Origin stories: Wonder woman and sovereign exceptionalism

Abstract

This article approaches the recent Wonder Woman (2017) film as a presentation of the tensions traditionally associated with the paradox of democratic foundations. Steeped in classical mythology, Wonder Woman adapts two origin myths from the Athenian polis: the myth of Pandora and the myth of the heroic colonizing demigod. Through its adaptation of these myths I argue that Wonder Woman offers two competing responses to the democratic paradox of founding. One is exceptionalist, where sovereign interventions by extraordinary ‘super-agents’ like Wonder Woman are justified by their unique origins and identities. The second response subverts this narrative, however, offering a tragic depiction of democratic agency. Through the relationships formed with Diana’s human companions, I argue that Wonder Woman shows the insufficiency of a politics of heroic origins, suggesting agents must continually struggle to establish communities which do not ignore their historical failures or their powers to address these. Wonder Woman therefore provides important imaginative resources for resisting the kinds of seductive, exceptionalist political narrative it also presents.

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Acknowledgements

This article has benefited from the generosity of many people. The author would particularly like to thank the editors of Contemporary Political Theory, especially Lisa Disch, and two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful feedback. Previous versions of this work were presented at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, at Union College, and the 2018 meetings of the Western Political Science Association and the American Political Science Association. Special thanks are due to Roger Berkowitz, Joshua Dienstag, Bill Dixon, Megan Gallagher, Sam Hill, Lori Marso, and Josh Plencner.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth Barringer.

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Barringer, E. Origin stories: Wonder woman and sovereign exceptionalism. Contemp Polit Theory 19, 430–452 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41296-019-00360-w

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Keywords

  • democracy
  • agency
  • political founding
  • sovereignty
  • exceptionalism
  • film
  • classical reception