The perfect heroine does not exist because there is no such thing as a one size fits all role model. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I’m seeing people on Face Book posting all kinds of pro-girl and feminist content meant to challenge the still prevalent and insidious chauvinism and bigotry directed towards the women of the world. I’m always glad to see women standing up and fighting this kind of bullshit – and becoming fierce whenever a girl is felled by rape or other forms of cruel injustice. It’s important that women keep speaking up and speaking out.
But along the way I find myself irritated, too, at the strange narrowness that stems from the fight. I suppose it’s inevitable. You want girls to know that being a princess isn’t the only dream a girl can have, that they can be whatever they want. I don’t think the best way to get this message across is to swing to the opposite pendulum and tell girls that unless they do something WORTHY with their lives (meaning: attaining achievements previously dominated by MEN) that they are letting us all down. It’s the same thing as berating women whose main desire in life is to stay at home and have children because you think they should have chosen something more than that since previous generations of women fought so hard to give them a choice. But choice is the key – and what right does anyone (male or female) have to dictate what life choice is right or worthy for others?
I loathe hearing women talk about how they were always tomboys and not interested in girly stuff with that tone that implies that their “boyishness” and their disinterest in fashion or other “girly” stuff somehow makes them more substantive, makes them BETTER. It doesn’t. I would argue that it’s just as girly to like sports as not based on how many girls I know who like sports. Playing sports doesn’t make any woman smarter any more than loving fashion makes any woman dumb. I would argue that being a girl should not be about placing value judgements on women for the things they’re interested in. Women make up roughly half the population of the world and the point of feminism is not to limit us to just a few accepted life choices or to scorn each other for having different interests. It is, in my opinion, chauvinistic to look down on any woman for having qualities traditionally considered feminine.
It implies that women are only equal in worth to men in relation to how much LIKE men they are. That’s some fucked up shit.
I thought feminism was about both genders being equal in worth without regard to their sameness or differences. I thought feminism was about equal civil rights – not gender neutrality.
I’ve been thinking about the two heroines I have designed. I’ve looked at the choices I’ve made for them in physical attributes, interests, issues, personality, and asked what kind of women am I building? I can see already that I can only build the type of heroine that fits my own needs- women that I can relate to and admire and strive to be more like. I find myself purposely trying to steer clear of the tired stereotypes I’m sick of. Women who kick ass with porn star bodies. We can be SEXY while being tough. Sure, that’s a good message. But the idea that porn star is the only version of sexy out there really chaps my ass.
Here is where I’d like to say that women with porn star bodies, whether natural or manufactured, certainly ARE sexy to some people’s tastes and there is nothing at all wrong with having a double or triple D sized chest and a skinny young girlish body. If that’s your thing – why should I come along and trash it?
What bothers me is that there is so little representation of other versions of sexy in movies and in books. I concede that literary fiction alone tends to be independent of these heroine stereotypes. It also doesn’t sell nearly as well as Romance and Science Fiction in which the busty lusty ass kicking lady is still the main attraction.* It also bothers me because we seem to be pushing the idea that men only like women who have enormous boobs but otherwise fairly prepubescent bodies (emphasized creepily by the removal of pubic hair – but that’s a whole different discussion). The men of my acquaintance who are heterosexual find a variety of body types sexually attractive. Here’s the other thing – heterosexual men aren’t just attracted to women based on their looks. Suggesting that that’s all men care about is as sexist as it gets. That’s all SOME men care about but for most men I’ve ever met – how a woman looks is simply the starting point for interest. And that’s totally natural. Before you know a person all you have are visual cues and they can only tell you so much.
I have designed two heroines so far and I have been conscious of creating very physically different women. The first one I designed is Jane Bauer. She’s tall, she’s voluptuous, she’s dark haired, she’s green eyed, and very pale skinned. I really thought about what kind of a heroine I was building. What was the significance of this choice or that. Jane Bauer is not an ass-kicker of men. She has been a victim of the violence of a man. Her strength is in her recovery, her friendships, and her personal evolution. She’s shy, she’s quiet, she shrinks into corners. She loves vintage fashion. She’s neither a tomboy or a girly girl. She’s a complex person.
Then there’s Cricket who couldn’t be more different than Jane. Cricket is of medium height, red headed, liberally freckled, has grey eyes, is small boobed but has womanly hips (classic pear shape), is a total tom-boy, is an ass kicker of men, is sexually liberated enough to meet her needs without hangups, she’s reticent but not shy, for all her physical strength she is emotionally immature, she is scrappy and loyal and enjoys music and drinking.
So I was thinking about building heroines and what it means to be a female role model and also thinking about tired stereotypes and how to rewrite women outside of the narrow definitions of women written by both men and women alike. There are a lot of worthy women characters that fit in between the hyper sexualized female super hero and her geek-girl counterpart.
I can tell you right now that there are certain kinds of women characters that I am incapable of making into my main characters. Women who desire having children is a major one. It’s not because I think poorly of women who find their true fulfillment in having children. It really boils down to the fact that I am tired of reading stories or watching shows where women always end up having babies. As though this is the only conclusion possible, even to women who choose careers. When women characters don’t have children they are almost always portrayed in a way I find unattractive and unfair. I don’t relate to women wanting babies. I have close friends who love having babies and it’s just something I don’t get, though I try. I find stories about women yearning** for babies really boring. I think it’s because it’s a story as old as time and there isn’t much more to add to it. I’m interested in NEW stories about women who don’t want babies but aren’t hard and driven (implying that the only women who don’t want kids must be just like men – a stereotype I LOATHE). But these stories aren’t being told so much. A few here and there. But really – authors and movies and musicians all seem to come back to the motherhood thing. That if you aren’t a mother it’s either because you are not womanly or because you are not capable of having them for one reason or another.
I will never write a main character who wants children. You can pick your motherly heroines all over the cultural map, they are everywhere, our culture is completely saturated with mothers of all kinds. Which is totally natural considering that motherhood has been the province of women since before language developed. But feminism opened up so many other possibilities for women and supposedly gave us the power and the permission to not have babies. It gave us choice. It gave us permission to decide what we want for ourselves without regard to traditional designated roles. It gave us the power to develop ourselves in whatever direction interested us – to find our inspiration and fulfillment in whatever ways suited us best. That is the best thing about the feminist movement. We now enjoy choice. So why is it that we keep fighting each other about what makes a woman worthy? And worthy of what? Of admiration from other women? Of admiration from men? I feel like the yardstick women keep using for themselves and for each other is the same negative one men have used against us.
When I was a little girl I loved the idea of being a princess. I loved the idea of prince charming. I loved fashion. I loved pretending to keep house. I made elaborate mud pies. I cherished the idea of being saved by a gallant hero. Is it wrong to want to be a princess just because I could be a knight if I chose? Is it a sign of weakness to want to be saved? If I cherish the fantasy of being saved by a man does that make me a lesser woman? A woman to be despised and dismissed by other women?
It is because of these narrow attitudes of my female peers that I didn’t consider myself a feminist for so long. I like chivalry and I don’t believe it diminishes my power and autonomy-of-self as a woman. I have always known who I am. My mother will tell you – I came into this world knowing who I am. I never measured up to anyone’s yardstick growing up and it was a disaster to my self esteem. I didn’t measure up to any ideals of either man’s making or woman’s making. I ended up building my own yardstick against which to measure my worth. I consider that the most feminist action I’ve ever taken.
If women want real progress with women’s rights then they need to take care not to become the new chauvinists casting women in specific roles they find acceptable or considering a woman’s worth based only on how they compare to men. Are we as strong as men, can we be exactly like them, can we compete in their fields, can we prove we’re better than them, can we have everything, can we be everything, and can anyone admire us if we don’t want to be a heroine or save the world?
The worth of a woman should not be judged against the choices other women or men make but against how close she’s come to living a life that suits her needs and desires, that helps her become the best version of herself she can be.
*Don’t spit out all the exceptions to me for I KNOW there are exceptions but we’re not talking about the ground breakers here.
**See how I used it in a negative way? If I’d used that word in an earnest way you would have felt kind of gross inside. I promise.