Allow me a moment to muse on female heroines. I am not a bra-burning feminist and my opinions here are pretty mild, so I hope no one runs away.
This past weekend, I went with some friends to see Thoroughly Modern Millie, one of my favorite campy Broadway musicals. I saw this show once when I was around twelve and loved it. The dancing, the flappers, the 20s music—but the thing I really remembered loving was Millie. Twelve year old me loved Millie as a character. Even at twelve, before I understood what sexism felt like, I recognized that Millie was different from most of the women that populated musicals. She was sassy, smart, and brave, and I carried Millie with me for years as a heroine with something to hold onto.
So then I saw Thoroughly Modern Millie again this weekend, and it was exactly the same delightful show I remembered. But about halfway through, II found myself thinking, “I don’t remember this show being so much about marriage.” Little me had not registered that Millie, brave and driven as she is, was all the time driving towards finding herself a husband. But as I watched the show, I realized that her goal in no way destroyed my image of her as the feminist icon that I had carried from my tweens. Millie was still, in a lot of ways, everything I wanted to be, despite the fact that marriage is pretty low on my priorities list and I don’t usually associate feminist icons with a strong desire to settle down with a man.
Which got me thinking.
I read a really great article last week called “Why I Hate Strong Female Characters” by Sophia McDougal. Though I don’t agree with everything she says, I liked the main take away, which is that the idea of a Strong Female Character is a damaging one. First because it creates a differentiation between the genders that we are trying to fight. No one every praises a book for having a strong male character, but we say it all the time about women.
The article also pushed back against the idea that a strong female character is one who wears trousers, cuts her hair short, and knows how to fight. So many books and movies today say, “Look! Woman fires a gun! Woman punches snarky man in face! She is strong! She is independent! She is sexy! Aspire to be her!” In my experience, these are the women that usually come off as violent and volatile, but they lack their own drive in life. And when the moment comes for them to actually take a stand and take care of themselves, they fall apart.
Millie doesn’t throw any punches. She doesn’t go into battle. She doesn’t hold a gun. She does bob her hair, but that’s all in pursuit of fashion. What she does do is set her sights on what she wants, move actively towards it, roll with the setbacks that come along the way, and adjust her plan to fit them. And in the end, she recognizes and lets go of her flaws. Which are all things I want to emulate in my own life.
It didn’t matter that she wanted to get married and I don’t. I’ve been laboring for a while under an incorrect idea that a desire to fall in love and get married is a defect in a woman’s character, and I’m trying to let go of that. Millie showed me otherwise. She is an example of a woman who is fine on her own but better with someone else. It doesn’t make her weak. It doesn’t mean she needs a man to complete her. It just means she knows what she wants, and she goes, and she finds it and she gets it. And I freaking love that.
To me, what makes a compelling heroine is a woman who is actively in pursuit of what she wants. Whether that is marriage or a career or a perfect cup of tea, that is what I want in my heroines. A woman who is active in her own life rather than acted upon. Wanting love and marriage does not make a woman weak any more than kicking ass and taking names makes her strong.
That is what I want in my friends, male and female, and in my own life: people who find what they want and they go for it.
And that is about as opinionated as I get. Carry on, and happy Monday.