Diana Prince and Jack Peirs: Wonder Woman and the Study of the First World War

The 2017 film Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins and starring Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, has enjoyed considerable box office success and critical praiseWonder Woman has inspired responses, largely positive, on a range of topics from its representation of women to its relationship to the original DC Comics series.  While I found many of these discussions fascinating and important, I was particularly interested in the filmmakers’ decision to set the story within the context of the First World War.  Several well-written pieces have already explored the reasoning behind and results of this choice, as well as the significant question of the inclusion of Erich Ludendorff as a character.  Still, in watching the film I was struck by its emphasis on exploring the war’s impacts on a personal level, for each character individually and its participants as a whole.

Reading and researching the Peirs letters has encouraged me to think more deeply about the personal experience of the First World War, particularly through the lenses of gender and nationality – two issues we see Jack address consistently throughout his correspondence, though his words are rarely so direct.  Wonder Woman considers these same topics, albeit in very different ways.  Perhaps because this film is so clearly a work of fiction, it emphasized for me the details of our interpretations of the First World War, whether in an informal or academic sense.   Gender and nationality are two fascinating and important lenses through which we can examine the conflict, and whether they are used on their own, in conjunction with one another, or as parts of larger interpretations, they can provide significant insight into the war itself.  Conscious reflection on the practices and assumptions we employ when forming understandings of the First World War can help us to build a more thorough understanding of what was not only an ambiguous personal experience but also a complex global event.

Early on in the film, Diana departs her home in Themyscira, an island inhabited entirely by women.  It is depicted as a paradise, standing in strong contrast to the horrific Western Front, which is not only male-dominated, but essentially an entirely male space.  Furthermore, it is characterized by extreme conceptions, expectations, and demonstrations of a particular type of masculinity.  Aspirations towards this distinct form of masculinity are in fact some of Peirs’s defining characteristics, and despite our modern attitudes towards these ideas, understanding them is essential to understanding his and many other soldiers’ experience of the war.  Diana, aggressively, outspokenly, and unapologetically female, actively and independently chooses to place herself within this environment, duly attempting to understand and subvert these masculine expectations.  In both cases, she is largely successful, as evidenced by her choices, actions, and personal evolution over the course of the film.

While Wonder Woman is perhaps most relevant to issues of feminism in 2017, it made me think a lot about feminism in the context of First World War scholarship.  In my work on the Peirs project, as well as other research endeavors, I have questioned the veracity and viability of a feminist approach to studying the war.  As a qualification, it is vital to recognize that the lives of millions of women around the world were significantly altered or tragically ended as a result of the war.  Women were involved in in diverse, significant ways, working as nurses and volunteers in aid organizations; providing support to male relatives and friends in the armed forces; and, in a few cases, serving as combatants themselves.  However, in the vast majority of cases, women were excluded from combat and the front lines.  Is there, then, a credible basis for this type of study?

In conducting research on the phenomenon of organized aid in the First World War, I noticed what appeared to be an imbalance in the scholarship.  While information on women’s fundraising efforts and contributions to organizations like the YMCA and Red Cross was comparatively available, I struggled to find sources addressing the soldier’s experience of constructed leisure and emotional support at the front, an undeniably, necessarily male-dominated space.  After some initial frustration, I was forced to consider why this was the case.  A partial explanation may be that academics interested in studying female involvement in the war have gravitated towards what little direct involvement there was.  Options for research are limited, leading to a proportionally limited scope of research.

In the course of this analysis I do not at all intend to discount the importance of studying the war from a feminist perspective, only to point out the challenges that accompany this method of study.  The attitudes expressed and topics alluded to in Wonder Woman have inspired me to think differently about expressions of gender within the First World War, as well as our study of this event.  Perhaps we can not only expand our considerations of traditional masculinity and femininity, but also explore a wider breadth of experiences.

The second major concept I was surprised to find addressed in Wonder Woman was that of nationality.  When the American Steve Trevor first lands on the beaches of Themyscira, he tells Diana that he is one of the “good guys,” and the “bad guys,” the Germans, are close behind.  She believes him unreservedly – and, to her credit, not without credence, as the Germans immediately attack the Amazons, killing several of their best warriors, including Diana’s aunt.  The audience understandably accepts this dynamic, and it is maintained throughout the majority of the film. Our major cast of heroes all claim some form of connection to the Allied Powers, though these connections are nuanced.  Charlie is a Scottish sharpshooter clearly suffering from the emotional impacts of combat, Chief is an American Indian who can feel no allegiance to the government that stripped his own nation of its rights, and Sameer is a North African fighting against the influences of colonialism and racism.  Even Etta Candy expresses her disappointment and dissatisfaction with Britain’s failure to afford her suffrage, despite her concerted efforts as a government secretary.  It is also worth noting that the American-made Wonder Woman features an American male lead in Steve, who is working as a spy for the British in a way that is never fully explained.  In Diana, we have a heroine who is perhaps as neutral as possible, at least at the outset; she comes from an island which has no alliances, no obligations, and in fact no interaction at all with other nations.  She fights only for justice, considering the personification of war to be her true enemy, rather than any individual or nation.

These distinctions made me think more about how the film really speaks to concepts of patriotism and loyalty, as well as how we see these apply in our own study of the First World War.  To call Peirs a proud Briton is an understatement.  His belief in his nation, its honor, and its eventual victory are so embedded in his personality that he does not usually need to address these subjects explicitly.  If he is critical of his leaders, it is because he knows they can do better, and we repeatedly see him risk his safety and security for king, country, and his men.  Despite all this, his relationship to those he is fighting against remains equivocal.  He often displays a begrudging respect for “the Bosch” and at times it seems as if this nickname is more of a friendly than a disparaging nature.  Peirs occasionally finds the opposing soldiers entertaining, amusing, and even sympathetic, and while he takes issue with their cause and their method, he rarely displays a truly spiteful or violent attitude towards individuals.  Certainly some of his humanization of the enemy is a coping strategy, and he never allows it to impede the completion of his duties.

This complexity of attitude is a theme I have seen repeated across experiences, research, and depictions of the First World War. In the study of a conflict a century past, overshadowed by the war of a few decades later, and often characterized by themes of disillusionment and futility, I think some of this complexity has been lost.  For me, Wonder Woman brings it to the forefront.  As the story continues and characters develop, a significant theme emerges, that of the conflicting nature of humankind.  Diana, whose background and upbringing have instilled within her a distinct sense of morality, at first struggles to accept the state of affairs among the people she has come to save.  Her wartime experiences and encounters quickly demonstrate the rarity of a purely good or bad side to any conflict.  In a climactic moment, threatened with the defeat of her mission and her principles, Diana decides that the best help she can provide comes through recognizing and respecting this “balance between dark and light… the choice each must make for themselves.”  In a way I did not expect, I think that this theme and others of Wonder Woman really resonate with the setting of the First World War.  At the same time as we consider new and more precise methods of studying this conflict, we can and should keep in mind the complexity, interconnectedness, and implications of our study itself.

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