Samantha Szuhaj: What of a woman's strength?

Tuesday, February 12, 2019 - 2:52pm

Watching Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, played by Felicity Jones, climb the steps of the Supreme Court moments before the credits rolled elicited not only an emotional reaction from the theater’s crowd, but also spurred my thinking on the emphasis on the recent portrayals of strong women in the media.

Looking back, the 2016 presidential election cycle brought this conversation to the forefront in a re-energized way. With a female candidate as the presidential nominee on a major party ticket for the first time, the conversation in the unending news cycle created a constant critique of what it meant to be a female leader. Hillary Clinton was under the media microscope facing gender-related commentary on her political approaches and decisions. After the elections came to a close, there was a tangible energy increase in American women and, since then, our media have sought to capture it.

Strong women have come to the forefront of television news, shows and movies. From two films coming out within the year about a Supreme Court justice who has championed gender equality on the legal front, to numerous female politicians announcing their candidacy for 2020, to actor Regina King vowing that everything she produces moving forward will be at least 50 percent female, being powerful and female is now, more than ever, a hot topic. This leads me to wonder: How can I be strong in my own right and what constitutes being strong according to this popular narrative?

According to Comedy Central’s satirical cartoon South Park, in which they have a character duly named the Vice Principal Strong Woman, this feminine persona is rooted in stubbornness and having qualities equal to that of a man. This interpretation, albeit very hyperbolic, of powerful women in society does hold a grain of truth. Women in positions of power are portrayed and evaluated on these characteristics and are generally, though not always, expected to comport in this limiting way.

So how do I as a college student fit into this narrative? What do strong women look like as young adults, still searching for their passions and places, instead of as professionals? Can we dare to break free from this mold, or has society in its championing of women already tried to do this?

I believe the idea of strength is entirely subjective and to be powerful can mean so many different things to people. The ability to perform equally to male peers can be approached in numerous ways, instead of the stereotypical way media presents it to us. Being strong can take form in silence, in being outgoing, in spearheading initiatives or in being a good team member. One does not have to embody the “Vice Principal Strong Woman” aura to be taken seriously.

So, as we move forward into 2019, I intend to answer Regina King’s call to lift up other women. Let’s encourage others to be comfortable in their own definitions of what strong is, instead of trying to emulate a societal meta-narrative. Let us rally behind female politicians as we move into the upcoming election cycle, not solely because they are women, but because they are individuals who deserve a candidacy without the white noise of subtle gender-based remarks and outfit critiques. Let us stand together and continue to contribute to the energizing wave of championing each other, instead of turning our backs.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg established herself as an independent, strong-willed woman in the 1950s. Today, she sits on the bench of the highest court in the land. The fight that she represents is not over, but rather renewed. We find ourselves riding on this new momentum of outspokenness for women’s rights and recognition, but must take note as to how to best contribute to this. Let us be aware of this expected mold that media urges female leaders and personalities to be and implore others to break free of these restraints. I am strong in my own right, and it may not be because I am stubborn or need to prove my capabilities. And all of those around me equally share this strength, regardless of their qualities — we just need to get rid of the narrative trying to tell us otherwise.

Samantha Szuhaj can be reached at szuhajs@umich.edu.