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Can Wonder Woman make America great again?

“In times like this there’s an appetite for a hero who represents pure good.”

Like the majority of DC superhero films since Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman is darker than the primary-coloured Lycra-fests of previous decades: both literally and figuratively. After the bright, shining paradise of Diana’s home, the island Themyscira, we move to the grey smog of early 20th century London (“It’s hideous”, Diana remarks) and the desaturated grit and mud of the First World War trenches. Even Diana’s Wonder Woman outfit seems duller than her predecessors’ — less red, white and blue and more burgundy, bronze and navy.

There is a general trend of superhero movies continuing to reject the kaleidoscopic aesthetics of classic print comics. But Wonder Woman's outfit hints at something more. Jingoistic Fox News presenters expressed their disappointment at a costume they felt was deliberately un-American. “Her outfit isn’t red, white and blue,” Neil Cavuto said on his show Your World with Neil Cavuto. “It’s cool to hate America these days,” guest Mike Gunzelman chipped in.

It’s an extreme and antagonistic discussion, but the anchors have picked up on something. Costume designer Michael Wilkinson, when working on Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman outfit for the Batman V Superman film (in which she first appeared), decided to look more to the ancient Greek influences behind Diana’s origin story than to the American-flag designs culturally associated with the character. “We knew we really wanted to create our very own look for Wonder Woman, [compared] to how she’s portrayed in TV shows and graphic novels, so we went back to her roots and where she came from,” Wilkinson explained to the Hollywood Reporter. “We wanted her to look like she’s been wearing the same costume, in a sense, for thousands of years — since she’s immortal, after all. We were inspired by the metal armour of Greek and Roman warriors and gladiators.” The new Wonder Woman outfit still bears an eagle on the bust and red and blue colours, but these vague nods to the USA are not supported narratively.

A less visibly American costume makes sense in this Wonder Woman film. Diana’s backstory in Themyscira and Israeli Gadot’s performance (Gadot says she played the role with a “a heavier accent” than Batman V Superman) gives Diana an international feel. Chris Pine plays the only American character in the entire film. And, of course, not a single scene takes place in the USA. We start in present-day Paris, before flashing back to Themyscira, moving to wartime London and Belgium, before finally lurching forward in time to Paris again in the film’s closing final seconds.

It’s easy to overstate the geopolitical implications of this. The current Wonder Woman screenplay was conceived long before Donald Trump’s presidency, and filmed between November 2015 and March 2016, a very different time in terms of America’s position in world affairs. Director Patty Jenkins revealed that, had the casting been down to her, she would have, “just looked for an American girl”.

But something about the timing of this less outwardly American US superhero movie feels right. One of the key concerns of the movie is the importance of justice and peace for all, regardless of trivial matters like borders between nations. While other citizens of Themyscira are sceptical about joining a fight that doesn’t concern them, Diana is compelled to help any person affected by violence, and vows to end the war. When she finds herself alongside British troops in the trenches, she is overcome by the desire to help British soldiers, Germans and Belgian civilians alike. While Wonder Woman has always been aligned with traditionally American-associated values like freedom and justice, her attitude in this film feels notably at odds with the “America First” mindset that elected Trump.

When Uproxx discussed the political climate the movie finds itself in, noting to its director, “In times like this there’s an appetite for a hero who represents pure good,” Jenkins responded: “That is so true. And it’s interesting because I can’t believe this film is landing when it is, in that way.”

But over at Vox, Alex Abad-Santos observed that Gadot’s Wonder Woman outfit has become more clearly red and blue since Batman V Superman. Indeed, Wonder Woman’s production notes confirm that costume designer Lindy Hemming did intentionally dial up the colour from the more subdued tones of the earlier film. Could the character continue to move in this direction?

A sequel is on the cards, and it feels as though Wonder Woman will be returning to her all-American World War Two origins. Jenkins has said she is “definitely planning” something from the 1930s onwards, set back in the USA. “The story will take place in the US,” she told Entertainment Weekly, “which I think is right. She’s Wonder Woman. She's got to come to America. It’s time.”

"I’m excited for her to come to America,” she added to the Toronto Sun, “and become the Wonder Woman we are all familiar with from having grown up around her as an American superhero.” Perhaps this is Jenkins’s opportunity to create a visibly American superhero who prioritises peace and love over patriotism and global dominance, and to envisage, even just for a fleeting, on-screen moment, an America more in line with those values. Could Wonder Woman make America great again?

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Now listen to a discussion of Wonder Woman on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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