Monday, March 12, 2012

"The Myth of the Strong Woman"

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.


Shawn Basey said...

One of the problems is that when feminists pushed to be men, they demonized being women. Why would a man want to take the place of a woman, if women themselves have said it's a lower form of existence, to take care of the house, clean, raise the children and such?

And Georgian men are coddled to extreme ridiculousness. Even boys in my English classes had their sisters carry their book bags for them. WTF? I thought men were inherently stronger, shouldn't the older brother be carrying lil sis's book bag? But older brother, at least, makes a long toast about how wonderful his sister is. That at least must count for something.

I personally am a Mannist, believing that men still have a place in society that women can't fulfill, just as women have a place we can't fulfill. Men should open doors, carry heavy stuff, use power tools, change light bulbs, mow the lawn, take out the trash, and know which wine goes with what food (I'm also not opposed to cooking and cleaning). Men and women need each other. We were, biologically speaking, made for each other. Household chores, who works on what and all, should be divvied up, naturally - it's the business of the couple, NOT of society. But I hate that part of the message of women's empowerment is that the woman must first be devalued and turned into men in order to be valuable assets to a family or society.

Fleur Flaneur said...

Shawn, I think we fundamentally agree, but I'm highly uncomfortable with the notion that it's "feminists" who have demonized being women. Rather, the demonization (as it were) of the female sphere is massively more pervasive (and far older) than a mere by-product of second wave feminism: rather, I think it springs from the fundamental assertion that what is male is normative and what is female is necessarily Other and hence, whether inferior (as in the case of our treatment of "female" jobs like teaching in the workplace) or superior (the myth of the Strong Woman), rather than merely "equally human." Women themselves have said it - but so (from Plato onwards) have men.

I'm deeply uncomfortable with your statement "feminists pushed to be men." I don't think that's really indicative of feminism as a movement at all. I *do* agree that there were some serious problems with second-wave feminism: namely, that it rebelled (rightly) against oppressive social structures without (less rightly) examining the degree to which they themselves had internalized the "male sphere = superior" dichotomy. An ideal fourth (or whatever)-wave feminism would, for me, encourage both men and women to participate fully, equally, and in mutual partnership in all aspects of human life.

What do you mean by "men still have a place in society that women can't fulfill" (or vice versa). From your examples, which are based fairly in overall physical prowess, it seems that - in the case that a given woman is physically stronger than a given man - it's just as fair to assume the opposite. Why not say, rather "some people have a place in society that others cannot fill" - recognizing that each individual brings to the table certain strengths and weaknesses (some engendered by physical makeup, some - more insidiously - engendered by gender-based socialization). By and large, Burly Men can do what I, a Tiny Girl, cannot (and my boyfriend helps me carry my boxes!) But that's very much a result of the individual woman and man in question. (My boyfriend is vastly neater than I am and does most of the cleaning/laundry - I've got much better financial/entrepreneurial sense than he does and tend to be better at finding ways to earn/save money). Why do we need to raise the question of gender dichotomy at all?

But your final point - that the feminine sphere is devalued as a result of aspects of second-wave feminism - is a fair and valid one, and one that I think is as much as a result of the patriarchy (yes, I said the p-word) as the conditions that those same second-wave feminists have railed against. An ideal form of combating sexism would involve not only the opening of traditionally "male" spheres to women, but also the increased valuation of "female spheres" such that men too will want to (and, in many cases, already want to but will feel socially able to) take on those roles as well.

Ultimately, I envision a world in which "male" and "female" roles become largely meaningless, and both partners (whether heterosexual, homosexual, trans, genderqueer, or what have you) share in all aspects of existences. Such a world would allow for individuals to bring their own talents (whether it's physical strength or the ability to bear children) to the table without the assumption that these individual actions or abilities define gender roles as a whole.

Slow Learner said...

Here is where I feel it appropriate to refer to Ozy's Law [as shamelessly stolen from the excellent ]
Ozy's Law states:
"It is impossible to form a stereotype about either of the two primary genders without simultaneously forming a concurrent and complementary stereotype about the other"
I think that the Myth of the Strong Woman fits this perfectly, and you have articulated it very well.
While to me it seems axiomatic that equality is better than complementary separate-but-"equal" spheres, it is obvious that we can't put the genie back in the bottle. The only way to reach a new social equilibrium is to push forwards, breaking down assumptions and gender roles.
And there's a long way to go - a lot of people see the fact that I (a man) am having a woman be best man at my forthcoming wedding as shocking. Because obviously, as a man(-child), all my close friends should be other men(-children).

Fleur Flaneur said...

@Slow Learner - I do enjoy that site!

And I don't find it strange at all - should Very English Boyfriend and I get married (we're currently looking at applying for Unmarried Partner Visa status for me), I'm quite set in wanting Bridesmen (though I have some great female friends, my best 3-4 friends are male), and he may consider some Groomsmaids (as he is quite the reverse - for the past two years running, he's lived exclusively with female housemates. According to the Rules of the Rom Com, I should be insanely jealous that he will cheat on me with one of them; instead - surprise! - I find them all lovely and charming. He, likewise, finds it a non-issue when I mention that one of my best male friends has spent the night (platonically) in my bed to avoid an hour's walk home at midnight. Apparently we're Doing Our Relationship Wrong.