People call it “box office royalty” and say it “breaks the glass ceiling” for women directors. Viewers say it “moved them to tears.” Warner Bros.’ Wonder Woman grossed over $435.2 million worldwide and received international acclaim from critics across the board. Jessica Bennett wrote in the New York Times, “there was something deeply visceral about it: a depiction of a hero we never knew we needed, a hero whose gender was everything but also nothing.” The film is a powerful clarion call for our times, but not for the reason many would suspect.
Wonder Woman paved the way for future women in leadership. As someone who works in media, I am no stranger to the powerful subliminal messages women receive from cinema and advertising every single day. Actress Geena Davis said in an interview with the Guardian, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
This makes Wonder Woman more than a movie. Director Patty Jenkins offered commentary on what women can do and who they could be. I heard it loud and clear. It broadened my mental horizon for what was possible for me. I felt excited, liberated, and affirmed; in a strange way, I felt seen. Suddenly my aspirations to make the world a better place were no longer a pipe dream. I was not walking the hero’s journey alone. There was another role model who had done it.
Stacy L. Smith, a communications professor at the University of Southern California, whose research focuses on diversity in media, said in an interview with the New York Times, “So much of the messaging we receive about who can do what in the world is subliminal…Whether women are serving as C.E.O.s or, in the case of Wonder Woman, striding across ‘No Man’s Land’ and taking enemy fire, it broadens our notions of who a leader can be and the traits they exemplify.”
Wonder Woman taught everyone the true superpower we all need. As I reflected on what Jenkins created over the past week, watched it soar to new box office heights, and talked about it with friends, I realized that Wonder Woman’s central message goes far deeper than liberating tired gender norms and taking one massive step forward for womankind. Its central message is vitally important for men and women alike today; because at its core, it celebrates the most unsung superpower for our time: Empathy.
Diana wants to help the world. But she is more than the lasso of truth, superhuman strength, speed, high jumps, and formidable cuffs shining in the light from the fire behind her. She believes in the possibility of humanity by rooting herself in love. She has the ability to see reality through the eyes of others without demonizing it as bad because it is different. At a critical juncture, she stares the brokenness of humanity in the face and is offered a choice: give up on humanity or believe in the best of who they are and see them with compassion.
Her options hit eerily close to home for many of us. One cursory look through a Facebook newsfeed is enough to send even the most optimistic headed for the hills. Faced with suffering and weakness, we are tempted to rise up and try to do anything possible to fix the problem. While the motivation may be noble, the methodology we use needs to be thoughtful.
For example, the villain Ares also wants to make the world better, wipe out suffering, and improve the globe. But he imposes his methods on humans because he sees them as fundamentally bad. He is nearly omnipotent power without the guidance of compassion. As an aside, this is what makes us skeptical of world leaders who show little consideration for the least of these. They have power without compassion and we view them as villains. We also fear the rise of artificial intelligence, which promises nearly unlimited power without the guidance of conscience, ability to love, or harness of empathy. As we expand the internet of things, step into a global infrastructure and harness the hive mind of the Cloud, we hesitate. In this environment, what if one gives a command to “get rid of cancer” and an AI eradicates all humans?
Mission accomplished…but we cease to exist.
Ultimately, empathy allows Diana to see with compassion. That is what makes her a true superhero, but also what allows us all to be truly human. As we step into increasing complicated social and environmental issues, her example shines a light forward to all of us. It is time for us to step into the truth of who we are, exhibit more empathy, and believe in love.
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