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?)


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I must admit that I have only passing familiarity with Wonder Woman and Kim Possible, but The Incredibles is one of my favorite movies, and Elastigirl has always far and away been my favorite character.

When I think back on my childhood, I can't pick out any fictional female role models that I really looked up to. Maybe that's why I spent time creating my own. (I, too, used to run around the backyard playing superhero with my friends.) In fact, when The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out last December I remember observing to a friend that Lucy had always annoyed me when I read the books as a child because "she didn't get to do anything" like the boys did.

I did find some females to look up to as a kid, though. Eileen Collins was a big inspiration, and I had something of a fascination with Joan of Arc as well. Given my inclination toward space, Collins made sense; I'm still not sure why I fixated on Joan of Arc, though. I suspect it was something to do with her ability to succeed so far beyond what society would normally allow.

If I were to guess the female figure my sister most looked up to as a kid, it would probably be Queen Elizabeth I of England. These days, though, Eleanor of Aquitaine might give Elizabeth a run for her money.

Posted by Nicole Sharp on April 3, 2006 12:00 AM

I've never heard of Eileen Collins, so thanks for the link, Nicole.

Three cheers for Joan, Elizabeth, and Eleanor!

I'd love to ask my sister who she looked up to as a kid! She loved to take her Barbie dolls horseback riding. Thanks for planting the seeds of that thought... I'll be talking with her soon, since she is expecting a baby girl sometime this month, so we can talk about who we want our girls to look up to at some point.

Posted by Sandy Piderit on April 3, 2006 07:38 AM

Interesting things to think about. I, too, enjoyed Elastigirl in The Incredibles.

My primary role model when I was in middle and high school was Captain Janeway and also the woman behind her, Kate Mulgrew. Star Trek: Voyager was the first trek series to cast a woman as the leading character. They also cast a woman for the role of the chief engineer, B'Elanna Torres. While I had a few influencing factors when I was choosing what to study at college, I can say with certainty that I would not be in my field of computer science were it not for these examples to look to.

Today, I enjoy watching other strong female characters like Laura Roslin and Kara Thrace on the popular Sci-Fi show, Battlestar Galactica.

Posted by Cheryl Johnston on April 3, 2006 10:23 AM

Hi Cheryl,

I love the Star Trek characters! I watched more of the early years of TNG during my undergraduate years than I had imagined was possible. It's interesting to look at how the characters have become more egalitarian over time -- after all, TNG featured the female leadership of Deanna Troi, who was an officer, but as counselor, played a fairly stereotypical woman-in-the-background kind of role.

I'm glad to hear that there were several influences on your choice of computer science as a field. Have you finalized your plans for after graduation? (If not, you might want to network with my husband, who is a 1991 CS grad.)

Posted by Sandy Piderit on April 4, 2006 06:30 AM

Speaking as an adult male without children who is addicted to Kim Possible all on his own, obviously I'm going to come to the show from a different direction and take away a different message. What I see isn't just a lesson in how to be a strong, assertive, capable woman...but also a lesson in how the rest of the world can relate to that woman and treat her with the respect she deserves. Kim's friends and family are supportive and encouraging towards Kim.

In one later episode, when Kim is atypically discouraged and wonders about life as a "normal teen" her father sternly says something to the effect of "Now, Kimmie...you're not normal, you're a Possible! You can do anything!" Her gender doesn't come into it: in her family and in her world, the strength and capability and equality of both sexes are so axiomatic and obvious that the question doesn't even have to be raised. And when it is raised (for example, by a male trio of mercenary crime fighters who can't accept that a teenage girl is cutting into their action...or by anyone who addresses Kim as "little lady") Kim shows them up and the outcome is never in doubt.

For me, the most interesting character is her assistant Ron -- a teenage boy who's nurturing, protective, nonassertive, and not incidentally a good cook -- who has to reconcile all the outmoded lessons about what it means to be a man with the fact that he's subordinate to his female best friend. In one episode, a teacher tells him "The ideal male is big and/or strong...and you are neither!" sending Ron into an existential funk over his seemingly inadequate manhood. Through the entire series, his character arc is learning how to become more than just the bumbling sidekick and be a worthy helper and companion to Kim. But Kim being less assertive or dominant is never an option; it's a given that she is the natural leader. Ron is the one who needs to become the suitable partner.

There's a universal lesson here that guys of my generation have had to learn without many role models: when we accept the equality of women, we can't measure our manhood by how dominant we are over women. We need a new standard of measurement. Younger boys today can look at characters like Ron, and Kim's father, and say "right, that's how a confident man can be." And that's a really good thing to have.

Posted by RAB on April 5, 2006 01:09 PM

I've only seen a few episodes of Kim Possible, but I liked them. When I was younger I used to want to be Nancy Blackett in Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books - there was never any issue because she was a girl, she was a pirate captain and just as good as John, the other captain!

Posted by The Huntress on April 6, 2006 08:31 AM

Ron Stoppable is a great role model for young men, and I'll have to look up the Swallows and Amazons books.

Belated thanks to RAB and the Huntress for your comments!

I'll have to think more about how the media portrays men these days. I'm always complaining to my husband about how inaccurate commercials are, depicting men as complete incompetents when it comes to childcare and housework (have you seen that commercial where the husband is letting the baby play with a plastic container of tomato sauce in the middle of a totally white living room, while he speaks to his wife on the phone?)

Posted by Sandy Piderit on April 16, 2006 07:30 AM

i watched "the incredibles" with my breath held because i was sure they'd do something really sexist with the female characters. i was relieved that they didn't, but i don't think any of them were really role-model-worthy, or even "cool." the daughter is whiny and drippy, and the mom (who unfortunately stays elasti-GIRL even though she is a mature woman) mainly checks in as the "perfect helpmate" to her husband. keep in mind that the entire family has to take on Mr. Incredible's name for themselves, and Elastigirl's individual heroism is swallowed into his. i think filmmakers and other commercial artists still can't imagine both men and women, boys and girls being able to relate to a big-screen female hero who doesn't share her spot with about 8 guys at the same time.

Posted by Midge on April 19, 2006 02:22 PM

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