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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Present Concerns and the band Joseph

In an interview with Noisetrade, Natalie Closner Schepman, who together with her sisters Allison and Meegan Closner compose the band Joseph, remarked on how our culture tries to motivate us through fear. “We live in a culture that makes money by scaring us. We are constantly being reminded of what peril lies ahead if we don’t buy this thing or move to this place or choose this particular news source as our primary doomsayer.” “White Flag,” Joseph’s first single off their sophomore album “I’m Alone, No You’re Not,” is a song about optimistic defiance to this kind of fear:

I’ll be an army, no you’re
Not gonna stop me gettin’
Through
I’ll sing a marching song and
Stomp through the halls louder than
You

I could surrender but I’d
Just be pretending, no I’d
Rather be dead than live a lie
Burn the white flag

Elaborating on the theme of the song, Schepman offered an excerpt from On Living in an Atomic Age — CS Lewis’ essay about how to deal with the sudden, ever-present threat that nuclear war could at any moment wipe all life from the earth. “This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”

In writing On Living in an Atomic Age, Lewis might as well have had Donald Trump in mind. Like the atomic bomb, the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the office of the president has fomented a collective existential crisis in both the body politic and the public at large. Donald Trump is “a unique threat to American democracy,” according to the Washington Post. “(Trump’s) contempt for constitutional norms might reveal the nation’s two-century-old experiment in checks and balances to be more fragile than we knew.” Even conservatives like Andrew Sullivan have described President Trump as, “In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order … an extinction-level event.”

Whether such analysis is reasonable or exaggerated remains to be seen, but the paralyzing enticements of fear and despair are in no way new. “In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb,” Lewis argued. “‘How are we to live in an atomic age?'” I am tempted to reply: ‘Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might have cut your throat any night.” That death put on an unfamiliar mask did not give it new power; instead, it shattered our cherished illusion that we are immortal. Lewis continued, “Do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. …you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways.”

By echoing the sage wisdom Lewis offered in the face of that more immediate threat, Joseph position themselves as the perfect salve for the persistent chafing of our current cultural moment. “There is plenty to be concerned about!” Schepman adds. “We are a polarized country and there is more division than ever right now, so I have marveled at how much I need ‘White Flag’ more and more.” Joseph meets us in our division and discouragement and offers a joyful antidote.

I’m Alone, No You’re Not” has been well-received since its release last August. While critics have waxed on — rightly — about Joseph’s transcendent harmonies and sharp melodic instincts, I find myself equally captivated by their consistently positive message, an unfolding ideological landscape at least as beautiful as their voices. Take “I Don’t Mind,”* for example, a song about internalizing the belief that you are worthy of love. “I was saying for a while,” recalled Meegan during Joseph’s Tiny Desk Concert, “that it was what I wanted someone to say to me about my own sadness, and it just hit me that I would have to say it to myself first before I could receive it from anyone else.”

I will love you anyway
With all your demons in the way
Nothing can keep us apart
I walk through walls into your heart

*(A simple diagnostic test: if the harmonies at 2:13 don’t give you chills, there is likely something wrong with your central nervous system — consult a doctor immediately. Let’s not kid ourselves: the Closners can sing).

Whirlwind” may be the only musical meditation on the book of Job ever written that isn’t absolutely ridiculous. I don’t know if the members of Joseph identify as Christians — Schepman attended Seattle Pacific University, a Christian school — but they find themselves in excellent company with great musicians like Sufjan Stevens and mewithoutYou as they give fresh life to Christian themes without presenting themselves as Christian musicians per se.

Have you held the mallets drumming thunder
Or filled the clouds with rain?
Have you opened up the skies above you
And seen a desert wake?
Have you given orders to the morning
Or shown the dawn its place?
Can you grab hold of the earth’s four corners
And shake shake shake out the darkness

In “Planets,” Joseph conjures Eisley at their fanciful best without flirting with the adolescent imagery that made Eisley feel, at times, unapproachable. “Planets” is also the best example of free form poetry on “I’m Alone, No You’re Not,” the line “The stars are a blanket, I’ll wrap them round these shoulders/Arms spread out wide, turn falling into flight” calling to mind Beryl Smeeton’s autobiography “The Stars My Blanket.”

Themes of care, intimacy, and the resolve to embrace life and love over fear and despair make “I’m Alone, No You’re Not” at once timeless and timely. On Living in an Atomic Age ends with Lewis’ observation that “Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation than a determination to survive at all costs. Those who care for something else more than civilization are the only people by whom civilization is at all likely to be preserved. Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best. Those who love Man less than God do most for Man.” By setting their minds on higher things, Joseph created a poetic experience that will take on new meaning and persistent relevance as our present concerns shift. “I’m Alone, No You’re Not” is a great record to enjoy with a glass of whiskey and my favorite album of 2016.

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Should We #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend?

When I think over the filmic media I tend to consume, I can’t help but notice an unfortunate trend: friendship, particularly male friendship, is hard to find. If Walter White has a friend in Breaking Bad, it would be Elliot Schwartz – and the last vestiges of the friendly part of their relationship is twenty years in the past and buried underneath the relational rubble of professional and romantic rivalry. In Mad Men, Don Draper’s only friend is Roger Sterling, but it might be more accurate to regard them as drinking buddies or companions of circumstance. In The Walking Dead, Rick’s friendship with Shane turns to attempted murder within four episodes. Movies and shows that portray male friendship tend to be comedies where the relationship is both strange and borderline homoerotic (think JD and Turk in Scrubs, Troy and Abed in Community, or Peter and Sydney in I Love You, Man) or adapted from non-contemporary literature, the most obvious examples being Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson or Sam and Frodo.

That is what troubles me about the Twitter campaign to #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend: it redefines the rare portrayal of a loving male friendship as one of latent homosexual desire. This thought process is summarized well by Jen Yamato: “Give the Marvel superhero a man to love,” she says in The Daily Caller, “because he pretty much already has one.” Many in the Marvel audience, and indeed, audiences at large, seem to have trouble conceptualizing such a relationship between two men as anything other than erotic in nature. But C.S. Lewis obliterated this fallacy in The Four Loves: “Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend.”

Having positive examples of loving, healthy friendship is both necessary and beautiful – and increasingly so for the target demographic of superhero movies, namely teenaged and young-adult males. The notion that one can care passionately about another human being without the desire or possibility of sex with that person has gone missing from pop culture narratives. So by all means, give Captain America a boyfriend – the superhero genre has been a powerful genre for themes of gay rights and equality. But it shouldn’t be Bucky. Instead, let’s preserve the idea that friendship and romantic love are different things, both rare and valuable, both with the ability to inspire courage and self-sacrifice.

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