I’m not what you would call a super-awesome gift giver. I’m too up in my own head about what constitutes a great gift to figure out what someone who isn’t me would like. Sometimes, though, I freakin’ nail it.
That’s what I gave my friend Dan for his birthday in 2004.
In the eight years that have passed since then, this gift has been proudly displayed in Dan’s various apartments in Edmonton and Vancouver. During that time, he also became a proud uncle, and as his niece started to grow into a person capable of doing more than drooling and filling a diaper, she quickly fixated on this plastic representation of Marvel’s most amazing superhero.
Over the years, I would hear reports about how much she loved the Spider-Man toy, to the point that she would insist on taking it with her whenever visits to her uncle necessitated a trip outside. At first it seemed that she was merely responding enthusiastically to the only toy found in an otherwise adult environment, but as time went on it became clear that she genuinely loved Spider-Man in all of his incarnations.
This culminated in her receiving a pair of Spider-Man pajamas, which she wore like a second skin, as she pretended that she herself was the wily web-crawler and capable of defeating every super villain who came her way.
She was so proud of her Spider-Man costume that she wanted to show it off to the other kids in her pre-school class. She asked her parents if she could wear it to school and did just that when permission was granted. She was so excited she could barely contain herself during the trip to school that morning.
But when pre-school ended, a different little girl walked out and greeted her mother. She was quiet and sad. She took off her special pajamas when she got home and never wore them again. The next time she went to her uncle’s apartment, she paid no attention to the toy he knew she loved. When he asked her about it, she became angry, as if the humiliation she had suffered had been his fault.
“I’m a GIRL, Uncle Dan,” she told him. She didn’t explain it any further.
My heart broke when he told me this, mostly because I could imagine exactly what happened that day, where a little girl literally lost her hero, because her enthusiasm for him went against the sacred playground rules.
Like Dan’s niece, I found myself strongly fixated on superheroes at a young age. Between Christopher Reeve’s “Superman,” reruns of the Adam West “Batman,” Bill Bixby’s “The Incredible Hulk” and the cartoon adventures of Spider-Man and the Super Friends, I had plenty to choose from.
When I was six, I told my mom that I wanted to decorate my room with a superhero poster. I felt confident that whatever she returned with would instantly make my bedroom the coolest in the world, whether it depicted Superman, Batman, Robin, Spider-Man, Captain America, The Hulk or even Aquaman (who very briefly became my favorite hero for no other reason than I got a plastic collector cup with him on it from a local restaurant).
This confidence turned to horror when she came home and told me she could only find one poster that met my superhero qualifications and unrolled it in front of me. This is what I saw:
My reaction was powerful and immediate. “I can’t have that!” I insisted. “That’s a girl’s poster!”
I actually wept and begged my mom to take it back. I didn’t want a superhero poster anymore. Not like this.
The irony of this was that I actually LOVED the “Wonder Woman” TV show, and adored Lynda Carter, who I was certain was the most beautiful woman in the universe. For reasons I didn’t quite understand at the time, I felt a stronger connection to her (and Daisy Duke and Princess Leia) than I did to her male counterparts. If I was honest, this was the poster I actually wanted more than any other, but the possible price of owning it was one I didn’t want to pay.
Ultimately nothing ever happened because of the poster. If any of my friends ever commented on it, their thoughts clearly weren’t devastating enough to remember. But the fear of being exposed and letting people know my true feelings lasted with me for decades after it was eventually taken down and thrown away.
The thought of someone using something I liked as a weapon against me ensured that I spent years denying my true feelings. In Grade Four, I started pretending to like hard rock and heavy metal, because boys in my school weren’t supposed to like Cyndi Lauper or Madonna. If I developed a crush on a girl, I told no one and would avoid her -- allowing myself only fleeting glimpses when I could get them -- on the chance someone would mock my unforgiveable desire for shared human affection.
I became so obsessed with protecting myself from the potential scorn of others that I developed a thick suit of personal armor that was so impenetrable, virtually no one could get through to see the real me. I pretended that this armor freed me and allowed me to do whatever I wanted, but the exact opposite was true. It may have saved me from being hurt by petty insults (or helped me become a token dude), but it meant keeping everyone at a distance and having no true friends. Despite this, I still took it with me everywhere I went, even when the weight of it felt excruciating.
Then one day, I took it off. Not because of any huge epiphany or revelation, but because I was tired. I was tired of keeping myself locked and hidden away from everyone. If the world wasn’t going to like me, it might as well not like me for the right reasons.
Since then, I’ve embraced my personal feelings and enthusiasms to the point of public obnoxiousness. I hide nothing, including the fact that I fucking LOVE Wonder Woman.
As I write this, I am drinking chai tea out of an enormous Wonder Woman mug, while wearing a Wonder Woman T-shirt. Behind me sits a row of Wonder Woman toys. At work, I move my mouse around on a Wonder Woman pad, while a Wonder Woman bobble-head shakes her head at me from the top of my computer. Recently, I’ve debated whether or not it’s worth paying the $83 of shipping and import fees required to own a pair of $60 Wonder Woman Converse (it’s a debate my bank account is probably going to lose).
Best of all, I’ve been able to share my Wonder Woman fandom with my nieces, who both fell in love with her at first sight. A couple Christmases ago, I bought my oldest niece the entire Lynda Carter series on DVD -- a show my five year-old niece recently told me was her “very favorite!” Considering I can’t get her to sit down to watch “The Muppet Show” or “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” I consider this to be a major achievement.
I hope that Dan’s niece is eventually able to forget what was said to her that day at pre-school and remember how much she loved Spider-Man and the joy she felt pretending to be him in her special pajamas. We all need personal heroes, both real and imaginary. It seems silly to allow other people decide who they are.