Let’s play pretend. Imagine that there really was a matriarchal beginning. A mythical time when humans organized into tribes that worshiped, not only the physical goddess statuettes we dig from the ground, but the living mother, the earth, and all Woman-kind. Now imagine a moment in the distant past when patriarchy begins. The Greek pantheon as we know it, headed by Zeus is one of the early human symbols for this patriarchal transition. In Zeus’ world, the goddess has been splintered apart and turned into many single note goddess flavors. These flavors represent one or two aspects of feminine power, often already corrupted by a filter of patriarchal assumptions, and fears (perhaps with good reason) of the ancient feminine. Aphrodite is all about love, but is told she cannot be warlike. Athena is a fighter, and holds wisdom, but is chaste. Artemis is a perpetual virgin, her hunting skills and her midwifery skills are, as a part of her archetypal symbol, antithetical to sexuality. Even Ariadne, once the Lady of the Labyrinth, defined with all manner of powers, and the aspect of the moons full cycle, has become simply a princess who leads a hero into his destiny and mastery.
When we watch the origin story of Wonder Woman, as seen in this 2017 film, directed by Patty Jenkins, we are being given not a description of the matriarchal goddess, but the avatar of a patriarchal system, that is then transformed, right before our eyes, into Christian mythology. This is not unusual in recent Wonder Woman literature, even though her early origins, as originally written by William Moulton Marston, are of a more empowered, dominatrix-like, bi-sexual warrior of justice. Her original origin story has each Greek goddess giving her gifts that shape Wonder Woman into an empowered amalgam, a return of an all-powerful, matriarchal, ancient goddess. However, she has for many years been utilized in comic book narratives as, more or less, a neutered avatar of Athena. To understand how this already puts her in service to a patriarchal system, I need to return to my analysis of the Greeks.
Where does Athena come from, the goddess of which Wonder Woman has long been seen as an avatar? The film suggests her origin is as a creation of Zeus, which emphasizes even more clearly her connection to Athena. To fully comprehend Athena’s role in the world of western culture we have to return to the mythical matriarchal world. Once upon a time, according to Hesiod, Zeus was married to the goddess Metis. This was before Hera, and the difficult marriage of cheating and jealousy. Metis was the goddess of wisdom. This is an older feminine wisdom, a holistic knowing that was not qualified by any particular nuance of aspect, just wisdom, straight up. One day a prophecy happened, which proclaimed that some day a child of Metis would be born with an over-mastering heart, and would take over the Pantheon. Basically replacing Zeus.
Gaia and Ouranos, Zeus’ grandparents, took him aside and suggested he do away with Metis, to deal with this unpleasant lineage issue. See, back then, in a mythical matriarchy, the child would be bringing forward the family values of the mother, not the father. So this prophecy is a suggestion that power might remain an inheritance of the matriarchal lineage, if Zeus allows Metis’ children to be born without intervention. Zeus’ response to the issue is to swallow Metis. In mythological terms this means that he took on the matriarchal aspects of wisdom, and made them his. He now becomes what once belonged to maternal wisdom, ingesting and transforming it into a part of the patriarchal agenda. But wait, there’s more! Metis was at the time pregnant with Athena.
“What?” You say, “Isn’t the story that Zeus births Athena himself through his own head?” Well sort of… Metis gives birth to Athena in the belly of Zeus, and Athena then escapes through Zeus’ head. Symbolically becoming the newer more “innovative” version of the goddess of wisdom. Only, in this version the goddess of wisdom is in service to the patriarchal intellect, the needs of the father for specific strategy, and especially for military strategy. Thus is born a goddess of wisdom, friend to all heroes, in service to the needs of the warring tribes of Greece. Later she is transformed into Minerva, the virgin goddess of Rome. This is the goddess from which flows the archetypal energy of Wonder Woman. If we are to understand her origin as this creation of Zeus, she is already several times over a feminine power in service to the patriarchal system, even before we start to add on our current late stage patriarchal Christian culture.
I share this history, as a foundation for my critique of this newest Wonder Woman film. I was surprised that a film depicting one of our more empowered modern female archetypes was still steeped in patriarchal mythology. To be clear, in this film, the character of Wonder Woman herself is truly enjoyable. The actress is beautiful, strong, and charismatic. The action she embodies is exciting, and the camera loves her. All of us, my daughter, her best friend, and we two moms, were charmed and entranced to watch this larger than life female character create justice and adventure across the screen. And yet, I found myself troubling over the plot, and to what ends this film used this powerful character. Not only does this film perpetuate and entrench the modern myths of Christianity, it leverages and even rewrites ancient mythology to serve this assertion. Not unlike the Christian doctrine that the Old Testament prophets are simply a foreshadowing of Christ, here the filmmakers try to rewrite the ancient myths of Greece to fit into the Christian story of Lucifer’s fall from grace. Killing off most of the Greek pantheon, and throwing Aries’ out of Olympus, depicting him in a literal “Fall From Grace,” reminiscent of images of the fallen angel Lucifer sitting on the ground, looking up and cursing heaven. The film ultimately culminates in the sacrifice of the pure soul, resurrected not as the living god, but as a call for a spirit of universal love. This is not a matriarchal, female empowerment, or feminist tale, in any way shape or form. The story’s mechanisms are still completely embedded in dominant culture narrative.
The underlying patriarchal patterns are further emphasized when, after the initial opening sequences on the Island, the rest of the film flat out fails to pass the Bechdel test. It could be said we are watching two separate movies, the first on the Island of Themyscira, the second once she leaves the island. In this second movie there are almost no other female characters. Wonder Woman in this film is the feminine in service to the solar god. She weeps for the human victims, but is easily turned from her path by the masculine voice. Once the Amazonian characters disappear, the patriarchal world of men seems to have eliminated women all together. Which is actually historically inaccurate for many of the situational spaces depicted. WWI included many prominent roles for intelligent, adventurous, and articulate women. In the film, women are either helpful drudges, evil sociopaths, or masculine and untouchable. Wonder Woman’s interactions with women, once she leaves the island, include: the secretary who talks about suffrage, but does very little on her own; Doctor Maru who Wonder Woman doesn’t speak directly with, but rather decides her fate while Aries talks about her; A woman she steals clothes from but doesn’t directly interact with; And a villager with a child, she listens to like a soldier assessing the situation, and calculating cause. These are the few women with speaking parts, none of who have intricate relationships with each other, and none who speak to each other about anything other than their appearance, or male characters. Wonder Woman is depicted in a world surrounded by men.
The only other strong woman in this male dominated world is Doctor Poison, who she must ultimately attempt to destroy. In addition this one strong female character is actually fulfilling a classic patriarchal role. A role that goes all the way back to an ancient misogynist trope, the role of the evil witch. In this film she is the fall guy for all of human evil, in the guise of a woman. That the actual bad guy, Aries’ illustration of, and pawn for, the most evil character that man can muster, is the “evil witch,” (the negative feminine) reinforces how deeply entrenched this film still is within the narrative tropes of patriarchy. The “witch” is Aries’ (Satan’s) proof that humans should be destroyed. In essence she is enacting the medieval tale of the witch serving Satan’s desires. When Aries speaks of the horrors of man, the film image cuts to the witch cowering, maimed, and ugly, waiting for Wonder Woman’s decision whether to throw a huge metal container on top of her. So it is the grotesque maimed woman that, symbolizing the negative feminine, is defined as all of the evil within humanity. This character is the anima projection of patriarchal culture.
When Wonder Woman arrives in London, she accepts the diminished role of women around her with simply some weird responses to clothing, and a nod to the difficulty she has being heard in a meeting place of men. There is a minimal attempt to argue with the leadership being only men. She is surprised, but she does not press it past one interaction as she is leaving a strategy meeting of only old white men. She doesn’t even fight very hard. Instead, as she wanders through London, she appears lost like a foolish girl in the wrong place, though she has been raised with complete self-empowerment, and knowledge of military strategy. This is a woman who is trained to read a room, and as Athena’s avatar, should be in complete strategic awareness of how to handle any situation.
In her sexuality there is an early allusion to Lesbian pleasuring, but the film only highlights her full empowerment, shifting her into a grounded strategist, after she is fully realized as an initiated sexualized woman, through her sexual union with Steve Trevor. Only when she has been heterosexually mated is she allowed to become her powerful self, and confront the real enemies. Until this union, the characters around her still treat her like a child, and use diminishing language as they try to define her. She is acknowledged as the great power she is, once she has been sexually defined by the male hero.
Contrasting the feminine evil of humanity, the good in humanity is the sacrificed hero, Steve Trevor, smiling, white, male, and true of heart. Trevor is the Christ character. He sacrifices himself to save humanity. Dying by choice, smiling in a fiery benediction, having kept thousands of lives safe from horrible toxic bombs. His death also confirms, and charges Wonder Woman’s potency, providing her a focus of sorrow and rage from which to discover the true intensity of her power source, giving her the will to finally defeat Aries/Satan.
At the end the film proclaims that the hero is no longer viable, and is instead replaced with Love. This is an especially poignant final statement. This could be a human nurturing love. This could be a humanist message of peace. Yet more is going on here. Rather than this being the new transformation of moving past the patriarchal hero toward a gender integrated global compassion, This is yet again a message of the final death throws of the pagan feminine in favor of the Christian message of purity. Archetypally Athena is the goddess of heroes. For Wonder Woman to proclaim that there are no heroes any more, is to put away a primary aspect of her as Athena’s avatar. Only Christ is the symbol of Universal Love, as defined in this closing statement. Thus somehow the Goddess has taken up the mantel of loving widow to the resurrected spirit of Love. Trevor’s sacrifice brings about Wonder Woman’s revelation that Love is the ultimate truth. While there is still an overarching feeling that the intention is to bring Justice, the mythological undercurrent of this narrative move, is to value the spirit through sacrifice, over the embodied engagement of human connection. At a time when many other mythic narratives are integrating ancient embodied themes back into the conversation, and mythological stories are being reexamined, it is a surprising move to strap this powerful feminine symbol, Wonder Woman, into an artifact so wholly Christian in structure.