Rational Feminist Role Models in Pop Culture

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Photo credit: http://www.westword.com/news/most-nerd-tastic-signs-from-denvers-womens-march-2018-9903076

This January there was a Women’s March that I pretty much ignored due to work and life and having better things to do. I hear this year’s march was much better than last year’s though, so I am almost sorry I missed it. Last year’s march was so much faux outrage that, even though I identify as a feminist, I cringed every time someone posted a picture of a pussy hat. I referred to it as a “faux-test,” because it had all the authenticity of fool’s gold in its demands for “equal” rights and recognition for women. It had all of the entitlement of Hillary Clinton’s supporters when they insisted that Clinton’s gender outweigh all of the terrible things about her policies and personality.

I am very outspoken against faux feminism and the lip service paid to female empowerment by some of the people who call themselves “feminists” these days, and I’ve written about that already. Since then, I’ve had anti-feminists accuse me of being what I called a “wymynist” and I’ve had pro-feminists accuse me of not being a feminist at all because I won’t immediately assume a woman is always right and always a victim of men. I’ve gotten support, too, especially from women who are sick of how “feminists” represent women.

One person, however, asked me a great and very thought-provoking question: who would I say exhibits rational feminism? So out of respect for the Women’s March and all the rational feminists who participated in it, here are five examples a rational feminist can look to.

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman movie poster. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Let’s get the obvious out of the way right away. The Wonder Woman movie received so many accolades as a feminist work that a theater in Austin, Texas created controversy by having a women-only screening of it(incidentally, that’s like getting mad about a Jewish-only screening of Schindler’s List or a black-only screening of The Color Purple. If you can’t handle giving a group a little recognition, you’re a “snowflake,” although you’re probably calling the viewers in these three scenarios by that moniker). With all the hype, it is easy to assume Wonder Woman is a wymynist, especially considering wymynists also use her as an icon. However, this Amazon princess secures a spot because she is far more than what wymynists make of her. Typical wymynists would expect her to support women no matter what they do, and to back her sisters, right or wrong.

What really makes the movie a rational feminist film, however, is the way it was executed. Male superhero movies have a formula to them that involves a lot of hubris. It goes something like this:

  • Guy gets superpowers, usually also loses something significant
  • Guy shows off superpowers
  • Guy eventually fights crime using superpowers
  • Guy becomes overconfident in superpowers
  • Big bad smacks guy down and back into humility
  • Gritty new version of guy beats big bad

In Wonder Woman, Diana doesn’t experience any of this. She is born with her powers. She never has to show them off, and when she reaches the crime-fighting stage of her plotline, she never develops overconfidence or a need for humility. In fact, she works with a team, and that team is comprised entirely of men. Even her adversary is a man, but never is she subjugated, nor does she disdain her male counterparts. She is charmed throughout the whole movie, with every mission a success. Her enemy isn’t hubris, and it isn’t men. It is herself, and her own lack of confidence in her abilities.

While women have been subjugated in many areas of the world, in Western culture there are a lot of appearances of independence. This is just window dressing, however. Also present in Western culture are a lot of expectations and even some gaslighting of folks who stray from social norms. Before wymynist feminism, women were actively discouraged from doing anything that didn’t involve being a housewife and mother. Sure, they had an important role in the family, but the value was always placed on the work the men did, because that is the only work that is compensated by wages. The insidious echoes of this devaluation of “women’s work” such as cooking, cleaning, child-rearing and social planning still pursue Western civilization today, and there are also a lot of jobs out there that are (unnecessarily) gender-biased, such as nursing or secretarial work.

Underconfidence is one of the primary traits that keep the so-called Patriarchal Society alive. The teachings that reinforce gender roles expect women to be submissive and men to be dominant, and anyone who does not fit into these narrow sets of expectations is socially sanctioned in ways that are designed to undermine the confidence of the people daring to be different. But it’s the Amazons, not “men” or the Patriarchal Society, spend a lot of time sanctioning Diana and keeping her from reaching her potential. Diana still fights anyway, and her true potential shines through, but many women are not so lucky, having nothing in their environment to keep them fighting. We have been conditioned so well to perform these roles that we do it all the time — men want to appear strong and women want to appear nurturing — so it feels icky and uncomfortable to step away from that into something different. Diana was conditioned for so long to play her role that when she discovered her true potential, it was almost a traumatic shock. While the effects of this are more subtle in Western culture, most women worldwide can relate to this sanctioning of confidence.

Brienne of Tarth (Game of Thrones)

Photo credit: By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39075975

One could not examine any feminism in pop culture without bringing Game of Thrones or A Song of Ice and Fire into the discussion. George RR Martin himself is definitely a rational feminist, but he’s worn many hats in his excellent work. There are so many types of women in the books and on the show — dependent women (Lyssa Arryn), mean girls who use sex as a weapon (Melisandre), militant feminists (the Sand Snakes), and wymynists (Cersei Lannister). As a result, picking from the women who would count as rational feminists was really, really hard. Candidates such as Margaery Tyrell, Daenarys Targaryen, Catelyn Stark, Arya Stark, Yara Greyjoy, and Ygritte were carefully considered and set aside for various (and in some cases, such as Olenna, nitpicky) reasons. Lyanna Mormont, for example, will grow up to become a great rational feminist, and Missandei would probably have been a great example, but the former is too young and the latter’s plot still has too many mysteries.

Sansa Stark, the first runner-up, provides a very strong example of a rational feminist. Her history of being brutalized makes her a victim, one of rape, abuse, and power struggles. Rather than follow a militant or wymynist path about it, she uses her bad experiences to build herself into a true leader, full of strength and poise. Sansa is a survivor who never lets go of the things that make her a woman, and retains her pride in her gender. It was really hard to pick between her and the finalist but in the end the mark against her was her youth as a “mean girl.” Most women don’t have the experience of being a mean girl. Most women were picked on by the mean girl.

So in the end, I went with Brienne of Tarth because her experience resonates more strongly with rational feminism. As the “ugly duckling,” she found another way to express herself as a person, crossing gender boundaries without leaving her own behind. She crushes hard on Renly Baratheon and later on Jamie Lannister, and both book and show treat this with all the sensitivity of a high school girl’s diary. She seeks out the Stark sisters to protect them not with the warrior’s instinct but the far more terrifying fierceness of maternal protectiveness, redoubled by the fact that this quest was bestowed upon her by the girls’ actual mother. Brienne is a woman who exists and thrives in a man’s world, despite the ridicule it brings upon her, because she knows herself, both the parts that are womanly and the parts that are universal. She doesn’t flaunt the womanly or attempt to use it to her advantage, even when others try to exploit it of her. She’s taken the heat from both sides — she knows there are licentious men out there, but she knows the women are full of crap too — so rather than adhering to either of them, she walks her own path. She is a partner to the men she meets in her travels throughout the book and the show. She neither depends on them nor abandons them, not even the Hound.

Many of us resonate better with this experience than Sansa’s, not because of physical beauty but because of self-perception. One way the Patriarchal Society beats up both genders is by attacking our physical appearance relentlessly, but gender norms are much harsher on women than on men, and many women have spent most of their lives being compared to unrealistic standards of physical beauty. Cosmetics are not marketed to men, and jewelry generally marketed to be bought for a woman. Hair removal is an extremely lucrative industry because of the same standards. Women are expected to get married and have kids, and it is only recently that has changed but the echoes of this attitude are still marketed to us every single day, in commercials for a wide assortment of products and services, and in the reinforcement of social norms that support it. Brienne finally won the Battle of the Game of Thrones Feminists because we’ve all felt her ugliness in our own awkwardnesses, and a rational feminist would respond like her and be her own person, warts and all. We should all be brave enough to do so.

Babymetal

J-pop meets metal. Photo credit: BBC

My love of power metal music knows no bounds, but this is a genre that is a huge sausage party. From testosterone-fueled battle anthems to head-banging drinking songs, metal mosh pits are heavily made up of men. A few groups, such as Nightwish, Once Human, and Archenemy, are changing this, but the Japanese trio Babymetal brings just a little more to the table. Originally a fusion of J-pop (the Japanese version of Top 40) and power metal, it’s not the female presence that exemplifies them as rational feminists, but the lyrics and theme of their songs.

The frenetic “Gimme Chocolate” is about dieting and temptation, with an underlying theme hinting at teenage girls’ obsession with physical attractiveness. “Karate” is about overcoming obstacles with strength and determination. “Megitsune” refers to Japanese legends about trickster fox spirits which possess the bodies of unsuspecting victims with charm and guile; the song explains that women in general are not these creatures, are not actresses or deceivers. “Road of Resistance,” from their more recent album, Metal Resistance, is a powerful call to action with no gender association other than it is coming from three girls that resemble adorbale dolls.

Babymetal gets mixed reviews from metalheads. Rob Zombie defended them on Twitter, while Judas Priest singer Rob Halford has performed with them. A lot of the pushback comes from the mixture of their cute babydoll look and the pop star element of their initial sound. It’s true that their song lyrics are aimed at teenage girls and young women, but aren’t the qualities they sing about the ones we want our teenagers learning?

Emma Watson’s Belle (Beauty and the Beast)

“Belle” means “beauty” Photo credit: http://pop.inquirer.net/2017/02/emma-watson-captures-heart-belle-beauty-beast/

Belle will always be a strong rational feminist icon because she is an intelligent woman who uses her intelligence regardless of the views of those around her. She gets to know the Beast, even though she is afraid of him, and learns that the man inside isn’t so beastly. She is fiercely independent in an era where this is frowned upon.

However, Belle from the live-action film, played by real-life rational feminist Emma Watson, goes the extra mile. Not content to merely read herself, she endeavors to teach the village children how to read, in an era where children were being socialized very young into a rural lifestyle before the Industrial Era — men being hunters and farmhands, women being wives and hearthkeepers.

The changes needed to balance the scales for both genders are not going to take place in the highest levels of the government or on Hollywood’s red carpet. They are going to take place in what sociologist George Herbert Mead referred to as symbolic interactions, which are everyday interactions between regular people that reinforce an idea. Many aspects of our culture, both positive and negative, are caused by symbolic interactions, and they are a very powerful force. Belle’s educating of the village children is one example of a positive symbolic interaction. Millions of women around the globe engage in these interactions every day without the recognition of having a movie made about them, but millions more will have to act, especially in areas where women are still forced into unpaid labor and subject to the will and whim of husbands, in-laws, and other social powers beyond their control. The Belles of the world are more likely to save it than all the pussy-hats everywhere.

Princess Leia Organa

Princess of kicking ass. Photo credit: http://www.btchflcks.com/2012/08/women-in-science-fiction-week-princess-leia-feminist-icon-or-sexist-trope.html#.Wme2yK6nHIU

This almost didn’t need to be said. She’s sassy. She’s smart. She’s willing to put herself at great risk for what she believes in. She puts her money where her mouth is. She’s no weeping violet, she is never dependent on Han or Luke, and in the end she becomes a significant leader in the Rebel Alliance. Even when the slave of Jabba the Hutt in the infamous bikini, she turns that sexuality into a lethal weapon, but only against her aggressor; then she goes right out and kicks some ass alongside Jedi, rebels of various races (beyond ethnicity) and genderless androids. And oh yeah, she’s also a woman — her femininity isn’t one of her qualifications, it is just an attribute about her.

Like Wonder Woman, Princess Leia has been co-opted by the faux Resistance that pays lip service to social issues such as gender and race, so it’s easy to assume that she is a wymynist. But when did you ever see Leia with a victim attitude about the brutal treatment she received at the hands of Darth Vader and the stormtroopers? If Leia had Twitter, you wouldn’t see her with a #MeToo hashtag, you’d see her at the forefront of the battle to change perception of women’s interests as secondary to or extraneous of men’s. I have not seen The Last Jedi yet, but she’s had four other movies to make this impression.

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These five collections of women are what feminism should look like. Instead, we are repeatedly told we are victims of men and a society which favors men, and that we should therefore either hate men or look to them for protection from this system. While it is true that the tasks of giving birth, raising children, and maintaining the home and social connections has always fallen to women and have long been regarded as subsidiary to men’s tasks of procreating, providing food and fighting other men, women have developed their own power within this same system, and men have received their fair share of suffering from it. Rejecting this system isn’t a matter of embracing victimhood, as we are told we should. It is not a matter of justifying one another, right or wrong, as has been demanded of us over the past two years.

It is a matter of supporting one another, female or male: of working together, like Wonder Woman; of never settling for other’s projections of what we should be, like Brienne of Tarth; of being clear and strong about who we are, like Babymetal’s songs; of being a part of those small symbolic interactions that together make larger norms, like Belle; and of fighting for what we believe in alongside allies who are equal, no matter who they are, like Princess Leia.

With the exception of Babymetal, these women are fictional, but all five are inspired by a way of thinking that values women in the world at large and questions conventional expectations about women. What sets them apart as rational feminists, however, is that they live in a world that also has men and they’re fine with that, as long as they get to do their part, too. They challenge assumptions about women without making similar assumptions about men, establishing new social norms that benefit both genders by favoring neither.

Equality isn’t about homogeneous treatment, and it is also not about fighting discrimination with discrimination. This is what sets rational feminists apart from other feminists, and what we need to do to steer the discourse about women in a rational direction is follow their example in our own interactions.

https://medium.com/@jennyasencio/5-rational-feminist-role-models-in-pop-culture-74844b423cba

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