Reserving the right to be quiet “like a girl”

I haven’t seen the new Wonder Woman movie yet, although I’ve read mostly good things about it as a cinematic experience and find the vehement disappointment over the character’s very specific feminist failings (armpit hair?) rather ridiculous seeing as though she’s a comic book superhero based on her creator’s obsession with pin-up girls as much as his admiration for the suffragettes. One reason I’m hesitant to see the film is that I’m ambivalent about whether women being moved to tears to see a female warrior doing battle on the big screen is really indicative of progress for feminism or whether the new Wonder Woman doll my own mother just gifted my two young daughters is recompense for introducing them to Barbie.

The problem is, I’m hyper sensitive to the gender biases and stereotypes my daughters are exposed to, and I try to filter it all as best I can. When they were toddlers and preschoolers, that meant mitigating the relentless marketing of pink clothes and princess toys to little girls. Now that they’re staring down the identity crises of puberty, I feel the need to buffer them against a new kind of gender messaging that ironically is directed at counteracting the first. It’s the current media blitz equating female empowerment with celebrating the rights of girls to be loud, tough, athletic, and overtly confident — a temperament that my introverted, quieter, less competitive daughters don’t really share.

The Always #LIKEAGIRL viral campaign and other girl power cultural phenomenon such as Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” anthem or the bestselling photography book Strong Is the New Pretty: A Celebration of Girls Being Themselves — which, despite featuring a diverse group of girls, seems to fixate on physical manifestations of strength — are admirable in their intention to raise awareness of girls’ confidence, physical prowess, and ability to do battle in a manner that refutes all those “run like a girl” and “throw like a girl” insults.

At what point, though, do these alpha girl messages go too far and threaten to discourage rather than energize the kinds of young girls who’d rather spend their free time reading in their rooms or exercising in the safety of their own backyards than donning a team uniform or the in-your-face bravado of Sasha Fierce?

At what point does using girls in sports and combat as a proxy for female strength become advocacy not so much for the equal applicability of so-called “male” and “female” traits, but for the supremacy of a more stereotypical masculine temperament based on assertiveness, dominance, and aggressiveness? When does it become more propaganda for the extrovert ideal and threaten to disavow the power and contributions of females who are introverted and don’t want to carry a big stick?

One example where the pendulum may have swung too far came from a trailer for the recently released Transformers: The Last Night, to which our family was unwittingly exposed while waiting for the film we paid to see — ironically, perhaps, Disney’s new live action Beauty and the Beast, which for all its questionable fairy tale gender role fodder also happens to honor the odd, quietly courageous village girl who likes books.

In this fifth installment of the Transformers movie franchise, a new main character is a bold, dirt-smudged teenage girl with technical expertise and an ability to hold her own with swaggering leading-man Mark Walberg in going to war against giant robots threatening earth. (This particular girl also happens to be a Hollywood action-hero brand of extremely attractive and well-endowed in a low-cut tank top while doing it.) The trailer includes a montage of her running from, fighting, and smashing large metal demons after which she looks brazenly into the camera and says, “Yeah I fight like a girl. Don’t you?”

Fortunately, my daughters weren’t forced to contemplate an answer to that question as they’d already covered their ears and eyes halfway through the extremely loud and violent preview — as they typically do.

The real danger here is that these kinds of images and messages celebrate not just the equally impressive aptitude of female athletes, fighters, action heroes, and confident, competitive types — which is a great thing and long overdue — but also an idealized vision of what it means to be a strong, powerful, influential person, period.

These campaigns don’t just refute the insidious notion that women as a group are less competent or less well suited for certain skills and fields like math, science, sports, or superhero franchises, but also may be unwittingly setting yet another discriminating gender expectation — one that introverted girls who don’t thrive in the spotlight or in conflict, physical or otherwise, can’t meet.

That’s not to say that introverts aren’t competitive or as athletically-inclined as their extroverted counterparts, but somehow this “girls can be tough” argument seems poised to confuse gender equality and efforts to dismantle female stereotypes with the notion that not only can women be gregarious, physically imposing, and aggressive, but that they should be.

It’s seems just another flavor of the Lean-In movement, which in some ways seems to blame corporate women for the gender gap in leadership, because on average they tend to listen more than talk and be more humble and reflective than self-confident and entitled in comparison to their average male colleagues. Meanwhile those so-called female traits that many see as handicaps to getting leadership roles are precisely the less aggressive traits that make for the most effective leaders.

In Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, author Peggy Orenstein questions whether her own stance against princess culture inadvertently devalues the likes and interests of her own daughter who is consumed by it. Similarly, these new edicts about what it means to be strong “like a girl” are potentially discouraging to girls who don’t share such outgoing and aggressive tendencies. Maybe what’s needed to prevent this new female empowerment movement from actually disempowering the leagues of girls who prefer the art of subtle negotiation to “fighting like a girl” are countercultural rallying cries from the other camp — voices that celebrate the rights and abilities of young males to be quiet, reflective, and peaceful “like a boy.” I venture to guess that boys with those personality traits are equally as thrilled to see a female superhero for a change.

Both female and male defenders of the new blockbuster portrayal of Wonder Woman, however, claim that she’s not simply another aggressive male superhero dressed up in (sexy) female clothing, but also brings a more feminine ideal to the genre with her message of peace and compassion. I sincerely doubt, though, that all those men outraged over women-only screenings of the film were rankled by lack of access to actress Gal Gadot speaking passionately about love and diplomacy, and certainly women don’t seem to be crying over those scenes — or at least they don’t feel justified in broadcasting it to the Internet.

In any case, while girl power campaigns may be a step in the right direction for the gender equality movement, my hope is that they don’t leap so far into advocacy for a new but equally unfair and exclusive female standard that they leave quiet, sensitive girls like my daughters (and me for that matter) feeling still more inadequate.

Author of Humility Is the New Smart: Rethinking Human Excellence in the Smart Machine Age

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