According to the guidelines set out by my classical Christian high school, a gentleman “serves the Lord.” A lady “fears the Lord.” This is laid out in a little chart at the front of the student handbook, called the “Honor Code,” with subheadings “The Word of a Man” and “The Way of a Lady,” meant to exude old-world charm and elicit fond memories of chivalry. Classical Christian education trades on this kind of anachronistic nostalgia, wooing families with promises that their children will learn to stand up straight in blazers and dress shoes, conjugate Latin verbs, and says “sir” and “ma’am.” It comes from a love of tradition, a longing for the way things used to be, which is innocent enough, until it isn’t.
Many students treated the Honor Code like the rest of the front matter, like filler. But I flipped to the front of my day planner and stared at it often enough to make myself both angry and anxious. Some days it made me want to punch through a wall in rebellion. Other days, the knot in my stomach whispered that I was doing it all wrong.Representation matters. Seeing someone who looks like you in an important role can rewrite the possibilities for your life.
There I learned that a lady should be “chaste, reverent, gentle, quiet, gracious, adept in small things.” That she “encourages virtue, loves beauty, adorns her world, serves and supports.” That she “fears the Lord.” Some virtues, like courage or integrity, were commended to both genders, but then qualified to mean different things for men than for women. Following the Honor Code for a woman often looked like walking a tightrope: “She is persuasive but not forceful, and she respects those in authority over her.” “She is honest and forthright, but not confrontational.” She “is always mindful of her Lord, and his line of authority (Christ, church, government, father, mother).” A woman could do things in the kingdom of God, as long as she kept her head bowed and her tone sweet and stayed in a supporting role.
When I asked an administrator visiting our classroom about the gender differences in the Honor Code, he turned out to the class and answered my question with a question. “Ladies, isn’t the man described in the Honor Code the kind of man you might want to marry? And young men, isn’t the lady described there the kind of woman you might want to marry?” I wanted to know why God wanted me to be demure, but what I heard was that men wanted me to be.
Young men, on the contrary, were called to be “driven and diligent.” An honorable man “has a strong sense of duty” and “paces himself to endure.” He “is responsible and takes ownership for tasks.” He “is always acting with a sense of purpose.” The Honor Code did not offer this active language to women, and we could see this disparity reflected in the paths available to the women of our community. Our in-class discussion about whether it was theologically appropriate to have a female president never reached a conclusion. I had great female teachers, but there were no women in the administration, and none on the board, and none in the clergy of the churches represented at the school. In general, women taught elementary school and men taught high school. There were moms helping out in every classroom, of course. Women were an important part of the story, we were told. But they were never the heroes of the story. They served, supported, adorned.
One of evangelical culture’s favorite movies at the time was 1987’s The Princess Bride. Secular but relatively family-friendly, full of wit and swashbuckling action, the sprightly ode to traditional marriage was a youth group lock-in mainstay. The film is, of course, not about the eponymous bride at all, but about her suitor and savior, Westley. Played by the dashing Cary Elwes, Westley is brains and brawn: a quick wit and a wrestler, a romantic and a swordsman, a fearsome pirate who can withstand torture and deliver a mean monologue when he needs to. He uses every aspect of his strength and cunning to rescue his princess. What do we know about the object of his quest, Princess Buttercup? Well, she has… “perfect breasts.” She is a cipher, kidnapped when the plot needs her to be kidnapped. She’s at the center of the story, but the story happens to her, around her, and the only actions she takes, Westley leads. She’s limp and imprecise as a character, but she’s beautiful, and she inspires heroism, and shouldn’t that be enough?
In my community growing up, the premier texts on masculinity and femininity were by John and Stasi Eldredge: 2001’s Wild at Heart (for men), and 2005’s Captivating (for women). In Wild at Heart, John tells us what men want: “In the heart of every man is a desperate desire for a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue.” John and Stasi’s Captivating, on the other hand, tells us that “every woman longs for three things: to be swept up into a romance, to play an irreplaceable role in a great adventure, and to be the Beauty of the story.” These map nicely onto the story of The Princess Bride. A man fights, adventures, rescues; a woman gets swept up, plays an irreplaceable role, is beautiful. All three key desires of men are expressed as actions. Of the three longings of a woman, the first is passive, the second allows only for “playing a role” in an action, and the third is expressed in a verb of being. Men act, women are. The Christian culture of my youth told women, “You’re irreplaceable! You’re the beauty of the story! You’re important,” all while robbing women of examples that might help them see themselves as true agents in the Kingdom of God.
A fictional bride helped me be a better woman, but it wasn’t Princess Buttercup. It was The Bride (Uma Thurman), the furious hero of Quentin Tarantino’s two-part revenge epic Kill Bill. The film follows the story of a former killer, known only as The Bride, whose wedding rehearsal was interrupted by an assassin squad who murdered everyone in the chapel— except for her. When she awakens from a coma, she makes it her mission to find and kill the ones who did this to her. She slays scores of men in a single fight, plucks out eyeballs, and punches her way out of a buried coffin. She trains hard and runs and pants and screams, laser focused on the task before her, often covered in sweat and dirt and blood. Her skills may be larger than life, but she’s a human being through and through, determined and vulnerable. Though she’s likely John and Stasi Eldredge’s nightmare, she’s certainly both wild at heart and captivating. She is an action hero in the fullest sense of the term: She is the one who acts. And watching her was a downright revelation for an anxious woman like me.
My husband has observed that Kill Bill is one of the few films in which he has truly identified with a female protagonist. He describes feeling that he isn’t watching a woman from the outside, but rather experiencing the story from her perspective, wanting the things she wants—the way he would feel about a well-written male protagonist. Uma Thurman is beautiful, but in Kill Bill, gazing at her is never the point—instead we are fearing with her, fighting with her. Another film would have cast a woman as a stunt, put her in a catsuit, and photographed her with a smarmy “look-it’s-a-girl” sensibility. But the Bride is not there for men to ogle and not as a novelty; she is there because the story is about her. In a radical, all-too-rare kind of filmmaking, Tarantino invites the viewer to experience every struggle from her point of view. She’s not the “Strong Female Character™” we’re so often given, glamorous but ultimately generic. She’s a strong person, period. Growing up, that was never something I thought was possible for me.
I didn’t need any classical administrators or bestsellers on biblical femininity to tell me how many ways there were to get it wrong. The spirit of fear was in my bones before anyone could teach it to me. I have suffered from anxiety all my life. I was diagnosed with panic disorder when I was 22. It was this year that I failed to graduate college on time, this year that I nearly lost my barista job, because I could not shut off the part of my brain that said that I was weak and worthless. The spirit of fear came over me in waves of panic that left me crying, shaking, useless. I spent my days shooting off desperate prayers that I wouldn’t screw things up too badly this time. Any Christian familiar with the symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder knows that “take every thought captive to Christ” can descend into a kind of scrupulous madness, the kind that Martin Luther experienced as a fretful monk who hardly left the confessional.
The language I had been given to describe the female life of virtue was a passive language. If you’ve never had the opportunity to envision yourself as a hero, or even as an agent, what are you meant to do when confronted with a problem that requires action?
Second Timothy 1:7 tells us that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
The idea of empowerment makes Christians nervous. Ours is a religion of humility and sacrifice, after all, not of pride and power. But Christ humbled the proud and raised up the weak—“the last shall be first” sounds pretty empowering to me. So do the healings, and the commands to “go and sin no more.” To borrow the words of Finley Peter Dunne, Jesus “comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable.” And if we look at the character of Jesus, we see not a drop of mewling insecurity about him. He knew who he was, where his strength came from, and what he had to do. Kindness and mercy require a seat of confidence, the belief that you have something to offer, a well from which to draw, a right to the space you occupy.
Without that assurance, women flounder. I felt a pang of recognition when I read that The Atlantic had identified a “confidence gap” between men and women in the workplace. In Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s report, they detail their findings that women lose out on opportunities for advancement and leadership because they underestimate their abilities. Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 blockbuster nonfiction book Lean In identified the same issue: women let fear hold them back from accomplishment. This problem in the corporate world can be just as troublesome in the Kingdom of God. The prayer popularly known as “The Prayer of St. Francis” asks that we “seek not so much to be consoled as to console; not so much to be understood as to understand; not so much to be loved as to love.” The prayer discourages passive verbs, calling us instead to the active form of those same words.
There is a Christian case for confidence as the bedrock of an ethical, industrious life. Worry and doubt pull our focus inward and away from others. Consider Bonheoffer’s idea that “being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.” Or the idea that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), or the apostle Paul’s call to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1–3). There is, frankly, so much to do in the Christian life, and we do not have enough stories in our culture that show women doing much of anything.
Enter Uma. Yes, The Bride is a figure of vengeance, with bloody ethics that leave no room for mercy. No one’s suggesting a youth group screening. But Uma Thurman’s performance in Tarantino’s films helped teach me a language for effort and power and excellence. I have never been at ease with the way that Christians use war imagery, but in this case I started to understand where it might be useful. Seeing myself as a warrior was more than I had ever allowed or imagined, and there are indeed fights to fight.
At the root of the word “protagonist” is “agon,” an ancient Greek word that means something like “struggle.” The “agonist” is an “actor,” but also a “combatant.” This is an actor in the sense of a person who takes action, who fights. Agon is the word that Paul uses in describing the “race set before us” in Hebrews 12:1 or the “good fight” in 2 Timothy 4:7. Importantly, this is the same root as the word agony. Agonia is used only once in the New Testament, to describe Christ’s struggle with fear in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus was the quintessential protagonist, who answered a call, left his home, struggled, sacrificed himself went down into the pit, and returned home triumphant. Mythologist Joseph Campbell used the Gospel story as one of the sources for his “Hero’s Journey” model of storytelling. The Hero’s Journey is the most common template for our big-budget action adventure movies because this story of struggle is a universal tale we have been telling for ages. It is the human story—the story Christ embodied in his time on earth.
In popular culture, the Hero’s Journey is the stuff of midnight screenings and elevated heart rates and spontaneous applause at feats of stunning competence. It makes sense that we find these rousing stories in action films, where the fight is literal and the obstacles are physical. The agon is not just a metaphor here. A good action film puts us on the ground with the protagonist and keeps us cheering with their successes and cursing with their failures. As with sports, the connection is visceral. We read the lines of the human drama in the game and can’t help but be swept along.
Most of the time, however, we’re sold the idea that universal struggle is for men. Plenty of films feature women as supporting players. And plenty of films have female leads and explore feminine issues. But few films give us a protagonist in its full etymological sense—a character who suffers and transforms and rises to challenges, someone we can all root for and identify with—who also happens to be woman. So when a film gives us a genuine woman action hero, like in Kill Bill or this summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road, it feels revolutionary. It feels like being told that women are human. It feels like being told that heroism is available to even one such as me.
But pop culture is usually no better than Christian culture at providing examples of active, heroic women. In a nod to Simone de Beauvoir’s observation in The Second Sex that society sees male as the “default” gender and female as the “other,” film critic Kathy Pollitt identified the “Smurfette Principle” back in 1991:
“A group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined. […] The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.”
This idea has been borne out in so much of the media I grew up consuming. When my sisters and I would play video games, only one of us could play as “the girl one”: Princess Peach in Mario Kart, Princess Leia in Star Wars. Media for children in particular has a penchant for characters distinguished only by a dress and cartoon eyelashes. It teaches girls not to even consider the idea that they might be the main character in an adventure.
In the wildly popular Avengers series, Scarlett Johannsson’s Black Widow perfectly fulfills the role of “the girl one.” Sure, she’s got combat skills, but does she provide anything vital to the team? She’s a Strong Female Character™ straight out of handbook, whose ass-kicking can block her access to her feelings but never gets in the way of looking good. The women who populate most action adventure movies rarely feel like human beings because they are not given their own agon. They are assistants at best, decorations at worst—not action heroes, but action helpers.
So when a genuine female action hero arrives, we can feel it. Consider this summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road. The Men’s Rights Activists gave the film considerable buzz when they outed it as a “feminist Trojan Horse”—the protagonist of the movie did not turn out to be Max, after all, but Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. Fury Road’s story engages with some feminist issues, to be sure—the story follows Furiosa as she rescues a group of women from sex slavery in a post-apocalyptic patriarchal society, with the rallying cry, “We are not things!” But Fury Road hardly contains enough dialogue to be a truly political film—it’s a heart-pounding action flick through and through.I didn’t need any classical administrators or bestsellers on biblical femininity to tell me how many ways there were to get it wrong.
Furiosa’s two-hour race through the desert is every inch a Hero’s Journey. She answers a call, she leads, she fights, she doubts, she suffers, she grows. The script is simple and the action is fierce; the relentless hoard chasing Furiosa’s rig makes her agon terrifyingly literal. Max fulfills the role usually occupied by the action girlfriend type—strong, but secondary. Furiosa is strong, of course, but the script and Theron’s performance do the important work of making her much more than the “Strong Female Character™” that most screenwriters throw into an action film. Strong Female Characters™ fight and crack wise without breaking a sweat or mussing their hair or ever sacrificing their sex appeal. Furiosa’s task is far too big and absorbing to be concerned with how she looks. She knows where she wants to go, but isn’t entirely sure how to get there. She has great hand-to-hand combat skills, but the upshot is that sometimes she takes a punch to the face or lands in the dirt. When her hopes are dashed, she drops to the earth and cries out. She is a formidable hero, but she is also a human being. She is the prot-agonist—the combatant, the one who suffers, the one who acts.
Placing a woman at the center of a Hero’s Journey radically humanizes women. There has been some debate about how feminist Fury Road actually is. I believe the film set off the Men’s Rights Activists because it is so novel to see a female action protagonist that the mere act of watching feels like an important feminist experience. The film says to the audience, here is the human struggle: you are she. Women are asked to make this kind of leap for male protagonists all the time, but rarely does it go the other way.
At 22, in that awful anxious year, my manager at the coffee shop gave me a performance review that kindly kicked me in the ass. “You don’t believe you deserve to be here, so you act like you don’t deserve to be here. You beat yourself up so hard that you don’t have any energy left for anyone else. You have to start fighting on your own side.” He was right. I saw myself as a side character with little to offer to the plot, so I tied myself in knots trying to make myself smaller. I didn’t know how to take his admonishment in terms of the feminine humility ideal that I had internalized, but I knew that I had to change.
I took up running. I listened to ferocious playlists full of Sleigh Bells and M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj. I learned that you have to believe you can run six miles, or you’re never going to make it past three. And as I learned that my body could do more the more I fought, I learned to believe that I had a right to act and a call to work in my life at large. I watched Kill Bill and marveled at The Bride’s hard-won, astounding skill with the sword; I pictured her as I recited the Prayer of St. Francis on the way to work. Make me an instrument of your peace. A razor-sharp katana of grace. I started to see myself as a true agent, a protagonist, and only then was I able to start acting on behalf of others.
It wasn’t until I started attending an Episcopalian church in college that I consistently saw women wear the robes of the clergy, or give homilies, or offer the Eucharist. At first it felt strange and transgressive. After a while it felt normal. And a while after that, it felt vital. I could weep thinking of what it means to me to see someone who looks like me in the vestments of the church. Stephen Colbert recently gave an interview to the Catholic organization Salt and Light, in which the he recounts how moved he was as a Catholic to watch a woman serve the Eucharist in an Anglican church:
“When I heard a woman say ‘This is my body,’ the freshness of hearing a woman say that gave the message a universality that it should always have… It opened my ears to the possibility that it is also my body… [It] invited me to perceive everyone who isn’t a priest as engaging in the sacrament in an active way.”
Representation matters. Seeing someone who looks like you in an important role can rewrite the possibilities for your life. In the Christian story, God lived as a human so that people could see a different vision of what a human life could be. God cast Godself as a man so that we could better understand God. A woman in the vestments is another example of casting that helps us understand. A female priest is an image of woman as servant leader, as spiritual protagonist, as aspiring saint. The image of the female priest has spoken to me of the woman as human, in the image of God, much in the same way that The Bride and Furiosa have taught me to see the woman as agent. To see women in the vestments is to see: This is the communion of saints. This is the cloud of witnesses. This is the kingdom of God: neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all one in Christ Jesus. And that means you.
Woman: pick up your mat, and walk.