Our Shallow Vision of The Strong Woman

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I love Rosie the Riveter. For those who do not know, Rosie the Riveter was an image used in propaganda encouraging housewives to take on factory jobs during World War II to make up for the deficit of male workers (who were off fighting in the war) in munitions manufacturing. This and similar propaganda were largely successful. In 1943, women composed 65% of the workforce in the U.S. aircraft industry. Rosie’s image can be seen to the right in my blog layout (if you’re on a computer. It doesn’t appear in the mobile version).

Rosie is the first typical archetype one may conjure when thinking of “strong women.” One feature of Rosie’s likeness is a prominent flexed muscle. Rosie is the woman who can do all the things a man can do, and arguably can do it better. She rises to the challenge, does what needs to be done. In short, she kicks ass. Similar fictional and real women fitting this archetype include Joan of Arc, Lara Croft (Tomb Raider), Katniss Everdeen, Wonder Woman, and lesser known Deborah Sampson (known to her fellow American Revolutionaries as “Robert Shirtliffe” until her gender was discovered by a doctor and she was discharged from the Continental Army).

Another prominent (although I would argue less valued) archetype of the strong woman is “the brain.” She’s brilliant, she makes connections that others overlook, and without her presence, all plots, plans, and intellectual and philosophical progress stagnate. My personal favorite hero in this archetype, and I think of all time thanks to a childhood shaped by the Harry Potter saga, is Hermione Granger. Also included in this category may be figures like Simone De Beauvoir and Marie Curie.

Then there is my personal favorite class of strong women: the political ones. Fictional and non-fictional personae fitting this category include President Mackenzie Allen (from Commander and Chief), our beloved Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler in Parks and Rec), Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Margaret Thatcher (for better or for worse), Eleanor Roosevelt, Condoleezza Rice, and Michelle Obama.

You’ll (hopefully) notice that from this list of archetypes, and even my self-professed favorites, there’s a deficit of women of color, with only two recent exceptions who I think would be considered universally well-known and popular. My omissions here are deliberate, because I believe that the overwhelming majority of strong women archetypes are white, which is a gross deviation from the real composition of strong women in our world. Where we think of Susan B. Anthony, we omit Sojourner Truth. While we all know Marie Curie, we’re just now learning about Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan thanks to the upcoming film Hidden Figures (scheduled only for limited theatrical release). Perhaps Emily Dickinson is more likely to come to mind when pondering female poetry, while Maya Angelou falls to the wayside. And frankly, it’s difficult to find a universally popular black female action hero aside from Halle Berry’s brilliant depiction of Catwoman (later given to Anne Hathaway in Christopher Nolan’s Batman series).

Aside from our overwhelmingly whitewashed vision of female heroism in the U.S. and other W.A.S.P-y countries, what actually prompted me to think about our vision of female strength was criticism of the character Queenie from the new Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film. A pop culture article that appeared on my Facebook news feed professed that clairovyants (Queenie) are dumb:

Does she [J.K. Rowling] think people like Queenie Goldstein and Professor Trelawney who use legilimency are dim when it comes to dealing with people because of their psychic gift?

For those who have yet to see the film, Queenie is a “legilimens” (mind reader), depicted on the surface as a stereotypical 1920’s floozy. The assertion by whoever wrote this article (fraught with errors, by the way; Trelawney was not a legilimens) that she is daft and has little depth drove me insane. In fact, I argue that Queenie represents an archetype of the strong woman that we prefer to ignore and often consider to be at odds with feminism: that of a woman who uses her sexuality and the shallow perception of herself by others to her advantage.

A similar figure would be Marilyn Monroe, who alongside her often overlooked acting and modeling chops, carefully leveraged  her sexuality and manipulated the world’s perception of her to build a wildly successful career.

Consider also Lena Horne, who used a combination of talent, beauty, sex appeal, and determination to rise to prominence in Hollywood, a status that typically eluded African American performers and artists in her day. Lena also is an example of the brilliant minds that propel the success of women who are often dismissed as simply “a pretty face.” A testament to her brilliance, she ended up being blacklisted for her political activism in the Civil Rights Movement.

We should recognize this strength and talent as what it truly is: a subcategory of “the brain.” Queenie and her real-life parallels are proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing. It’s easy to write these women off as hopeless flirts good for little but some entertainment — beauty with no remarkable talent to back it up. This is a huge mistake.

My hope is that as we become increasingly aware and celebratory of the diversity of women’s strengths, our vision of the strong woman will expand to include not only the action heroes, the “I can do anything a man can” women, the smart women, and the politicians, but also the mothers, the romantics, the “silent but deadly” ones. Most importantly, beyond recognizing a broader array of archetypes, we need to recognize that women of all colors and races, women of all sexualities,  women of all levels of ability/disability, women of all ages, and women of all walks of life are strong simply by virtue of being women.

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