How Wonder Woman Challenges American Isolationism

In a time when "America First" is a battle cry for some Americans, Wonder Woman suggests a different way forward.

This article contains some Wonder Woman spoilers. 

“My father said: if you see something happening in the world, you can either do nothing or you can do something. And I already tried nothing,” Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor tells Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince at one point in the new Wonder Womanmovie. It’s just one example of the film’s larger interest in the question of what to do when faced with the horrors of war.

In the history of humanity, what responsibility the more privileged have to the vulnerable has always been a relevant topic, but it feels particularly pertinent for Americans in 2017. In a time when our country is doubling down on toxic individualism and prioritizing national security above all else, Wonder Woman asks one very poignant question: In the face of suffering you have the power to affect, and the privilege to avoid, will you choose to help?

Placing the origin story of Diana in World War I, a global conflict that dragged America into a period of intense isolationism, begs a comparison to the current rise in American isolationist sentiment, which is most pronounced in the rhetoric of President Donald Trump and his “America First” mantra. Diana’s arc in the film is about the responsibility relative outsiders have in conflicts of which they are not an active part. Whether intentional or not, it is parallel to America’s own struggles — both historic and current — when it comes to foreign conflicts and humanitarian crises.

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Through this lens, Themyscira seems less like a distant Amazonian island and more like a stand-in for America itself — a place that has immense privilege and power, and that is only occasionally touched by the horrors of the wars and conflicts that take place beyond its misty shores. Real-life America is, of course, more complex than this, being far from paradise for many. However, this is how America often chooses to see itself: a shining land both removed from and superior to the rest of the world.

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Here, Hippolyta is an infinitely more palatable and impressive Donald Trump (forgive me for the comparison, Hippolyta), a leader intent on keeping her people removed from a larger world that does not deserve their help. “Be careful of mankind, Diana. They do not deserve you,” she tells her daughter again and again, through her words and through her actions, ignoring the Amazonians’ age-old duty as the guardians of mankind.

Hippolyta’s lack of compassion for mankind is informed as much by experience as it is by prejudice, but it is still subtly derided by the themes of the film. If Steve’s parent challenges his son to use his privilege to help others, then Diana’s situation is the opposite. She is a daughter who is desperate to help, but who is actively encouraged by her mother to use her privilege to stay away. “If you choose to leave, you may never return,” Hippolyta tells Diana, trying to wield the emotional power she has over Diana to try to keep her on Themyscira forever. “Who will I be if I stay?” Diana asks her mother, herself, and the audience.

Of course Diana is not without her doubts. Once she leaves the safety of Themyscira and sees the horrors of war for herself, she is frustrated and angry. “Is there any point fighting, or is humanity just intent on destroying itself?” she asks. Thoughout the film, the question of whether it is Diana’s “responsibility” to help comes up again and again. She is not from the world of men, many argue. Why should she have to play a part in saving it?

The simple answer the film gives: She doesn’t have to risk her life or her privilege of paradise to help the world of men. She chooses to. In Steve and Diana’s words: “It’s not about what you deserve. It’s about what you believe.” Wonder Woman breaks down compassion and empathy to the most basic level. You don’t have to have played a part in the suffering of others to want to help them. That’s not how compassion works. You help because those of us who have the power to alleviate others’ suffering should try to.

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When Diana first comes to the world of men, she is driven by an abstract desire to see the world and understand the plight of men. When she sees the innocent men, women, and children who are victims of this Great War, her abstract desire becomes much more tangible. Diana’s compassion and empathy — two traits traditionally associated with women and, therefore, more often treated as weaknesses rather than strengths — will her to act.

They also give us the single best scene in the film: Diana unveiling her Wonder Woman garb in its full glory and taking off across no man’s land to save those who don’t have the power to save themselves. There is no explicit villain to conquer here. The soldiers on either side feel as much the victims here as the women and children who are not actively taking part in the war.

In Wonder Woman, as in life, the horrors of war aren’t simply the atrocities committed, but in the act of looking away from them. It’s in both sides’ war rooms, where men play war games having never visited the front mid-battle, or on the shores of Themyscira where Steve’s crime is daring to breach the illusion of isolation. Gods and their games.

In the No Man’s Land scene, Diana refuses to look away. She refuses to ignore and do nothing, to deprioritize the individual victims in favor of the larger “game.” Diana refuses to see herself as better or different, or more valuable than the vulnerable. This is her heroism. It’s a stirring moment and message for a time when the global reaction to humanitarian crises like the Syrian refugee crisis falls woefully short.

Too many superheros are driven by quests for glory or revenge, if not ultimately then at least inititally. Not Diana. Diana is a superhero who is driven by compassion, understanding, and — perhaps most importantly — her refusal to look away. 

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