Will Femininity and Power Ever Get Along?
It’s not easy identifying as a woman in this world. To paraphrase Liz Lemon, being a woman can be the worst because of society. There are strict social standards by which women must be measured at some point; it’s impossible not to be. And boy, do those standards start early. Just thinking back to when I was kid, I remember so many princesses! Disney princesses, mostly. Beautiful, thin, graceful princesses. Princess culture can easily dominate a young girl’s life.
Artist David Trumble has something to say about it. Back when there was a flap about how Merida, the heroine from the animated film Brave, was revamped, Trumble responded by producing drawings of 10 female role models in a very Disney princess mold. (Don’t worry; he’s not calling Anne Frank the “Holocaust Princess,” thank goodness.)
Trumble’s point was to show how unnecessary it is to flatten our heroines so they fit some narrow, prescribed form. As reported in Women You Should Know, Trumble writes:
“My experience of female role models both in culture and in life has shown me that there is no mold for what makes someone a role model, and the whole point of Merida was that she was a step in the right direction, providing girls with an alternative kind of princess. Then they took two steps back, and painted her with the same glossy brush as the rest. So I decided to take 10 real-life female role models, from diverse experiences and backgrounds, and filter them through the Disney princess assembly line.
Fiction is the lens through which young children first perceive role models, so we have a responsibility to provide them with a diverse and eclectic selection of female archetypes. Now, I’m not even saying that girls shouldn’t have princesses in their lives, the archetype in and of itself is not innately wrong, but there should be more options to choose from. So that was my intent, to demonstrate how ridiculous it is to paint an entire gender of heroes with one superficial brush.”
That’s definitely something I can get behind. (Plus, his drawings are kind of adorable, don’t you think? I wonder if he would draw me as a princess.)
However, it didn’t take very long for me to realize that, despite the artist’s good intentions, not everyone enjoyed these drawings. I had several friends admit that they were a little insulted by the pictures. They felt that depicting such powerful and influential women in such a way diminished their accomplishments. I have to admit, a part of me felt the same way. However, I think this type of thinking is problematic.
Let’s examine for a second why someone might be insulted by the drawings and why someone might feel that they diminish the accomplishments of these impressive women. I think it comes down to our definition of power and what we as a society consider weak. Weak, in our culture, tends to mean feminine.
Search your feelings, Lord Vader. You know it to be true. We see it in young kids as well as adults. There’s nothing worse you can call a boy than a girl. Hell, almost any derogatory name you can call a man refers to something feminine; that’s rarely the case for women. (Yes, there are insults you can hurl at women that degrade men, but they don’t carry the social weight that the feminine names can. Even women are hurt when you call them a bitch.) The fact that this and this and this exist should be an indication that women can’t just be themselves in the workplace. Our definition of power rewards traits we have defined as masculine and, evidently, women don’t wear them well. Men are assertive, women are aggressive. When a woman takes care of her child, she’s doing her womanly duty. When a man does the same thing, he’s babysitting.
Do you see what I’m getting at, here? We are inundated from day one with messages that being a woman or at all feminine is not desirable. It’s hard for everyone to avoid the trap.
Which brings me back to Trumble’s drawings and some of the reactions to it. Why should Ruth Bader Ginsberg be considered less of a BAMF because she’s wearing a sparkly dress? Are Marie Curie’s discoveries any less groundbreaking because she’s wearing impractical shoes? Is Malala Yousafzai any less inspiring because she’s wearing a tiara? I don’t think so. Femininity doesn’t demean any of their accomplishments, only our perception of them.
I don’t want anyone to come away with the idea that I think the princessification of real life female role models is something we should strive for. I don’t. Nor do I think it’s a good idea for young girls to be accosted with messages that, in order to be happy, they must act in a certain way. Trumble is absolutely right that there is no need to cram all of these strong and intelligent women into one bland archetype. What I am saying is that femininity should not be a bar to power and success, but I don’t think we’re there yet.
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