Many women, most more eloquent than I, have said this before, but I’ll add my voice to the chorus: representation matters. Seeing strong, complex women on our screens and in our books is important.
For some reason, I never thought of myself as someone who would be moved by the presence or absence of strong female role models in the movies and TV shows I watch. Perhaps it’s my individualistic tendencies. Perhaps it’s that I’m a graduate student and I think I should be above that influence. But it’s precisely because I’m a graduate student studying culture and communication that I should know that the stories we tell shape how we view the world.
Rey in The Force Awakens got me thinking about what it means to see women taking the lead in places that traditionally foreground the stories of men. What does it mean for young girls and grown women to finally see a woman who is strong and smart and capable of saving herself? If representation doesn’t matter, if the gender of the main character has no influence on the plot of the story or the way the story is perceived by the audience, then why are films primarily about men? Why don’t we give women the same attention? I’ll let you think of your answers to those questions; you’ve probably heard a few.
These trails of thought about gender and representation followed through into election season. The closer November 8th drew, the more I began to understand how radical it would be to elect a woman as president of the United States of America. Again, before this year, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about how electing a woman would influence me. But as I watched Hillary Clinton win the Democratic nomination, something changed. I didn’t know what dreams I wanted to dream about the place of women in this world until I saw a 68-year-old woman win a major party’s nomination for the first time in our history.
In December, I had the privilege of seeing Hamilton in Chicago. I’d listened to the soundtrack, I’d read the Hamiltome cover to cover, I follow Lin-Manuel Miranda on Twitter: Hamilton has captured my heart and imagination. I knew seeing the show live would be an emotional experience, but I wasn’t prepared for the particular ways it moved me. While listening to the soundtrack, I had always rooted for Alexander, the immigrant orphan who dreams of dying in glory. But when I watched the show, the characters who tugged at my heart the most were Angelica, Eliza, and Peggy Schuyler. I started crying when they sang their first notes, because I was overwhelmed by the mere presence of opinionated, complicated women in our nation’s revolution (and grateful for Miranda’s decision to include them so prominently in his musical).
I want to take their example and be one of those opinionated women in our century. I want to surround myself with other smart, determined women who are fighting and writing for change. I want to nag the authors of histories and anthologies to stop excluding women and people of color. I want to help the women around me achieve more and live more fully into their dreams instead of competing with them. I want to support films and TV shows and books that tell the stories of women (Hidden Figures is at the top of my to watch, I’ve heard great things). I want to be loud about what hurts me and makes me happy and not apologize for the disruption.
Women like Rey and Hillary Clinton and the Schuyler sisters help me realize that I want these things for myself. They ignite dreams.