Last week I read a fantastic post by Julie Clawson. I wrote a post asking her some questions. She responded and so did Carol Howard Merritt. Then Rachel Held Evans gave it ‘Conversation of the Week’ in the coveted Sunday Superlatives! These 3 women great authors and speakers. I feel privilege to have them as dialogue partners! Here are some highlights:
Background: I love going to the movies. As a student, I usually only go the theatre on Summer break (blockbuster action films + air-conditioning = awesome) and on Winter break (tired brain + Christmas money = fantastic).
Last week I saw two movies and was quite intrigued by a pattern that I noticed during the trailers: women being tough guys. The three trailers were for Underworld: Awakening with Kate Beckinsdale, Haywire with Gina Carano (both action films) and The Iron Lady with Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher.
I have read enough feminist literature to know that there is a principle (which Thatcher made famous) that “In a man’s world …” a women often has to out ‘man’ the guys in order to break into the boys club and be taken seriously.
In a system where we have been socially conditioned to see certain behaviors and attributes as ‘leadership’ or ‘strength’ – or in the church as ‘anointing’ – then women must over-do it in order to overcome the intrinsic biases and gain credibility in a system geared to evaluate by masculine expectations. (people point to Joyce Meyer as a Christian example)
This is a real problem.
THEN I was reading your blog this week and you bring up the Lego Ads making their way around Facebook and tie it into both modesty and obesity. As a youth pastor I have read everything from Reviving Ophelia to Queen Bees and Wannabes ,that explains why girls treat each other the way that they do, and I recognize that there are deep underlying issues. Let’s be honest, these deep issues will not be solved by quoting some Bible verses or ‘going back to the way things were in the Bible’.
So here are my questions:
1. What do we do with the karate-chopping drop-kicking gun-shooting heroines of violence on the silver screen these days? On one hand, it is nice to women getting these big-deal leading roles in major films… on the other hand, are they real portrayals of women-ness or is it the bad kind of mimicry – like ‘Girls Gone Wild’ as a picture of sexual liberation or power.
2. Are there any resources that you can point me to for Image and Identity? Your blog post on the Lego issue is really sticking with me.
3. As a youth pastor, how would you suggest I navigate the (rapidly) developing sexuality without repression while steering clear of moral permissiveness? Any thoughts?
Julie Clawson: Bo brings up some really good questions to which there are no easy cut and dry answers. I ranted/blogged about this general topic a few years ago, but the issues still exist, and perhaps are even intensified. On one hand, I would start by pointing out that just because a woman is an action hero, tough as nails, or possess traditional leadership qualities doesn’t mean she is acting like a man. That could simply be just who she is and she should be given space to be herself without being judged. But at the same time, I agree that it is a widespread cultural issue that women often feel like they must put on the persona of men in order to succeed. Our culture doesn’t know how to handle women who are strong, intelligent, and assertive. So women who are those things must become overtly masculine (like Thatcher) or play up objectified femininity in order to appear safe (be in perfect shape, always look pretty and put together, or be the supermom). For instance, I’ve found in settings like seminary, church, or conferences if I am even half as vocal and assertive as the guys around me I get told I am rude or am mocked. But if I can talk about my kids, help with a family event, or provide food for something, I am seen as more feminine and therefore safe. Like you said, we have to find ways to overdo it in order to gain credibility.
The main issue for women at hand here is how aspects of our self (traditionally labeled as feminine) are objectified and therefore not embraced as strengths but become symbols of our weakness or inferiority that make us safe and acceptable. Most action movies with female leads give us physically strong women who are also eye candy and use that to their advantage (seriously, who does martial arts in a leather catsuit and high heels? It’s not even physically possible). These strong women are safe because they can be objectified as sex objects. It is the rare film that breaks that trend. I recall after watching Salt that that it was refreshing that Angelina Jolie never once used her sexuality as one of her weapons in the film, she was simply a slightly awkward, highly intelligent, kick-ass spy. Then I found out the part had originally been written for a man, mystery solved. Sucker Punch also brilliantly deconstructed and critiqued the pattern in movies of women entering worlds controlled by men and having to become oversexualized and exceptional in order to succeed in those places. But neither Salt or Sucker Punch did well in the theaters – they strayed too far from the mold.
In college I recall reading a novel for class and thinking that it had the best portrayal of women that I had read all semester. In class though the professor tore the book apart for its horribly unrealistic portrayal of women. He argued that not just in fiction, but in reality all women fit the Madonna or whore category (pure saints or sensual sinners) – for him (to the shock of many of the women in the class) women can’t be real people we can only be those archetypes. That is what the world expects as well, so our movies deliver – we get weak princesses in need of rescue or sexualized action heroes – but very few real strong women. Don’t get me wrong, I like the kick-ass female action heroes. After we saw the Haywire trailer, my husband leaned over and said “that is soo your type of movie.” Sydney Bristow and Mara Jade are my heroes. Accepting even objectified strong women is at least a first step (albeit flawed) towards accepting strong women for who they are. (My hope is that with Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games (pictured) we will be getting a wholistic strong woman who captures audiences’ attention.)
In an ideal world women could be strong, kick-ass, and intelligent without being objectified or assumed to be acting masculine. And our other strengths – even the traditionally feminine ones like mothering, or cooking, or artistry – will be seen not as things that make us safe because as the weaker sex we should be limited to them, but as strengths in and of themselves that are all part of the matrix of who we are (the Doctor Who Christmas Special this year did a fantastic job portraying this btw). As a mother my identity should not be reduced to that role, but neither should it be something I should be ashamed of or use to prove I can succeed at everything. Women should be able to be strong without having out out-violence or out-revenge the men. Women should be able to be smart without having to either be the smartest in the room or search for ways to make her intelligence acceptable to men. Women should be able to feel pretty and accept their sexuality without being turned into be eye-candy or live in fear that they are causing men to stumble. Women (and men) should be valued as themselves regardless of whether or not they fit traditional masculine or feminine labels.
The world is not there yet. And the church certainly is not. But the rise of the female action hero means that the conversation is started. The confines of gender stereotyped identity are being deconstructed, we simply have not gone far enough yet. Instead of allowing people to be whole in who they are, we assume that to not be feminine is to therefore be masculine (or vice versa) and therefore that the person is lacking for not conforming to our gender expectations. I don’t know if we will ever get rid of the categories of masculine and feminine (which sadly always portrays the feminine as weaker and lesser) in favor of simply naming strengths and virtues for all people. Perhaps the place to start is in making our heroes women who display “masculine” strengths and men who display “feminine” ones in hopes that the definitions will one day become too blurred to be distinguished, or at least the feminine traits valued more. I know for me, I am encouraging my kids (as I did when I worked with youth) to question those limits, to interrogate images in movies and television, and embrace their strengths no matter how they are labeled. I am still trying to navigate how to be a woman in a world that tries to limit, ignore, or objectify me so I know it is not an easy task. But being aware that it is a struggle, and helping my kids be aware as well, I think helps make it more doable.
Carol Howard Merritt: I’m so glad you’re thinking about all of this, Bo.
I love how art reflects culture–our fears and longings. During my formative years of high school and college, we kept having a recurrence of murdering and/or home-wrecker women–Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction and the Hand that Rocks the Cradle. What did we mirrored there? Was it a fear that something in our home-life would be shattered?
We know a couple things about the movie market now: 1) action movies are typically targeted to men and 2) the after-market (foreign sales) are huge.
I’m guessing here… but I bet most of the people who are writing, producing, directing, and watching these films are men. So, I would put my money on Julie’s conjecture–women action heroes are sexy. Lara Croft proved it, and now that Hollywood know it’s a formula that makes money, they’ll keep repeating it.
I wonder what the international market has to do with it all. I mean, with social media and other factors, women can and will keep finding ways to organize. The Arab Spring has come with Saudi women daring to drive and so many other protests. Could the movies be in response to some of those kick-butt longings?
I’m not sure how much these characters will affect girls/teens. I admit, I wore Wonderwoman underoos, and I still kind of wish I had a lasso of truth…
It’s a good question. I asked my daughter, because she wants to be a director and has strong opinions on film/TV. She said, “I don’t know. I don’t watch those movies.”
In all, I guess it’s just good to affirm teens–in their strength, creativity, and awkwardness. When you think about it… what a freaking amazing job we have! The church is probably one of the only places where girls can go and the focus isn’t on how beautiful, skinny, fashionable, or even super-smart they are….the church can just love them because of who they are. What a sacred space.
SO grateful for these thinkers taking the time to respond! Would love to hear your thoughts.
January 10, 2012 at 9:41 pm
I’d say that all of these ideas about women as heroes in film are true, but only in the case of big-budget Hollywood films. If you have to sell a film to as many people as possible, you stick to a formula that’s sure to make money.
But if you look in a slightly more independent vein, these things change a great deal. If you’ve seen the movie Fargo, Frances McDormand plays a lead character who’s never portrayed as overly masculine or as a sex object, but simply a woman who’s intelligent and determined enough to drive the film.
That was a wonderful article though. Thanks for the read!
January 10, 2012 at 10:52 pm
Thanks for that insight. We are not asking for women to be neutral and featureless – but exactly what you have described!
January 11, 2012 at 4:59 pm
First, I have to say that as we think of media images, and I looked at the silhouette above…. I kept thinking of this: http://www.psdisasters.com/2011/02/victorias-secret-with-or-without-it.html. I guess she had to lose an arm to get that digital tummy tuck!
Also, as I read through this, I was wondering (Julie and Bo), do you think of gender as a cultural construct? Or do you think of it as something more essential (or even theological)?
I tend to think of it as a construct… although I would concede to biological differences.
January 11, 2012 at 6:29 pm
That image link you provided is WILD (and disturbing). I have so many concerns and questions over images, icons and silhouettes! I think about it all time when I am working on some post and hunting for an image to connect to it. Some time we when we are in the same room, I will pepper you with questions and ideas and get your unguarded responses 🙂
(by the way, I am VERY excited about our upcoming podcast interview for Tribal Church and Reframing Hope)
I am deeply convinced about the reality of these constructed identities (like gender). I have been continually overwhelmed since learning about ‘social conditioning’ to see it everywhere I look. The one thing I can not shake (like I said on Facebook) is the biological basis for some of it. Between menstruating, maternity and testosterone … there is just SO much to talk about!
January 11, 2012 at 8:14 pm
Mr. Sanders you had me at menstruating, erg. 😉
As a woman and the mom of a nine year old girl, here it goes…
1. I believe these kinds of movies are targeting to adults, hence their usual R ratings. Yes, girls are bombarded with the ads/commercials, but as far as following through to actual plot lines that shouldn’t happen until they are a wee bit older and have been taught what REALLY matters in a person. Male or female, the super/action hero is a skewed version of reality. Hollywood makes money all day long year after year selling skewed versions. Reality, real documentary style reality isn’t usually a money maker. The big screen is fake, it’s made-up stories to sell tickets to put money in their pockets. That’s it. So, my job is to raise our daughter to understand that it’s fake and why. The boobs are fake, the hair and make-up is fake, the spy-driven plot for one person to save the world while sporting a tank top and hot pants is fake. Enjoy it for entertainment, don’t base your life goals on it.
2. Resources for Image and Identity? Free to be You and Me, Marlo Thomas circa 1970something. 🙂 It is up to the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, pastors, coaches and anyone who can influence a child to question what is traditionally masculine/feminine. Why does the little girl in the ad wear jeans? Do you wear jeans? Why do you wear jeans? Do you like skirts? Do you think this little girl likes skirts? How can you tell this is a little girl? Can boys and girls play with the same toys? Can you play kickball at recess? Can the boys practice dance at recess? Why? Why not? It goes on and on and on, this is my job as her mom to make her think about these things. It makes me CRAZY that when you go to Target to buy a sippy cup for a two year old you have to decide between the red one with a cars logo or the pink one with a princess on it. CRAZY! Can I have a green one, please?! I nanny for a two year old girl. She can spot and say “princess” for any Disney princess item (and they are everywhere). This is wrong. Little girls need to play in the dirt with cars and little boys need to sit for a tea party. It’s all good. For resources I would say to question the kids. Ask them why it is the way it is or why they believe the way they believe and what would happen if it was different.
3. It’s funny to read this. I think of you ALL the time in this realm. I believe it was you who said, “sex is great, this is why it’s great, you need to wait.” I have quoted you many, many times (so I hope I got the quote right 😉 ). Repression is not an option in my book. We have to teach kids that their bodies were made (in part) for pleasure, self-control, and how to trust those around them (adult support system for talking it out). Each family/community/congregation will be different. I think there is wisdom to be gained from books like Next Time I Fall In Love (Clark), Talking to Your Kids About Sex (Berman) and OLD videos by Dawson McAllister about things like the “laws of diminishing returns”. Sex is good, sex is healthy, sex feels amazing, you have to wait until you can handle it emotionally and physically. How long you wait and with whom you share yourself will vary by family. Overall in the Christian community kids are instructed to wait until marriage. Kids need to learn to look at the big picture of life, not just the four year microcosm that is high school. It is our job to instruct them.
January 11, 2012 at 9:16 pm
That was GREAT! I especially like the parts about High School as a microcosm and Princess sippy-cups!!
Oh and the quote – you were close – is “Sex is fantastic. It’s so good it is worth waiting for.” 🙂 I still give that talk to teens! -Bo
January 12, 2012 at 1:12 pm
Bo, I love that this is the first of your blog posts I’ve stumbled upon because it gets at an issue that is never far from my mind. I’m serving in youth ministry, splitting my time between two church campuses, one in the middle of a couple of wealthy suburbs and one in the hood. That dichotomy alone is a bit mind blowing sometimes, but both places struggle with seriously screwed up views of gender that really aren’t all that different. But it’s in the hood that I’m learning how to approach it. (If you want to have an eye opening experience about how messed up gender roles really affects a culture, go talk to a few inner-city teenagers about the issue….)
I was raised to be a pretty confident, independent woman, so I never anticipated being the kind of woman who understood male spiritual headship and submitting to it and most unlikely, actually enjoying it. But the more I study and pray through this whole gender role thing and have learned to actually experience that headship and being under someone’s spiritual authority, I’ve got to tell you, it’s the coolest, most liberating thing I’ve ever done.
It’s hard to communicate that to a 15 yr old girl who is fighting to be noticed, but the scripture I always start with is 1 Peter 3:3-6, about value not coming from external displays, but what matters to God is a quiet, gentle spirit. The thing is, though, that I wouldn’t have the authority to speak on it, and they wouldn’t want to hear it, if it wasn’t something they had watched me try to live out in front of them.
And beyond teenagers, an even more incredible experience has been choosing to live as a woman of God among grown men in that inner-city environment, and even in when doing prison ministry. But those are stories for another time …
I’d love to talk to you more about this sometime. Not sure I’ve ever heard a man ask the questions I’ve been asking before. Thanks. I’m looking forward to reading more.
January 13, 2012 at 8:39 pm
I love that you’re asking these questions and raising the topic. While not a Christian source, this is an excellent movie and phenomenon questioning and challenging these subject in the secular context. http://www.missrepresentation.org/the-film/