Unrealistic expectations are a fact of life. From the fairytales we were told as kids to the TV shows (and commercials) we watch as adults, we are more than familiar with media-perpetuated standards that don’t quite exist in the real world.
I can’t speak to the experiences of the male half of the population, but I know that, as a woman in today’s media-saturated society, I’m constantly bombarded with images of what a “perfect woman” is supposed to be. From Victoria’s Secret ads featuring models with bodies I’ll never have to movies featuring action heroines with courage I’ll never possess, it’s enough to make a girl feel like she should just throw in the towel in terms of finding relatable images in the media.
In a (well-intentioned) effort to give young women positive media role models, there has been an influx of “strong” female characters in the last few decades: women who can beat up bad guys (while wearing heels!), outsmart the craftiest villains, and play the lead role in their own stories—all without showing a shred of weakness. These characters don’t make mistakes; they don’t have anxieties or insecurities or character flaws. They are—for all intents and purposes—perfect.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I find perfect characters a little depressing. How are we as women supposed to learn to love and accept ourselves as we are if we are constantly reminded of the things we should be but can never be, simply because we’re beautifully fallible human beings? And how are we supposed to gain respect for ourselves through all of our messy growing, living, and learning when it seems like the media likes to depict women as one of two things:
1.) Emotionally unstable, overly dramatic weaklings who need a good man in their lives to complete them
2.) Flawless automatons with beauty, brains, and none of those pesky emotions that are often signs of “weakness”
I like to think that I exist closer to some kind of middle ground between these two extremes, and in my experience I think most women exist there as well. We’re all a little flawed; we’re all a little messed-up, but that’s what makes us human. And that’s what I want my heroes and heroines to be—human.
It’s important to show female protagonists struggling with their own demons, pain, and emotional scars because it teaches young women that those are not things to be ashamed of. It’s important to show female protagonist making mistakes and learning from them because it teaches young women that making a mistake is not something to beat yourself up about for the rest of your life. And it’s important to show female protagonist working through their flaws and weaknesses because it teaches young women to work to better themselves from the inside out.
There are no shortages of heroes with flaws whom we are still meant to admire. But the list of flawed heroines is still quite small in comparison. As such, most young women grow up believing that perfection is something to aim for because it’s something that is held up for them as the standard, which can only lead to disappointment and frustration as they come to learn that perfection can only exist in the pages of a novel or on a movie screen.
When I watch a movie, turn on the TV, or pick up a book, I want to see women like me as the heroes of their own stories. I want to see women I can relate to, women I can root for because I know what they’re going through, and women who make me feel a little less alone for being a little (or a lot) less than the ideal. And I want to see these women depicted in such a way that I can be proud to say I’m like them. I want to see acknowledgement of something so often forgotten: Strength doesn’t come from being without weakness; it comes from working through our weaknesses.
I want girls to see more characters like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Emma Swan on Once Upon a Time, Kate Beckett on Castle, and Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation. These women are all flawed, but they are written in ways that make us admire them more for how they ultimately work through those flaws to become heroes in their own ways. Katniss is impulsive, angry, and pathologically afraid to trust. Emma closes herself off to loving anyone, including herself. Beckett is afflicted with crippling PTSD and a maze of emotional walls put up to protect herself after her mother’s death. And Leslie can be almost suffocatingly pushy, a “steamroller” towards even those she cares about (especially those she cares about). These characters feel like real, relatable women. They are allowed to fight internal battles as well as external ones; they are allowed to be weak and strong, fallible and admirable.
These characters are allowed to grow, and that’s all I really want to see from any character that I’m supposed to relate to and root for. When you start with perfection, there’s no room to grow, and where’s the compelling story in that? We’re all works-in-progress, and the best characters are, too.
So you can keep your flawless female warriors and perfect princesses. I’ll take an imperfect heroine any day—because I know that her journey to become a better person is going to inspire my own journey to become a better person, her weaknesses are going to make me less ashamed of my own, and her story is going to make me feel stronger for having been exposed to it.