“It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility; they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. . . Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do;. . . it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more and learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” — Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
Star Wars burst onto the scene when I was eight years old. I remember sitting in the theater mesmerized, gazing with awe at the galaxy far, far away, falling in love with R2-D2, and grieving the loss of Obi-Wan. My sister, two years older, also loved it, so naturally we wanted to stage our own Star Wars adventures in our backyard. The problem: which of us would be Princess Leia? Leia was so cool, with her blaster and her white dress and her weird hairstyle, so of course we both wanted to be her. In contests between siblings, the older generally wins, so I ended up having no idea who I would be, since I didn’t want to pretend to be a boy. Apart from Leia, there was no girl character into whose shoes I could happily imagine myself. I don’t recall exactly what I ended up doing, but in the version of Star Wars that ran in my head, R2 was always referred to by female pronouns. I mean, why not?
I understand now that I was searching for something that the stories I grew up with were rarely willing to give me. I wanted the most interesting character in the room to be female, so I imagined a female Water Rat, a female Eeyore, a female Bagheera, a female Fiver. I was happy with these alterations, but far less happy with the characters who were actually female. Either they were the only girl in the galaxy, like Princess Leia, or bland, unadventurous caregivers who spent most of their time on the sidelines, like Kanga in Winnie-the-Pooh, or absent from the story altogether. One striking exception appeared on HBO in the early 1980s: Fraggle Rock, whose two major female characters were funny, frenetic, quirky, and flawed. I would have been happy being either the wild, competitive Red or the dreamy, artistic Mokey, and at different points in my life I’ve identified with each of them. But by that time my sister and I had outgrown our backyard adventures.
It may have occurred to me then to wonder why there weren’t more Reds and Mokeys in my life, why there weren’t more female characters who were as active and engaging as their male counterparts. Mokey and Red were special because 1) there were two of them, which matters more than some are willing to admit; and 2) they had a uniqueness about them, an individuality that not many female characters in my favorite children’s books, movies, and television shows seemed to have. Since then, I’ve made a point of seeking out female characters with that wonderful spark of individual life.
My value of individuality forms the core of my feminism. Behind the concept of strict gender divisions, whether those who advocate them realize it or are willing to admit it, is the notion that women, simply because they are women, share the same set of basic traits that fit them for a range of possibilities far narrower than men’s. A society that demands adherence to these gender divisions only works if all women are nurturing caregivers, all women are content to be relational (daughter, wife, mother) rather than individual, all women are followers rather than leaders, and all women are “not quite as good” as men at any task or skill that lies outside their designated sphere. Men may be politicians, soldiers, doctors, lawyers, inventors, engineers, writers, artists, church leaders, law officers, and film and stage directors, but women must be women first and foremost, as if the gender itself were a calling or occupation. For centuries, in order to make this system work, girls growing up were taught not to think of themselves as too unique (as a character from Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall puts it, “You see what it is for women to affect to be different to other people”) and to value themselves in purely relational terms. Yet always, some women have managed to break out of their narrow room, and now we’re starting to wonder just how much potential has gone unfulfilled, unrealized, over the long, long years.
The core of my feminism should be simple common sense. Not all women are alike. We don’t all share the same daydreams, hopes, and ambitions. We don’t all share the same interests, skills, or talents. Each of us has a passion of her own that springs from her uniqueness, and being of a certain gender should not hinder us — any of us — from following that passion. It astonishes me that even now, some folk still have so much trouble accepting this notion.
Yet while I may grind my teeth in frustrations at all the signs of how far we have yet to go, my heart leaps with joy at every sign of progress I see. After all, nowadays, girls who act out Star Wars in their backyards have a number of characters to choose from, girls who move in the thick of adventure and save lives and who are, quite often, the coolest in the room.
Next week: Part 3