If you go to see “Wonder Woman,” don’t leave your sons at home. Take your daughters too, of course, as you will want them to witness the next-level girl power of the title character and the Amazons who raise her. But the point is not simply to show our children that women can be heroes. The point is to show our daughters and sons alike where true heroes get their strength.
The movie begins with an inviting origin story. Wonder Woman, whose real name is Diana, is a demigod raised by warriors on an all-female paradise island. But the story moves from the sunny beach to the Western Front of World War II, where it both darkens and reveals its heart. Wonder Woman marshals her supernatural force behind the single aim of stopping human suffering, which means ending the war.
Diana is undeniably tough, but it’s her yawning tenderness, not her mythical strength, that sets her apart from the men alongside her and the standard-issue male superhero. In a haunting scene that resonates with the news of our time, she withers when she comes upon the devastation of a gas attack.
Wonder Woman’s compassion is the fuel of her force. She’s not bowed down by anguish; she’s pulled back like a catapult.
That Wonder Woman unleashes her wrath only when she’s exposed to inhumanity raises a question that belongs at our dinner tables: What is the purpose of having power? You can’t spend time on a playground or in a classroom (or in a boardroom or a war room) without having to grapple with this one.
Making “Wonder Woman” a full-family experience can open conversations with our children about how they might use their own influence. Would our daughters and sons stand passively by if they saw someone being bullied? Or would they use their own power to stick up for those who have less of it?
Not surprisingly, the film has plenty of examples of sexism. For instance, when Diana dares to crash an all-male meeting, an appalled commander demands to know “Who is this woman?” Parents can use this to talk about gender politics unfolding in our children’s schools.
Frustratingly persistent evidence shows that males continue to dominate the airtime of coeducational classes, even in college and law school, and even when females are in the majority. To achieve equity in classroom participation, we need to continue to encourage our young women to speak up. Further, we need to remind our daughters and our sons to use their leverage as Diana would: To stand up to those who interrupt girls or prevent them from speaking, especially interrupters who are flexing their privilege.
To be clear, guys aren’t alone in riding roughshod over their peers. But the common cultural responses to female and male aggression reveal a double standard. Young women who abuse their social power are often given the hard-to-shake label of “mean girls,” while similar behavior among young men is often ignored, because “boys will be boys.”
When we stop instinctively dismissing male aggression and at the same time slow our judgmental reactions to what we view as female aggression, we can have fair conversations with our children about how power should be exercised. We can ask whether it’s O.K. for boys to tease one another, or for a child to watch a boy be teased and say nothing. And we can wonder if a young woman might be penalized for assertive behavior that is routinely overlooked in young men, and what actions should be considered out of bounds for anyone.
Our children won’t face the epic evildoers of the DC Comics world, but they will certainly encounter, or flirt with being, pint-size tyrants. Those who seek to abuse power offer one model of how force can be employed. “Wonder Woman” offers another. Diana serves up a welcome example of a leader who draws her strength from her humanity, and uses it only to protect herself or to defend others.
In this respect, we should all want for our daughters to be like Wonder Woman, and our sons, too.