Despite the excitement around “Wonder Woman”, I didn’t think I’d see it. Suspenseful sound tracks, explosions and violence spook my highly sensitive nervous system. The cranked up volume in many cinemas makes my head throb. As an act of self-care, I don’t see thrillers or action-packed movies, even if they have happy endings.
Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I didn’t closely follow Hollywood, either. To my mind, it was a strange place populated by palm trees and celebrities on the other side of the country, a universe unto itself that my father, a physicist and Holocaust survivor, didn’t validate or understand. He and my mother stashed the boob tube in a closet in their bedroom during the week. On weekends, one of us schlepped it into the family room and carefully tilted its finicky antennae so we could tune into the culture at large. Occasionally I watched Wonder Woman, played by Lynda Carter. I kept expecting her star-spangled contraption to fall down or burst apart at the seams. She remained a strangely clad curiosity rather than a character I could connect to. Snubbing parental rules, I watched General Hospital while sitting on the floor of the master bedroom. I dragged the TV out of the closet just enough so I could plug it into a nearby socket and, when I heard my mother’s car pull into the driveway, quickly return it. Perhaps I caught 15-30 minutes of the soap opera each time, a few days a week. That turned out to be enough to keep abreast of the plot and stay in the loop at high school. I didn’t understand why my peers gossiped about fictional characters embroiled in endless drama, yet I didn’t want to be a clueless nerd, either. To take television and Hollywood seriously threatened my identity as my parents’ daughter, yet ignoring it or admitting ignorance felt socially risky. My ritual of snatching snippets on the sly was akin to eavesdropping on the culture. It’s a habit I kept to varying degrees over the years, during many of which I didn’t own a television.
The release of “Wonder Woman” created an opportunity to revisit my choices. I had gleaned plenty of information about the film from reading reviews and seeing trailers online. What made me consider going to the theater at all was the film’s Israeli star, Gal Gadot. I wondered if watching a Jewish woman in this iconic role would heal my younger self, giving her permission to unabashedly connect with a superhero. On a sweltering day, I sought refuge in an air-conditioned matinee. I chose an aisle seat in case I decided to leave early. As I stuffed thick, clear silicone plugs into my ears during the previews, I realized I forgot to bring tissues.
Watching Princess Diana (Diana Prince) in her compassionate and determined attempt to end the Great War, if not all war, reminded me that I, too, once harbored notions of saving the planet. Outraged by the Nazi horrors that the world failed to stop quickly and which destroyed most of my ancestors, I believed it was my duty if not my destiny to do something BIG to save humanity, although I had no clue how to pull off such an incredible feat. If I had a superpower, I did not know what it was or how to find it. Gal Gadot, before she dedicated herself to acting, studied law and international relations. In an interview, she said that when a casting director approached her to audition for a James Bond film, she thought that she was “way too serious and smart” to be an actress. That made her a kindred spirit. In a culture that celebrates cool, I received the dubious distinction of being voted “most serious” as a high school senior. In college I majored in mathematics, not a “soft” subject I might have enjoyed more, partly because I hoped such a choice would telegraph to the world that I was “smart”, as if that word would, like a superhero’s shield, deflect sexist attitudes, judgments and behaviors, allowing me to navigate the corporate minefield unscathed. Alas, it didn’t.
In the film, Diana understands and speaks hundreds of languages, the norm for Amazon warriors. She can even translate Sumerian. While I never aspired to speak that many tongues, from a young age I wanted to be able to communicate with people in other parts of the world. In addition to basic French and Hebrew I learned as a kid and teenager, I later immersed myself in Hungarian, my father’s native language, and Spanish. How could peace be possible if we remained trapped inside our linguistic and cultural bubbles? I entertained notions of jetting around the globe and helping nations get along. I even completed a Master’s degree in International Relations and Economics. Yet, although I passed the written portion of the Foreign Service exam, I didn’t hear the alarm clock on the day of my interview. I never explained my absence. Uncharacteristically, I did not beat myself up for the lapse; I didn’t have the personality to navigate a large bureaucracy, nor did I believe I could always support American foreign policy in good conscience.
Still, seeing Wonder Woman’s idealism in action made me weep more than I had in recent memory. Perhaps I had not fully grieved the loss of my dream, as vague and ungrounded as it was, or forgiven myself for not doing more to fulfill a diplomatic, globe-trotting fantasy, even though it would have been at odds with my introverted temperament (cocktail parties are my kryptonite). Watching Princess Diana train and fight, I cried for the time I caved to a boyfriend’s demands to stop taking boxing classes. I eventually gave him the boot but the message, “don’t cultivate or express aggression, strength and power”, stuck beyond the end of the relationship. That was just one of many times I’d corseted myself, in ways large and small, to conform to others’ expectations, stated or implicit. And I cried for letting the static if not lifeless concept of “smart” become a prison of sorts for too long. If one is trapped by, or addicted to, beliefs about oneself, it’s hard to experiment let alone follow one’s heart, whose intelligence might defy logic and can’t be summarized in a soundbite. The darkened theater offered cover for my tears, which flowed down my cheeks and onto my clothes. I stayed for the whole film.
Off screen, Ms. Gadot shared something that grabbed me as much as her performance. In another interview, she confessed that acting was more fun than her academic studies. I don’t doubt it. Had I trusted myself more, I would have left my Master’s program after the first semester rather than finishing out of compulsion and fear I’d be labeled a quitter. I imagine Ms. Gadot would be excellent in whatever career she could have pursued, or might enjoy in the future, yet she has undoubtedly touched many lives and hearts as an actor, her genuinely intelligent choice for now. While not everyone will have the opportunity or even the desire to attain stardom, perhaps we each have more of a shot at saving the world by first saving ourselves. That means doing what makes us come alive and allowing ourselves to have fun, even if that means going off script. Thank you, Gal Gadot, for escaping the trap of “smart” and bringing that message home.