The day is darkened by dust and smoke. Underground warrens are filled with men practicing violence, or hiding from it. Death saturates the air; above their heads, trees are crispy skeletons, corpses are scattered, shrapnel litters the scorched land. No one lives in that land; all who enter it die.
On the other side of this stretch of earth, another warren with men of another nationality. Beyond that, a village, where the people are almost ghosts. People who are innocents in this war: women, children, elderly.
This scene could be any in a plethora of WWI films. It could be from American history textbooks or British novels. But in this particular instance, a different character walks the Allied trench. Their face is bright, determined and decidedly less muddy. Their clothes are not a war uniform, and the person is not a soldier of any nation.
Also, the person is a woman.
Power on Themyscira
Diana Prince, i.e. Wonder Woman, embodies that capital “W” in her title. She comes from an island inhabited only by women. Part-god, these women warriors train relentlessly in combat skills as a cultural tradition borne of the legend that Ares, the God of War, who has corrupted mankind and led to the existence of war and other forms of violence/despair, will someday be defeated by one of these Amazonians. This destiny in itself is unique in superhero narratives, in that it is the women who are the strongest of the characters. The ones who will save Man from himself.
In this paradigm, all of humankind is “masculine” in nature- they possess weak hearts, engage in wars, crave power. The women of Themyscira don’t fight from a place of hatred, but from a place of protection and the greater good. These are traditionally “feminine” values. The Amazons put endless work into helping each other be in the best state possible to save emotionally and physically fragile humans from the looming specter of Ares; to save them from themselves. They possess massive power, but they did not steal it from each other and do not wield it against each other. They build it and maintain it together, and it could not be otherwise.
The women of Themyscira do not hold power over anyone. They hold it for each other, and for the powerless. In the binary classification of “masculine” and “feminine” traits that Wonder Woman explores, protection of the innocent or weak as an act of love and caring is centered in a “female” place. Women are caring; men are powerful. (I feel a little gross writing that, even for the sake of simply naming the gendered approach to certain characteristics that is pervasive in hetero- and cis-normative society, but I digress).
Even the weapons these female warriors possess embody the values from and for which they fight. Bullets are lethal and hard, meant only to kill. Bows and arrows and hand-to-hand combat require skill and proximity. Even more importantly, Diana’s most-used weapons are a shield and a lasso of truth: protection and honesty, two traits rooted in the feminine in this film.
No Man’s Land
When Diana accompanies Steve Trevor to the WWI-ravaged human world, she has never occupied a masculine space. He is the first man she’s ever seen. She is curious about him, but does not feel any need to look to him for guidance, let alone permission to do anything. She doesn’t believe he’s more powerful than her (in fact, the opposite is true). And importantly, he doesn’t either.
But in this trench, when Diana hears of the ravaged village on the other side of that dead space called No Man’s Land, she cannot let it go. Steve and all of the other soldiers tell her it’s impossible to help them. That attempting to get to the village would mean nothing more than sacrificing themselves, and is therefore pointless.
Diana does not see it this way.
To her, nothing these men say makes sense. In that moment, she epitomizes the female space, the true Wonder Woman center of the story. It is not a matter of saving oneself at the expense of others. It is not a matter of risk vs. reward. It is not about calculation or strategy, and most importantly, it is not about fear. In that moment, when Steve turns away to continue on the singular mission he’s set for himself, Diana turns in the other direction.
She charges up the ladder and into the barren, forbidden place.
In doing so, she plays with this narrative of masculine/feminine binary, because when she, as a woman, enters a space into which no men go, she draws fire and returns it, bouncing bullets back at the shooters and killing the “enemies” who oppress the village on the other side. She therefore does something that falls into the masculine realm—engages in violence, allows for death and destruction—from a feminine place of love and protection.
This scene is the most powerful in the movie because of how, in one moment, it illustrates the overarching themes of masculine/feminine binary and where that binary twists around itself. But it is also the most powerful scene because of the pure Themyscira-borne might that shines through Diana. She has no fear and is not beholden to anything the men around her say. She trusts her heart, which is a very “female” thing to do in a story. But in this case, that doesn’t mean she trusts her heart to choose the right man or any other such male-centric allegory found in almost every film ever made. Here, her agency is never questioned or subverted. In this case, her heart is power; she is the singular hero.
It is thus more than fitting that Wonder Woman should be the one to enter No Man’s Land.
Scenes like the No Man’s Land scene do not happen in movies, basically ever. In 2017, it is *still* huge news when a woman director (ugh, why is that still a term?) makes a still-not-that-big-budget film about a female hero, let alone if it does well. But Wonder Woman has done well. For some reason, this is surprising to people.
The world doesn’t exist in masculine/feminine binaries, or any other kind of binary. However, when pop culture reflects this fact and explores this paradigm in a subversive way, we get closer to a new and broader understanding of society and ourselves. More nuanced storytelling and representation is something we as fans and humans desperately crave. Wonder Woman is an obvious example of this.
And while Wonder Woman leaves a lot to be desired in terms of intersectional feminism and absolute binary-busting, the image of a valiant and unflinching woman doing what literally No Man will do will be enshrined in our consciousness for a long time. And for that, I’m imminently grateful.