Femininity, Image, and Identity
Last week I saw two movies and was quite intrigued by a pattern I noticed during the trailers: women being tough guys. The three trailers were for Underword:Awakening with Kate Beckinsdale, Haywire with Gina Carano (both action films) and The Iron Lady with Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher.
I have read enough feminist literature to know that there is a principle (which Thatcher made famous) that “In a man’s world …” a women often has to out ‘man’ the guys in order to break into the boys club and be taken seriously….
What do we do with the karate-chopping drop-kicking heroines of violence on the silver screen these days? On one hand, it is nice to women getting these big-deal leading roles in major films… on the other hand, are they real portrayals of women-ness or is it the bad kind of mimicry – like ‘Girls Gone Wild’ as a picture of sexual liberation or power.
Bo brings up some really good questions to which there are no easy cut and dry answers. I ranted/blogged about this general topic a few years ago, but the issues still exist, and perhaps are even intensified. On one hand, I would start by pointing out that just because a woman is an action hero, tough as nails, or possess traditional leadership qualities doesn’t mean she is acting like a man. That could simply be just who she is and she should be given space to be herself without being judged. But at the same time, I agree that it is a widespread cultural issue that women often feel like they must put on the persona of men in order to succeed. Our culture doesn’t know how to handle women who are strong, intelligent, and assertive. So women who are those things must become overtly masculine (like Thatcher) or play up objectified femininity in order to appear safe (be in perfect shape, always look pretty and put together, or be the supermom). For instance, I’ve found in settings like seminary, church, or conferences if I am even half as vocal and assertive as the guys around me I get told I am rude or am mocked. But if I can talk about my kids, help with a family event, or provide food for something, I am seen as more feminine and therefore safe. Like you said, we have to find ways to overdo it in order to gain credibility.
The main issue for women at hand here is how aspects of our self (traditionally labeled as feminine) are objectified and therefore not embraced as strengths but become symbols of our weakness or inferiority that make us safe and acceptable. Most action movies with female leads give us physically strong women who are also eye candy and use that to their advantage (seriously, who does martial arts in a leather catsuit and high heels? It’s not even physically possible). These strong women are safe because they can be objectified as sex objects. It is the rare film that breaks that trend. I recall after watching Salt that that it was refreshing that Angelina Jolie never once used her sexuality as one of her weapons in the film, she was simply a slightly awkward, highly intelligent, kick-ass spy. Then I found out the part had originally been written for a man, mystery solved. Sucker Punch also brilliantly deconstructed and critiqued the pattern in movies of women entering worlds controlled by men and having to become oversexualized and exceptional in order to succeed in those places. But neither Salt or Sucker Punch did well in the theaters – they strayed too far from the mold.
In college I recall reading a novel for class and thinking that it had the best portrayal of women that I had read all semester. In class though the professor tore the book apart for its horribly unrealistic portrayal of women. He argued that not just in fiction, but in reality all women fit the Madonna or whore category (pure saints or sensual sinners) – for him (to the shock of many of the women in the class) women can’t be real people we can only be those archetypes. That is what the world expects as well, so our movies deliver – we get weak princesses in need of rescue or sexualized action heroes – but very few real strong women. Don’t get me wrong, I like the kick-ass female action heroes. After we saw the Haywire trailer, my husband leaned over and said “that is soo your type of movie.” Sydney Bristow and Mara Jade are my heroes. Accepting even objectified strong women is at least a first step (albeit flawed) towards accepting strong women for who they are. (My hope is that with Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games (pictured) we will be getting a wholistic strong woman who captures audiences' attention.)
In an ideal world women could be strong, kick-ass, and intelligent without being objectified or assumed to be acting masculine. And our other strengths – even the traditionally feminine ones like mothering, or cooking, or artistry – will be seen not as things that make us safe because as the weaker sex we should be limited to them, but as strengths in and of themselves that are all part of the matrix of who we are (the Doctor Who Christmas Special this year did a fantastic job portraying this btw). As a mother my identity should not be reduced to that role, but neither should it be something I should be ashamed of or use to prove I can succeed at everything. Women should be able to be strong without having out out-violence or out-revenge the men. Women should be able to be smart without having to either be the smartest in the room or search for ways to make her intelligence acceptable to men. Women should be able to feel pretty and accept their sexuality without being turned into be eye-candy or live in fear that they are causing men to stumble. Women (and men) should be valued as themselves regardless of whether or not they fit traditional masculine or feminine labels.
The world is not there yet. And the church certainly is not. But the rise of the female action hero means that the conversation is started. The confines of gender stereotyped identity are being deconstructed, we simply have not gone far enough yet. Instead of allowing people to be whole in who they are, we assume that to not be feminine is to therefore be masculine (or vice versa) and therefore that the person is lacking for not conforming to our gender expectations. I don’t know if we will ever get rid of the categories of masculine and feminine (which sadly always portrays the feminine as weaker and lesser) in favor of simply naming strengths and virtues for all people. Perhaps the place to start is in making our heroes women who display “masculine” strengths and men who display “feminine” ones in hopes that the definitions will one day become too blurred to be distinguished, or at least the feminine traits valued more. I know for me, I am encouraging my kids (as I did when I worked with youth) to question those limits, to interrogate images in movies and television, and embrace their strengths no matter how they are labeled. I am still trying to navigate how to be a woman in a world that tries to limit, ignore, or objectify me so I know it is not an easy task. But being aware that it is a struggle, and helping my kids be aware as well, I think helps make it more doable.