman’s femininity too. 🙂

    Re: point 3, I’m with Allison, that Diana does a really good job of working alongside men and valuing them. In the real world, she is noticeably without a girl gang. For me the god/godkiller thing immediately brings Christ to mind. I know it’s subversive to conceive of female characters as types of Christ, and obviously Christ does not kill God, but he does defeat the supreme forces of evil, and he’s only able to do that because he’s also God.

    • Wendy July 12, 2017 at 9:54 am #

      Yeah. I can see her as a Christ figure, and I have no problem with a female portrayal at times. If our understanding of God can be informed by a hen ….

      On the flip side though, she doesn’t need the strength of men. She condescends to help them it seems to me. But, parallels break down, and I wouldn’t take mine too far.

    • Allison July 12, 2017 at 10:01 am #

      Oh, I hadn’t thought of Diana as a Christ figure, but that makes sense! It might not be a 100% perfect parallel, but I think it’s absolutely present and worth thinking about. This is perhaps part of why her heroism speaks so loudly to our hearts: we can feel a certain Christ-likeness in her. Maybe her gender is why I didn’t identify those qualities in her, which makes me a little sad. Subversion (which I think can often be a good thing) can help us identify and work through assumptions we weren’t aware we were making. In my case, why I haven’t been looking for Christ figures in the female characters I encounter…

    • Tamie July 13, 2017 at 11:32 pm #

      I read something today that talked about her evil-killing role not just as Christlike, but as humanlike, as we participate with Christ in bringing order out of chaos, together as men and women.

  4. GC July 12, 2017 at 11:37 am #

    Thank you for this interesting analysis. I appreciate your writing and enjoy reading your perspective on many things, although I am not Reformed or complementarian, so often see things differently.

    “Though men need women’s help in most every context, women too need men’s, particularly in leadership in the home and church.

    And in that statement comes a fork in the road for many women.” Yes, that is a fork in the road for me. From my perspective, if women need men to lead them in the home and church, then God has created women to be, in some way(s), less than men – less mature, less capable, less intelligent, less something. I don’t see any other way to interpret that position, and it seems to me to conflict with the way Jesus treated women. It also conflicts with the fact that woman was created as ezer, a powerful word that has been mistranslated for centuries in order to make women believe they are less than God created them to be.

    In practical terms, the “women need men to lead them” teaching plays out in the American evangelical church as complementarianism, which I believe is designed specifically to consolidate all forms of power, resources and authority in the hands of men. And it has been very effective in achieving that goal, with apparently little concern for what it has done to women (and men) in the process of achieving it.

    • Wendy Alsup July 12, 2017 at 12:08 pm #

      That view preceded complementarian thought. I find it helpful to look at it without the lends of a complementarian framework personally.

  5. Steven Pidgeon July 14, 2017 at 2:12 am #

    I’ve been considering superhero stories quite a lot recently, especially been watching the whole X-Men series, and just watched Wonder Woman now too. Considering some of what a friend wrote about the movie too, and, yes, Jesus is the ultimate hero, but in the true Apocalypse hero story, there is also a heroine in the story too – a second Eve, and that is us, I can only imagine, the bride who makes herself ready for her king, who faces the onslaught of the serpent, who adorns herself for her husband, who clothes herself with fine linen, bright and clean, which is what? The righteous deeds of the saints… She is one who overcomes the world. That’s what I see reflected in Wonder Woman. Basically I see Wonder Woman as almost an image of the overcoming Church as the Bride and completion of what Jesus overcame for.

    • Wendy July 14, 2017 at 7:24 am #

      Steven, that’s a lot to think about. I’m going to be pondering that today. Beautiful!

  6. buddyglass July 18, 2017 at 8:17 pm #

    I really enjoyed the film. Seemed like there were a ton of biblical themes.

    Zeus (God) sacrifices himself to save humanity.
    The instrument of man’s salvation is God’s own child. (In this case, a daughter).
    Mars (the enemy) hates mankind for its weakness, and for the fact that Zeus (God) loves them.
    Mars (the enemy) doesn’t compel men to evil, but rather whispers in their ears and catalyze their own capacity for evil.
    Diana must eventually show grace, admitting that men are deserving of destruction but nevertheless choosing to embrace them.
    Mars tempts Diana with co-rule, much as the enemy did Jesus

    I feel like there were some others that occurred to me as I was watching the film that I’ve since forgotten.

    • buddyglass July 18, 2017 at 8:22 pm #

      One other thing that struck me: you really get a sense of how *anguished* Diana is when she’s confronted with the true extent of man’s capacity for evil. Don’t normally see that in superhero films.

      Also the image (primarily during the final battle) as Diana as a sort of avenging angel. Beautiful, terrible, and filled with *righteous* anger. Wrath, really.