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Female Power: Standing in Masculinity’s Shadow April 10, 2007

Posted by kblack10 in Girl Power, La Femme Nikita, stereotypes, Tomb Raider 2, Working Girl.
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Women have long been thought of as strong, matriarchal characters, but from the films we have watched in class, it is apparent that as time progresses, the actual “power” that a woman can posses is always in relation to power already existing in their male counterparts. In Imitation of Life, Annie is seen as a strong character because, aside from the issues with her daughter, she manages to take on the “male role” in a rather unconventional “family”. While Annie did not necessarily adhere to typical profile of the strong female as being attractive, beautiful, and catering to the idea of the male gaze, her character proves that there is far more to being a strong woman than appearance. For that time period when the ideal family consisted of a working father, doting wife, two children and a puppy, Annie represented the fact that a woman can not only raise, but also run a family just like the stereotypical ideal husband. The movie Working Girls displays a break through in girl power for its time because it centers around the idea of a beautiful, young, “lower class” woman actually rising to the top of a job based on her intellect in a field that at the time is specifically recognized as masculine. Katherine’s character in the film was arguably of equal intelligence and will power, yet personally I feel that despite her negative actions, the amount of “power” which she displays is of a diminished level as she is the less attractive of the two female characters. In more recent films it seems as though female power continues to be viewed as a mixture of a woman’s ability to be attractive while still being completely in control with her actions and attitude, yet the woman’s actual attitude and physicality are constantly in comparison to the idea of a “powerful” man. In La Femme Nikita and Tomb Raider II, while both women possess beauty, they are also gun-wielding and of a definite “kill without mercy” state of mind; while they are seen as powerful for being so aggressive, I feel that this is because these are the characteristics society generally attributes to men. Thus, once again the actual “amount” of female power a woman may have is solely based on a comparison between her actions and portrayal in relation to stereotyped views of masculinity.

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1. Gina - April 10, 2007

I have to agree here. I feel the same way in that a woman’s power is often determined by how much masculinity she exudes. It’s always either a)she’s powerful because she has strong masculine qualities or b) she’s powerful because in comparison to men around her, she’s the more able, masculine character. Like someone mentioned in another post, Diana of “Girlfight” is being shown in comparison to her more “feminine” brother. It’s very typical in that it makes the boy be feminine because of his interest in education and art, whereas Diana is ultimately masculine because she is more interested in fighting. Why does the weaker character always have to be more obviously feminine? And what would happen if these more feminine characters were taken away and there is no one similar to compare Diana (and other such female characters) to?

2. andyw - April 15, 2007

I’m not sure that I would accept such a pessimistic view of female power. You seem to be criticizing girlpower, as a specific phenomenon, that praises women for having certain capacities that are considered masculine. What’s wrong with that? It seems to me that it serves the subversive function of de-linking masculinity and maleness and that it opens up room for a new kind of subjectivity for women (even if it is old hat for men). I am not affirming all of the movies’ specific ways of using this new space for women (because, even in imitating men, their bodies – and other traits – clearly demarcate them as women), but I think it is generally a positive thing to have a new space of subjectivity. Now, there is an interesting debate here, which is that that new space may be constituted by male (as opposed to masculine) domination, but that’s not the argument I see either of you making. I see you both as criticizing that power’s imitative function, without proving the necessary subordination of women to men in such imitation. It doesn’t matter if women use power standards traditionally used by men. If they can pull it off, if they can use it effectively (even if it means imitating men to a certain extent) that’s wonderful.

I also think that your reading denies people the capacity to have power in a non-masculine way, and thus ensures that all feminine characters are seen as weak. To take Gina’s example: Tiny is certainly readable as the weak character. But, in viewing him like that, you are forcing the conclusion that femininity is weak. Tiny is feminine (although I think in a specifically male way: geeks are stereotypically feminine men), but you should not then read him as weak. You should affirm his power: in his support for his sister, which constitutes a subtler way of denying his father and a necessary one – without Tiny’s help, Diana would not have been able to continue fighting; in his willingness to draw despite what his father tells him; in stopping Diana from continuing to beat up their father; etc. He is feminine, and that means that he can have certain kinds of power. You are asking him to be strong, but I fear that what strong means is already encoded as masculine. He cannot fight his father like Diana does, but he can – and does – fight his father as he is able. If you expect him to do what Diana does, then you already expect of him a masculine power and deny the ability to see femininity as a power. Now, I’m not saying the movie is golden in its representation of female power, or even of feminine power, but I do think that you’re coming at it from a perspective that ensures that women (and everyone) can only have masculine power.


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