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Adventures in Academe

The lessons of Wonder Woman for the academy

The saviour trope versus critical hope.


I embarked on my first writing retreat this summer while my partner assumed parenting duties. Knowing the enormous energy needed to corral two indomitable toddlers, I was determined to justify this precious time away from the whirligig of everyday life by generating pages upon pages of beautiful academic prose.

The writing retreat could not have been more wonderful, but not for the reasons I had anticipated. For the five days, I was ensconced in a cottage with two of my favourite collaborators. We adhered to our ambitious work plan with one tiny indulgence: we went to see the new Wonder Woman movie at a nearby cinema. Although I entered the theatre as a comic book neophyte, I emerged with the conviction that Wonder Woman offers a model for our highest ideals of the academy and, by extension, our world.

The author with her twin brother, dressed as
Wonder Woman and Superman.

The origin story of Diana, Princess of Themyscira begins with a voice-over that frames the overarching theme: “I used to want to save the world. This beautiful place. But I knew so little then. … What one does when faced with the truth is more difficult than you’d think.”

The film exposes the naïveté of this saviour trope and its underlying assumption that there are well-defined moral distinctions between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” We follow Diana’s ontological development as she confronts troublesome knowledge: her resilience, and eventual triumph, is only made possible through her capacity for critical hope.

Paolo Freire, in the Pedagogy of Hope, defines critical hope as the “need for truth as an ethical quality of the struggle.” In other words, critical hope is located in the practice of navigating our complex and imperfect world. In higher education, we identify, wrestle with and embrace complexity with our students and one another. Maria Popova, creator of the blog Brain Pickings, illuminates the role of hope in learning when she observes, “Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.”

There was one concept in particular from Wonder Woman that I want to make more explicit in my academic practice. Early in the film, soldiers invade the Amazonian island; in the midst of battle, the Amazonian general, Antiope, yells “shield!” and her compatriot angles her shield to propel Antiope high into the air in order to destroy their enemy’s strategic position. Steve Trevor (self-styled “good guy”) witnesses this display on the beaches of Themyscira. Later in the film, when Diana and her ragged band are under fire, Steve repurposes a tank door, yells “shield!” and three men launch Diana into the air so she can take out a sniper’s nest and win the day.

Fast-forward to the 3-minute mark to see the shield scene.

The shield represents a mindset of generosity, solidarity and humility that enables us to advance others so that they can reach new heights and exceed their individual capacities. The shield bearer is foundational to success but assumes none of the glory. He or she must be attentive to moments where their intervention can change the outcome. Essayist Rebecca Solnit, writing in the Guardian newspaper, describes hope as “the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.” The shield bearer is hope in action.

We have all benefitted from shields. My husband is an ever-present shield, delighted to assume parental duties while quietly revelling in my successes. My mentors – male and female – have lifted me up and propelled me farther than I could have achieved on my own. My collaborators and colleagues have performed countless acts of “shield bearing” at meetings and in classrooms, in online forums and research receptions.

As she leaves Themyscira, Diana says, “I am willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.” She echoes Edward Said’s definition of a public intellectual whose “raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.” While we must challenge the saviour trope with a more nuanced approach to allyship and advocacy, the core value remains: I am mindful, now more than ever, of my ethical imperative to be engaged as a shield for my colleagues, especially the marginalized and underrepresented members of the academy.

Is this story of Diana’s origins told by and for an audience of imperfect mortals? Yes. Do films – and the academy – need to represent more than white, middle-class feminism? Yes. But Wonder Woman shows us that the goal is not to stand on top of Mount Olympus looking down upon those who have not yet been enlightened but rather to engage and struggle in the trenches and the plains, the classrooms and the playing fields. The beauty – and the hope – lies in the struggle.

Jessica Riddell
Jessica Riddell is a full professor in the English department at Bishop’s University, holder of the Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair of Undergraduate Teaching Excellence, executive director of the Maple League of Universities and a 3M National Teaching Fellow. Her column appears in every second issue of the print magazine.
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  1. Leigh / October 12, 2017 at 19:58

    Apologies for the belated response, and many thanks for reminding us of the importance of believing in and doing our best to act with critical hope.

  2. Stuart Chambers, Ph.D. / October 23, 2017 at 08:37

    Good article. Loved the Edward Said quote: the “raison d’être [of a public intellectual] is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.”