Are we giving our young girls a truly balanced view on self-empowerment
In the summer of 2013, I had been invited to speak at a girl’s school in Norfolk. The headmaster wanted me to talk with the students about “reaching their potential”. I suggested I deliver my talk “Dare to be Brilliant”. It covers the link between film heroines and life, and is always well received by the audience.
I stood at the front of the room presenting to a group of one-hundred plus parents and young girls, and while doing so, I wore a crown, as you do, with my assistant, whom was dressed as a superhero. I was introducing the concept of all heroines receiving “the call” in their films just like we do in life. I showed a picture of how Katniss Everdeen answered the call by stepping forward to take her sister’s place in “The Hunger Games”. Another picture was when Dorothy from the “Wizard of Oz” was forced into answering the call by a tornado, another of how Tris from “Divergent” answered the call by choosing to follow her own path by joining Dauntless. All was going well. Then, on the big screen appeared a picture of Bella from “Twilight”. A slight groan emulated from the audience, and one girl sitting close to the front crossed her arms, huffed loudly, and looked daggers at me before proudly proclaiming loudly, “Bella isn’t a heroine”. There were sounds of agreement among the audience.
“Bella isn’t a heroine”
“Why do you say that?” I questioned.
The girl, now going slightly crimson, replied, “She falls apart when her man leaves her, she tries to kill herself, how can you have her up there?”
“I wouldn’t want my daughter to be like Bella,” piped up a parent off to her right.
The girl looked at me searchingly, “Yeah, I bet you wouldn’t want your own daughter to be like Bella.” she said with some venom.
I smiled and looked her in the eyes. “You know what, she is like Bella.” I said proudly and continued with my presentation.
Why did everyone hate Bella so much?
This isn’t the first time I have had a bad reaction to Bella Swan, so I was well prepared that day to face the questions this heroine always provokes. The first time it happened it perplexed me; in fact, it perplexed me a lot. I saw Bella as an amazing heroine in her own right, a protector of someone, willing to sacrifice herself to save another. But it appeared I was alone. Why did everyone hate Bella so much? So, the ex-police officer in me began to investigate.
Archetypes in stories from past to present
My investigations led me to archetypes in stories from past to present. From The Grimm Brothers to Walt Disney, I searched for heroines that had scarified themselves in a much quieter, introverted manner and found themselves in a softer, gentler way. As I looked into Bella’s story and the repetitions of it throughout history, two things struck me. One was how much it mirrored the story of Belle from ‘Beauty and the Beast’, which is in turn mirrored the Greek myth of Persephone. All of them were betrayed, locked up, taken from their families, but rather than fight, they accepted their fate and made the most of it. Was that really a weaker alternative? All of these heroines sacrificed their fight for the greater good and learned through that sacrifice to grow into women. What was it about these stories that women felt such hatred for?
“Are we giving our young girls a truly balanced view on self-empowerment?”
The question I could not shake off was, “Are we giving our young girls a truly balanced view on self-empowerment?” I wonder if, perhaps, our fight for female empowerment has led us to see certain traits as less desirable than others. If a women shows vulnerability, frailness, weakness, the need for love, the need to be saved, to feel safe, we tell her she is wrong. I can’t help thinking we are only holding up one example as a role model to young women – a feisty fighter, who doesn’t need a man, and can save herself thank you very much. But what about all the other girls who don’t fit this mould? What about the other qualities that are just as important? Isn’t vulnerability and acceptance a courageous act, too?
I epitomise the self-confident, self-assured go-getter that society wants
I have always been a fighter – a feisty, extroverted, trouble maker who has an “infectious sense of humour” (according to one of my year eleven teachers). I epitomise the self-confident, self-assured go-getter that society wants our young girls to aspire to be. My eldest daughter is a different matter altogether. She is quiet, demure, introverted, and serious. Her personality shows many similarities with that of Bella’s. Things affect her deeply, she gets sad, she feels the world is ending and plunges into darkness often. In the female empowerment world, she would be seen as a failure. I don’t see that though. Instead, I admire her gentle acceptance of situations and her ability to move through challenges by surrendering to them rather than fighting through them.
A lot of young girls are struggling to reach this unobtainable “self-confident, empowered” precedent
I find a lot of young girls are struggling to reach this unobtainable “self-confident, empowered” precedent because it just isn’t part of who they are. They are not struggling because they don’t feel empowered, they are struggling because the media, women’s movements, and parents are telling them that being powerful involves being more like Katniss Everdeen and less like Bella Swan.
I was recently working with an amazing young lady who is 15 years old, and at 12, she was raped – a fact which she hasn’t dealt with or spoken about. Her parents blamed her for going out with an older boy, and she is consequently sad, lonely, and loathes herself. She cuts herself, starves herself, and puts herself in positions that are less than safe. She is Bella, Belle, and Persephone personified. Now, what happened to her is horrid for sure, and there is no way a boy should ever do this to a girl. She could fight about the rights and wrongs of this situation until she was blue in the face, but it wouldn’t help her. While some women may use similar incidents to form groups and charities that fight for women’s rights, etc. The majority of others are struggling because they don’t feel angry; they just feel sad, vulnerable, let down, and upset. Is the way out for this girl acceptance, or is it anger? I know where anger will lead her, and that is not going anywhere towards empowerment. When working with this girl, she had to heal through acceptance. She had to be willing to be vulnerable and accept. Fighting was not her way out. We had to go to deep dark depths before she could move forward. This wasn’t easy for her. She had to confront situations she has chosen to forget, to trust me, and open up to the sadness inside her. She had to take a metaphoric leap off the cliff into the dark water below, just like Bella, to allow this situation to overcome her, to feel it, to know what vulnerability looked like to her so she could come out the other side. And she did go there. She dove deep, deep, deep into the dark dingy water. We cried, honesty was spoken, and truths were owned up to, and forgiveness was hinted. She accepted her circumstances and what had happened to her in an empowering way. She eventually forgave herself, her parents, and even the perpetrator. She accepted that this was part of her journey she didn’t choose it to be, but she accepted it. Through that acceptance, she is now thinking about sharing her story with others in a way that empowers them to accept and move through equally disturbing and horrific situations. She couldn’t have fought her way through this; it wasn’t in her nature. She had to surrender to it. She had to accept and surrender to the situations she found herself in, just like Bella, just like Belle, and just like Persephone. I could recount stories of countless other women who have tried to fight their way out of situations only to realise acceptance was the way out.
So, what really is the problem with Bella Swan? Why do people have such a reaction when I mention her as a heroine?
I believe we only see heroines in one way and see courage as meaning one thing. We see women in only one light, and we see self-empowerment as only meaning one thing. We love the new Disney Princess like Elsa, and yet see Cinderella as ancient and weak. We love Katniss and Hermione with all their fight, yet dislike Bella with her introverted, softer approach.
Our drive for equality has defined what it means to be a woman in a whole other way. We have gone from the kitchen sink to the battle field with nowhere in between. We have, as a movement, made women feel certain things are right, and other things are wrong. If a woman wants to stay at home, we feel she is disempowered. If a girl is determined to wait for the love of her life, we think she is disillusioned. We think if a woman shows vulnerability and wants and needs help, it is a sign of weakness.
I really do think the messages we need to give our young girls needs to be more balanced, more individual and more modern.
The empowered feisty female is outdated I feel and needs to give way to a more varied and nuanced and expansive definition.
I would love your thoughts on this , what do you think about the messages our young girls are getting about female empowerment.