female role models, then and now
When I think back to the influences that made me into a feminist, one of my first memories is of watching Wonder Woman with my younger sister. (We never read the comic strip series but watched the tv series which starred Lynda Carter. In case you want to estimate my age, let me out myself -- I was ten when this show finished production.) I still remember running around the backyard pretending that I had bullet-deflecting armbands and could protect the world from bad guys. All too quickly, though, I learned that not even quick wits and a sharp tongue could always protect us from the painful criticisms that teenagers can inflict on one another.
Now, my daughter watches Kim Possible, and I've noticed that the message being sent about what it takes to be a "super woman" has not changed that much over the years.
Wonder Woman and Kim Possible have in common the fact that they are single -- there are romantic interests, here and there, but their assigned mission as world saviors seems to always come first. Perhaps it is these subliminal messages that are contributing to the declining birthrate in the US?
There are differences, of course. Kim is still stopping bad guys (though now one of the regular villains has a nasty female sidekick, too -- equal opportunity evil, I guess!) Second, Kim doesn't live a double life: her friends know about her powers and special mission, and support her when she needs to put her regular life on hold. Third, she doesn't have to hide her sexual attractiveness behind nerdy glasses and shapeless white lab coats most of the time, the way Lynda Carter's character did. Kim doesn't have a special crimefighting costume -- she wears all-purpose cargo pants, which still seem to bare her belly button occasionally. (Interestingly, Kim's mom is a scientist -- rather than royalty, as I seem to remember Wonder Woman's mom was -- and wears a form-fitting labcoat over her slender frame.) Fourth, both Kim's mom and dad are present in her life on a regular basis, but rarely offer cautions or express fear about the risks that Kim takes.
Perhaps we are making progress... though Kim hasn't yet had to face the challenges of life after the single stage, managing her mission along with a life partner and a family.
All this probably explains why one of my favorite movies of the decade is The Incredibles, with Elastigirl as the true savior of her superhero husband. She mediates disputes between children and helps her husband adjust to life in the superhero relocation and protection program, and when needed, she comes out of retirement to rescue him when he gets in over his head. In the end, it is Elastigirl who teaches Mr. Incredible to work as a team, in spite of his fears of his teammates' possible injuries.
Certainly, no one would ever call Elastigirl a bitch, and Kim is also assertive in conversation with males. She actually gives orders to her male teenage peers, like her techie sidekick Wade, and her backup guy, Ron Stoppable, without suffering any negative consequences.
Does it seem like progress to you? Or are you frustrated with the attributes of females who are set up as role models in popular cultural depictions?
(Please note: This post was written in response to the call for the submissions to the twelfth Carnival of Feminists, because when my earlier entry on the rhythms of academic life was picked up for the tenth carnival, my blog traffic went through the roof! Ironically, given the content of my previous post, only one reader found time to comment. Maybe the pop culture references will make it easier for people to connect?)
(P. P. S. -- did anyone else think of Lois Lane as a female role model when they were growing up?)