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Not Just Pretty Men: An Appeal for Distinctively Female Characters

Not just pretty men: An appeal for distinctively female characters -- FemCatholic.com

Outrage rang loudly through the internet with the announcement that the classic film “Ghostbusters” would be remade with all-female leads. While many of those complaints could be dismissed as sexist, there is a valid reason to complain when remakes put women in roles formerly held by men: it’s lazy writing at best, and more concerning, it is a huge disservice to women.

As Catholics, we know that men and women are distinct – and in certain ways, that makes us different. When we take a well-known movie and just switch out a man for a woman, we are acting like men and women are merely interchangeable. Rather than developing a strong female character based on the unique traits of women, we are acting as though there is nothing distinctive about being a woman. Though equal in dignity, men and women have different strengths, weaknesses, and traits that make them uniquely masculine or feminine.  A strong female character should emphasize these gifts; she shouldn’t just be a pretty man.

When we take a well-known movie and just switch out a man for a woman, we are acting like men and women are merely interchangeable.

Though many movies fail to even pass the infamous feminist “Bechdel test” -let alone present strong female leads- there are also movies that present strong women who draw their strength from their femininity, not in spite of it. What do specifically feminine strengths look like? Inspired by these four Feminine Gifts scholars say were identified by Pope Saint John Paul II, I sought out movies that presented strong women – as women. Here’s what I found.

Note: the following examples may include spoilers to these films.

Maternity

Speaking as a woman who hasn’t had children yet, this feminine trait is one that I struggle to understand. However, maternity isn’t just for women who have biological or adopted children; each and every woman is called to spiritual motherhood. Spiritual motherhood can be carried out in a variety of ways, but ultimately it comes down to imitating Mary and caring for others.

Spiritual motherhood can be carried out in a variety of ways, but ultimately it comes down to imitating Mary and caring for others.

In Juno, we see how a teenager who enters motherhood unexpectedly still demonstrates strong maternal qualities. t.When this headstrong young woman becomes pregnant, we see a sincere concern for her unborn child. After deciding against abortion, she seeks out adoption and talks about how she wants everything to be perfect for her unborn child. Though the child was completely unplanned, she refers to the baby as a miracle of life. High school is hard enough without an unplanned pregnancy, but she willingly takes on the ridicule and the complexities it adds to her relationships to protect this child. Juno is strong because she cares deeply and is willing to sacrifice for her child.

The Help is another film full of incredible examples of spiritual motherhood, and in many cases,, the spiritual mothers actually seem more caring than the biological mothers. The classic scene when Aibileen tells Mae Mobley “you is kind. You is smart. You is important,” is an obvious example of maternal nurturing, and there are many more throughout the film.  Minny and Aibileen have an incredibly strong friendship, and they care for each other in the midst of tragedies.

Another example of maternity is seen in the relationship between Celia and Minny. Despite being a married woman, Celia is a sweet, naive woman who needs someone to help her. Minny, her maid,  takes on a kind of mothering role as she helps Celia navigate household skills, deal with personal struggles, and becomes a protective friends.  The women in The Help are strong obviously for how they go against an oppressive society, but also in the way they care for their friends in times of intense suffering and vulnerability.

Sensitivity

This trait is often seen as a weakness: easily hurt, fragile, overly-emotional. A better definition  can be found in Merriam-Webster, which defines sensitivity as “delicately aware of the attitudes and feelings of others.”

At first glance, Elle Woods of Legally Blonde does not seem like an example of a strong woman. She is presented as a ditzy, girly-girl who follows a man who doesn’t treat her right. Despite her clearly being intelligent enough to get into law school, Harvard no less, we see her overlook her responsibilities as she tries to get the attention of her ex-boyfriend. Just when you think  it’s going to be another movie about a ditzy blonde stereotype, Legally Blonde shatters preconceptions and shows the power in female sensitivity. She is able to develop a better relationship with her clients and is more attentive to the complexities of human relationships, which helps to advance her case  and kick butt in the courtroom. Rather than her sensitive, people focused nature being a weakness, it is actually what makes her successful. And she does all of this while dressing in traditional feminine attire. Elle Woods is strong because she uses her sensitivity to succeed.

it is also empowering to have women who sensitively gauge the situation and respond accordingly.

Hidden Figures is at the top of many lists for strong female characters, and rightfully so. Based on a true story, we see three incredible women fight sexism and racism at their jobs in 1960’s NASA. Their intelligence and willingness to push against prejudice is enough to make them strong females role models, but what is also admirable is how they did it. These women are aware of the sexist attitudes that surround them, and though it is entirely unjust, they challenge the NASA culture in a “turn the other cheek” fashion. They don’t lash out; they let their hard work, their intelligence, and their character do the talking for them. Though sometimes injustice needs to be taken head on and more aggressively (à la Wonder Woman), it is also empowering to have women who sensitively gauge the situation and respond accordingly. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson are strong females because of their intelligence, their willingness to confront prejudice, and the delicate yet firm way they go about totally kicking butt.

Generosity

Generosity is ready and willingly giving something without the expectation or anticipation of anything in return; it is willingly providing because it is right.

Moana has quickly become many people’s favorite “princess” (chieftess-to-be?). In Moana, we see a young, passionate woman fight against expectations to help her people, and she does so at enormous risk. Legend has it that Maui, a demigod, stole the heart (represented by a small, iridescent rock) of Te Fiti, a goddess. Moana’s grandmother and Moana believe that the only way to restore the state of the island is to return the heart to Te Fiti. We see Moana’s physical strength as she goes across the ocean after never even leaving her island, and her fortitude when she takes on the demigod Maui to convince him, to help her save her island. The most powerful scene is when she takes on Te Kā, a giant, volcanic creature blocking the way to where Moana believes Te Fiti lies. Moana realizes that the terrifying Te Kā was actually once Te Fiti. While we see Maui doing various fighting moves, we see Moana boldly walking towards Te Kā only to gently offer the heart. Moana initially goes on this journey because she is hungry for adventure, but she also generously sacrifices her comfort, her chance to say goodby to her grandmother, her relationship with her father, and even her own safety for her people. She does so this without expecting anything; she goes because it is necessary for the good of others. Moana shows us strength can come both in the form of fighting/ physical ability and in gentleness and serving others.

strength can come both in the form of fighting/ physical ability and in gentleness and serving others.

In Lord of the Rings: Return of the Ring, Princess Eowyn demonstrates generosity through potential self-sacrifice. She secretly rides into a battle that seemed like it would result in certain death, while saying “courage, Merry, courage for our friends.” Though we see fear in her eyes, she bravely takes on the Nazgûl. The Nazgûl (referred to as “most terrible servants” in the book), are near-immortal servants to an evil power. One of them that war particularly frightening was the Witch King of Angmar. The Witch King calls her a fool because “no man can kill” him.  Princess Eowyn removes her helmet, flips back her hair, and says calmly “I am no man” and stabs the Witch King in the face, destroying him. Princess Eowyn is a strong female character because she generously risks her own life to save others, and for showing the hardcore power behind a “woman’s touch.”

Receptivity

Merriam-Webster defines receptive as “open and responsive to ideas, impressions, or suggestions.” While there is strength in standing for what is right, there is also a more subtle strength in taking in other thoughts to shape opinions.

The Miracle Worker  shares the story of Anne Sullivan Macy and Helen Keller. Anne takes on the difficult task of teaching Helen to communicate. In Anne, we see strength through her love for Helen and her determination, but we also see it in her openness. Anne had to seek to understand Helen and the family dynamics impacting her. She had to be willing to look for different opportunities to communicate and teach Helen. Anne had to adapt her ideas to meet the needs of the people she was serving. She had to be willing to take on different ideas because she was doing something that hadn’t really been done before. Though the results are amazing, making both she and Helen Keller strong women, Anne’s loving persistence and openness are what really make her a strong female role model.

Belle of Beauty and the Beast was my favorite Disney princess growing up. As a little girl, I admired Belle’s love of reading,  her ability to ignore the mean comments of the town folk, and her standing up to the bully Gaston. As an adult, I also admire her sacrifice for her father. When I was watching the live action version recently, however, what caught my attention that hadn’t before was Belle’s receptivity. Obviously, dealing with talking furniture and a beast requires some openness to begin with, but we also see her demonstrate receptivity as her relationship with the Beast changes. Rather than holding on to the gruff, harsh reputation he had shaped earlier, she accepted the changes that occurred: him fighting off wolves, learning about her past, and ultimately freeing her to save her father. It isn’t a weakness to forgive; instead, it takes a great deal of strength (and humility) to accept ideas and events that contradict our preconceived notions. Belle is a strong female character because she willingly accepts new impressions and situations.

It isn’t a weakness to forgive; instead, it takes a great deal of strength (and humility) to accept ideas and events that contradict our preconceived notions.

This is by no means a full list of every strong female character out there, but what these women have in common is that they are strong because their femininity shines. They might be taking on a “male” role, but they don’t try to be male. They are strong women because they leverage their femininity, and we need to see more of this in our films.

Stop giving us poorly written characters that are just men with breasts: give us women who are compassionate, nurturing, kind, giving, and open. Stop making male characteristics the default for strength. Show us strength in its many forms, including and especially feminine.

Edith Stein (Saint Teresa Benedicta ) said, “The world doesn’t need what women have; it needs what women are.” Let’s see the strong humans women are in our films.


Kate Hendrick is a FemCatholic Contributor. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband and works full-time as a process engineer. Though Kate is a “cradle Catholic” she didn’t fully embrace the Catholic faith until mid-college. She discusses the challenges she and other young adults face as they try to live authentically Catholic lives on her blog Stumbling Toward Sainthood. You can also find her on TwitterInstagram, and Pinterest.

 

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