By Elizabeth Doyle ’17 and Sarah Donovan
Philosophy professors and senior philosophy majors: Aren’t those the types who sit around and debate the fine points of Plato’s metaphysics? Wouldn’t you picture them, dressed in their tweed jackets and holding their pipes, turning up their noses at a flashy movie about a pretty, scantily clad superhero like Wonder Woman?
Yet the summer blockbuster movie Wonder Woman is precisely what we — a philosophy major and an associate professor of philosophy — have been discussing. While we do enjoy pondering the postmodern critique of the Enlightenment subject, we bonded in a different way this summer. That’s when Ms. Doyle noticed a timely new book on Professor Donovan’s desk, Wonder Woman and Philosophy: The Amazonian Mystique. Donovan had contributed a chapter to this book. Doyle was intrigued. She borrowed the book, and a conversation began.
We believe that pop culture is a place where philosophy can and should be applied.
We believe that pop culture is a place where philosophy can and should be applied. With Doyle graduating in December with a degree in philosophy, what better moment to think collaboratively about pop culture and the wide world Doyle will enter? With whom would it be better to think it through than one of the most successful female superheroes, Wonder Woman?
The philosophical topics Wonder Woman opens up are numerous. But since we have already mentioned clothing (and, just to set the record straight, we do not wear tweed), we would like to focus our critique on something that may seem stereotypically feminine: what Wonder Woman is wearing. Our intention, however, is not to comment on Wonder Woman’s style, but rather to show that the scenes where she changes her clothing present opportunities to think philosophically about gender roles and expectations.
Scene One: The Glasses Really Make the Outfit
For anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, let us set the scene. It introduces Wonder Woman as a character named Diana who has spent her entire life among a society of female warriors on Paradise Island. Into this feminist paradise bursts Steve Trevor, a World War I Allied spy who crashes through the island’s magical, protective barrier. The idealistic young superhero insists on leaving with him when he promises to help her pursue her mission to defeat the God of War.
They proceed back to London, circa 1917. Steve wants Wonder Woman to blend in. Her style of dress — the typical Wonder Woman outfit with combat bustier, short skirt, and boots — is not socially acceptable here. Steve and his secretary, Etta Candy, take Wonder Woman to an upscale clothing store to buy her an “appropriate” new outfit.
We both noticed that this scene got big laughs in the theater. What does that laughter mean?
The scene is set up for comedy, as we see Wonder Woman inspect and appear in a series of clothing styles. Wonder Woman asks if a lace-trimmed silk corset, which resembles her warrior’s bustier in form only, is what counts as women’s armor in London. We watch her model a frilly, full-skirted purple dress (the “war crinoline” style) with heels she can barely walk in, and then rip an elegant pencil skirt when she tries a karate-style kick. Finally, after settling on a sober outfit that look like a form-fitting version of Steve’s suit, she walks out of the store still carrying her enormous sword and shield.
There is obviously humor to this scene; but, if you stop to think about it, there is also a deeper philosophical message to it. Much has been written in feminist philosophy about social ideals of femininity as expressed in clothing. Wonder Woman’s trip to the clothing store is a great example of a woman being pushed to achieve social acceptance in her environment.
While Wonder Woman is permitted to choose an outfit with another woman’s oversight, Steve is the one who has the final word. At the end of the marathon shopping spree, Steve whisks in and asserts his authority. Expressing his disapproval with a subtle eye roll, he reproaches Etta, “Miss Candy, the whole point was to make her look less distracting.” Grasping for a solution, he places on Wonder Woman’s face a pair of black-rimmed eyeglasses. “Better,” he declares.
Glasses will make no difference, as Etta’s sarcastic response indicates: “Really, specs? Suddenly she is not the most beautiful woman you have ever seen?” Steve may think he knows best, but Etta (like most women) is as much an expert (or even more of an expert) on what “distracts” people (i.e., men) as he is. Nevertheless, both women comply with the addition, leaving the man as the official master of Wonder Woman’s appearance.
We both noticed that this scene got big laughs in the theater. What does that laughter mean? Is it funny because we think that women are no longer held to expectations about how they ought to look — in other words, the scene is a humorous cultural artifact? Or, is it a knowing laugh that indicates camaraderie, because we have experienced the very same cultural dynamic? Or do we laugh because we have accepted society’s expectations about how women should look? Do we laugh because we do not register that this scene points out a reality that is damaging to women?
Scene Two: She Wore What into No Man’s Land?
In the second scene, Wonder Woman and Steve have arrived at the warfront trenches. The land between the Allies and the Germans is too dangerous to cross and, therefore, is appropriately called “no man’s land.” Wonder Woman, however, says they must cross it in order to save a captured village on the other side. Steve insists this is impossible, and that she must give up the idea of saving everyone. Wonder Woman reacts defiantly by letting down her flowing hair, putting on her warrior princess crown, taking off her cloak to reveal her Amazonian warrior outfit underneath, and climbing a ladder out of the trench to cross no man’s land alone.
This scene is lauded by many as one of the signature scenes of the movie (a picture of it is featured in a widely publicized Wonder Woman poster). It is clearly a triumphant scene for Wonder Woman, because she has decided that she doesn’t take orders from Steve and has confidence that she, a woman, can do what no man (literally!) has been able to successfully do. Boldly deflecting bullets and bombs, she clears the way for the men who follow her. We could take the easy road and simply label this a moment when Wonder Woman becomes a leader and a hero (which it is), but it is surely more complex.
Would people have wanted to watch Wonder Woman cross no man’s land in a traditional army uniform?
We were especially taken by the depiction of Wonder Woman as she enters no man’s land — in particular, her clothes and her body. She looks stunning, in the mold of a 21st-century fashion model, as her outfit features her flowing hair, high cheekbones, flawless skin, long legs, and hourglass figure. How would a different outfit alter the viewer’s experience of the scene? Would people have wanted to watch Wonder Woman cross no man’s land in a traditional army uniform, her body encased in bulky layers and her hair concealed under a helmet? Are we most comfortable with female fighters who are emphatically female, who conform to and display the popular image of sexy femininity?
Further, what did it mean for our experience of Wonder Woman as a hero to watch her in a slow motion sequence? Anyone who has watched a blockbuster superhero movie has seen a male superhero fight in slow motion. We could say that this is just the norm of the genre. But even if it is the norm, does it mean the same thing for us to watch Wonder Woman run and fight in slow motion as it does for us to watch a Batman, a Superman, or a Thor do the same? Historically, it has simply not meant the same thing for women to be looked at as it has for men to be looked at. Women have been objectified, or made into sexual objects, in a way that men have not. And so, we have to ask if Wonder Woman can be filmed running and fighting in slow motion like a male superhero, and not have it entail objectification?
Liberal Arts in the Mainstream
Our observations about these two scenes exemplify the thoughtful reflection that Socrates intended for all philosophers to engage in — especially when it comes to our role models. We hope that our analysis and philosophical reflections have provided some insight into how a liberal arts degree prepares students not only to enter careers, but also to ask interesting and life-enriching questions using even the most “poppy” of mainstream subjects as a starting point. Socrates says that the unexamined life is not worth living. We think that Wagner graduates from all sorts of majors understand the value of the intellectual curiosity that Socrates is promoting. And while Wagner is not launching Doyle into the world after intense physical training to defeat the God of War, we feel confident that she is ready for whatever comes next (tweed jacket optional).
Elizabeth Doyle ’17 graduates from Wagner College with a B.A. in philosophy in December 2017. Sarah Donovan is an associate professor of philosophy and interim dean of integrated learning.