In movies, much is made of “strong female characters.” Think of Wonder Woman and Princess Leia, Sarah Connor and Katniss Everdeen, Arya Stark and Hermione Granger.
They fight, they swear, they wield their intellect like a sword, and, above all, they seek to prove that they are unequivocally better than men. This, we’re supposed to believe, is what makes them “strong” – their ability to excel in the world of men.
That doesn’t mean that those of us who feel that there is more to womanhood than simply being able to cut it as a man have to dislike these characters. Many of them are great characters in movies that we love. It’s only that this limited idea of female “strength” is becoming a little old. And it leaves many of us wondering if real feminine strength will ever be acknowledged.
This limited idea of female “strength” is becoming a little old.
Funnily enough, two actresses starring in an upcoming movie primed to be a major blockbuster just acknowledged it. Speaking at the launch of Maleficent Mistress of Evil, Angelina Jolie (who plays Maleficent) and Elle Fanning (who plays Aurora) made statements which, in the current culture of “strong women” meaning “masculine women,” are rather startling.
Jolie calls foul on the usual definition of “strong woman”
“I think that, so often, when a story's told which says ‘this is a strong woman,’ she has to beat the man, or she has to be like the man, or she has to somehow not need the man,” Jolie told reporters at the film’s launch. “I think that's also an important message for young girls, to find their own power, but to respect and learn from the men around them.”
To understand what a stunning statement that is, take a look at the way the media usually talks about “strong female characters.” SyFyWire called Arya Stark (from Game of Thrones) a “strong female character” because she’s “a better shot than her brothers before she even gets her hands on Needle [her sword].” Variety says The Bride (from Kill Bill) makes its list of “badss female characters in film” because she’s “the deadliest woman in the world.” And The Oprah Magazine says Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery’s character from Godless) is “badss” because she’s “merciless.”
I think that's also an important message for young girls, to find their own power, but to respect and learn from the men around them.
So to have someone like Angelina Jolie – who, herself, frequently makes it onto these lists of “strong female characters” for her role of Lara Croft – say that women don’t need to be like men in order to be strong is a huge win. And given that, so often, these “strong women” are seen as strong because they are “better” than men, Jolie’s comment that women should “respect and learn from” men is the icing on the cake.
Elle Fanning redefines female strength
Elle Fanning went one step further in her comments to reporters saying that her character, Princess Aurora, is "soft and feminine and wants to be a wife and have babies, and that's a beautiful, strong thing that isn't portrayed a lot on screen.” That’s an amazing statement coming from a female movie star in the current cultural narrative.
And it gets better. Fanning continued: “A lot of the [other Disney] princesses are like ‘we're gonna make her a strong princess! And make her tough, so we're gonna make her fight!’ And it's like, is that what being a strong woman means? Like, we just have to have a sword and have armor on and go fight? Aurora can do that in a different way, in a pink dress, and it's beautiful that she keeps her softness and vulnerabilities.” This is exactly what we need to hear.
Jolie and Fanning’s comments speak to the underlying flaw of the strength-means-physical-prowess argument. In pitting women against men in the men’s arena, modern feminism is setting women up to fail. The reason so many of these “strong female characters” are superheroes or exist within a sci-fi world, is because, in the real world, it would be impossible for them to do what they do.
In pitting women against men in the men’s arena, modern feminism is setting women up to fail.
In reality, all this philosophy does is negate the true strength and power of womanhood, which is uniquely feminine – and equally as valuable as manhood. Our ability to bear children, to nurture and care for new life, our emotional intelligence, and our intellect coupled with our social prowess are superpowers. It’s time for the label of “strong women” to come to truly mean female strength. And Jolie and Fanning’s comments are an important step in the right direction. Good on them!