Face it: Shall We Reconsider Our Heroines?

07/26/2012 11:00 am ET | Updated Sep 25, 2012
  • Michele Willens Journalist, theatre critic RobinHoodRadio, and editor, 'Face It: What Women Really Feel as Their Looks Change'

I recently left New York City for two weeks of traveling -- sans family -- through parts of the West. As the journey began, I still needed my daily fix of newspapers and a hit of TV, but as the time went on, they became less important. I met some amazing people, most particularly a refreshing breed of woman very different from those on the trendy coasts. Artistic by nature and open-minded, not one questioned whether someone else had had "work" done. And they go gray!

I was prepared to return and announce a new kind of heroine for the women of this country, only to discover they already had one.

When I left New York, Katie Holmes was perceived as the slightly talented gold-digger whose wild crush on Tom Cruise had led him to the trampoline couch and her to the altar. Respect? Not so much. Now that she has had the courage to reportedly escape that creepy cult, fight for her daughter and leave the superstar in a carefully-calculated divorce strategy, she has been anointed as a pillar of inner strength. Let HIM do blockbuster movies; she's now a creature of theatuh, having quickly signed up for a Broadway show.

I applaud her for all of the above and surely don't want to knock Katie off the temporary throne. But I do want to get back to the women between the coasts and outside the tabloids who don't really care who TomKat is -- or was. I think of the artist Mary Ellen Long who I met in Durango, Colorado. She is beautiful, in her late 70's, a wife and mother and still actively painting and showing in galleries. I think of the women I passed on a steep hike one day who seemed well into their late 60's. When I told them we'd just seen a bear, (and yes, I was terrified), they smiled and excitedly asked exactly where the sighting took place. I was heading downward, they were going onward.

I even found myself at a meditation meeting/practice/lesson one evening -- new for me. While my mind continued to race pretty much throughout, (Did I leave my son the keys? Did my daughter make her airline reservation? Where to go for dinner?) the faces around me defined serenity. I reflexively started to chuckle when one woman stood up to announce the activities of the upcoming "Compassion Weekend." Then I looked around and saw only delighted anticipation. Hey, a little compassion never hurt anyone.

I was lucky enough to tour the home-grown garden of Deborah Madison, a legend in the organic food world, at her home in Galisteo, New Mexico. A wonderful -- and yes, gray -- cook, author and hostess, she proudly exhibited greens I have yet to hear of, let alone taste. She has a successful artist husband, but her world seems filled mostly with interesting women. I bought three necklaces from my new friend Lorraine, a former surfer and musician who has had a couple knee operations but is active and natural and a popular presence in Santa Fe.

These are not women who tune out the world. They read voraciously, cook beautifully, remain physically active (as opposed to worrying about calories) and create constantly. I had left NYC as it was reeling from the shocking news of Nora Ephron's death. The women of the West surely knew of her work, but they could appreciate it from afar rather than getting caught up in the world around Nora. (One in which we all felt inferior.)

In San Francisco, I attended my friend's movie, Dorfman ( which was being shown at a film festival. Those festivals, by the way, are another great way to see movies with less cynical and competitive audiences. These folks actually WANT them to be good. As my friend stood onstage, taking in the applause, I thought here is another heroic woman who waited a long time to get to tell the story she wanted to tell. A small movie, yes, but a big dream come true.

There are so many great stories women still have to fight to tell, whether through painting, writing or film. And it turns out, a lot of them are winning those fights . Good to know, though sometimes it helps to move around a bit to be reminded of it.

As I wrapped up my trip, solo and eating extremely well in Portland, Oregon, I lost my Blackberry. Of course, I was frantic and depressed. And still am, as my Western weeks in photos are gone. (No, I did not protect them with "the Cloud"). But I also could see the irony. I was now officially cut off, disconnected. Yes, I had my gadget replaced, but in truth, it didn't feel so bad for a few days. Rather than looking down constantly, I was looking ahead, around and into people's eyes. I walked into Powells, Portland's legendary bookstore, and discovered that Karen Thompson Walker, the author of The Age of Miracles, was speaking. I sat and listened, impressed by yet another amazing woman who managed to write her first novel in between her days at a full time job.

I recommend such journeys, be they two weeks or two days. There is a world of great, interesting and evolved females out there who have not gotten the memo that Katie Holmes is their new feminist icon. Nor should they.