Wonder Woman and Loneliness by Rev. Anthony D. Makar
As the 2017 blockbuster movie Wonder Woman begins, we hear her voice with its exotic accent, she speaks of wanting to save the world but learning things the hard way. When finally we see her, it’s the present day, she inhabits her Diana Prince persona, she walks down a corridor under the Louvre glass pyramid towards her office where she’s an expert in warfare-related antiquities, she’s handed a briefcase (from Wayne Enterprises, wink wink), and she opens it to find a picture of herself from a hundred years earlier. It’s World War I, she’s in full Wonder Woman mode, she’s surrounded by fellow fighters for freedom, but they were human and are long dead, all of them, including Steve Trevor whom she loved. Only she survives to hold the memories, there is no one alive who saw what she saw or heard what she heard, and in this she feels a powerful loneliness, and so would we.
And this is only one part of her loneliness, or ours, should we show up to our lives as Wonder Woman in the sense of being both very different and powerful in our difference.
But the beginning of her loneliness is right there in her origins, both within the comic book storyline but also outside it, in the real world of you and me.
From within the storyline, her origin is as we’ve already heard: she came from the union of her Amazon queen mother and the greatest God of them all, Zeus. She grew up on the Amazon island of Themyscira, in the company of only women, completely free of the kind of social conditioning that Americans experience around what it means to be a woman, or to be sexual.
But Wonder Woman’s origin outside the comic book storyline is just as unique. That magic lasso she uses within the story, which compels people to tell the truth when they’re tied up in it? It’s a tribute to Wonder Woman’s creator, Harvard psychologist William Moulton Marston, who is credited with inventing the lie detector test. See the connection?
But why did he create Wonder Woman? Because, as a press release from the 1940s says, he wanted “to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men” because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity.”
Marston was a feminist, inspired by the woman’s suffrage movements of the nineteen-tens which, among other things, promoted the use of birth control. Margaret Sanger was one the key voices for this at the time, and Margaret Sanger was a member of his family. Jill Lepore, writer for The New Yorker, gets straight to the point: “Superman owes a debt to science fiction, Batman to the hardboiled detective. Wonder Woman’s debt is to feminism.”
Now, think about your origin story. If it has even an ounce of the uniqueness of Wonder Woman’s origin stories (either one), then your way through life and the mark you make will be very hard for other people to accept or relate to. Which means loneliness.
Here are some ways this plays out in Wonder Woman’s world.
From within the comic book storyline, we see this in the tension between Amazon Queen mother and her Wonder Woman daughter. Her daughter wants to go save the world; mother wants her to stay home. No doubt the mother’s motivations are complex—feeling fear for her daughter’s safety, feeling threatened by her daughter outshining her, who knows what other feelings and justifications—but the point is Wonder Woman not feeling very wonderful. Wonder Women feeling rejected because of her wonderfulness. Her mother the Queen says, “You know that if you choose to leave, you may never return.” And Wonder Woman replies, “Who will I be if I stay?”
To stay and continue to be with family will compromise her life’s meaning and joy and she will be misunderstood and feel lonely. But to leave is to be lonely too.
Yet another example of Wonder Woman’s loneliness has to do with the circumstances surrounding the Justice Society of America, which was essentially a group of superheroes uniting in community for friendship and also fighting the bad guys. Members included Superman, Batman, the Green Lantern, the Flash … and Wonder Woman. All were founding members, but guess who was rendered the secretary in the bunch? Never mind that she is arguably among the most powerful of them all.
Maybe it’s because they didn’t get her style of being powerful. She blends hard power with soft power. She fights when necessary and is frightening in her ferocity but she is primarily a lover of peace; she is nurturing; she is compassionate. She prefers diplomacy to blunt bashing.
So let’s give her the secretary position, yes?
Show up to life like Wonder Woman does, and loneliness happens. You feel it.
Ministerial Intern Taryn Strauss showed up like that, in the guise of Artistic Director of Scapegoat Theatre Company. She says, “I was battle-ready, controversy-ready. I wanted to direct plays that would shake our audience out of complicity, out of behavioral patterns, out of ignorance. “And she is lonely. “At the cast party,” she says, “I gave out awards, made speeches, thanked everyone, and went home early– feeling accomplished, and utterly alone.”
On and on, it’s what happens when you show up in your Wonderfulness. Loneliness.
It’s 20th century writer John Steinbeck achieving public acclaim for books like The Grapes of Wrath, and he says, “The loneliness and discouragement are by no means a thing that has passed. In fact they seem to crowd in more than ever. Only now I can’t talk to anyone much about them or even admit having them because I now possess the things that the great majority of people think are the death of loneliness and discouragement. Only they aren’t.”
But what happens when you show up as a successful woman?
This one’s complicated.
Listen to the voice of Ciara Byrne, in her article “The Loneliness of the Female Coder”: “I was once offered a job on a development team of 50 where I would be the only woman. […] Always the only woman in the meeting, often the first–-the first female [research and development] engineer, first female project lead, first female software team lead-–in the companies I worked for. What the management blogs wittering on about leadership don’t tell you is that being the first is a burden. You carry the responsibility of representing not only yourself but the entire experience of working with that semi-mythical creature, the female techie.”
Ciara Byrne says that many of the problems she encountered being a successful woman in a male-dominated industry were more about the cluelessness of her teammates rather than malice. But when you are a successful woman and you are working with other successful woman, the story shifts. We start talking about things like “the sisterhood ceiling” and “queen bees.” Have you heard about this? Essentially it’s when a woman shows up in all her wonderfulness and other women blast her for it. It’s women patrolling other women for signs of “excessive” sexuality or ambition or aggression.
How lonely it can feel, to be undermined by those who are of your own tribe.
All these are some ways we can show up as Wonder Woman: as a leader, as a success, as a successful woman, and this way too: as a feminist.
Suzannah Weiss speaks to this when she talks about her fear, in the here and now, of revealing she’s a feminist. Suzannah Weiss is afraid: and it comes (she says)
… from the college friend who told me “You’re not going to become an angry feminist now, are you?”
It comes from the boyfriend who told me feminists have an anger complex that usually comes from being abused.
It comes from an extremely liberal friend I assumed was a feminist until she said “No, I’m a people person, so I don’t want to associate myself with a group that antagonizes anyone.”
It comes from the boyfriend who told me I was “aggressively wary” for pointing out a double standard in a movie.
It comes from the commenters who left threats when I published an article about sexists on online dating sites.
This is all of 76 years ago from the time Wonder Woman first appeared, in 1941, and telegraphed the essential message of feminism to the world, which is a hopeful message about women being able to be wonderfully fully themselves—and men too. For feminism is about that too: male liberation from oppressive patterns that hurt women and rebound the hurt onto themselves…
This reminds me of a T-shirt our Associate Minister Jonathan Rogers sometimes wears. The words on the T-shirt say, “This is what a feminist looks like.”
I wonder about the strange stares he gets.
Carl Jung once said, “Loneliness does not come from having no people around you, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to you.” Even with the powerful image of Wonder Woman out there, still, people have a hard time receiving the message of feminism, and it makes the sender … lonely.
But now, let’s increase our emotional intelligence around this issue of loneliness and consider three things.
One is to take to heart the gesture of Wonder Woman’s helping to create the Justice Society of America—despite the irritating fact of her being made secretary. The big picture importance of a group of superheroes uniting in community is that it’s easier to bear the loneliness with friends who understand. “We have all known the loneliness,” says social activist Dorothy Day, “and we have found that the answer is community.” The Taryn Strausses of the world need a community of fellow artistic directors, John Steinbecks need fellow famous people, Clara Byrne might have a hard time finding fellow female coders but in telling her story she creates a community of understanding and sympathy, and on and on.
A second thing to consider is how, sometimes the solution to loneliness is not a mere internal attitude adjustment. Sometimes you have to change public policies and laws. Go back to the issue of a woman showing up in all her wonderfulness and other women blast her for it. Research shows that this is not about women just being inherently catty, or mean. It’s because women in the workplace hear messages and experience policies that say their work is not valued, or it’s going to be very hard for them to advance, or they have to sacrifice aspects of what it means to be a woman (like having kids) to be viable on the job. No wonder there’s such a thing as “sisterhood ceilings” and “queen bees.” Things feel scarce and women are fighting to survive, and the result is betrayal by people who are supposed to be in your tribe, and that feels terrible. But the solution is not to merely buck up. It is to change the nature of the workplace and all the policies and laws that create the scarcity. Create a story of abundance, where women’s success is truly valued.
And finally know this. That not all forms of loneliness are alike. Some kinds are about being so different from others that there’s a yawning gap between you and them and no communication gets across, or there’s misunderstanding, or there’s rejection. No doubt this is part of what Wonder Woman in the movie is referring to, when she says that she is learning the hard way about what it means to be among humans and save the world.
That loneliness probably never goes away, for her or for any of us who show up in all our unique wonderfulness. For all who are feminists, women and men alike!
But there is an even deeper and darker form of loneliness, and that is the loneliness of self-doubt or self-contempt—when you are cut off from yourself. When something wonderful stirs in you and wants out and you squash it down because you are afraid.
That is the worst loneliness of all. You are lonely for yourself.
Wonder Woman will never have to carry that worst burden of all, because she is proud of who she is. She is a child of an Amazon Queen and of Zeus. Her friends are Superman and Batman and others in the Justice Society of America. Her mission is to be fully herself in saving the world.
And you are a child of Life’s longing for itself. You are loved by a love larger than you can know. Here are your friends, surrounding you right now. Unitarian Universalism calls you to be fully yourself, as you make the world a better place.
So you be proud too. Don’t let the worst kind of loneliness destroy you.