Throughout history, women have been consistently defined by their relationship with men. This is especially true within media where female characters are either seen through the lens of the men in their lives or as in competition with women for these men. As a woman growing up and hoping to make a career in media, this is particularly disturbing. Though I did not realize it until later in life, the heroines in the media I consumed all fell victim to their stories being largely defined by male characters. As I consumed media growing up, the effects these stories and tropes had on my life didn’t dawn on me until much later. It’s a difficult thing to realize that the heroes and characters you grow to love sometimes hold up beliefs you have grown to question or even hate.
Now that I have grown up and decided to take my writing seriously I have found a few fundamental truths about how this culture of misogyny can infiltrate different aspects of your worldview. Ultimately, the media you consume affects the media you create, whether it’s by making unconscious choices or by making a conscious effort to correct things that you find problematic. The first cultural feminist hero I can remember having was Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennett. I discovered Pride and Prejudice in middle school and once I got past the “funny” language I was drawn to the love story. There was the dark and brooding Mr. Darcy, who was initially the driving force for my connection to Elizabeth Bennett. I wanted to relate to her because she was Darcy’s love interest and not for any of her own traits (I liked that she was smart, mostly because it was a big reason why Darcy fell for her). Once I started to know more about the history of the Regency era as well as what a radical character and anti-hero Elizabeth was, I started to appreciate her independent from Darcy. This is not to say that my attraction to Darcy was more than superficial, I was 12 after all. He spoke poetic words of love, was rich and handsome, and Colin Firth played him in the PBS adaptation. My love was inevitable.
For a long time my biggest issue with Pride and Prejudice was the effect I felt it had on my idealization of romantic love – things in 2015 are extremely different than they were in Regency Era England, especially for the women among us. I cannot reasonably expect my prolonged glances and shy flirtations to adequately explain my attraction to a male counterpart. I can no longer expect that all suitable men be vetted by the society around me and my “virtue” remain intact throughout our courtship. Thankfully, it is no longer reasonable that all my future hopes of happiness or financial security lie in a man that I marry only after being sanctioned by my family. Accomplishments now mean more than my ability to walk for long distances without complaining or to recite poetry while feeling no need to write my own. Elizabeth Bennett had only these things to look forward to, yet, in a radical and frankly, irresponsible move, she chose to remain true to her principles rather than accept the proposal of a man she could not respect. When marriage was her only chance in moving up in society, this decision was not only brave it was potentially ruinous. Over time, I have come to consider Elizabeth Bennett to be more and more of a feminist hero. Yes, by today’s standards her conflicts are rather minor. A woman with wealth and means goes on to marry a man with even more wealth and means, but her journey is noteworthy for its triumph in the face of the highest order of misogynistic culture.
Another character I grew up with and admired greatly is that of Rory Gilmore. When Gilmore Girls was initially airing on the WB, I was the same age as Rory Gilmore, going through high school and eventually college with this fictional character. There are numerous issues with her characterization, but most of them involve her choices surrounding the men in her life. Always studious, ambitious and singularly focused, all of Rory’s biggest challenges come from her dealings with the romantic partners she chooses. From the very first episode in which a 15-year-old Rory is willing to give up the chance to attend the prestigious Chilton Academy after an encounter with Dean (another tall, dark and handsome love interest) to her decision to drop out of Yale University after a less than favorable encounter with her rich boyfriend Logan’s father, characterized as level-headed and pragmatic these attributes seemingly disappear when she is faced with romantic decisions . Rory faces few hardships that do not stem from her encounters with men, a feat considering she grew up the child of a single teenage mother who she looked after just as much as Lorelei looked after her. Rory lived a charmed life in a picturesque town with endless possibilities but was still unable to separate her failures and successes by the men she encountered and how they viewed her. In many ways Rory is set up as the ideal: she was classically beautiful (pale skin, long hair, thin frame, blue eyes), smart and in close proximity to power and wealth. Yet, even with all of that privilege Rory Gilmore struggles to define herself within this patriarchal society.
As I began to notice these character flaws in my media heroes, I decided to change my focus and look to the strong silent type. Zoe Washburne of the series Firefly was the model of the Strong Female Character, a trope with its own problems and a variety of shortcomings. However, the Strong Female Character grew in popularity as an alternative to characters like Elizabeth Bennett or Rory Gilmore who had little to no control over their position in a patriarchal society. While it seemed as though Zoe was in complete control of herself, upon closer inspection questions about her character began to creep in. Did she defer to Mal because she felt him superior or because it was the easy, political thing to do? If she was so strong why did she have to justify her relationship with the Captain to her husband? Why was that the largest conflict her character had to face? Zoe seemed to be a rather cut and dry character, looking out for the people in her crew and making sure they were safe. She played her role and did not say much when it came to choosing or defining that role.
As a young person I also looked up to Claire Huxtable as a feminist hero. She seemed to be able to have it all without too much sacrifice. Balancing career and family, she most closely resembled the women in my real life, especially one of my aunts (a lawyer with four kids). She balances being a strong disciplinarian and loving mother with being a successful and effective lawyer able to pursue her passions. Some episodes she is singing, sometimes appearing on television, but always in complete control of herself. However, intimidating it may seem to look up to a woman in complete control – a true partner with her husband – how many episodes do we see Cliff making dinner or watching the kids while Claire is working late? However, there is something intimidating about Claire that makes it hard to fully relate to her. I have not had the same success in relationships; I’m 30 with no romantic prospects and not even sure a husband and a family is something I would want if given the chance. While it is nice to see the women I grew up with reflected in this character, what does it mean for a woman like me? Awkward, introverted and unconvinced that a suburban life or high-powered career is going to make me happy. Unwilling to stand up to and challenge misogynistic viewpoints at every turn and not so confident in my accomplishments. When a character like Claire stands so close to your ideals of perfection how do you reckon with your inevitable failure to live up to the standard she has set?
Ultimately, there comes a time when you must accept that the figures in pop culture (and in life) are not perfect, much like yourself. They are unable to have it all, they are held in by their access, their time period, and their circumstance. Maybe, like Elizabeth Bennett, they personify the ideal of free will and making the best choice for their individual selves but are unable to pursue their ambitions outside of the home. Rory had equal access to education and the ability to pursue a career, but she was a white girl from a wealthy family and a powerful name, something I decidedly am not. Zoe was strong and capable but still put up as a trophy for either her husband or boss to use in an assertion of their own manhood. Claire Huxtable, the character closest to perfection as to no longer be relatable, I’m unable to see any parts of myself in her. None of these women are able to reach this ideal of the type of woman and the type of feminist I want to be, but that’s ok. Perfection should not be a prerequisite for feminism or heroism. I will take from all aspects of these characters and piece together my quintessential hero, regardless of the circumstances I discovered them in.