Wonder Woman’s message is exactly what we need in these dark times — but there’s more to do
By now you know that Wonder Woman is unlike any superhero movie that’s come before. The film brings to life both a kickass female demigod and a diverse army of powerful women who ride into battle eager to defeat their enemy.
Those elements are enough to make the movie one-of-a-kind. But where it really departs from the standard male superhero schtick is in its message that love and compassion triumph over hate and evil. That sentiment resonated with viewers for a reason; we reach for it when we’re confronted with the darkest parts of humanity.
Ariana Grande’s recent “One Love Manchester” benefit concert made love and unity in the face of deadly terrorist attacks its central theme. Pride Month, which began last week, is a weeks-long reminder that “love is love” and “love wins,” even when discrimination and bigotry aim to dehumanize LGBTQ people. And it wasn’t that long ago that Hillary Clinton campaigned on the slogan “love trumps hate.”
Yet just believing in love isn’t enough to change the world. While it might be tempting to walk out of Wonder Woman with warm, fuzzy feelings about love’s transformational power, the message becomes meaningless if people miss everyday opportunities to fight on behalf of equality and equity in their own communities.
“Love is an action verb, not just a feeling,” says Kalpana Krishnamurthy, a Wonder Woman fan and senior policy director of the nonprofit organization Forward Together.
Indeed, there’s a long tradition of social justice movements appealing to love and compassion to galvanize resistance and activism. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi spoke of love for humankind as integral to their work, and it remains essential to organizers today.
“Love With Power,” a report published last year by the Movement Strategy Center, a nonprofit organization that supports activists, highlighted practical techniques and leadership skills based on love and interdependence. Those included organizing for a common purpose instead of against an enemy, and building authentic relationships with fellow activists by sharing experiences over a daily meal.
The Women’s March also frequently lifts up love as its driving force. For Paola Mendoza, the group’s artistic director, that emotion is what helped her find purpose in the days following Clinton’s defeat.
“I asked myself: What is it I’m going to do now?” she recalls. “The thing that peeled me off the floor was love. It was love for my community, love for specifically immigrants in this country, and specifically undocumented immigrants.”
Mendoza felt that Trump’s rhetoric and proposed policies would likely endanger people for whom she cared deeply, so the activist and filmmaker committed herself even more to advocating for their rights and dignity.
In Wonder Woman, Diana is motivated by her duty to protect humanity from the god of war, though the literally awesome expression of her love at the movie’s pinnacle has roots in her romantic feelings for her human co-conspirator, Steve Trevor. In real life, though, a bigger, more encompassing love is what we collectively need to spark social change. That profound emotion is what enables us to care for each other despite ideas and policies that make it difficult to see someone else’s full humanity.
“Without taking action to make equality and justice manifest, love is ineffective — it’s just a platitude.”
“Our societal structures have reinforced that certain people and certain communities have power, and it has benefited them over time…” Krishnamurthy says. “We are in a battle against a consolidation of power that doesn’t benefit humanity … Without taking action to make equality and justice manifest, love is ineffective — it’s just a platitude.”
A trick to avoiding this trap, adds Krishnamurthy, is to start anywhere — if you haven’t already — with any organization or cause that’s important to you and your community. If standing up to the Trump administration, and the hatefulness that it has emboldened, is a vital form of resistance for you, there is no shortage of ways to get involved at the local, regional, or national levels.
Practicing love in pursuit of justice also means readying yourself to stand up to bigotry and discrimination, says Mendoza. That prospect may seem terrifying in the wake of the stabbing deaths of two Portland men who intervened to shield Muslim women from harassment on a train, but organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and Hollaback provide trainings and tips on safe bystander intervention.
While none of us can swoop in and save a village like Diana does, we can draw from her conviction to aid as many vulnerable people as possible.
Love can inspire us to do incredible things, but it’s also a messy emotion. Mendoza jokes that if people who are madly in love and commit to a lifetime together still argue and disagree, then surely activists and organizers may find themselves at odds over any number of issues. This, she says, is the reality and complexity of deep affection.
It’s also something that comes up throughout Wonder Woman, as Diana argues for one set of tactics and her comrades insist on another. She has the advantage of being a superhero ready to take on entire German battalions, but Krishnamurthy says that organizers on the left often encounter this same conflict over strategy. What’s important, she says, is being clear about whether you’re disagreeing over tactics or values, because the latter are far more important to the work of “building a bigger we.”
Today, on our day of action for collective liberation, we came together to recommit ourselves to our resistance—and to each other. Today, we pledged our allegiance to each other, reminding ourselves that no woman is free until all people are free. Our #SignOfResistance today, by @barnlib, is in solidarity with the movements working collectively to say #NoMuslimBanEver during a National Week of Resistance to demand members of Congress override the #MuslimBan. Shout-out to Amnesty International, American Civil Liberties Union, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and National Immigration Law Center for your commitment to collective liberation. Today, and every day, we acknowledge we are all part of one movement, and we pledge allegiance to the survival and liberation of all people. We commit ourselves to the following #PledgeOfLiberation: “We believe in immigrant and refugee rights regardless of status or country of origin. We believe migration is a human right and that no human being is illegal. We demand the establishment of sanctuary cities that are sanctuaries for all—including Black, Latinx, Asian, queer, trans, and disabled people who are disproportionately targeted by local law enforcement—and an end to the targeting and deportation of undocumented people and families. We demand an opening of our borders and resources to migrants and refugees regardless of nationality, religion, or background.” • IMAGE DESCRIPTION: Poster of a quote by Grace Lee Boggs. Written in red, green and black is the quote “The only way to survive is to take care of each other.”
Making a community that shares the same values bigger and stronger, however, is impossible without inclusivity. Wonder Woman, which was surprisingly diverse for Hollywood standards, also holds lessons in this regard. Including characters of color, particularly a Native American man and Arab man who directly address the impact of racism and imperialism on their lives, serves as a reminder that even when we are united by love, deep fissures can still run just beneath the surface.
“We certainly can’t paper over the history and pretend it doesn’t exist,” says Krishnamurthy. “There are those times where we don’t have each other’s backs. Being able to build that ‘bigger we’ does mean acknowledging when we have not done that in the past — with clarity, compassion, and accountability.”
Embracing love as an organizing strategy means having difficult conversations, including with people who find it easy to mock the approach as naive. Some might even dismiss the philosophy outright, because it seems like a feminine view of the world and doesn’t match societal ideas about how strength and bravado should reign supreme.
If that happens to you, take inspiration from Wonder Woman‘s director, Patty Jenkins, who is unapologetic about the movie’s message.
“I’m tired of sincerity being something we have to be afraid of doing,” she told The New York Times. “I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it.”
There may be an unexpected practical advantage to love as well. When you’re faced with what seems like a never-ending challenge and feel frustrated about the slow pace of change, love is a renewing force.
“If we are organizing out of a place of anger, revenge — those feelings are exhausting, and we will burnout,” Mendoza says. “Love is infinite.”
Wonder Woman would agree.