Heroes in heels are on the rise

Florence Nightingale? She was a heroine, but only through the performance of traditionally female acts. Fortunately, the concept is changing. New, female heroes are on the rise, says Mathilde van Dijk.
By Anne Floor Lanting / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

The concept of female heroism is a difficult one, says Mathilde van Dijk. She teaches history of Christianity and gender studies, and the topic returns again and again in her classes. The heroic concept is usually a male one, almost militaristic. And that’s not a very female image. ‘Up until recently women, ideologically at least, weren’t supposed to take part in war.

As a result, there was no template for female heroes. And when a woman was considered a hero, she was more like Florence Nightingale. ‘Women who rebelled against the prevailing customs, but whose actions, such as taking care of soldiers, were still considered inherently female.’


Whenever stories do feature female heroes, they often don’t have a happy ending. Take the Amazons from Greek mythology, for example: ‘These stories usually end with the hero killing the Amazon. These female warriors are an inversion of what people think women should be. Killing the Amazon restores order to the chaos.’

But there is hope, Van Dijk says. Over the past few years, there have been more positive incarnations of female warriors in film, televisions series, and computer games. Such as Jessica Jones, Marvel’s badass superhero. Or Lara Croft from the computer game Tomb Raider, and Wonder Woman.


Yet there are still significant differences between these modern female warriors and their male counterparts. ‘First of all, most female warriors are fictitious, at least right now. Also, they’re often depicted in a very sexual manner, like Lara Croft with her large breasts and skimpy clothes.’ After all the games and films these women star in mostly cater to a male audience.

But this, too, is changing, Van Dijk observes. ‘Third-wave feminists are reclaiming their sexuality. They’re fighting for their right to present themselves as sexual beings.’ While this particular stance is still heavily criticised – women would still be subjecting themselves to the male gaze – there are also people who say that women should be autonomous in every single way, including sexually.


But the fight is far from over, says Van Dijk. And that is exactly why it’s so important to consider the female hero. ‘Female heroes undermine traditional gender relations. Traditional gender characteristics are changing right in front of our eyes.’

The other day, she says, a male student openly admitted to having cried while watching the film they were discussing in class. And that is exactly what this is about. ‘Men from my generation wouldn’t be so quick to admit that.’

The study session ‘Spiritual heroines‘ organised by women’s studies and theology will take place Thursday, 8 March at 1 pm at the Protestant Theologian University (PThU), Oude Ebbingestraat 25. Admission for students is free.



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