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The lazy Orientalism of Wonder Woman 1984

December 28, 2020

WARNING: Minor Spoilers for Wonder Woman 1984 ahead

Like many Americans, I ended my Christmas day by paying $15 to subscribe to HBO Max and watch Wonder Woman 1984. The much anticipated sequel to 2017’s Wonder Woman promised to make the horrors of 2020 fade for awhile. And it did, but only by replacing them with frustration and confusion. It…wasn’t a great film. You can read why, or just watch it yourself. But what really stuck out to me was the particular sort of Orientalism it contained, a lazy Orientalism oblivious to its political implications but still problematic.

Wonder Woman 1984 tells the story of Wonder Woman fighting against a super villain (sorry for the spoilers). But what caught the attention of this Middle East scholar was a sequence in which the villain meets with a deposed (I think) Egyptian King who wishes to return to power and kick the “heathens” out of his land. The villain helps him, but the guy already sold his oil to the Saudis (I guess he pumped it all out?) Then the villain raises a wall, cutting off the poorest people of Egypt from their water sources.

If you’re confused, don’t worry. I was too. Was he supposed to be from a pre-Islamic elite? Was he a descendant of King Fuad, and was using “heathens” loosely? Did he discover a massive oil supply under Cairo that no one else knew about?

That wasn’t the only issue. Bustling, modern Cairo looks like something out of a Robin Hood movie. Arab children play in the road as military vehicles race towards them; their nearby parents do nothing, requiring Wonder Woman to save them. And in one brief moment, an Iraqi official asks the villain for help because the Soviets were backing Iran.

So…there are some historical inaccuracies. And some insensitive depictions of Middle Eastern people.

You may wave this away, arguing it’s “just a superhero movie.” But it’s not, is it? This movie has been praised as being authentic to the 1980s. Director Patty Jenkins is the new big thing in Hollywood. And she has explicitly tried to claim the movie has a significant message:

On another level, far weightier than the film’s retro fanny-packs and futon couches, she wanted to explore American politics of that era, as well as this one, through a personal lens. Wonder Woman is a “great avatar for me,” Jenkins says.

If you are going to assign weight to your movie’s message, you must answer for it. This movie, and the attitudes of those who made it, matter.

That brings us to Edward Said, and his critique of Orientalism. In Orientalism and follow-up works, he criticized the stereotyped, inaccurate manner in which Western scholars studied the Middle East. But he went beyond that, arguing that this is part of a long process of “Othering” the Middle East and its peoples, which is closely tied to the colonial and pseudo-colonial efforts of Western powers. This Orientalism expresses itself in everything from news coverage, to foreign policy, to popular culture.

Yet, while some have hinted at it, it’s hard to see this as an exercise in political domination of the Middle East. The movie did try to make a moral point, sure, but I challenge anyone to explain what exactly the whole “truth, lies, wishes” speech really meant. And while Jenkins said she was making a statement on American politics, I couldn’t see it. Given the incoherence in the film’s central points, I can’t believe the film’s creators used this side quest to make a statement about the Middle East.

Instead, it’s “just” a lazy, unwitting sort of Orientalism. The film’s creators needed an exotic locale to show off the villain’s powers. They wanted people the hero could save. And they wanted a foreign conflict for the villain to get involved in. So they turned to the Middle East.

It would have taken the film’s creators five minutes of Wikipedia research to find a plausible disaffected royal with oil wealth, or background on the Iran-Iraq war. It would have taken another five minutes to come up with a plausible reason why children would be unattended in the path of military vehicles. They apparently didn’t think this was necessary, however, as they had internalized the “other-ness” of the Middle East.

This internalization can even be seen in some of the reactions to the film. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times’ reviews were generally critical, but neither seemed to have noticed these issues. Although to be fair maybe the critics just expect Hollywood films to be insensitive in their depiction of the Middle East. Many commentators mention how much this movie “gets” the 1980s; these takes suggest all that mattered in the 1980s were what Americans were wearing. Move beyond that, and the movie clearly doesn’t “get” the 1980s at all.

I am not a disciple of Edward Said. I think he has had a negative impact on discourse in Middle East studies, leaving crucial topics off limits and turning academic disputes into personal ones. Nevertheless, I read and engage with Orientalism (and am amused when his putative followers admit they’ve never actually read it). I assign his work in my Middle East politics course, and call on students to recognize its importance (even if they disagree with him).

Next time I teach this course, I may just show this movie. It highlights the insidious nature of our centuries-long interference in the Middle East, and the way it works itself into everything, even superhero movies. It also highlights the blindness of people to these dynamics, even when they think they are doing good in the world.

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Peter Henne is an Associate Professor of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences in the University of Vermont. His research focuses on religion in foreign policy and political violence.