Wonder Woman and the fight against unconscious bias

June 13, 2017 - by: David Kim 0 COMMENTS

Not only has the recently released Wonder Woman movie garnered mainly favorable reviews, but it has been highly successful at the box office, having made more than $200 million domestically in its first two weeks of release alone. From a purely movie industry insider perspective, the success of Wonder Woman is incredibly important to Warner Brothers and the DC Comics line of movies. After subpar reviews for Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman, Wonder Woman is key to helping the aforementioned keep pace with the juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which seemingly churns out title after title on an almost quarterly basis.  Wonder Woman Action Figure

More important, Wonder Woman demonstrates that a female-driven superhero movie can be not only be good but also financially successful and appeal to a mass audience both domestically and globally. In addition, the fact that the movie’s director, Patty Jenkins, is also female helps further advance the notion that female directors are just as equipped to handle big-budget, superhero-type movies. The hope of course is that this will lead to more female centric movies as well as female director roles in a genre that typically has been dominated by male figures.

Of course, no success story would be complete without its own set of controversies, warranted or not. Some stem from the fact that Wonder Woman is played by Gal Gadot, who is Israeli and served a mandatory two-year stint in the Israeli Defense Forces as required of most Israeli citizens. Abroad, this has caused certain countries to ban, or consider banning, the showing of Wonder Woman due to Gadot’s past military service. Domestically, media pundits have lamented the fact that Wonder Woman is not “American” or “patriotic” enough, despite the fact that Wonder Woman is a fictional Amazonian warrior princess in the comics. In addition, the Washington Post had a lengthy article discussing and debating, in the context of Gadot’s nationality and religion, the interplay between Jewish identity and race.

Yet, race and ethnicity are not the only issues being discussed. Although Wonder Woman has made positive strides toward female representation in films, gender equality also has become an issue. Specifically, certain theaters across the country held limited female-only screenings of the movie to embrace “girl power” and female empowerment, advertising it as “No Guys Allowed” for that special screening. However, these screenings were met with by complaints from men, as well as legal scholars, who claimed that banning any particular group from public accommodation, such as movie theaters, was discriminatory and violative of applicable law, as well as serves to create a divide amongst gender groups when the movie is meant to celebrate gender equality.

While one can certainly understand that point of view, others also understandably argued that these limited screenings were a fun, celebratory way to watch the movie and that men could watch any of the multitude of other offered screenings on a daily basis. Regardless of where one stands on the multitude of issues involving gender, race, religion, and nationality, the reality is that Wonder Woman has created discussions involving these controversial and sensitive topics.

This includes unconscious bias. While the concept of unconscious bias has been in the lexicon for many years, it is interesting when considered in the context of Wonder Woman. Unconscious bias refers to bias that we may be unaware of and that is triggered by our brain making snap assessments based upon our background, cultural environment, and personal experiences. Essentially, it’s your analytical process taking shortcuts and using past knowledge to make assumptions.

Unconscious bias could manifest itself through the belief by industry executives that since Catwoman and Elektra were unsuccessful female-driven superhero movies, this meant audiences weren’t receptive to a female comic book hero movie. Rather than analyzing the fact that these prior endeavors were simply terrible movies that no one would want to see and that if you deliver a good movie, individuals of all sexes would be interested in watching it. One need look no further than the fact that the holy triumvirate of DC Comics involves Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman (all created in the late 1930s and early 1940s), yet it took until 2017 for Wonder Woman to get her own movie, while Superman and Batman have had multiple iterations over the years.

Unconscious bias could also manifest itself in the belief that Wonder Woman of course must be portrayed by an American, simply because she has always been portrayed in other media as American, her “costume” is red, white, and blue, and because she has historically fought for American causes. Yet, this is an assumption that doesn’t take into account her actual origin history from the comics, nor recognizes that it is possible for someone to not be “born” American, yet can still fight for America and its values. The Washington Post article referenced above, discussing Jewish identity and race, also touches upon the assumptions held by many, likely created through unconscious bias.

Just like in the context of Wonder Woman, it is important to understand the role that unconscious bias plays in the workplace. Implicit associations and assumptions often can lead to actions that result in claims of discrimination, or even harassment and retaliation. Many major companies have been, and are, addressing unconscious bias in the workplace through a variety of initiatives and training, and employers should at least be aware of these efforts and determine whether it may make sense for their businesses. That includes placing a primary emphasis on employee skills when dealing with hiring and promotion, reviewing internal data to determine whether it shows that minorities and females are not well represented in upper-level positions and asking why, as well as promoting group discussions toward employment decisions to ensure unconscious bias isn’t a primary factor as well as to help individuals recognize any unconscious biases he or she may harbor. While the concept of unconscious bias may seem abstract or conceptual, it is real and something employers must be aware of in today’s social climate if they want to stay ahead of the curve.

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