When I was little (specifically ages 2–5), there were exactly two things I was afraid of.
One, I was afraid of Swiper from Dora the Explorer. Even though I knew he was fictional, I would have bad dreams that he’d come into my bedroom at night and take me away.
And two, I was afraid of Rosie the Riveter. Deathly afraid of her. (Yes, that Rosie the Riveter.) My parents had a poster of her hung up in my bedroom hallway, and every single night I would cover my eyes when I passed it. If I looked at it, I would become frightened and unable to sleep. She scared me so much because I thought she looked mean and angry, and her stance made me think she’d just try to beat me up if I ever got close to her (that is, if I ever saw her in real life).
In fact, I was so scared of her that I had a nickname for her. I didn’t know that her name was Rosie the Riveter. Instead, I thought she looked tough. So I called her “Tuff.”
Every time I would walk through that hallway at night and pass the poster, I’d fight the urge to turn my head. I didn’t want to see Tuff. I told my parents. They said Tuff was nice and good and that she was important for the world. I didn’t know why. To me, she just looked tough and scary.
They couldn’t figure out why Tuff made me feel so petrified.
Most people probably think I’m crazy. I mean, Rosie the Riveter is harmless, right? And she’s a total feminist icon.
But I didn’t know what feminism was at the time. Little did I know, though, that feminism would help me realize why I was so horribly afraid of Rosie the Riveter.
When I looked at that poster, my immediate instinct was to hide, or cover my eyes, or run into my bedroom and cower under my blankets. I didn’t want to look at her. She haunted my dreams. She seemed like the type of person who would hurt someone else.
But she wasn’t — she was fighting for women’s rights (or, she had in the past). And she was anything but mean or angry. She was kind, justice-seeking, admirable, strong, fierce. She’s the kind of woman that I would look up to today and commend for her fantastic leadership and activism. And for a while, in my adult life, I thought about this a lot. I racked my brain, trying to find reasons why I’d be afraid of this woman. What did she ever do to me? Why did I feel so threatened by her?
And for years, I couldn’t come up with any answers. Until last week, when I had a gigantic epiphany.
I was afraid of Tuff because she was just that: tough.
I didn’t really see many tough women when I was little. Most of the women I knew were other moms, family friends, or family. They were very stereotypically “feminine,” with long hair and “feminine” looking clothing. They were maternal and soft and gentle and bubbly. They smiled all the time. I never saw any of them holding up a fist with such a determined expression.
I just had never seen someone who looked like Tuff before. She was unique. And that scared me.
And then I started questioning myself. Why wasn’t I afraid of Superman? Or the Hulk, or the Joker, or the men wrestling that I saw on TV? When I saw those people, I didn’t bat an eye.
And you know why?
Because they were men. Because strong men are normalized. They are constantly portrayed in the media. The idea of a strong man saving a damsel in distress is an age-old tale. Movies and comics and cartoons were (and still are) filled with bodybuilder-like characters who swoop in with their special powers and rescue everyone else. They are the admirable ones, the ones all the little boys look up to. They’re normal. They are heroes.
Those men weren’t unique. Society was full of them. I saw them in the media all the time. They were in every book and they were on the screen every time I turned on the TV. They were even on the billboards (*ahem*, Mr. Clean). I saw those big, muscular, fierce, strong men way more than I ever saw any big, muscular, fierce, strong women.
And that, I realized, is why we need feminism.
We need feminism because now I love Rosie the Riveter. I think she’s fantastic. I wish my parents had kept that poster because I’d hang it in my room again now if I could, but sadly, they didn’t. I was even Rosie the Riveter for Halloween two years ago because I love her that much. And I want other girls to feel that love. I want other girls to see a strong woman in the media and admire her rather than being afraid. I want them to dream of her saving them and helping them and teaching them, rather than her attacking or hurting them. Because strong women aren’t harmful. They aren’t malicious or rude or horrifying. They are beautiful and self-assertive and determined and world-changing. And if society hadn’t failed me and all the other little girls back then, maybe I’d have grown up wanting to become Rosie the Riveter instead of wanting to fear her.
I now have friends who resemble Rosie the Riveter. They wear bandanas and have short hair and muscles and determined faces. They don’t look like most of the women that I saw in the media when I was growing up, but I love them for that. I want more women in my life like that. I respect every woman for whoever she is and whoever she wants to become.
So moving forward, I wish that we could have more representation of fierce, strong women in the media — especially those who don’t present as stereotypically “feminine” (and yes, it’s in quotations because femininity/masculinity and gender itself are all social constructs that we’ve tried to carve ourselves into). I want other little girls to grow up with those images, to grow up seeing those women, because they won’t think it’s out of the ordinary. They’ll grow up seeing those women and knowing one day that they could become them.
And sure, I’d venture to guess that there will still be plenty of girls who would rather grow up to become someone like Princess Jasmine or Elsa or Marilyn Monroe. There’s no problem with that, of course. Those women are still fierce and world-changing and beautiful. They may still be “feminine” presenting and smiled instead of putting their fist in the air, but they’re just as amazing.
The point is not that we need to take away any definition of womanhood and replace it with another; it’s that we need all types of women to be represented. The Tuff women. The BIPOC women, the strong women, the short-haired women. The women with lipstick, the women with huge thighs, the women with cellulite, the women with gigantic biceps. The women who wear bikinis and the women who wear shorts. The modest women and the not-so-modest ones. The presidential women and the maternal women and the pilot women and the nature-loving women. The LGBTQ women. The women who smile and the women who frown. The women who work and the women who fight and the women who create. The cisgender women and the transgender women (they’re women, too). The women who have disabilities. The wonderful women. They are all contributing to this world in so many fantastic different ways.
If I have children, I want them to grow up and know all of those women and more. I want them to love all of those women for who they are and what they do — not for how they look or how society perceives them.
I want them to know what they can be whoever they want to be. Strength is not a look, but a virtue, a mindset. Society has no say in how powerful or invincible or capable you are. It only feeds us false ideals. We don’t need to fit in their box. The world isn’t a box — it’s a sky full of wide open space to become whoever we want to be.
The younger generations deserve to know that.
And so do we.