Life & Culture

Nicole Burstein: Finding the superhero that represents you

The traditional superhero is a square-jawed white American with unlimited resources, or powers, or both. But what about the rest of us?


Finding a superhero to believe in, someone who truly represents you, is not an easy thing when youre a girl. If anything, I used to keep my distance from the world of the superheroes because I was almost certain that it was a playground for the boys, a place of muscles and gunfights, where women were mere love interests, or pretty things to be rescued. 


Sure, there was Lois Lane who was spirited and go-getting, but she didn’t have powers. And she was always looking dreamily into the eyes of super-buff Dean Cain. Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, was a landmark TV show during my childhood but the characters in it weren’t mine. Spider-Man wasn’t mine, nor was Batman. So I would capture superheroes where I could: Sally Gunnell, who won an Olympic gold medal for running in 1992, and Helen Sharman, the first Brit in space, who visited the Mir space station in 1991 and became the lead character in all my stories at the time. I wasn’t short of role models, but there was always something that was missing. Something that I was always searching for.

I’m happy to say that nowadays I’m overrun with superheroes. Having found a sneaky entry into the world of comic books when I was working in a book shop, it’s become a world in which I’m now embedded. My novels for children are alternative superhero yarns, and I regularly attend book nights at my favourite comic book shops, and festivals around the country. My favourite hero? Kitty Pryde of the X-Men. She’s a rather relegated character in the feature films (played quietly by Ellen Page) but in the comic books she’s a computer genius, a school professor and a space explorer who can walk through walls.

Oh, and did I also mention that she’s Jewish? First discovering Kitty, seeing the frizzy curls of her early appearances and her proudly sporting a Star of David, made me realise that I did have a place in the superhero playground.

Here was someone who could represent me. Here was someone who was mine. I just wish that I’d found her when I was ten or twelve, not when I was in my mid-twenties. Even so, in a world that’s becoming saturated with blockbusting superhero movies, where cosplay and comic-cons are becoming normal weekend activities instead of secretive niche adventures of the uber-geeks, having representation at any age is incredibly important. To know that there’s room for you in there, and that you can be a part of it, is not a thing to be taken lightly.

This is why I am so excited about the emergence of Israeli actress, Gal Gadot. In early 2016, as a supporting character in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, she became the first big-screen manifestation of Wonder Woman, and is set to grace our screens again in 2017 in what will be the first modern comic-book adaptation in which a female character has taken the lead. I have no doubt that there are hundreds of thousands of geek girls who, just like me, are anxiously waiting for this film and praying with all our hearts that it doesn’t end up a colossal flop. The trailer may be promising, but trailers have lied to us before.

Why am I rooting for this incarnation of Wonder Woman in particular? Because she’s Jewish.

I’m not saying that Wonder Woman herself is about to take a trip to the mikveh or usher in Shabbat. She has always been presented as an ancient Grecian demi-goddess who has spent most of her life as a princess in the mythical Amazonian land of Themyscira. She was created by the psychologist William Moulton Marsten (who also invented the lie-detector test), alongside his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marsten and their partner Olive Byrne, and the character was inspired by early feminists such as Margaret Sanger. But her modern representation by an Israeli-Jewish woman is important, at least for me. I’d go as far to say that to have a Jewish woman portray a character who works to bring peace to the world of men through love and truth should be important to everyone who engages even remotely with world politics.

In October, Wonder Woman was named by the United Nations as an Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls, and Gal Gadot was there alongside former Wonder Woman actress Lynda Carter to see the character receive the honour. As conflicted as I may feel about a fictional character taking on an important ambassadorial role in the world, I have to admit that what Wonder Woman presents is incredibly powerful. She’s always been more of an icon than a character. We all know that Superman was sent to Earth by his parents on a space ship from the doomed planet Krypton, and that Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider to become our friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man, but how many of us know that Wonder Woman was moulded out of clay by her mother Queen Hippolyta, and granted life by the goddess Athena? Her image may be as recognisable as any global brand but how many of us know anything about her personality, or her stories? It’s a problem that many comic-book writers have tackled over the decades, some more successfully than others, but I’d contend that we haven’t yet seen the seminal Wonder Woman tale.

There’s always been a strong connection between the world of comic-books and Judaism. Many of the originators of our most beloved superheroes were the American sons of Jewish immigrants who drew comics because they couldn’t find work elsewhere. They created characters who could defy fascism, punch Hitler, and yet would always somehow be outsiders in society, never quite finding a way to belong. Superman and his super-friends may have been born of the wish fulfilment fantasies of young Jewish men, but Wonder Woman was always a little different. She was born out of (non-Jewish) Marsten’s desire for the overthrow of the male-dominated world. She’s the ultimate matriarch, a character who could overthrow hate and violence with her lasso of truth, love, and kindness. Marsten believed that women would inherit the world and that his Wonder Woman stories could help spur on that inevitable future.

The fact that she’s now made manifest by a Jewish woman only brings the comic-book story full circle, and makes the historic connections even richer. Some may have already taken note that Diana’s birth from clay is a trope linked in mythology to the Golem of Prague, who was moulded to protect the Jewish people from persecution. Is Wonder Woman a golem for our times?

I await Wonder Woman’s big screen appearance in 2017 with cautious hope. I know that films from the stable of DC comics are yet to pose any serious threat to Marvel, but here’s praying that, finally, we’ll have a hero whom I and millions of girls — especially Jewish girls — can claim as their own.


‘Wonder Boy’ and ‘Other Girl’ are published by Andersen Press

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