NPR / WBFO Interview On “Wonder Women” (Power, Fantasy, and the 2018 Elections)

Conducted by Avery Schneider (Nov. 8, 2018)

Avery Schneider:

What did you think when you saw the signs around the city of Buffalo?

[The signs referred to read:

“Diana Prince [Wonder Woman]: Willing to Fight for Those Who Cannot Fight for Themselves — Paid for by the Amazons to elect Wonder Women.”]

Matthew H. Bowker:

Well, I do have several thoughts about this:

1. Lest we seem humorless, we ought to begin by saying that this this is probably, in large part, just good fun and a bit of political humor at a time when politics, at least on the national scale, are pretty bleak and distressing.

And we have seen some similar signs before: “Elect Yoda” or “Thor,” or whomever.   

The humor in play here has an element of satire, of course, which arises from the contrast between a figure like Wonder Woman and any mere mortal running for office, not to speak of the mere mortals running for office who are under Federal indictment [like Chris Collins in New York, who seems likely to win in spite of the charges].

2. But within humor and satire there is a kernel of truth,or wish, or emotion that is perhaps unconscious, but that we can still think about productively at the level of psychological reality or fantasy.

And here, I think we see a dark side of the fantasy underlying these kinds of messages. 

One way to think about it is to say something that might seem abhorrent but that strikes me as rather obvious, which is: ‘Wonder Woman would make a bad politician.’



She has no experience in political, governmental, or civic affairs that I know of;

I am not sure, but I don’t think she has had any formal education in civic or public affairs;

She does not seem to see the world with a great deal of complexity, but, rather, as a contest between good and evil;

She may or may not have learned or thoughtful positions on key issues, but, if she does, we do not know what they are;

She seems pretty warlike (and flies an invisible stealth fighter jet, and possesses unique and proprietary military and interrogation-oriented);

It is unclear what party she would belong to, if any, and whether she would be able to caucus or work with elected officials from the rest of the country, much less within her own party;

et cetera.

Although I am smirking through all of this, we see that these concerns and questions seem unimportant because,after all, she is wonder woman and so we presume she will inevitably create justice and goodness and innocence just because of who she is.

And there are several problems with this kind of thinking.

a. This is exactly the same kind of thinking that got Donald Trump elected. It is just the flip-side of the coin, politically speaking. It is actually the same kind of thinking that Hillary Clinton ended up relying on in her slogan — “I’m with her!”— which really tells the voter nothing about the candidate or why anyone should support her, but is essentially an appeal to a kind of emotional identification with a figure, a cult of personality, if you will.

It is, I think, identity politics sharpened down to a fine point, where what we look for is a persona that seems to contain special powers or magnificent attributes, partake in their superpower by being “with them” or supporting them, and then, disregard virtually everything else about that person and just assume or hope that the supernatural characteristics we have imbued them with (Trump’s superpower was his “super-deal-making power,” I guess) will magically solve all of the extraordinarily complex problems of state and Federal governance.

b. Eventually, this process devolves into a vision of politics and civil society that is essentially a contest between good and evil, justice and injustice, which is a very simplistic, almost primitive way of conceiving politics.

It makes politics and government into a cartoon, or a comic book, or a children’s movie, or a professional wrestling match, or even Mr.Smith Goes to Washington, something, where everything is clear and simple and the struggle is essentially a fight for the survival of the innocent and helpless against cruel and malevolent forces.

But of course there isn’t always a villain to fight. There isn’t always a “bad guy” pulling the strings with malicious intent. Politics isn’t always about identifying and rooting out evil forces hell bent on causing pain and destruction. That is what happens in comic books but not so much in political reality.

3. Someone on the WBFO Facebook page wrote:

“What a fantastic idea!!! and to the naysayers this is why: 
1: Encourages women to feel that voting is powerful! 
2: Reminds people to vote, and to look into the candidates BEFORE they do and 
3: I’m certain that the person who did this is VERY INVOLVED in grassroots efforts to fix up what’s broken and remove the cancers in office by stumping for their replacements.”

I find it interesting that this person seems to know (I wonder how she knows) that the person or group behind the signs are “very involved” in grassroots efforts and also that their goal, like Wonder Woman’s goal, is to root out the “cancers in office.”

4. Why not put all of this another way:

The purpose of governmentin a democratic country is to develop and secure spaces and institutions where individuals can be, act, communicate and relate with others in an autonomous way, in a way that accords with self-determination, both at an individual and a collective level.

Politics and government, ideally, should not be about the conquest of one group by another group. It should be about freeing individuals from groups so that individuals can determine the courses of their lives in meaningful and authentic ways.

And that very ability — to act as an autonomous person — is really what it takes to participate meaningfully in politics, to be a member of a civil society. Anything less than that is sort of the politics of the tribe, gang-warfare,group vs. group, ideology vs. ideology, and lately, identity group vs. identity group.  

Now, I should clarify that when I speak about self-determination and autonomy, I am not advancing what I think could sound like a conservative or even libertarian ideal, sort of an Ayn Randian, absolute individualism where we don’t help others or where taxation is abolished.

Quite the opposite: I think this is a deeply progressive and liberal ideal, and, perhaps, the only one that could, theoretically, be shared by conservatives: that the goal of the government is to help all the people it governs flourish,which would mean, in my view, not welfare to work, but vastly improved public educational systems, single-payer healthcare, free or at least very affordable higher education at public universities, and more.

5. This brings us to another important aspect of the sign, which is the slogan underneath Diana Prince’s name, and that reads: “Willing to Fight for Those Who Cannot Fight for Themselves.”

Who exactly are these people who cannot fight for themselves? Is it all of us? Is it the uniquely disenfranchised or disadvantaged? (I am not trying to be naïve here.It is obvious that there are disenfranchised people in America, people whose interests are not represented in government or who suffer in certain ways from legislative action or inaction.)

Still, since we are talking about this political communication at a psychological and emotional level, I think it is important to reflect on the meaning of the phrase, because different readings of it convey different messages about the fantasy of politics that underwrite it.

Whoever these helpless people are, Diana Prince, or Wonder Woman, is apparently very closely identified with them and with their innocence. And we know they are innocent because they are victims, they are helpless, they have somehow lost the ability to defend themselves, which, again is what we seem to think or even wish politics to be about: Predators and prey, good and evil, superheroes and super-villains.

If there is a need (and there is) to help those who are excluded from this process in one way or another become empowered to take part in it, that is a really complex affair,and it requires much more than someone who is “willing to fight for them.”

In fact, someone fighting for them doesn’t really solve the problem at all, which is that they, for some reason, cannot fight for themselves.

So the fight should be an attempt to figure out and address the reasons why some individuals and groups cannot fight for themselves — I don’t know if that’s true by the way – I think some people can or could “fight”— whatever that means — but that “fighting”is really just the wrong metaphor for what politics and political action and citizenship and civic relations are all about.

One way to understand that is to say that some people cannot fight for themselves and they need a hero to save them. But this, in itself, is a bit of an attack on the autonomy and capabilities of these persons who need saving.

Is voting “fighting”? Not really. And yet some people are being denied even the ability to vote. So we do have to fight, if we insist on using this word to ensure that others can exercise their civil liberties.

But this kind of fight is much less dramatic than Wonder Woman swooping in on her stealth plane and blasting the bad guys and truth-lassoing court nominees and all that.

And Wonder Woman and Superman would be asleep in seconds after hearing my long speech about facilitating the capacity to exercise individual autonomy versus fighting for the helpless.

A. Schneider:

Do you have any thoughts about how the signs relate to women or gender in politics?

M.H. Bowker:

Yes, I do. The signs, I believe, relate to an issue of gender that might be raised in connection with these signs, which is that they do seem to be a call to elect more “Wonder Women.”

That, for me is tricky.

As far as I can tell, none of the races in NY are really breaking on gender lines, but, surely, there will be some demographic changes to the House after this election is over, and there will likely be more women in the House than before.

But maybe the point is more broad, just that women are under-represented in government in general, which is quite true. At most, women compose around 25% of legislatures or executive bodies at more local levels of government. Less than that at state and federal levels. Whereas, of course,women make up more than half of the electorate.

So, I agree that this under-representation is a problem, bit with one caveat: that we don’t go into this imagining that merely electing persons of s certain gender will be a solution in itself, that it will automatically make the country or the world a better place.

I say this because here we are actually engaged with a regressive fantasy about gender and a presupposition about the relationship between gender and values and autonomy, where we just assume that being a woman means certain things or entails certain political preferences and positions.

There is no reason to assume that all women feel or believe or think the same way about difficult issues. So again, here we are engaging in identity politics and perhaps fantasy of what just changing the identity group or the identity-based characteristic of government will accomplish.

And this, I think, results from archaic gender stereotypes that still carry force in our society: We associate women with mothers and we really want to associate mothers with goodness and caring. Then, we ask: Who is a better example of someone who protects those who cannot protect themselves than a mother?

Obviously, ‘mothering’ is not restricted to females or women and that parenting by persons of any gender can be either effective or ineffective in raising a healthy child. At the same time, the force of centuries and millennia in which the work of mothering was, in fact, primarily undertaken by women and therefore there is a gender-role inertia we face when thinking about these issues.

Of course, the mother is good and the child is helpless and innocent and both can be victims of bad men. I think that is part of the message here, but, again, it is pretty deeply embedded and may be even a bit of a stretch given that we are just talking about a few signs and less than a dozen words of communication.

This kind of infantilizes those persons who need the help of Wonder Woman – which is to say, turns them into children, looking for a strong parent to fight for them, as they are not capable of acting or defending themselves.    


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