Wonder Woman and Emotional Labor

Warning: the following contains spoilers for Wonder Woman

I cried when I saw Wonder Woman. I was not the only one, of course — women’s experience watching the film has been well documented. It seems that seeing ourselves reflected on screen, finally free from the male gaze, has been a deeply cathartic experience. With Wonder Woman, the deep, aching need that I and other women hold in our hearts for representation has finally been seen and (although we have so much farther to go) acknowledged.

However, that wasn’t the only reason the movie affected me so much. Initially, I rolled my eyes when I saw there was a romance plot in the film. It seemed a little insulting. However, Diana (Gal Gadot) and Steve Trevor’s (Chris Pine) story arc transcends its initial place of playful banter and becomes something far more nuanced and sensitive, especially when you examine the film’s narrative thread of emotional labor.

In the film, Diana is always working, both mentally and physically. Her very mission as an Amazon is to restore the hearts of man — to vanquish evil so their goodness may shine through. She leaves her home and her family forever in order to do this work, carried by the hope and faith that make up her core being.

At the airfield, when Diana believes that she has vanquished Ares and carried out her duty, she is understandably devastated when the German soldiers don’t turn back to goodness as she expects them to. She has been laboring for them, after all — sacrificing, over and over, in order to free them. Diana learns, of course, that the world is not so black and white, and that people do not need to “deserve” her help in order for her to give it. But for just a moment— a moment that took my breath away — Steve begs her to help him and she refuses.

This film could have portrayed Diana as unequivocally good, strong, selfless. But while she is all of these things and more, the reality of emotional labor is that it is often exhausting. It is backbreaking, sometimes disappointing work, and women are supposed to bear its weight, over and over again. Even people we love will ask us for more when we have nothing else to give them.

While Steve is initially disappointed, he takes some of that work from Diana, and that is what makes their relationship remarkable. He doesn’t beg or cajole her. He shoulders his share of the burden because while she is not required to be strong in that moment, she has inspired strength in him. Battling his own world-weary apathy, Steve has evolved over the course of the film, in part due to Diana’s influence. He is able to carry on without her.

I think about what the world would be like if we were more apt to teach boys to engage in emotional labor, and how much more empathetic and equal it would feel. In the mean time, I must tell you — it was not only incredible to see a female lead on screen after sitting through countless hours of male-dominated CGI spectacle — it was incredible to see a women, for a moment, refuse the burden of expectation placed on her shoulders.

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