This post was intended for International Women's Day; however, work and life have conspired to delay its publication somewhat.
About a year ago I met with a prominent Georgian writer at Prospero's. Somehow the conversation turned to his mother - a woman, he said proudly, who not only cooked and cleaned and took care of her family, but was also extraordinarily educated and had a career in her own right. "Here in Georgia," he crowed, "the women are strong. Men, you see, are weak - women are the strong ones!"
When we first moved to Georgia, I remember my mother marveling at the prevalence of young, educated, powerful women in the workforce - well over half of the government officials, CEOs, ministry members, and businesspeople she met were female. "This is a woman's country," she informed me. Certainly for my mother - who had for so long been the only woman in the boardroom - the visibility of Georgia's woman was enormously inspiring.
Georgia's women, I have been told, are Strong. They are capable of cooking with one hand and doing spreadsheets with the other, of writing up doctoral dissertations while suckling young children. They are - according to this trope - often more intelligent and harder-working than their male counterparts, who are (in their own, often smugly sheepish estimation) merely child-like, venal beasts who need women's Power and Strength to get anything done.
This is far from an exclusively Georgian trope. I've found it equally prevalent in Italy (for more on my love-hate relationship with Italy and my Italian background, check out last year's posts) - on my single, ill-advised foray into teaching EFL to children in Liguria, I failed utterly in convincing the half-dozen twelve-year-old boys in my charge to pull their weight either in the classroom or during mandatory meal-cooking/room-cleaning sessions. (The girls, meanwhile, had internalized the same trope to an equal degree, often refusing to let boys help them clean on the grounds that they were bound to fail, picking up after their male counterparts' messes). I've found it to a similar degree in America, where the trope of the Man Child and the Woman Who Has It All have managed, via Judd Apatow and Sex and the City, to create a grotesquely unbalanced model of gender relations.
It's easy to praise the figure of the Strong Woman - Sophia Loren, Anna Magnani, Almodovar's heroine - as a kind of paradigmatic female, an example of strength intended to serve as a retort to all those irritating feminists like myself who insist on harping on gender inequality: "See? We can't have problems with sexism here! Our women are so Strong! We love our women - if anything, it's the men who are weak!"
The trope of the Strong Woman may not be as immediately offensive as the trope of the Frail Delicate Woman-Child (English sexism, I've found, largely tends to take the latter route: I once had the oh-so enormous privilege of having the Daily Mail charge in to rescue my poor, virginal, tarnished, lily-white honour (while posting bra-less vacation photos of me from my facebook account!) after a drunken idiot heckled me during a Conservative Association debate). In the surface, it's an attractive paradigm of femininity: the Strong Woman is sexually desirable, intellectually capable, maternal, devoted, powerful, complete.
But this very charm renders the trope all the more insidious. What is the myth of the Strong Woman, after all, but a simultaneous abdication of male responsibility and a privileging of cultural "maleness": women should gladly "raise themselves" by entering the traditionally male sphere of the workplace and the university, but God forbid that men - Georgian, Italian, or American - do the reverse: helping with the cooking, cleaning, or childcare. It is acceptable - even encouraged - for a woman to seek out spheres of existence once dominated by maleness; after all, why shouldn't every woman wish to have the dignity of Maleness conferred upon her? But for a man to exist in the feminized sphere of the hearth and home is an implicit lowering: to be feminized is to lose one's dignity.
Those Strong Women my mother met were doubtless, like the Italian girls I taught, educated and highly capable. Yet so many of them are expected to live double lives: to exhaust themselves at work during the day, and exhaust themselves taking care of the home at night. Their perceived strength comes at a price: men, casting themselves in the role of weak children who simply "cannot help themselves", are now required neither to provide nor to nurture. (And somehow, naturally, this is not their own fault but the fault of those damn ball-breaking feminists - at least, according to every hand-wringing "But What About the Men?" piece currently clogging up every opinion column in the country)
The myth of the Strong Woman, furthermore, has even more unsettling implications. It places the onus on women to be the guardians and gatekeepers of responsibility: men "simply cannot" take care of themselves; they "cannot help themselves" - thus it is a woman's job to ensure that the house is kept tidy, the accounts are in order, that that she is not raped. The pervasive sexism informing the trope of the Strong Woman - men are primitive beasts; women are civilizing angels - places the burden of not-being-raped squarely on the shoulders of those who cannot, systematically, prevent it.
It's a paradigm (as, indeed, most sexist paradigms are) as insulting to men as it is to women. It infantilizes a full half of the population while placing an undue burden on the other half. And, as we inculcate our sons with the notion that "boys will be boys" and warn them against loose girls who have the audacity to sleep with them on the first date, as we socialize our daughters to "work hard", keep their heads down, and "avoid boys who are only after one thing", we are - with each generation - making that paradigm a reality.
If I have a daughter, I want her to be a Strong Woman. Not the fetishized, barely-human Strong Woman I see as the secondary lead on male-dominated cop shows (I'm looking at you, Castle) - somehow miraculous in her ability to balance being the object of male desire and the facilitator of his pleasure - but a woman who is capable of entering both traditionally male and traditionally female spheres, breaking down the dichotomies between them, and capable too of asking her partner to pull his or her weight when she needs a helping hand.
And if I have a son, I expect him to be an equally Strong Man.