I was the bookish child of immigrants and she was my hero.
Much has been made about the strength and butt-kicking righteousness of the new incarnation of Wonder Woman but one thing she does not have that Wonder Woman of the 1970’s TV series did have is sheer nerd power. Wonder Woman of 2017 overpowers the bad guys; Wonder Woman of the ’70s also overpowered them but, just as often, she outwitted them. Before Dana Scully (X-Files), Abby Sciuto (NCIS), Willow Rosenberg (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Lisa Simpson (The Simpsons), before a billion dollar tech industry made nerd culture sexy, there was Diana Prince in my TV. I was the studious, dark-haired, 7 year old daughter of a Colombian mother and an Iranian father when the series debuted and, almost immediately, Wonder Woman made me feel better about myself.
What was it about that show that was so fascinating to me? It was a show full of grownups, something that, I know, today, would be a turn-off for my own little girl. And yet I watched the show faithfully. I had the Wonder Woman doll. She was store-bought, not like the yard-sale Barbies I owned that she spent hours rescuing during my imaginative play. I was Wonder Woman for the kids next door - they allowed me that because of my black hair. I would hold my arms out and twirl, the way she did, emerging with spectacular powers to defeat whomever was designated bad guy. I was even Wonder Woman one Halloween, wearing the red-white-and-blue star-spangled outfit I had begged my mother to make, a turtleneck and thick stockings underneath to ward against the October chill.
I went back to watch some episodes of the series to discover why it had had such a powerful hold on me. I saw that Wonder Woman of the ’70s validated qualities I had that were not validated at the time anywhere else.
First, let’s talk about her black hair. Given how diverse programming has become in the past two decades, it is hard to believe that there was, back then, absolutely, no one on TV who looked like me. There was no Kim Kardashian, Mindy Kaling, Kerry Washington, Sandra Oh or Jennifer Lopez. For every one Beverly Johnson, there were 10,000 Cheryl Tiegs, Farah Faucets, Jerry Halls, Lauren Hutton, Patty Hansens and Marsha Bradys. Ethnic features made rare appearances in movies, TV commercials, after-school specials, magazine advertisements, clothing catalogues, school textbooks and picture books and, if they did appear, they were usually neutered by “whiteness” in some way. This was true, too, of Wonder Woman. Lynda Carter, the star, was tall and slim, like a European fashion model, but she had the look of a mix - she had a mass of black wavy hair (like mine), black eyelashes (like mine)(I didn’t care that the eyes were blue) and full lips (like mine). No one knew back then (including me) that Lynda Carter, is, in fact, half-Mexican (her mother was Juanita Cordova from Chihuahua, Mexico). Forty years later, I know it now but how happy it would have made me to have known it then! That, in addition to black hair, Wonder Woman and I both had Latin American mothers, with their funny accents and mortifying foreign ways.
I had spent my preschool years drawing princesses with straight, blond hair and asking my mother why I couldn’t have light hair and now here, at age 7, I discover a character who is considered desirable not despite her ethnic features but because of them. Lynda Carter, as Diana Prince, was always the dark-haired beauty entering a room full of blonds, and yet all the men would turn and gape. She was different but, rather than being shunned for her differences, she was celebrated for them. It was something that my 7 year old self desperately needed to see - me, with my black hair and olive skin that turned nut-brown in the sun, no matter how much sunblock my mother applied.
But black hair wouldn’t have been enough. It was the intellectual firepower of Diana Prince that really drew me in. She was a sexy nerd before nerds were sexy. She wore big, round glasses. She always knew things - scientific facts, word origins, obscure histories, other languages. In one scene, Steve Trevor relies on her to translate a German medical treatise and explain cloning. In countless others, she is relied upon by the G-men she works with to make sense of the villain’s dastardly plan. It becomes clear to anyone watching - these men would be lost without her.
As Wonder Woman, she powers through obstacles with sheer force (bending bars, flipping cars) but, just as often, as Diana Prince, she uses her intellect to figure out ways around them. When Diana makes her first appearance to Steve Trevor, she identifies herself as a new member of the InterAgency Defense Command. The problem? There is no record of her in the system. So she figures out the code to a high-security, vault-like door, gets into the compound and programs the computer (IRAC) with a personnel file for herself, complete with bogus employment history and a degree from UC Berkeley. Remember - this was 1977, years before anyone had a home computer and a full 33 years before Mattel debuted its Barbie computer scientist doll, replete with glasses and a laptop.
Diana Prince corrected men, explained things to them. For this reason, she often wore the body language of apology. Intimidated? By little ol’ me? At times, the men thought her strange. Look at this brainy babe, their eyes seemed to say. And yet still, they loved her.
There was a study out of John Hopkins five years ago that found that 1st and 2nd generation immigrant children disproportionately outperformed children with deeper roots in the U.S. when it came to academics (this advantage was, apparently, lost by the 3rd generation). This was true in my high school in the white suburb of New York where I grew up. There were a handful of other immigrant kids and we were all clustered in the AP and honors courses together. The valedictorian of my high school class of almost 500 people was a Chinese immigrant who delivered his speech with a thick accent.
Why did we strive so relentlessly in school? Part of it is obvious - we pushed ourselves to compensate for the fact that we were different from what was considered the norm. This norm is changing, of course, the country, demographically, is changing and our media is starting to reflect this. But, when I was growing up, we were never the most popular, the coolest, or the most desired. It was the kids who looked most like the actors and models we all watched on TV who usually won those prizes. So we sought out competitions that we could win - top grades, chess matches, science Olympiads, essay writing competitions, math competitions.
Of course, our parents pushed us. Much has been written about the high expectations Asian moms have for their children, but in my house, it was my Colombian mother, not my Iranian father, who pushed me in school. So much so that, by 3rd grade, she had me signing my name Claudette Bakhtiar, M.D. Follow your passion? Sure, mi amor, but first you get your doctorate. “No one can ever take your degrees from you,” she used to tell me. When she was a child, her step-father was killed during a coup in Bogota and her family had plunged into poverty. She was from a country where “things could be taken from you.”
How thrilling the Wonder Woman of my TV was to me! Shy, studious, awkward, black-haired girl who spent her time in books - I was the girl every other cultural marker at the time told me the boys would never see. And here was brainy Diana Prince, in her prim yet stylish librarian outfits, making men swoon. She was the template for the “model minority” overachiever that many of us immigrant girls would grow up to be.