Wonder Woman, Joan of Arc, & Suffrage

[SPOILER ALERT–You may not want to read this until you’ve seen the movie.]

“Who will I be if I stay?”

Diana, Princess of Themyscira, asks this question of her mother, Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, upon leaving her island in this newest retelling of the superhero in Wonder Woman (2017), directed by Patty Jenkins.

While I don’t claim to have a grasp on the full history of the many incarnations and storylines of the comic book character, what I do want to respond to here are the remarkable parallels I found in the latest movie version between the portrayal of Wonder Woman/Diana, and the life of Joan of Arc.

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Both Diana and Joan leave sheltered homes to embark on a mission: Diana to rid the world of war by destroying Ares, the Greek God of War; Joan to rid France of the English, by lifting sieges and crowning Charles VII king.  Both of their missions are pre-ordained: as an Amazon, the mythology of Diana’s people is to protect men from the wrath and influence of the God of War.  As a daughter of Zeus, Diana is a Demi-Goddess, which means Ares’ destruction can only be by her hand.

As for Joan,  she embraces the mythology of the Catholic Church, heeding the guidance of St. Michael, St. Margaret, and St. Catherine, who inform her that she “must leave and go to France.  They said I was to go to the Dauphin, to have him crowned.”  Since the charge came from voices and visions, Joan viewed saving France as her destiny.

“These are not for you, Diana.”

Hippolyta reminds her daughter of this more than once in the early part of the movie, when we see a young Diana aching to be trained in her culture’s art of war.  And it is indeed art: there is a precision, a discipline, and a beauty to the warrior, the controlled confidence and strength of a body pushed to limits of physical awareness and self-protection.  Diana is secretly trained by her aunt, Antiope, who sees more clearly Diana’s future, who understands the necessity of making certain Diana can attack and defend in battles that will not waged with honor, that may not be “fair.”

Joan, as a peasant in Domrémy, a tiny village on the eastern outskirts of France, was raised by her mother Isabelle unquestionably with an understanding that the military and weaponry were not for her, that her role in life would be chaste until wife and mother, subservient to the men in her life, and to the church.  Joan’s father had prophetic dreams that his daughter would run off to join the soldiers like a common prostitute, and as Joan testified, “my parents took great care to keep me safely.”

Yet both women responded to the call of a Deity higher than themselves, needing to sever ties with and endure the disappointment of loved ones to follow what they defined as their destinies.

“To the War!”

Diana swiftly announces this upon her arrival in London, determined to not stray from her course of finding and defeating Ares.  To be honest, it wasn’t until this point in the movie that I began to take notice of the distinct similarities between the presentation of Diana’s mission and the history of Joan’s.  In Wonder Woman we see Diana eager to enter battle, her increasing exasperation with standing on the sidelines while others participate in maneuvering the politics surrounding war, and her single-mindedness to get to the Front.  All of this mirrors the actual life experience of Joan, right down to the fixation of her clothing.

What was a life or death situation for Joan, whose choice of clothing took a place of prominence in her interrogation and trial second only to her voices, was played for comic effect in the movie, as Diana proclaims the uselessness of women’s wardrobe styles for fighting while trying on a series of outfits.  There is a constant emphasis that what a woman wears matters.

Whether a real-life warrior in 15th-century France, a mythological Demi-Goddess from an island paradise, or an American teenager in high school, how a woman chooses to clothe herself is still of primary importance to those in positions of power.  Joan can only access the French army dressed as a man, and Diana can only reach the French trenches in the attire of a 1918 woman.  Joan’s masculine attire, Diana’s superhero outfit, render them both indecent in civil society, but both are necessary to leading their form of military campaign.

While mingling with the upper echelon of politicians and/or court society, Joan proves her divine ability to head Charles’ army by interpreting the Dauphin’s prayers.  Diana, already divine, demonstrates the practical application of her knowledge by interpreting human language, in this case the Ottoman and Sumerian code of a poisoner’s diary.

Both interpretive points illustrate the usefulness of what each woman brings to her respective culture; it’s what solidifies the trust that allows them access to the heart of the war.

“But it’s what am going to do!”

Diana determines, contrary to the warnings of the seasoned soldiers, to enter No Man’s Land, after seeing the human cost of war: men gassed, in pain from torn-off limbs, the confusion of what-was-then-termed “shell shock,” and a displaced mother and child.

Frustrated that little is being done to help civilians caught between two opposing armies, Diana responds with the above line, which is followed by the defining scene of the movie–Diana becomes Wonder Woman.  She does so by going “over the top” of the trenches, in a stunning and studied series of movements, that begins with her releasing her hair from the bun it has been swept up in since she garbed herself in “women’s clothes,” and then the shedding of those clothes, so that when we view her, climbing up the ladder to No Man’s Land, she is fully Amazonian, a complete and confident warrior, and she takes on the German army’s bullets alone, pushing forward and shielding machine-gun fire so that others can approach and destroy the enemy.  The nearby village rescued, there is celebration.

Once again, sitting in the dark theater, watching Diana reach up to the back of her head to undo her hair, I could not help but think of Joan, whose own transformation into a warrior also began with her hair.  But for Joan it was the cutting, not the releasing of her locks, that defined her metamorphosis into La Pucelle.  Surrounded by the French army, Joan needed to downplay her womanhood, her sexuality.  Diana, on the other hand, as a Demi-Goddess in fear of no man, owns herself completely, so the style of her hair shouldn’t matter as she raged into battle.  Then why, I wondered, watching Diana charge with a shield across an open decimated field toward enemy fire as Joan once did holding a fleur-de-lys standard, was Diana’s hair unleashed, if the scene wasn’t an acknowledgement in a purposeful contrast, a reverse homage, to Joan?

“The King of Heaven orders you and commands you through me, Joan the Pucelle, the abandon your strongholds and go back to your country.  If not, I will make a war cry that will be remembered forever.”  Joan sent these words to the English sieging the town of Orléans.  Joan was familiar with the human cost of siege.  Starving, townspeople would often resort to eating rats, and banishing the old, ill, and orphans from inside the walls of the town to fend for themselves.  It was a cruel form of torture in warfare, and Joan was determined to lift the Orléans siege.  When she did so, there were celebrations; the English began to fear, and the French to hope.

“Do you believe her?”

After saving the village, Diana heads off on horseback (again, reminiscent of Joan, who rode with the French cavalry) with a small band of spies and smugglers, one of which, upon hearing the amazing story of Diana’s task from her love interest, asks the above question when Diana is out of earshot.  Not a question of trust, not a question of truth, but one of belief.  And once again, in the theater, I can’t help but equate this to Joan, to the small band of soldiers who continued to follow her on campaigns well-after the king she helped to crown abandoned her.  Their loyalty to Joan was based on belief–on the belief that her quest was holy, that she was sent from God, that she was divine.

Joan burned.  Not as a witch (the diabolical connections came after her death, in an attempt to discredit the French king), but as a heretic, who claimed her own sovereign relation to God, who knew a deeper understanding of her deity more than the robed men of the church.  She went to the stake in 1431.

It is now 2017, and women are still punished for claiming the divine within themselves, for taking on the role of destroyer as well as creator, for wanting to end war.  However, it is not Diana herself who is burned, but rather, her love interest.  Steve Trevor makes a choice, embraces a hero’s death, and although one could argue (as many have) that it was a better creative decision to send him off in this fashion, rather than have him age and her not–still, within the context of the story, the powerful woman must endure fire, must endure loss, and it must be painful.

***

The suffrage movement embraced Joan of Arc as its patron saint.  Joan represented the “new woman.” She challenged stereotypes and expectations of women, stood up to the most powerful institution of her time, the Catholic Church, and led men into battle. Clearly, she was the perfect symbol for women standing up to the American government, demanding their own voice, their own vote.

 In the 1913 parade organized by Alice Paul, Inez Milholland portrayed a suffrage herald, leading women “out of darkness, forward into light” a role that was openly acknowledged as influenced by Joan of Arc.  Inez wore a tiara, “something suggesting the free woman of the future, crowned by the star of hope…” (Alice Paul in a letter to Inez Milholland, February 12, 1913).  And it was this tiara, suggested by Alice Paul and worn by a suffragist leading a parade that shocked the nation for the way women claimed the streets like they never had before, that inspired the one worn by Wonder Woman.

Setting the 2017 movie in World War I, rather than World War II, when Wonder Woman first appeared on the comic book scene, makes sense in the continuity of women’s history: from the suffrage movement, to Wonder Woman’s creation, through the Second Wave of feminism when Wonder Woman graced the cover of the first Ms. Magazine in 1972, to the She Persisted Resistance now.  It also returns us, as the audience, to the height of the Progressive Era, when suffrage was coming to fruition as the 19th Amendment, and the first World War was raging across Europe.  It was feared that had women been able to vote, they would not have voted to enter the war, as Representative Jeanette Rankin was made painfully aware of when she lost her House seat due to her “no” vote.  Afterwards, Rankin said, in a line that would make Diana Prince proud, “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.”  Like Diana, Princess of Themyscira, Rankin, a Congresswoman and a suffragist, viewed her role as vital to saying no to war.  Which brings us full circle: bringing Wonder Woman back to suffrage serves to underscore my argument that the 2017 movie is a subtle homage to Joan.

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Joan of Arc, miniature, c. 1450-1500. Archives Nationales, France. Unknown.

Women lost Joan of Arc in 1920, the same year women won the right to vote.  This was significant; at the height of women’s political power to date, their strongest role model is deemed no longer human: her larger-than-life accomplishments are no longer attainable to other women to serve as inspiration; rather, they are the obvious result of Joan being Divine.  Joan didn’t break barriers as a woman, claimed the Catholic Church, she fulfilled her destiny as a Saint.  Therefore, the church, by conferring sainthood to La Pucelle, declared that women, meaning mere human women, could not ever be like Joan.

Diana ends a great war due to her divinity, Joan changes the course of a war lasting nearly a century, and is later named divine.  And the church certainly took its time coming around to that determination.  The trial which condemned Joan was nullified in 1456, yet she isn’t canonized until 1920, when her story has not only been revived, but used to illustrate what women can become: they can lead armies, they can send enemies scurrying back to their homelands and produce an armistice–they can crown kings.

***

Historian Jill Lepore has argued on NPR that the new Wonder Woman movie renders invisible the fights raised a century ago.  I respectfully disagree.  This movie not only connects to women’s issues from a century ago, but from five centuries ago.  I am struck by the similarities of the movie poster to one of the earliest artistic portrayals of Joan. Just in a cursory comparison one notes the same bold orange-yellow colors, the direction each woman is facing, the armor, and the standard/shield in a secondary position to the sword.  I believe the new Wonder Woman movie returns to women the story of Joan of Arc: a new mythology of Joan as supreme warrior, as both divine AND human, as a success.  Joan without the stake.

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