No, I’m not talking about Melissa Leo’s use of that other-than-feminism “f-bomb” at the Academy Awards last Sunday evening. I want to compare two of this year’s Oscar winners and how they illustrate the way women’s history is told—or not.
I’m thrilled that “The King’s Speech” won best picture. I loved this beautifully rendered piece of history. And Colin Firth’s best actor Oscar was supremely deserved for his brilliant and touching portrayal of the shy man with a stutter, the man who not be king had he had his druthers.
But when the historical fluke of his brother’s abdication from the throne propelled him onto the British throne on the eve of world War II, King George VI rose not only to fulfill the ceremonial monarchy, but more importantly, to become a great moral leader in a time of crisis.
He realized that a leader’s first task is to define the terms and then deliver the message effectively. He feared his speech impediment would prevent him doing so. We follow him through the excruciating process of learning to control his stutter in order to fulfill the obligation his office required.
This man, for all his challenges was clearly the protagonist of his story. And his story was one of leadership, courage, and triumph over adversity.
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King George had a helpmate in his wife, who supported and urged him on. Seeing her character and their relationship evolve on the screen, one might imagine Britain would have been as well served had she become the monarch. That’s a tale for another day, but quite related to the role best actress Oscar winner Natalie Portman played in another best film contender, “Black Swan.”
Although Portman played the main character in “Black Swan,” her role was also about her personal relationships—with her mother, her art, her body, her sexuality, the head of the dance company—not about her courage, leadership, or nobility.
Linda Lowen, editor of About.com’s Women’s Issues, sums up the narrative and the pervasive moral of the stories we hear about so many female characters:
Nina goes mad as she immerses herself in the role of a lifetime. It’s a dark Gothic tale of suppression, betrayal, desire, guilt and achievement. But at some level it also addresses how we women fear our own power and abilities, believing that if we fully exercise both, we risk obliterating and destroying those around us — including ourselves. Can we still be good and kind and be successful, or must we always morph into those despised and hated Black Swans and Black Queens when we fiercely go after what we want with all that we have?
And what does this have to do with the fact that Women’s History Month is this month, March? As reviewer Mad Cow observed:
Aside from the sex and the more sophisticated camera work, this movie could have been made 70 years ago. What happens to a main character who works himself or herself to the utmost in perfecting his/her skills and on the way achieves greater self-understanding? For men, especially in boxer movies, they triumph. Women must be punished, usually with death.
This is a trope we must rewrite. To be sure there are plenty of films where women are strong, courageous, and noble. “True Grit” comes to mind from this year’s batch. Still the role models presented to young girls and women through fictional or historical characters are more often than not those who come to a bad end if they are not self-sacrificing, or are rewarded (with the man, usually) if they do put their own aspirations aside.
That’s why this Women’s History Month, I’m going to do my part to balance that narrative by highlighting stories of women who are the protagonists of their own lives. Women who might not be perfect but who have also not been victims; rather they have been leaders who made something happen. Women who for the most part might not even have made it into the history books, because after all, for the most part men have been deciding what’s important in history. Not surprisingly, that was usually themselves.
The black swan metaphor itself connotes a rare, unique, or nonexistent “bird,” something completely unpredictable that enters the scene and disrupts the flow of science, history, or the arts.
What better time than Women’s History Month 2011 to disrupt how women’s history is told and taught? Want to help?
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GLORIA FELDT is the New York Times bestselling author of several books including No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, a sought-after speaker and frequent contributor to major news outlets, and the Co-Founder and President of Take The Lead. People has called her “the voice of experience,” and among the many honors she has been given, Vanity Fair called her one of America’s “Top 200 Women Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers,” and Glamour chose her as a “Woman of the Year.”
As co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a leading women’s leadership nonprofit, her mission is to achieve gender parity by 2025 through innovative training programs, workshops, a groundbreaking 50 Women Can Change The World immersive, online courses, a free weekly newsletter, and events including a monthly Virtual Happy Hour program and a Take The Lead Day symposium that reached over 400,000 women globally in 2017.