Perception is power

In 1943, Westinghouse Company’s War Production Coordinating Committee created a series of posters to bolster company morale for the war effort.

Erroneously thought to portray “Rosie the Riveter,” 40 years later this image became the iconic poster of the women’s liberation movement … and remains so to this day.

What I’d like to know is … why?

It’s not news anymore that women can more than adequately replace men at any job. So why are feminists still hung-up on an image of a woman rolling up her sleeve in an attitude of bicep flexing muscle power as the preferred picture of modern sexual equality?

Could it possibly be that in this day of digital 3-D movies and microwave popcorn we’re still hung up on the belief that muscle means power?

Hmmmm… let’s think.

Muscle still translates into control. The schoolyard bully who can beat up littler kids controls the schoolyard. The tyrant who can beat a nation’s citizens into submission has the control to declare himself dictator. The nation that can beat up other nations and display more firepower (muscle) is the most feared and thus has the most control over other nations.

But is this the kind of power women should aspire to? Is brute force the tool of parity we should desire? Haven’t we been on the receiving end long enough to eschew it for ourselves and for future generations?

Isn’t it possible that women (and enlightened men) are capable of shining a higher, different light on the word P-O-W-E-R? Certainly demonstrating love and concern for the wellbeing of others—something most women are very good at—constitutes a higher ideal of power than a bulging bicep attached to a fist any day.

Unfortunately how much more appealing are the recent images of butt-kicking babes toting Uzis and arrows and C-4 in the movies? Evelyn Salt, Trinity, Hannah, Ripley, Katniss  … these women are like powerful man. You know? Wouldn’t want to meet one of them in a dark alley.

But as appealing as it might be to see the gals kicking ass for a change, (hey I go see these movies too!) is this the best we can come up with as the new icon of femininity?

Maybe I’m a tad paranoid here, but aren’t these new cinematic Power Babes just the logical, exponential, on-steroids, extrapolation of the Rosie the Riveter poster? Isn’t it possible that if we keep focusing on rolled up sleeves and biceps as our power ideal that we’ll eventually end up in some ghastly future where women run around with guns, tricked out in form-fitting black leather, duking it out with the guys in some desolate corporate-controlled Blade Runner future on a dying planet?

Perceptions are powerful things … powerful enough to shape destiny. Perhaps we should question the ones we cling to every once in awhile.

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8 Comments

  1. Great article, and great points, Cate. We are not seeking to become like men but to redefine power in terms of our planet and the optimal way to function on it for generations to come.

  2. Pavel

    Bravo! well said!

  3. I agree with you, if anything women should be outraged to have their feminine energy obscenely co-opted by male violent imagery. Two quotes come to mind, and they’re both by men with strong feminine sides: “Violence is a failure of the imagination” (Tom Baker, aka the fourth Dr. Who) and “Only the weak are cruel. Gentleness can only be expected from the strong” (Leo Buscaglia). For feminine inspiration I go to someone like Hildegard von Bingen – great recent movie called “Vision” about her – but I could be biased since she’s something of a personal guide to me. Glad to see you’re still writing and lighting fires Cate, may you always be blessed!

  4. Ah, the humbling power of the internet. I heard that quote from Tom Baker, but to correct my previous post it wasn’t his, I found this richer detail:
    “Violence is a failure of the imagination”, said the late American poet William Stafford, who would not fight in the Second World War, and spent twelve hours a day for three years cutting timber in remote forests as punishment for his refusal to “shoot other men in the belly” (Rev. Louis Kilgore – so many good attributions to try to get right, what fun! :-)

  5. Oh, now I get it, why spirit gave that quote to me, it goes back to WWII as the greater strength! Sorry Cate to be a little slow on the uptake and have to make multiple posts. It took real muscles to cut timber twelve hours a dar for three years for refusing to kill. Take that, Rosie the Riveter and all of your children!

    • Cate (Author)

      Thanks for all the great quotes – no matter the attributions! Good to hear from you!

  6. Jason Clark

    I think Rosie will always be a symbol of female empowerment. Its not like their is a round table of experts that decide these things. The Zeitgeist is a funny thing: what grabs the masses attention is what grabs it. Rosie has the significance of doing this at a time when, for the first time in American culture, women were being accepted in traditionally male-dominated roles in the workplace.

    As such, it has come down to us like so many things that we accept: from the context of its usage that popularized it in the first place. People see that image and instantly associate it with the women’s movement for equality. They do that because that is the image chosen by these varying movements themselves. I lack a female perspective obviously, but I would celebrate it for what was, and what it has come to mean.

    I think applying a 22nd century precision insight that has the advantage of hindsight of all the cultural change of the last 70 years to this icon may be a bit unfair. If you apply the anthropological concept of the Etic and the Emic to the passage of time by accepting American culture as two different beasts: then and now, I think it makes a bit more sense. The Zeitgeist is in some ways a bit like a child who takes something learned at the age of 8 and carries forward all the assumptions made at that time without reexamining them from an adult perspective.

    that being said, that equality has taken on this weird andros type female transformation is concerning to be sure. People are still largely primitive and obsessed with rank and heirarchy so in order to become equals women seem to be being be becoming more like men. I think in that process the special gift that is femininity is in a real danger of being cast aside in favor of the pursuit of more power, and more control.

    So that’s a bit of a paradox isn’t it? In order to progress forward women are in some ways moving backwards to a more primitive male archetype as you illustrated by example. Basic archetypes are an easy sell. People get them without having to think too much. If you want to change this I think the only way is to capture the imagination of the masses in a way that illustrates a new way of thinking, that of cooperation and compassion over competition and mercilessness. I think that is a bit of a tall order in the current cultural landscape.

    Until that collective evolutionary leap forward occurs, well, there is Rosie.

  7. Frank Ralbovsky

    Perception is, truly powerful.

    One of my favorite reminders on perception, comes from Anais Nin, who noted:

    “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are”

    :) NorthvilleFrank

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