There can be only one.
We all know this catchphrase/tagline from the Highlander franchise—or even if we don’t know where it’s from, most of us have somehow absorbed it as a classic geekana saying, a thing that needs to be spouted in low, somber tones and indicates a fight to the death with Only One left standing.
But unfortunately, weirdly, frustratingly—this little phrase also keeps coming up as a concept that gets applied to media with protagonists and creators who are not straight white dudes, and therefore apparently unicorns. And as cool as being a unicorn seems in theory, it doesn’t usually lead us down the path of screaming, “I know everything! I am everything!” in the grand tradition of Connor MacLeod. Who, come to think of it, had a tendency to sound kind of like that guy in your English Lit class who keeps trying to explain why the Brontes are “overrated” right before inviting you to his open mic night.
You don’t know everything, Connor. And being anointed the Only One kind of sucks.
I saw Wonder Woman three times opening weekend, with three different groups of friends, most of them women. It was exhilarating and emotional, one of those moments where it feels like everyone is mind-melding in the grand communal pool of feelings soup. For me, a longtime superhero fan who can still call up the sensation of trying to perfect Lynda Carter’s trademark spin, it also felt like the realization of something I’d always longed for—but I didn’t know quite how much I needed it until it was being poured into my eyeballs. One of comics’ most iconic female superheroes, centered in her own epic.
Of course, the sweeping comparisons started immediately. Wonder Woman is clearly better than any other female superhero ever! Wonder Woman is clearly inferior to X superheroine from before! Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are going to fight it out to the death in long paragraphs of thinkpieces everywhere to see which one is the Ultimate Onscreen Female Superhero, because that is apparently the only way we’re allowed to talk about them!
Why is there this instant urge, when we’re finally being given something that hasn’t been represented a ton onscreen, to declare it The Best, The Worst, The Only One? Why, if we’ve been waiting so long for a female-centered superhero epic, do we want to settle for Only One female-centered superhero epic? Also, cross-brand restrictions aside, why can’t we imagine a world where Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel go for a milkshake instead of fighting each other to the death?
I think Wonder Woman is an important movie and an important moment in time. But we shouldn’t try to make it more important by denigrating everything that’s come before and everything that will come after, by insisting it must stand alone in order to be important at all.
I had this same feeling about some of the commentary around Rey (Daisy Ridley), the resilient would-be Jedi in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (who returns to presumably Jedi even harder in the upcoming The Last Jedi). I loved Rey wholeheartedly and I loved how centered she was in the narrative. I did not love some of the rapturous posts that claimed Star Wars had finally given us a “strong” female character who is not “a love interest.” Princess-now-General Leia (Carrie Fisher) was never anyone’s love interest—she was a full protagonist alongside Luke and Han, she was strong enough to strangle a pervy space slug, and the romantic subplot unfolded mostly from her POV. Han was her love interest. To deny that she didn’t crack the slide-y futuristic space door open for Rey—and to diminish her role in order to raise Rey up—seems like yet another example of this weird, Only One erasure.
What tends to emerge a lot with this kind of erasure is the idea that female characters in particular can only be “strong” in a certain specific way in order to be considered strong, period. Leia was lauded for going from Princess to General—even though her personality remained exactly (and awesomely) the same. In a similar vein, Robin Wright’s fierce Antiope in Wonder Woman was rightfully gushed over—but some of the most popular memes/bits of commentary used the premise that Buttercup, Wright’s haughty princess in The Princess Bride, was a lesser sort of hero. Can’t Buttercup—who after all, did the best with the often shitty hand she was dealt—simply be a different sort of hero? A different sort of strong?
Or to put it another way: if the apocalypse hits, don’t you want Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel and Rey and Leia and Antiope and Buttercup fighting by your side?
When the zombies are about to eat my face off, I don’t want to be forced to choose Only One.
All the examples I’ve talked about so far are white women. But before I get into how Only One-ism is even worse for women of color, here’s something else I’ve been thinking about: when white women characters are held up as the Only One, they are also held up as universal. Every woman should be able to relate to Wonder Woman—even though she doesn’t look like every woman. She is the ultimate hero and we need no others—even though some of us are still waiting to see ourselves centered that way in stories.
Wonder Woman is an important step in the representational march, but we need to start seeing these characters people want to put forth as Only Ones as steps rather than pinnacles. To do otherwise erases not only the characters who came before, but the characters who will come after—the characters who will hopefully represent an even wider range of the audience reveling in their adventures onscreen.
This is another reason we need more characters, representing even more experiences within various marginalized identities—but stamping out the idea of the Only One seems to get progressively tougher the more intersecting identities you have. I am an Asian American woman who writes Asian American superheroines. I have been told all of the following things by white people as if they are the highest of compliments:
- That I am the Only One doing that! (No.)
- That the protagonist of my first book, Heroine Complex, is the only Hapa protagonist of a series EVER. (Nope!)
- That people should buy my work because it “has diversity.” (Not because it’s good, because diversity and quality can apparently never exist within the same sphere.)
Make no mistake: I am very proud of the representational steps people feel my work has made. As I’ve said many times before, it would have blown my mind and changed my world if I’d seen a book with two Asian American women (and one of them Hapa!) superheroines on the cover as a child. And it means the world to me when women of color readers in particular tell me they can see themselves in Evie and Aveda, my protagonists—or that they were pleasantly surprised to see that the Asian characters in the book are not Only Ones. ’Cause, you know, Asian people are often friends with other Asian people.
What the well-meaning statements from white people seem to miss is this: I don’t want to be the Only One. I want readers of today to have more than I did when it comes to opportunities to imagine themselves as heroes. Not every Asian American woman is going to connect to my characters, not every Asian American woman is going to find my stories to her taste. No character can possibly be all things to all people, and I want every reader to be able to find that character who is going to be mind-blowingly important. Only One-ism sometimes means those characters and creators won’t even be given the chance. I’ve heard plenty of stories about Asian authors telling Asian stories getting rejected because a publisher “already has an Asian book”—possibly one of the most “wha-huh?” examples of Only One-ism, as if Only One experience exists within an entire huge umbrella identity.
One of the best experiences in my journey with the Heroine Complex books has been… well. The moments where I’m not the Only One. The summer the first book came out, there were two other awesome Asian American superheroine SF/F novels written by Asian American writers—Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger and Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee. To be able to bond and team up with these writers, to be able to recommend each other’s books to readers looking for more, was a delight. Writing can be lonely. Anything that gives you a sense of community is essential when it comes to keeping the demons of Only One-ism from encroaching. And hopefully, when we lift each other up, it only lays the groundwork for that representational march to keep marching on.
I’m writing this on the eve of the book launch party for Heroine Worship, the second book in the series. This book was fed and nurtured by my various Asian American communities—the local artists, the online geekerati, the girl gangs and near and far. It would not, could not exist without the strength of a community that deserves to see their wide range of experiences reflected in stories everywhere.
It is not an Only One. I am not an Only One. And I cannot imagine being any other way. Maybe if Connor MacLeod had spent less time chasing ultimate power and know everything-ness and more time bonding with and fighting the good fight alongside his fellow Immortals, he would have found inner peace a lot sooner.
Either way, I wish he could’ve known the true power found in not being the Only One. I know I have.
© 2017 by Sarah Kuhn