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Wonder Woman Refuses to Celebrate Violence

by Jill Raney

I love superhero movies. Like, my love for superhero movies borders on obsessive. (I saw Ant-Man on opening night. I already know what I’m doing for Valentine’s Day next year, and it’s seeing Black Panther. I will never, ever forgive Joss Whedon for Age of Ultron.) And I fracking love Wonder Woman, which may come as a surprise to some who know me for my work against Israel‘s occupation of the Palestinians.

First, Wonder Woman is an actual good superhero movie. It has an actual plot, several characters grow and change in meaningful ways, and the fight scenes are meaningful parts of all that plot and character development. Superhero movies are starting to ruin themselves, and it’s so satisfying to see a superhero movie use its tropes to tell a genuinely great story.

But more than that, it’s a superhero movie that doesn’t glorify violence. It’s an explicitly feminist superhero movie that doesn’t argue that women joining in on militarism is feminist — because feminism instead requires honoring every person’s humanity. Wonder Woman manages to make a coherent, compelling argument that violence doesn’t fix anything. Wonder Woman shows us that killing someone might stop that person from killing others, but killing someone doesn’t have the power to end suffering. Only loving each other, strategically, even when it’s hard, can do that.

This message is especially meaningful because Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot served in the Israel Defense Forces and makes a point to speak positively of her military experience, ignoring that her military service was a contribution to Israel’s decades-long military occupation of the Palestinians. As she told The Daily Beast, “I want people to have a good impression of Israel”.  (Loving problematic things is hard, and I respect the hell out of people who are skipping Wonder Woman because of Gal Gadot’s politics.)

I’m glad the talents behind Wonder Woman decided to alter the canon to tell a story of World War I, again for two reasons.  First, it makes it a better movie, because there’s already a great superhero movie about a hyper-competent brunette soldier and her boyfriend Steve who dies in an airplane in World War II. (Seriously, Wonder Woman manages to feel so fresh despite sharing many plot points with Captain America: The First Avenger. See: the hero gaining military training by subterfuge, a disfigured science-y supervillain who wears a mask, the romantic leads’ witty banter about sex and military tactics, the hero undertaking an unauthorized rescue mission and stopping the enemy’s chemical warfare alongside their international and racially diverse hand-picked special forces unit, a battlefield goodbye to doomed romance, a solemn celebration of the end of the war, etc. At least Diana and her Steve got laid, sorry Peggy and other Steve.)

But more than that, it gives the movie room to breathe that it might not have were its Israeli actress fighting Nazis on screen.

Extremely valid Jewish trauma from the Holocaust was the most reasonable of causes for many Jews to move to Palestine after World War II. Extremely valid Jewish trauma from the Holocaust, generations later, is much of what Jewish institutions throw in our faces unreasonably when a Jew speaks out against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians. (Coincidentally, that’s what I was doing the same day as I saw Wonder Woman — and shortly before I crashed the Celebrate Israel Parade to hold a “No Celebration with Occupation” banner with IfNotNow, I saw a parade spectator wearing a “Magneto Was Right” t-shirt, which is a whole other essay about Jewish Holocaust trauma and troubling relationships to violence.)

Gal Gadot, with her decidedly non-English name, is visibly Jewish in a way her comic book actress contemporaries Natalie Portman (Thor’s genius girlfriend Jane Foster) and Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff, who deserves her own Black Widow trilogy) are not. Surely many of us might feel some satisfaction to watch a famously Jewish actress punch Nazis in the face. But I suspect that, were Wonder Woman set in World War II, we would not have seen Diana be so forgiving to German soldiers once the immediate threat had passed. And that would have made Wonder Woman a lesser movie.

Diana seeks to kill Ares, believing that destroying him will end humanity’s inhumanity. She kills General Ludendorff, mistaking him for Ares, and finally kills Ares himself, but she spares Doctor Maru, whose supervillainous mustard gas had killed the villagers Diana had saved just days before. She spares the German soldiers who survived her battle with Ares. Diana knows that more killing will not end inhumanity, only love can do that.

The Israeli government and mainstream Jewish institutions refuse to allow our community to forgive, to spare those perceived as enemies, and that institutional refusal to honor Palestinians’ humanity in particular makes its way past our gas masks of critical thinking and into our minds and souls. As I saw Diana lift that tank over Doctor Maru, weigh the moral choice before her, and decide that this death would cost more than it would save, I couldn’t help thinking of Gal Gadot’s Instagram post in support of the Israeli troops who were attacking Palestinians during the 2014 Gaza war.

Did Doctor Maru deserve to die for her crimes against humanity?  It’s not about what she deserved, it’s about what you believe.

What’s so delightful about superhero stories is their ability to help us imagine what we might do if regular social norms or the laws of physics didn’t apply to us. They invite us to imagine who we might be if what holds us back weren’t there, and they invite us to consider whether the things holding us back are truly strong enough to stop us.

Diana, Princess of Themyscira, is a goddess, trained in combat by the Amazons to protect all life, raised in a peaceful (and queer, fight me) paradise, with no understanding of or patience for the misogynist, racist social mores of 1910s Europe. The rules don’t apply to her. I can’t fly, and neither can Gal Gadot, and sadly, neither of us has a Lasso of Truth. I’m an American Jew and I don’t know what it’s like to choose between jail time and mandatory service in an occupying army — but Gal Gadot does, and she made her choice. I do know I can expect some nonsense on Twitter for this piece, and I can expect continued hostility from Jewish institutions for my work to oppose the occupation.

The laws of physics and the expectations of our communities apply to us mere mortals. Those expectations that our communities place on us can feel as heavy as gravity, but they are not gravity, and we can choose to flex our ordinary, non-super muscles and push back.

Do Israelis and Palestinians deserve freedom and dignity? It’s not about what our people deserve, it’s about what our people believe.

It feels like too much to hope, but maybe some of the little Israelis who go see Wonder Woman because of Gal Gadot will internalize the movie’s message. Maybe they’ll grow up to refuse to occupy in part because of the example set by Diana, Princess of Themyscira.

Jill Raney is an anti-oppression advocate, entrepreneur, and enthusiastic genre nerd. They live in Washington, DC, where they are a member of IfNotNow, the Jewish movement to end our community’s support for the occupation.

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