art by Erika Schnellert
The first thing I can clearly remember wanting to be when I was a kid was Indiana Jones.
I wanted the whole nine yards – the hat, the whip, amazing beige outfit combos and the constant sense of adventure prickling at my fingertips. I was a little explorer and the only character I could ever relate to, in terms of life goals, was the professor of archeology who collected artifacts in his spare time.
Now I know that he is very problematic as a character, I know that he was not a good role model, but the six year old me didn’t know that. No, six year old Lana jumped around the house and hung off doorways and wore her mom’s hats.
But here’s the catch – no matter what I did, whenever I’d plop down in front of the screen, I would only see men doing cool stuff. I would see Indiana Jones and I had no problem relating to him, but then I would see female characters who were there only to be killed off, seduced or used as a plot device that could easily be traded for a lamp (see: Sexy Lamp test).
Their sole purpose in movies was to be eye-candy or work into the image of Indiana Jones being a dashing explorer, kissing his way around the world.
When I was six, I had no problem relating to him despite all that. I didn’t see the difference between genders and I didn’t feel gender roles as strongly as I have gotten to later on. I’ve grown up in a household that allowed me to develop in whichever way I wanted, and nothing much bothered me until I started school.
That is when the separation started, that is when I watched action movies and saw girls stand by the sidelines while guys took all the credit and all the fame. I was annoyed by damsels in distress, I wanted to be different than them, foolishly playing into the way of thinking that can be so toxic – I won’t be like other girls.
Because other girls always seemed so boring, so willing to pass out on all the fun, yield their sense of adventure to “better” male characters. Little did I know that those girls might have been better explorers and action heroes than the guys ever could be. But no one ever gave them the chance.
I still wanted to be Indiana Jones, but with time I learned to add “female” to the verbal expressions of my ambitions. “I want to be a female Indiana Jones.” Not just Indiana. No, a female one. Because I knew I would have to defy some stereotypes along the way to achieving my goal. And even then, it was as if somehow my dream became lesser just because I was a girl.
And then came Lara Croft.
I would honestly like to thank the Universe for allowing those movies to happen because after Lara Croft, nothing was the same.
She swooped in, dangling from her ceiling in her pajamas, punching sharks (disclaimer: I have nothing against sharks, I love sharks) and kicking ass back and forth. And she was a woman.
It mattered to me when I was ten, it still matters to me now. It’s never going to stop mattering because in a world full of Indiana Jones’ and John McClanes, I now don’t have to come up with ways to turn myself into one of them and shape them to my need of relating to characters, despite the fact that they are men.
Now I can just say: “Hell yeah, I want to be like Lara Croft”.
That’s the true importance of seeing female representation on TV when you are a kid – to know that your dream is possible, that you are valid. Yes, those characters are fictional, but we can relate to their struggles, we can see bits of ourselves in them. And that makes all the difference in the world.
After Lara Croft, there was Leeloo from The Fifth Element, Charlie’s Angels, Kim Possible and Xena. My small world was stretching as far as it could, since Croatian TV companies didn’t think it was lucrative to invest in series with female characters. I did what I could, I went to my local video store at least three times a week, I fell in love with these amazing girls and I really, really wanted to become one of them.
But for every woman that kicked ass, there would be at least ten men. I couldn’t find proper representation because Lara Croft was gorgeous, Xena lived in an alternate universe, Leeloo was an alien. It’s very hard to find representation that speaks to you when there are very little examples to choose from, which is something Mel wrote about in great detail when reviewing Ghostbusters.
In fact, if you google the words “A list of female action heroes”, you will get one Wikipedia page with 171 entries – many of which overlap. And if you google “A list of male action heroes” – you will get so much more Wikipedia lists, branched out into action heroes in movies, in TV shows, in games.
So when we compare the two, it becomes pretty obvious that there is something rotten in the state of media.
Thankfully, today, in 2016, I am bombarded with strong female characters who are not a stereotype. No, they are their own people. And I only say “bombarded” because I am not used to this. I don’t think any of us are, not if you have been born before 2000. I used to revel when watching a movie that had at least two different female side-characters in it, and now – now I see Ghostbusters, I see Rey, and I see Furiosa.
I see all of these female characters and I feel inexplicably happy. I bounced with excitement when exiting the cinema after seeing Ghostbusters, I took photos next to cardboard cutouts. And I remember messaging Mel, asking her: “Is this how guys feel after watching a movie?”
Because the feeling is amazing.
The feeling is like no other in the world; suddenly, you know that you can make it. You are powerful. If Dr. Jillian Holtzmann can kick ass in slime-covered overalls, without slow-motion sexy sequences – just a slow-motion fight sequence – then so can you. You might not be fighting ghosts, but you are fighting for that good grade and you. can. do. it!
Lara Croft was a great role model but everything about her was pandering to the male gaze. Even Xena wore skimpy costumes. Charlie’s Angels were all about leather jumpsuits. Leeloo pranced around in something reminiscing a bathing suit. They all had to be sexy, as if that was a valid requirement for being awesome.
Jillian Holtzmann wears leather jackets and goggles, Furiosa is covered in dirty rags and armor, Rey doesn’t show her cleavage and what all of that actually means is –
You don’t have to be beautiful to be valid. You don’t have to flirt your way to success. You just have to be you, and it doesn’t matter if you wear stilettos or combat boots. That’s it. That’s all it takes.
For such a long time, I’ve watched Lara and Charlie’s Angels and the numerous gorgeous blonde nuclear physicists (see: James Bond etc.) – these beautiful women who used it to their advantage – wondering what happens if I don’t turn out hot. Can I succeed without having a cleavage to push my agenda with?
And now I see Jessica Jones, whose PTSD is acknowledged, I see numerous amazing characters from Orphan Black, who are different but not stereotyped (as it often happens when there are multiple prominent female characters), and I see a world in which I could fit in. In which I could be me, do great things, and not worry about whether my hair is perfectly styled.
Finally, I see Leslie Jones’ Patty Tolan, the unsung hero of Ghostbusters, who doesn’t have superpowers or extensive scientific knowledge, she’s just smart in a way that life teaches you to be. I see Patty Tolan and I know that I will be okay, even if I’m not a brilliant scientist.
This is what I am thankful for. I am thankful for this girl looking at Kristen Wiig and having bigger dreams. I am thankful for this new generation of girls that will grow up with Star Wars’ Rey and Mad Max’s Furiosa and Marvel’s new character Lunella Lafayette, incredible characters that will allow them to see themselves in a better light.
Because the only light I could have seen myself in because of the prevalent way of thinking in media was one of a sexy lamp, the main hero’s girlfriend, or a hot nuclear physicist who would help the hero save the world. She wouldn’t save it herself, no. Those kind of tasks are best yielded to men.
I am not saying that we don’t still have a long way to go. In fact, while compiling a list of important female characters for this article, I couldn’t think of more than three women of color.
The whole situation reminded me of Their Own League, a Saturday Night Live spoof of “A League of Their Own”, where white women form a baseball league and when two black women, played by Taraji P. Henson and Leslie Jones, ask if they can join, this is what they are told:
“Yeah, come on, you know the plan. Like, first white women are allowed to play baseball, then black men are allowed to play, then all women are allowed to play underhand, with a big softball, like a child.”
And we cannot let ourselves think like this. We can’t do the same thing that has been done to us with prevalence of male characters. If anything, we should learn from it. We should be better because yes, there could be fifty white female action heroes in a year, but if there’s not a single one that is a woman of color, then what am I doing? What are we all doing, if I have to write this article saying that there should at least be one character?
Screw that. There should be equality. I wasn’t able to find myself in one white female action hero in a year, so how the hell are women of color gonna find themselves? Does the debate stop with white kickass girls?
And if you think it should, please reconsider your priorities and your worldview. Because this is a nice planet to live on but if we, as a species, are good at anything, then it is warping true values.
Thank you for Furiosa, thank you for Rey, thank you for Lara Croft, but also – give us more Lunellas and Pattys and Elektras and Melinda Mays. Give us Filipinx action heroes. And where are kickass girls from India? Kenya? What’s going on? Has everyone suddenly gone forgetful and didn’t think of a huge percentage of the world’s population?
You can’t buy our love with half-assed representation so don’t even try.
To talk about the importance of seeing female representation in media when you are a child is to talk about self-esteem and ways to shape young minds.
If you think that it doesn’t matter in practice, just in theory, I would like to remind you of Millie Bobby Brown, which you might remember if you’ve seen Netflix’s Stranger Things. She plays the girl with psychokinetic gifts, Eleven, and you might have heard that she only got the courage to shave her head after being reminded of Imperatrix Furiosa.
In her own words to IndieWire, “We did this sort of split-screen of her and me, and the resemblance was amazing! I thought, ‘Wow, that’s such an amazing way to put it, you know?’ It was the best decision I’ve ever, ever made.”
Let’s take it a step further and look at Erika Schnellert’s beautiful comic showing Eleven (Brown’s character) wondering whether she is still pretty (a reference to the show) and Furiosa telling her that she is.
Seeing this comic on my Tumblr dashboard made tears well in my eyes and I’m not trying to be sappy; I am simply saying that I was overcome with relief and joy that this is a thing that happens now. This is a Thing with capital t, people. Women empowering women and girls finding strength in female characters they see on their screens.
Because, to talk about how much it means to see someone sharing your sex characteristics (in a world that cares too much about it) succeeding is to talk about new generations skipping over the obstacles we’ve had to get over with heaving breaths.
Being a girl in 2016 means to talk about Furiosa, whose anger isn’t pretty and shows us that ours shouldn’t be either. It is to talk about Rey, who stands tall in face of adversity without having to block her emotions. It is to talk about Lunella Lafayette, who is the smartest person in the Marvel universe and a black girl. It is to talk about female characters and it is to allow girls all over the world to believe in themselves. It is to break the stereotypes and glass ceilings and everything that stood in my path, when in 2004 being a girl meant being either Cady Heron or Regina George.
And the true importance of seeing female characters in media while you are still growing up and shaping your thoughts lay in the fact that you will never perceive your femininity as an obstacle.
Instead, you will know that you are a girl but you will never, ever feel burdened by it.
You can find out more about Lana Rafaela on her author page.