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The International Writers Magazine: Rivals

The Wonder Woman Factor
Nicole Cirone


It was the Wonder Woman Factor that created the rift that exists even today between Amy and Billy. By now, the passing of 25 years has allowed the sting of immediacy to dissolve, mixing the issue into the pool of headless Barbies, crashed bicycles, dead hamsters and even the poison berries we fed to the Pitts kids one afternoon when we were feeling particularly nasty. But there is something about the Wonder Woman Factor that lingers, something so intrinsically scarring that to this day my sister has not completely reconciled the issue-- even now, as a proud owner of various trinkets bearing the mark of the childhood idol who always seemed just out of her reach.
Looking back, I can see her point. I mean, the crux of the Wonder Woman Factor is this: it was just so damn challenging to her gender. It was our first understanding of self-image and sex roles, our first indication that men and women were made differently, our first harsh lesson about why it was considered "wrong" for boys to wear dresses and play with Barbie dolls. We lost our innocence, in a way, at the hands of the Wonder Woman Factor, and we were never the same again.
A typical day for us on Parkview Road would go like this:
"Isis," I’d tell her, "You can be Isis."
"But I don't want to be Isis," she’d say. "I want to be…"
"We know, Wonder Woman. You can't be Wonder Woman, Amy. You know that. That's Billy's super hero." Every day we’d go through this. My sister just wouldn’t learn her place. 
"But I'm the one with the Wonder Woman Underoos," she’d protest.
Okay, she had a point. I’d have to think about this for a minute. Billy would look anxious, and tug at the red towel draped across his shoulders. 
"But you're younger," I’d say finally, choosing sides with Billy. "You don't get to choose. We think you'd be a good Isis."

She’d look like she was about to beat someone up, and after the day two neighborhood moms came to the door advising our mother that her younger daughter beat up their fifth grade sons (boys we dubbed, affectionately, Patrick and Screw), I learned that Amy is the kind of sister who needs to be handled delicately. Particularly if you're older and weaker and happen to like your nose the way it is.
"You can wear mom's gold necklace and belt," I offer. Even back then, my sister had a weakness for tacky accessories.
"Yeah," Billy’d say, "you can be Isis. You get to use gold weapons. And anyway, I have the Wonder Woman cape. And I can spin around like her-- watch."

Suddenly, my best friend would twirl like a top across the cement that covers a quarter of the back yard, his lips full with spit and those sound effects that only boys have the talent for making. I can still see him boarding the Invisible Plane, and I'll admit, he did have quite a talent for throwing boomerangs. Billy was clearly the best Wonder Woman on Parkview Road-- to anyone, of course, but my sister. Yet, despite her displeasure, she’d end up being Isis every day-- just like every day I would be Super Girl, and Billy would be Wonder Woman.

Of course, it wasn't just about playing Super Heroes.  The Wonder Woman Factor crept its way into all areas of our lives, so that soon it seemed that everything somehow related to Billy's desire to be Wonder Woman.
"Mom, what does it mean to be a fairy?"
"A fairy, you mean like Tinker Bell or Glinda the Good Witch?"
"I don't know."
"Well, what do you mean?"
"I mean what does it mean if someone calls someone else a fairy, but they don't sound nice about it."
"Where did you hear that?"
"At school. Some of the fourth grade boys in the schoolyard called Billy that and laughed."
"What were you doing?"
"Playing Super Friends. They said 'gay,' too. What does that mean?"
"Gay means happy," my mother explained carefully.
I couldn't understand why that would be a bad thing.
I was in first grade when I learned the difference between boys' and girls' bodies. Billy's little brother, Brian, informed me one day that boys and girls pee differently.
"Nuh uh," I said, doubtfully.
"Yuh huh," he said, authoritatively. "Boys have a pee-nis and girls have a pee-nut. Haven't you ever seen a Ken doll naked?"
"You're stupid," I said, demonstrating my authority by using a word that was taboo in both of our houses. But I was curious. I'd never played with a Ken doll, let alone seen one naked.

My mother never bought me the Ken doll. She bought me some cheap imitation named Shaun, who wore a striped shirt and designer jeans with silver suspenders, and had limp wrists, skinny jointed arms and legs, and tennis-shoe clad feet that loosely swirled around and around and never seemed to want to stay in the forward-pointing position that seemed so natural for the more solidly constructed Ken doll. Ken, I found out one day while playing at Shannon's house (no Shaun for her-- she had the real thing), had a bump where Barbie didn't. It certainly did look like a peanut, I thought, confusing my terminology. Brian was right-- Ken was different from Barbie.  How he knew that, I'll never know. He never wanted to play Barbies with Billy and me.
The day that put it all into perspective began like any other. We'd already saved the world from various villains, spied on our neighbors, chased the Pitts kids on our bikes and been sent outside by both of our families. As usual, I dragged my Barbies out from their place underneath the living room window.  And as usual, Billy and I were sitting on the front steps to my house, lost in our own Barbie world. He was Malibu Barbie, as always, and I was alternating between a Barbie whose ponytail grew and shortened with the tug of a tiny string at the nape of her neck, and Ballerina Barbie, whose feet my sister had devoured so that in the place of her once perfectly pointed toes, there remained plastic bone-like structures jutting out of the holes in her ankles. I didn’t care that she didn’t have any feet—she still had the prettiest face of all of the Barbies, and she wore a little gold crown on the top of her platinum-blonde head.
The Barbies were just about to embark on one outer-space adventure or another, when a dark shadow abruptly blocked out the afternoon sun overhead. Oh, please, I thought, don’t let it rain! Then we’d have to move all of the stuff inside, and I knew my mother wouldn’t be too happy about us bringing along the rock fortress-house we’d fashioned for our dolls. Rain would just about ruin a perfect day…
“What do you think you are doing?”
The shadow boomed angrily, but it wasn’t a thundercloud overhead. It was Billy’s father. 
“Oh, just playing, dad.” Malibu was striding her fabulously tanned legs across the bottom step.
“Oh, no, not anymore. You’re coming home with me!”

Suddenly Billy was caught like a fish on the end of his father’s arm, dangling and thrashing about unnaturally, in that way fish thrash about when they know they’ve been snared and there will be no escape—hooked and in deep trouble.

What did he do? I wondered, trying to catch an answer in my best friend’s face, but his eyes, wide with ignorance of the situation, betrayed his innocence. It really must have been something terrible, I imagined, because I had never before seen Billy’s father angry.
“Why?” Billy asked. “What did I do?”

Billy’s father, usually a gentle man, looked massive, more solid than Ken doll towering over us and our fractured game. He glared at both of us and looked with disgust on our toys, which were now strewn about in the mudpile we’d made of my mother’s garden. His eyes held mine in an accusatory stare, and I felt my face go scarlet. Is it my fault? I wondered? What did I do? Is he mad about my mother’s garden?
“Boys don’t play with Barbies!” He said it so directly, so matter-of-factly, but it came out sounding to me like a half-growl, and he held my eyes as he grabbed Billy by the shoulder and started dragging him the few doors down the street to his house, leaving me alone to wallow in the dirty waste of our shameful game.

I tried for a long time to make sense of what had happened, in an attempt, I suppose, to erase the guilt that ate at me from the inside, and the fear that because what we played was “wrong,” I’d never be allowed to see my best friend again. But what I have never managed to understand is why it was perfectly okay for my sister to play the role of the dog (clearly not one by nature, despite what I had otherwise convinced myself and the neighborhood kids) when we played house. And why Amy was laughingly called a “cute tomboy” by everyone’s parents when she beat up the neighborhood boys. And why it was acceptable for me to climb trees and play with GI Joes and Star Wars figures, but for Billy to play Barbies was a travesty that violated the delicate balance of the social order, disrupted the peace of the neighborhood, and, worst of all, brought a parental-imposed moratorium to one of our favorite games. 
The more I have thought about it over the years, the more confused I have become about these gender roles that are instilled in us from childhood. What I learned early about those roles, however, is this. How shattering the knowledge of their existence was to the blissful, imaginative little world we had created for ourselves—a world unlimited by roles and rules and gender identity. How dreadfully lingering the aftertaste of guilt can be. And, most importantly, how pointless it is to have to play Barbies alone.

Nicole is a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University MFA program in Creative writing and live outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA). She has had poetry published in Perigee Journal of the Arts, Philadelphia Stories and Philadelphia Stories "Best of" Anthology, Bucks County Writer, and the Red River Review.
© T. Nicole Cirone April 25th 2010
nicolecirone at

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