Superhero narratives mesh well with the obstacles I have struggled with, the values I try to embody, and the fun I believe one can have with a cape. I read and watch the stories of superheroes and villains because it is fun, rich and full of themes of connection to oneself, other people and the world. I relate to them because a common thread is rebirth, rewriting and rebuilding while maintaining yourself across time.
My own history is one with which I relate to Wonder Woman, and to a lesser extent Oracle, the name Batgirl used after becoming disabled. I find myself relating to Supergirl when I feel less strong internally, and will then also find myself singing songs about her or Superwoman that indicate exhaustion. I find it interesting that she is the only character consistently seen in popular culture as so tired, and I think many women can relate in their daily lives. Perhaps she is seen this way because women juggle so much and relate to being superwomen ourselves.
Many years ago I bought a Supergirl figure in white armor, which I still have. It doesn’t inspire me not to sing those songs, but I like the idea of white armor sometimes. I also relate to the innocence frequently written into her character, her high ideals and values, and her desire to see good in everyone. Despite recent losses, I am still like this, though it is very difficult to write and read that.
Wonder Woman is a character that I have gravitated toward consistently for years, starting in childhood. When I was eight, my mother gave me a Wonder Woman doll that I was very excited to have, having seen an episode of the show that depicted Wonder Woman in a building with many dolls of herself. After this, I asked incessantly for one. Because the dolls were no longer being manufactured, finding one was incredibly difficult for my mother, but she did it. My Wonder Woman doll was sold to us at a doll hospital, and I remember how happy I felt upon learning that they existed, and more importantly, that there were people who took dolls and play seriously as adults. This mattered to me, and still does.
For the next few days, I played with my doll all the time. Being so young, the blue suit she wore as Diana Prince didn’t much impress me. I wasn’t much for subtlety and didn’t see the need for hiding when one could be Wonder Woman every day. So Wonder Woman she was. I discovered her joints and long legs made her well suited for the splits and enjoyed this, particularly since I had just received a new pair of leg braces myself. The pain of adjusting to them was extreme and so was the pain of having my movement criticized by physical therapists for many years already. When I crawled on the floor, I was keenly aware that I wasn’t supposed to “hop,” and instead make sure my legs made reciprocal movements. After awhile, I looked around nervously each time I hopped at home, as if the physical therapists might see me and aware I did not do it “right.” I was also ecstatic when my mother and I decided my previous braces did not have to be on during weekends. I must have been five then.
One day, angry, sad and frustrated at the pain and the words I did not have about my experience, I broke Wonder Woman’s leg.
The self hatred that led to it was swift and powerful, glacial and seeping. I got the message that Wonder Woman didn’t wear braces and that no one told her how to move while I had the opposite experience. I was mad at her, mad at myself, sad and confused. And I was just a little girl with a broken doll.
I asked my mother if we could fix her. We had so little money and getting her was difficult, so we couldn’t. I sometimes still feel guilty for breaking her. It has taken me a long time to honor the pain I was in and the pain of her being broken. I now view my breaking her and my anger around her then as understandable and complex and have compassion for the young girl I was.
Barbara Gordon, Batgirl, was shot by the Joker. She subsequently became Oracle, a wheelchair user. I was excited when I learned of her wheelchair use, but I didn’t follow the story deeply. At that point I was not interested in disability culture and I didn’t consider myself a part of it. I did not want to align with other disabled people or read about us in fiction. I know that as Oracle, she used her already prodigious research skills from a chair and that many other heroes relied on her research. I also know that in the comics she has now made a full recovery from her spinal cord injury.
Granted, this injury occurred in 1989 and ended in 2011. This is a long time for ongoing fictional disability which may later be cured, and I am glad it was present. During this time, she founded a group of female superheroes known as the Birds of Prey, who were powerful in their own right. But she wasn’t directly fighting crime.
As an eight year old, I knew that superheroes weren’t disabled, and a disabled superhero is contradictory. We have made it so. If they represent our highest ideals, where does that leave anyone? The answer I have now come up with is that it leaves us all to create our own diverse answers in a variety of ways. With the relaunch of many comic characters in recent years, there is now much more diversity among them. But I wish Batgirl were still in a wheelchair.
I no longer have my Wonder Woman doll, but I know now that if I did, she could still be a superhero without a leg, and I don’t have to move any differently to relate to everything she stands for. Last Halloween, I dressed up as Wonder Woman.