Nov 3, 2019
Dear Wonder Woman,
From the time I was around eight years old, I began to do something different after school. The usual thing was walking to my Dad’s medical office, saying hi to the nurses in the front and then going straight back to the doctor’s lounge, tossing my backpack on a chair, pouring myself a cup of coffee and jamming it with enough cream and sugar that, upon drinking it, I’d feel my blood singing.
There was homework to do, but I couldn’t help investigating the medical textbooks lining the shelves which, with their titles, announced serious, even ominous, sorts of things. One time Dad popped in, and I happened to be looking at a book on skin diseases. Dad saw my horrified, horrified face and he said, “Son, maybe that’s a bit much for you right now. Listen, here’s some money. Go down to the Odd Spot and get yourself a comic book. Maybe have a snack at the McNamara Café.”
That was how I began to do the something different after school.
Wonder Woman, that’s how I first met you.
You were enough to make my blood sing—no need anymore for sugar- and cream-charged coffee.
Hunkered down in a narrow restaurant booth, I’d page through your comic books, which told story after story of your strength, your nobility, your beauty, while I drank orange pop and stuffed myself full with French fries covered in gravy.
What must that have looked like, to innocent bystanders?
But over time I grew up and grew out of reading comic books, and I thought I had left you behind.
Until just a couple years ago. Until the 2017 blockbuster movie titled Wonder Woman. And I am writing today because I realized something about you that I did not consciously recognize back in my childhood days.
Which is ironic because I was so very lonely myself back then, and loneliness is something I still know very well, and I see it everywhere around me.
Your movie begins, and the screen is darkness but I hear your voice with its lush, exotic accent, and you speak of wanting to save the world but also of learning things the hard way. When finally the darkness fades and images appear on the screen, we see you, it’s the present day, you inhabit your Diana Prince persona, you are walking down a corridor under the Louvre glass pyramid towards your office where you work as an expert in warfare-related antiquities.
You are handed a briefcase and you open it to find a picture of yourself from a hundred years earlier. It was World War I, you’re in full Wonder Woman mode, you’re surrounded by fellow fighters for freedom, but they were human and are long dead, all of them, including Steve Trevor whom you loved.
Only you survive to hold the memories. There is no one alive who saw what you saw or heard what you heard.
Such powerful loneliness, to be the only one left.
Aging is not for the faint of heart. Even for one such as you, whose body stays forever young. But each death of someone you love is an emotional blow, and, blow after blow, the heart of even an immortal can feel beaten up…..
Both my parents are dead, so I know.
I honor this in you, Wonder Woman, and in all.
But there is yet another kind of loneliness that is the main motivation for this letter. It’s what happens when you show up in the world as Wonder Woman, or when anyone shows up in all their wonderfulness.
One writer I love, Aldous Huxley, once put it like this: “If one’s different, one’s bound to be lonely.”
That’s the particular loneliness I’m reaching out to you about, in this letter.
One of your stories comes to mind. It’s about your family, specifically your mom. She was Queen of the Amazon island of Themyscira, and she had plans for you. To stay away from the world beyond the island. To stay within the strictly female community and assume your rightful role.
She had plans for you. But the wonderfulness in you made you want to go save the world. It definitely made your mother fear for you. Perhaps it also threatened her a bit, in that you just might end up outshining her. Perhaps it was something else.
Who can tell the complexities of a parent’s heart?
What’s for sure is that the conflict hurt terribly. You felt rejected about the very thing that made you wonderful. Your mother the Queen said to you, “You know that if you choose to leave, you may never return.” And you replied, “Who will I be if I stay?”
To stay and continue to be with family would have compromised your life’s meaning and joy, and you would feel misunderstood and feel … lonely.
But to leave is to feel lonely too.
Perhaps this could be seen as a matter of doing the least harm. The decision to leave would break some eggs, but the decision to stay would break a lot more.
Do the least harm.
Wonder Woman, this strikes me as the kind of terrible soul-searching anyone has to go through when the wonderfulness inside nags them to leave circumstances that are basically comfortable but slowly draining all the joy away.
What will my parents say? What will my husband/wife/partner say? What will my children say? What will my friends say? What will the world say?
Wonder Woman, I so admire you because you knew that the question with the biggest consequences of all was, “What will my soul say”?
“Who will I be if I stay?”
But I must admit, the answer I would give to this as a man comes with less baggage than the answer you give to this as a woman.
As your mother well knew, the world beyond Themyscira was a world full of misogyny. A world full of men and also women who patrol the boundaries of what is “appropriate” for a woman’s station—and what is not “appropriate.”
To fight against this misogyny was the intent of your greatest champion among humans, Harvard psychologist William Moulton Marston. In a press release from the 1940s, he said that he wanted “to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men” because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity.”
Marston was a feminist, inspired by the woman’s suffrage movements of the nineteen-tens which, among other things, promoted the use of birth control. Margaret Sanger was one the key voices for this at the time, and Margaret Sanger was a member of his family. Jill Lepore, writer for The New Yorker, gets straight to the point: “Superman owes a debt to science fiction, Batman to the hardboiled detective. Wonder Woman’s debt is to feminism.”
One of the stories that illustrates the misogyny of the world beyond Themyscira actually has to do with your superhero colleagues like Superman, Batman, the Green Lantern, and the Flash. Together with them, you founded the Justice League of America because you knew, as I do, that there are things in this world that are too important and too big for any one individual to accomplish all alone. Justice is one of those things.
As a Unitarian Universalist minister, who believes that togetherness in religious community is powerful in an utterly unique way, don’t get me started.
But the role that these superhero peers and equals gave you on the Justice League was that of secretary. Your job was to take the minutes. Never mind that you were and are arguably the most powerful of them all.
Definitely the wisest, because your style of being powerful is to blend hard power with soft power. When hard power is needed, because one’s opponent is not going to yield and not going to take accountability, you go there, with frightening ferocity. But you are above all a lover of peace; you are nurturing; you are compassionate. You prefer diplomacy to blunt bashing.
You are wisest of all. So let’s give her the secretary position??
That smacks of misogyny. No doubt unconscious, because your superhero colleagues were your genuine friends. There was genuine friendship there. But misogyny, like racism, like able-ism, like all the other -isms, is something that gets in people simply as a part of growing up. It’s like pollution in the environment. There is no question people have to breathe to live. So we breathe the pollution in, it gets inside us, and so we can say and do things that feel so natural but are, in fact, hurtful.
We unconsciously reproduce the –ism.
Maybe that’s what explains something an associate minister I once worked with had to say. One day she shared with me how she was being pecked to death by older women in the congregation. About her hair, her shoes, how she did this, how she did that. She told me that the folks who gave her the most trouble in our socially and politically progressive, liberal religious community were by far other women. Not men.
Now we’re talking about things like “the sisterhood ceiling” and “queen bees.” Have you heard about this? Essentially it’s when a woman shows up in all her wonderfulness and other women blast her for it. It’s women patrolling other women for signs of “excessive” sexuality or ambition or aggression.
How lonely it can feel, to be undermined by those who are of your own tribe and should know how bad it feels.
How lonely, to be a feminist. Threats come from everywhere.
A writer I know, Suzannah Weiss, speaks to this when she talks about her fear, in the here and now, of revealing she’s a feminist. Suzannah Weiss is afraid: and it comes (she says)
… from the college friend who told me “You’re not going to become an angry feminist now, are you?”
It comes from the boyfriend who told me feminists have an anger complex that usually comes from being abused.
It comes from an extremely liberal friend I assumed was a feminist until she said “No, I’m a people person, so I don’t want to associate myself with a group that antagonizes anyone.”
It comes from the boyfriend who told me I was “aggressively wary” for pointing out a double standard in a movie.
It comes from the commenters who left threats when I published an article about sexists on online dating sites.
Suzannah Weiss is writing this almost 80 years after the time your greatest human champion, William Moulton Marston, revealed your story to the world, and hoped in this way to telegraph the essential message of feminism, which is a hopeful message about women being able to be wonderfully fully themselves—and men too. For feminism is about that too: male liberation from oppressive patterns that hurt them and that gets translated into hurting women.
This reminds me of a T-shirt another associate minister I once served with used to wear. He is male. The words on the T-shirt read, “This is what a feminist looks like.”
The stares he gets are strange.
So what. We all need to be feminists these days, when, for example, women’s reproductive rights are being strangled. Margaret Sanger would be rolling in her grave right now if she knew.
These days cry out for feminism—despite the consequences of loneliness.
Something that the brilliant psychologist Carl Jung once said comes to mind. He said, “Loneliness does not come from having no people around you, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to you.” Even with your powerful Wonder Woman image out there, and all the gains that women have had over the years, and even a recent female Presidential candidate who some say really won the election, still, people have a hard time receiving the message of feminism, and it makes the sender … lonely.
Wonder Woman, I am grateful for you. Above all, grateful for the example of how you stood up for your dream in the face of your mother’s disapproval.
You teach us that the worst loneliness of all is that of staying with what’s easy when your heart yearns for something else that might re-ignite joy.
You teach us that the worst loneliness is self-doubt and self-contempt.
You teach us that the worst loneliness is not being able to hear yourself.
The worst loneliness is being lonely for yourself.
Who will I be if I stay?
This is what you brought to me, when you came back into my life when I turned 50 and I was deep in my loneliness, and I needed this wisdom so badly.
No less than the child of an Amazon Queen and of the greatest God of them all, Zeus, can feel vulnerable. No less than a friend of Superman and Batman and others in the Justice League of America can feel vulnerable.
But you showed up and showed up again with courage.
While my eight-year-old self hunkered down in a booth at the McNamera Cafe and gobbled down gravy French fries and gulped orange pop, I was eating this up too, I was being spiritually nourished by your example, and I needed it then and I need it now.
May more and more people show up with courage, inspired by you.
I am yours, sincerely,