How Wonder Woman Both Perpetuates and Challenges Christian Dualism

I went to see Wonder Woman last night … for the second time.  It’s not what I would call a “great movie”, but it is great fun.  (And I have a bit of a crush on Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman.)  If you want to a read a good review of the film from a Pagan perspective, check out Heather Greene’s article at The Wild Hunt, “Of gods and love: a discussion of DC’s new film Wonder Woman.”

Christian Revisionism in Wonder Woman

I have very few criticisms of the film, but one thing that jumped out at me was the characterization of the villain, Ares, the god of war.  Ares’ backstory comes near the beginning of the film.  We are told that Zeus created mankind righteous and good. But Ares, the God of War, grew envious of his father’s new creation and “poisoned their hearts with jealousy and suspicion,” encouraging them to war. That’s when Zeus created the Amazon women to influence men’s hearts with love and restore peace on earth. It worked, but only for a time, and Ares waged a war against the gods, killing them one by one, until Zeus used the last of his power to defeat Ares.

This might not be obvious to someone who is still steeped in a Christian paradigm, but to a Pagan like me, this is obviously a Christianization of Greek myth, with Zeus taking the role of the Christian God and Ares taking the role of Satan — making Wonder Woman a female Jesus.  Similar Christian revisionism can be seen in the movie Clash of the Titans and the animated movie Hercules, in which Zeus and Hades (god of the underworld) take on parallel roles.

Anybody who knows anything about Greek mythology, even if you’ve just read Bulfinch’s Mythology or Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, knows that Zeus is not at all like the Christian God and Ares and Hades are not at all like the Christian Satan.  Now, I’m not a reconstructionist.  I’m not interested in reconstructing pagan Greek religion, so it’s not the historical inaccuracy that bothers me.  (Well, ok, it bothers me a little–I am bit of a history nerd, after all.)  What bothers me is how this kind of Christianization of pagan myth perpetuates a dualistic Christian paradigm.

A Dualistic Worldview

I’m not really blaming the makers of the Wonder Woman movie.  The movie’s depiction of Ares as a Satanic villain actually tracks pretty closely the mythology of the original D.C. comic book, which started in 1942.  Ironically, the Amazons of Greek mythology were actually daughters of Ares and were described as a warlike civilization.  In the D.C. universe, though, they became daughters of Aphrodite set in opposition to Ares and the warlike race of men.

Because the film remains true to its origins in the D.C. universe, it perpetuates a Christian paradigm which divides the world according to a hierarchical dualism:

God — Satan
good — evil
women* — men*
love — war

Though not as obvious in the movie, this paradigm also includes other dualisms:

heaven — earth
mind — body
human — animal
spirit — matter
subject — object
culture — nature
reason — emotion
active — passive
light — dark
white — black

Each of these dualisms is hierarchical; the first element is valued, while the second is devalued.  These dualisms are also interrelated; the elements on the left are all related to each other while the elements on the right are all related to each other.

If it’s not obvious, the problem with this paradigm is that the world just isn’t that simple It’s not black and white —  it’s not even shades of grey.  If we have to use a color scheme, it’s more like a rainbow than anything else.  When we see the world through this lens, we end up demonizing everything on one side of the spectrum.  What’s more, in addition to splitting the world up into black and white, we cause a split in our own psyches or souls, demonizing parts of our own selves.

A Pagan Critique of Christian Dualism

The Pagan worldview, in contrast, challenges this dualistic paradigm.  While some Pagans strive to turns these dualisms on their head, by reclaiming and valorizing the disfavored element in each dualism, other Pagans work to dismantle the dualisms altogether, replacing them with new metaphors of relationship, connectedness, interdependence, mutuality, and wholeness.  Rather than valuing duality, the Pagan worldview values diversity and difference.

In a Pagan worldview, there is a positive side and negative side to everything.  For example, there is a positive side to darkness and a negative side to light.  Gods of darkness can be creative (like the darkness of the fertile soil) and gods of light can be destructive (think of how people view the sun in drought stricken lands).  Either may be male or female, or live in the sky or beneath the earth.  Even creation and destruction are not characterized as absolute good and evil; there is a time and place for both.

Now, defining Paganism in opposition to Christianity is problematic, because is causes us to oversimplify ChristianityI’ve been guilty of this myself.  Just as life cannot be easily divided into black and white, neither can Christianity be so easily characterized.  Not all Christians ascribe to a dualistric worldview.  Not even all Christian creeds are so dualistic.  The problem is not Christianity per se, but the way that a certain kind of Christian dualism has worked into so deep into out collective psyche that we can’t even tell a story about pagan gods without replicating that dualism.

Wonder Woman’s Role in a Dualistic World

Getting back to Wonder Woman, the message of the film was that “love” can triumph over “war”.  In the film, which is set during World War I, love is embodied by Wonder Woman (and her romantic partner played by Chris Pine) and war is embodied by Ares and the German army.  The German soldiers are vilified, even demonized, in the movie.  Yet the historical reality was that many of those soldiers must have been fighting for love too:  love of their homeland, love of their families, love for the man in the trenches next to them  On the flip side, war crimes were committed by the Allies as well as the Central powers.

Even in the movie, things are not so simple as the love-war dualism suggests.  Though Wonder Woman is supposed to represent love, she unequivocally engages in warfare.  She even kills German soldiers, soldiers who she says are “possessed” by Ares.  If they are possessed by Ares, then they are not responsible for their actions, and yet Wonder Woman does not appear to struggle in any way with with killing of the German soldiers.  In addition, the director depersonalizes the Germans by failing to focus on their faces and their injuries in the way that she focuses on the faces and injuries of the Allied soldiers.

Rather than a struggle between love and war or between good and evil, a better story might have been to have Ares represent the one-sided idealization of war or conflict, but also have some kind of extreme idealization of love, perhaps a representative of an appeasement policy.  And Wonder Woman, rather than representing one side of the dualism would represent the balance of love and war in her person.

Our Role in a Non-Dualistic World

With the exception of her lack of concern for the German soldiers, I think Wonder Woman actually did a good job of representing this balance, in her deeds, if not through her words.  She showed love, but demonstrated a determination to resist.  She was a fighter and willing to kill even, but she was driven by care for those who could not defend themselves. The problem is that, in the real world, a non-dualistic world, figuring out what needs to be resisted and how best to resist it is rarely so clear.

As an activist, I find myself struggling to find this balance often, a balance between peace and conflict, love and anger, harmony and justice.  It is not helpful for us to condemn either half of these pairs.  There is a time and place for both, and most of life happens in the space in between.  Our challenge is to live that contradiction.

This is what a Pagan paradigm has to add to a culture which is so deeply influenced by Christian dualism.  And I think the makers of Wonder Woman missed an opportunity when they elected to represent the pagan gods through a Christian lens.

* Note: In this dualistic paradigm, men and women may actually fall on either side of the dualism, depending on whether women are being characterized by the Madonna complex or the Whore complex. The two are actually different faces of the same complex.  The same impulse which raises women on an more-than-human pedestal also denigrates them as less-than-human animals.

11 thoughts on “How Wonder Woman Both Perpetuates and Challenges Christian Dualism

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  1. This is a great critique, John. I guess I am so used to seeing dualism in movies that I somehow didn’t notice it.

  2. i disagree that the movie demonized German soldiers. There were several examples of general humaneness of the Germans (the captain who was concerned that his troops had had no food nor rest but Gen. Ludendorf (sp?) demanded they keep working; the general working on the armistice who pointed out they had no food, no munitions, and thousands of German soldiers were dying because of it). The closest I can find to that were the characterizations of the General and Dr. Maru. Diana also minimized her killing of Germans. If you watch the fight scenes, very rarely did she strike what appeared to be a lethal blow – usually she attacked weapons, or used her shield to disable.

    1. It’s not obvious. There is no blood or gore and she only run’s through one person. But she is using an edged weapon most of the time and the men she fights do not get up again. The subtlety of it is kind of my point. When movie makers don’t want to make a good guy look bad ass without being too bad, they leave the actual dying (and its associated blood and screaming) out. A good example of this is the X-Men’s Wolverine. But if you think about it, the Germans had to be dying, and the fact that the director glosses over it is a way of dehumanizing the Germans.

  3. I haven’t seen Wonder Woman yet. I’m probably going to let it “go to cable” before I see it. Your thoughts about the dualism in comic books of the 40s (I’m not quite sure you can say that about comic book characters now) are an interesting counterpoint to the “blog” I compose in my head while cycling for exercise. I have long considered the comic book hero as an example of the need for a tribal hero archetype-a need dismissed by the first church leaders in Rome that were forming the religion we know today as Christianity. Heck, I could say the same about the first imans as well. In the 40s, comic book heroes were not necessarily “dualistic”, they were American war propaganda. The Germans, Italians, and Japanese were fully “otherfied” and not focusing on their casualties was just a part of the comic’s role. So, as much as that occurs in Wonder Woman the movie, it is a historically accurate depiction of WW, the comic book. Once the war was over, the comic book hero drifted with the times. Heroes were anti-establishment when society needed them to be. Just get on Wikipedia and check Marvel’s X-Men or Avengers entries to see how characters have changed and re-aligned alliances over time. At other times, comic book heroes became profoundly establishment-the current dustup about Captain America being a Hydra agent comes to mind. Would we have tolerated that story line better ten years ago? In any case, comic book heroes can be profoundly instructive of pagan thinking, just like American Gods can be. The premise of American Gods is that we take our gods with us. Forgotten gods “die”. New gods are created by the zeitgeist. To some extent, the religion that has suffered the most from our new gods of technology is xtianity. “Right” has turned from an absolute to an individual interpretation of what’s “right for me”, bounded by law, of course. To be sure, duality is rife in this society-heck, it pervades scientific thinking-but, in many cases, people are becoming more confortable with ambiguity

  4. Thank you for this interesting post.

    Thank you for this interesting post.

    Just an objection : “Axis powers” is the very specific name of a coalition during the 2nd world war. And Wonder Woman takes place during the 1rst world war.

  5. A great critique – As a Hellene, the backstory of the battle of Ares and Zeus raised the same flags for me – They christianized the Greek myths. But alas, it is a movie. It is important to note that Christianity got their dualism from the pagan tradition, but took it to a different place than originally intended.

  6. Historically, it would have made more sense for Yahweh to be represented by Ares rather than Zeus (if we MUST have a dualistic correlation)…..

  7. Yes! My husband and I both were totally confused by the villain being called Ares once he showed up and started talking. He’s clearly a trickster figure, Satan. He’s influencing humans towards their most suspicious, dehumanizing, and war-like selves. Playing them for his own ends, at least in part for the chaos that is wrought. That’s not Ares. The look of the fully realized god even more. Demon, not war god. And it’s not clear what overall point they were trying to make about war, either. If she killed “war” back them, what about the massive wars that were to come? Ham-handed storytelling and villain-creation, at best. The heavy moralizing and dualistic narratives and imagery are a big reason why I prefer Marvel.

    Gotta say that the way that Wonder Woman and her powers were realized was truly awesome though.

  8. If the writers had followed a pagan story line the movie may not have been the box-office hit that it is becoming. A story with a hero, a villain and romance that brings hope to the hopeless is sometimes what we need for entertainment. Thanks for the post

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