Imagining a Black Wonder Woman

Growing up, I was told my favorite comic-book heroine was white. And yet her struggles always seemed uniquely similar to my own.

Christy Radecic / Invision for Warner Bros. Consumer Products / AP Images

When I was eight years old, I asked my mother if Wonder Woman was black. It was 1989—almost 30 years before I’d eagerly await the premiere of the first Wonder Woman movie. As a child, I had seen the Amazonian princess portrayed by Lynda Carter, who looked unmistakably white, on the syndicated television show I loved. But in many iconic pictures in the comic books I read, Wonder Woman appeared to have a trace of melanin that made me think—maybe?

Maybe I could believably be her for Halloween? Or maybe, simply, I could be wonderful, too. “She’s white,” my mother told me, perhaps wistfully, but definitively. Not wanting to dash my hopes, she added, “But she’s not real. So she can be whatever race you want her to be.”

Later that week, at an after-school event, armed with a coloring book, a brown crayon, and my mother’s voice still in my head, I filled in Wonder Woman’s skin to match my own. A white mother who was supervising the students saw my work; with shock, she asked why I’d “ruined” my picture. I told her I’d wanted to make my heroine look like me. “It doesn’t matter,” the woman declared pointedly. “She doesn’t have to look like you. You can still want to be her.”

It seemed this sentiment was everywhere I turned at the time. “Race shouldn’t matter,” the late ’80s had told me through the “very special episodes” of my favorite TV programs. From Family Ties to Golden Girls, shows during this time tackled race and racism without ever acknowledging that racial differences mattered. These episodes were usually resolved with an appeal to commonalities and the message that racists were the only people who “saw color.” According to popular culture of this era, gender differences were empowering, but racial differences were divisive. I didn’t yet have a vocabulary that included “white feminism,” a shorthand term for a “race-blind” form of feminism that ends up centering the needs of white women at the expense of women of color. Even so, I certainly had the model for it: I was allowed to prefer Wonder Woman to Superman, but I wasn’t allowed to imagine Wonder Woman as black.

Comic books have long famously told stories of oppression—characters grapple with feelings of otherness and alienation, fear of discrimination, a need to hide a true identity. But so often these allegories center on superpowered individuals who are white and male, making their claim to these stories of marginalization ring false. Wonder Woman is white, I was reminded again and again. And yet, her story and overlapping identities—a superhero in a world of humans and a heroine in a world of heroes—felt uniquely familiar to me. They led me to think her character perhaps made more sense as a black woman.

Wonder Woman and I were both outsiders on two levels. Her powers set her apart from other humans, but among the other members of the Justice League, she was relegated to secretary. My race set me apart from my white classmates, but I learned at a young age that within the black community my gender marked me as inferior. I remember as a child being told by my hairdresser that feminism wasn’t for black women. “For us,” she explained, “the man is here, and we’re here,” she said gesturing with her hands to illustrate that to be a black woman meant that a man I had never met would always be stationed above me. As I got older, I became better able to name my double displacement; I was frustrated with the racism I saw in feminist circles and with the misogyny I saw among racial-justice advocates. And Wonder Woman’s state of constant otherness only became more meaningful.

But as a girl, I most commiserated with Wonder Woman when she sought to reconcile her inner strength and ferocity with the need of others to see her as peaceful and feminine. I had learned early on that it wouldn’t take a lot for me to be viewed as angry and deemed unlikeable. Images of neck-rolling, finger-snapping, gum-popping black women caricatured in movies and TV shows showed me exactly what people expected from me.

These expectations were memorably laid out by one of my favorite TV shows when I was 10, Martin, via two characters: Gina, the light-skinned, kind, and happy love interest, and Pam, the dark-skinned, needed-a-weave-to-hide-her-nappy-hair, perpetually single best friend. The jokes at Pam’s expense came from the fact that she was supposedly too aggressive and masculine. Meanwhile, Gina, who clearly had a better role, was unabashedly feminine. I knew, with my dark skin, nappy hair, strong opinions, and sarcastic sense of humor, that I’d be seen as a Pam. So over time, I became a bubbly, happy, slow-to-upset black girl you would never call angry. Even today, I wonder if the bubbly, happy, slow-to-upset black woman I’ve become is who I really am, or if it’s just my own Diana Prince, the version of myself I created to protect my secret, real identity.

Wonder Woman seemed to understand this psychic conflict. She’s one of the strongest heroes in D.C. Comics canon. According to one origin story, she was blessed with “the strength of Hercules”; in the other, she’s an actual demigoddess, the daughter of Zeus. Among comic-book fans, an ongoing debate rages over whether Wonder Woman could best Superman in a fight. But unlike her powerful peers, Wonder Woman must retain a femininity that her physical prowess seems to undermine. The result is a sometimes-contradictory character—a warrior by training and birthright who prefers diplomacy to battle. A would-be Pam who was only ever supposed to be seen as Gina.

Wonder Woman once famously explained her philosophy: “We have a saying among my people. ‘Don’t kill if you can wound, don’t wound if you can subdue, don’t subdue if you can pacify. And don’t raise your hand at all unless you’ve first extended it.’” It’s a moving sentiment, but an odd one for a world in which one-dimensional villains often leave heroes with no other choice than violence. But perhaps not that odd after all, given that Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, was himself an imperfect feminist thinker who held the essentialist belief that women were naturally more peaceful than men.

Wonder Woman didn’t get to act on anger, and neither did I. I was terrified of how I’d be seen if I ever did, in part because Wonder Woman once showed me exactly what could happen. In one famous storyline, Sacrifice part IV, Wonder Woman was forced to kill a villain, Maxwell Lord, to save Superman’s and Batman’s lives. Lord had tricked the Justice League members into thinking he was an ally, when in fact he planned to destroy all superheroes, whom he viewed as a global threat. Lord convinced Superman that both Batman and Wonder Woman were his enemies and forced him to attack. After subduing Batman, Superman came after Wonder Woman. Instead of fighting her friend, Wonder Woman captured Lord and used her Lasso of Truth. Lord told her the only way to stop him was to kill him. Which she did.

Unfortunately for Wonder Woman, that moment was broadcast publicly: The world saw Wonder Woman kill Lord without any context. The panel from that moment showed Wonder Woman from the perspective of those watching her, her face darkened and twisted into something ugly and murderous. The public turned on her. Even Superman and Batman, whose lives she had saved with her action, refused to hear her side and severed their friendship. This double standard infuriated me. This was nowhere near the first time a hero had killed in the service of a greater good. It wasn’t her role as a hero that her actions betrayed, but her role as a woman. It was her loss of femininity, not the moral high ground, that made this moment so shocking.

Wonder Woman’s fate was one I had tried to avoid for years with a painful balancing act. Black women have long had to navigate stereotypes that create a similar sort of bind: Our reputed preternatural strength is used as a weapon to force us to withstand greater physical, emotional, and spiritual burdens. The stereotype of the “strong black woman” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the identity of black women becomes indistinguishable from our struggle. This is evident in the archetype of the Mammy, the black maternal figure who acts as a cipher for the burdens of the white people around her and takes them on with an ever-present smile. In the ’80s, she was Nell Harper, the happy maid to a white family on Gimme A Break! and Flo Evans, the put-upon matriarch from Good Times. These women sublimated their own needs for those of others, and always did it with a smile.

But when black women stop smiling, as it were, they’re easily reimagined as overly aggressive and mean. The Mammy archetype gives way to the Angry Black Woman trope, also known as Sapphire—named for the bullying black female character from the early American sitcom Amos ‘n’ Andy. Sapphire’s fury, and by extension the fury of black women, is assumed both to be an overreaction and inherently threatening. The result is that when a black woman shows anger, no matter how justified, she must immediately contend with the fear that her emotions will be seen, taken out of context, and result in everyone turning on her.

Wonder Woman, I felt, understood this impossible situation; I had seen her suffer for it. As I grew up, Wonder Woman grew with me. In later versions of her stories, her feminism became more self-aware and conscious of the politics of the time in many of the same ways mine did. And as her symbolism for many female comic fans deepened, the special meaning she held for me deepened as well.

Since I found out the Wonder Woman movie was finally in the works, I’ve been excited but also a little nervous. Yes, a white actress, Gal Gadot, had been cast as the lead. But, I wondered, would the creators see in her what I had all these years? Would Wonder Woman still chafe at the forced dichotomy between her strength and her womanhood, her peaceful demeanor and her righteous anger? Would they infuse her story with enough of mine that a little black girl who sees the movie might get to wonder, maybe?

I’m sensitive to the argument that every character can’t embody every identity, and that the solution to Hollywood’s larger diversity problem can’t possibly fall to any single movie or creator to fix. And yet I’ve begun to hear that argument not as a lament or a promise to do better with future characters and opportunities, but as a familiar admonishment to put away the brown crayon and stop trying to ruin the picture.

I’ll see Wonder Woman. I’ll likely see it multiple times. And I’m sure I’ll love it because I’ve been loving her since I was eight. But I’m also sure I’ll challenge her to love me a little more. I’ve been doing that since I was eight, too.