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Debra Winger is a boss

How an emblematic actress’ nuanced portrayals of femininity have fiercely shifted my perspective

Winger’s many contrasting yet uncommonly comparable characters embodied a compassionate feistiness that I was immediately drawn to emulate — she is universally captivating.
Winger’s many contrasting yet uncommonly comparable characters embodied a compassionate feistiness that I was immediately drawn to emulate — she is universally captivating.

There have been a plethora of vices I have turned to in the past year. I admit that the hours I spent watching reality TV, browsing my computer or aimlessly wandering around my neighborhood pondering ways in which I could possibly pass the time were unremarkable. I became comfortable with the notion that my social life in quarantine would largely entail watching movies with my parents — I grew to discern this as equally therapeutic and emotionally contemplating. Whether it was watching “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” in a specifically nostalgic effort to forget my pains by embracing a bellied laughter, or escaping reality in Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” when a craving for aesthetic and surrealist cinema hit, this understanding of film largely prompted my alternative to self-reflection during the pandemic. 

My most recent — and most treasured — cinematic vice has been actively unpacking the many powerful, vulnerable and assertive characters played by the ‘80s actress and Academy Award nominee Debra Winger. Despite having grown up watching myriad movies with my mom and dad, I can honestly say that I had not wholly identified with any actress prior to my introduction to Debra Winger. 

Winger’s many contrasting yet uncommonly comparable characters embodied a compassionate feistiness that I was immediately drawn to emulate — she is universally captivating. This captivation lies somewhere between her endearing innocence and earnest allegiance to her unrelenting selfhood. There are three movies that specifically embody Winger’s unapologetic female power — “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Urban Cowboy” and “Terms of Endearment” all keenly display her unruly amalgamation of warmth and energy. My introduction to Winger’s girlish yet womanly dynamism felt tardy, and, in our first cinematic encounter, I was empathetically fascinated by Winger’s performance.

I vividly remember a quiet Wednesday evening at home — I sunk into our living room couch to watch a movie. It was my dad’s pick, and he insisted on watching “An Officer and a Gentleman.” In this 1982 classic, Debra Winger plays the endearing, sympathetic and clever Paula Pokrifki. Paula lives in the small Washington town of Port Townsend — a town to which young aspiring naval officers venture to obtain various certifications, and a place where the female locals are portrayed as stagnantly waiting to be swept off their feet and out of Washington. Despite her peers’ ardent hunger to exploit young naval trainees as vehicles to a larger world, Paula consistently harnesses a moral strength that defines her character as modestly exemplary — I instantly recognized her integrity as admirable. 

The next evening it was my turn to pick a film — given my instantaneous pull towards Paula, I decided that we would watch Winger in her star making role. In “Urban Cowboy,” Winger’s Sissy is just as endearing as Paula, but with a sass that parallels her unyielding charm. Sissy’s character paradoxically defies and embraces expectations of femininity — I resonate with Sissy’s daring existence that is simultaneously contextualized within honest, patriarchal expectations of her Pasadena, Texas surroundings. Sissy unabashedly embraces her personal agencies to challenge the embedded expectations of womanhood in this powerful, playful performance. 

Finally — in her most emotionally ponderous performance in “Terms of Endearment” — Winger’s Emma is both circumstantially disparate from Paula and Sissy, yet symmetrically exhibits a distinctive womanhood that is rousing. Despite having grown up in Houston’s esteemed River Oaks neighborhood, Emma is not afraid to forgo external expectations and not bound by the monied traditions of her family. Without spoiling the touching intricacies of the film’s narrative, I shall confirm that in the face of tragic pain Emma remains lionhearted — I hope that someday I am thought of as the same. 

In all of these roles, Winger plays a dreamer — her imaginative energy and forcefully transcendent personalities have awakened a similar spirit within my own. The nuanced women that she portrays cannot be tamed to a specific categorization of femininity, and this is what lies at the root of her power. The critical personal, societal and identity-oriented reflection that Debra Winger’s many roles have provoked within me is unparalleled. Next time you find yourself indecisively scrolling through Hulu or Apple TV, I encourage you to take a chance on one of these films — you’ll laugh, you’ll cry and I guarantee that you, too, will think Debra Winger is a boss.

Willa Hancock is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com.

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