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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

Wonder Woman, Deathworthiness, and the Neverending Quest for Peace

Nickie Phillips

While watching the new Wonder Woman blockbuster, our phones were buzzing with news alerts. On screen, as Princess Diana of Themiscyra (aka Wonder Woman) contemplated the nature of humanity and puzzled at our craving for war and violence, in the real world London was in the midst of two terrorist attacks that ultimately killed seven and injured dozens. In the coming days British Prime Minister Teresa May would declare "enough is enough" and call for the end of the so-called tolerance for extremist violence.

Some might dismiss the latest summer superhero movie as irrelevant, but we could not help but feel that Wonder Woman was speaking truth to power. The film is a deep reverie on the longstanding political and moral question of whether to meet violence with violence. We witness Wonder Woman seriously contemplating good versus evil. She comes to understand that humanity often cannot avoid evil, but in having freewill, choosing good is more meaningful.

Off-screen, we live in a destabilized global environment where both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump ushered in uncertainty about the fate of the European Union, NATO, and the Paris Climate Agreement. Armed conflicts rage in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Mexico, and a myriad of other places. In the U.S., state-induced violence in the form of questionable police shootings dominates headlines. The world feels dangerous.

Many tolerate violence by rationalizing it in a utilitarian framework: perpetrated in the interest of the greater good, perhaps even a future lasting peace. So it is with Wonder Woman. In her duty-bound quest to save the world from the ravages of chemical warfare in World War I specifically, and the devastation of human wars in general, she and her acquired team of rag-tag heroes engage in quite a bit of mass violence.

Yet Wonder Woman abhors war. Her whole mission is to eliminate war in the form of the god Ares. Such cognitive dissonance as warring against war is a recurrent theme in mainstream superhero comic books. Our book, Comic Book Crime, describes the typical mainstream comic book plot as giving great latitude to the use of violence if the situation is deemed a time of crisis--and as we detail, it is almost always a time of crisis.

The compelling tension in comic books revolves around putting aside no-kill principles, something morally uncomfortable but framed as necessary in practice. In true superhero form, Wonder Woman, is likewise a meditation on putting aside those principles, and on deathworthiness, a term that originally describes deliberations by a criminal court, but that we widen. We define deathworthiness as a superhero's (instead of a juror's) decision-making process around when and why killing someone else is justifiable.

Sans a court of law, superheroes are unburdened by due process constraints and act as stand-ins for the entire system: judges, jurors, and (at times) executioners. Such narratives of extralegal justice saturate American popular culture in general, and we argue, are important artifacts for understanding larger American notions of justice.

What we found fascinating about Wonder Woman's determinations of deathworthiness was her deeper contemplations of the means to the end, questioning the typical utilitarian framework. The process through which Wonder Woman realizes that killing a single enemy is futile in the larger quest for peace--is one that we as a society would do well to contemplate. A cynic may find Wonder Woman's message of love and hope in humanity to be too overwrought. But many who have experienced war firsthand come to similar profound conclusions.

Members of Veterans for Peace, for example, are "dedicated to building a culture of peace, exposing the true costs of war, and healing the wounds of war," stopping at nothing short of "abolishing war as an instrument of national policy." If accomplished, this would entail a cultural shift away from utilitarian calculations and toward the use of non-violent solutions at times of crisis. Veterans for Peace and Wonder Woman are on the same important mission, responding to a violent world suffering too much loss of life.

In Comic Book Crime, we document how comic book creators reacted to 9/11 and how our cultural perspectives on crime fighting and terrorism both reflect and shape these narratives. We are now in a new era, one that warrants more exploration of how to achieve global peace, not less. Those on Fox News who lament that Wonder Woman is not "American" enough are perhaps willfully ignorant as to her origins and international relevance. Global peacekeeping has long been a top priority for Wonder Woman--a goal that clearly calls for a bit more attention here in the real world. Achieving peace and reducing violence continue to be among the planet's biggest challenges, regardless of what Trump says.

On the evening of the United States' premiere of the Wonder Woman film, Bill Maher engaged in banter with Senator Ben Sasse on HBO's Real Time about how young adults just can't seem to grow up, alluding to comic books as part of a kind of chronic Peter Pan problem. Maher did not make reference to Wonder Woman, instead he made a more general claim that it's foolish to “…treat comic books as literature.” The implication is that comic book fans, publishers, marketers, and creators are stunted in emotional maturity and unable to deal with the harsh truths of real life. Tell that to Art Spiegelman, Joe Sacco, Neil Gaiman, Brian K. Vaughn, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alison Bechdel, Greg Rucka, Gail Simone, and many others who have won accolades for telling very adult truths in graphic form.

The sad truth is that we "adults" excel at waging war, but we are terrible at sustaining peace. Rather than dismiss the notion that comic books (and comic-book inspired films) have nothing to contribute to the world of grown-ups, it would do us some good to heed Hippolyta's words to Diana and ask ourselves whether humankind truly deserves Wonder Woman, or the people like her off-screen who work so hard to wage peace.