(Written by Martha S.)
Why does Macbeth get to be a tragic figure, and Lady Macbeth the maligned instigator? Why is it a common sight in rom-coms for career-driven women to get “caught” by a romantic lead? Why are ambitious women so frequently tarred as bad people in narratives?
Look, if you’ve been around the blog at all you know I’m pretty passionate about gender dynamics in media – I’ve tried to make it an episode theme, but it feels too big right now, so it’s been back-burnered until I can get a better handle on it. Until then, it’s probably where my mind is going to go most frequently following an episode, especially when we don’t get a chance to touch on it while recording. In our last episode, we did briefly light on the subject of gendered ambition: specifically, that while ambition in general is usually a negative character trope, men are more frequently allowed to be ambitious (or driven, or passionate, or goal-oriented, whatever) than women without being narratively punished for it.
Women are culturally trained to think of all other women as competition. Because the world is constantly comparing us to each other, we grow up comparing ourselves to each other, and are usually trained to find ourselves the one that’s wanting. We’re not allowed to call ourselves the best, or to find ourselves the superior one – in an environment that demands that someone be “the best.” To do so is to be branded stuck up, conceited, a bitch. Ask any girl who’s accepted a compliment on a dating app how fast that turns into “You’re not actually that pretty.”
Media is a reflection of cultural attitude. So we get narratives with harpies, with shrill wives, with backstabbing mean girls, with cold career women who just need the right man to warm them up and put a baby in them. And you get people like me, who are going to shove the opposite narrative at you in the hopes that some day, by boosting these stories, we’ll drown out the people who say that girls can’t be friends.
Without further adieu: narratives featuring girls who are ambitious and also great.
Abigail Rook in the young adult series Jackaby by William Ritter, first book published in 2014. Abigail leaves her wealthy family in England to pursue a life that encompasses more than just playing the piano, getting married, and looking pretty. She is an aspiring archaeologist who becomes an accidental assistant to a supernatural investigator. Abigail’s ambition is interesting because it grows over the course of the series – in book one, she has mostly unformed desires to do something with her life, instead of being consigned to the house. She originally goes on an archaeological dig that ends up being mostly farce, and when she realizes that, she moves on to more and bigger opportunities.
Diana Prince, also known as Wonder Woman. Diana’s opening line in the 2017 film directed by Patty Jenkins is “I used to want to save the world.” Indeed, this origin story is not only about a woman dreaming of ending all war – it’s about the only woman who actually can. Her aspirations are noble and lofty, and the narrative makes it pretty damn clear that they’re attainable, as well.
Jane Grey in the 2016 novel My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows. This fantastical retelling of the story of Lady Jane Grey imagines Jane as an intellectual who prefers books to boys, who would rather use a sudden political opportunity to actually improve her home country than for personal gain, and ultimately as an alive person (which is less than what history gives her, I’m afraid). Jane discovers she has a taste for ambition when her family uses her as a political pawn, only to discover that she won’t be used for other people’s purposes – no, if she is to have power, she is going to use it the way she sees fit.
Judy Hopps in the 2016 animated film Zootopia, directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore. Judy Hopps is a bunny in a big world full of predators, and she defies all expectations to become the first bunny cop in the city of Zootopia. And she does so in a montage that makes me cry every time.
Peggy Olson from the critically acclaimed 2007 tv series Mad Men, created by Matthew Weiner. From the secretary pool to ad professional in her own right, Peggy is a great example of a lady that gets her career AND her man (spoilers for the end of Mad Men, I guess). She is also an example of a character that the internet doesn’t like very much! The internet can suck it, Peggy rules.