This is the latest in my series of letters to inspirational female characters that will be compiled in a book alongside letters from my fellow fangirls and fanboys. If you are interested in being part of The Fan Mail Project, I’m still taking submissions on a case-by-case basis, and you can check out all the information here!
I never thought I’d write a letter to you. Growing up, I didn’t read many comic books, so when I was getting ready to see Wonder Woman, I had only the slightest idea of what to expect. I thought you would kick ass and that your story would be empowering—not just for me, but for so many young girls who get to grow up now with your story as a part of their superhero movie pantheon—but I didn’t expect to see much of a reflection of myself in you.
You see, I’m not exactly built in the typical “strong female character” way. But then I discovered something amazing during my first viewing of Wonder Woman: neither are you. I sat down in that darkened movie theater and expected to see a woman whose strength would inspire me to want to be more like her, but what I ended up seeing was a woman whose strength has inspired me to want to be more fully myself.
“Strong” and “tough” are often synonyms, and, for most of my life, it’s been hard for me to see myself as strong because I’m about as far from tough as it gets. When it comes to how women are perceived—both in life and in the media—it’s typically the tough ones who become leaders, who earn people’s respect, and who get things done. No matter how often we tell women that vulnerability and openness can be a strength and not a weakness, it’s hard to believe when most female heroes in the media only smile when it’s a huge moment of character development and when most people in life are told more than once to “toughen up and stop being such a girl” when they openly display emotion.
For years now, one of the first phrases that comes to my mind when I’m asked to describe myself is “painfully sincere.” I think I was born without the ability to mask my true feelings about anything, and for decades, I’ve seen that as one of my greatest weaknesses. People have preyed on that part of me since I was a kid.
“They’re just saying that because they can tell they’re getting to you.”
“You’re an easy target. It’s fun to get you riled up.”
“Don’t let them know it bothers you, and they’ll stop.”
“You can’t hide that you’re mad at me. I can see it all over your face.”
“Katherine, your brow is furrowed. You must be confused by the assignment.”
“Why do you care so much?”
I spent so long hating that part of me—my emotional transparency, my painful (in more ways than one) sincerity. And then I saw you, and I saw how we were allowed to truly see you. I saw your indignation, your sadness, your childlike sense of wonder, your hope, your frustration, your joy, your desire, your confusion, and your conviction. You felt no shame in your emotions—whatever they were. You showed what you were feeling as you felt it, without ever feeling a need to hide your emotions or push them down to appear stronger or more in control.
And you displayed a range of emotions unlike any female character I’d ever seen in this kind of role before. In many cases, when we talk about “strong female characters” being open and vulnerable, it shows itself only in crying when something terrible happens and in letting themselves fall in love. You did both of those things, but you also sighed with awe when you saw a baby for the first time, delighted in the taste of ice cream, whined about restrictive clothing, felt sickened when you saw animals and people being hurt, and giggled at the feeling of a first snowfall. You laughed and cried and yelled and smiled, and you were never weakened or preyed upon because you were an open book.
Instead, your emotional transparency did something amazing: It inspired the people around you. Steve, Sameer, Charlie, and Chief didn’t take advantage of your sincerity or treat you like were some kind of naïve child to be protected or pitied because you weren’t hardened by the world. Instead, they opened up and softened under the careful glow of your warmth—they followed you into battle not just because you could block bullets and lift tanks, but because they wanted to be around someone like you, someone who believes in people with a clarity and a purity that makes them want to believe, too.
But just because you believe in people doesn’t mean they’ll always live up to that belief, and in your discovery of that harsh truth, I saw a reflection of how difficult it is to be someone who cares openly, believes fully, and is met time and time again with the reality that wearing your heart on your sleeve makes it very easy for it to be broken. This has been a hard time to be a believer—to be someone who can’t seem to stop hoping that there’s good left in the world. There have been moments in the last year that have knocked me back with astounding force, making me confront the notion that things I thought were true were simply things I wanted to be true and forcing me to see that caring and believing isn’t always enough. Sometimes people are going to be motivated by anger, selfishness, and fear instead of a desire to do what’s right. And when those moments have happened, it’s made me hate even more intensely the fact that I can’t seem to turn off my ability to care and my desire to hope. It’s made me feel as if it’s better to just hide from a world that doesn’t deserve my caring.
But just as you learned, sometimes it’s not about what people deserve; it’s about what you believe. You were crushed by the truth that men are not always good, and I loved that you were allowed to have a moment of truly struggling with this crisis of faith. When I’ve had moments of despair, I’ve beaten myself up over them because I tend to think good people keep fighting even when it’s hard. But watching you own your disappointment, anger, and desire to walk away from the problems of mankind reminded me that even superheroes can have moments of complete disgust over how terrible people can be. If you can feel helpless in the face of humanity’s darkness, then it’s okay if I feel that way sometimes, too.
In the end, though, what made you a true hero was that you saw the darkness in the world and still chose to believe humanity’s capacity for goodness was worth fighting for. You came into your powers most fully not because of hatred or vengeance or anger, but because of love. You were at your strongest when fighting Ares when you let your emotions—especially your love—take over. In so many areas of our lives, we as women are still taught that to display too much emotion is to show weakness, so to see you truly become a world-saving superhero because you gave in to your emotions and let them drive your actions made a huge impact on me. It can be easy to focus on all the negative things in the world and to let those things take away my desire to show how much I care. But you taught me that the most heroic thing anyone can do is to accept the world’s darkness but still choose to believe there is goodness left in the human race and to let that belief strengthen your desire to care and fight with everything in you when it would be easy to become apathetic.
You believed in humanity’s goodness with such all-consuming certainty because you allowed yourself to experience it, and I will forever be grateful that we got to see you enjoying life and not just stoically going about your mission. You are the Superhero Who Smiled, and as someone whose default facial expression is often a smile, I appreciated that perhaps more than any other thing about you. I’m often afraid that my readiness to smile makes me less of a formidable force in the professional world and makes people take me less seriously in many aspects of my life. For women, warmth is often mistaken for weakness, but your warmth is one of your defining character traits—and that never negated your power. You smiled when your mother told you stories, when you heard Charlie sing, when you fought in battle, when the man you loved talked about making breakfast, and so many more times that it was impossible to count them all. And you still got to be not just a hero, but the hero. Smiling didn’t make you any less of a badass; being warm didn’t make you any less of a warrior. Thank you for helping me believe that I can smile and still be strong.
You’re the softest superhero I’ve ever seen, and I mean that as the highest compliment I can give. Because if you taught me anything, it’s that softness and strength can coexist beautifully in a woman’s heart and that you don’t always need to be tough to be powerful. Thank you for helping me see that my sincerity can be a strength and that I don’t need to “toughen up” to be taken seriously. I wish I’d discovered you sooner—maybe it wouldn’t have taken me 28 years to learn to love the part of me I always wished was different. But I’m just thankful I have you now to look at and learn from any time I need a reminder that wearing your heart on your sleeve (or your Bracelets of Submission) is hard, but it’s also heroic.