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The New Heroines

A dialogue about teen and YA heroines in pop culture.

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nonfiction

Amy Poehler · Smart Girl

You may have heard of this female hero from shows like Saturday Night Live or Parks and Recreation. You may also know her from Chicago’s Second City or for Broad City, a show she produced. If you don’t know about any of this, you probably know her as Tina Fey’s TV wife. Yes, I’m talking about Amy Meredith Poehler.

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Amy Poehler was born in Newton, Massachusetts in 1971. When she attended Boston College, she joined an improv troupe called My Mother’s Fleabag. This is where it all started. After graduation, she moved to Chicago and joined Second City—as well as Improv Olympic—and became friends with Tina Fey. After Second City, Amy moved to New York City to create the comedy troupe known as Upright Citizens Brigade. After the success of the UCB Theatre that came out of this troupe, Amy joined Saturday Night Live. Her first episode was the one immediately after 9/11. One can imagine how nerve racking that must have been, but she killed it. The episode was a huge success.

Saturday Night Live gave her the fame she deserved. She and Tina Fey were a power duo on that show, starring in Weekend Update together, as well as many other skits. She began to star in hilarious films and created her own show called Parks and Recreation that became a big hit, which brought her higher up in the comedy social class. From this, she became known as Amy Poehler—not Amy Poehler from Saturday Night Live. She used her fame to empower girls and women all over the world. Her character on Parks and Recreation was a new type of woman that has almost never been depicted in television and film. She was a strong, independent woman who was able to be thought of as a hero without the help of a male counterpart. She gave everyone the idea of working in teams. Her character, Leslie Knope, told viewers to find their teams. Teams are heroes in themselves.

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Then, Amy (and Meredith Walker) founded Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls organization. The organization, according to the website, is dedicated to helping young people cultivate their authentic selves. They tell people that intelligence, imagination, and confidence in themselves is more important than fitting in. Aside from the movies she’s currently working on and the shows she’s producing, this organization is where most of her time goes to.

So, what are two theoretical frameworks that relate to Amy Poehler as a heroine, you ask? One is feminist criticism, which gives a feminist outlook on analyzing how males and females relate to each other in the world. It also talks about oppression of women in real life and how women are depicted in literature. Barry states, “The ‘women’s movement’ of the 1960s was not, of course, the start of feminism. Rather, it was a renewal of an old tradition of thought and action already possessing its classic books which had diagnosed the problem of women’s inequality in society, and (in some cases) proposed solutions” (116). Well, Amy Poehler is the definition of feminist criticism. She created Leslie Knope, a person who only analyzes every single thing she does as a feminist criticist. Every episode has Leslie questioning why an antagonist on the show is speaking down to her. Every time a character tries to look at her with a male gaze perspective, she turns them down and talks about how women are not the misogynistic stereotypes that are given to them. In one of the episodes “The Debate,” an episode Amy contributed on writing, Leslie debates against Bobby Newport, the other candidate for city council. Any time Bobby says something (which never actually makes sense), everyone cheers and applauds for him. Any time Leslie speaks and gives her opinion on something (which is always the one that makes sense), everyone criticizes her. She based this off of real life situations where women are called bitches for giving the same opinions that men give or for giving any opinions at all. An example of this would be with Hillary Clinton. Hillary and Bernie Sanders gave a lot of the same opinions, and people only called Hillary a bitch. Everyone thought Bernie was being strong for expressing his opinions. Amy Poehler uses feminist criticism to write episodes like this. She shows through satire that women have been seen through the male gaze in television and in life for years, until shows like Parks and Recreation.

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The other theoretical framework is structuralism, which is the analysis of human understanding, experiences, and culture. Barry says that the “structures in question here are those imposed by our way of perceiving the world and organizing experience, rather than objective entities already existing in the external world. It follows from this that meaning or significance isn’t a kind of core or essence inside things: rather, meaning is always outside” (38). Amy Poehler relates to this through the work she has done with Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls. The organization is dedicated to helping young people cultivate their authentic selves, which means it has been doing more for young people than schools have. The United States school system hasn’t been doing a great job at telling students that their imagination is one of the most important parts of them. Amy Poehler has been doing her best to prove that imagination is key. Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls has analyzed the culture and experiences of young people—mostly girls and women—to figure out what it is that motivates them. They show off the work of women and girls on their social media accounts, so that these people know that someone out there is proud of them. They aren’t compared to the boys; they’re just themselves. Amy uses structuralism to find out what it is about the different cultures and experiences that these girls and women encounter that is so important for other people to know. She makes a huge difference in this world, not only as a comedian (which is my kind of a hero), but as a woman who supports other women.

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Mastani – Fearlessly Taking What She Wants

I am a huge fan of Bollywood. Like, huge. It all started when I ran out of western musicals and had to turn my eye to different parts of the world. The very first Bollywood musical I ever watched was Bajirao Mastani. It takes place in the early 18th century in the Maratha Empire. The movie follows the life of real historical figure, Bajirao. I am warning you right now, this blog post is going to contain heavy spoilers.

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Bajirao was named Peshwa (think Prime Minister) at the age of twenty, much to the joy of his wife, Kashibai. Over time, Bajirao gains a fearsome reputation as he has never lost a battle. Not only that, but most leaders of rival armies refuse to meet with for fear he will outwit them. Ten years after being named Peshwa, Bajirao is traveling home after another successful campaign. He is intercepted by a rogue soldier who bursts into his tent and attacks his gaurds.  In the resulting fight it is revealed that the soldier is actually Princess Mastani. She has come to demand aid for her kingdom, Bundelkhand, which is under attack. A skilled fighter, rider, and strategist, Mastani decided to come ask for Bajirao’s help herself, rather than sending any soldiers who could be used to defend Bundelkhand. Bajirao refuses. Mastani tells him that either he helps or he kills her because she did not intend to return to her people a failure. Finally he is convinced and the two fight together, saving her people and kingdom.

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On the battlefield and ensuing days of celebration, Mastani and Bajirao begin to fall in love. But Bajirao knows the two can never be together, and decides to return home to his people, his wife, and his family. Mastani is not deterred, however. She knows that she and Bajirao belong to one another, and so follows Bajirao to the Maratha Empire. There she convinces Bajirao to take her as his second wife. But there is one glaring problem. Mastani is a muslim in a Hindu land. She is constantly under threat due to her religion. Bajirao send assisins after her and her son, lock her away in her own home, and even demand that Bajirao either give up his title of Peshwa or Mastani. The two are never deterred however, and stay strong together. The story sadly ends with Bajirao dying of fever, and Mastani dying of heartbreak not long after.

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Now, one question that I had once I finished Bajirao Mastani is whether it is a feminist movie or not. Anyone who knows me can tell you that feminism in our media is extremely important to me. I don’t stand for movies and tv shows that feel the need to bash on women or exclude them all together. After some consideration and time, I decided that yes, Bajirao Mastani is indeed a feminist movie. This might seem odd since the movie is all about a man with two wives and the conflict that arises between said wives. But that’s the truly magical thing about Bajirao Mastani.

Toril Moi discusses feminism and feminist books in her essay “Feminist, Female, and Feminine”. In it she says that “the very fact of being female does not necessarily guarantee a feminist approach” (120). So, we know that simply having women in your movie doesn’t make it a feminist movie. There has to be an intent. I would say that Bajirao Mastani has that intent. Let’s look as Mastani herself, as she is meant to be the focus of this blog post.

Mastani is a dancer.

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She a singer.

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She a warrior.

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She is a woman deeply in love.

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At no point in the movie is she pushed to the background or portrayed as some idiot girl chasing an older man. Mastani exudes confidence. She knows exactly who she is and what she wants. She is not afraid to chase Bajirao, because why would she be? She wants him and so will have him. Mastani faces extreme adversity because of this decision, but the movie shows her as fearless, not foolish.

A prime example of this is when she and Bajirao meet for the very first time.

There aren’t subtitles (sorry) but you can still tell what’s happening. Mastani just burst through Bajirao’s tent, attacked his men, beat his men and even drew a sword against the great Peshwa himself. That takes guts and determination. The two face off in a battle of wits, and eventually Bajirao gives in. He agrees to help Mastani’s people. Mastani is not afraid to take. In this way she stands apart from most female characters. Usually they beg and plead, using sex appeal to get what they want. But Mastani goes in and demands it. She is not afraid to show her skill and confidence. She is not afraid to challenge the men in her life, even ones as famous and fearsome as Bajirao.

But what about Kashibai? She is Bajirao’s first wife and his best friend of many years. She and Mastani surely get into at least one cat fight, right? They blame each other for the grief they deal with, right? They are constantly at each other’s throats, right? Well… no. Certainly Kashibai is resentful of Mastani. But for the most part they are very respectful to each other. They even end up singing together about how painful it is to love a man who can never fully belong to either of them. They never become best friends. But neither wants any sort of misfortune to come to the other.

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I agree with Moi when she says that “it is just not possible to say that woman-centered writings have any necessary relationship to feminism” (120). In my opinion, Mastani fits the brief of a feminist female character. Yes, a good portion of the movie is dedicated to her chasing a man, but so what? She loves him. And in all other aspects she is a total badass.

Another lense to view Mastani through is the concept of otherness from postcolonialism. This one is interesting, because India eventually becomes a colony itself, but this move takes place pretty much right before that. However, we still see otherness in Bajirao Mastani.

The concept of the “Other” can be found in Peter Barry’s book Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. On page 186 he discusses how the colonizing group will often treat the culture of the colonized group as lesser than. The native language and religion are forced out in favor the invading language and religion. Any attachment to the old ways is frowned on, and often attacked with extreme prejudice.

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This sort of behavior is easy to find in the way Mastani is treated. She is a Muslim woman in a Hindu land. The scene that best shows this is when Mastani is forced to fight off assassins who have come for her and her son, who is also Muslim.

The scene cuts between Mastami fighting and Bajirao at a Hindu ceremony. This perfectly shows that she is separate from him and his culture. Because she is Muslim she would not attend ceremonies with him. This means that she and her son are alone, vulnerable to attack. She nearly loses her life in the end, overwhelmed by the sheer number of attackers. The only thing that saves her is Kashibai telling Bajirao about the assassins, sending him to save his second wife. Mastami is almost killed for her religious beliefs. If that isn’t an example of other I don’t know what is.

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In conclusion, Mastani is a total badass, feminist icon. Even though she is from a time period far in the past, Mastani is still a character that young girls could and should look up to. In a world here women are punished for going after what they want and encouraged to back down when things get hard, Mastani is a breath of fresh air. She looks at all those nay sayers, laughs in their faces and then skips off to fight along side her awesome husband. She is a force to be reckoned with and would never accept being second fiddle. Any man who faces her has an up hill battle as she is more than willing to use her skills with a sword, her wit, and her beauty to take what is hers.

Chihiro Ogino “Sen”: Spirited Away

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The film, Spirited Away was released on 20 July 2001, and became the most successful film in Japanese history, grossing over $289 million worldwide and receiving widespread praise. The film overtook Titanic (which was top-grossing film worldwide at the time) in the Japanese box office to become the highest-grossing film in Japanese history with a ¥30.4 billion total. Spirited Away is frequently ranked among the greatest animated films. It won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards, making it the only hand drawn animated film and Japanese animated film to win best animated film at the Golden Bear located at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2002.

The writer and director, Hayao Miyazaki, wrote the script after he decided the film would be based on the 10-year-old daughter of his friend, associate producer Seiji Okuda, who came to visit his house each summer. At the time, Miyazaki was developing two personal projects, but they were soon rejected. With a budget of $19 million US dollars, production of Spirited Away began in 2000. During production, Miyazaki realized the film would be over three hours long and decided to cut out several parts of the story. Pixar director John Lasseter, a fan of Miyazaki, was approached by Walt Disney Pictures to supervise an English translation for the film when released in North America. Lasseter hired Kirk Wise as director and Donald W. Ernest as producer of the adaptation. Screenwriters Cindy Davis Hewitt and Donald H. Hewitt wrote the English dialogue, which they wrote to match the characters’ original Japanese lip movements.

Chihiro Ogino, mainly known as Sen throughout the film is a 10 year old girl traveling with her mother and father to their new house in a new neighborhood. Chihiro’s growth into a capable individual is a core factor to the movement of Spirited Away’s plot. During her adventure in the Spirit World, she matures from an easily-scared girl with a child-like personality to match her age, to a hard-working, responsible, and brave young girl who has learned to put her fears aside for those she cares for. To protect her friends and rescue her parents from a spell that has turned them into livestock (pigs), Chihiro sheds her former personality and adapts to her environment to become a courageous, quick-witted and reliable girl.

One key point that Chihiro/ Sen deals with throughout the film is Psychoanalysis. This is defined as investigating interactions between the conscious and unconscious elements. Relating this to Chihiro, She is torn between the known world and the unknown world and what she knows versus what she sees in the Spirit World. Chihiro has an inner battle with emotions, challenges, tasks, and acceptance that over the course of time, she faces and learns from.

Another factor Chihiro faces is Feminist Criticism. This is defined as the perspective of writing through a feminist perspective and how women are portrayed and how males and females relate to each other. As a girl who is especially young compared to all those around her in the Spirit World, she is looked upon to be weak, whiny, easily-scared, and childish. To those in the bathhouse, that is as expected for a human girl. But, as the storyline continues from the beginning, middle, to end, Chihiro grows to become the hero to the spirits and workers in the Spirit World. After the task Yubaba gave her with the Stink Spirit, everyone saw Chihiro’s potential to be a good asset to the bathhouse and maybe she is not so worthless after all.

The story begins with Chihiro and her mother, Yuko Ogino and father, Akio Ogino, moving to their new neighborhood. They came across a dirt road that they thought would be a shortcut to their house but was the complete opposite. They came across an old building and Chihiro’s parents decide to take a look into it. Chihiro had a bad feeling and wanted to leave, but her parents just kept walking. She finally entered the building and that is when the story begins. This was the Call to Adventure. But when Chihiro refused to enter but got frightened by the statue in front of the building, it was the representation of the Refusal of the Call.

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The first Mentor Chihiro meets is Haku who is a spirit and worker to the bathhouse. Haku is Yubaba’s apprentice and second-in-command at the Bathhouse. He seems to be a bit older than Chihiro, about 12 years old, although since he is the spirit of the Kohaku River, he is truly as old as his river is, which, in the Japanese version, is still flowing underneath the apartments now built over it. As a River Spirit, he has the ability to transform into a beautiful, silver dragon, which is an animal commonly associated with rivers and water in Japanese culture and mythology.  He can fly and seems to have the ability to change between his human and dragon forms at will.

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Chihiro is sent by Haku to the boiler room to get a job because that’s the only way she would be able to free her parents. There, she meets Kamaji who is “the slave to the boilers” who heat the baths in the bathhouse. After some persuasion, he allows Chihiro to work at the bathhouse and even pretends to be her grandfather when questioned by Lin, to protect her, though this ruse does not stand for long. Kamaji represents one of the Side Kicks in the hero’s journey.

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Another helper/ Side Kick in the movie was Lin. Lin first appears in the boiler room, bringing Kamaji his dinner and feeding the Susuwatari (soot that got a spell casted upon them by Kamaji to work for him). When she sees Chihiro, she’s shocked, but Kamaji claims that Chihiro is his granddaughter and convinces Lin to take her to Yubaba by offering her a roasted newt. Lin takes Chihiro through the bathhouse to an elevator but, is held back by another worker of the bathhouse due to smelling like a human. Chihiro gets help from the Radish Spirit who, without speaking, help hide and take Chihiro up to Yubaba’s top floor.

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Yubaba is a witch and owner of the bathhouse. Her magical capabilities have allowed her to “steal” the names of her workers, binding them in a contract to her bathhouse forever unless they manage to miraculously recall their full names (the only two people seen doing so are Haku and Chihiro, both of which relied on each other to remember). In doing so, in order for Chihiro to get a job at the bathhouse to save her parents, Chihiro has to sign a contract with Yubaba. Yubaba then steals her name and she is now called Sen. This is when Chihiro truly Crosses the Threshold and becomes Sen, the human girl who is working at the bathhouse.

Sen is faced with many tasks and challenges (Inmost Cave/ Approach & Ordeal) throughout the film that lead to her becoming more confident in herself and who she is as well as gaining the respect and acceptance from everyone in the bathhouse (Reward). Though her hero’s journey may not be in the correct order throughout the films story, it still follows each steps roughly accurately.

Though she may be a 10 year old human girl, Chihiro/ Sen proves to everyone, especially herself, that there is nothing to be afraid of and that there will always be someone to help guide her, and show her who she truly is just by helping her take that first step into the unknown.

 

Can we Coexist in Two Worlds?

In the documentary He Named Me Malala, Malala is shown as a girl caught in the middle of two conflicting cultural identities. After Malala was shot by the Taliban, her family relocated to England. Life in England represents western ideals, which is completely different from her home country of Pakistan. The media portrays Malala as a western hero but that isn’t entirely true. About 45 minutes into the documentary, Malala is shown having a difficult time adjusting to her British school. Even though Malala is immersed in British society, she does not want to give up her home beliefs and values. It is a remarkably challenging task to try to be engaged in two utterly different cultures. Malala wants people to realize that she still represents her Pashtun culture. Can her two worlds peacefully coexist?

 

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About an hour into the documentary, there is a scene that displays citizens (mostly men) of Pakistan being interviewed on how they feel about Malala. During this part of He Named Me Malala, I realized how many people in her home country are not happy with her. One man said, “Malala represents the theme of the west” and another man said, “It’s a publicity stunt… she’s just a girl, she doesn’t know anything.”

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I could not believe what people were saying about her! Malala is just a teenage girl who fights for education, yet still stays true to her roots of Pakistan and continues to follow her Pashtun culture, while in England. How can Malala truly have her two different worlds coexist when people have these negative views of her? That can absolutely create a cultural identity crisis. Malala represents a double identity; she has two different cultures influencing her and they try to come together, but as we see, that is a difficult thing to do.

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Regardless of the challenges that comes with having a double identity and facing two conflicting worlds, Malala does her best to peacefully work with both and does not let fear get in her way. Living in England will not stop Malala with working with her home country of Pakistan, even if there are people threatening her. And for that, I think that we can only commend Malala for her courage and fortitude.

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The Girl Who is Afraid of Nothing

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Watching the film, He Named Me Malala, is immensely influential for all YA viewers. This documentary tells the story of a girl, Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban because she went against their beliefs and tried to stand up for women’s rights and education. Malala survived that traumatic experience and to this day, still advocates for women’s and children’s rights to education.

This documentary is extremely interesting to watch, through a feminist lens. When analyzing a piece of work through feminist criticism, we revalue women’s experiences. Feminist critics examine power relations, with a view to breaking them down, seeing a political act, and showing the extent of patriarchy. Watching He Named Me Malala through a feminist lens is empowering because as viewers, we get to witness how strong patriarchy is in Pakistan and how Malala challenges her country’s current state.

Around 30 minutes into the documentary, Malala narrates the many discussions she has had with her mom, regarding women being respectful to men. Malala’s mother always told her, “Don’t shake hands with men, look down, don’t look at men, it’s a shame.” In response to that, Malala says, “If men can look at me, why can’t I look at them?” Malala’s mom would also say, “Cover your face, people won’t think you are a nice girl.” To this comment, Malala says, “Covering my face made me feel like I was hiding my identity and who I was.” I thought this scene was so eye-opening because you can hear how much the patriarchy of Pakistan has shaped Malala’s mother’s beliefs. Of course, Malala’s mother is not the only woman who thinks like this. That is why Malala is challenging the current narrative of Pakistan and trying to make a change.

Throughout the film, Malala is shown trying to fight for women’s rights to education. Malala tries to start a political act by encouraging girls to stay in school, which is hugely inspiring. About an hour into the documentary, Malala skypes with girls in Pakistan and tries to encourage them to stay in school. She also goes around to different schools to explain how important education is and tries to empower young girls. As a viewer of this documentary, I felt empowered and inspired by Malala’s words and passions. It made me want to jump in the screen, stand by her side, and fight with her.

Overall, I would highly recommend the documentary, He Named Me Malala. Through a feminist lens, this film makes you realize how strong patriarchy is in some places in our world and how women have a huge disadvantage when it comes to their rights and education. Watching He Named Me Malala, will probably make you want to meet Malala Yousafzai and work alongside her.

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