Why Can’t We Accept Women Who Are Both Strong And Beautiful?

Strong and Beautiful women

It’s the harassing voicemail at the beginning of the film that I just can’t shake—it’s so creepy. Have you seen Follow Through yet? It’s the new short film from REI and Duct Tape Then Beer about Caroline Gleich, a pro ski mountaineer who uses her social media platform to build her brand and business as an athlete. The film opens with a voicemail left for Caroline by a stalker, criticizing her as an athlete and public figure. That voicemail has echoed in my head for the last 48 hours as I’ve tried to figure out why—why would someone do that? Why do people find so much to criticize about Caroline and other women in similar positions? Why are we still doing this? Much of it seems to come down to this: We cannot, it seems, accept a woman who is badass and also attractive. Women in our culture must choose one or the other.

Director James Cameron made headlines last week with similar rhetoric, criticizing the new Wonder Woman movie—his main point was that being attractive automatically discounts Wonder Woman from doing something groundbreaking. (Side note: The day that a leading male character in a comic book movie is not also cast as a very traditionally attractive man like Hugh Jackman, Chris Hemsworth, and Robert Downey Jr., we might have an actual conversation.)

Yes, one of these stories is real and one is fiction, but they share something important: Both of them are about women chasing their dreams and going where women have not gone before,  and both of the starring women get blasted with criticism for the same thing: how they look. Would these same characters be undermined the same way if they were men? What if these same characters were doing exactly what they’re doing but were not traditionally good looking? Would their accomplishments be called into questioned the same way?

Being white, straight, cisgendered and good-looking obviously comes with its own set of privileges. When it comes to money, acceptance, sponsorship, acting roles, etc., we obviously still have a long way to go before we have an even playing field. (Watch The Mirnavator, if you’d like to see another angle to that subject.) But here’s the thing: None of these stories is the ultimate, perfect example of feminist progress—because they don’t have to be. They are simply stories of women working hard at what they believe in.

Confession: I have been judgmental about female athletes and public figures, too. The more I try to pay attention to my own biases, the more of them I notice. I hear that voice in my head taking note of something another woman wears, being critical. At the very same moment that my heart was leaping at Gal Gadot’s kick-ass fighting moves in Wonder Woman, I was also thinking, “Gee, it would have been cool if they’d cast a Wonder Woman with a bit more more muscle to her—bigger legs, more defined biceps.” I have fallen into the same mental traps that I despise, making judgments about people based on their appearance, how they dress, how much or little skin they decide to show.

Here’s why that’s such a problem: We need EVERY kind of strong woman. We need ALL of their stories.

And those strong women need our support, not our criticism. As if skiing through a no-fall zone that few have ever skied was not enough of a challenge, women like Caroline have the added struggle of doing so with a heap of criticism and bullying thrown on top because she’s a woman, because of how she looks, because she doesn’t fit the mold of what some people think a ski mountaineer should be like.

How a woman looks, how she dresses or portrays herself is only one aspect of her expression of her self. And it’s those people who reduce women down to that one aspect in their minds who are doing the objectifying. The fact that James Cameron only sees an “objectified icon” in Wonder Woman speaks to his own assumption that any woman who happens to be traditionally beautiful or—gasp!—sexy, must only be sexy, and not also potentially interesting, strong or complicated.

We need to get over our assumptions about strength and beauty and ability. Are we ready to start looking at women for their character, how they approach and overcome challenges, no matter what they look like?

3 Responses to Why Can’t We Accept Women Who Are Both Strong And Beautiful?

  1. Niki Y says:

    Hilary, I usually love your posts and agree with you whole heartedly, but here I have to disagree. While I understand the spirit of your argument you’ve picked the wrong person to use as an example. James Cameron went against all grain by using female characters who did not, and still do not, fit the Hollywood mold of ‘hot’ – Gal Godot does in every way.

    I’ve worked in the movie business for fourteen years – I’ve seen women’s wrinkles removed, moles and acne removed, even re-sculpted tummies and breasts – almost all Hollywood movies have done all they can to perfect the female figure. I need you to know that every frame of the movie Wonder Woman was skillfully crafted to be as cinematically perfect as it can be and to make Gal Godot as irresistible as possible, and I’m not sure why you are lauding this as power. And if you think the success of ‘Wonder Woman’ is due to the strength of the character and not wholly her beauty, than you have James Cameron to thank for that. In short, I find the success of Cameron’s movies showing women who aren’t looking ‘pretty’ way more impressive than Wonder Woman’s highly air brushed and stylized portrayal.

    Wonder Woman is a great film that moves women’s’ equality in the right direction, but it would have been harder to do with a woman who was not a former model and Miss Israel. Please don’t knock on the men who took the high road to help us get here.

    I do feel that even by feeling you have to write this post you’re not helping the topic. The horrible bullying that happened to Caroline happened to her because she was a woman, not because she is pretty, and by standing up for ‘being pretty and strong’ you’re actually drawing a line between women who are pretty and those who aren’t.

    Please feel free to email me with further thoughts, this is a topic I feel strong feelings about and am also trying to work through.

  2. Maureen says:

    Hi Hilary,
    I followed you here after reading the article you wrote on Dylan Jones https://www.outdoorresearch.com/blog/article/how-volunteering-for-adventure-scientists-sparked-an-adventure-writing-career, BTW a concise and well-written piece on the subject!
    I didn’t see any comments here, so I thought I’d bite and share what’s in my head! So . . . why can’t we accept women both strong and beautiful? A great question! Could envy have anything to do with it? I see it in myself sometimes, and it was refreshing to see you acknowledge the same reticence in yourself that you question in this article. Is this an attempt to “even the playing field” for those not so abundantly “blessed” by nature? And why does this limitation and judgement not also apply to men, as you clearly pointed out. Could it be that women indeed intrinsically start out with the ability to not only bring life into this world, but also to exert such a magnitude of early life influence? That’s a lot of power! How that power was exerted could have lingering ramifications to a grownup child’s view of the female, and how much power she is willing/allowed to yield and to display. Personally, as a young woman, while not a raving beauty, I received enough attention that I started to self-modulate my behavior so as to not draw inordinate attention to myself. Was it fear for lack of knowing what to do with the attention once I had it? Or was it a response to the societal taboo placed only on women to avoid too much attention? Is it a vestigial “cavewoman” instinctual self-protection behavior employed by the fittest and most desirable child-bearers in the group who were sought by numerous mates? Just some thoughts here!

  3. Maureen says:

    And how could I have omitted perhaps the most obvious reason? Most men are intimidated by the prospect of a woman invading the sacred space that “should” be held in reserve for them, most especially when coupled with the cognitive dissonance of her being an object of their desire! Many women play along with this protection of the male ego, but we do see that beginning to change.

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