I recently watched a documentary called ‘Miss Representation’ which examined the portrayal of females in the media. Six years ago I was beginning research into my final year project at university, in which I intended to explore this very subject.
“In the wake of the post-feminist debate, to what extent do
supposedly ‘empowered’ female characters in popular culture
uphold traditional gender stereotypes rather than challenging
After a year, I came to the conclusion that they were in fact upholding gender stereotypes rather than challenging them. That was five years ago and I still believe that the way women are portrayed and represented in the media is a pretty big deal. It is by no means more (or less) important than issues of race, class, religion or any other media bias but I make no apologies for wanting to write about something which both interests and impacts me.
I have an interest in film and screenwriting, which is possibly why I am particularly passionate about how women are represented on screen. I recently went to see Mad Max: Fury Road and one of the first things that struck me when talking with my friend about it afterwards was how pleasantly surprised I was to see such a truly powerful female protagonist and not only that but a multitude of roles for women – of all ages. There is a ‘rule’ known as the Bechdel Test which can be used to assess the female characters in a film. It is said that a film passes this ‘test’ if it contains more than one female character, the women in the film interact with each other and they talk about something other than a man. Now, as a film lover and someone who considers herself to be creative, I don’t believe that media should adhere to rules like this in any kind of formulaic way. In fact, the only screenplay I have ever written would actually not pass the test itself as it contains only one female character.
However, a lack of realistic roles for women in films is an extremely important thing. Whether it is a good thing or not, it is true that the media is playing a part in socialising young people. With women in film and TV being relegated to secondary characters and caricatures of gender-stereotypes – the career woman who sacrifices family for work, the tough girl who seemingly has no emotions, the sexy girl who is ‘comfortable with’ (read ‘defined by’) her sexuality – girls are receiving mixed signals about what it looks like to be a woman in our modern culture. Perhaps the most prevalent example of this is the romantic-comedy genre; often referred to as ‘chick-flicks’. Here, women get to be the chief protagonists (as well as the quirky best friends, nagging mothers, bitchy bosses, evil-exes, you name it) but they also fail the Bechdel test spectacularly due to the fact that almost every scene of the movie will be about defining our heroine in relation to a man. A whole generation of young women have been raised to – quite literally – buy into the idea that life is about getting and keeping a man. Of course, most children are not being raised by their TV screens alone, but it would be naïve to think that what they see on the internet and in movies etc, doesn’t impact them. I also believe that until we realise the true impact of the media in our lives, we won’t understand the importance of counteracting it.
I have only written one complete piece of work in my life but in it the only man who defined my heroine’s life was Jesus. While I am very much of the opinion that men are wonderful and marriage is an extremely important part of God’s design, I do not believe that women are somehow incomplete without a significant other. The same is true for men of course. I know many single women who are leading extremely successful, fulfilled lives and I’m sure will continue to do so if and when they get married. Similarly, I also know lots of women (and I’m forced to include myself in this) who limit themselves by letting ‘singleness’ define them. Every choice is informed by the intangible, unspoken belief that everything would be better if they had a man. They dress up, dumb down and dream small in order to appeal to whichever man has taken their fancy. I feel incredibly sad for these women and – as harsh as it sounds – I feel incredibly sad for the men who end up with them. Jesus is the only one who can perfect an incomplete person. Even those who know and love Him can often struggle to believe that fulfilment is not found in another person.
Having said all that; I am extremely glad to be a woman. Even given everything that I have been discussing, I don’t believe that being a woman is some terrible trial or hardship. Do I think that there are some serious discrepancies between the way that women are portrayed on a daily basis and the way that men are portrayed? Yes. Do I believe that, on a wider scale, women still generally face more oppression and degradation than men? Yes, I do. Do I think that women are better than men somehow because of everything we have to face in life? No, I do not. But I do believe that women are wonderful and I also believe that most of us don’t truly know it or fully understand it. To be a woman is a beautiful thing. We are strong, resourceful, talented, intelligent, wise, loving and fearfully and wonderfully made. Our strength is not negated by our emotion, our abilities are not hindered by our womanhood, our love and compassion is not diminished or belittled by instinct and our beauty is not defined merely in terms of our ability to attract a man. We are glorious, heavenly beings, merely housed in a physical body.
I am blessed enough to have lots of men in my life who champion and encourage me. Who don’t define me or limit me in any way because I am a woman. Men who, at the same time, protect and respect me, reinforcing my God-given awareness that women are beautiful, influential people, worthy of protection and honour. To those men I say; thank you. And to the women in my life; the ones who show me every day just what it means to be a friend, wife, mother and powerful woman of God; I am honoured to walk alongside you.
There is an organisation called The Lovely Project, based in Orlando, Florida. The aim of TLP is to empower women and equip young girls to grow and positively impact the world around them. Much of this equipping and empowering serves to affirm these girls’ true identities and therefore counteract the negative impact of the media and other societal influences. If you believe, like I do, that women are important, powerful and lovely, I encourage you to check out http://www.thelovelyproject.org/ for more information about the work they do.
Women, you are beautiful and not only that but you are powerful. You have much more influence than you know. Use it to encourage those around you, to speak life over one another and to fight for each other. We are women of valour, women of boldness and women of strength. We are the protagonists in our own stories; lets make them good.