Toxic Motherhood: ‘Wonder Woman’s Hippolyta

Reading Time: 5 minutes
Hippolyta Connie Nielsen
“They do not deserve you” / Image from Warner Bros

Wonder Woman‘s Hippolyta is a strong woman. She’s a particularly amazing example of a queen and mother trying to protect her daughter. In fact, at every turn, she emanates power and authority. As a feminist icon, the character is pretty amazing.

However.

I appreciate that the character wants to protect her daughter. I appreciate that she wants to keep her daughter from harm. I appreciate that she loves her daughter. I really and truly do. I’m sure that there are going to be a lot of people who will find what I am about to say entirely anathema and probably pretty darn heretical.

Hippolyta is a toxic mother.

Herein lie the spoilers. If you want to remain story unsullied, thou shalt stop here.

Spoilers banner

A Google search for “toxic mothering” brings up a Psychology Today article that includes the following:

Controlling

In many ways, this is another form of the dismissive interaction although it presents very differently; the key link is that the controlling mother doesn’t acknowledge her daughter any more than the dismissive one does. These mothers micromanage their daughters, actively refuse to acknowledge the validity of their words or choices, and instill a sense of insecurity and helplessness in their offspring. Most of this behavior is done under the guise of being for the child’s “own good;” the message is, effectively, that the daughter is inadequate, cannot be trusted to exercise good judgment, and would simply flounder and fail without her mother’s guidance.

One of the things that struck a chord with me on both viewings of Wonder Woman was the way that Hippolyta’s attempt to control and protect Diana constantly undermined Wonder Woman’s sense of self. Again, while I understand that not every controlling mother is attempting to hide their daughter from a powerful god of war, Hippolyta’s treatment of Diana, as many tried to tell her, is ultimately what puts Diana in danger.

This should be the lesson to all mothers.

Taking the definition of controlling mother one point at a time, we can see how Wonder Woman‘s Hippolyta is the controlling mother who acts as the catalyst for Diana’s self-doubt which almost causes her demise at the hands of Ares.

Toxic Mothers Micromanage Their Daughters

No doubt, being Hippolyta has to be difficult. As a mother, I can’t possibly imagine the stress of knowing that you gave birth to a child only to see that child be forced into an epic battle to save the world. Wonder Woman‘s Hippolyta isn’t the mother trying to make sure her daughter wears a frilly dress and never plays in dirt. Talking about Hippolyta’s micromanagement of Diana isn’t about what food she eats or whether she is making the right friends.

Hippolyta’s micromanagement of Diana comes in ways that are both emotional and physical. When Hippolyta grabs Diana’s wrist as she attempts to jump from one ledge to the next, Diana is not surprised to see her mother. The Queen of Themyscira knew exactly where her daughter was to the second and clearly this is not something new. This kind of hovering implies more than just being cautious about safety. This kind of detailed knowledge focuses on being hyper vigilant, hyper aware, and, well, just a tad bit controlling.

She clearly controls Diana’s movements by placing her arms around her daughter as they ride the horse together. The way in which she binds Tiny Diana to her body while they ride makes it hard for Diana to move. Again, based on the way Diana accepts this, we can imagine that this is the norm. In all images of Hippolyta and Diana, Tiny Diana is in front of her mother within an arm’s reach or less.

However, even if I can’t clearly decode the scenes enough from memory to give good proof of the micromanagement…

Toxic Mothers Actively Refuse to Acknowledge the Validity of Daughters Words or Choices

Even if we disagree on the micromanaging, Hippolyta’s treatment of Diana actively refuses to acknowledge her daughter’s choices. Parents inherently worry about their children. Admittedly, again, Hippolyta isn’t going to be watching her daughter make a bad hairstyle decision. Diana’s choices are ones that will not only have repercussions for her but also for the world.

However, at every turn, Wonder Woman‘s Hippolyta tells her daughter that her decisions are bad. When Diana wants to train? Hippolyta tells her she can’t. Then she clearly says, “Only the fiercest of us could wield it, and that is not you.” When Diana argues that the Amazons need to help Steve, Hippolyta shuts her down in front of all the other Amazons walking around. When Diana finally makes a decision to leave, Hippolyta tells her, “Today you are my greatest sorrow.” Yes, this is overdramatic. However, watching the look on Diana’s face as her mother says that? That hurt me.

Whenever Diana voices her opinion or makes a decision, Hippolyta summarily silences her. Shutting Diana down every time she speaks leads to…

Instilling Insecurity and Helplessness

One of Wonder Woman‘s main themes is Diana’s inability to trust her own power. Antiope reminds her again and again, “you are stronger than you think you are.” When she lives with the Amazons, her equals, she constantly shows a lack of confidence. Antiope reminds her to try harder constantly. When doing the training battles, she looks around seeking approval. Even to the moment she leaves, she looks to her mother seeking not disappointment but respect. In the final battle with Ares, she underestimates herself. He preys on that throughout most of the battle. Despite Hippolyta not being not being at the battle, Diana likely hears the constant whispering voice, “only the fiercest among us… you are not that person.” Throughout her journey, Diana has not believed in herself. She was insecure. While it is hard to imagine Wonder Woman as helpless in our world, her battle with Ares clearly shows that she insecurity led to a sense of helplessness. She lies on the ground, wrapped in metal, watching the love of her life explode. In those moments, her eyes show the feeling of helplessness stemming from her insecurity.

Wonder Woman‘s Hippolyta Micromanages Under the Guise of “Own Good”

Fine. Established in all the above points, Diana is at serious risk. The biggest problem with Wonder Woman‘s Hippolyta responding that she plans to protect her daughter? Everyone else warns her that she is putting Diana in greater danger by concealing the truth. Antiope tells her that disallowing training weakens Diana. Menalippe warns Hippolyta that not telling Diana the truth puts Wonder Woman at greater risk. Hippolyta ignores them. When Tiny Diana asks to train and for stories of war, Hippolyta warns her that she shouldn’t be thinking of such things for her own good.

Hippolyta may have a sense of hubris here or she may be a toxic mother. However, with all of the other factors, it’s hard to say that whether intended or not, Hippolyta’s reactions to Diana cause a toxic mother-daughter relationship.

This Leads to the Message That Daughter Can’t Make Good Decisions

The part of Wonder Woman that really hurt my soul wasn’t when Steve died (although I bawled) or when Diana left Themyscira. When Diana kills Ludendorff only to find out that she was wrong, the heartbreak of this mistake killed me. The toxic, controlling relationship Hippolyta had with Diana left her doubting herself. Upon arriving in our world, she attains a sense of self-efficacy. She realizes the power she has to do good. She begins to believe in herself. She clings to her belief that Aries is causing the war and that she is the one to save the world.

Then, the man she believes is Ares, well, isn’t. The message that had been ingrained in her for all those years, that she was never good enough, that her choices were wrong, that her desires were wrong, and all of that comes crashing in at that moment. The sure-footedness that we had seen from the moment she left Hippolyta behind until the moment she realizes Ludendorff wasn’t Aries is suddenly gone.

When Ares does finally arrive, Diana fights him. However, all of those old inadequacies come back to her fighting. She thinks, “I can’t” as opposed to “I can.”

Wonder Woman‘s Hippolyta may have never intended to be a toxic mother. Truthfully, I doubt the majority of mothers (although there are for sure some out there who don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt) intend to be toxic. Somewhere the line between caring and controlling blurs. The line between helicopter parent and toxic parent blurs, although possibly helicopter parents are toxic. The line between good and bad blurs.

As with all fictional representations, perhaps the best we can do is look to those characters, see their mistakes, and work hard to not make the same ones in reality.

Advertisements