All Of The Other Boys Want To Be Superman, But I Want To Be Wonder Woman
by Kyle Brazzel
When Wonder Woman charged into the frame, bracelets first, in the sold-out screening of Batman v Superman I attended recently, war whoops erupted throughout the theater. Neither marquee hero had provoked a sound from the audience all evening. The only moment worth cheering in all of director Zach Snyder’s muddled title bout came two hours into the movie and three quarters of a century into Wonder Woman’s lifespan as a pop-culture fixture.
Wonder Woman is the founding mother of comic-book heroine-dom, yet this was her first feature-film appearance. Women heroes from the Hanna-Barbera D-List (Josie and the Pussycats, Daphne and Thelma from “Scooby Doo”) made it onto the big screen years ago. Even Jem was in the movies before Wonder Woman, Hera help us. In Batman v Superman Wonder Woman’s presence merely rounds out “Trinity,” D.C. Comics’ three-issue collection of its most mass-market figures. Next year, with her origin-story movie directed by Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman’s screen time will feel like an embarrassment of riches.
Like any enduring icon, Wonder Woman has undergone her share of makeovers, but her movie appearance was more or less the depiction I had obsessed over as a boy from Saturday-morning cartoons and weeknight television twirls of the late nineteen-seventies. Her tiara looked upside down to me, but there it was, gold-ish if not golden, still featuring a starburst. A vaguely avian head ornamented her breastplate, though perhaps now less obviously patriotic (it had been a bald eagle in iterations of old). My formative Wonder Woman didn’t carry a sword or a shield, and her hairdo came to a sort of Marlo-Thomas-in-“That Girl” flip. But these changes I can live with; an Amazon warrior should have stiffer weapons than a rope looped through her belt, and maybe not such stiff hair.
I love Wonder Woman, but I couldn’t cheer for her along with the rest of the theater audience. I had the inverse of the classic comic-book secret identity: To the world, I was an empowered, self-accepting gay man. But to myself, I was a mousy, plainclothed Diana Prince, shrinking from the memory of idolizing a female superhero. It was a scarlet eagle on my chest that only I could see.
As a prolific populator of fictional worlds, Shonda Rhimes is to the ABC schedule as Stan Lee is to the Marvel Universe, and the female leads of her shows constitute their own tribe of wonder women. On “Scandal,” Olivia Pope is a gladiator of a political fixer, a mere sword-and-sandal away from Amazonian warriorhood. Allan Heinberg, a Shondaland veteran (he has written for three of Rhimes’s shows and is now an executive producer on ABC’s, “The Catch”) juggled writing duties on a reboot of the Wonder Woman character for D.C. Comics while he was writing for the first season of “Grey’s Anatomy.”
The version of Wonder Woman that Heinberg inherited in 2006 had just snapped a man’s neck to protect Superman and Batman, a key development in the series “Infinite Crisis.” At Heinberg’s insistence, in his five-issue mini-series arc, titled “Who Is Wonder Woman?,” the eagle was restored to her chest, replacing a stacked pair of W’s that resembled a corporate logo. He also brought back Diana Prince, her secret identity, and with it the signature transformational spin, the equivalent of Clark Kent’s ducking into a telephone booth. As he rhapsodized over these Carter-era Wonder Woman minutiae, Heinberg remarked, “I’ve never sounded gayer.”
Sometimes, Heinberg’s fixation with female superheroes made its way into his television scripts. He wrote the episode of “Sex and the City” in which Carrie had a fling with a comic-book artist, giving her occasion to declare sisterhood with Wonder Woman over a shared love of accessories. For “The O.C.,” he staged a scene in which Summer Roberts dresses as Wonder Woman to get the attention of comic-book fanboy Seth Cohen. In his character-motivation asides to Mireille Enos, the actress who plays Alice in “The Catch,” Heinberg has told her that, secretly, the series is the Barbara Gordon show he’s always wanted to do. Gordon, the alter ego of Batgirl, is a redhead, like Enos. As a private investigator, Alice employs martial arts, disabling evildoers like Gordon would.
The comic-book deep cuts Seth Cohen espoused on “The O.C.” showed the publishing world that Heinberg knew his stuff, and in 2005 Marvel hired him to create a new series called “Young Avengers.” Because his teen-aged superheroes needed mentors and overseers, Heinberg was able to sample from the Marvel catalogue, including iconic female characters like Jessica Jones and Scarlet Witch. But “Young Avengers” remains most known for a romance Heinberg creating between two teen males, the Wiccan and Hulkling characters. Some fans complained he failed gay comic fans in not writing more straightforward love scenes for them. But Heinberg preferred to show an ease around the pairing, such as when he’d have Captain America casually ask one of the characters, “How’s your boyfriend?” Bedroom scenes tended to move the plot along by discussing the team’s nemeses. “Two seventeen-year-old gay boyfriends in bed together talking about whether or not they should trust Dr. Doom: To me showing that in a Marvel comic book was more profound than actually showing them having sex,” Heinberg said.
Heinberg grew up gay in Tulsa, Oklahoma, around the same time I was growing up gay a few hundred miles away, in Little Rock, Arkansas — we shared a coming-of-age Wonder Woman era. In the Lynda Carter years, we had both created nearly identical, homemade Wonder Woman Halloween costumes, he by affixing stars to his blue jeans while I stuck them to a red cape pinned to a red turtleneck. (I topped mine with a storebought Wonder Woman mask that had all the expressive nuance of a Pez dispenser.)
Heinberg told me when he writes heroic women characters, he thinks of his own mother, who defied nineteen-seventies convention and complicated her life by leaving a real-estate career to earn a medical degree while caring for three children. But that example alone wasn’t enough to counteract the feeling of otherness he had growing up.
“When all your friends like Spiderman and Batman and you prefer Wonder Woman, Batgirl, and the Black Canary, you absolutely know there’s something wrong with that,” Heinberg said. “And you don’t make it public.” The world of superheroes was supposed to be an escape for misfits. But the Wonder Woman mythology came front-loaded with the worst word of all for little boys like Heinberg and me: “sissy.”
In the nineteen-forties, as Jill Lepore documented in her book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, the inventor and psychologist William Moulton Marston felt that it was time for a superhero who triumphed through nurturing. But in his view, assigning that quality to a “superman,” (emphasis Marston’s) would turn off young male readers. “It’s sissified,” he argued to his publisher, “according to exclusively masculine rules, to be tender, loving, affectionate, and alluring.” If he wrote a hero that way, Marston imagined little boys would protest, “Aw, that’s girl’s stuff! Who wants to be a girl?”
I did, sometimes, until I learned to feel strange about it. Every young childhood has an uncensored arc of pre-conscious cosplay that frees us to wear a giant foam Hulk hand as a winter glove, or Cinderella’s ballgown out for ice cream. But as we age, it gets tricky, and the memories move from cringe-worthy to deeply closeted.
A powerful scene from the first season of Fox’s “Empire” depicted Terrence Howard’s patriarch character depositing his young son Jamal in a trash can after finding the boy teetering around the house in high heels. Lee Daniels, the series’ creator, later explained the scene as autobiographical, capturing the brutal ways his police-office father expressed his homophobia. My own father was in law enforcement, too. I remember watching “Wonder Woman” while he took care of me. With a grin, he noted how Lynda Carter’s bustier looked as though it could fail her at any step. I could tell he hoped that I hoped it would happen. I didn’t.
All things considered, I was lucky, though what goes unsaid can blister, too. My grandmother never returning the boast when her friends described their grandsons’ adventures in hunting or soccer as conferring status in some pre-adolescent hyper-sex, not just boy but “all boy.” What all was a boy who spun in circles, hoping for transformation behind a combustive flare?
I grew out of Wonder Woman dress-up, but was that necessarily a sign of growth? I recoil when I see male acquaintances dressed as a woman for Halloween or a “Grey Gardens” theme party, even as I understand I’m recoiling from something in myself — one-third of photographs of me before the age of six look like tributes to Little Edie, before I’d ever even seen her.
At thirty-two, Andre Clarke, known as @KidCheetah on Instagram, is only ten years younger than me, but he has thousands more followers, so in Internet years we’re a full generation apart. He posts photos of himself dressed as characters like Wonder Woman, Ariel from The Little Mermaid, or his favorite, Storm from “The X-Men.” Rather than being a reference to Wonder Woman foe the Cheetah, Clarke’s social-media handle is his way of reimagining his constellation of freckles, an effect he has enhanced by tattooing more feline spots across his shoulder.
If the KidCheetah Instagram feed were a runway show, the pièce de resistance would be the Storm ensemble Clarke assembled for last year’s FlameCon, which bills itself as “NYC’s Queer ComicCon.” Armed with a giant hammer, Clarke adopted the persona of “Asgardian Storm,” a version of the character who transports the X-Men to Thor’s world, Asgard. It was recognizably the same weather-controlling character, but dressed for a ceremonious occasion: tropical Storm. To create a mohawk, Clarke bisected his shaved head with a strip of white fur, flanking it with wings soaring out from his temples. Epaulets projected from his shoulders in crustacean layers, and his bare legs were streaked with lightning bolts. Clarke made the distinction that, rather than faithfully re-creating the original, female look, his costumes are tailored to the male form. “To say it’s not drag at all would be a lie,” he told me. “It’s very drag-adjacent. But it makes me feel great. I feel like I’m finally able to be the person I wanted to be as a kid growing up.”
Clarke couldn’t think of a single negative reaction his female hero-worship has attracted, but that hardly means we live on a Paradise Island of acceptance. Earlier this year, when Adele escorted her three-year-old son Angelo through Disneyland, observers couldn’t help noticing he was dressed as a Disney princess. The online commentary was as contemptuous as often as it was affirming, even under the fawning Yahoo! headline, “Adele Proves Her Awesomeness Once Again By Letting Her Son Wear a ‘Frozen’ Anna Costume to Disneyland.” One commenter remarked, “The problem is, the boy might love the dress up so much that he will never recover from it till he grows up.” Another said, “I would bet the author of this article is a woman…they love it when little boys have that sissy look to them and smother it with words like ‘sweet’ and ‘adorable.’”
These commenters are specimens not terribly evolved since the time of Wonder Woman’s creation, when her creator complained that comic-book culture reeked of a “bloodcurdling masculinity.” By the time Wonder Woman appeared onscreen in Batman v Superman, she had dropped out of the superhero game, revolted by human brutality. No matter how much Heinberg and I wanted to emulate Wonder Woman, retreating from the world of man wasn’t an option. But leaving behind the world of all-girl or all-boy was.
At the time of our conversation, Heinberg was preparing to enter production on the first season finale of “The Catch.” As he spoke, he looked over at two shelves he has given over to a collection of Batgirl figurines. “Half of the time I’m excited to look at them,” he said. “The other half is when I have people coming in for a production meeting and I have that moment of …” Here, he paused to imitate himself in the grips of that old fear, his secret identity being discovered: “Eh…I wonder if I should…” Heinberg sighed, and indicated the conclusion he always reaches, forcing the moment to its infinite crisis: “Well, it’s too late now.”