The Ethics Of… Wonder Woman

So you seen Wonder Woman yet? I toddled along a couple of weeks ago and checked it out and had a great time! Sure the plot takes a weird direction towards the end, and there’s no shortage of outright silliness littered throughout the place (no one noticed the honking great sword stuffed down her dress? Really?), but they’re the sort of things you don’t think about til after the film and that’s a massive step up from half the films DC has done so far. Then of course you’ve got the fact that this is the first big superhero flick starring a woman, directed by a woman, and it all goes extremely well from the feminist perspective, so yay! Not exactly going to change the world, and sure, Gal Godot isn’t quite as beefy as Wonder Woman could have been cast, but fuck it, it’s solid progress and that’s great.

Oh, and it turns out that supporting this film means you’re totally fine with war crimes.

Alrighty folks, if you haven’t heard about this then buckle up because it’s quite the ride. So, Gal Godot, the actor cast as Wonder Woman for this film, is Israeli. As part of citizenship in Israel everyone is expected to serve in the armed forces for a minimum of 2 years, a surprisingly common practice around the world and pretty understandable given Israel’s history and the general instability of the region.

Unfortunately, involvement with Israel’s military inevitably means involvement in the endless series of border skirmishes that they have with, well, pretty much every neighbouring country they have, particularly Palestine and the Gaza strip. For those whose political awareness starts post 9/11, it might be a bit of a surprise to learn about the whole Israel/Palestine thing, which up until 9/11 was what people meant when they talked about ‘conflict in the middle east’.

To skirt an extremely complicated and touchy history, Israel and its neighbours do not get on and both blame each other for that. Israel’s neighbours have attempted to annihilate it on a couple of occasions and clearly would still like to do so, while Israel is on such an aggressive war footing as a result that their reaction tends to be ‘rain down hellfire’ on anything and anyone that looks at them funny, regardless of borders or collateral damage. Big shocker, turns out this sort of environment tends to foster fear and division, which supports hard-line dickheads more invested in wiping out the enemy rather than dealing with the underlying problems, and you find yourself in what is basically a feud scenario – a self-sustaining hatred that continues well after the original causes of the conflict are long dead.

If you ever find yourself hating a group of people because everyone you know hates that group of people, this is how you sound. Stupid, simple and thoroughly incoherent. Incidentally, do not look at that subreddit, it is a total rabbithole of insanity.

Broadly speaking there’s little debate that Israel is winning this conflict, thanks in large part to massive US military support, and without trying to summarise the entire history of this conflict, you now have a situation where Palestine is effective under the martial control of Israel, who regularly kicks its arse whenever any Palestinian gives them an excuse. There are no good guys in this conflict, but what with Israel being so overwhelmingly more powerful than Palestine, it understandable gets a hell of a lot more criticism for this situations since they have so many more options to fix things.

So what does this have to do with Wonder Woman? Well turns out Gal Godot didn’t just do her time in the Israeli military, she actively supports the actions of said military, in particular posting the following to facebook after one particular incursion into Gaza:

“I am sending my love and prayers to my fellow Israeli citizens, especially to all the boys and girls who are risking their lives protecting my country against the horrific acts conducted by Hamas, who are hiding like cowards behind women and children…We shall overcome!!! #weareright

That particular assault was in response to militants within Palestine firing over 4,500 rockets into Israel. It resulted in 2,100 Palestinians killed along the Gaza strip, including 495 children and 253 women. 66 Israeli soldiers and seven civilians in Israel were also killed in the same period.

Overall this is a pretty typical example of a conflict in the region; Palestinian-based militants attack Israel indiscriminately, often killing civilians despite top-quality defensive systems. Israel responds by deploying a modern military and a vastly more effective counter-attack, killing hundreds/thousands. Both sides hate each other a little more, both groups rationalise their own killing along the lines of ‘he did it first!’, and the international community either joins in with the idiotic side-taking, or sits back and wrings its hands over the idiotic tragedy of it all.

But again, what does this have to do with Wonder Woman? Well following Godot’s comments, a sizable number of activists have stated that supporting the film is tacitly supporting Godot’s political beliefs as a result, which in turns shows support for Israel’s aggressive foreign policies, and therefore makes watching Wonder Woman functionally the equivalent of supporting the bombing of innocent civilians. And since that’s obviously a bad thing, some have gone so far as to say that all the celebration of the film as a ‘step forwards for feminism’ is in fact hypocritical, and that “This movie wasn’t made with all women in mind, it’s for the women who can ignore certain atrocities which don’t directly affect them.” – ie. you categorically cannot be a feminist and like this film.

Now you can see the chain of logic here, right? Sure, the Wonder Woman film itself is fine, a positive thing even. But if it supports a set of political beliefs that lead to the harm of others then surely that’s a bad thing, even if it does have some feminist value in itself. And since preventing the deaths of innocents is obviously more important than positive female role models in cinema, then real feminists should reject this movie rather than celebrate it.

But put this into context and things start to get real weird, real fast. You, me and literally every person ever actively support fucked up things every day of every week, and largely don’t have a lot of options to avoid that. If you’re reading this then you’re on a computer or smartphone, which means you’re using electricity, which means you’re contributing to climate change. Your device includes a variety of rare earth minerals, most of which were likely imported from fucked up developing nations with, uh, sub-par labour laws, meaning you likely also contributed to slavery. And when you eventually replace this device, what will happen to it? Either it’s going to end up in landfill, leaking nasty shit into the environment and wasting its embodied energy, or it’ll likely find its way to an Indian beach, where a poor child will burn it for the copper, poisoning themselves in the process.

So hooray for you, you fucking monster.

Problem is there is literally no way to participate in life without some sort of negative impact. Even if you piss off to live off the land some remote forest, you’re now a one-person destruction derby as far as the local environment is concerned, no matter how ‘sustainable’ you think you’re being.

Even if we keep this to the question of films, if we’re happy to say you should never watch anything that involves an actor with a shitty agenda, you automatically write off half of cinema instantly. Enjoy Pulp Fiction? Not any more matey, unless you support Travolta’s support for Scientology. Same goes for Tom Cruise. Oh you like Iron Man? So you support the drug cartels then? Because Mr Downey-Junior kept half the market afloat for a few years there.

Image result for RDJ MUGSHOT

So repentant.

But bugger individual actors, let’s think bigger – what about the studios? If we’re worried about supporting shitty agendas then they’re the ones to worry about, since they make the funding decisions. And since said studios are big enough to have turned out at least one completely heinous racist/sexist/bigoted film apiece recently (Transformers, anyone?), then surely supporting any of their films is to support those same shitty values?

So on the face of it, what we have here is a deontological, hard and fast ideological demand that Israel’s actions in Palestine are unethical, and we absolutely cannot support anything that in turn might support those actions. And as with pretty much all hard and fast ideological ethical demands, it’s way too simplistic, leads to weird and flat-out daft consequences if applied seriously, and generally fails as an ethical system.

But that assumes these demands are in fact deontological in nature, and frankly I’m not so sure that’s true. There’s a layer of complexity and nuance here we might not be appreciating.

Consider for a second the plight of advocate for Palestine – it’s an unbelievably ugly situation that’s been raging for decades now to the great suffering of hundreds of thousands of civilians. It’s a fight that powerful factions love to use, both as a proxy war and as an excuse to advance their own toxic agendas. And since 9/11 stole the spotlight, the entire issue has also fallen into relative obscurity, making it hard to get people to care about, assuming they even know it’s happening.

And against this background of indifference, a big high-profile film rolls around that is garnering support from your end of politics, and which also stars someone who just happens to embody most of what you oppose on the topic. Sure it isn’t necessarily fair to beat up on the Wonder Woman film to advance your fairly unrelated agenda, but this here is a gold-plated opportunity to make your cause relevant again – do you seriously pass that up for the sake of a comic book movie?

Image result for suicide squad fail

I mean, maybe for Marvel, but DC? Hardly a brand worthy of your loyalty.

Maybe I’m giving the activists involved too much credit here, but considering how much of a stretch it is to condemn a film because one of the actors’ politics, whether it was intentional or not, it’s a pretty good utilitarian justification for this otherwise very weird campaign. Because as unreasonable as it may seem, the fact remains that innocent people are suffering and dying in this conflict, and as minor an influence as Gal Godot may have on that conflict, there is a link and any efforts towards ending this violence are justified. If that means ruining your enjoyment of a movie, then so be it – it’s a thoroughly acceptable cost given the benefits to be achieved, and not even much of a cost at that.

But! There’s a catch to this justification. Sure, as a utilitarian I’m completely fine with nearly any injustice provided said injustice serves a (significantly) superior cause (assuming no better option is available), but that assumes that we do in fact achieve that superior cause. If the efforts of these pro-Palestine activists do indeed capture the public’s attention and mobilise that attention towards support for ending the violence between Israel and Palestine, then frankly you could justify costs much larger than ruining the enjoyment of a film or two. But if that activism does not lead to those benefits and instead actually alienates the public against the issue, then now we’ve gone from ‘a small cost for a greater goal’, to ‘a small cost with absolutely no benefit’ or even ‘a small cost causing an even greater cost with little to no benefit’. And sadly, I suspect such is the case with the Wonder Woman controversy.

I’ve written on here before that if the purpose of a debate is to win your opponent to your way of thinking, then the tactics you employ need to be appealing not to you, but rather to your opponent. And thanks to the psychological reality that is the Backfire Effect, there is no faster way to turn a person away from your cause than attacking them, their beliefs or the things they enjoy – which you’ll notice is exactly what pro-Israel activists have done with Wonder Woman.

Yeah, that totally makes me want to listen to you.

If you were not already well on board with the pro-Palestine movement, to the point where all other politics were second to it, then all headlines like this do are turn you completely away from the cause and the topic in general. I deal with enough shit from the other side of politics, thank you very much. The last thing I want to have to deal with are people from my side who reckon I can’t possibly be a good person unless I throw myself 110% behind their particular pet cause – especially when the cause they want me to stand behind is a fairly simplistic take on an unbelievably complex and ugly situation (just saying guys, I’d feel a lot more comfortable supporting Palestine if they didn’t freely elect the group that keeps shooting rockets at the heavily armed, trigger-happy nuclear power next door).

So what’s the take away here? Pretty simple really; I am completely comfortable for activists to use Wonder Woman to bring up the issue of Palestine and Israel’s numerous and ongoing human rights abuses. It ain’t necessarily fair or even relevant, but so what? If it helps bring peace to this clusterfuck of a situation then whatever works.

But for crying out loud guys, if you’re going to take that line, make sure you actually try to win people over? The sort of people who love and celebrate Wonder Woman and more than likely already feminists or proto-feminists – they’re halfway to your way of thinking already. Appeal to the underlying sense of justice and fairness that typifies the mindset, appeal to their better natures and help them feel like supporting your cause makes them better people, rather than sacks of shit for enjoying a film and not already being completely won over to your cause.

It can be tempting when you care deeply about something to see the world as indifferent, self-absorbed and callous. But when you respond to this by giving the world the finger, it shouldn’t be too surprising when the world just gives you the finger right back.

4 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Wonder Woman

  1. I think your views on Hamas are simplistic however let’s get to the main issue. One of the questions I ask myself in situations like this is ‘what is the other side doing’. Well they seem to be taking every advantage of the situation that they can. The studio though appears to be trying to shut up it’s new leading star. This one is a very fine line for me and I am not yet sure on which side I rest my feet. I have good intelligent friends who love the film and others who refuse to see it. I still have not made up my mind though.

    • Hi Frank, thanks for the comment. I think it’s fair to say pretty much everything I opined on the Palestine/Israel issue was simplistic here unfortunately. Apologies if I came across as being supportive or either side over the other really, because the intent was more to illustrate the complexity of it all rather than really take a stance on the conflict itself.

      As for how you and/or your friends are responding to the film, yeah, join the club. Such a massively complicated issue being hauled into an otherwise incredibly simple issue is not going to encourage nuanced debate. In the end this the best I could do with it was to comment on the way the debate is being conducted rather than on who was actually right. I haven’t exactly avoided touchy topics on this blog, but this one gave me pause, mainly due to aforementioned complexity. Without writing a pHd on it anything I wrote was going to piss someone off.

      • It is certainly one of the hardest decisions on a film I have had to make for a while. There are good points on both sides. I think I will see it one day, just don’t know when lol. I should say I did find your article interesting and you appear to use your brains which is great. I will be following your blogs in the future and thanks for your reasoned reply!

      • Thanks for the reasoned comment! Happy to have you following – feel free to let me know your thoughts on any other topics – criticism and topic suggestions always welcome.

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