Superheroes in any form, be it comic books or movies or television shows, have always been able to provide cutting social commentary. From addressing race and sexual assault in Marvel’s Netflix series, to the alternate history of Vietnam in Watchmen, superheroes are meant to be a foil for real world circumstances. 2017’s Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, has proven to be no exception. The movie is very clearly a powerful feminist piece. Gal Gadot’s Diana as Wonder Woman is clearly the lead, and Chris Pine’s character, though fully fleshed out, is largely relegated to a sidekick role. There has been a lot of discussion over whether or not Wonder Woman is truly as feminist as it seems, and different views on this can be seen here, here, and here. Regardless of that debate, Wonder Woman provides an interesting perspective on the role of women in combat, and on changes in how people may view women fighting.
As of only fairly recently, all combat roles in the United States military have become open to women. With that decision has come a highly charged debate on the advantages and disadvantages of allowing women to officially serve on the front lines. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has in the past expressed concerns about the idea of women in combat, for example. He has since promised not to change the new policy, but the debate still simmers in a sign that this is a modern phenomenon. Israel, for example, opened direct combat positions in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to women in 2000 and only around 16 countries have in total. However, the proportion of women in its military has swelled to about a third, and women do see combat, albeit at a much lower rate than men do.
Movies like Megan Leavey, Wonder Woman, and even Mad Max evoke the powerful female warriors of the past, from Joan of Arc leading the French in the Hundred Years War, to the ancient Scythian warrior women the myths of the Amazons may have been based on. In the modern world, female Kurdish Peshmerga fighters die alongside men battling the Islamic State, while US Army Rangers go on high-risk raids with elite female soldiers, as recounted by writer Gayle Tzemach-Lemmon in Ashley’s War. Gadot herself was in IDF for two years. This all begs the question, what exactly is the debate about and how might Wonder Woman change the conversation?
Opponents of the idea of women fighting on the front lines present a number of arguments as to why women should not see combat. They cite differing physical ability between men and women, the costs of integration, cohesion, possible abuse, and military tradition as reasons why women should not fight. Proponents dispute these claims, arguing that if a woman can meet the same standards they should not be denied these opportunities. Further, they argue that modern warfare does not have clearly defined front lines and therefore women in non-frontline roles still face the same dangers in service to their country, so the policy would change very little on the ground.
One criticism that Wonder Woman indirectly addresses is the argument that men will act foolishly to protect female soldiers. This argument seems a little unusual. Soldiers win military medals often for running into enemy fire to rescue comrades or civilians, like this British soldier who won the Military Cross after running 100 yards under fire to save an Afghan child.
How is it a reasonable argument that women would encourage risky behavior when that manner of behavior is actively encouraged in other respects? Historically, heroic behavior has been used as a tool to strengthen armies. The Theban Sacred Band was a military force consisting of 150 male couples, operating under the assumption that every soldier would fight all the harder to impress their lover. This military unit was celebrated throughout Greece for its heroism, and defeated the armies of the militarily renowned city-state of Sparta at Tegyra in 375 BCE and Leuctra in 371 BCE, Tegyra being possibly the only battle Sparta ever lost to a smaller force. Wonder Woman portrays Diana and her influence as being more akin to the Thebans than to anything else. She attacks a machine gun nest across no-man’s land to rescue enslaved people, with the men following her once they see her bravery and power, for example. She helps inspire the group’s sniper to be able to actually fire his weapon. Wonder Woman’s obvious femininity does not damage unit cohesion for the group; in the film, it’s the only reason it exists at all.