Wonder Woman and the American Monomyth

Melissa Burridge

Professor Sexton

ENGL 580

18 July 2017

 

DC’s Wonder Woman and Jewett and Lawrence’s American Monomyth

 

Just because Wonder Woman is a female does not mean that she has to be categorized as a “female hero” or a “heroine”. She may fit a few elements of Murdock’s “Heroine’s Journey”, and she comes closer to Pearson and Pope’s “Female Hero”, but, to the credit of DC writers, she most closely represents Jewett and Lawrence’s American hero, regardless of gender. It is refreshing that DC was able to make Wonder Woman, not a FEMALE hero, but just a hero.

Wonder Woman has no need to break or reconnect with her femininity. She comes from a race of powerful Amazonian warriors on the hidden island of Themyscira. With the unique privilege of never having seen a man, Princess Diana (aka Wonder Woman) does not even have a concept of gender roles, but only sees herself as a warrior and leader of her people.

Jewett and Lawrence explain that the American Hero’s journey must begin with “a disruption of harmony” that “must be eliminated by the superhero, before the Edenic condition can be re-established in a happy ending” (Jewett and Lawrence 170). This Eden actually exists twofold in Wonder Woman– on the island of Themyscira and in Diana’s picture of the rest of the world. Themyscira is portrayed as a lush tropical island, where the women live communally under a just ruler, Diana’s mother. There seems to be no want, and the only strife comes from Diana training to be a warrior against her mother’s wishes. That Eden is disrupted (though not entirely destroyed) by an invading German army looking for Steve Trevor, a downed American pilot. This leads to Diana’s real journey, which is to defeat Ares, the God of War, who she believes is causing World War II. Having grown up in a warless society, she cannot imagine why any people of the same race would willingly kill each other unless a god was forcing them to, leading her to believe that before Ares intervened, Europe must have been a kind of Eden. In this sense, Diana is like both Mary Rowlandson and the nineteenth century pioneers, needing a “locus of evil” to explain the troubles of the world (Jewett and Lawrence 176). Steve Trevor appeals to the audience’s more logical and modern sensibilities, trying to explain that war is caused by evil men, not evil gods. The fact that both of them turn out to be right blends a modern audience’s need for the traditional, visceral monomyth and modern-day psychology and realism.

Jewett and Lawrence use the example of the western novel The Virginian as the epitome of the American monmomyth, and Wonder Woman follows a similar storyline, with the gender roles reversed, of course. In The Virginian, the beautiful young hero “gallantly sweeps [Molly Wood] out of a stagecoach sinking in a river” (Jewett and Lawrence 181). Wonder Woman gallantly (can that word be used for a woman?) sweeps Steve Trevor out of his airplane sinking in the ocean. Jewett and Lawrence explain how this rescue foreshadows the hero’s later redemption of the whole society, and so it is for Wonder Woman. The Virginian is praised for carrying out vigilante justice by a judge and  bishop, proving his righteousness (Jewett and Lawrence 182-3). An audience can easily see the justice in Wonder Woman’s vigilantism as well, since both Nazi General Ludendorff and Ares are portrayed as so inhuman and evil that we could not possibly find fault with their deaths.

Perhaps the clearest way that Wonder Woman connects with the American monomyth is that she is the American monomyth. America originally created and perfected the comic book superhero. The Wonder Woman in the 2017 film is certainly not the same one created in the 1940’s comic books, but she has the same traits as any other superhero: extraordinary powers, vigilante justice, secret alter egos, and sexual renunciation (Jewett and Lawrence 190-191). There is even a scene where she is symbolically depicted as the redemptive figure- after saving a small Belgian village from Germans, the villagers gather around her in awe, staring and reaching out to touch her.

And, of course, there is the sexual renunciation. At first, the writers heavy-handedly point out the feminist undertones of the film when Diana explains to Steve that she has no interest in having sex with him because she is able to create much more pleasure for herself on her own. However, once she finally does start falling for him, he must sacrifice himself to save everyone else from a deadly gas, and Diana is left alone, hiding her true identity from the world for years.

In our society, it rare enough for a female to be a hero that it must be addressed during the film in some way. However, DC was able to address Diana’s gender through commentary of 1940’s English society, not modern American society, thus easily opening the door to our acceptance and admiration of Diana, Princess of the Amazons, not as a female heroine, but as an American hero.

 

Resources

 

Jewett, Robert and Lawrence, John Shelton. The American Monomyth. Anchor Press/Doubleday,

1977.

Wonder Woman. Directed by Patty Jenkins. DC Films, 2017.

“Wonder Woman (2017)”. Wikipedia. Accessed 18 July 2017.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wonder_Woman_(2017_film)

(only used for names and spelling!)

 

7 thoughts on “Wonder Woman and the American Monomyth

  1. I have not seen the new Wonder Woman movie but I’ve heard great things!

    I think your approach to her with the American Monomyth is spot on. Not only does Wonder Woman have to save the world because of a “disruption of harmony” but she is also an outsider because she is from a hidden island which is pretty much a separate society from the one she saves. While I do not know Wonder Woman well I would be curious to see if she is truly a feminine hero or if she encompasses more stereotypical male traits. Especially as you say that Wonder Woman herself does not have a concept of gender roles, she only sees herself as a warrior and leader of her people. Does Wonder Woman then, despite her name, embrace or reject her femininity? Even though she is a woman, what does Wonder Woman identify as? I’d be interested if in either the movie, television show, or comic book to find out the origin of her name. Who is the first to call her Wonder Woman?

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  2. Hi Melissa, Your analysis is thorough and thought-provoking. I appreciate the framing of Wonder Woman in your introduction and conclusion as not just a “female” hero, but rather as a plain old gender-neutral hero. I have not seen the movie, but I’d guess it is the celebration of her as such that has made it so popular this summer. Our culture, while having its share of female heroes, generally elevates the male hero to some higher level. It seems the comic series from which Wonder Woman emanates knew the time had come to shake up the formula with a gender reversal of its traditional hero/superhero story pattern. It is notable, and no doubt would have been seen as controversial, that Wonder Woman’s creators saw fit to flip their traditional script decades ago when women were only beginning to rebel against their suppression in American culture and society. Lauren raises the question about how Wonder Woman sees herself considering her name. Is she known to herself as “Wonder Women” in the movie or how does that label come to be applied to her? It would seem, considering her gender neutrality, that she would be more embracing herself of the name of Diana.

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  3. Great response! This made me think back to what you said in class about how not all women fit the stereotypical mold – so wouldn’t it make sense that some women can just embark on the traditional hero’s journey without having to overcome barriers of femininity? This is still a complicated question for me. In my initial response, I talked about how it feels unrealistic to just put a woman on a hero’s journey without acknowledging the specific hurdles she has to face because of her perceived role in society. However, the cultural expectations for Wonder Woman (in Themyscira) seem to challenge this. Still, a woman who does not conform to the standards of femininity or even identify as a woman will still be subject to limitations and assumptions based on the perception of others. Even viewers of the movie may judge Wonder Woman differently to a male superhero and question her abilities more.

    I think there is certainly something empowering about seeing a female on the hero’s journey. That being said, something I appreciate about Murdock’s approach is it that I can view myself as a heroine – it’s very relatable in that sense. The American monomyth is limited to those who are “super” or “special” in some way. We can’t all be Wonder Woman. I think it’s nice to have a balance of heroes who we idolize or are fascinated by and heroes we know we can become.

    This once again makes me think of the importance of creating a distinct heroes’ journey for individuals who are transgender or gender fluid rather than just accepting that the hero’s journey is fitting for everyone.

    On another note, I remember talking in class about how the hero of the American Monomyth is never satisfied – is that the case with Wonder Woman too?

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  4. I also haven’t seen the movie but I’m pretty familiar with the comic lore. I was curious to see how you would insert her into some critical framework because she seems to defy most of our story and gender norms. At times she seems to embody more traditional male heroic characteristics and at other times she is profoundly feminine. I think you’re right when you say that she is “not a female hero, but just a hero.”

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  5. I appreciated your unique perspective on the different heroic model that Wonder Woman experiences. I agree with you that even though her journey may contain some elements of Murdock and Pearson & Pope’s models, she most greatly aligns with Jewett and Lawrence American Hero. I recently watched the movie and loved it. I think you do a wonderful job of establishing her as a heroine who just happens to be female.

    Themyscira is likened to Eden and I think this is a very astute connection that you made. When watching the movie, I had very surface level reactions, such as “this is such a beautiful place” and “it seems so perfect here.” You do a great job of capturing the ideal setting and how it is eventually disrupted. It is wonderful that movies like Wonder Woman are so successful. It is reassuring to know that Wonder Woman’s plight can be understood and enjoyed by all.

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  6. Great thoughts here! I think Wonder Woman perfectly embodies the American monomyth. Coming from an Edenic existence herself, it is interesting to consider her world view as she leaves and pursues her journey in the outside world. Her lack of familiarity with ways of life outside of the island makes her perfectly disconnected, a crucial element to the American monomyth hero. Her sexual tension with Steve Trevor is certainly present, but as you stated, is cut tragically short, thus leaving the hero unattached. When we looked at this article together, we wondered if the hero could ever achieve their true goal and find their ultimate understanding. I wonder how this bodes for Wonder Woman. Though successful in her immediate goal, she has lost love, and seems overall down at the conclusion of the film. Perhaps this disconnectedness is what makes her a true American hero.

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  7. Thank you so much for choosing this film! I think you’re spot on in categorizing Wonder Woman as an American Monomyth. As you’ve pointed out Wonder Woman carries all the traits of the specifically American hero. That said, I’m not sure we can fairly say that she’s any less of a heroine. My main motivation in saying this is that, while wonder woman does rescue society, her Boon is still very much internal. I considered Wonder Woman choosing whether not to kill Dr. Maru to be the climax of the movie. Dr. Madu, similar to Wonder Woman in her power to affect mankind (though for the worse), is only half similar to Wonder Woman in appearances. The two-faced Maru is a physical representation of the lesson Wonder Woman comes to understand, the complexity of evil and how all people have traces of both good and evil inside of them. As far as the sexual renunciation, I could be remembering incorrectly, but I thought there was an inferred sexual interaction between Diana and Steve which could be seen as Diana claiming her independence, but again, I could be remembering incorrectly. I loved this film! Thanks so much for posting on it!

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