Overcoming the Status Quo:

Wonder Woman, Superheroes, and the American Criminal Justice System (Part 3)

In this three-part series, I explore where superheroes fit into popular conceptions of criminal justice in the United States, and the potential for Wonder Woman to help improve those conceptions.

In Part 1, I looked at the state of superhero media, Wonder Woman, and criminal justice in the United States.

Last week, I focused on relationships between the American criminal justice system and American communities, roles of the system in educating citizens, the status of education in the system itself, and opportunities for the presence of Wonder Woman in all of them.

This week, I bring all of this together by looking at the roles of mass media and those of citizens.

Great Power, Continued

“The media does not at all reflect the reality of the…system,” Jacoba Rock, the Lead Forensic Social Worker at the Alternate Defense Counsel and a Professor of Social Work and Criminology at the University of Denver, told me.  “It glorifies certain aspects, such as CSI investigations, harsh courtroom experiences, and vigilantism against murderers and rapists, but the sheer reality of the system is that it is predominantly filled at every level with nonviolent drug addicts and other incredibly vulnerable people for whom every other system has failed.  People don’t know that or like that reality—it is too convenient to ignore.”

“I think fictional media can sometimes cloud perceptions by portraying the justice as a black and white, right and wrong issue. Which on the surface, it very well is,” Jonathan Rodriguez, an investigative reporter for WNCN in Raleigh, North Carolina, said.  “But our society demands so much more: How wrong is a particular wrong compared to other wrongs?  Is it always wrong or just in this situation?  Do the people involved change anything?  What is the appropriate punishment?  Appropriate to who?”

Rodriguez also said that the public demands a level of drama, “whether it’s the crime itself, the people involved, or the effect of the crime on society,” and “every case that people pay attention to does give them another example of the system in action.”

When I was a video editor working in local news, I learned that the relationship between journalism and law enforcement can also be very problematic.  Journalists want to know everything that is going on, and members of law enforcement want to preserve the integrity of their cases.  In my experience, this relationship creates a very delicate balance—a tip in one direction can make it very easy for local journalists to, whether they want to or not, essentially become voices for local law enforcement, and a tip in another direction can create an overabundance of speculation.

Today’s marketplace presents additional benefits and challenges—getting the stories out there is easier in terms of accessing information, but following a story in detail for too long can cause viewers to tire of it and tune out.

Great Responsibility

It’s not all on mass media, law enforcement, or legislation, however.  In Akira Kurosawa’s iconic film Rashomon, one of the characters declares, “I don’t care if it’s a lie, as long as it’s entertaining.”

America is still wrestling with this notion on numerous levels (sometimes by choosing to ignore or deny those levels altogether).  In the realm of superheroes, many fans of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy seemed disappointed that the decision Bruce Wayne made so confidently and insightfully at the end of the second film turned out to be in need of further revision.  Similarly, reality in superhero media frequently depends on the superhero’s point of view.

America can be a great place for ideas, but it needs to figure things out in a much more productive manner. All citizens play a part in everything around them with everything they do, and criminal justice is no exception.  All people are crucial to determining what happens to each person who is brought into the system, and, as a result, to what happens to their society.  No one is above or exempt.  Rock emphasized to me several times that even though she is an advocate for offenders, she never forgets her own accountability within the system.  “Until communities—parents, neighborhoods, schools, leaders—take responsibility, there will not be enough momentum to make great progressive and effective change.”

As Rodriguez told me, “people have to want to learn.”  It’s important, he said, for citizens to get to know professionals who work in the criminal justice system, just as it is for journalists.  “It has to be learned, and the best people to learn it from are those who are involved with each step every day.”

“The two primary, interrelated philosophies that I have held my whole life,” Rock said, “which strongly influence my work are: One—that there is no ‘us and them.’  I think we need to break down the barrier of believing that we are so incredibly different from those who cause harm.  Most of us do illegal and immoral things, just not most of the time.  As one of my co-workers says, none of us should be defined by our worst five minutes.  If we listened to the stories of the ‘bad guys,’ we would find that we could have easily ended up in the same predicaments, mentally, socially, and physically, as they found themselves.  The only thing separating us is privilege through environment and genetics, and sometimes, I think, sheer, random, luck.

“Two—in the same breath, all of us are good, and all of us have some capacity for making terrible decisions.”

We all have a lot to think about.

Being as Wise as Athena…For Tomorrow

Once again—can the American criminal justice system be more like Wonder Woman, even without the Lasso of Truth?

For what would be regarded as the front lines, real-life police officers don’t have superhuman strength, and they don’t have Lassos of Truth.  My anonymous police officer agreed that the lasso would be “an amazing tool.”  But members of law enforcement do have a wealth of skills that they can and do use to achieve similar results.  My source described several fascinating strategies for determining truth through analyzing body language or using conversations to draw out facts.

Diana doesn’t always need her lasso either.  Her first route always involves her top-notch communication skills under pressure.

What we can have in common with Wonder Woman is our spirit.

The desire and the ability to change, to keep the philosophies of Wonder Woman with us in our daily lives as much as any other superhero, is out there.  My sources showed me that.  In fact, superhero media shows me that—it reflects a desire to help our institutions help our world become a better place.

The problems discussed in this series don’t start with police officers, and they don’t start with news media.  Laws represent the societies that pass them.  A nation’s problems start long before any professionals are trained—they start at the cultural level.  They start at what citizens tell themselves.  And right now, a good amount of what American citizens are telling themselves, whether in the mainstream or on the fringes, isn’t leading them on a path to moral or financial results, and these results revolve around their greatest resource—the human mind, which affects Americans’ ability to do, well, anything.

Clearly, striking hard and fading away isn’t always the best solution to problems.  We also know that Arkham Asylum doesn’t work.  Many of the Batman comics know that and make a point of it—so why do we keep supporting it?  Especially since, for the most part, the inmates of Arkham Asylum do not exist.

That’s why the greatest challenge for all of this lies at the level of American culture, and that’s why mass media is one of the most crucial places to address that, to help discussions grow and build roads to solutions.  Its power is extraordinary.

Like many superheroes, Wonder Woman can do things that human beings can’t.  However, at the end of the day, she’s a fictional character that humans continually develop.  Diana of Themyscira can play an integral role in the arena of inspiration.  If Americans can come up with stories about her, they certainly have the capacity to enact those ideas, even without the powers involved.  We have it all within us.

All of us can be wise.  As many Batman fans would say these days, we can all be heroes.  We can all communicate, profoundly linking ourselves to one another through our ideas, and create better foundations for ourselves.

We may only be able to hope to be Amazons, but we are all—excepting any Detective Joneses out there—humans, and humans can do a lot.

Dawn of Justice, Indeed?

Spider-Man 3 missed its mark.  Magneto may be allowed to go free from time to time, and Hydra may be ousted every now and again.  But the chilling kangaroo court in The Dark Knight Rises is not so far-fetched, and I hope Diana’s big screen debut has a chance to help more of us start thinking about that.

We need a lot more Diana.  The majority of other heroes, especially those like Bruce Wayne, while infinitely fascinating, should not be the ultimate example, because they are not objective.  No one symbol should represent all things anyway.  Every hero has a role.  Not even Wonder Woman can or should be everywhere at once.  We need Batman.  We need Superman.  We need Spider-Man, Storm, Green Arrow, The Flash, Green Hornet, Kato, Lenore Case, Daredevil, Raphael, Hellboy, and She-Hulk.

But we also need Diana.  She’s already been around for a long time, and now it seems she can finally come up to bat.  Is that a pun?

As Rodriguez told me, this is “a system that can always improve and will always change as society changes.”

Indeed.  How it will change will be up to us.  What we tell ourselves and what shapes our worldviews is ultimately worthless if we don’t actively progress as a result, and superhero media presents a unique example of that.  Furthermore, it is ever part of the larger, very powerful effect of culture.

There are so many answers to pursue, and they require a great deal more from us.  I hope to look into these questions further.

For now, go out and get a Wonder Woman mug, and when people ask you about it, tell them why.

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With a background in television production, film studies, and communication theory, Ian Boucher earned his Master of Library and Information Science at Kent State University to become a librarian to advocate for information literacy. He is fascinated with the stories cultures tell themselves, and writes about film and comics in that regard. Continue the conversation with him on Twitter @Ian_Boucher.

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Also by Ian Boucher:

Humans and Paragons: Essays on Super-Hero Justice

editor, contributor

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