A memory came back to me recently. I was in my teens, standing with my hands on my hips and my elbows out. My mother came up behind me, tapped me on both elbows and told me I was taking up too much room and to put my arms down. I remember this happening multiple times over the years. I still sometimes find myself taking up this pose, then becoming aware that I am taking up space and dropping my arms.
The trigger for this memory came as I (re)read Rebecca Solnit’s essay “If I Were a Man” in her 2019 book “Whose Story Is This? Old Conflicts, New Chapters.” The essay is available via the Guardian if you want to read it yourself. Speaking of the space women occupy in the world, Solnit posed the question:
How do you think big when you’re supposed to not get in the way, not overstep your welcome, not overshadow or intimidate?
Solnit’s question left me wondering about the myriad of ways in which I have been (and continue to be) enculturated to believe that I don’t deserve to take up space: whether that is physical space, or having a voice, or power to impact on the trajectory of my own – and others – lives. Who would I be if I hadn’t internalised those messages to take up less room than the people around me? Who might I become if I move beyond my self imposed restrictions?
I recall the buzz among some of my female friends when the 2017 Wonder Woman movie was released. (I can’t help but notice that Wonder Woman was also quite fond of standing with her hands on her hips). One friend commented to me that she felt powerful as she emerged from the cinema, an unfamiliar experience, and wondered if this was what men felt like after most films they watched. Her statement led me to think about the impact that the media I was consuming might have on my sense of self and I began being more critical of the choices I was making.
Ever since I have adopted a set of guidelines which shape my choices when it comes to the movies and TV shows that I invest my time on. You might be familiar with the Bechdel test. My rule of thumb is that the lead protagonist must be a woman and her role in the narrative must be more than simply to support the storyline of the men around her as they work to achieve success. Wow, did that immediately narrow down the field dramatically! (Check out the Icelandic movie Woman at War for a great example of something that made the cut.)
More recently I have started to exclude options where the woman is portrayed as a sort of hapless fool, who bumbles through life having series of “adventures” caused by her own ineptness. There are many wonderful and enjoyable entries into this category (Rosehaven, Shrill, and Fleabag among them). However, I can’t help but notice how often this trope is used to give creators a reason to tell a story about a woman who chooses a life other than the “traditional” roles women are meant to pursue – love interest for a man, wife, mother. Only the “crazy cat ladies” are given licence to live interesting lives. That doesn’t leave much hope for women crafting interesting lives centred around our own competence to see ourselves reflected on the screen.
I long for more examples of women making decisions and seeing them through. Of women being successful and powerful. Bonus points if the protagonist is a woman of colour, has a disability, and is not neurotypical or straight. I dare you to scroll through the list of movies and series available to you on whatever platform you subscribe to and see what proportion of offerings remain. Why is it that successful women do not appear at least as often in movies centred around them as men do?
Feel free to add suggestions for anything you have watched recently that might fit the requirements. And make sure that at least once today you go stand with your hands on your hips for as long as you like. You (and I) are hereby permitted to take up enough space to live our best lives.