Sarah Johnston explores harmful stereotypes that define a “strong” woman, and how these are reflected in popular culture
You know the scene: the daring secret agent, who is probably Russian and probably blonde, walks into a bar. A man with a little too much alcohol in his system and much too little regard for his life sidles up and hits on her. She tries to bat him away with a few cordial words and turns away. He tries to convince her she is wrong and makes the mistake of laying a single fingertip on her and BAM. Some quick cut scenes with a violent overuse of groin movements and leg shots and the man is flat on his back, as the woman finishes her drink calmly.
It pains me that I can think of so many movies with a narrative like this – and that for so long I believed that I was not a strong woman until I was a strong woman. We as a society have an issue of portrayals in the media. We like to stick to stereotypes – not because they are actually accurate, but because they are easy. The famous quote says “empowered women empower women” and we seem to think that an empowered woman is one who literally has power. Our own toxic portrayal of strong women in the media is setting feminism back and it’s time we took a stand for all our girls out there to show them there is more than one way to be strong.
If you search for ‘strong women’ online, one of the first results you will always find is the classic ‘We Can Do It’ World War 2 poster designed to encourage women to join the production lines. Now I cannot bash ‘Rosie the Riveter’, for it was revolutionary in its time and is a highly iconic piece of artwork to this day, but I want to take a moment to clear up why I believe this kind of propaganda may have set us off on an incorrect path to representing strong women. For anyone who may not have seen it, Rosie is wearing a lovely blue shirt and red polka dot headband, flexing her arm while she proudly says “We Can Do It!”. It is a common mistake that people think this artwork was a recruitment effort from the US government and that it’s picturing a buff woman filled with confidence to take on her work was a calling card to other women to join the war effort. In actual fact, Rosie never made it outside the factories themselves. Her image adorned the walls to encourage already-recruited female staff to work longer and harder, challenging them to live up to the fictitious ideal that Rosie set. This guilt-tripping started a trend of encouraging women by showing them stronger and better versions of themselves, to pressure them into devoting themselves to self-improvement. The famous poster is used in many places – feminist rallies, political campaigns, and motivational books – and for some, it is the ultimate encouragement with its uplifting attitude, but I believe we didn’t consider the consequences in the long term.
While Rosie’s purpose was to boost morale among the exhausted workers, it was also one of the first times a physically strong woman was used as a representation of female empowerment, and all too quickly our media fell into a trap where physical strength became personal power. We carry a toxic line of representation in female heroines and villains alike. I am a huge fan of the Marvel movies and am unabashedly nerdy enough to also have read many of the comic books. While I adore superheroes, I recognize that the most common portrayal of female superheroes is inherently toxic. Take Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, from the Avengers franchise. Natasha’s character’s backstory is incredibly intricate and intimate; she was raised in an assassin training programme where she was mentally and physically tortured until she was perfect and killed for hire until she was brought in by the secret services and recruited to become a hero. However, by far the most noticeable aspect of her character is her ability to fight. For a heroine who is fluent in 10 languages, an expert in hacking, a strategic specialist, a master of disguise, and a fully trained acrobat, she spends an awful lot of time choking men to death (usually with her thighs). You may argue that many superheroes are portrayed predominantly as fighters, but every male counterpart has had a fully developed emotional arc on screen, which delves into personality as well as ability. Captain America struggles to adjust to his new time and deals with the trauma of his past returning, Iron Man develops from difficult personal relationships, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse, Thor navigates his difficult family relationships and finding his self-worth, Hulk battles the literal monster inside of him – heck even Hawkeye (aka the other one you probably forgot about) gets to have a family with whom his emotional vulnerability lies. With each of these arcs the story serves to show how these situations make the male characters stronger, whereas when Black Widow’s past is raised, it is in a way that is shown to physically and emotionally weaken her, rather than grant her empowerment.
While Marvel is a specific example, the trope exists across media. When you picture a strong female character in the arts, you probably picture a physically strong, confident, badass lady – but we keep doing this not just to our fictional friends, but to real women. We are taught to admire women who fight, who riot, who get angry and speak out – we are taught that a violent woman is a strong woman. Michelle Obama got the most praise for her words when speaking out angrily against issues rather than in the tireless charity work she participates in, Beyonce is praised for her sassy fight songs, and Greta Thunberg is only shown when she rants angrily, rather than when she leads important discussions. We have become so embroiled in the idea that a strong woman must be a rock, that we have trained our women to repress their emotions to gain strength. We need to dispel the myth that a lack of emotions makes you stronger.
As a woman, it can feel impossible to rise to the insane standards of the modern day. The fight for accurate representations of the body has been going on for years, but we never stopped to think about accurate representations of the mind. We label women who cry as ‘drama queens’, and those who get stressed as ‘princesses’, and those who simply feel lost as ‘uninteresting’. No human functions properly without their full range of emotions, and we need to show that there is strength in expressing our emotions as well as concealing something. So what if our heroine is scared? She’s about to jump a tank full of live sharks, she probably should be. Having an emotionally vulnerable character doesn’t mean they need saving, but it means there is a chance to explore the incredibly important personal growth that can come from identifying, expressing, and trying to deal with your emotions. I’m not against the female characters throwing the baddies off a bridge, but they equally deserve a chance to be anxious about their missions, or regretful about their past decisions without it taking away from their validity as a character.
For years I deluded myself that I could not possibly be a strong woman until I hit the gym, or led a protest, or started a rebellion. I was so sure that I had to portray myself this way to be perceived as strong that I would get angry and attempt to ‘stick it to the man’ by being rude about the simplest thing. In reality, I hate conflict, I never want to be involved in a standoff, and I cry when I’m yelled at; but I can still be, and hope that I am, a strong woman. The thing I really could have used growing up was to see those kinds of women represented: not just heroines who don’t need no man, not just the girls who can outdo the guys, I needed a woman who was emotionally articulate and well respected. We need to show women as strong throughout, that they are equally as worthy and inspirational when they are winning as when they are losing.
They say art reflects life, but life can definitely also reflect art. In a world as powered by media as our current day one, our entertainment, writing, music, and creations need to reflect a diverse range of strong characters. While so far I’ve focused particularly on women, the same rules hold for all genders, and all races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, backgrounds, abilities, and every other thing that makes us human. Sometimes we want the arts to take us away from reality, but we need to make sure its influence doesn't reshape our own views.
So I’ll flex my arm like dear old Rosie, and say ‘We can do it! But it’s okay if we can’t too!” because I think we deserve a generation of women seeing the value of emotional vulnerability. We do not have to kick or punch our way through lives just because they say so, we don’t have to scream and yell if we don’t want to. Your quiet perseverance to get back up when the world kicks you down is enough. Your tears are as valuable as your sweat. Your pain is valid and worthy and can bring you power. You are more than enough for the world as you are. And the world deserves to start showing women that.