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EmPOWered Women

Female empowerment is becoming a big star on the silver screen of late. The images of women in need of protection are passé... the message of the new millennium is, “You go girl!”

I cite the films Catwoman and Elektra as examples. The promotional trailer for the feline flick shows Halle Berry’s dejected character slumped over her office desk as her boss berates her. Meanwhile her voiceover shares the thoughts on her mind: “All of my life I’ve felt powerless. I’ve never stood up for myself. But then... everything changed.”

It sure did. She’s murdered and transformed into a human cat--all in the same night. Reborn as Catwoman, she’s on the prowl and howling for liberation.

Elektra reads from a very similar book. Another life-after-death experience leaves this woman with the ability to see into the future – a handy skill sure to get her ahead in the assassination business.

But there is another, more-obvious thing these ready-for-action heroines have in common. They’re both dressed to kill – one in a black leather number that better have nine lives and the other in a “supporting” little red outfit. While neither choice is likely to shield them from speeding projectiles or sharp objects (and certainly not the weather), no one seems too concerned. Perhaps they figure their opponents are in more danger of being smitten by their distinctly feminine qualities, than with any other weapon they might employ.

Amazingly, these wardrobe ideas for kicking bad boys’ butts aren’t all that unusual. Remember Keira Knightley playing Guinevere in King Arthur? The royal knights could only hope to be as strategically placed in battle as the narrow leather strap girding Guinevere’s chest!

However, clothes are only half of what makes these women. All of them (and many others Hollywood creations... like the heavenly, bikini-clad, revenge-seekers--Charlie’s Angles) possess aggressive personalities.

“In recent years, we have seen the ‘feminization’ of superheroes,” explains Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, a professor at Harvard and Director of the Division of Public Health Practice. In a recent edition of The Challenge [www.thechallenge.org], a newsletter published under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program, she states, “On television, in movies, and on video games, women and girls frequently play the roles of avengers who use violence to achieve their goals—roles previously played only by men.”

Because these changing media portrayals of women are filtering into our culture and homes, Dr. Prothrow-Stith observes, “Girls have been socialized to use violence—they have added violence to their problem-solving repertoire.”

The use of physical force by the gentler gender isn’t just the realm of comic book adaptations, either. Movies, such as 2004’s Mean Girls makes a comedy out of the not-so sugar-and-spice side of some high school students fighting over a boyfriend.

Where the knuckles really hit the nose is at your child’s playground, as young girls try to interpret these characterizations and sort out the differences between “girl power” and bullying.

As complex as all that may be, I suspect young boys who are watching these depictions as well, are dealing with an entirely different problem. Drawing upon my own male experience, I feel qualified to speak on the issue from the “boy” perspective.

When I watch Elektra simultaneously handle a group of bad guys, or Catwoman take her whip to an aggressor, or even some mini-skirt clad teens vying to become a male trophy, do I see an empowered woman?

Well <blush>, actually, I have to confess, I’m a little distracted by the costumes... or lack there of. I’ll go even further and suggest most other males are likely more interested in the “eye-candy” than the story line too. From where we sit, this isn’t empowerment--it’s simply another sexy female parading on stage.

Nor are images of women who are physically strong, sexually dominant, and happy to run around in little leather thingies, a new invention. These diluted mainstream theatrical versions are all too reminiscent of classic pornographic scenarios.

I believe women are being sold a false bill of goods when they are told such characters represent progress. Hopefully, most adult females are intelligent enough to see right through these skimpy suggestions. But some young girls must believe it –or how else can we explain the sexually aggressive females in our schoolyards that are baring their fists and navels?

The truth is, the objectification of women really hasn’t changed as much as we might like to pretend. Sure, the portrayal of the poor helpless female tied-up and gagged, while a male holds a gun to her head, has been deemed politically incorrect. But has that stopped media moguls (still a predominantly male crowd) from coming up with other ways of concocting the irresistible sex and violence cocktail?

I don’t think so. In a rather brilliant twist, we now put the control into the hands of the female characters. Not only does this pacify advocates opposing violence against women, it also provided men with a fantasy girl as close to whips and chains as they dare go without heading into the dark caverns of pornography.

Dr. Prothrow-Stith warns we can’t blame this era of girl violence completely on media, any more than we can blame it on schools or parents. Instead she suggests this is much like an avalanche-- a cumulative effect where no one snowflake is completely responsible.

However, as we help our children recognize what qualities really equal strength, I hope we will begin to melt the current, impending snowstorm.

Looking over the list of films from the past few months for a positive female role model, the best I found was Elastigirl. From Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles, she’s a wife, mother, and closet super-hero, with an animated personality and an incredible head-to-toe outfit that “breathes like Egyptian cotton.” Ironically, she’s the most real heroine I’ve seen of late!

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