Recently, while researching different viewpoints about women in ministry (a subject I have not abandoned, by the way), I ran across a certain preacher who was taking potshots at Wonder Woman. He was decrying her as an invention of the feminist movement, which she is. But he especially took offense at how she acts too much “like a man”. Now, admittedly, I’ve never read the comics, but I would seriously doubt that to be the case. If her costume is any indication, I’d say “butch” is not exactly what the comic creator was going for.
I was discussing this with my mom the other day, and we got to talking about role models for girls in the media. The course of conversation brought up another fictitious fighter, Xena the Warrior Princess (who also received a derogatory mention from the above preacher). She’s another example of the entertainment industry’s attempt to offer girls an alternative role model to delicate wallflowers and fainting damsels in distress such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and the like.
The secular media loves these superheroes, because when it comes to role models, it means girls no longer have to choose between being a princess and kicking tail. In the past, in movies and stories, girls have generally been cast in the roles of: cute, boring, basically useless sidekick who gets captured and needs rescuing; delicate, lovely princess who needs rescuing (or at least has the handsome princes falling all over themselves to woo her); or — if she’s useful and has the ability to hold her own — the plain, spunky tomboy who nobody falls in love with but everyone likes to keep around anyway, because she’s just “one of the guys”. The message was fairly clear. Dainty and delicate was the way to go if you wanted to be an attractive, successful woman.
From a purely secular standpoint, Wonder Woman and Xena seem a little refreshing after that kind of stuff. This would explain why in more recent years, movie heroines have gravitated more that way. From those two already mentioned, to Fiona of Shrek and Eowen of Lord of the Rings, girls are “empowered” with the message that they can be both devastatingly beautiful and devastatingly — um, devastating.
However, there is a problem. I mean besides the fact that these are fictional characters.
Just as not all girls fit into the mold of Cinderella and Rapunzel in days gone by, not all girls today fit into the mold of Wonder Woman and Xena. It’s a redressed form of the same problem. Society tries to set up this ideal woman — and while you might count it as a win that the ideal woman now can singlehandedly rout a horde of undead ogre-monkeys (or whatever it is they do in comic books), the ideal is just as restrictive and shallow as it has ever been.
I began thinking about how one might go about addressing this problem. For starters, getting some real-life heroes might be a good idea. Getting real-life heroes who loved Jesus would be even better. I began thinking about outstanding women from history, and they come from all walks of life. Some were nuns. Some were scientists. Some were missionaries. Some were doctors and nurses. Some were artists and writers. Some were revivalists. Some fought in battles. Some were queens. Some were stay-at-home moms. All were heroic in their own ways. All are worth admiration.
But even as I was compiling the mental list, I realized how I was making it way too complicated. By all means, I think it would be good for little girls to know about these women. But at the end of the day, it still doesn’t help anything to ask them to pick a role model, like, “Now sweetie, would you rather be like Joan of Arc, or Kathryn Kuhlman, or Susannah Wesley?” Giving them a wider selection of molds, even really good ones, does not help them fit into any given one. These women are largely famous for what they did, which may or may not match the gift mix of a little girl searching for a reference point for her life.
It then struck me how role modeling becomes really easy. Almost laughably easy, in fact. Too bad it’s not my idea… it’s Apostle Paul’s.
(Eph 5:1) Therefore be imitators of God as dear children.
(1Co 11:1) Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.
It really is that simple. To whom do we point girls (and boys!) as their primary role model? There’s only one Man who perfectly meets that need. It may sound like the cliche Sunday School answer, but if we take it seriously, it’s the only one that truly gives kids the groundwork to grow up into exactly the sort of godly grown-ups they are supposed to be.
Part of the reason this may sound weird to us is this thing called, “the scandal of particularity”. Jesus is uniquely Himself, distinct from any other individual on the planet, and very distinct from anyone living in our modern culture. For obvious starters, He’s God — how much can our kids really aspire to be like Him? He’s a Man — can girls really relate to Him as a role model? He was a carpenter turned preacher — will boys really be drawn to that lifestyle? And certainly none of our kids are going to get any ambitions to someday die for the sins of the world.
Jesus was (and is) a real human Being, who was born in a specific social class, in a specific place, and grew up with a specific kind of education. He had a specific trade, a specific appearance, and had specific and limited life experiences. He never married or had kids. He never had to learn trigonometry. He never had to worry about impure images leaping off of the internet at Him. He didn’t even live to see the age of 35. There are scores of things about Him we could theoretically point to and say, “I can’t relate to that at all.”
(As if we can relate to Xena. But moving on.)
However, it is this very scandal of particularity that makes us actually able to connect with Jesus. He is not some mystical figure with an uncertain history prior to the start of the story. He is a real, living, breathing human being in every sense of the word. We could never relate to an abstract figure who somehow represented “a little bit of the best in all of us”. We can relate to a real Person who is actually, wholly Himself.
And because He is set apart from us in ways we will never physically emulate — i.e. bearing the sins of the world — we aren’t going to get confused about making our personal callings match up with His. There’s no, “Well, I should probably be a warrior because my hero was a warrior”, or, “I should be a nurse because my hero was a nurse,” or, “I need to have a zillion kids because my hero did”. We simply are who we are as we try to emulate Him in the ways we’re actually supposed to. Specifically, we emulate Him in how we relate to God and to other people (which, coincedentally enough, are the First and Second Great Commandments, which according to Him, sum up everything).
The best part is He’s still around to give us pointers. We don’t even have to ask ourselves the rhetorical, “What would Jesus do?” We can actually ask Him what He would do. And through the Holy Spirit, He is only too happy to coach us through life’s trials and decisions.
Now is it good for kids to have other role models? Sure. The Bible itself is replete with them. History is full of godly men and women whom it’s wonderful to be provoked by. But at the core, it’s really simple. We aspire to be like Jesus. He is our #1 hero. We win at life when we press in to be more like Him.
Women don’t need to invent a bigger, better, super-hero-ier character for little girls to idolize. Women need to point to the one Man who lived a perfect, complete, relevant life. If the coming generation grows up saying, “I want to be like Him,” we are going to find ourselves among the most dynamic, truly liberated crew of women who ever walked the earth.