Stopping in after an appointment this week for coffee, one of my favorite baristas came around the corner, “I was hoping you’d come in today.” I thought nothing of it as she’s genuinely that nice of a person. She then began explaining that she’d been reading a book on the “princess culture” and she was surprised to learn that Wonder Woman was a princess. “Amazonian princess,” I confirmed.
She continued to explain the central thesis of the book asking me how I initially learned about Wonder Woman. I had to think for a moment— “I’m pretty sure it was because there was a TV show when I was little.” I added: “With Lynda Carter.”
Smiling at the logo emblazoned sweatshirt I’d pulled on that morning she continued: “But it made me think of you when I read the part about Wonder Woman because I’ve always just thought of you as a superhero, but you’re also a princess!”
It’s strangely humbling to be equated with a character that you have loved your entire life. I may liken myself via meme from time to time, but the casual enthusiasm of the conversation is what left me grateful. And it got me thinking about heroes. I use the term sparingly—when I sort of mean it. The last time I used it was May 4, aka “Star Wars Day,” when I paid homage to Carrie Fisher and Princess Leia as two “heroes” of mine. Fisher was a sharp-tongued wit whose first book, Postcards from the Edge, left a huge impression on me. Leia is a kick ass princess. And they are each heroes.
In college, I remember a few “get to know you” ice breakers where that one of the questions was to rattle off a couple heroes you had. The assumption being everyone had a couple of heroes. There was a certain amount of guilt I felt as the room circled and people listed off family members or, if it was a writing class, Noble winners and poet laureates. That was never me. I probably made up something when it came around to me but I’d be hard pressed to say what I gave up as an answer. Me today would have given the then me advice to say that I didn’t really have heroes.
It took me until my 30s to really identify what defined a hero. In part, I was too busy and caught up in my own adventures to take the time to think about how I regarded anything that external to me. I was afraid to admit I didn’t want any heroes—if the classrooms were any indication, the world was full of them and still sucked. It felt like a cop out. It felt fake. Wonder Woman didn’t have heroes—she was written as one.
I once called out Debbie Harry as a hero on Facebook and got a shit storm of grief for it—mainly because, as an acquaintance wrote to me to explain, I clearly didn’t know she had been a Playboy bunny. I did and laughed out loud as I read the message. It reminded me of when I had been asked to step down from the college feminist group leadership role for refusing to boycott Playboy sales in the book store, or the movie Stripetease, or for the most egregious of sins—inviting fraternity members to events. Like Harry, I was a feminist on my own principles.
Today I use “hero” as a term of respect for people whose work I admire. That really isn’t the definition, though, and I’m keenly aware of it. I still struggle with the concept of calling out individuals as heroes in the proper definition. It’s overused. I don’t want to burden someone with that onus; an uncomfortable worship-like status and infallibility inherent in the label.
And it reminds me a little of what my barista friend said of princess culture: it really isn’t about fluffy dresses and tiaras because a princess is by trait a ruler and allowing kids to be princesses is perhaps a means of self-empowerment. I liked that; I’d rather princesses than heroes.