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Femininity, Image, and Identity

2012 January 5

In response to my last post, Bo Sanders over at Homebrewed Christianity brought up some related ideas and addressed a few questions to me. Here’s my (long and somewhat rambling) response. He writes –

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.


18 Responses leave one →
  1. January 5, 2012

    We need voices like yours, that are not strident and are solidly thoughtful, Julie. Some day we will all be able to “simply name strengths and virtues for all people” but in the meantime we must keep pushing at the stereotypes of what is perceived in our culture as MALE and FEMALE. This was a brilliant expression of the tensions that strong, capable, outspoken “kick ass” women face. (As I’m sure it can’t be easy to be a quiet “weak” man.)

    Keep preaching!

    • January 8, 2012

      AMEN! Just because I talk about my kids, help with a family event, or provide food for something does not make me less of a man than one who talks about sports, helps pay for an event, or shoots the pheasant for dinner. And if I choose to wear skinny-fit jeans and a fitted shirt to show off the 30 pounds I have lost, that does not mean I am … you get the point. Thank you for including men in this brilliant (and much-needed) discussion.

  2. January 5, 2012

    Katniss Everdeen has a real chance if they are true to the books. Pixar’s “Brave” might be worthwhile next year too, though I’m disappointed they’ve made her a princess. You are right that the eventual goal has to be to reach a place where women in films and books are allowed to be whatever they are without being objectified or assumed to be too masculine. What we really need is a proliferation of different strong female characters, because there is no singular “strong” female archetype.

  3. January 5, 2012

    Thanks for this blogging exchange Julie and Bo!

    Academic conversations in media and cinema studies have been wrestling with this since the 1980s and even earlier. Part of the challenge is that we’re comparing and contrasting iconographic representations of masculinity and femininity, or even stereotypes.

    For example, Julie writes: ” So women who are those things must become overtly masculine (Thatcher)…” as if this Thatcher character’s traits are what “masculine” qualities are. I’ve very little in common with this character, am I therefore not masculine? Of course not, we all get that we say “masculine” but mean “stereotype of men,” and it goes back and forth like this. Julie touches on this in her linked post above.

    I’ve found some helpful lines of reasoning from critiques that look not simply at particular qualities of individual characters, but instead ask questions about underlying assumptions regarding all gender relationships.

    So we could also ask, how do men and women relate in a media portrayal, regardless of whether they’re violent/nurturing/whatever? Who has power, are there egalitarian relationships, who makes the decisions? These are questions closer to the core of feminism, which is typically only tangentially concerned with who is fulfilling which stereotype.

    Responding to this set of questions, we can look at the latest “Mission Impossible” film in which there’s a woman on the team, who kicks serious ass, is obviously smart, has all the behavior and skills of a traditionally male action hero. But she’s certainly not in charge of anything, Tom Cruise tells her what to do, even when she clearly doesn’t want to do it. So even though she “acts masculine,” it’s not much of an achievement if the underlying structure of gender relationships is the same old crap.

    To me, more interesting action film gender inversions are in movies like “Strange Days,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” or “Aliens.” These female protagonists are clear action heroes (heroines) and make every use of aggression, martial arts, big guns, and command decisions to resolve plot conflicts. But what sets them apart from other films is that they are not taking orders from men, or even on a team of male counterparts. They each have responsibility for male characters who are scared, unskilled, not particularly aggressive, and most importantly *need* the female action star to save their butts – repeatedly. A true gender inversion of the traditional damsel-in-distress trope.

    Of course, portrayals of true equality — in which men rely on women, women rely on men, men rely on men, and women rely on women — is part of the largest vision of feminism. These are harder to come by in the movies or TV, because it’s complex, and requires depth of insight, to write, direct, and perform stories like that. Thanks to these posts I’ll be more on the lookout for films like this in 2012.

    I really appreciate you guys using the Internet for thoughtful conversation about things I care about. Thanks!

    • January 5, 2012

      Dave – thanks for pointing out the way we use language. It begs the bigger question though of if there are such things as masculine and feminine apart from our social constructions/stereotypes. Even the most egalitarian people I know still argue that there exists (in the realm of the forms perhaps) that which is truly masculine and truly feminine. So language is vital for clarity of meaning (and I admit I was sloppy in the Thatcher example).

      How men and women relate is a major aspect here. Are women simply the object of the man’s gaze? Or as in the typical sitcom, is the woman successful/assertive only in relation to idiotic and lazy men? But even in those relationships where power is shared or the woman has the power, it is rare that she is portrayed with both traditionally stereotyped masculine and feminine traits. She is either nurturing, or smart/witty, or assertive/powerful. Mutual dependency and wholistic persons seem to be what is needed to change the image and identity issue.

      • January 5, 2012

        “Mutual dependency and wholistic persons seem to be what is needed to change the image and identity issue.”

        That’s the best way of putting it I’ve ever heard. I certainly wasn’t accusing you of sloppy language!

        I think we can’t help asking what is masculine and what is feminine. I agree with you that the question is begged in nearly every conversation about this stuff. It’s central to our identities.

        Science shows us bell curves tending to line up with sex for measures of many traits (tendencies for men to behave with “masculine” responses, and women with “feminine” ones, etc.). But I hesitate to let this shape my language too strongly because these are general descriptions rather than air-tight proscriptions. It’s fascinating and predictable, but holds most true across groups rather than for individuals.

        Even if a majority of women will tend to react to stress with a particular neurological response (this is measurable with fMRI scans), it does not happen to the same degree for all women, plus some men have the more “feminine” response.

        So the best answer for me is that “feminine” is “what women do.” Obviously then there are multiple ways of being feminine and masculine (this is self-evidently observable), which, yes, empties the terms of meaning. I’m sympathetic with your egalitarian friends who seek “true” gender among the forms. But my personal experience has yet to recognize this outside of Homer (and Tolkien, which is kind of the same thing). The world just doesn’t appear that Platonic to me.

        This is another reason why I prefer to ask questions about social relationships rather than individual characteristics. Justice and mercy are possible to exhibit in the lives of people with stereotypically masculine or feminine behavior of either gender. I love that you call this out in your comment. What i conveniently left out of my earlier examples of “true gender inversion” in the action movies I named: every one of the female action heroines were ultimately motivated by… wait for it… the care and protection of their children. Hmm…!

        The worries of raising a daughter in our media-shaped culture keeps this stereotypically academic liberal (and quite feminine) man awake at night. My daughter told me that pink is a color girls like and blue is a color boys like. When I asked why, she said it’s because pink is a more interesting color for kids who are curious and smart and run very fast, in other words girls. I was completely flummoxed by this!

        Thanks as always for the thoughtful and gracious conversation, Julie. I really value your perspective.

  4. January 6, 2012

    Thank you so much for this! I don’t even know where to start.

    On a positive: I was going to ask you about Salt, the Black Widow, and Sucker Punch – so that was great!

    On a negative: I wish I knew how to ask better questions about Thatcher, roles, socialization, and conditioning. You handled it great.

    Also: the nature of language should probably be our next big address. It is a doozy.

    So, I can’t say how much I appreciate you taking the time to graciously reply. Can’t wait to chat LIVE at the Conference in a month! -Bo

  5. Holly Stauffer permalink
    January 7, 2012

    Thanks Julie for such an articulate and thoughtful response to Bo’s questions. As a mother I am always looking for ways to have conversations with my kids about these topics. I was horrified when my 16 year-old son with such arrogance talked about another girl at his school as being a “slut.” We then had a conversation about judgement, sexuality, why some kids are sexually active at a younger age then others (he’s a virgin btw). And labels like “slut” minimize who this young woman is and narrows his perspective of who she is by labeling her as such. I am a very outspoken feminist and I have been having these conversations with my kids before they could speak. So what came out of this for me was how sexist our culture still is despite the advancements we have made toward equality for women and how important it is for me to continue in encouraging my kids to do as you do with yours, “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.” My girl, at thirteen, is much more savvy when it comes to navigating a world that objectifies girls and women. When she was in the 6th grade she broke up with her “boyfriend” because, her words, “he was sexist.” He said girls weren’t as smart as boys and she kicked him to the curb. I, too, look forward to seeing you in Claremont next month.

  6. January 7, 2012

    Thanks for posting this. It really crystallizes a lot of things I’ve been thinking about.

    On a semi-related note, are you familiar with the Bechdel test for movies? It’s from Alison Bechdel, the creator of the comic Dykes to Watch Out For, and has three criteria. The movie must have: 1) At least two women in it 2) who talk to each other 3) about something besides a man.

    It’s rather astonishing how many movies DON’T pass the test.

  7. January 8, 2012

    Thanks for the conversation.

    I do think the range of acceptable “guy” or “girl” behavior has narrowed, maybe partly because of so much discussion of gender identity and pressure to think about attraction far earlier than before, and partly because of marketing pressure to look and act a certain way.

    My two daughters, growing up in the late eighties and early nineties, loved the Anne of Green Gable movies, Little Women, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. The women in those were independent, individual, and had strong, healthy relationships with both men and women. Are there movies or tv shows since that would appeal to pre-adolescent girls?

    Parenthood is the one current tv show I can think of that offers a range of behavior and relationship for both men and women.

    A helpful youth ministry resource for dialogue with teen girls (and guys?): Dove made some commercials a few years ago that show the pressure to conform to a stereotypical idea of beauty: Evolution, True Colors, and Campaign for Real Beauty. Watching them makes me sad – and reminds me of how hard it is to be tranformed by the renewing of our minds in a culture that spends so much money trying to make us unhappy with ourselves.

  8. Robin permalink
    January 9, 2012

    Okay, I think that this discussion is only looking at one side of the coin, which means we’re not really seeing the whole picture. On the one hand, we’re looking at how women are being portrayed in movies – meaning that after decades of women being NOTHING but sex objects and weak, helpless beings that have to sit and wait for some man to come rescue them, now we are actually being portrayed as sex objects that can at least get ourselves out of hot water. That’s progress. It was theorized that Margaret Thatcher had to “out-man” the guys in order to be taken seriously, but what if that’s not the case at all, but rather that Margaret Thatcher was simply a woman who possessed an incredibly strong back-bone that allowed her to be taken every bit as seriously as any man who possessed the same qualities. We seem to believe that men are taken more seriously than women – and that may be the case – but is it also not possible that it is WOMEN that have created this state of affairs, not men, by simply refusing to step up and fulfill roles that our society has deemed as being “masculine” ones?

    But, I said we weren’t looking at the whole picture, so let me remind you of the other side of the coin – what’s happening with men and the media. Let’s not forget the traditional plight of men in American cinema – namely the cowboy. So, yes, while women were portrayed as the helpless female who had to sit at home and wait for the cowboy that would never come, what kind of life does that create for men who are expected to be strong and tough and leave behind the comforts of home and hearth to ride the range and protect the world from danger. We have Superman who could never have Lois Lane, Spiderman pining for Mary Jane, and John McLain who can save LA and New York, but not his marriage or family relationships. So, are men cast in much better of a role? But here’s the good news – as women are becoming more and more accepted for their ability to kick some butt, bring home the bacon AND fry it up in a pan, men are ALSO being allowed to take an interest in fashion, emotional maturity and familial responsibilities. More and more metrosexuals are being allowed to come out of the closet and take their place among mainstream society. Movies like Three Men and a Baby turned our social norms on it’s head and led the way to movies like Mr. Mom, Daddy Day-Care and even Couples Retreat which takes a humorous look at men actually trying to connect emotionally with their spouses, but humorous in a way that seems to actually encourage the process not belittle it as being “unmanly.”

    The thing is, growth, change and progress is not a linear A,B,C process. It’s stilted, it’s jumbled and it’s often two steps forward, three steps back, but the question is, are we making PROGRESS? Are we headed in the right DIRECTION? I don’t know about you, but I personally think the answer to that question is an overwhelming and resounding YES! I think in fact the reason that we are able to have movies like The Iron Lady (and note it’s called the Iron LADY, not some derogatory term casting her as a MASCULINE figure because of her strength) is specifically because we as a society are ready to accept strong powerful women as still being feminine in the same way that we are loosening our standards regarding men having to always be the strong, powerful figure to a women’s weak, helplessness. I don’t know, but I can only imagine it HAS to be a relief for some men to know that they don’t have to be the strong one who’s only role in life is to rescue a woman and then proceed to spend the rest of their lives meeting her every need, keeping her from every danger, and protecting her from any and all harm. If anything, I think perhaps WOMEN are the ones that have fought the most to protect this fallacy, because let’s face it – if that WERE really a man’s responsibility, who WOULDN’T want that?

  9. January 12, 2012

    Thank you all for the great discussion. This has been fantastic. I appreciate all the feedback !


    p.s. I moved my post, Julie’s response and Carol Howard Merritt’s comment over here (if anyone is interested in the ongoing dialogue)

  10. Jon Eric Smith permalink
    January 14, 2012

    The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Smart, independent, vulnerable yet able to overcome adversity , decisive and thoughtful and she rides a bad ass motorcycle, all the time !

  11. John permalink
    January 21, 2014

    As 68-year-old African-American male, I certainly remember the same phenomenon occurring when the media portrayed actors like Pam Grier and Richard Roundtree as kickass action heroes in the 60s and 70s. Visual media most assuredly has an important social role to play in bringing attention to disenfranchised and marginalized groups during the heyday of the civil rights movement. Movies and TV series with strong African-American leads played a vital role in helping undo commonly held racial stereotypes during those years. What I see that disturbs me today ( more on TV than the movies) are strong female leads that have inapt or adequate male co-stars that are frequently one-upped or made to look foolish by their strong female counterparts. Many times these female characters will have a disdain for males in general but on the other hand may slip very easily into are (friendly or romantic) relationship with another female that she admires. Frequently promoting the social idea a really strong women don’t really need to have male partner. Despite the fact that our society is very dominantly heterosexual. I guess what I’m saying is when blacks needed exposure in the media to promote social change it wasn’t done at the expense of anyone else. Women can be portrayed as they are, strong and beautiful, without reducing males to little inept bitches.

  12. Martin permalink
    February 21, 2014

    You wrote: “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.” – I find the same thing true for me. I have come to understand that this is more personality rather than gender related. Apparently my chosen vocabulary, body language and the emotion I put into a statement, question or answer makes it too intense and people feel attacked, feel it is getting too serious too quickly. So they defend their need for calm by isolating the offender (ie me).

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