A Distressing Damsel: An Open Letter to Princess Leia

“I was not a damsel in distress. I was a distressing damsel.” – Carrie Fisher, on playing Princess Leia

Dear Princess Leia,

For as long as I can remember, you’ve been a part of my life. I was introduced to you when I was around five or six years old (definitely before I was seven because I have memories of watching A New Hope in the first house I lived in), and it was love at first sight. You had brown hair like I did, you were small like I was, and—most importantly—you were a girl like me. When I played Star Wars with my cousins on the playground near our grandparents’ house, I didn’t have to just watch while they played heroes like Luke and Han. Thanks to you, I got to play a hero, too, every time I pretended to be you (which was often).

You were the first female hero I met through the media, the first in a long line that took me past Sydney Bristow and Hermione Granger on the way to Zoe Washburne, Katniss Everdeen, and Kate Beckett. I may have had many fictional role models along the way as I grew up, but you never forget your first.

I was born at a time when Disney princesses were experiencing a renaissance, when Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine started showing some smarts and spark that were missing from their earlier counterparts. I loved and still love Belle with the fervor of a three-year-old watching her sing about the “great, wide somewhere” for the first time, but pretending to be Belle was never as much fun as pretending to be you.

When I pretended to be you, I got to run and climb and boss people around. I got to play a game with higher stakes than just finding a prince; I got to fight Darth Vader for the freedom of an entire galaxy.

I learned so much from you without even realizing it until much later. I learned about passion, courage, and fighting for what you believe in. I learned that women can be political leaders and military strategists. I learned that smart women are the ones who get to do all of the cool stuff, like leading attacks on the Death Star (and capturing the heart of Han Solo). I learned that there are times when even strong women need rescuing, but then there are times when they get to do the rescuing, too.

I’ve always been a tiny girl with a big mouth, and with the memory of you etched in my brain from early childhood, I’ve always felt like those things are a pretty great combination. You spoke your mind, so I grew up believing it was okay to do the same. You never let the men around you keep you from voicing your opinions; being a woman never meant you had to be silent. You were just as good a leader and a shot as the men around you, so I grew up believing I could do anything boys could do. That’s a belief that fades for a lot of girls as they grow up, but I’m so thankful that I had a fictional role model like you (in addition to the great role models I’ve had in my everyday life) to show me that women are in no way “the weaker sex.”

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Perfectly Imperfect

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.

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The Legend of Korra: Anti-Feminism or Bad Writing?

Nerdy Girl Contributor Jo takes a close look at the writing of female characters (especially the titular one) on The Legend of Korra

Earlier this year, I absolutely devoured the series Avatar: The Last Airbender. I watched all three seasons in about a week in anticipation of its sequel, The Legend of Korra. As a feminist, I was incredibly psyched about a series about a female Avatar. She would undoubtedly be awesome and kick-ass and “I am woman hear me roar.” Right?

After the first few episodes, I was disappointed. We are introduced to Korra when she already has three out of four bending abilities already under her belt – just handed to her by the writers. This is justifiable, I suppose. The writers didn’t want to just rehash Ang’s learning in ATLA again with Korra. However, despite being a powerful bender, she was not as strong as I had hoped, and she definitely didn’t have it all together. But Ang needed time to get it together too, so I gave her a few more episodes to get really in the swing of this whole ‘Avatar-thing.’

What unfolded in the remaining episodes seemed to be a story that happened around her rather than being her story. Supporting characters stole the show from the its supposed lead. Those most notable ones for me were:

Lin Bei Fong – inventor of metal bending*, daughter of Toph Bei Fong (from ATLA), and all-around kick-ass woman.

Bolin – sweet, silly, loyal Bolin. Powerful fire bender*. Dork extraordinaire.

Yes, Korra did things. Yes, her bending was good and she kicked butt in some fight scenes. Yes, she saved the day most days, but she never did it alone (until the finale – and even that is questionable). Ultimately, her struggles never really felt like struggles to me: Gee gosh, I can’t air bend. Darn.

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I’ll Be My Own Savior: The Extraordinary Kate Beckett

Kate Beckett, the main female character in the ABC crime drama Castle is many things: detective, daughter, partner, lover, friend, coffee drinker, nerdy girl, trauma survivor…

She’s also a hero, but her heroism goes even deeper than saving her father from his descent into alcoholism; saving her partner Richard Castle from numerous life-threatening situations; and saving countless others through her work as one of New York City’s best and brightest homicide detectives.

Kate Beckett is her own hero; she’s her own savior. And in a society where so many “romances” still feature men saving women from forces both outside and inside of themselves, Beckett’s desire and ability to save herself matter immensely.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Bella Swan: A Woman’s Place in the Modern Media

It’s a confusing time to be a young woman in America.

Whether or not we want to admit it, much of what we believe about ourselves and our place in society comes from the media. And right now, the media is a minefield of mixed messages when it comes to what we as women are supposed to be.

Be strong, but don’t be bossy. Speak your mind, but don’t be a bitch. Act sexy, but don’t act like a whore. Work hard to get a good job, but don’t be a cold, spinster “career woman.” Be proud of your femininity, but don’t be too “girly” or “high-maintenance.” Strive to be skinny, but don’t lose your womanly curves in the process. You are more than your body, but it is your most powerful asset. You don’t need a man to validate you, but every happy ending involves a Prince Charming.

It’s enough to make even the most confident, well-adjusted woman’s head spin.

Young women have more stress, body image issues, and doubts about their self-worth than ever before. They also have more options when it comes to media consumption than ever before. Is that just an unpleasant coincidence?

You would think that more options would lead to a more balanced depiction of women in the media, but it often seems that more channels, advertisements, and social media outlets are in fact leading to the increased reinforcement of damaging ideas about the female gender.

Sometimes it seems like it’s better to become complete hermits, taking the media and its negative stereotypes completely out of our lives. But eventually we reach a frightening conclusion: For as frustrated as we get with the media, we simply can’t live without it.

The key to developing a healthy sense of self as a young woman in this media-driven society is to remember something that we all-too-often forget: We have a choice. We can choose what media we consume, and we can choose to educate ourselves about the impact the media has on our lives.

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