The Philosophy of Wonder Woman – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Wonder Woman!
Written by: Claire Pickard
Directed by: Amanda Scherker
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Alex Futtersak
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Wonder Woman – Wisecrack Edition
Hey guys, Jared again. Today we’re talking about an Amazon— and she has nothing to do with endangered plant species or free 2-day shipping. Wonder Woman wasn’t just the mega-box office hit of the summer; the film and its eponymous hero have become one of 2017’s biggest cultural icons. And, surprise, we have something to say about it. “OH, thank God!” Some have called Ares a pretty lackluster villain, but his conflict with Diana is pretty interesting compared to most superhero villains who just want to rule the world, or rule the world, or rule Asgard, or rule the universe. And part of what makes the Greek God family drama so cool is that Ares doesn’t just blindly hate Diana. Their clash over the nature and fate of humanity is, well, pretty philosophical. So get ready to be lassoed by the truth in this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Wonder Woman aaaand cue the sirens.
One of the central conflicts of Wonder Woman is, “do humans deserve to be saved?” This makes sense since the titular character is from an island of warrior women who exist solely to save humans from destruction at the hands of Ares, the God of War. But as it turns out, when you’ve lived in a tropical paradise with no boys allowed for a couple millennia, you might decide that humans aren’t really worth the effort. “Zeus created man to be just, and wise, strong and passionate…” “That was a story, Diana! …Men are easily corrupted.” Much of Diana’s struggle is wrapped up in the question of what it means to save people. She wavers between a sense of duty, a sense of caring, and a moment of Grade A apathy. “They don’t deserve our help, Steve.” Meanwhile, Ares is fully committed to the belief that humans suck a fat bag of popsicles and deserve not only abandonment but also to die painfully via chemical weapons. “Ares developed a weapon, the worst ever devised.” Diana’s big hero statement of the film is in response to Ares’ claim that. “They do not deserve your protection!”. She responds: “It’s not about deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.” And we believe that that line is confusing as fuck. But instead of dismissing it as bad writing, in good ol’ Wisecrackian fashion, let’s pull it apart.
But before we get to Diana, we have to understand what she’s responding to— Ares’ belief that humans are worthless and can’t have nice things. Ares’ claim in the film has two parts: 1) that humans deserve to be punished and 2) that they don’t deserve Diana’s help. “You were right, Diana. They don’t deserve our help. They only deserve destruction.” The first one is a question of something called “retributive justice”— basically the theory that argues that people should go in jail for doing bad things. So what informs Ares’ retributive mission to destroy humanity? He believes that humans are, by nature, evil. “They always been and always will be weak, cruel, selfish, and capable of the greatest horrors.” This is an essentialist view of human nature, that humanity has inherent properties that make them what they are. So, people are doomed to be useless assholes forever. It kind of makes sense why you’d want to get rid of them.
Ares claim is bolstered by the sum of humanity’s actions over the last couple thousand years. In that time, humans have done a lot. They genocided a bunch of people, destroyed the environment, and made Logan Paul famous… “Mankind stole this world from us. They ruined it, day by day…” So that’s the first part of Ares’ claim. Now for the second one; one that is much more central to Diana and the film’s arc— the question of who deserves to be saved, even if it is from their own kind. This is “distributive justice.” In Ares’ calculation, being saved from death is not something one is entitled to— it is something that is distributed based on merit, as shown by the actions of the individual. Or in this case, the actions of the group, spanning three-plus millennia. “They do not deserve your protection.” This seems to be a pretty common idea among immortals. Diana’s mother, Hippolyta, tells her, “They do not deserve you.” This all reflects one popular approach to distributive justice, called desert theory yep, that’s how it’s spelled, which argues that people deserve things— jobs, money, awards — based on their actions rather than on their needs or the benefit it would bring to society.
Now, although Diana stays generally consistent in her desire to help humanity, the logic behind this choice develops and changes throughout the film. And while we see people justifying their actions with distributive or retributive frameworks, Wonder Woman goes a different route. Diana is raised to believe that the Amazons have a sacred duty to stop Ares and defend the world. “Stopping the God of war is our fore ordinance. As Amazons this is our duty.” So when she sets out for Europe, she’s not doing it because she believes that humans deserve anything. It’s because she believes she has a moral obligation to help. This moral obligation carries her through most of the film, even as she watches British generals send soldiers to their deaths “You should be ashamed of yourselves!” and Germans taking villagers as slaves.
But at some point, she realizes that people suck, and it wasn’t totally Ares’ fault that they were bayoneting each other. “Ares is dead. They can now stop fighting. Why are they still fighting?” “Because maybe it’s them!” Since her duty was to defend the world from Ares and not from shitty humans acting on their own accord, she’s not really sure where her moral obligations lie anymore. All of a sudden, her mom’s wise words sound a whole lot wiser. “My mother was right. She said the world of men do not deserve you. They don’t deserve our help, Steve.” Diana is faced with a crisis of conscience. She is no longer bound by duty, and her knowledge of human atrocities lead her to the conclusion that humans do not merit her help as a matter of justice either. Although Diana makes it less obvious than Ares does, she is also motivated by a kind of essentialism. “Zeus created man to be just, and wise, strong and passionate.”
Let’s call this the “Battle of Essentialisms.” Ares says human are inherently evil, Diana says they’reinherently good. While Ares never abandons his essentialism, Diana does when she discovers humans can be dickbags all on their own. We don’t see too much more of this philosophical crisis, but all is resolved by the time she says, “I believe in love.” At first it might sound like she believes in the love of Steve Trevor, but that doesn’t make a ton of sense, and let’s give her a little more credit than that. It’s only at the end that it becomes clear to her— and to us— why saving people is right thing to do. What differentiates Diana at the end from someone like Captain America is that she realizes that it’s not her duty to help people. She just wants to because she loves the shit out of humanity. “Baby!!”
Even though that might sound like a saccharine, Care Bear cop-out, it isn’t. While she leaves behind the ideas of duty and deserving, Wonder Woman taps into a totally different ethical approach that’s pretty unique in the superhero genre- care ethics. Care ethics focuses on the relationship between the person who is caring for someone and the person who is cared-for. A good example: a parent who loves their child, even if that child is terrible, or Logan Paul. Unlike most traditional approaches to ethics, care ethics rejects universalized principles for how to make judgments or how to act— everything is contextualized within the given relationship. However, certain practices are pretty important like: respect, empathy, and attention to the needs of others. Sometimes these relationships are on equal footing, but not always. Wonder Woman is not our equal, so it’d be more like a person caring for a perfect puppy.
Just like you’re not born with an obligation to care for a dog, Wonder Woman knowingly chooses to enter a relationship of care with people who will never be able to entirely reciprocate, and maybe don’t deserve it. “I stay, I fight, and I give.” She isn’t pursuing a defined goal (other than making the world a better place) or holding firm to certain universal principles like Batman’s idea that killing is always wrong or Captain America’s belief in The American Way ignoring the whole Hydra thing– she is responding, as needed, to the needs of those she cares for. At the end of the film, Diana’s relationship rejects a kind of distributive or retributive justice, and instead makes a choice to love them. “But then I glimpsed the darkness that lives within their mind and learned that inside every one of them there will always be both. A choice each must make for themselves. Something no hero will ever defeat.. And now I know that only love can truly save the world. So I stay, I fight, and I give.” Diana’s belief in love isn’t a meaningless platitude. It’s a declaration of her commitment to a particular state of mind and action that guides her decisions as a hero. This is clear in her decision not to kill Dr. Poison, despite her being a war criminal and also really creepy.
“She is the perfect example of these humans and unworthy of your sympathy in every way.” Although it would be a bit of a stretch to say that Wonder Woman enters a relationship of care with Colonel Mustard Gas just because she decides not to throw a literal tank at her, it’s indicative of Diana’s change in mindset. This is visually paralleled by Dr. Poison’s mask flying off piece by piece. As the wind uncovers her true, scarred, ugly self, there is a very obvious metaphor, and Diana recognizes the complex nature and individual differences of humans. “They are everything you say, but so much more.” Even though, by most calculations, Dr. Poison probably deserves to die, Diana rejects the concept of deserving, and by extension rejects the Desert Theory justice that Ares is so fond of. Every superhero has his or her or its reasons for blowing stuff up and saving the day. Wonder Woman defines Diana’s ethos of care and solidifies her role in the Justice League for many franchises to come.
But it also draws out a frequent theme in comics: the worthiness of the people saved. Gotham doesn’t deserve Batman, and America doesn’t deserve Steve Rogers. Wonder Woman raises a question that we don’t usually hear: does humanity deserve to be saved at all? And even if they don’t, should we save them anyway? Thanks for watching y’all. Peace.