Saving ourselves is not something us ladies are taught to do. We are taught the opposite: we are taught that we need saving. I realized this the other day as I was crying over a guy. I’ve been heartbroken over him for awhile, and even though I haven’t seen him in months I’m still not over him. I still think about this guy every day, which then leads to copious amounts of crying and feeling sorry for myself—which then leads to beating myself up for caring so much about him at all, especially when it’s clear that he’s completely fine without me. The other day was no exception. No matter how hard I sobbed, there was one thought I just couldn’t shake: Why couldn’t I just focus on me? Why couldn’t I just figure out a way to be okay?
No matter how much I tried to talk myself down, I couldn’t stop thinking of fantasies which culminated in grand gestures and public declarations of love. The most persistent of these wasn’t even all that extravagant: in my go-to fantasy, he would just show up at my door—a highly improbable proposition to begin with, since he would need a key just to get into my building—and confess that he had just been pushing me away because he was too in love with me. No offense to my own imagination, but barf. I’m a hardcore feminist and a firm believer in being an independent woman, yet here I was, hoping and waiting for a guy to save me. I couldn’t figure out why I—a strong, independent lady—wanted so badly for him to come in and complete me, make me whole, make me happy, all that romantic crap. But then it hit me. Of course I wanted a guy to save me and make me happy: that’s the only narrative women are ever taught.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at basically any movie, TV show, or story throughout history. Disney movies start us off early in thinking we need men to save us—Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Hercules, Cinderella, and The Little Mermaid are probably the worst culprits. But their other films aren’t so innocent either: in The Lion King, Nala and the whole freaking pride still need Simba to come back and take down Scar. In Pocahontas, Pocahantas doesn’t tell her father or anyone else her true thoughts until racist-ass John Smith comes around. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle is a boss bitch way before Beast, but it isn’t until she meets him that she realizes it. Even Mulan isn’t safe. Sure, Mulan saved China and is by all means the coolest Disney character ever—so why, oh, why does Shang need to show up at the end at all? Mulan would have been fine all on her own.
And Disney movies are far from the only ones. In all the superhero movies, there is always a “damsel in distress.” In almost any movie or show about mental illness—take The Silver Linings Playbook or Skins, for example—the troubled or mentally ill female character does not get better until a male character comes in to save her. And in a majority of movies, the female character is saved not physically or mentally but emotionally. There is always a happy ending where she ends up with the guy and all her problems are solved.
But it gets really insidious once you start to think about the way that this narrative is portrayed outside in contexts outside of media representation. Once you start noticing it, you won’t be able to stop—all of a sudden, it’s all you can see, no matter where you look. For example:
Whether in the media or in everyday life, women are made to believe that our happiness, well-being, and identity are dependent on finding and keeping a man. First of all, this narrative is extremely heteronormative, as it assumes all women are straight and leaves little room for any representation or inclusion of women with other sexual orientations or identities. And secondly, this narrative confuses women into thinking that they can’t attain ultimate happiness, contentment, joy, or success all on their own. But this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Ladies, we can save our own damn selves. We do this by becoming people who don’t need saving. I have spent so much energy on being sad about this guy I’m hung up on—energy I could be using to take a class in something, work on my art, organize activist actions, read, exercise, have fun with friends, do research, build other relationships in my life, make extra money, forward my career, or who knows what else. I have been wrapped up in this idea of myself as someone who needs saving. But I don’t need that at all. If I live my life the way I want to live it, to its full potential, then I won’t even think about needing anyone else. I won’t need someone to save me—I won’t need someone to complete me—because I will already be complete.
Now, that’s not to say this will be easy. Unlearning years of being taught that I need someone in order to be happy is no small task. It will require constant effort. It will require constant vigilance. It will require me to redefine my beliefs about fulfillment, self-acceptance, and identity. It may be difficult, but it’s not impossible. If men can live their lives completely content without depending on a relationship or marriage, then so can we. We should aspire to live our lives by no other rules than our own, even if that requires rewriting some of the rules we’re used to—or throwing them out completely.