Here is one thing that makes Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot in the block buster movie, (directed by Patty Jenkins) so wonderful. She never apologizes. Actually she does apologize once in the entire movie and that is when she accidentally uses her super power when she crosses her arms and knocks her aunt Captain Antiope to the ground (played by the powerful, graceful Robin Wright, the best warrior on Themysciras). Wonder Woman has a sponsor and mentor in Captain Antiope and a role model of a battle scarred, majestic and fearless leader to emulate.
This isn’t just a summer movie blockbuster. Wonder Woman has now become part of the zeitgeist. Women running for office like Jenny Durkan who is running for mayor of Seattle recently had a showing of the movie for her supporters. This week Politico Notebook noted in its OUT AND ABOUT that there was a special screening of "Wonder Woman" at the MPAA, hosted by Carol Melton, EVP of Time Warner: Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), Rep. Susan Molinari and Sally Quinn were a few of the power elite attending the showing.
What make the movie so powerful are the lessons of how a strong woman behaves and leads. How does Wonder Woman, learn to be a leader? Like all leaders do. Practice, feedback, trial, practice, feedback, and more difficult trials are the building blocks of her leadership foundation. She gets hurt, her pride is wounded and she is exhorted to dig deeper and become more confident. She is told she is better than that and she has the potential to become great. Wonder Woman, even as a young girl knows what she wants to do and has a passion and determination to achieve. She goes about learning the skills needed to succeed.
As the movie proceeds Wonder Woman shows no sign of stereotype threat. Stereotype threat describes the experience of “being at risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype of one’s group”. This social-psychological phenomenon has been shown to significantly decrease the performance of persons who belong to negatively stereotyped groups. An example of this is when a girl gets subtle messages from others that girls are not good at math. She thinks because she is a girl she is therefore not good at math. Her test scores will be below the boys. Without that subtle messaging, she would test equal to boys.
Wonder Woman has never been taught, heard, watched a TV show, been objectified or been trolled on social media where the message was that women are inferior to men or cannot perform as well as men. Her world is not divided into gendered roles; her world is divided into roles needed by the society she lives in.
She is a full equal human being and her life has been equally full of strong determined clear spoken women, who are senators, decision makers and a queen (her mother) who rules with wisdom and concern. She doesn’t spend her life obsessed by the need to look beautiful for the other or to sublimate herself to attract a man. (Later we find that she knows that men are needed for procreation but not necessarily for pleasure). She does fall in love with a man, Steve Trevor, the crashed aviator on her island, but it is on her terms. She even says to him much to his surprise “What I do is not up to you”. This is in direct contrast to what Capt. Trevor’s secretary back in pre-suffrage England says when asked what a secretary does, “Everything he tells me to do”. Wonder Woman off handedly remarks that this sounds like slavery to her.
On the battlefield when she confronts those who are trying to eliminate her being, Wonder woman literally and figuratively deflects bullets being shot at her. She can withstand the fusillade as many women leaders learn early on to deflect the critics, skeptics, the name calling, categorizing, over scrutiny that come their way when they seek or accept power and its roles. At one point, she is kicked out of deliberation of political leaders in the British war cabinet because she is a woman. Undeterred she continues to show her knowledge and strength to them much to their surprise as she casually states she speaks 100 languages. She does not understand what would compel people to underestimate her. It is not in her experience to have that happen. Why would anyone ignore what she has to offer merely because she is a woman? In fact, she holds her power in plain sight when she slips the magic sword into the back of her dress; it is not seen by the men in the room.
But Wonder Woman is no narrow visioned warrior. She possesses the skill sets that many call ‘feminine’-empathy, compassion, community, advocating fiercely for others in need, living authentically, and intuitive. She combines those skills with ones we usually attribute to the masculine-direct action, risk taking, assertiveness, hard work, agency and confidence. When she says “I am the man” in response to Capt. Trevor saying a man is needed for the job. She means she holds both those traits of men and women. The best leaders flex their leadership style and have the most tools of what we call women and men’s attributes in their tool box.
Part of what propels her to action is her overarching mission to save the world from war and evil and to find peace. This is the big picture but she does not hesitate to listen to and engage with those directly affected on the front line of battle. She shows a compassion for the women, children and men of a small village, taking in their plight. She listens to the men around her on the battlefield but acts on her own moral compass. The men ultimately follow her.
When she is confronted with ‘mansplaining’ by the men she basically ignores it, stares them down and never apologizes unnecessarily. (Research finds that for women growing up in a gendered world, women apologize seven times more than men do).
Howard Gardner in his book, Leading Minds, finds that one of the traits of great leaders is that they have a true North-the moral compass of peace and ridding the world of evil is what is Wonder Woman’s true North.
Women in a gendered world grow up to understand the need to placate men or to avoid being seen as ambitious, assertive, and forth right. They may come to use what are termed disarming mechanisms. These might include ritual smiling, ritual modesty (“I’m not the expert but have an idea”), ritual apology (see above), ritual mitigation (I guess we could think about my plan”). Wonder Woman eschews these confidence eroding devices-trying to be less than she is in the face of the other does not cross her mind.
The movie Wonder Woman is great entertainment with a hero’s journey embedded in the story. The hero leads others to greatness and to a goal bigger than themselves. We can learn much from how this hero shows her leadership abilities.
Wonder Woman is a cartoon character, living in a world that does not exist, and shaped by the imaginations and lived experiences of her creators. And yet she can also be a mirror to our world as we look and judge our own leaders. She helps us show what challenges women face in cultures that believe that gender defines someone’s capacity to lead. And she can also be a reflection of how we measure all leaders-both men and women. Are they skilled, and practiced, knowledgeable in their craft? Do they listen, show curiosity, tell the truth and express compassion, and know when to be humble, show integrity, use their power wisely, and have a clear mission and values? Are they a model for our best selves? Do they advance the common good for all, are able to deflect criticism and learn from their mistakes? Wonder Woman does and she can guide us in what we seek in our more mortal leaders.