The Problem With “Strong Women”
One of the niftiest things about the patriarchy is it manages to take even those things that should be good for women, and turn them against us. Take the trope of the “Strong Woman.” It sounds complimentary — like it would be recognising the fact that women are just as strong as men, breaking the stereotype of the “weaker sex.” But the way the phrase is actually used, it is generally done so either to celebrate women that put up with sexism — especially women who also suffer further forms of oppression, for instance, the “Strong Black Woman” trope. It serves as a way of minimising Black women’s suffering and questioning their right to change. Either that or it is used to dress the portrait of unicorn “strong women” figures, to consolidate the idea that the average woman is not strong, or to show that making it to the top is possible even in the face of sexism. Any woman who has not managed to break the glass ceiling must just spend too much time being weak and complaining about it all.
The Strong Woman is A Unicorn
From Katniss Everdeen to Annalise Keating, TV and films have a whole new array of what we often refer to as “strong female characters”. Meaning, in general, women with traits and activities traditionally considered “masculine,” like fighting or being highly ambitious and career driven. The problem with these characters is they actually end up reinforcing the idea that women generally aren’t strong — as implied in the very phrase, “strong female characters.” You would never say “Bruce Willis plays a strong male character is this latest movie.”
Strong female characters don’t really have the effect of giving a more accurate representation of women, but of singling out certain woman, and using them as the exception that confirms the rule. We really haven’t come that far forward from Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, in which “tomboy” Georgina was considered “almost as good as a boy.” How Vintage-Chic our sexism is. Let’s celebrate with a 50s tea dress and some radioactive face cream.
Plus, the fact that strength is still portrayed through traditionally “masculine” characteristics further devalues those seen as “feminine,” suggesting, yet again, that the only way to be “strong” is to hide your “girliness” and everything you have been taught to be as a woman. Why can’t movies should show the strength of traditional “feminine” qualities, in both men and women? They should show that being loving, caring and generous is a strength, just like trying to solve issues through talking not violence.
The other effect of singling out certain women to portray as particularly strong, whether in films or in the media, is often to send the message that sexism is only really a problem because women are spending too much time whining about it. It’s a way of saying, “Look, these women have made it to the top. If you haven’t, that is clearly your fault. It is because you are not a strong woman.” The same mechanism is used to justify a deeply unequal system, by pointing to a few people who made it in spite of all odds. You shouldn’t have to be exceptional to be allowed to reach a place you deserve as much as any other.
There’s nothing we can’t do if we work hard, never sleep, and shirk all other responsibilities in our lives.
— Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation
The “Strong Woman” is Oppressed
When White people go travelling in less privileged countries, and countries where sexism is still more widespread, there is one condescending comment which is often made. “Yeah, sexism is bad here,” people will say. “But the women are also really strong! I mean look at how women yell at guys selling vegetables on the market! It is easy to see who is the boss at home! HaHaHa. ” It is meant as a compliment, but really it is as ignorant and revelatory of white privilege as saying “OMG People here are so poor! They have nothing! But don’t they look happy!”
Back home, too, there is a tendency to associate “strength” with the certain groups of women that suffer from several forms of oppression at once, women from the working classes, or women of colour in particular. It isn’t really a compliment, but often a way in which white feminists minimise what other women go through, and dismiss the importance of causes which affect less privileged groups. It is a way of saying “Meh, it’s fine, they can deal with it.”
In Yes! Magazine, Shawn Ricks wrote a powerful piece about this issue, and how African American women have interiorised this identity as a coping mechanism. Ms Ricks talks about her grandmother, who never rested, and died of heart disease. “We are paying for this myth we’ve bought into with our lives,” she writes. Rates of heart disease, stress, obesity, and other physical, as well as mental ailments, are particularly high amongst African American women.
Normalizing chaos is a coping mechanism. It’s what Black women have passed on and collectively reinforced, generation after generation, perpetuating the strong Black woman stereotype. This accepted idea that Black women have an extraordinary strength beyond that of other women — that we feel no pain, we don’t cry, we don’t need help — has done us more harm than good.
Black women are taught to push through, keep going, and endure difficult times without protest. Asking for help — or even believing that we’re deserving of it — is a sign of weakness and vulnerability that we’ve been taught we cannot afford.
— Shawn Ricks
Women’s Strength & How It Can Be Instrumentalised to Strengthen the Status Quo
Resilience is an admirable quality, and women do show proof of it every day, just surviving in this sexist society. But the way we celebrate resilience as a quality can be harmful in itself. It might require strength to put up with all the BS, but it takes strength to question it too. Calling sexism out isn’t whining or fussing. Too often women are celebrated for their ability to suffer in silence, and women that denounce the violence they face are considered weak. This gives a strong incentive for people in positions of oppression not to speak up. Women’s resilience should not be used as an excuse for things to stay the same.
The same mentality exists in abusive relationships. Women who stay with abusive partners are often portrayed as weak, as though they don’t have the power to walk away. But many women remain because they think that is a way of showing strength. They tell themselves they are strong enough to deal with what is happening, strong enough to walk away when things get worse. They tell themselves they are strong enough to cope, and so they accept the unacceptable.
With everything women have to go through, it is obvious that we are strong. I just hope that one day, we won’t need to be this strong.