Is this Wonder Woman meme “empowering” – or not . . . ?

posted in: Empowerment, Movies, Women | 3


Women On Social Media Are Recreating This Iconic Moment In ‘Wonder Woman,’ And It’s Badass

I click on the link, and see . . . various pictures of women with swords down the back of their dresses.

Source: Brandi on Twitter

This look is elegant and dangerous, which is pretty much the ultimate display of girl power, writes Delaney Strunk.


I think:

Elegant – for sure.

Ultimate display of girl powerwhat?!

Dangerous? Maybe – but to me it looks more dangerous for the women themselves, than for any potential villain.


In fact I’m quite concerned to see these women:

  • Wearing a sword (whether real or fake) in a place you probably can’t actually draw it from, without ripping your own dress off your back.
  • Wearing a bladed weapon (in some cases real) against their bare skin.
  • Wearing a weapon along the line of your spine, which could be dangerous if you fell over.
  • Wearing a sword in a way that an attacker would probably have easier access to it than you.
  • Wearing a sword in a way that may restrict your movement and ability to defend yourself.
  • Wearing a weapon as a toy / fashion accessory.
  • Believing that you are rendering yourself “kickass” and “empowered”, instead of understanding how vulnerable you may be making yourself.
“As for the large animals–I am not at all afraid of any of them. I have my claws.” And, naïvely, she showed her four thorns . . .


It’s reminiscent of The Little Prince. He dearly loves a flower back on his home planet, who naively believes that her thorns make her fearsome.

But the Little Prince knows that her thorns don’t actually protect her at all, and this secret he never shares with her causes him deep pain.

But am I right to think this meme is naive? Or just being mean, and overthinking a harmless bit of fun?

At first sight, it feels like a superficial and empty parody of the “true” self-actualisation and “empowerment” that martial arts can bring. But is this fair . . . ?


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Wonder Woman is a myth – the perfect, intelligent, kind, fierce, beautiful, powerful, pure-hearted warrior that surely all women (and men?) want to be on some level. These Internet photos tagged #wwgotyourback are an allusion to that myth.

I read some reviews of the movie, looking for views on whether the movie is empowering for women or not. There are arguments on both sides . . .


Wonder Woman is NOT empowering for women:

I wondered why I’d come into the movie expecting some energizing woke-feminist manifesto instead of a film that stars one sexy woman surrounded by throngs of horny men, barely passing the Bechdel test after the opening scenes on Diana’s home islandChristina Cauterucci

Wonder Woman is the latest example of mainstream feminism’s disregard for intersectionality and Black womanhoodCameron Glover

There is nothing feminist or empowering about this film. Diana, like so many female characters before her, has to find the power of a man’s love before she can realize her true potential. We’ve all seen that movie before, far too many timesGeno Frazier


Wonder Woman IS empowering for women

Promotional Image for Rubies Wonder Woman Light Up Gauntlets Costume

I am grateful “Wonder Woman” exists as a story, and as a movie. I believe each little girl and each woman on this planet can benefit from its portrayal of women as strong and fearless beings. Because that portrayal is real—but the entertainment industry somehow failed to value and promoteFlavia Simas

Yes, she is sort of naked a lot of the time, but this isn’t objectification so much as a cultural reset: having thighs, actual thighs you can kick things with, not thighs that look like arms, is a feminist act Zoe Williams

What really distinguishes the story is its heroine’s idealism, and its suggestion that the good and evil that exist in human nature cross all divides, including gender (one of the film’s chief antagonists, the sociopathic scientist Dr. Poison, is a female) Heather Robinson


Taken together, these two approaches (positive and negative) start to offer quite an interesting analysis.

But I know I’m being too rational and analytical about it all, and probably missing the point. How about exploring the emotional, nonrational side . . . ?


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I ask one of my favourite fellow martial arts bloggers, Ben Judkins, for his views. After all, Ben practises Lightsaber Combat and is constantly hanging out with men and women who dress up and wear swords or other weapons. I know he’ll have an interesting take on it.

As usual, Ben’s advice is helpful.

Josymar Flores-Latibeaudiere via Facebook

[…] I looked at the memes. What I personally suspect is that you are looking at this through the wrong lens. This has less to do with the swords (real or imaginary) than it does the gowns.

[…] In interviews a number of individuals have described cosplay as empowering […] And when you talk to serious cosplayers about their relationship with these characters it is often a huge catalyst for self examination.

What they are doing makes no sense from a martial arts standpoint – except that we also spend a lot of time fetishizing weird clothing. But these women are not martial artists and none of them have any intention of actually walking around with a sword or defending themselves with one. To be brutally honest it’s probably easier to get a handgun in most of America than a decent sword, and at last count there were many millions of them floating around.

I would look at this as very simple exercise in cosplay, one that will not require the hundreds of dollars, dozens of hours and necessary skills that often go into making a costume.

This is helpful. I’d just assumed, with NO evidence at all, that these women were accessing the role on a very light, superficial level; enough to feel good and enjoy uploading a selfie to Facebook, but without really doing any of the “work” that martial artists are so familiar with.

But Ben is explaining that a lot of people (men and women) use cosplay as a serious vehicle for self-improvement, in the same way that martial artists use their training. It’s their path. Yes, that makes sense. 

I go to watch the movie. It’s beautiful and feels totally empowering. I don’t care that Diana bizarrely goes into full battle half undressed. I just want to be like her, whatever that means. But for me becoming like Diana is a process of hard work; both physical and mental, to get there. I still don’t really get how sticking a sword down the back of your party dress is going to help.


Ben advises:

Well you are a martial artist, and you are obviously unhappy with their fantasy. On one level there is not much to say about it. Everyone is entitled to their own fantasies. Maybe a productive way of approaching this would be to ask “What do I (Kai Morgan) wish they would be doing instead” (Answer: signing up for a kendo class) and “What do I really desire when I say I want them to become martial artists?”

That second question is harder as it comes out of psychological analysis. It has nothing to do with them, it’s about you as an observer. Why are observers generally uncomfortable with all kinds of cosplay? Why do you want to see these people (who are not martial artists) become, or at least act as though, they are fencing students? What does it signify to you on the most fundamental level?

This is a really hard question. In the cinema, I glowed and cried and desired something I couldn’t name. A lot of women have felt this way while watching this movie. I guess that’s what may be behind many of these photos . . .


The Borromean Rings. By Jim.belk. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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I start to noodle around on the Internet and in books as usual, looking for an answer. Wondering if that answer may somehow lie in the mysterious, often impenetrable ideas of Jacques Lacan.

Lacan saw the human mind as having three registers: the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary (RSI). For Lacan, the three registers were inextricably linked – he used the metaphor of a Borromean knot, where if one loop is cut, the whole knot falls apart.

Finally I find a helpful answer in the writing of psychoanalyst Dr Raul Moncayo, in his book: The Signifier Pointing At the Moon. He uses Lacan’s RSI triad to weave an astonishingly elegant bridge  between Eastern and Western approaches to self development. This is definitely worth exploring . . .



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What are the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary?

For Lacan, the Real is indescribable and beyond language and logic. 

It reminds us of Lao Tzu: The Tao (Way) that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao (Way)).

I therefore have literally no idea how to talk about the “Real” in relation to why women might want to dress up as Diana Prince, and contact Raul to ask for some help, which he generously gives.

Initially, I’d wondered if the Real was represented by Diana’s island Themyscira (Paradise Island), which is populated only by women (and therefore represents a non-binary world). Many women have experienced the island scenes as the blissful, emotional highlight of the whole movie, and Themyscira can be compared in some ways to the paradise of the Garden of Eden before the Fall.

However, Raul explains that this isn’t correct:

The Garden of Eden is a fantasy that represents the fusion and union with the mother that is lost in the process of development. We can’t go back to the fusion with the mother, instead we must find the One of the Real after the intervention of the (f)Other that separates us from the mother and after grappling with the question of sexual difference.

In fact, Diana’s personal journey is a loose approximation of this process. She leaves her mother and Themyscira and travels to London – the “world of men”, and finds it a rude awakening, having never met men before. She’s bemused at first to discover socialised sex difference, and the subordinate role of women – for example she’s expected to wear clothes that restrict her ability to kick; and isn’t welcome in a war strategy meeting. 

However, after experiencing friendship, enmity, love and war in the midst of this world of men, Diana reaches a new level of wisdom and enlightenment at the end of the movie, albeit the movie leaves it quite vague and open-ended. A Hollywood superhero movie is unlikely to capture the richness of the psychological journey Raul is describing; but the resounding success of this movie indicates that it’s clearly touched something deeply within its viewers’ hearts.


The Imaginary is the realm of the senses, and is grounded in our image of our own body (It’s said to start at the moment a baby first sees its reflection in a mirror, and realises what he or she is seeing). It’s all about illusion, narcissism, and identification with others – seeing the similarities and difference between yourself and others. It’s associated with dreams, fantasies and unconscious thought.

Raul explains that the feminine can appear in two opposite ways within the Imaginary. 

The first is a negative image. We generally deride Freud’s idea now, that women were psychologically stunted because they didn’t have a penis. But his underlying assumption is still apparent in men and women who reject femininity as lacking something that masculinity ‘appears’ to have. (Raul points out that masculinity or femininity can take place in biological males or females.)


The opposing Imaginary form of femininity is positive – it’s the strong archetypal image of “The” Woman – the ultimately powerful female.

Raul points out that this is “positive” in the sense of electrical polarity, more than values. He writes: In imaginary femininity or masculinity, (Don Juan or Mata Hari; the Terminator, or the Bride in in Kill Bill), the wish is for omnipotence without lack or vulnerability. 

It’s not surprising that someone (not necessarily female) might want to appropriate this image for themselves, by wearing or wielding a toy or real sword in play – even though they may not be able to articulate why, or why it feels so good.

Travis M Andrews writes of the #wwgotyourback meme:

For years, young boys and girls alike left thrilling action movies and began mimicking their heroes.

A Superman fan might wrap a bright red sheet around his neck to use as a cape. An Ironman fan might grow a goatee. But with a lack of female superheroes, girls and young women often had to mimic male characters.

But what is often missed is the simple experience many young women now have that they never did before: seeing the movie, then immediately imitating the character.


The Symbolic realm appears in spoken and written language. It’s associated with rational thought and conscious reasoning. The Symbolic is an exciting place – it’s where we learn to play with and manipulate ideas, words, metaphors and so on – and discover who we are.

It’s also an entry point to the Real, although will never get us altogether there – after all, the Real is unknowable.

Raul gives an interesting perspective on this. On the surface we would probably champion the powerful “Wonder Woman” archetype, and deplore the “defective woman” image. Certainly the first one feels empowering, and the second is upsetting. But if the Real is a truly non-binary place, then it’s not about pursuing one and rejecting the other. Indeed, understanding our own vulnerability (as well as our power) is critical for martial arts mastery. Scott Park Phillips puts it beautifully:

[…] To paraphrase the Tai Chi Classics: Because I understand my own vulnerabilities, I understand my opponent’s as well.

[…] In the end it still comes down to working with vulnerabilities. To really put vulnerability at the center of your training, to take it all the way–you need to get weaker. 

[…] The most thorough way to learn about our vulnerabilities is to cultivate weakness.

[…] Martial artists usually train the best techniques, from the best positions, with the best possible structure. Fine. Go do that for as long as it takes you to see that no matter how good you get at it, your vulnerabilities still don’t go away. Then start training without structure, from the worst possible positions, and with spacial awareness instead of technique.

The illusion that we have direct conscious control over our bodies is an enormous source of pain, aggression, and defensiveness. When that civilizing pretense is dropped, the body follows the spacial mind without inhibition.

Raul explains that in the realm of the Imaginary, vulnerability is scary. But in the more sophisticated Symbolic realm, it can come to represent:

a kind of vulnerable warrior whose strength comes from flexibility and emptiness of self .


How do these realms relate to each other?

Lacan was a clinician. He believed that the Symbolic was the key to healing mental illness and achieving personal growth. The painful symptoms of mental illness belong to the wordless Imaginary realm for as long as we don’t understand their meaning – but we can unlock their meaning and dissolve their power by analysing them. 

To put it in really simplistic terms (quoting Wikipedia!): The Imaginary was the problem, the Symbolic the answer.

So I’m right! Mindlessly dressing up as Wonder Woman is probably fun, but it’s only really any good if you do something constructive with it – i.e. analyse it in the right way and use it for growth.

And yet – perhaps there’s something more. Remember that the three realms form a Borromean knot – the imaginary is an integral part of the whole.

If words and analysis (the Symbolic) are the main path to the Truth (the Real) . . . what is the deep draw of martial arts study, which is often about wordless physical mimicry, practice and experience? Can our study somehow help us to understand and cultivate the relationship between all three realms?


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As noted above, Raul Moncayo uses RSI to build a bridge between Eastern and Western approaches to self development. 

Cosplayers as Xena: Warrior Princess and Thor at San Diego Comic-Con 2012. By Ryan Quick from Greenbelt, MD, USA [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
He explains that in Western thought in general, the path to “enlightenment” is typically through the realm of language, metaphor, analysis and so on. (The Symbolic)

Meanwhile, Eastern thought is often seen as making “not-thinking” the pathway to enlightenment. (The Imaginary)

So we have one tradition which suppresses the intellect; and another which suppresses intuition. Is there any common ground between these two different paths to the divine, or are they completely divergent? 

Raul believes there is some (although not full) crossover. He sees Lacanian psychoanalysis as one way to understand the interdependence of the three realms (thinking, not thinking, and non-thinking or the ineffable). (The other way is Zen Buddhism).

Raul explains: When neither intuition nor the intellect is suppressed, it is humanity that benefits. And the boundaries are more blurred than we might think – it’s back to the Borromean knot.

In essence, not thinking suppresses thinking, while non-thinking accepts thinking and goes beyond it.

Lacan developed his ideas to help treat mental illness. (He believed that mental illness could be caused when the Borromean knot started to unravel within a person’s consciousness). But Raul’s reading shows how these ideas can also be applied to a wider project of promoting personal growth; by honouring all three realms to the best of our ability.


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Building on Raul’s interpretation of Lacan’s RSI, it seems that martial arts might offer us a rich path to integration of all three realms. We crave the Real, and a way to access it. Therefore, we don’t want to end up stuck forever in the childlike Imaginary, with no way to transcend it.

But equally, we don’t want to disregard and cut ourselves off from the Imaginary and become marooned in the intellectual realm of the Symbolic. 

Martial arts study pertains to and integrates all three realms . . .

The Imaginary – and martial arts

When we carefully copy our teacher’s performance of a new kata or other pattern for the first time, with no clue what it means, it’s not that different from a little girl copying #gotyourback to the best of her ability.

Copying or identifying with something you don’t really understand can be a valuable process in martial arts study.

– Firstly, copying sequences of physical movements is fun, absorbing and freeing as an end in itself. I’ve written about it here, as a secret pleasure which some women may be especially well-placed to appreciate and enjoy.

– Secondly, without copying and truly internalising these incomprehensible movements first, karateka can’t progress onto the exciting stage of analysing and understanding them.

– More fundamentally – the act of copying and then practising a kata can change you. Even if you don’t actually understand the meaning of the movements, or the psychological change process at stake. This has been my own experience, and there are some fascinating scientific studies to back it up too. For example, these papers show how the brains of children with autism have been positively altered by simple, physical martial arts practice. 

The Effect of Karate Techniques Training on Communication Deficit of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

A Chinese Mind-Body Exercise Improves Self-Control of Children with Autism: A Randomized Controlled Trial

The Symbolic – and martial arts

The Seishin Shotokan website explains:

To be able to replicate the moves of a kata without mistake is the first step in learning a kata. You start by learning direction, followed by left and right […] However to attain true kata mastery it is necessary to delve deeper, beyond the aesthetically pleasing moves to the bunkai (application).

The bunkai of kata teaches us the true meaning and relevance of kata as a whole. As stated bunkai means application, more specifically how can I use these moves that I am practicing to devastating effect against an opponent […] This is the real meaning of kata.

Again we see this theme of taking a form (Imaginary realm) and analysing it to find its meaning. As Gichin Funakoshi put it (far more harshly):

You may train for a long time, but if you merely move your hands and feet and jump up and down like a puppet, learning karate is not very different from learning a dance. You will never have reached the heart of the matter; you will have failed to grasp the quintessence of karate-do.


The Real – and martial arts

hayleykohler#wonderwoman showing us how to be a pretty princess and a force to be reckoned with. #WWgotyourback challenge: accepted!

As we saw above, the Real can’t be spoken about. But I start to wonder now if the women in the pictures may be seeking the same deep mystery as many martial artists – the place where masculine and feminine principles are integrated, to use a phrase so popular in Aikido circles in particular.

Is this integration another way of describing the Real?

But again, Raul explains that this interpretation isn’t right:

The Real is not the integration of Yin and Yang for Lacan. It’s the place where we can ask what is a man and what is a woman without expecting a definite answer or where the answer may remain mysterious . . .


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I feel a lot softer about the photos now. The initial critique of the women’s personal safety seems less relevant or interesting now, and clearly isn’t the core issue at stake. Wearing a sword along your spine is probably no more dangerous than other ways many men and women may put themselves at risk – drink too much, endure long-term stress, give their hearts to undeserving others, neglect their health and so on.

And wearing a sword in a dress is also no more or less meaningful than many other things we do to feel empowered. In fact, I probably have no right to judge, running around in a gi, and wielding training weapons that God willing I’ll never have to use in reality. 

Ben asked: why do you feel so strongly about this? The answer is simple: I was just annoyed that this meme was promoting the idea that you can be “badass” merely by dressing up, and without putting any work in, when I work so hard on my training and still feel miles away from being “a force to be reckoned with”.

But what I now see, is that a female martial artist and a woman posting under the #wwgotyourback hashtag, might be exploring very similar questions, but through different routes:

– How do I work with my male and female energies without being rejected by men and/or women?
– Can I be beautiful and fierce at once?
– Does developing martial competence and intent compromise or enhance my femininity?

Whether you seek the answers through formal martial arts study – or through wearing a sword in a ball dress – or through any other means . . . some will get it – and others will judge you (like I did). It doesn’t matter – the joy is in the journey . . .


Big thanks to Dr Ben Judkins and Dr Raul Moncayo for their much appreciated help with this article 🙂 However, if I’ve got anything wrong about Lacan’s thought, or Raul’s interpretation of it, that’s obviously not their fault!

Related articles:

– Why Elsa and Anna from “Frozen” are the ultimate martial arts role models

– “Discover Who You Are” – Nine lessons for martial artists from Disney’s Moana

(NB: There’s more at stake here too. Raul also talked about how men and women alike can access jouissance via the Real, where jouissance is a kind of intense pleasure or enjoyment with sensual/sexual aspects. For Lacan, women and mystics are said to have a greater capacity to access the Real and experience jouissance – however they’re unable to express the feeling in words. The possible relationship between jouissance and martial arts feels tantalising; but it’s beyond my understanding at present – perhaps a topic for a future article . . .)


Raul Moncayo, Ph.D. most recently is the co-author (with Magdalena Romanowicz) of the book, The Real Jouissance of Uncountable Numbers. The Philosophy of Science within Lacanian Psychoanalysis. He is training director for Mission Mental Health, San Francisco under the Department of Public Health. He has been on the Faculty of many academic Institutions and is a Supervising Analyst at the Lacanian School of Psychoanalysis in Berkeley, California. He also has a private practice in which he provides psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, consultation, and supervision


Ben Judkins, Ph.D. earned a doctorate in Political Science from Columbia University. He has taught at the University of Utah and his research and teaching has focused on international relations and the political economy of globalization. In The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts (State University of New York Press, 2015) Judkins examines the various social, economic, political and cultural forces that helped to shape the emergence of southern China’s unique fighting systems during the tumultuous 19th and 20th century. He is also the editor of the awesome blog: Kung Fu Tea.


Featured image source: Aleksandra Svet @AleksSvet via Twitter



3 Responses

  1. Steve Higgins

    I’m training a young woman who has no sight in Tai Chi sword. My emphasis is on basic methods and technique. She already has a foundation in stance and Tai Chi empty-hand. For her, the sword exercises serve to expand her sense of personal space. This is about empowerment.

  2. Joelle White

    I really enjoyed this article. You’ve come a long way – from being annoyed to accepting and even understanding others’ choices. Hats off to you for thoroughly researching the why’s and wherefores and asking for help when you needed it!

  3. Logen Lanka

    Thought provoking. I like the part when you examine your discomfort with others’ decision to cosplay the sword-at-the-back scene, and the actively seek out why that was so.

    P.S. The Polish MEP is a ******* idiot, by the way…

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