Women on the Warpath: Heroines and Stereotypes

This is also how gender stereotypes are transmitted, which constitute variants or specializations within gender roles. These fix feminine Y the masculine and they perpetuate a dichotomy based on supposed biological differences that presupposes differentiated attitudes and behaviors.

It was in 1798 when the French printer Didot created the term stereotype to refer to the process of duplicating pages. Later, it was used in Social Sciences to refer to the set of ideas that are repeated systematically to make a mental image of something or someone. They are, therefore, permanent cognitive structures that facilitate information processing (Naffziger and Naffziger 1974).

Along these lines, we all recognize the executive woman or the political activist as differentiated stereotypes of Western women. These cultural conventions are not necessarily subscribed by the entire population, but they do constitute expectations and standards that repeatedly swarm through the audiovisual products we consume, nurturing the collective imagination.

Recurring stereotypes from prehistory to dystopia

Stereotypical views of different historical periods or cultures have also been reproduced. For example, Vikings are portrayed as extremely violent and bloodthirsty; the “crazy 20s”, as a moment of generalized emergence of modernity and liberation of women.

In the same way, different models of women have also been reproduced, many times practically as characters assigned to specific historical periods: the medieval princess, the fatal Woman, the suffragette, the Victorian lady … These images are related to the socio-political context of the time, highlight specific aspects of femininity and are manifested through specific figures.

Even when they present an extremely vindictive character, as is the case of suffragettes, they participate in the prevailing gender roles (that is, these women continue to participate in the idea of ​​”femininity” that we have at that time).

Stereotypes in culture

Gender descriptors, stereotypes and roles change (Connell 1995) and this is reflected in our cultural industries. A few years ago, and in the case of cinema, for example, only protagonists like Princess Leia or Ripley in Alien, they were known. Today, the list is significantly higher and narratives featuring empowered women are encouraged, such as Mad Max: Fury Road O Wonder Woman.

Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman (Wonder Woman) in the series of the same name, 1976.

Instead, there are aspects that affect the representation of women that are maintained in different historical periods. We might think that representations of prehistoric women have nothing to do with representations of women in dystopian worlds and imagined futures. But there are aspects that are repeated in both narratives.

While most historical periods reinforce the norm of behavior and a traditional femininity, the stories related to Prehistory and dystopias seem to be configured as spaces of greater freedom and alien to our social norms. Despite this, their analysis allows us to identify certain aspects, such as hypersexualization, that put them in connection with current narratives.

Female sexuality has generally been conceptualized as a polarization of two opposite positions: a more conservative, neoliberal and puritanical one, which corresponds to the figure of the Virgin Mary; and another characterized by hypersexualization, associated with the biblical character of Eva.

Miniature by Berthold Furtmeyr from the missal of Bernhard von Rohr, Archbishop of Salzburg ca.1481.

Innocent heroines vs over-erotic figures

The pole of “Maria” is common to most historical stereotypes and also appears in science fiction. While it is true that it is positive that many heroines are not sexualized, behind this representation we often find discourses that respond to conservative patterns. On many occasions, the protagonist of the story is the one who is incompetent or innocent in terms of sexuality, thus extolling the values ​​of innocence, virtue and chastity. It is, for example, the case of Katniss Everdeen in the successful saga of The Hunger Games.

Although in science fiction and other genres the pole of Maria is common, sometimes we also find some hypersexualized heroines. The hypersexualized version of the heroine, although it is less frequent, is a distinctive characteristic precisely both of dystopian narratives (where the pole of “María” coexists with heroines) and of those based on prehistory.

Rachel Welch in the movie A million years ago ( Don Chaffey, 1966).

Thus, in both narratives we find the pole of “Eva”, which is characterized by the preponderance of images of sexualized women, sexual objects to be desired, admired, and ultimately possessed by men.

The protagonists of comics about prehistory as Sheena, the character played by Raquel Welch in A million years ago, o la Black widow, in the universe of superheroes, they are figures and superheroines that exemplify this over-eroticization.

Furthermore, many of these protagonists fulfill roles fundamentally associated with struggle and war; carry weapons and are exceptions in a world of men (see Cavewoman O Sheena.

One point to note is that, in both dystopian and prehistoric narratives, there is generally no room for non-normative bodies. That is, all the protagonists are white women who correspond to a very current ideal of beauty, characterized by long hair, thinness, etc. The clothing of these women highlights the curves and the female figure, either through a tight suit or directly showing the body.

In the case of non-real characters, such as those that appear in the comic, they present an exaggeration of feminine attributes, such as wasp waists and disproportionate breasts.

Can the stereotype be avoided?

Questioning normative conceptions about gender and other differences (class, race, sexuality, etc…) is extremely complex since when we try to dismantle certain stereotypes, we often end up reinforcing others.

We have seen, for example, that sometimes it is about empowering heroines by associating them with male roles and the use of weapons. What ends up happening, instead, is that these protagonists end up hypersexualized and focused on male consumption. A paradigmatic case could be that of Catwoman.

Halle Berry in the movie Catwoman (Pitof, 2004).

One might wonder if non-stereotyped characters are possible, given the audience’s need for identification with the characters.

Furthermore, the market provides these empowered women narratives to generate more consumption, and not to fundamentally alter social and political structures.

In the face of stereotypes (especially those that perpetuate obsolete gender roles), offering characters of strong women, with decision-making capacity (also in the sexual field, but on their own terms), is a positive step towards more diverse and inclusive cultural products . And it should not only be done with women, but also with men, through characters that question stereotypical or toxic masculinity, and stories that promote different scenarios and alternatives, representative of reality.

This article is the result of the cycle Investigation and Femininity: Stereotypes of women in contemporary culture, organized by the Delegation of the CSIC in Catalonia and the IMF-CSIC, held in February 2020 at the Researchers’ Residence in Barcelona.