The first time I saw myself in fiction, the character didn’t actually resemble me much at all.
I was in elementary school, reading Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters Club series for the first time, and immediately fell in love with the character of Claudia Kishi (who I still maintain is hands-down the best BSC member, fight me).
Claudia and I were nothing alike. She struggled in school; I was in the gifted program and got good grades without much effort. She had an insatiable sweet tooth; I have always preferred a second helping of potatoes to dessert. She was cool and outgoing; I was awkward and shy. She was artistic; my best attempts at re-creating the techniques that Bob Ross demonstrated on The Joy of Painting looked like the concentrated efforts of a precocious chimpanzee. She was fashion-forward; I had a pair of those chunky black Steve Madden sandals in my closet until last year.
(Sidebar: As soon as I got rid of them, Steve Madden brought them back, because we are living in a weird fashion zombie apocalypse where no trend will ever just stay dead.)
Even in the one way we were alike, we were not alike. She was Japanese-American, and I was half-Chinese.
But it didn’t matter. At nine years old, seeing this beautiful, cool Asian-American girl getting to be awesome in stories where she was a main character – and occasionally even the star – was huge. I wanted to be Claudia in a way I have never wanted to embody a character since. I rocked side-ponytails and brightly colored oversized sweaters. I hid candy all over my bedroom, even though my parents were totally fine with me eating candy and also I barely even liked candy. (This turned out to be a terrible idea; I was still finding smushed Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups under my mattress years later.) I even dressed up as Claudia once for Halloween, which made for a tedious Trick-or-Treating experience, since I kept having to explain at each house what The Baby-Sitters Club was.
Claudia was formative to me in a way that no other character was for a very long time. Remember her. I’ll come back to her in a bit. For now, fast forward with me a few decades, past Buffy Summers and Sydney Bristow, past Natasha Romanoff and Jessica Jones and Kara Danvers, to 2017’s Wonder Woman.
There has been an interesting wave of reporting in the wake of Wonder Woman, the most successful superhero film with a female lead — and a female director — of all time. There have been pieces on why some women are crying at the fight scenes, and others on why some viewers from marginalized backgrounds were left cold. Some reviewers praised the film for being groundbreaking and important, while others seemed positively baffled that the movie was not about Diana drowning in a sea of unwanted sexual advances.
In her piece on socially conscious criticism at the A.V. Club, Katie Rife writes, “…everyone appreciates things (or doesn’t appreciate them) for different reasons, making the social context of a film essential to gauging its quality. Sometimes dismissed as a politically correct “purity test,” by these metrics an otherwise flawed film can be great if it empowers its fan base, or an otherwise well-made film can be a failure if it alienates segments thereof.”
Basically, what this boils down to is that you can’t analyze a film without taking into account the people watching it. And just as people are infinitely unique, so too will be their viewing experiences.
Which explains the widely varying Wonder Woman reactions. To some, it is an emotional, glass-ceiling-shattering leap forward for women in film. To others, it is yet another entry in a long string of disappointments when it comes to Hollywood’s portrayals (or lack thereof) of people of color. To a (seemingly not-insignificant) portion of male critics, it is a decent superhero film that is somehow confusing in its lack of leering up-the-skirt shots.
Personally, I loved everything about Wonder Woman. I loved that Diana was allowed to be brave and strong and courageous, while also getting to be feminine and gentle and kind. I loved that the Amazons could be unparalleled warriors and also have wrinkles. I loved that their costumes, while beautiful, actually looked like armor and not glorified bathing suits. I loved the epic score and the way the men followed Diana into battle, and I loved the themes of love and sacrifice and hope.
I loved Wonder Woman as a life-long fan of superheroes and comics, and also as a mom trying to raise two daughters. I loved that Diana was such a strong role model, who enthusiastically embraced her own strengths while lifting up those around her. I loved that she was the star, the hero, and that it never even occurred to her that she might not be the best person for the job simply because she’s a woman.
I connected with her in a way I have not connected with any fictional character since Claudia Kishi. When I first came home (sobbing) from the theater, I found myself incredibly defensive of Diana and her movie, instantly bristling at any reviews that claimed that Wonder Woman wasn’t feminist enough or diverse enough, because she was enough for me, and did they even watch the movie, and they clearly were just looking for nits to pick, and ugh, the Internet is the worst.
And yet. They were right.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying those reviews should be held up as definitive analyses of the movie, or that I necessarily even agreed with their points. What I’m saying is that they were right that Wonder Woman was not enough for them, which means that it was not enough, period.
In a world that is infinitely diverse, where there is always another intersectionality to keep moving the goalposts of adequate representation, the idea of any one character or story being enough to satisfy any entire subset of the population is a fallacy. There will always be a group that is underserved, there will always be voices clamoring for better. And here’s the thing, no matter how much I loved Wonder Woman… they won’t be wrong.
For many of us immersed in the world of fiction and pop culture, what we are yearning for lives at the crossroads of identity and aspiration, where a character can meet us where we are while simultaneously showing us where we’d like to be, and that crossroads is at a different place for everyone.
For me, as an awkward, shy nine-year-old, Claudia Kishi met me at the pieces of my identity that I connected with the most strongly (Asian-American, female, suburban) and also embodied who I wanted to be (namely, cool and popular).
Throughout my adolescence and much of my adulthood, the heroes I admired have offered the aspirational piece without the identity piece, while the characters who carried the identity pieces lacked the aspirational ones. I could aspire to be heroic and brave and loyal like Aragorn, but I would never be white and male like him. I could identify with Princess Buttercup’s gender, but I didn’t yearn to be a helpless damsel.
But now, as an adult and a mother, I saw Diana Prince, with whom I could identify as a woman, and who also embodied so much of what I’ve always admired in both male and female characters: heroism, bravery, kindness, compassion, loyalty, optimism. She joined Rey from Star Wars as a heroic woman my kids can look up to who is not defined by her love interest or her appeal to men, but by who she is as a person. No, I did not identify with her racially, but she hit enough important parts of my personal (identity + aspiration) formula that for me, I wasn’t bothered that I didn’t spot any Asian Amazons on screen.
But my personal formula isn’t going to be yours, or anyone else’s. The things that didn’t bother me would be deal-breakers to someone else, while things that meant everything to someone else (such as casting a Jewish woman to play such an iconic hero) were barely on my radar. We all have our own precise mix of things that must be present for us to feel truly welcome in a story, and that’s okay.
Personal anecdote time. A couple years ago, both of my daughters decided to cut their hair to chin-length. Neither of them liked how tangled their long hair got, and this seemed like the perfect solution. But not long after they’d received their haircuts (which looked adorable, for the record), my youngest came to me, tearfully saying that she’d decided she wanted to grow her hair back out.
“I thought you didn’t like having long hair?” I said, puzzled.
“I don’t,” she said.
“Then why don’t you want to keep it short?”
“Because I want to be a hero when I grow up, and girls with short hair can’t be heroes.”
I was baffled. “Of course they can! Why would you think they can’t?”
She looked at me, equally baffled. “Because I’ve never seen one.”
She had seen all sorts of movies and shows with heroic women and girls in them, so I’d thought her formula should’ve been complete. I’d assumed girl (identity) + hero (aspiration) would’ve been enough. But she needed girl + short hair + hero to find her way into the story, and as of that point, she didn’t think it existed.
I had two choices after this conversation. I could tell her that her hair wasn’t important and it shouldn’t matter to her, and show her all the heroic women and girls in the stories she loved and tell her that they should be enough. It would have been a valid enough approach; her worth doesn’t lie in her hair, after all.
Or I could do what I did, and try to find some short-haired female heroes for her.
Twitter, help me out: I need female heroes with short hair (besides Black Widow) that a 6yo might have heard of.
— Lauren Thoman (@LaurenTHCW) June 20, 2015
I’m not claiming to be the perfect parent, and there might have been a better way to handle this that didn’t occur to me. And rest assured, I did try my best to make it clear to her that she could be a hero no matter what length her hair was. But I think that given the choice between telling a little girl what sorts of representation should matter to her, and giving her the representation that already matters to her, the latter will always be more impactful.
I was fortunate that there already exist several great characters that I could show my daughter. But for other moms out there hunting for representation for their daughters, so that they can tell them, yes, you too can be a hero, just like your favorite character, those characters may not exist yet. Or even if they do, they probably don’t exist in a format that carries the same weight as headlining a major blockbuster, complete with action figures and t-shirts and birthday party themes.
There are many women of all races and cultures and religions and orientations who have found themselves in Diana and the Amazons, but there are many others who have not. And no matter what it was that prevented them from making that connection, it does those women and girls a disservice to say that this single movie should have been enough.
No single movie or show or character is ever going to be enough. Wonder Woman was a hugely moving experience for many women, but not every woman. Many are hoping that the female characters in Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther will serve to empower the Black women and girls who felt underrepresented in Wonder Woman, although it is worth noting that they will still likely all be supporting characters, as the star of Black Panther is a man. (This is not to downplay the tremendous significance of a Black man anchoring a Marvel tentpole, which we haven’t seen since the Blade trilogy, and never on this scale.)
But I’m willing to bet that no matter how important and empowering Black Panther is to most of its target audience (and I’m sincerely hoping it is), there will be those who will walk out of the theater feeling like they still haven’t found themselves in movies. Just as there were women who walked out of Wonder Woman unimpressed and unsatisfied.
No matter how diverse any individual story or even franchise may be, no matter how accurate and respectful its portrayal of its characters, there will always be a group who is left out. The solution is not to give up, or to tell those groups to accept what crumbs they are thrown and have it be enough, but to continually strive to represent an increasingly broad array of individuals and experiences. Wonder Woman was great for many of us, but that doesn’t mean she is enough. It means she is a step in the right direction, a step toward centered representation that includes people of all races and genders and religions and cultures.
In a pivotal scene toward the middle of Wonder Woman, Diana climbs out of the trenches to cross a field that Steve Trevor has told her is uncrossable. She moves slowly at first, swiping aside the German bullets that aim to cut her down, and then more confidently, breaking into a run, until she is gritting her teeth and singlehandedly holding back a tidal wave of hostile fire.
Upon seeing that she is drawing all the enemy fire, yet is still standing, Steve and the Allied troops — previously frozen in place, unable to gain any ground — pour onto the field after her, emboldened by Diana’s actions. Together, they cut through the German forces on the other side and save a village they’d previously considered lost.
Diana didn’t save that village on her own, but she paved the way. She made it possible for others to come after her, first one, then two, then a flood. And together, they accomplished something everyone had thought was impossible.
Every girl deserves to find her Claudia Kishi or Diana Prince or Riri Williams or Kamala Khan, just as each boy deserves to find his Steve Rogers or T’Challa or Miles Morales or Cassian Andor. Maybe this is an impossible goal. No single movie will ever be feminist enough, because there is no one narrative that can capture the individuality of all women. No single character will ever be representative enough because their experience will not reflect that of every person who shares their marginalization.
Wonder Woman is certainly not enough. It is not feminist enough, it is not diverse enough, it is not representative enough for all the people out there who were hoping for it to be something other than what it was. It is not enough enough, even for those of us who loved it, because it is only one movie, and one movie can never be enough.
Claudia wasn’t enough. Looking back, she wasn’t really like me at all. Not even in her Asian-ness. But she was all I had.
Wonder Woman, right now, is all we have. She stands alone on a field littered with male-driven narratives, brave and imperfect and trying to shoulder a tremendously heavy load, one that no single woman, or character, or movie, should have to bear. In a better world, we would have a whole army of heroic fictional women — Amazons in story form — already there, standing beside her. In that better world, it would be no big deal for some of us to love Wonder Woman and others to dislike it, because it would simply be one of many well-made heroic films starring women, like how no one really bats an eye when you say “I liked Iron Man 3 a lot more than Iron Man 2.”
But perhaps, like Diana, Wonder Woman can help blaze a path through previously hostile territory. Maybe, despite its flaws, its success can embolden writers and studios and directors to follow its lead. And I can only hope, in the wake of Wonder Woman, that we will find ourselves awash in a sudden flood of stories and characters that previously couldn’t have made it out of the trenches.