The Amazons, the ancients tell us, were a violent bunch. “The Scythians call (them) Oiorpata, or as it may be interpreted, men-slayers (for Oeor signifies a man, and pata to kill),” says Herodotus. Hippocrates claimed that they cut off their right breasts in order to more effectively shoot arrows in battle or the hunt (archaeologists say there’s no evidence for this, but it’s still a good story.)
Warriors, hunters, killers of men – the Amazons were fabled for brooking no compassion or kindness toward their enemies, and their enemies were almost exclusively men. It’s no surprise, then, that they’ve been upheld as role models by some feminists: what better model for soldiers in the war of the sexes than actual soldiers in a war of the sexes?
So you might expect the movie Wonder Woman – which draws heavily on the mythology of the Amazons – to follow the feminist narrative. Moreover, given that Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, was an early and enthusiastic proponent of the Women’s Liberation movement, and that he explicitly developed his creation as a kind of proto-feminist role model, it seems impossible to expect otherwise. Surprisingly, however, the movie Wonder Woman doesn’t do that at all.
In fact, it’s possible to view Wonder Woman as a story that defies feminist politics. Don’t just take it from me -- the insufficiently feminist slant of the movie was noted, and in a few cases criticized, by plenty of reviewers (the reviewer at Guardian complained that the movie left ‘unexplored’ opportunities for “patriarchy-upending subversion;” Slate complained that the movie only “gesture(d) toward female empowerment.”)
Refreshingly, the movie very intentionally sidesteps the politics of gender equality. Diana, Princess of Themyscira, simply ignores the politics of the world of men – and women. She doesn’t comment on the absence of women on the battlefield; she barely raises an eyebrow at the unequal society of London circa World War I.
Contrast the way Wonder Woman wages her campaigns with Hillary Clinton’s recent gender-conscious presidential bid. The whining about wage gaps and “I’m With Her” sloganeering proved a double-edged sword, which didn’t cut in her favor.
Indeed, once the story departs the island of Themyscira, there are few female characters, period: One of the villains is a woman, and there’s a female secretary, but overall Diana is “one sexy woman surrounded by throngs of horny men,” as complains Christina Cauterucci in the aforementioned Slate review.)
This though accords entirely with Diana’s Amazon heritage. The real Amazons, scholars tell us, were not the man-haters of myth: Herotodus himself says that the Amazons slept with men from neighboring camps. And although they were a women-led and women-dominated tribe, they wouldn’t have had a feminist politics such as we understand it – a civic commitment to equality between the sexes, or even to inequality favoring women. They simply excluded men, because doing so served their ends. Any encounter with a male-dominated tribe or society would not have surprised them, nor would it have struck them as unjust. For the Amazons, as much as for the male leaders of the British, American and German armies of the early 20C, might made right, full stop. Sex had little to do with it. (That said, the Amazon princess Diana does not believe that might makes absolute right: in one scene, she notes that the job description of Steve Trevor’s secretary “sounds like slavery.” But it’s notable that her concern is directed at the character of the relationship, not at any kind of gender inequality. She disdains slavery in general, not the specific subservience of women.)
Strength, in other words, ruled for the Amazons of history and myth, as it does for the Amazons of Film Director Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. Her Amazons have vowed to use their strength to keep peace rather than to make war, sure, but it is strength – might – that serves them in that vow, and so it’s strength and bravery that they value.
“Men” are not suspect, in the film, because of their sex, but because they are human (Diana and her fellow Amazons use the term ‘men’ and ‘mankind’ interchangeably – and unfashionably - to refer to humanity; men, women and children inclusive.) And humanity, in the film, is not regarded by the Amazons as weak because it is male-dominated, but because it is human. Men are vulnerable, because they are not gods. Amazons are powerful because they are – not, notably, because they are female.
Their femininity – Wonder Woman’s femininity – is fully secondary to their/her power. They stand - to borrow from Dagny Taggart, another heroine who defies feminist categorization - on their own judgment, assert their knowledge of what is, and act upon that knowledge. They are powerful not because they are women, but because they are strong, and because they are unyielding in the face of challenges to their strength.
All of which is to say that perhaps, in honoring the history – real and mythical – of the Amazons, Wonder Woman has given us the female role model that we really need: one that doesn’t assert her power because of her gender, but who sets the matter of her gender aside and simply gets down to the business of being strong.
Jennifer Anju Grossman is the CEO of the Atlas Society.