Feisty Females Take Over Pop Culture


LOS ANGELES (ASRN.ORG)- Somewhere, Jane Austen is aghast. Queen Victoria is about to blow a gasket. And your sweet little great-grandmother, the one apt to blush when the word "corset" came up in mixed company, is positively apoplectic. 

These doyens of daintiness and decorum would doubtless be shocked, shamed and horrified by the female protagonists who have taken pop culture by storm: Feisty, reckless, rootless women increasingly dominate television, novels, film and music. 

They're not meek. They're not mild. They do as they please and they don't play well with others. They're misfits with moxie. And unlike the powerful female characters of a previous generation, they're not depicted as witches, shrews, hags, evil stepmothers or shriveled-up spinsters who eventually get their comeuppance.

From Grace Hanadarko ( Holly Hunter) in the cable series "Saving Grace" to Mary Shannon (Mary McCormack) in another cable series, "In Plain Sight," to the ticked-off, put-upon, fed-up woman in Carrie Underwood's country music hit "Before He Cheats" (2006), the new paradigm for fictional females is a cheeky, tough-talking, hard-drinking renegade with good biceps and a bad attitude. 

From Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson), the chief resident in ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" whose steely glare can turn an intern's insides to the consistency of cotton batting, to Nurse Jackie ( Edie Falco), the brusque, headstrong healer in the new Showtime series of the same name, these women aren't shy or humble. They want power. And when they get it, they like it. 

The new breed of brash, audacious woman has pushed into literature as well. Lisbeth Salander, heroine of the best-selling mystery novel "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," by the late Stieg Larsson, published last month in paperback by Vintage, is "prickly and irksome" but somehow still alluring: "She was like a nagging itch, repellent and at the same time tempting," the narrator notes. With her tattoos and her piercings and her heavy boots, she's no debutante. Instead, she's a brilliantly efficient investigator. Ditto for Darlene O'Hara in Peter De Jonge's "Shadows Still Remain" (2009), a sassy woman who breaks rules and gets results. 

To be sure, strong women characters have been around for centuries. Antigone was no slouch, and if you knew what was good for you, you didn't mess with Lady Macbeth. But what's new about the current pack of powerful females is that by and large they're not punished for their bold, pushy ways. They get by with their brassiness. From the singer Pink to Jada Pinkett Smith -- who plays a purposeful, principled nurse in the new cable series "Hawthorne" -- such women aren't forced to apologize for forthrightness and verve.

"The really revolutionary aspect of these [characters] is that they don't have to pay for their arrogance and tough mindedness and brashness with the usual penance and retribution," says Molly Haskell, film critic and author of "Frankly My Dear: 'Gone With the Wind' Revisited" (2009). "Television in general is much more hospitable ... to interesting, edgy women." 

Another fresh aspect of strong women in pop culture is their attractiveness and desirability. In previous incarnations, the tough gal often was depicted as a wallflower. In Hunter's breakthrough role in the 1987 film "Broadcast News," she was no Grace; her Jane Craig was dynamite on the job, but she fizzled out when it came to a personal life. That was typical: During the work week, this kind of woman may have been the boss -- but come Saturday night, she was stuck at home with her VCR and her cats. 

Nowadays, many female characters are both pugnacious and popular. Even with a smart mouth and comically poor housekeeping skills, Hunter's character in "Saving Grace" is not exactly hard up for male companionship. She has a rich and varied social life. She's a party girl, able to knock back a half-dozen Budweisers and fill up a trio of ashtrays in a single night, but somehow she's on time for work the next morning. McCormack's character in "In Plain Sight" is notoriously short-tempered and ill-mannered, but if you're in trouble, you want her in your corner. And she's dating a handsome pro athlete. In the current film " Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," Amy Adams portrays Amelia Earhart as bold, dauntless, daring -- and sexually aggressive with Ben Stiller's character. The self-confident Stephanie (Sandra Oh) in the 2004 film "Sideways" has no problem speaking her mind -- or filling her dance card. 

Why are such women showing up on our screens, pages and iPods? Tracking down a single tap root for a cultural shift is always tricky, but many of the works featuring powerful, alluring female characters -- such as "Nurse Jackie" and "Saving Grace" -- are created or produced by women. And some observers chalk up the change at least partially to the impressive showing by Sen. Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. Clinton didn't get the nomination, but she went further than has any previous female candidate. 

"I think Clinton is a sort of breakthrough figure, someone who initially inspired huge resistance and gradual, growing acceptance," Haskell says. 

Meg Wolitzer, an author whose novels feature complex female characters, says, "If tough, outspoken women have entered the cultural mainstream now, it would indeed seem to have something to do with Hillary -- or least with the churning times that led up to a Hillary ascendance. 

"When Hillary debated or campaigned . . . as a country we became comfortable with the idea that women could be strong and knowledgeable," adds Wolitzer, whose latest novel "The Ten-Year-Nap" (2008) was a best seller.

Yet neither Haskell nor Wolitzer is ready to say that intriguing female characters are the new norm. "We may not be comfortable yet with tough and outspoken women," says Wolitzer, "but we now finally know they live and walk among us and they often have a great deal to offer." 

Meanwhile, the feisty female continues to show up -- often without calling ahead and certainly without knocking. In Anita Brookner's new novel "Strangers" (Random House), a retired banker named Paul is offended by but still oddly drawn to Vicky Gardner, a vivacious, attractive divorcee of no fixed address. In many of Brookner's previous 23 novels, such women endured sad or tedious fates as they discovered the price of female freedom: isolation and loneliness. 

Gardner, however, who "saw no reason why her wishes should not be granted," who is depicted as "a life force, a prime mover," does just fine. She pleases herself, not a husband -- and doesn't suffer for it. 

Somewhere, Edith Wharton is choking on her scone.

Copyright 2009- American Society of Registered Nurses (ASRN.ORG)-All Rights Reserved 


Articles in this issue:


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    Editor-in Chief:
    Kirsten Nicole

    Editorial Staff:
    Kirsten Nicole
    Stan Kenyon
    Robyn Bowman
    Kimberly McNabb
    Lisa Gordon
    Stephanie Robinson

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    Stan Kenyon
    Liz Di Bernardo
    Cris Lobato
    Elisa Howard
    Susan Cramer

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