Dear Natalie Portman: Can You Stop Being Awesome for Just One Sec?

Your recent comments about feminist movie roles just made me adore you more. Also, can we all just stop it with the "strong woman" trope already?
Publish date:
October 2, 2013
movies, feminism, natalie portman, Strong Women

Dear Natalie Portman,

I love you. I've always kind of loved you -- you won me over at just 12 years old when you turned in that powerful/nuanced/disturbing/riveting performance in "The Professional." But my passion was sealed in stone in 2006 when you rapped your ass off in one of the funniest spoofs "SNL" has ever wrought (people, if by some miracle you haven't seen it yet, please PLEASE get thee onto YouTube and watch it right now). Now you've gone and stolen my heart again (if you continue down this path, I just might be forced to get your name tattooed on the back of my neck with little arrow-pierced hearts around it, or something). Could you stop being so goddamn smart and funny and elegant and awesome? It's making me look bad.

You laid it on the table in this interview for ELLE UK's November issue, talking to actor Tom Hiddleston about your thoughts on feminism and women's characters in movies:

"I want every version of a woman and a man to be possible. I want women and men to be able to be full-time parents or full-time working people or any combination of the two. I want both to be able to do whatever they want sexually without being called names. I want them to be allowed to be weak and strong and happy and sad -- human, basically. The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a "feminist" story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with."

Your comments reminded of this Esquire piece I read recently, "The Strong Woman Myth," by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (Sophia McDougall also wrote about how much she hates the whole "strong-female-character" thing in the New Statesman last month.) In his piece, Abdul-Jabbar suggests that we stop calling women (including female characters on TV and movies) "strong" all the time, because it's actually kind of offensive and lazy, and it actually kind-of doesn't mean anything. He writes, "When writers want to create a 'strong' woman…she's a fanboy's one-dimensional comic-book fantasy: a physically imposing, shapely, hot woman in tight clothes (and heels) who can also kick ass, drink hard booze, brag that she doesn't cook, and is quick to ram a knee to the groin of anyone who challenges her."We see that Hollywood strong-woman stereotype everywhere from Mary Shannon in "In Plain Sight" to Kate Beckett in "Castle," and it's not just problematic because the characters are always sexy and scantily clad as they kick ass (without even slightly smudging their meticulously applied red lipstick). It's problematic in that male characters are rarely referred to as "strong" -- it's implicitly assumed, and a "weak" man is the exception, not the rule.

Also, as Abdul-Jabbar notes, lots of these tough female characters are portrayed as being psychologically screwed up -- their "strength" is often borne of intense personal trauma, and that "addition of trauma is to allow us to forgive her these trespasses into maleness."

It's like saying no women is NATURALLY tough/bold/brave, or even just tough because she chooses to be -- her strength is a pathological result of having a super-f*cked up childhood or having endured a horrific rape or assault or something; "To constantly refer to women as strong is to send the opposite message: that they need to constantly have this positive re-enforcement because deep down they are really fragile orchids."I'm not sure how much of that stuff you agree with, Natalie, but it definitely seems like you get that women don't need to be "kick-ass" to, well, kick ass. We don't need to put on a brave ballsy bitchy face to be "strong," and we don't need to be constantly scrambling like hamsters on a wheel to prove we're tough and invulnerable and have no feelings. I love robust female characters ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer" will always hold a special place in my heart) and I'll probably always get a tiny illicit thrill from watching female heroines wail on villainous dudes onscreen. But those heroines aren't JUST heroines, and Hollywood needs to start reflecting reality: women are multi-faceted and complex. We're not just "strong," we're human.

What are your favorite feminist movie/TV characters?

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