'Queen of Katwe' Rewards Its Heroine For Being Aggressive In A Much-Needed Change From The Norm
Quite often in stories of young girls who achieve some kind of greatness, there's an outside force the heroine has to fight against in order to reach her goals. That force tends to come in the form of expectations placed upon her because of her gender. Young girls are often taught to act "ladylike" or proper in some outdated, sexist way, and are criticized for showing aggression or other "male" behaviors. But Mira Nair's new film Queen of Katwe is different. In this movie, aggressiveness in a young girl isn't just not criticized, but encouraged. It's a refreshing change of pace from the movie norm of young women being told by their parents or their society or else to act more reserved, or else face consequence. For the heroine of Queen of Katwe, her aggressive nature is something celebrated from the start.
Queen of Katwe, which opens on Sept. 23, tells the true story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young girl living in a Ugandan slum who takes up the game of chess through the encouragement of the local coach, Robert Katende, played by David Oyelowo. What makes this film different from other movies about girls learning new skills, achieving their goals, or accomplishing something wonderful, is that Phiona is actually encouraged to be assertive. While the young heroines in films like Bend it Like Bekham, Alice in Wonderland, or Brave act out against the expectations of their family or their societies, Phiona is actually encouraged by her community to act the way she does. Both versions are totally valid and important to watch, but it feels like we've seen way more of the type of film in which where women have to rebel to achieve their goals, rather than do so with the support of their communities.
Phiona is encouraged by those close to her to fight hard, stay strong, and become her own person. When Robert first meets Phiona, her aggressive nature is evident from the get-go. As a poor girl living in a slum who has to drop out of school to help her family sell corn to survive, Phiona has had to fight her whole life, so it's natural that she faces a challenge head on. She wanders into the ministry where Robert is teaching kids chess and is immediately verbally attacked by another boy for her dirty clothing. But Phiona doesn't just stand there and take the abuse — she literally fights back, getting physical with the kid. Yet once he sees what's going on, Robert doesn't rush over to stop the brawl or even act shocked that Phiona fought the boy. Rather, he smiles, saying, "We've got a fighter here!" and welcomes her into the chess club.
Later, when Phiona is honored by the Ugandan Chess Federation for her achievements after her first tournament, one of the officials says the phrase, "Aggressiveness in a girl is a treasure." It's a shocking thing to hear in a movie, but an incredibly positive statement. Usually, aggressiveness is an attribute that is discouraged in young women, particularly in societies that hold on to traditional male-female role value systems. I was half expecting the official to say that aggressiveness in a girl was unexpected or unusual — certainly not a treasure. But in Queen of Katwe, Phiona's ambition becomes an asset. She's encouraged to go big or go home; at one point, Robert even criticizes her strategy when she plays too much of a defensive game instead of an offensive one, saying she has to stop playing passively and must be on the attack.
Throughout her chess journey in tournaments and championships, Phiona faces a number of other young women who play hard, act tough, and put up a serious fight in order to win. It's truly inspiring, and something so rarely seen on-screen. Whether it's in sports, in the classroom, or in the workplace, girls and women have been taught for generations that being aggressive is a detriment. As Rachel Simmons wrote in Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls , "females are expected to mature into caregivers, a role deeply at odds with aggression. They are to be sweet, caring, precious, and tender... Research confirms that parents and teachers discourage the emergence of physical and direct aggression in girls early on while the skirmishing of boys is either encouraged or shrugged off." Even now in 2016, women know that it's generally a negative attribute to be seen as too ambitious or power-hungry. In her feature on Humans of New York, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addressed how she has to act differently than her male peers in order to not be seen as "scary or "too shrill." But in Queen of Katwe, aggression is something to be celebrated, and watching Phiona take charge makes for an inspiring change from other movies.
Naturally, Phiona still faces challenges, regardless of this support. She has her own self doubts, and her family's poverty is often a roadblock to her success. But while her mother (Lupita Nyong'o) has apprehension over Phiona playing chess, her feelings don't have anything to do with the idea that young women shouldn't be assertive. In reality, Phiona's mom simply would rather have her children not play chess so that they'd have more time to sell corn and earn money for the family — her opposition to the activity isn't gendered in any way. It's truly wonderful to see how, in Queen of Katwe, Phiona's nature as a fighter, a powerful force, and an "aggressive girl" is celebrated, not seen as a detriment. Hopefully, more movies will follow suit and send more inspiring messages to young girls.
Images: Walt Disney Studios