Finding the Perfect Imperfect Role Model

Wanted: A strong female character daughters can admire. No swooning or skimpy clothes, please.

In our house, we don’t have cable television and we don’t consider this much of a deprivation. What we do have is a nice assortment of DVDs and we love movie night. It’s one way to be together as a family.

Lately, however, I’ve begun to wonder about the female characters in some of the movies we’ve exposed our kids to. Specifically, I wonder if the women are strong role models for my two daughters and one son.  Or are they just the traditional female figures that exist primarily to forward the storyline of the male protagonists?

Having just taken the kids through Episodes IV, V, and VI of Star Wars, let me start with Princess Leia. As a role model for my daughters, she is all over the place. Unfortunately, she doesn’t make a strong entrance with all that “Help me, Obi Wan” stuff. She is basically a damsel in distress with funky hair and a polyester white dress.

However, she can’t be classified as such too quickly. She proves to be steely tough with Vader, she’s clearly a courageous fighter against the storm troopers and an intelligent military strategist. She is on level ground with her male counterparts in formulating escape plans and operating the Millennium Falcon, when necessary.

Ah, but then the disappointments roll in like a seaside fog. She stays behind while the male leads fly off to destroy the Death Star and, worse, she sloppily falls in love with the handsome, intergalactic rogue, Han Solo, who we all know is a commitment-phobe with a penchant for Barbarella-type space babes.

Sure, she alone strangles the odious Jabba the Hut, but why does she have to be clad in a do-nothing bikini while she does it? I know the answer to this question from a plot standpoint, but couldn’t the writers have come up with something more interesting? Something women could be proud of?

So, while Leia exhibits inner-strength and wields a weapon with attitude, I want more for my daughters.

Another family favorite of ours is The Lord of the Rings. Once again, an action-packed, male-dominated fantasy. Regardless, I love almost everything about the LOTR series, but I struggle with the women characters. All three of them.

Arwen Evenstar is, like Leia, part princess, part warrior, and a total mixed bag as a role model. Unlike Leia, Arwen makes a strong start, unflinchingly telling Aragorn that she will ride the injured Frodo to safety, as she is the faster rider.

She is fearless in the face of nine nasty Nazgûl wraiths and even has the courage to boldly taunt them: “If you want him, come and claim him!” 

But after this, she fizzles out; she becomes passive and utterly self-sacrificing in the face of her one true love.  In fact, her commitment to Aragorn will ultimately cost her eternal life in some amazing heaven-like paradise.

I’ll be honest, Arwen started to remind me too much of the pathetic, masochist Bella Swan in the Twilight series. One thing I know for sure, I do not want my daughters to think it’s OK to die for the love of a hunky guy with intense eyes, no matter how blue they may be!

In the second installment of LOTR, we meet Eowyn, also a princess/warrior who exhibits strong character and shows “some skill with a blade.” She seems both strong and wise, but one has to wonder if she surreptitiously joins the Rohan army out of valor, or because she, too, has fallen hopelessly in love with the dashing Aragorn. It’s a fine moment when she kills the Witch King (d’oh! spoiler!), but in almost the very next scene, she’s swooning over Faramir, having given up hope of ever receiving Aragorn’s affections. All this incredible strength mixed with all this weepy male adoration. I tell you!

But then there’s my favorite: Lady Galadriel. She is the purest example of a cool-headed, kind-hearted, formidable character. She is powerful, wise, and respected, but also frightening and maternal. She wrestles with her darker side and is an expression of light and kindness. I love her complexity; it resonates. And here’s a twist: she does not compromise her authority for love. She is able to partner on equal footing with Lord Elrond. Oh, how I wish our girls were exposed to more characters like this.

Finally, switching movies, there’s Hermione from Harry Potter.  Yes, Harry is the star that she supports with all her might, but she’s not subservient to him or Ron and this is worth noting. She is smart and doesn’t hide it. She is brave, logical, and as firmly committed to facing evil as any of the males in the movie.

Here’s my one problem with how JK Rowling handled Hermione’s character: I can’t see how she’d ever fall in love with Ron. Harry, yes. Fearful inarticulate Ron, not so much.

Which begs the question: why does Hermione have to have a love interest at all? Couldn’t she have been given the freedom to rock Voldermort’s world along side Harry and Ron, without having to develop a love-interest in one of them? Hermione is distinct enough and well enough developed to stand-alone. If only Rowling saw her that way too.

Movies are a great source of fun and escape, but my kids, specifically my girls, will have to find their way in the world without perfect models, the way women have always had to do.

Bonnie Friedman September 23, 2011 at 02:26 PM
I so agree with your comment about Hermione. I couldn't understand why she fell for Ron, and was disappointed that Rowling needed to add the love angle at all.


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