I love Wonder Woman.
In fact every year, between the ages of 3 and 7, I dressed up as Wonder Woman for Halloween. My little brown face covered by a plastic mask that looked just like Lynda Carter as the beloved 1970s version of the DC Comics Amazonian.
So as the Biden-Harris campaign gained momentum and I started seeing varied images of then-Sen. Kamala Harris as Wonder Woman on mugs, T-shirts and posters, I was excited. The more I learned about Harris, the more I realized how phenomenal she is.
Comparing Harris to Wonder Woman was a natural inclination.
But there was something about it that didn't sit quite right. Why do we need to make Harris superhuman? Why does it always seem that women — especially Black women — are separated from our identity as a real woman when we accomplish the seemingly impossible?
I posed this question to Bucks County, Pa.-based pop artist, Perry Milou. Milou, known for his cool, contemporary and colorful portraits of familiar faces like Sylvester Stallone, Frank Sinatra, Carson Wentz, Kobe Bryant and Pope Francis, turned Harris into Wonder Woman on a mug that is becoming quite the popular 2021 inaugural trinket.
And it's clearly hitting the zeitgeist. Since the Wonder Kamala mug made its debut in November, Milou has sold more than 5,000 of them on PerryMilou.com and Amazon. (He just ordered another 5,000 from his manufacturer last week.) The mug has made it to "Inside Edition," and on Inauguration Day it appeared prominently on the desks of local newscasters.
It's even inspired knockoffs: Copycats are afoot, complete with a counterfeit of Milou's signature. (His attorneys are filing cease-and-desist orders.)
Milou's depiction of Wonder Woman Harris features the vice president in the lady superhero's iconic golden tiara and matching cuffs. Her right hand is placed over her heart as if she's pledging allegiance. But instead of baring cleavage, Wonder Kamala goes about her legislative business in a crisp, gray blazer.
"I wanted to paint her as an American hero," Milou told me. This isn't the first time Milou has depicted Democratic politicians: He has painted Joe Biden several times, even presenting one painting to the then-vice president to thank him for his eight years of service in the White House. On the day Biden announced Harris would be his running mate, Milou pulled out his iPhone and snapped hundreds of photos of Harris accepting the nomination on his television. Milou was excited and hopeful that Harris was going to help Biden save America.
"To me, this image exudes strength, it exudes kindness. She's saving mankind," Milou said.
I believe him when he says his work celebrates Harris. So why am I concerned with the image?
There are two reasons.
Being a working woman is exhausting. The world wants women to be glamorous but chastises us if we are too focused on our looks. We're told to smile and be polite. Remember how Harris had to remind then-Vice President Mike Pence to stop interrupting her. She did it firmly, yet with a smile, and was still admonished for her tone. We can go into bitch mode if we want, but there is a price to pay for it.
Although it may seem like Harris has superhuman powers — like how she deflects insults as though armed with a magical metal cuff, or how she pried the truth out of witnesses at Senate hearings sans magic lasso — she doesn't. She's one of us.
She didn't get where she is because of superpowers. She got there through hard work. In this way she's no different from President Biden, who always, always gets the regular guy treatment. Think Uncle Joe. In fact Milou's Biden mug features the president smiling at us, simply drinking a cup of joe.
Harris may not literally be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, and that's not why she's powerful. What she has done is normalize the idea that women of mixed ancestry can win the support of the people in a fair election. Now she has a shot at this momentous job. It may not be long before this Harris quote becomes a bona fide truism: "While I may be the first woman in this office, I won't be the last."
The other reason why this image bothers me: I'm at the point where I want — no, I need — America to stop giving Black women these savior roles that we didn't ask for.
The job of the vice president is to work with the president to do what's best for the country, not single-handedly save it. Yet every time we shoehorn Harris into a Wonder Woman costume — whether it's Carter's version or that of Gal Gadot — we are asking her to stand alone against the forces of evil. This has been the lot of Black women in America for centuries, from Harriet Tubman to Rosa Parks to Rep. Maxine Waters. Or look at Stacey Abrams, who mobilized voters and fought voter suppression in Georgia. Almost immediately, Abrams was otherized — given the superhuman mantle — as if being an ordinary Black woman who can do extraordinary things just wasn't enough.
"Black women don't do the impossible for kicks and tricks," said Vashti Dubois, executive director of The Colored Girls Museum, the Germantown, Pennsylvania-based culture center that celebrates the ordinary, extraordinary colored girl. "We do the things that we do because our lives — our very human lives — depend on it."
The truth of the matter is the Black woman as superhero can easily become self-defeating. You see it in the trope of the strong Black woman: the expectation that Black women be resilient, to our own mental and physical detriment. Strong Black women shortchange ourselves. We don't practice self-care because we don't believe we deserve it. "By casting us as superhuman, there is this expectation that this is just what we do," Dubois said.
I can relate to the excitement that has inspired artists to depict Harris as Wonder Woman. On the surface, it's supposed to be empowering. But, at its core, it keeps alive stereotypes that actually prevent us from shattering the glass ceiling we were so desperate for Harris to smash.
Harris doesn't need a costume. She needs our respect. She doesn't need to be exalted, she needs grace. She doesn't need admiration, she needs protection. If we give her this, her full humanity, she will have all she needs to fight for truth and justice.
Elizabeth Wellington is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.