I consume pop culture for a living. I gobble up YA books, movies, and TV shows like a little Ms. Pac-Man, and I’ve recently noticed something about a lot of our most popular heroines:
They act a lot like dudes.
The recent demand for stronger female characters has been translated in Hollywood and elsewhere maybe a little too literally, like, “You want stronger female characters? How about a 90-lb straight white girl who’s a stoic prizefighter struggling with nymphomania? Also she has a robot arm.”
I’m not saying there’s no girl out there who wouldn’t want to bare-knuckle brawl a dude like "Divergent"’s Tris, or take out a room of henchmen like Hit Girl, but sometimes it seems like the only way to be a mainstream heroine is to embody values culturally coded as masculine. Aggression! Dominance! Guns! Suck it up! Fight fight fight!!!
These kinds of heroines teach girls that it’s cool to be nothing like a girl.
So here, I’ve made the creators of the world a cheat sheet: 10 feminine strengths a heroine could embody. Do all women share all of these traditionally feminine traits? No. Do many men exhibit them all the time? Yes. Do we often see them celebrated in pop culture? NOPE.
10. Super Listening
Women are trained from an early age to nurture, and part of that is active listening. I remember a lunch in high school where a girl I didn’t really know sat down next to me and my best friend and started ranting apropos of nothing about people who protest outside of Planned Parenthood. After three minutes of almost incoherent vitriol, my friend qently asked her, “When did you have your abortion?”
Out came a quiet, anguished monologue from this 16-year-old about the abortion she’d just had. My friend listened respectfully until she got all the hurt out. She needed to tell that story to someone, anyone, that day, and my friend was there to listen. Fuck shooting spaceships out of the sky, this is the kind of thing that actually saves lives.
9. Emotional Laser Focus
There isn’t a woman alive who hasn’t gotten shit for being emotional. Emotions are irrational. Stop being so hysterical.
Let me posit two things: first, that our emotions are largely the product of our rational understanding. Second, that the whole value of being alive is the ability to experience emotion. To the extent that you feel emotion, you are alive. The stoic action hero throwing out a terse one-liner as he kicks his nemesis off a skyscraper may live to the end of the movie, but he is dead inside. He’s so emotionally blocked off he wouldn’t know happiness if it pissed in his ear. Facing a world that you know will hurt you with an open heart, experiencing all your joy, all your sadness and all your fear, is the hardest, bravest, most heroic way there is to live.
8. Uncanny Foresight
A month after your neighbors moved in, you correctly predicted their divorce. You never jog under that one bridge though you don’t exactly know why. You’ve got Uncanny Foresight, aka “Women’s Intuition.”
We usually see Uncanny Foresight onscreen right before a female character becomes a victim: she feels like someone is in her apartment, but she still tip-toes around crying, “Who’s there?!” until they pounce from the shadows. Now if only she was encouraged to take her instincts seriously, maybe she would pounce first.
7. Boundless Fortitude
Watch your female relatives this Thanksgiving, cooking all morning and then cleaning up all afternoon while the guys watch the game. Watch your pregnant cousin feed her toddler, whip up a casserole, and care for her 8-year-old with the fever and runny nose.
Testosterone is good for blasts of productive aggression, and that bears ye fruit in battle. But in the day to day, women have been getting the hard shit done for centuries. Don’t act like you don’t know at least one woman who puts in 40 hours a week at work then goes home to cook her family dinner.
6. Superhuman Ability to Deny Pain
No, I’m not going to pull out the old chestnut about women’s pain thresholds being higher because they have to give birth. Regardless of how pain thresholds compare between the sexes, the majority of women expect and endure pain a hell of a lot more often than the majority of men. Because birth, yes, and periods and pregnancy. And also because high heels, hot combs, underwires, Brazilians, bleach jobs, relaxer, hair threading, waxing, and Botox.
Because a guy can bellow out a gut-scream while doing reps at the gym but a lady doesn’t even want you to know she’s sweating. Hiding your struggle is very feminine.
There is a heroine who embodies transformation: Cinderella. Unfortunately, she set the precedent that your transformation should come from someone else, be that a fairy godmother or Cinna from the Capital. The heroine passively, naively benefits from their makeover, because God forbid she WANT to look fabulous. Leave that to Cruella De Vil!
To live in a world that makes it crystal clear just how wrong you look, and stand before a mirror every day to make an objective inventory of your surface -- to, beyond that, dare to make yourself stand out -- and then go out the door with your head held high to take on the world... well, that’s not a life for the meek. Transforming yourself through clothes and make up can be like a superpower for women -- whether they are cisgender or trans -- and some very cool dudes.
Perception is valued in all human beings, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a masculine/feminine distinction in how it’s best acquired. To make a quick comparison, think of the feminine-coded Miss Marple (written by Agatha Christie) vs. the super-masculine Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle). Sherlock cannot maintain relationships with people and approaches gruesome murders like so many Rubik's cubes. Marple draws on her own relationships and experiences to make complex insights into human nature.
Perception for Sherlock requires emotional distance and cold logic. Perception for Marple requires emotional context and empathy.
3. Summoning Forces
They organize the car pools to the protest. They show up at the wake with the casseroles. They pass around the hat when the uninsured co-worker is in the hospital. You’re already picturing some group of middle-aged women you know, aren’t you?
They’re the unsung civilian militia that will mobilize if any threat touches their kids or their community, based in a church or workplace or PTA, and they are usually middle-aged to older women.
It is evidently masculine to imagine yourself in a pyramid: One atop a rigid hierarchy keeping heaven above and hell below. It is therefore feminine to see society as a team, a herd that circles protectively around the weak and the young once dark falls.
In films and TV, a group of determined, efficient middle-aged women is…well, damn. Can’t think of anything I’ve actually seen that in.
This is the counter to Self-Transformation.
In every woman’s life, there’s a time when she will need to disappear. Maybe it’s just for one night, when she has to walk somewhere she doesn’t want to go. She’ll put on a boxy jacket and hide her long hair. She’ll walk the way she never would in daylight down the street, with big sprawling steps. Or maybe parts of her will disappear. Her legs under baggy pants, her boobs under sweatshirts. Maybe she’ll just stop speaking up in class.
Maybe she’ll end her Facebook or leave Twitter. Maybe she’ll drop out of school, or leave work, or stop showing up at parties, for reasons that are always unclear.
It is a feminine defense mechanism, to know how to make yourself disappear.
If women have one edge culturally, it’s that they are allowed, nay, expected to be kind. As a woman, you’re actually encouraged to think good thoughts of others, to hold hands with your friends and hug your loved ones every time you meet. It has to extend your life to have those small freedoms. I wish I could give them to every hardened dude I’ve ever seen, on and offscreen. Only maybe then the conflicts in the movies would get resolved too fast.