Emily Blunt has battled aliens with Tom Cruise, gone toe-to-toe with Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson in a hostile jungle, and fought deadly drug cartels as an FBI agent over the course of her movie career. You’d be forgiven for thinking she was Hollywood’s “it” tough girl. But that’s the last thing the actress, who stars in the recently released Western miniseries “The English,” wants to be.
“It’s the worst thing ever when you open a script and read the words: ‘strong female lead,’” she said in an interview with The Telegraph earlier this month. “That makes me roll my eyes — I’m already out. I’m bored.”
Discussing her role in “The English” — as a pink-and-tulle-clad Englishwoman who arrives in the 19th-century American West seeking vengeance for her son’s death — Blunt captured not just the magic of her character, but some of the magical attributes of womanhood.
“I love a character with a secret,” she said. “And I loved Cornelia’s buoyancy, her hopefulness, her guilelessness.”
“[‘Strong female lead’] roles are written as incredibly stoic, you spend the whole time acting tough and saying tough things. Cornelia is more surprising than that,” Blunt continued. “She’s innocent without being naive and that makes her a force to be reckoned with.”
There’s a word for the enigmatic kind of person Blunt is describing, and that word is “woman.” Every woman is different, of course, as Blunt’s description of a beautifully complex character makes clear. But that very complexity — wise innocence, the capacity to pursue ruthless vengeance wearing Pepto-Bismol pink, the elusive “secret” she mentions — is part of what sets women apart from men.
To some extent or another, men tend to be more direct, task-oriented, and analytical. When they say they have “nothing” on their minds, it’s usually the literal truth. Women’s minds and hearts are beautifully intricate, and those interwoven complexities have immense power for good or evil, as Blunt’s character shows.
Womanly strength doesn’t mimic that of men; it has its own character. Those differences between the sexes are designed to complement each other. At their most extreme, masculinity and femininity look starkly different, and that reality is reflected even in Blunt’s comments on the aesthetic differences between characters in “The English.”
At one point in her Telegraph interview, Blunt turned to her co-star Chaske Spencer, a 6’2″ member of the Fort Peck Tribe who plays her American Indian counterpart. “I remember looking up at you, over my enormous puff sleeve, and seeing your extraordinary profile with the mohawk and the earring, and thinking you were so striking-looking,” she said. “What an incredible image, to have these two people in the same frame.”
Blunt’s own character, she said, “startles [Spencer’s] out of his silence and their differences become irrelevant because they need each other to survive. I thought that was very cool.” I haven’t seen the show, but I’d wager their differences aren’t “irrelevant” so much as complementary — perhaps even in a way that their differences themselves are necessary for survival.
This isn’t the first time Blunt has critiqued roles that reduce women to caricatures of macho men. “I get [told] a lot, ‘You play a lot of tough female roles,’ but I don’t really see them as tough,” she said in a 2015 Vanity Fair interview. “I think there are plenty of strong women out there and I don’t think they can be compartmentalized as being one thing. ‘You’re tough.’ What, because I have a gun?”
The “strong female lead” types Blunt has chastized are written as if guns and other “masculine” accouterments — from costumes (i.e., the incessant focus on Blunt’s pants-wearing in “Jungle Cruise”) to stereotypically manly personality traits such as arrogance — imbue women with “empowerment.” But there’s nothing empowering about burying a female character’s natural strengths under a tough-dude facade. What is empowering is embracing those natural qualities.
Emily Blunt is right; women do have a “secret.” It’s inseparable from our female biology, but it’s not reducible to biological features (women are more than “people who menstruate”). You might call it the “feminine mystique,” if you forgot your preconceived understanding of the phrase and remembered that “mystique” describes “a fascinating aura of mystery, awe, and power surrounding someone or something.”
It’s the complex, beautiful, powerful, gentle, unyielding nature that we often try to capture with the word “femininity.” And men spend their whole lives trying to figure it out.