In The March for Our Lives, how the students became the teachers

Comments (0) Activism, Politics

Are we entering another era of mass protest? It’s as if people want any opportunity to gather in protest, any way to demand change. So many massive outpourings — Black Lives Matter, DACA and immigration rights protests, the Women’s Marches, even a  Science March, and now an unprecedented mobilization against gun violence — and this together with significant increases in election turnout. People we know who never paid attention to politics are going to their first demonstration, and even the un-engaged have heard of Emma Gonzalez in their social media.


Over 1 million people, some estimates up to 2 million, in the March for Our Lives. Photo of NYC march by Rhododendrites (CC BY-SA 4.0) Wikimedia.

When political action becomes part of youth culture

The March for Our Lives is weaponized with youth culture. Another youth movement, finally! All age groups from babies in strollers up to 80-somethings in wheelchairs, but the branding of the movement is that it’s led by youth, and the sound and feel and vocabulary of the movement is youth culture. “We call BS” is now a slogan, and teenagers are telling their stories, singing and  declaiming poetry at the rallies. The Guardian invited staff from the Marjorie Stoneham Douglas newspaper to edit their coverage of the march, and young faces and voices are still being sought out by mainstream media.

You can watch the crowds on YouTube as the young people speak. The crowds loved the young people on the stages up front, shouting encouragement if they hesitated. They cheered when Naomi Wadler spoke  —  loud, extended cheering when she said she was 11-years old, again when she said she and her friend Carter led a walkout in her elementary school. Again when she said she spoke for “black girls victimized by guns whose stories don’t’ make the front page.”

All of this is a lesson in how to organize and how to talk about guns, but also in the role of representation in movements. The celebration of young leaders, and in particular queer activists and  young leaders of color, connects deeply with young people;  in a culture that pacifies them, it shows them that they too can act, they too can lead.

We have seen what happens in the past when political action becomes part of a youth culture — that it’s the necessary prelude to change.

Intersectional, collaborative, shaped by the internet

Naomi Wadler and many other speakers drew attention to victims of gun violence who are different from Parkland’s middle class suburban high school, African Americans in the cities. Students from Marjorie Stoneham Douglas High School met with students at Thurgood Marshall Academy in DC. They had already come to Chicago to talk to black student activists and victims of gun violence. Then they told us what they learned, using the language of intersectionality and privilege. They reminded audiences that mass shootings and school shootings are a fraction of the gun deaths, that media attention focused on them but not on slain African Americans, and they demanded empathy and action for all the gun victims.

Why Is It? photo by Elvert Barnes, (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Their movement is shaped by the legacy of the movements of the past decade — intersectional, collaborative:  Black Lives Matter with queer women of color in leadership; DACA protests also led by young people; the Women’s March with women of color in leadership, making intersectionality a necessary conversation for many white women (and men); the foregrounding of trans people in our national politics; celebrities in the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements foregrounding working class women and women of color. Does this presage a new era of broad coalitions for change?

This movement, like every other since the ’90s, is shaped by the internet — it is decentralized, self-starting, networking. Social media and the web spread not just the bonding through the likes, the people and the story-telling. You also find advice and even “toolkits” telling people how to mount their own action, how to become organizers and leaders.

More important, social media has not just been a tool for mobilization, not just a way for people to get their message out. Years of watching short video clips, years of reading and years of writing in short high-impact bursts have honed extraordinary communication skills. The young people are the native-speakers of this new language, and many of their speeches and comments to the media have been stunningly effective.

Columbine survivor Jami Amo pointed out that unlike the Parkland students, they did not have social media.  They were “at the beck and call of the media” and they themselves “didn’t have a say.” But Parkland students “took charge of their narrative” and “changed the dialogue.”

Is it going to be different this time?

“Common sense gun control” seems impossible. After every mass shooting, pious media coverage soon vanishes; polls show immediate uptick in gun control sentiment which, after a while, also erodes. The political wisdom, supported by polling,  is that the while voters overwhelmingly have a “preference” for restrictions on ownership, the NRA’s voters have more “intensity.” “Intensity” means they are more likely to engage in political activity and pressure, more likely to vote, contact their representative, and contribute to campaigns. There are enough single issue “gun rights” voters to cow legislators, and gun ownership is itself “a powerful political identity” for a substantial portion of the Republican base. But this new youth-led movement shows an intensity we have not seen in the struggle against gun violence. Going to a march takes the planning, time, and commitment that shows an intensity that should worry legislators and lobbyists.

Up until now, there has not been a mass mobilization against the gun industry rooted in identity. But the movement sparked by the Parkland students is different in making a profound cultural appeal in the language of the young activists, standing for humanity against profit, love against hate — and common sense against “BS.” This is certainly not a newly invented appeal, but its nationwide mobilization of a million people, sustaining the intensity over a month and a half as of this writing — this is new and different.

Shaming and divestment as a tactic: A frontal assault on power

The young people are doing something new also in the way they target the NRA, confront and shame the NRA’s politicians and corporate allies. This is a bold campaign of delegitimization. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In their first national appearances, student speakers refused to focus on trivial reform measures, details of policy or process. Instead of simply calling, as they do, for a ban on assault weapons or universal background checks, they focused their attack on the NRA, calling out the venality of Sen. Marco Rubio and Donald Trump and committing to attack every politician taking NRA money.



Sarah Chadwick is one of the Parkland survivor-activists.

The message of “We Call BS” is that gun lobby talking points deserve contempt rather than consideration, as do the politicians and media personalities repeating them.

This is a frontal assault on power. It recognizes that the real power of the NRA isn’t its ability to corrupt politicians with donations, but its ability to threaten them with primary challenges with a voting base of highly motivated supporters.

How much does it matter that a number of corporate sponsors ended their discounts to NRA members or (maybe only temporarily) their advertising on some cable shows? It matters a lot, because it means that major coporations have decided that the NRA and certain media personalities tarnish their brand.

Divestment is not just about dollars and cents

Divestment as a tactic is not just about dollars and cents. It’s a weapon in the war of symbols and identity. If more corporations end discounts and advertising, if the NRA becomes stigmatized and driven out of mainstream respectability, that represents a shift in our culture. These are signs of a different cultural understanding of social violence. We are  moving towards “common sense gun control” and against the “common sense” of gun culture that more guns means more safety.

The young activists face intractable enemies. Gun “rights” are profoundly embedded in conservative culture, and right-wing elites are committed to weaponizing it to gain and hold power. Any mass movement confronting this type of uncompromising power must be ready to wage a long struggle, because they must change the culture as well as the politics. Can the movement sustain its intensity?

We are watching the young people create a community of survivors and supporters through social media and social action, the kind of community that will perpetuate itself but will also be continually refreshed by new shooting atrocities and new political outrages. The dangers are not just burnout and exhaustion. The movement also must manage its elite allies, who now, maybe only now, find it convenient to let them take the lead. They are too precious a gift to the Democratic Party to be left to find their own way. They may face the fate of other mass movements, absorbed and dissolved into the normal political process, giving up their original power, to maintain their autonomy, to dare and deny and disrupt.

If it is different this time, it is a hopeful difference. This unfamiliar mass eruption is only possible because the young people have learned from the movements that preceded them — from what they’ve read in school or heard from parents about the civil rights movement, from Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, the immigration protests, and so many others. Those movements have made marching and protesting a part of these young activists’ repertoire as they perform being young.

I want to add a personal note. I am tired of mourning atrocities, there are so many. So I am glad to be able to shed tears in awe and admiration at what these young people have said and done.

More reading: The Eagle Eye is the student newspaper at Marjorie Stoneham Douglas High School. Read it for its reporting on the student activists, photo galleries of the marches, and coverage of the school.  The Eagle Eye is an example of the best in student journalism.

Video and photos:

How often to you find such a silent crowd at a rally? Moved by the speakers, Union Park, Chicago.

Chicago teacher’s sign with names of slain students.

Gun control is a feminist cause.


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Who are the progressives in the Illinois primaries?

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Photo by Nate Burgos Chicago Women’s March 1.21.18 (CC BY-ND 2.0) Flickr

I’m getting a lot of election robocalls and they’re all from “progressives.” Sen. Dick Durbin just called to ask me to “join him in supporting progressive leaders to serve on the Democratic State Central Committee in the next election. … A vote for Cynthia Santos is a vote to fight the Trump agenda.” In case I was wondering whether Santos is a true progressive, Sen. Durbin’s call explained: “This message was paid for by friends of Michael J. Madigan.”

I want to thank Michael J. Madigan — the chair of the Illinois Democratic Party Central Committee and Speaker of the Illinois House was the last person I could imagine helping me identify the real progressives in the election. But knowing whom Madigan is promoting sure helps — after all, he should know – he is the Democratic machine’s boss of all bosses (capo di tutti capi, if I remember my Godfather grammar correctly).

Friends of Bernie Sanders are progressives too. I guess I’m not in their rolodex because Our Revolution didn’t call me to tell me to vote against the machine’s Cynthia Santos and elect their progressive challenger, Melissa Lindberg. (more…)

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The Women’s March: Not just about women, not just about voting

Comments (2) Activism, Politics

This year’s Women’s March was as beautiful and astonishing as last year’s. Surprising many, it created an even broader coalition, bringing out more people, and was more inclusive of women of color and queer women. I want to look at the problems of this coalition building — how to understand the alliances the women’s movement is making and the difficulty of maintaining identities within them.

2017 Women’s March on Washington. Photo by Mobilius in Mobili, Wikimedia Commons. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Trump, the Great Uniter

Trump was not only the great divider, but also our great uniter, bringing together in one anti-Trump coalition every progressive movement. The first women’s march exploded in numbers out of shock, outrage and enormous energy for action after Trump’s election.

It was called a “women’s march,” but it was also a march about nearly everything wrong with America, since the Trump regime promised to be reactionary in the precise political sense of the term. The regime aims at breaking down every progressive change since the deep cultural shift of the 1930s Depression years. That was when vast mass movements ushered in the real New Deal, creating a new cultural consensus that society was responsible for the care of all its citizens and government’s role was to ensure the public’s welfare.

The meaning of the march: Not just a “March to the Polls”

The Women’s March in 2018 again was clearly an anti-Trump march, branded as a “March to the Polls,” and there were many Democratic Party officials among the speakers. But the marchers’ signs told a different story. (more…)

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Burns and Novicks’ ‘Vietnam’: History as written by the losers

Comments (3) History, Media

“History is written by the victors”? Not Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s'”The Vietnam War,” which is a lesson in how to see history as written by the losers. Whether a history is written by the losers or the victors, beware of the mythmaking. If only Burns and Novick understood this, their series might have been as enlightening as it is artful, fascinating, and moving. Perhaps it is an excuse that they are story-tellers and not historians. But the stories they tell and the ones they decide not to tell, the people they interview and the people they overlook, all impose framings and interpretations that charge their narrative with political meaning. Come for the stories, stay for the ideology.

“Love the warrior not the war” is the perspective of the filmmakers. Marines in Operation Hue City, 1967. US Marine Corps photo, Wikimedia.

I am thinking here about the myths, the unlearned lessons as the US continued to march its warriors into defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how a brilliant documentary can mix shocking truth and soothing lies, and still move viewers. When I look at art politically, often I am looking at how the artists’ explicit messaging can be contradicted by their images and storytelling.  Burns and Novicks’ images and interviews sometimes tell a truer story than his narration, but even those select out disturbing testimonies, such as the Winter Soldier Investigation and a truer story yet is untold. (more…)

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Reading Homer in Harvey Weinstein’s world

Comments (0) Art, Culture

Just when our art-school student newspaper staff was having fun planning a sex-themed issue, we read about Harvey Weinstein … and then, closer to home, Artforum publisher Knight Landesman, driven out amid the shambles of the art world’s establishment publication. And then thousands of artists and art workers who signed an attack on sexism in the art world, “We are not surprised.”

It may be too much to hope that the tsunami of exposés is bringing about a cultural shift, but at least now we have an improved filter before our eyes. These stories have been at the back of my mind whenever I read the news, so I could not help thinking about the Knight Landesmans and Harvey Weinsteins when I read this other front page story in the Times about Emily Wilson, “The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English.”   The story raises that ageless question about ageless art — how can we look today at art shaped by patriarchy, after we ourselves have been shaped by generations of women’s liberation?


Maybe thinking about Homer is an odd association. After all, Homer’s Muse hasn’t gone public, though there have been rumors that Homer abused her — just look at the stereotypical roles for women in “The Iliad.” Women are abducted in war and enslaved, and then – alas! — when a woman is a central characters, it’s Helen. Helen, over whom the Trojan war was fought, is the iconic scapegoat, blamed for a war as long as our Afghanistan disaster. And, for another twist of the knife, she is also the subject of that male chauvinist chestnut: “True, she’s high maintenance, a real disaster … but just look at her!” (Iliad III 156ff)

So how do we look at “The Odyssey”? Odysseus, “sacker of cities,” epic hero, another of Homer’s male fantasies? Odysseus, celebrated in an epic about the wonders he’s seen, his sufferings and the suffering he caused, through years of wandering among witches and cannibal giants. And if that’s not enough of an epic — he also has to  come home to find his house invaded by Ithaca’s princelings, eating and drinking his wealth away, partying with his maidservants, while demanding his wife Penelope marry one of them.

So he slaughters them all and wins back his wife and property.

And this is all heroic, of course! He is famously introduced as the polutropos, “the man of many twists and turns,” an ambiguous epithet suggesting his twisty cunning mind, but also the many twists and turns in his wanderings — including, curiously, some flings with goddesses.

1. Homer’s Muse reading “The Odyssey,” and not happy about his excuses for Odysseus’ philandering.

Emily Wilson jokes that polutropos can even be translated as “straying husband.” (“It was all consensual,” whines Homer. But Muse mutters, “Yeah, that’s Homer’s version. Yes, Homer, goddesses just can’t resist your hero!”)

Not your feminist poster girl

But Penelope, for feminist scholars, poses a bigger challenge than Odysseus. Penelope, proverbial for the devoted, long-suffering wife, faithful while her husband plays the field, just waits by the phone for him to call. Really, Penelope, for 20 years?!! No, not your feminist poster-girl.


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The Politics of “Dunkirk,” and what every war movie is about

Comments (0) Culture, History

No safety on a hospital ship, hundreds sinking with it, in one of Christopher Nolan’s visions of terror in “Dunkirk.”

What every war movie is about

Every war movie is both a movie about one war, and a movie about war itself. What does Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” say about each? The second should matter more in the US today, a country always at war somewhere, with a trillion dollar “national security” budget;  a country now recommmitted to the “forever war” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen; a country threatening war against North Korea and Iran; and, on the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a country barely remembering it launched history’s only nuclear attack. We have a war party in the government with plenty of support from editorialists and pundits, liberal as well as conservative — and a president promising “fire and fury like the world has never seen” to an approving audience.

We have a culture permeated with militarist values — count the images ennobling warriors and armed combat in movies and TV, not to mention comic books and toys, and the cop shows with urban warriors fighting urban terror.*

What we don’t have is an anti-war movement. So it matters whether films like “Dunkirk” show us an inspiring image of war redeemed by heroism and meaning, or the terror of desperate men helpless under bombardment. (more…)

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Gaius Julius Trumpus? Is this Caesarism, or just Orange Julius?

Comments (1) Art, History, Politics

“Is this Caesarism?”


Caesar’s body lies covered in a bloody toga, his murderers exit swords raised, and the senators all skedaddled. Jean-Louis Gérôme (1859) rejects the conventions of academic history painting, his figures off-center, not idealized or ennobled, seen not in  the dramatic moment of the murder but moving off in the distance afterwards. Meaning, please? 

“Is this Caesarism?” ask the pundits. Trump’s rise has been explained as Caesarism for over a year now (“An American ‘Caesarism’ has now become flesh,” wrote the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf;  just google “Trump” and “Caesarism” for thousands of results). Authoritarian Populists often get compared to Julius Caesar, and “Caesarism” has become a term for rule by an authoritarian, charismatic ruler, claiming to come as a savior and embody the popular will. Trump?

Was it a burlesque waiting to happen when the Public Theater mounted Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” — a Trump-like Caesar with preening vanity and a red tie and blond hair, a Calphurnia speaking with Slovenian accent? Actually, the burlesque was in the right-wing media enrage by the image of Trump murdered; the Trumpenproletariat fulminated in social media and sent hate mail and death threats to the Public Theater and Shakespeare companies elsewhere — regardless of whether they were producing the play. Guilt by association with Shakespeare.

Facts don’t matter. Shakespeare’s play showed the assassination of Caesar not so much as an attack on tyranny as the beginning of chaos, civil war, and mass murder, concluding with a restoration of order by far more ruthless and murderous tyrants. Together after the murder, Shakespeare has Caesar’s avengers raising money for their army, coolly “proscribing” wealthy Romans they could murder for their property — and even including their own relatives on the hit-list.


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Three stories: Pilsen Murals gentrified; “Who needs copy editors?”; “Douchebag” explained

Comments (0) Culture, History, Media

 Casa Aztlan’s murals painted over by developers

“Pilsen Murals,” by El Machete (Eric J. Garcia). Copyright Eric J. Garcia, by permission.

Casa Aztlan in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood should have had landmark status, but instead developers are turning the historic home for Chicano activism into luxury apartments. The building was already lost to the community in 2013, but now the iconic murals gracing its exterior walls have been painted over.

The building was taken over in 1970 by Chicano organizers led by the Brown Berets, who opened a free clinic and opened living space for artists and activists and a meeting place for the community.The murals were painted soon after by Ray Patlan and neighborhood children, and they were maintained over the years by local artists Marcos Raya, Salvador Vega, and Robert Valadez.  For decades, Casa Aztlan was a home for community groups and hosted meetings, classes, help for immigrants and neighbors.

Community members, almost 150 according to the Pilsen Alliance, held a vigil in front of the blank wall. The pressure built up, and developer Andrew Ahitow of City Pads said he is asking Ray Patlan to recreate the mural or paint a new one on the building. Will the new mural, no longer on a community-controlled building, have anything like the revolutionary imagery of the original?

Community residents and the Pilsen Alliance have been meeting, demanding that some of the units be reserved for affordable housing. “The painting over of these murals is not just a metaphor; it is literally what is happening to brown neighborhoods in Chicago,” wrote artist and activist Ricardo Gamboa in a Facebook post. (Take a look at Gamboa’s supernatural thriller, the web series, “Brujos.”)

Photo by Seth Anderson, Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The New York Times says, “We don’t need no soppy oditors!”

Tweet by Jenna Wortham @jennydeluxe, NY Times staff writer, joining copy editors’ protest. She is co-host of podcast Still Processing.

The New York Times will delete its copy desk. That’s 100 copy editors who will have to reapply for new editorial jobs, where one editor has to not only catch the factual, grammatical, spelling and style errors, but, says the Times, “all aspects of an article, including conception, sentence-level editing and fact checking.” This they call the “strong desk model” of editing.They are “streamlining the editing process and making the system more efficient and nimble,” the Times reports.

The copy editors wrote an open letter to executive editor Dean Baquet and managing editor Joe Kahn, and staged a 20-minute walkout,  with hundreds of staff joining the copy editors.

The demonstrators’ signs were ominous: “This sign wsa not edited.” “We kneed are editors! They make us look smart.”  “Without us, it’s the New Yrok Times.” “We all know who built the pyramids, but only editors can rebuild inverted ones.” “Visual journalist without photo editors?” “Copy editors save our buts.”

The Times earlier had “streamlined” its public editor, leaving no one with any authority to represent the interests of readers and field criticism from voices loud enough to be worrisome (such as the pesky Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting).  Newspapers have lost over 20,000 jobs in the last 20 years. This has been blamed on loss of advertising to the web, but it is also the result of a wave of media consolidation, with revenues that could go to staff salaries going instead to service the massive debt incurred in leveraged buyouts. (Our home-town example: Real-estate genius Sam Zell’s purchase of the paper “saddled the Tribune with $13 billion  in debt, after the Tribune had already bought the LA Times for $8.3 billion.)

The staff at F Newsmagazine and other college newspapers will be glad to help the Times adjust to streamlining. Most of us don’t have public editors or copy desks (no room in the small newsroom for that extra desk). We have the one editor who does it all, even cleans the coffee pot. (Yeah, right!).

See Sophie Lucido Johnson’s very cool “illustrated time machine” on the extinction of the public editor.

Click here for the rest of “The Public Editor: An Illustrated Timeline” (in F Newsmagazine). Margaret Sullivan saw it and  tweeted, “I’m neither this blonde nor this thin; not complaining.” If only Sophie had a copy editor, she would have gotten the hair color right.

Douchebag: The white racial slur we’ve all been waiting for,” says American Studies Prof.

Berkeley American Studies Professor Michael Mark Cohen gives social and historical context for the epithet “douchebag,” tracing its evolution through medical history, social stereotypes and pop culture, finally revealing the slur as the accurately descriptive epithet for the insufferably entitled white male.

He looks at what happens when you play “douchebag/not a douchebag” with a new definition based on white privilege, naming the names from Mitt Romney to Captain Kirk and Bruce Banner. Oh, and “when he slipped into the slave quarters at night,” Thomas Jefferson became “our nation’s douchebag founding father,” along with the rest of the plantation aristocracy.

Read it for insights into the history of racial slurs, an enlightening description of the way the word is used (what you probably meant by it without thinking about it), a list of the stereotypical males who fit the description, why hipsters are really quite different and even opposite, and what to do if someone you know or care about is a douchebag.

Cohen’s American Studies course is fascinating — I listened to it on iTunes U a few years ago, but Berkeley has taken nearly all its courses off iTunes. Cohen put some of the lectures on YouTube — I hope he puts more of them up. He also has a video talk on “Pynchon’s Paranoid California.” Check out the cartoons on his website for Art Young and the Cartoons of American Radicalism.

A sample from Michael Cohen’s “Cartooning Capitalism.” Art Young, The Masses, December 1912.  


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Framing the Grenfell Tower Fire: Lessons for US activists

Comments (1) Activism, Media, Politics

Not a front page you would see in a mass circulation daily in the US. The headline calls the tragedy a “crime” and blames the free market ideology and austerity economics which still dominate politics in the UK — and the US.

I’m trying to understand the horrifying enormity of the fire that devastated the 24-story, 600 resident Grenfell Tower in London, a housing “estate” for the very poor within sight of multimillion-pound apartments in the richest borough in the nation.

We have plenty of massive disasters here in the US — floods, tornadoes, wildfires, terrorist attacks, and some, like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, that also create political shockwaves. But what is happening now in London seems very different, both in the way it’s being reported and in the political reaction, a powerful challenge to Conservative Party rule.

Bernie Sanders says we can learn from the Labour Party’s unprecedented election gains — and I think we can find similar lessons in the Grenfell Tower fire and its aftermath. (more…)

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“Wonder Woman” — missed opportunities, ironies of casting

Comments (0) Culture, Identity, Media

All you need is … love superpowers: Wonder Woman may not need a lover, but Hollywood does

We see Wonder Woman and don’t need to see her lover, as Sophie Lucido Johnson illustrates her article in F Newsmagazine. (CC by 2.0.)

Why does Wonder Woman need Capt. Steve Trevor? F Newsmagazine editor Sophie Lucido Johnson argues that the movie’s women filmmakers missed an opportunity to modernize the feminist icon:

“There have to be more movies where friendship, nontraditional family, and non-romantic love are highlighted. Our world is ready for love stories that are bigger than that whole he-looks-good-she-looks-good-so-they’re-together-forever archetype. Wonder Woman is a unique hero because she is earnest, and she is driven by love and compassion. It cheapens her worth when enormous chunks of her story are wasted on an impossible-to-believe romance. Plus, wouldn’t Chris Pine make a great plucky platonic sidekick? Or better yet: How about his secretary?”

Sophie’s argument has some cool links to statistics on “Wonder Woman”‘s record second-weekend box office sales — and the failing box office for rom-coms, compared to superhero movies. (But I was surprised to see that the top grossing movie is still Titanic, that trite romance between a  ship and and iceberg. Though maybe that was the meet cute of all time.) “Wonder Woman has already surpassed Luke Cage and Black Panther in popularity,” John Hagedorn told me. “Score one for women in the race vs gender wars.”


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