Leading Ladies: The Whore and The Saint

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Women leaders are tagged with many names, but nearly all of them boil down to two categories: the whore and the saint, and both are based on female sexuality.

So, clearly I’m late to the party being the last person in the U.S. to see Black Swan. I went on Valentine’s Day with a friend of mine, and since I took ballet for 13 years starting at the age of 5, I was immediately enthralled. This is the only spoiler alert for those of you even more behind the times than I am, so if you haven’t seen it and still want to before the Oscars, I’d recommend clicking away…NOW!

Natalie Portman portrays Nina Sayers, shy, sweet, quiet, perfect ballerina. The dream role of the Odette, the Swan Queen, in Swan Lake is up for grabs, but in order to take the role she must embody Odile: sexy, sultry, seductive daughter of the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart – a part that Mila Kunis’ character Lily so easily embraces. Despite her endless attempts to perfect the role, Nina is unable to break through into the dark and sensuous world that the role of Odile represents. Only through a slow descent (fitting, and reflective of the ballet) into madness is she finally able to completely become the black swan.

Watching Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis act out their roles was intense and at times uncomfortable, but not just because of the subject matter (which included scenes of masturbation, sex, violence and drug use), it was because they were portraying the charicature of leading women we’ve accepted in our society today. And while the two may seem like extreme versions of chastity and depravity, the truth is that we’re simply not used to the labels we affix every day being applied so nakedly.

Women leaders are tagged with many names, but nearly all of them boil down to two categories: the whore and the saint, and both are based on female sexuality. The saint is frigid, asexual, a bitch, ball-busting, cold, no-nonsense. The whore is never taken seriously; she is a beauty queen, ditzy, fun-loving, airheaded, easy, incompetent, a joke. We hear and see these things every day about women leaders. It is revealed even in the commentary made about their clothing (ahem: Sarah Palin’s “outfit” vs. Hillary Clinton’s “power suit”). We’ve seen this happen time and again and even discussed it without ever hitting the ultimate question – Why is the perception of female leadership derived from perceptions of female sexuality?

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I’ve seen first hand women of all capacities take over a room with grace, passion, humor, and competence. I’ve seen smart women be sexy and sexy women made even more sexy by flashing their intelligence. Yet, why is it when we talk about women in leadership roles we never ask WHY there is a division of women into one category or another – take your pick of polar opposites: sexy or not, whore or saint.

Women are not labels and for that matter they are not their sexuality. Should we choose to lead we don’t do so expecting to be viewed in terms of our sex appeal – however innocuous it may appear in print. We lead as individuals, and it’s time to be labeled as individuals. But first we need to change the way we talk about women. No little girl sits and dreams of becoming the first perky female president. This process of reducing women to adjectives occurs over the course of time. Right now we are at a deficit for female role models in power, and we can’t break a mold if each woman passes through it one by one.   

As graduation looms ever closer, many are looking toward the future and pondering our roles in the public health community. Some of us will be taking on leadership roles, and over the past few weeks I’ve started to question the way that I view women as managers and leaders and whether or not I want to become one. I am not Odette or Odile – female sexuality personified – and I refuse to to let my power be derived from being perceived as one or the other. Of course I want to be a leader, and when I get there I hope to see a throng of like-minded women lined up to take over, lead powerfully, and give new definition to leading ladies.

And I really hope that Black Swan wins for best picture at the Oscars. Natalie Portman was amazing. Seriously.

-Michaelyn Meave

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