Wonder Woman and the Noble Savage

In the wake of the unmitigated box office success of Wonder Woman, much of the critical focus has centered on the feminist aspects of the film. Zoe Williams argues that the movie is a “masterpiece of subversive feminism,” while Christina Cauterucci criticizes it for not being “as feminist as it thinks it is.” There’s also this critique:

In my view, apart from addressing issues of representation in film (a theme awkwardly underscored in the film itself), the feminist talking points about Wonder Woman are among the least interesting aspects of the movie. What stood out to me instead was the film’s deconstruction of Enlightenment philosophy, specifically the espousal and subversion of the myth of the noble savage.

According to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, “The concept of the noble savage was inspired by European colonists’ discovery of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Africa, and (later) Oceania. It captures the belief that humans in their natural state are selfless, peaceable, and untroubled, and that blights such as greed, anxiety, and violence are the products of civilization.” Pinker identifies this viewpoint as a subset of tabula rasa or Blank Slatism. (Far from being some form of obscure or minority viewpoint, recent polling suggests that around three quarters of Americans adhere to Blank Slatism in some form.) This idea is the legacy of Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

So many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and requires a regular system of police to be reclaimed; whereas nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state, when placed by nature an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man…. The example of the savages, most of whom have been found in this condition, seems to confirm that mankind was formed ever to remain in it, that this condition is the real youth of the world, and that all ulterior improvements have been so many steps, in appearance towards the perfection of individuals, but in fact towards the decrepitness of the species.

This idea (or variants where “savages” are whatever group that stands in contrast to conventional depictions of Western Civilization) shows up in dozens of films and novels, such as The Last Samurai, Dances With Wolves, and Dances With Wolves in Space. The plot typically plays out according to a basic formula: our war-weary protagonist, reeling from some psychic or physical injury, encounters a native people group and begins to heal as he adopts their lifestyle.

Wonder Woman is set in the waning days of World War I, “the war to end all wars,” and follows Diana Prince as she tries to locate and kill the Greek god Ares. While political powers work desperately to negotiate an armistice and call an end to the conflict, Diana (played with the perfect mix of physicality and enthusiastic naïveté by Gal Gadot) is convinced the war will not end until Ares’ destructive influence is brought to heel. As long as Ares is alive, Diana thinks, he will continue poisoning hearts and minds and men will continue to kill each other. The film’s preoccupation with mustard gas as a weapon of war serves to underscore the idea of the corruptive, corrosive effect that Ares has on mankind.

Diana’s view of human nature — that mankind is inherently righteous and noble but is corrupted by society — is played up as an innocent sincerity, untainted by contact with the outside world. Diana was raised on the mythical island of Themyscira in a decidedly pre-modern society occupied by the Amazonians and hidden from the outside world. Life on Themyscira seems continuously set at 300 BC, and it is implied that the Amazonians have lived there without external disruption since shortly after the creation of man.

This sets up the inversion of the noble savage trope. Rather than being told from the perspective of a soldier, Wonder Woman has us tag along with someone pure and primitive as she encounters both war and the West for the first time. She reacts with horror to the injustice of war, and adopts what seems a rallying cry for political activism: “You can do nothing or you can do something.”

Of course, any worldview advocated in a film invites a counterpoint. This function normally falls to the villlain; in Wonder Woman it is co-lead Steven Trevor who embodies the Hobbesian philosophy that humans are violent and combative by nature. Trevor is driven by a sense of pragmatic realism. Knowing the German General Ludendorff and the cartoonishly evil Dr. Maru are developing a form of mustard gas against which gas masks are useless, Trevor believes the Germans won’t enter into the armistice unless the new poison is destroyed: why sue for peace when you have an unstoppable superweapon at your disposal?

Diana’s crisis of confidence occurs when, having killed Ludendorff (who she believed to be Ares), the German soldiers do not immediately stop fighting and return to their righteous, noble nature. Everything she has believed about the nature of mankind is contradicted in an instant and she is devastated to realize that mankind may be beyond salvation. This hiccup is brief, and the ending plays out as a sort of Marxist fairy tale. (I’d elaborate on this, but I don’t want to give away an spoilers.)

Wonder Woman is far from a perfect film. Any superhero that is essentially a god or demigod will suffer the same drawbacks as Superman: without a fatal flaw, no opposition presents a real challenge to their superior might. There were many opportunities for Diana’s naïveté to have painful consequences for her, for her companions, or for the Allied war effort in general, but at every turn her blind, confident stride into action always plays to perfection. She has no character arc to speak of. And there is a scene of mass murder accompanied by extravagant evil laughter that would have fit much better in an Austin Powers movie. And, ultimately, the film could have done more to explore how our different worldviews impact how perceive and treat each other. But Wonder Woman deserves credit for its subtle examination of Enlightenment philosophies. As in the movie itself, sometimes it is indeed better to do anything rather than nothing at all.

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