When I was five years old, my grandmother gave me a shimmery red scarf with small silver charms attached along the edges. It was the most exciting gift I remember receiving and I carried it with me wherever I went. Most of the time, I flung it around my neck like Greta Garbo, swishing about dramatically and making my parents laugh. But one day, I tied it on like a cape, stood at the top of the stairs in our home and . . . jumped. I sailed through the air and landed with a crash at the bottom. I did not break any bones, but I was startled. I could not understand why the cape had failed me.
Human beings have always dreamed of flying. Every storytelling tradition in the world involves the imagination of flight. Some of the best stories in Indian religions invoke flying sages and floating Buddhas; one of my favorites has the Buddha walking through the air on a jeweled catwalk in Sravasti, performing miracles of fire and water while giving teachings. The famous ascetic Asita flew to see the Buddha after he was born, and Santideva is said to have delivered the entire Bodhicaryavatara while floating over his monastery. Flight is a universal human fantasy (and according to some devotees, a genuine human possibility too). I am certain this is part of the reason why superheroes remain so compelling. In the (relatively) secular world of the West, where religious heroes are largely diminished, superheroes are all we have. We can dream about superheroes unabashed, imagining what it might be like to tie a cape around our necks and leap into the great blue yonder, all the while fighting bad guys to save the world. We might not believe in floating mystics anymore, but we can dream of superheroes and our children can dress up in their costumes, free to imagine themselves defying their own limitations.
When I jumped off our staircase as a little five year old, I was not invoking magical biblical characters or Indian sages; I was channeling Superman. My imagination had access to him and he could fly with his red cape. I was not bothered by the fact that he was male and I was not, because the point was simply to fly. If I had a red cape like him, what was the difference?
In some ways, there was no difference. I did not see his maleness as an obstacle at the time, but eventually his maleness would become one, because his maleness was not an exception. It was the rule. Although we did have Wonder Woman as an alternative, and many a male fantasy was built on Linda Carter as a result, she never seemed as powerful as her male counterparts. My son recently argued that she is not a real superhero because she does not actually embody any real powers. She has a special lasso and an invisible jet, but she herself (like Batman, I interjected) is ultimately an ordinary person. If my son is right and Wonder Woman does not really count, then the only real superheroes at our disposal during my childhood were in fact male. I did not consciously consider this fact when I was five, but I am certainly conscious of it now.
The recent Wonder Woman movie has elicited a lot of commentary and I was personally excited to see it. I did not, however, expect that it would affect me quite as much as it did. The movie itself was, predictably, nothing earth-shattering. It was two-dimensional, as superhero movies tend to be, with too many special effects and predictable outcomes. But . . . the superhero in the movie was a she and that really did make all the difference. She was center-stage throughout the film, fighting every battle with uncompromised ferocity, and she did not require a male superhero to direct her through it. She was beautiful, smart, strong, and idealistic—as all good superheroes are supposed to be. And contrary to my son’s expert opinion, in this film she did have powers beyond her magical tools. Although she may have initially been conceived without them, in this film her powers are entirely her own.
What struck me most as I watched the film was the fact that I was watching a woman fight her own battles and fly on her own wings. She was center-stage and she was uncompromising, and unapologetic about it. My mind kept scrolling through its internal archive to find parallel female figures as I watched, and I did come up with a handful of names, but the unyielding litany of male characters inevitably dominated my internal debate.
Every major religious tradition in the world today has a male character at its center, and I could not help but wonder, as I watched mighty Wonder Woman on the screen, what the effect would have been had religions sported women founders instead. What would Buddhism have been like had the Buddha been a woman? If she walked through the air on a jeweled catwalk performing miracles while delivering teachings, or if she had refused to give men ordination until they were forced to beg? What if Jesus had been a woman or Moses had been Zipporah or Muhammad had been Aisha? I realize the questions are ultimately nonsensical and that such “what if” questions go nowhere, but the human imagination sometimes needs to wander with its questions, even when it is has no hope of answering any of them.
Watching Wonder Woman fly through the sky, throw tanks over her head, and blaze in her own glory was a very different experience than watching a male do these things, and this only because I had never really seen a female superhero do any of that before. She was breaking the rule. Granted, there are strong female characters in most movies now, but it was something else entirely to see a her on center-stage instead of a him. It was one more layer of the glass ceiling cracking over my head. I am consistently amazed by how resilient that glass ceiling seems to be.
We will never know how things would have turned out had the Buddha been a she, nor can I know what would have happened to me had I grown up surrounded by female superheroes instead of male ones. I did, after all, try to fly regardless of the fact that my inspiration was drawn from Superman. But would I have tried harder had it been Wonder Woman instead? My parents are probably glad I did not go further in some senses (too many injuries!), but in other ways, what have I missed? What would I have been willing to pursue if great women leaders were the norm instead of the exception?
My questions cannot be answered, but I am convinced of at least one thing after watching that movie: I needed to see a woman superhero. And so did my son.
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