When my sister-in-law gave birth in October, she chose to forego all the trappings of modern anesthesia. This turned out to be no small feat, as my nephew, Luke, was not born suddenly. His labor was excruciating, and he entered the world already weighing as much as many three-month-olds. When I asked Anna how she did it, she made a reference to a movie. “You know that scene in Wonder Woman where Gal Gadot crosses a field through a gun fight using her shield and her will as her only weapons?” She gave me a wry sort of smile, the kind that you can only muster when the pain has been borne and the reward is now apparent. “It was like that.”
There are people on the internet who are upset about female superheroes. Reading that sentence over again, it seems blatantly ridiculous enough to make me wonder if I need to write this piece at all, but the fact remains. There are people on the internet who believe that the film portrayals of fictional female superheroes are damaging the narrative God gifted when, male and female, he created them.
The Unacceptable Belief
What I can gather is that this opinion hinges on the notion that when women are granted a moment of suspended disbelief to envision ourselves as physically dominant, we are setting ourselves and society up for a grave disappointment. Because women surely cannot be as physically imposing as, say, Superman. Women could never train themselves to shoot laser beams from their eyes and fly. As opposed to men, who barely have to practice to heft Thor’s hammers and use X-ray vision, women are inherently limited in their ability to assume the identities of cartoons. Women are also, apparently, incapable of sifting through an allegory to find the truth in it, infamous literalists as we are prone to being.
This is a truth we must accept.
I’ll hold the sarcasm for the rest of this piece, I promise. I hear the trait is not endearing to a lady.
I didn’t find Wonder Woman to be a very remarkable movie. But when the eponymous character’s strength took center stage, I was held rapt. The sheer physicality of Gadot’s Diana was astonishing, sure, but it was the virtues of peacefulness, goodness, and inner sanctity that, we are to understand, made her strong. The emotional convictions which motivated every use of her physical dominance held me captive.
I was shaken to realize that this feeling—whatever it was—was the reason why a man—why a person—might want to watch an action movie.
By man, I am excluding the man that I am married to. My husband hated the movie. He hates almost every superhero trope these days, and I don’t blame him. It’s probably pretty weird to see recycled storylines repeated through imaginary figureheads when you’re bringing people back to life after they overdose and dragging them out of mortal danger every day.
Holding Hands with Bravery
We’d only been dating a few weeks—hadn’t even had a proper kiss yet—when he brought me to that deserted area of the beach. The city lights glowered from miles off the coast, casting a sickly shade of pale yellow on the sand and the water. I hung back as he strode forward across the waterline, littered with garbage and horseshoe crab carcasses, which I stepped over briskly in an effort to keep up. There was nothing and there was nobody and it was so dark, and so quiet, until we broke through a patch of sea grass and saw it.
A span of eerie-looking rock piles, arranged in a circle around a crude sort of altar, faced away from us. Grotesque expressions had been painted or carved onto some of the formations, while others stood untouched, jarring in a different way as their edges pierced the shadows that surrounded them. I felt a woozy sort of terror, like I was staring into the gaping mouth of a legendary beast and could do nothing but stand awed at the sharpness of its jaws.
“Incredible, isn’t it?” He glanced back at me as if to gauge my apprehension. It felt like a test. (It was, I found out later, a test.) I nodded, stepping forward, my shoulders square and my breath steady despite the dread that I felt swinging heavy like a pendulum in the back of my throat. He offered his hand, and I took it. I thought, Here is a man who treats fear like a plaything. I was scared of his courage, but a part of me was longing for it to be my own.
Patriarchy, nationalism, religious fundamentalism—they’re all tied up together in the culture that raised me. Together they make a cocktail that feels like safety, tastes like love. I cannot say for sure why I was looking to marry a man who scared himself (or tried to) just for fun. But when I found one, I was sure that his bravery was the highest of all possible virtues. This strength implied some wildness that was also rigid, a spirit that could not be fully spent.
From the moment I grabbed his hand that night at the rocks by the ocean, I was all in. I had been taught all my life that a man’s power would by extension make me strong. I was certain I would never have to be brave again. This was wrong, and, more than that, unfair.
The process of unearthing what was wrong with that assumption, as I wrangled with it and disguised it and examined it when it was dressed up and easier to look at, took far longer than I’d like to admit. Part of the problem was that I’d never actually been allowed to peer inside the mechanics of a woman being visibly strong within the context of a relationship. I was already disrupting what I saw as my own femininity by cultivating dreams of a life that was bigger than the one my husband wanted for himself. The idea that there could be a balance between my agency and my husband’s felt like a swindle, a stacked deck, a game too dangerous to play.
Where my husband goes to work, he is called “the bravest.” He does a job you’d have to be crazy to actually want to do. In the span of an evening he may staunch a gunshot wound for a teenager that’s bleeding out; he may be thrown down a staircase by a panicking man and live forever after with a frozen shoulder; he may witness children in the straits of dire abuse and be helpless to save them; he may wade through a floor of flaming garbage underneath hundreds of pounds of equipment using a radio that’s older than he is to try to save a family’s dog. Then he will come home and smoke a cigar and vanquish the memories of the night before within the darkness of our unfinished basement, sinking so far into the cushions of our ancient brown suede couch that I suppose he could be swallowed. I watch him and wonder if that’s what he wants.
This is not at all what I expected.
In the three years he has had this job, I’ve watched my husband’s shoulders broaden and his frame spread out. Sometimes it feels like he’s given up a part of himself, sacrificed whatever piece of him belonged to the rest of society, so that he could better see it for what it is and so protect it. A hardened calculus takes place now when we go to the local multiplex as he counts the exits and the fire escapes and evaluates the crowd. “This theater smells,” he remarks casually, “like a dead body.” We sit back and hold hands and let the film begin. That first time his hand found mine there was more softness to be found in between his fingers.
Bravery belongs to me.
“Courage is a neutral value.” I can’t remember where I heard that first, but I often wonder about its truth. Perhaps there is something good about the fight to preserve our own lives, for our own sake. Perhaps there isn’t. The Christian faith instructs that to protect our own well-being is to preserve an image-bearer of God himself. We’re also taught that death doesn’t have to be a tawdry business, but it can be faced with dignity, with peace.
To contain these two beliefs at once infers a struggle as we try to apply both a reasonable effort toward keeping on breathing and an acceptance that every day is a step forward in a march toward physical erasure. We are to laud bravery, as it echoes Christ, but never to worship survival. This duality presents questions, of course, whether it can be applied even to a marital relationship. The truth about being brave is that it’s rarely graceful. It’s usually pretty bloody. And some of the time, somebody dies.
And the tension of that—death to self alongside self-preservation—is what captivated me about the character of Wonder Woman. To save, she had to kill. To succeed, she had to sacrifice. Life and death took place beside her as she stepped forward in a world that no one had prepared her for. That’s what has me convinced that it can’t be wrong to glorify the female form as able, and the female psyche as duty-bound. The real sin here happens when we cover up what God called good. Whether we’re talking about a gratuitous and extravagant DC Comics vehicle or discussing the simple, singular struggle to be as strong as somebody else needs me to be, the truth of it remains dire, necessary, wild, and strong.
To be married to a man who is gone for days doing something dangerous is not an identity as much as it is an ability—an ability that I was delighted, and relieved, to find out that I possess. What it takes to be married to my husband is to keep holding on. I am grateful forever for the lesson that his long absences have taught me, and that is not that I need him to be strong. It gives me chills to admit this but I think he would agree that I am as strong as he is.
To showcase women in positions of fortitude and depth is to restore to ourselves the gift of imagination, and also an opportunity to re-examine what our position on strength should actually be. When we ignore the strength women possess, we rob them of who they can be. Wonder Woman is about abdicating dominance to embrace real power. Just like any man that finds it in him to be good. In that regard, there’s not a note that’s false about it.
Cover image by Warren Wong.