Academic Writing

Friday, June 01, 2012

Are Strong Women Just Things of Fairy Tales?

America is having a hard time with women these days.  Current politics would have us believe that women are either helpless or slutty and need to be put in their places.  You want birth control pills so you can have just as much sex as men?  Well then you’re a slut.  You want to have an abortion because, for whatever reason, you don’t want to have the child you’re carrying?  Well, then you’re a murderer.  I can go on.  Jon Stewart is doing all that he can to point out the ridiculousness of the situation, but politicians have chosen their sides and are sticking to them.  Those supporting the bills often cite the bible and religion as reasons why they are justified in proposing them.  Those who oppose it have morality, compassion and reason on their side (but that’s just my totally unbiased opinion).   The policies against women’s reproductive health that are being brought to congress are made by men.  Their female counterparts in the government are doing all they can to counterbalance what they are introducing, but have yet been not been overwhelmingly successful.

Television and pop-culture, however, would have us believe that women are, in fact, anything but helpless to the whim of men and have control of their own destinies.  They don’t need the support of men to care for themselves, and without the control of men keeping them down they are stronger and stick up for themselves more.  But maybe it’s all one and the same.  Women are getting stronger and more independent and those who are imposing these offensive policy changes are trying to bring us back down to a more manageable state.  The media has picked up on this desire for women to take control of their lives despite (the often right wing) policies that are trying to keep them down.

Just a few examples to make my point:

1. Once Upon a Time:  This show is essentially about three women jockeying for power in different realms – Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla) and Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison) in the non-magical world and The Queen (Lana Parrilla) and Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin).   These women are strong and powerful in different ways – and need men in different ways, but none of the men in their lives effect their power.  Regina comes off as though she doesn’t need any male figures in her life.  She claims to love her son, but uses him more as a bargaining chip to assert power over Emma than a child.  She casts aside any man who shows affection or sympathy for her.  It’s only close to the end of the season when she allows herself to be vulnerable and show romantic affection for a man.  All of her actions are predicated on her lust for power and to overcome anyone who gets in her way.  Emma, as we find out, was saved from death in the magical world and then again in the non-magical world because of the help from men.  She has always been a loner, taking care of only herself and only learned to love anyone through her newly found biological son.  Then there’s Snow White, who in both worlds is a hopeless romantic but is able to cast that aside and take care of herself when need be.

Additionally, it's interesting that this show has taken a classic Fairy Tale and turned it upside down to make it relevant to today's viewers.  You can read more about that here.

2. Mad Men: In a time that is historically known for being chauvinistic and when women were just starting to find their voices, this show, especially in the current season, has highlighted the different ways women have found their voice.  For instance, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), is sick and tired of Don (Jon Hamm) excluding her from business meetings and career growth opportunities because she is a woman.  Ultimately, she finds a bargaining chip and sought out to impact her own future despite Don’s controlling nature.  She knows her talent and seeks out other career opportunities that won’t take advantage of her as Don has done time and again.  The implicit irony, of course, is that she only can do so with the help of other men.  

In direct contrast to the asexual Peggy, there’s the voluptuous, practically oozing with sex, Joan (Christina Hendricks) who knows her power lies in her sexuality.  As much as it disgusts her to do so, she knows she must use that asset to her advantage.  She knows that since she cannot rely on her husband to care for her and her son, she agrees to sleep with a sleazy car salesman her to ensure the company lands the Jaguar account.  Again though, similar to Peggy, her available power is brokered by men, in this case the male partners of SCDP, that knew it would be good for business not taking into consideration how it would make her feel.  So while ultimately her decision was made for herself and she negotiated her terms, it was not something initially posed by her for her own good.  But she does recognize the power she has over the men in the company and uses it to the best of her ability.

3. Snow White and the Huntsman: In yet another iteration of the Snow White fairy tale, this film takes on a very different perspective of Snow’s ability to defend herself from the evils of The Queen.  Unlike the timid and helpless Disney version of Snow White and more similar to Once Upon a Time, Snow is perfectly capable of fending for herself and picking up a sword for her own protection. What is interesting here is that ultimately she does need the help of men to survive her journey to reclaim her royal birthright, but when it comes to the final showdown between her and the queen, that is a battle Snow must face on her own.   

Additionally, the relationship they have with men is also particularly interesting.  Snow needs men at every stage of her life - be it her father, The Huntsman, The Dwarfs.  They support and defend her.  The Queen on the other hand surrounds herself with men who perpetuate her lust for beauty and who propagate her need to destroy other women.  The duality is striking as the ultimate message is NOT that women do not need men, it's just the opposite, but it also comments on both the positive and negative effects of reliance on them that can bring. (For a full review of Snow White and The Huntsman, click here.)

These are just some examples, I could go on and on about how the media portrays women as self-sufficient and strong characters able to take care of themselves and won’t allow men to simply dictate how their futures will pan out .  If you want to do some research on your own, check out the women of Game of Thrones, VEEP, Law & Order: SVU, Sons of Anarchy and so on.  While these examples are from very recent memory, there have been strong female characters available on television and cinema for years.  Yet, given a seemingly overwhelming surge in these characters recently, we seem to be in somewhat of a renaissance.  More often than not women are self-sufficient and take on a strong role in popular culture and when they don’t it’s almost jarring.  Take HBO’s new series Girls.  Many critics have taken issue with the all-white character landscape of the show, but one of my issues with it is how much is seems to be sending young women back into the dark ages of relationships.  I don’t need to watch neurotic girls making the same mistakes that they’ve been making for decades.  We’re past that as a culture and a society and let’s have role models on television that while yes, do make some mistakes now and again, don’t base their entire lives on their interactions with men, asshole men, I should add.  The only guys who aren’t assholes on that show are painted as weak and lame in contrast to their female partners – Hannah’s (Lena Dunham) father and Charlie (Christopher Abbott), Marnie’s (Allison Williams) boyfriend.  Why does it have to be either/or.  Why can’t strong, positive, women exist with strong, positive, men?  And, when men are the weaker sex, why are their female partners domineering women?  Further, when a show or film are centered around just men, why are they immature man-boys?  Although I haven’t seen an episode of it yet, the new TBS series Men at Work seems as though it will fulfill that prophecy based on the promos alone. 

Bringing it back into reality, I often wonder if it’s these conflicting images of women and men that has helped contribute to the higher rates of unmarried men and women as the proposed gender roles in media are unrealistic.   Women are portrayed as strong and not needing a man.  If these strong women were to seek out a man they’d likely be stuck with some weakling.  Any man who finds a strong women would assume that that makes him weak, and what guy wants to be seen as a weakling?  Ironically, one of the most evenly matched relationships on television is between Don and Megan on Mad Men.  As misogynistic as he is, she stands up to him time and again asserting her independence.  While in other instances her loyalty to a man might come off as needy, Megan is faithful to him without giving up any part of herself and what she wants out of life.

In a world where women are becoming stronger, getting more higher degrees, earning more money and starting to put a real break in that glass ceiling, men seem to feel the need to push them down, at least on an institutional level.  Further, while the media is portraying women as strong, positive role models for other women, the representations of men have been suffering.  Why does one party have to suffer while another one thrives? 

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