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The Independent Woman Trope, Explained

From Rosie the Riveter to Beyoncé, the Independent Woman has long inspired women to unlock their inner potential and stand on their own two feet. But as much as the independent woman is an important symbol of female empowerment, her story’s focus on self-sufficiency can also pressure women to hold themselves to an impossible standard of “doing it all” without any support. Here’s our Take on why the independent woman shouldn’t have to do everything on her own, and where we hope to see her go from here.

TRANSCRIPT

From Rosie the Riveter to Beyoncé, the Independent Women in pop culture has long been an icon of girl power, inspiring women to unlock their inner potential and stand on their own two feet. Looking at examples of the Independent Woman onscreen, we can see some common traits in this sister-doing-it-for-herself:

  • She is self-reliant, rejecting the need for other people’s validation and not afraid of being alone.
  • She views herself, above all, as an individual — not conforming to society’s expectations and forging her own path in life.
  • She probably makes or has her own money, which is a big reason she gets to be independent.
  • She doesn’t need a man — her story might not even have a love interest or if it does, it might relegate love to a subplot in her narrative, show her resisting the need for romance, or at least feature her being single for a lot of the story.
  • Her agency drives her plot. In contrast to films that feature damsels in distress or women only as supporting characters, the independent woman narrative sees her taking action to solve her own problems.
  • This confident lady who speaks her mind and won’t let anyone stand in her way can sometimes be painted as something close to a superwoman.

But as much as the independent woman is an important symbol of female empowerment, her story’s focus on self-sufficiency can also pressure women to hold themselves to an impossible standard of “doing it all,” without needing any support. Here’s our take on why the independent woman shouldn’t have to do everything on her own, and where we hope to see her go from here.

Evolution of The Independent Woman Onscreen

Erin Brockovich: “All I’ve ever done is bend my life around what men decide they need. Well I’m sorry, I won’t do it.” - Erin Brockovich

Independence is ultimately about having the power to make choices for yourself that determine your future. As Kellie Herson of The Outline writes, “agency” in film “describes our capacity to take independent action” and “to assert control over our own circumstances.” There is no “independent man” trope in cinema or pop culture because it isn’t needed. Men have always implicitly had that power. For women, though, independence traditionally comes from rejecting male authority and defying the roles and norms expected of them.

The icon of the independent woman has evolved alongside changing societal standards but through the years we can see some consistent patterns in how women onscreen have managed to assert their agency.

A key part of the “independent woman” is that she has her own money. Whether she makes bank or happens to be independently wealthy, the upshot is that she’s not reliant on a man (or anyone) to financially support her. After all, when Destiny’s Child sang “Independent Woman,” the point they drove home was that the song’s narrator “bought” everything she has for herself.

Destiny’s Child: “The watch I’m wearin’, I’ve bought it The house I live in, I’ve bought it” - “Independent Woman”

The Independent Woman’s focus on finance speaks to the fact that a big reason women’s agency has long been so limited is due to monetary realities.

Amy March: “And as a woman, there isn’t a way for me to make my own money. So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition because it is.” - Little Women

So the rise of the career woman in film and TV represents women not just proving themselves and claiming their place in the workforce, but also gaining financial independence, which is a key challenge to gender inequality. Another motif we see in the Independent Woman story is this character taking on the big city. In this narrative, the city represents freedom, options, and possibility as well as intense challenge. So by conquering this intensely competitive, hostile environment where so many others fail, the Independent Woman proves her chops and (more importantly) finds herself.

Meanwhile, starting in 1970, Mary Richards of The Mary Tyler Moore Show showed how the unmarried, motivated woman could find purpose in her work. The same decade gave us the original Charlie’s Angels, a mainstream example of female leads taking over the male-dominated field of crime-fighting action-adventure. In the ‘90s and 2000s, the rejection of male power structures became a popular focus on girl power,” defined as “a self-reliant attitude among girls and young women manifested in ambition, assertiveness, and individualism.” The 2000 remake of Charlie’s Angels (with its soundtrack featuring Destiny Child’s “Independent Woman”) gave us Angels who owned their sexuality openly and fully, using it to achieve their goals while interacting with male characters who seemed essentially useless.

A central tenet of the girl power message is: “Don’t underestimate us.”This theme plays a big role in stories about the Independent Woman who finds her agency in her later years, often after she’s thrown a curveball that disrupts her more conventional settled life. And the “don’t underestimate us” message is driven home even more strongly in the Independent Woman narrative about the single mom doing the impossible alone. Julia Roberts’ character in 2000’s Erin Brockovich fights her way into a law firm and almost single-handedly brings down a damaging corporation. Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Joy similarly starts from nothing, but she builds a business empire while supporting her children…and an ex-husband living in her basement. In other stories, a single woman or girl is even responsible for remaking an entire system or society.

Most centrally, the Independent Woman has agency over her own narrative. She isn’t waiting around for other characters to “rescue” her, and she determines her story’s ending.

The Independent Woman in Love

Another key feature of the onscreen independent woman is that she’s not defined by romance. Increasingly over the years, we’ve seen Independent Women narratives that don’t include a love interest at all. Young adult role models like prominent Disney Princesses and other Disney leads simply don’t have love on their minds a pattern that’s especially striking considering that at the happy romantic ending was once seen as an inevitable part of the Disney formula.

Princesses: “Do people assume all your problems got solved because a big strong man showed up?”

Vanellope: “Yes, what is up with that?”

Princesses: “She is a princess.” - Wreck It Ralph 2

Other contemporary variations on the Independent Woman story might involve her trying out love interests but not finding the right fit relegating love to a subplot that proves peripheral or falling in love but choosing not to put this above her self-development. The pressure to reject the Independent Woman’s love interest — or not give her one — can create a conundrum for many stories. Many viewers want a partner or family as part of their own lives and wish to see their beloved characters obtain this kind of closure as well. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or disempowering about showing a woman finding love as part of her story. Making it a hard rule that the Independent Woman must remain forever single risks making the character into an artificial, one-dimensional symbol of Girl Power, instead of being true to real emotions and the logic of character’s internal drives.

On the other hand, making romance too much of a focus in the Independent Woman narrative can end up betraying what the story was supposed to be about. Numerous stories that begin with a woman who’s not defined by wanting a man end up undermining this message through a conventional rom-com ending. Sex and the City, a show about four single women carving out their own unconventional paths concludes with a fairytale ending for protagonist Carrie and the man who’s long resisted her pleas to settle down. Andy in The Devil Wears Prada realizes she’s been wrong to work so hard and neglect her boyfriend and comes to view fashion icon Miranda Priestly as a cautionary tale demonstrating the price of too much ambition.

Andy: “I couldn’t do what you did to Nigel, Miranda. I couldn’t do something like that.” - The Devil Wears Prada

Unfortunately, by concluding on this romantic note, some of these single-career-women-in-the-big-city narratives end up sending the message that independence is just a phase that many women go through in early adulthood before they eventually turn out like everyone else. Narratives even punish women who get carried away with being too independent. Melanie Daniels in 1963’s The Birds does want a man, but the single “modern woman” lifestyle she’s been leading gets her pegged as promiscuous in the small town of Bodega Bay, and the extreme attacks she endures from the birds feel symbolic of a greater punishment. She ends up nearly comatose, having to be rescued by Mitch, with all her agency removed.

One way to satisfy the Independent Woman’s love dilemma is by correcting a character who’s looking for love in the wrong places or expecting it to fill too total a role in her life. Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods eventually realizes she shouldn’t have been chasing a wedding ring from an undeserving guy. Instead, she starts building a career as a lawyer in her own right.

Elle Woods: “If I’m going to be a partner in a law firm by the time I’m 30, I need a boyfriend who’s not such a complete bonehead.” - Legally Blonde

And this happens to also lead to the perk of developing an authentic, loving relationship with a better guy who sees her as an intelligent equal. Things may only work out this perfectly in the movies, but the deeper lesson in Elle’s story is that when you make the choice to take care of yourself and go in the right direction as an individual the other details will (more or less) fall into place.

Throughout the history of film and TV, we can find many examples of female characters with spouses or children who still come across as in control of their own opinions, actions, and destinies. And ultimately, the modern independent woman can settle down or remain single, as long as she retains her own identity and agency. In today’s holistic version of this character, independence really means claiming the freedom to be who you truly are, and live how you choose.

Still, some stories reflect that — in reality — true independence can come at a great cost. In one of cinema’s most iconic and perhaps most honest portrayals of what Independence for women really means, the title characters of Thelma and Louise choose freedom and agency over their old, respectable-but-trapped lives but they pay for it with their lives.

The Women Who Make Us Independent

For all its empowerment rhetoric, the Independent Woman myth can make a real woman feel like she has to do everything herself, without any external support…or to die trying. Viewers are left with a sense that, to be truly independent, you must be all alone.

But what we really see in the most compelling independent woman narratives is an emphasis on building a support network. In the single career woman’s case, this might be an alternative support system to replace the primacy of a lover or family in her life. Stories like Sex and the City and Broad City focus on female friendship and its ability to sustain and support. Narratives about women in the same profession can also show them forming unconventional families. In A League of Their Own, a female baseball team during World War II forms strong bonds off the field coming to accept themselves and gain confidence in their unconventional identities. In GLOW, a rag-tag group of women from different backgrounds with unique strengths and flaws come together to create a wrestling TV show. And ultimately, it’s togetherness and teamwork that truly allow the women to become independent individuals.

Ruth: “It shouldn’t be that way.”

Debbie: “No, it shouldn’t, and women should get to direct and bot be washed up by the time they’re 30.” - GLOW Season 2x05

Today’s nuanced, complex, and varied independent women are also shaped by the other women in their families. Moana takes inspiration from her grandmother, Tala, to follow her heart, which leads her on a quest that requires her to be truly independent, and ultimately reconnects her people with their historical culture. Tala remains a guide for Moana even in death. In Wonder Woman, young Diana is deeply inspired to become like the strong Amazon women around her. In Frozen, the true love that can save the kingdom is that between sisters.

Elsa: “You sacrificed yourself for me?”

Anna “I love you.” - Frozen

Ultimately, these representations of support help move beyond the myth of the independent-woman-as-superwoman and the falsehood that needing help is a weakness. Instead, they showcase that growth and success most often happen when we’re together.

The Influence of Who’s Behind the Camera

The nuance and depth of the independent woman’s character also depend on who’s creating her. In House of Cards, which is created and primarily written by men, independent woman Claire Underwood gets to become president of the United States —something no actual woman has ever been able to do. Yet instead of developing an interesting plotline driven by her choices in office, the show instead sees her spending her whole term focused on who killed her husband.

Claire Underwood: “A man like Francis doesn’t just die. That would be… what’s the word? Convenient.” - House of Cards Season 6x01

Often, a woman’s perspective behind the scenes helps lead to more interesting and authentic representations of female agency onscreen. Take two recent spy stories from male versus female creators. In 2018’s Red Sparrow, written by Justin Haythe and directed by Francis Lawrence, we’re not given much of a window into the inner world of ballerina-turned-spy Dominika.

Matron: “Take off your clothes. Your body belongs to the state” - Red Sparrow

The camera lingers over her naked body. And despite the illusion of victory when she defeats her uncle, she remains a tool in the hands of men. In contrast, in Killing Eve, created by Phoebe Waller-Bridge and primarily written by women, central female characters Villanelle and Eve consistently challenge one another, illuminate each other’s individual drives and shape the plot themselves.

Eve: “I think about you all the time … I think about your eyes and your mouth and what you feel when you kill someone.” - Killing Eve Season 1x08

So, where will the independent women of film and TV go from here? Increasingly, rather than just being a superwoman symbol or a step on the way to other things, this character can help real women work through the messiness of unlocking agency in our lives. The independent woman doesn’t have to be the perfect image of girl power — she can be lost; she can need help; she can be in the process of figuring out what she wants her life to be. Most importantly, she makes us understand that — even if it doesn’t always feel like it — we are in control of what the future holds.