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For me, this spring break somehow manifested itself as an unexpected exploration of the concept of the “strong female character” through the centuries. This all began Saturday night with a family trip to see Swan Lake, one of the most popular ballets (written in the late 19th century) which I used to watch constantly on TV as a young girl (although I preferred the animated movie version, The Swan Princess, which came out in 1994 and attempts something more of a feminist spin). In this version, when the prince is initially asked why he wants to marry Odette, he says “because she’s beautiful” and then “what else is there” after the priest deems his response unsuitable, to Odette’s horror. She leaves him, only for them to reunite when he saves her from her fate as a swan. Perhaps this turn of events dampens the strength of Odette’s earlier choice. Still, the original ballet portrays Odette as having no choices as opposed to one; she falls in love with the prince, is held captive by the evil Von Rothbart, the prince must save her, and that is that. Her beauty and grace are her only attributes, although as a ballet those attributes take priority. Yet we can’t help but feel bad for her, almost as if she has failed to live up to her potential; we don’t get to know Odette as her own person because her actions serve merely to either entice the prince or show displeasure at her captivity. She is trapped in her role both within the story and as a female character in a classic fairy tale, which selects her as an object to win and as peripheral to the prince.

So, in hopes of finding a more uplifting take on the female hero, I sat in the movie theater Wednesday afternoon ready to watch The Post, a recent blockbuster about the Pentagon Papers controversy. Within the movie, Meryl Streep’s character, Katharine Graham (based on the real-life Katharine Graham), must undergo her own transformation from an Odette to a Jessica Jones, yet both iterations of her character felt real, sometimes dishearteningly so. In the beginning, Graham found herself consistently seeking the advice and approval of her male peers when it came to running the newspaper, yet we can clearly see that she had the capability to make her own decisions. A movie scene in the boardroom depicts Graham as she attempts to share vital information while no one listens. Eventually, the scene shows a man saying the exact same words as Graham and receiving unanimous attention, which was particularly painful to watch. It’s easy to dismiss her strife as a past century’s problem, a won battle. But that scene didn’t feel distant. Only at the end of the movie, when Graham finally decides to give the go-ahead against the advice of the men she once followed, did the story become uplifting rather than tragic. In that moment, Katharine Graham’s exasperation over existing in the role selected for her by the surrounding men finally came to a head, and she set herself free. 

Spring break (and this journey) concluded with binge-watching the television series Jessica Jones (specifically season 2, which came out earlier this month). Some fans would venture to argue that Jessica embodies the concept of “strong female character.” Literally, physical strength is her power, and she also has trouble taking no for an answer. It’s important to note, however, that her ability to throw people across golf courses and lift refrigerators comes from the same place as her greatest weakness: her uncontrollable rage, which is often responsible for her worst mistakes. Yet there is something refreshing in Jessica’s rage, her unconstrained anger. So often we see female characters who contain themselves, suppress their discontent, or only present it in a palatable way. One of Jessica’s most interesting attributes is her subversion of this norm. She spends her days either hungover or downing whiskey from the bottle, threatening to punch the truth out of people as she attempts to simultaneously solve her own origin story and stop a killer on the loose. She comes across as uncivilized and crude as a woman can get (and would definitely die before you caught her dancing in a feathery tutu), but that’s what makes this show unique, even if it goes overboard at times. It's a show definitely worth watching, especially if you’re looking to balance out an 18th century ballet.

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