What Do Academy Awards Have to Do With Women’s History Month?

by Gloria Feldt on March 1st, 2011
in Know Your History and tagged , , , , , ,

No, I’m not talking about Melissa Leo’s use of that other-than-feminism “f-bomb” last night. 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 Brittain 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.”

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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 starts today, March 1? 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 month 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.

In keeping with No Excuses power tool #3, we’ll “use what we’ve got” to tell about power tool #1, “know your history.”

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?

Watch for posts here, along with a roundup of great posts from across the internet on Fridays. Subscribe to the 9 Ways blog to make sure you don’t miss any of them. Suggest women who you think deserve to be on these pages by leaving a comment below. Or, if you want to submit a guest post, ping me here.

Gloria Feldt

Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

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