It has become a common scene in media. The camera pans across a bar. Men are gathered around it, drinking excessively and talking loudly to each other. There are jangling dog tags and the probability of a joke about why cockpits are called that. In their midst, a lone woman. It is never said, but it is clear to the audience that the lone woman’s ability to appeal to her male counterparts has gotten her the spot at the table. The word tomboy comes to mind, a term often used to praise women for acting more like men, or a term used to tear women down for not conforming to expectations. It is a double edged sword, and whether it swings in our lone woman’s favor is yet to be seen. She will likely be the only woman on screen for more than two minutes in the entire movie. 

She is, as the kids say, problematic. 

The modern trend in media of women being touted as empowered when they uphold traditionally male values or roles in society is not the holy grail of representation it is presented as. It is more “not like other girls” rhetoric that perpetuates the problem of women only being deemed worthy if they are validated by their male peers. While women in media can certainly hold traditionally male roles in media and be shining beacons of empowerment, more often than not, characters end up wearing the costume of empowerment while lacking any real substance. 

Take Black Widow, for example. Introduced in 2010 in “Iron Man” as the ice-cold, hyper-competent spy with a tragic past, the Black Widow character would go on to earn a spot on the 2012 Avengers team and hold the place of the only woman on the team for years. Her characterization included extreme violence, a skin-tight body suit unzipped to her cleavage and the ability to play the supporting role for the male leads. 

The oversexualization of her character — both in the comics and in the movies — is a product of the male gaze and movie bros’ inability to picture what ordinary women are like, but it is not the oversexualization of her character alone that makes the inclusion of a female hero on the team ring hollow. She is defined by what she can provide for her male counterparts. She is hinted as a romantic partner for Hawkeye in the first Avengers film before being rewritten as the romantic interest for the Hulk in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and before being sacrificed in “Avengers: Endgameto propel her male teammates’ narratives.  

Her character has no agency, little narrative presence and unless she is being sexualized, fits neatly into the boys club of characters until her character is overhauled for a more realized characterization in the 2021 movie “Black Widow.” Her character never exists outside of the male leads’ needs and becomes defined by keeping up with their expectations or proving herself through extreme violence. She is defined by male approval in the film and feeds into the problem of women only being taken seriously or treated with respect if they submit to proving themselves over and over for whoever sees fit to question them. 

“Black Widow” goes on to change the hero’s story. She has a past, she has agency, she has wants and desires and connections and conversations that are not reliant on a male lead. You cannot remove or replace her in the plot without changing the entirety of the narrative. She has a presence. She has importance. She is still a fictional spy, but she fights with her family. She has regrets in her past. She is trying to reconcile with her little sister and define herself beyond what has been set out for her. She provides more meaningful representation in those two hours than in the entire decade previous. 

However, she is not the only character trope that divorces real women in the name of false representation. 

The “not like other girls” rhetoric has run rampant in recent years as well. The scene often follows the pattern of introducing a gleaming castle in the woods. Inside, a woman sits on a throne. She is poised. She is elegant. She is unmistakably feminine. Our hero is loudly proclaiming that that will never be her. Perhaps she flees to race through the woods on horseback with a weapon strapped to her side. She has to prove that she is not frivolous. She is not dainty. As those things are obviously synonymous with women, she has to prove that she’s not that, either. She is different. 

The audience is meant to understand that the director has taken a brave, modern stance on empowering women by having our hero reject the courtly trapping presented to her. She flees from the title of female, the wind in her hair and a single cut on her cheek to prove she means business. 

Take Merida from “Brave,” for example. She spends the movie straining against her mother and chafing against dresses and crowns. Femininity in the media has often become synonymous with the weak and frivolous, the uncomplicated and vulnerable. To be powerful, this media likes to tell us, is to reject that. It is to be loud and brash. It is to hate dresses and the color pink. While it is true that there is often power in rejecting the boundaries society lays out, it can be achieved without cutting the throat of femininity. 

Merida, by the end of the movie, realizes the power her mother wields. She realizes that there is a way to operate with agency and personhood, even within the roles she has to play. “Brave” shows us the maturation of Merida from girl to woman and accomplishes what most media does not: crafting a character that can exist beyond being a caricature of gender roles or the rejection of them. Merida still likes archery and rides through the woods, but she also has stepped into womanhood and the power and agency that holds. She does not have to sacrifice femininity to the altar of male validity to be respected nor does she have to make an island of herself to show that she is different. 

She is, as the kids say, iconic. 

That is not to say that those are the only valid forms of representation. There are certainly characters who define themselves by violence and rough-and-tumble ways that have made a name for themselves in male spheres of power who still operate as representation. Imperator Furiosa from “Mad Max: Fury Road spends her time on screen being as furious as her namesake and being the best at a boys club competition. She is certainly empowered, but not because of the traditionally male role she holds. 

On the far other side of the spectrum from Furiosa resides the much discussed “Barbie” movie. Barbie, and all those who reside in Barbieland, lean hard into the pink and lace and conventional trappings of femininity. The movie often pokes fun at itself, introducing Margot Robbie as stereotypical Barbie and acknowledges the conventional body ideals Barbie often represents. 

Barbie isn’t defined by her looks, however. 

Barbie spends the movie figuratively and literally running from the box the world has tried to place her in. She moves past needing to be pretty to hold worth and steps into herself in pink high heels as she leaves behind the passivity of her old life to take on the struggles of an undefined one. She shows a remarkable amount of grit and self-realization in the face of adversity that has resonated so powerfully with its audience. 

The “it” factor in representation that makes Furiosa as empowered as Barbie or Merida, even as they operate in vastly different capacities, is that they have presence in the narrative, agency within their boundaries and the maturity to act in a way that goes beyond upholding or rejecting gender roles. 

Empowerment for women in media is not defined by divorcing one’s self from other women or proving oneself endlessly to men to have a seat at the table; it is, much like real life, stepping into one’s self and holding space and power in the face of what threatens ahead.

Haley Joseph would like to know why tactical battle suits even have front facing zippers.