Says Hilary Swank, "Amelia Earhart is an iconic figure. She was so ahead of her time. I'm inspired by her. It's incredible this woman from Kansas who died so many years ago is still so talked about." And that abpout sums up how most people feel about Lady Lindy, even if the rest of us don't get the chance to play her. Amerlia Earhart is, without question, an icon: an independent, adventurous woman recognizable enough as both a face and an idea that she's inspired the Gap and Ms. magazine with equal ease. We know her as the first woman to fly the Atlantic, the second pilot to do so, and a mysterious figure cut down in her prime somewhere over the Pacific in 1937.
If you have read any of the major biographies of Earhart, it's true that even at the time, she was more complicated than we acknowledge: she was considered something of a show-boater, a fame-lover, whose PR and connections helped her eclipse the achievements of less glamorous and more dedicated female pilots, like Ruth Law, Louise Thaden or Gladys O'Donnell. Despite her well-known progressive stance, many have pointed out that the only jobs and commitments she really stuck with were those of fame - although an advocate for women's education, she never finished school, and gave up social work when she became famous. In short, she was a complicated person. As Judith Thurman, doubtless wary of a new, simplified canonization in the form of a new Hilary Swank vehicle, puts it, "Earhart was saintlike only as a martyr to her own ambition, who became an object of veneration and is periodically resurrected-her unvarnished glamour, like a holy man's body, still miraculously fresh."
But how much does that matter? Because there's still this.
When she lectured at colleges-as she did frequently, to promote careers for women, especially in aviation-she urged the coeds to focus on majors dominated by men, like engineering, and to postpone marriage until they had got a degree. On Earhart's own wedding day, in 1931, the thirty-three-year-old bride handed her forty-three-year-old groom, George Palmer Putnam, a remarkable letter, which read: 'You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means so much to me. . . . In our life together I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly. . . . I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all the confinements of even an attractive cage.'
Thurman's point is that whatever Earhart was as a woman, an individual, she's been eclipsed by the myth. She's become an "icon" with all that implies - public property whose popular perception is more enduring than any reality. But I'd say that in this case, there's nothing wrong with that. Thurman writes,
Her flights were feats of courage and endurance, but compared with the achievements of the women in her scrapbook their significance was ephemeral. Her unique experience might have yielded a memoir that would still be read, yet she published only three slight books, one of them posthumous, which were rushed out, for commercial reasons, in weeks.
And yet, her legacy is so much greater than that. Whether she deserved to be canonized in the public mind - become the face of bold female courage in a male world - is almost besides the point. There is something to be said for the fact that Amy Adams in flyer helmet and slacks, even in a gratuitous sequel like Night at the Smithsonian, can automatically spell "courageous, brave, pioneering iconoclast" to a little girl. The important thing is that that icon existed, and continued to exist, and has inspired a lot more than biopics.