Why We Should Jettison the “Strong Female Character,” Part III

Click HERE for part 1 of this series, and HERE for part 2.

The recurring characterization problems with such Strong Female Characters arise in no small measure from the struggle to show that men and women are interchangeable and can compete and cooperate with each other on the same terms. As I have already noted, this falsehood serves no one. It sets women up for frustration and failure as they have to justify their agency on men’s terms and it produces an embarrassment about male strengths that should be celebrated rather than stifled. It reflects a drive towards intense gender integration and de-differentiation in the wider world.

The traditional world of women—typically a different existential and intersubjective mapping of spaces that were shared with men—has been reduced through the migration of work away from the home, the expanding social role of the state and its agencies, the shrinking and contracting of families, the thinning out of neighborhoods, and the removal of much of the burden of domestic labour through technology. One’s value in society has also become increasingly contingent upon advanced educational attainment, career, wealth, and consumption. Within this new situation, women have had to forge new identities within worlds created by men and which play to male strengths. Shrunk to a sentimental reservation of domesticity, there is relatively little dignity to be found in what remains of traditional female worlds in most Western societies.

Often natural differences in tendencies and aptitudes between the sexes (as groups, there is plenty of individual variation and departure from the norm) replicate themselves in the wider economic world. Women are frustrated as their desire to have children and raise families prevents them from earning as much as their male counterparts, or enjoying the same social prominence. Women’s greater natural orientation towards relational and caring activities leads to their underrepresentation within the more lucrative and powerful professions. Women are drawn to subjects and occupations that are more personal, artistic, and relational, while men to those that are more realistic, investigative, and thing-based. Despite the expense of considerable money and effort to change male and female preferences, they are surprisingly resistant to change in many respects.

On men’s part, male dominance in realms of high achievement is frequently and often instinctively characterized as pathological. There is a zero-sum social game being played between the sexes and male privilege is a sign of a great injustice, something about which men should feel guilty. The possibility that men dominate because the realms in which they dominate play to their various strengths as a group or involve areas where they produce the most exceptional performers is not an idea that can be entertained in many quarters.

The push for ‘diversification’ and ‘inclusion’ can be a threat to many male groups because their natural rougher socializing tendencies are stigmatized, they are no longer permitted to play to their strengths, and their shared cultures and cultural products are jeopardized by a sort of gender gentrification imposed upon them. The existence of extreme misogyny in many of their reactions to such developments should not be allowed to disguise the presence of understandable concerns (and definitely vice versa too), even where the appropriate response to these concerns may not be that of wholly rejecting the diversification.

We have moved from a situation with distinct worlds of gendered activity—albeit typically deeply interwoven and involving extensively overlapping spaces—to one in which men and women are being pressed into a single intersubjective and existential world, one that was traditionally male. The result is a stifling of men, as manliness becomes a social threat and male strength a problem to be solved. Male strengths have to be discouraged to give women more scope for expression and achievement. Women, on the other hand, are caught in a world that seems rigged against them. The Strong Female Character is one way in which the anxieties, insecurities, resentments, and embarrassments produced by such a situation register in our imaginary worlds.

It is also a revelation of a failure of imagination. Fictional worlds are places in which we can explore possibilities for identity and agency. The fact that women’s stature as full agents is so consistently treated as contingent upon such things as their physical strength and combat skills, or upon the exaggerated weakness or their one-upping of the men that surround them, is a sign that, even though men may be increasingly stifled within it, women are operating in a realm that plays by men’s rules. The possibility of a world in which women are the weaker sex, yet can still attain to the stature and dignity of full agents and persons—the true counterparts and equals of men—seems to be, for the most part, beyond people’s imaginative grasp. This is a limitation of imagination with painful consequences for the real world, and is one of the causes of the high degree of ressentiment within the feminist movement.

Heroic Women and Good Story Telling

The Bechdel Test originally appeared within the comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. It is an informal test to determine whether or not a film passes the lowest bars for the portrayal of women: 1. Does it have at least two women in it? 2. Do the women talk to each other? 3. Do they talk about something other than a man? It is a helpful heuristic tool for alerting people to the degree to which women and their intersubjective worlds fail to appear within the frame of so many movies and works of fiction. It is far from scientific, nor is it an accurate tool for determining the existence of stunted portrayal of women more generally, but it does often provide an initial indication of limitations or problems.

One of its limitations might be in its tendency to focus our attention too narrowly upon individual movies, and less upon the world as represented in movies more generally. Few films offer anything like a comprehensive vision of the worlds their narratives operate within. The expectation of strong female representation in every film would be, in part, a failure to grant the legitimacy of realms that peculiarly play to the interests and aptitudes of one sex or the other.

The fact that men and women as groups typically have different foci of interest, activity, and identity is so frequently treated as if it were a problem, but there is no reason why it needs to be. The existence of films that focus upon male characters and contain few female ones is not a bad thing: Homosociality has always been a hugely significant element of male identity and formation and characterizes many areas of men’s activity. The problem lies with the lack of corresponding films for women, especially films that explore what it means to be a woman who achieves full agency playing to female strengths and according to women’s rules. The problem also lies with the lack of female characters that teach men to respect women as women, not only to the extent that they can play to male strengths. Without denying that some women can and do effectively play to male strengths, they should not have to do so in order to be valued as full agents.

There are some film-makers who have recognized this. Hayao Miyazaki, the great Japanese animation director, is one example. Miyazaki has produced several children’s films that have robustly characterized female lead protagonists, whose centrality is made possible, not by the narrative choice to give them exceptional martial abilities, but by the greater scope of his imagination and his desire to explore and celebrate more feminine forms of subjectivity and agency. Such films are typically a delight to watch, not least because, although they are championing a deep appreciation of women’s agency, (inter)subjectivity, and strength, Miyazaki largely resists the urge to play a zero-sum game, or to suggest that men and women are interchangeable. He sees the strength and dignity of women to lie, in no small measure in the fact that they are different from men.

And this enables him to tell far more interesting stories. Miyazaki has spoken of the fact that he prefers female characters precisely because they make it easier to break out of the male narrative model of the hero gaining independence and violently defeating an evil opponent:

When I think about making a male a lead, it gets really intricate. The problem isn’t simple. I mean, if it’s a story like, “everything will be fine once we defeat him,” it’s better to have a male as a lead. But, if we try to make an adventure story with a male lead, we have no choice other than doing Indiana Jones. With a Nazi, or someone else who is a villain in anyone’s eyes.

Miyazaki’s preference for female protagonists liberates him to tell stories where the heroine often achieves her ‘victory’ through reconciliation, understanding, or feeling and to create worlds whose characters aren’t simply morally black and white, as they tend to be within the narrative arcs encouraged by more typically male modes of agency. His characters are very often far from stereotypes, but nor are they driven by some need to break them. They are marked by such things as curiosity, desire for knowledge, concern for others, love for family, pacifism, longing for adventure, etc. They are not all conventionally attractive, unmarried and childless highly able-bodied young women: although some possess remarkable physical powers, many others are young girls or older ladies, others are wives and mothers.

The Strong Female Character, by contrast, is in large part sustained by the unimaginative and stunting scope of the story-telling in many Western movies; rejecting this trope in favor of characters that are more attentive to women’s actual strengths may be part of the solution to it.

The Heroism of Lady Wisdom

In this article, I have argued against our overdependence upon the Strong Female Character trope. This trope, I have argued, arises from the anxieties and concerns of a society where the insistent differences between the sexes are an obstacle that must be resisted or overcome in order to form a gender neutral world. Our concerns about ‘representation’ in fictional media are also elevated by the degree to which the spectacle—and the spectacle of our spectation—has come to constitute our reality.

In concluding, however, I want to alert us to the fact that the constraining power of the Strong Female Character trope upon our imagination has led us to miss the profound strength of many real women, a strength that takes a very different form from the stereotype-attacking heroines of the screen.

This can be seen, among other places, in our reading of Scripture. The assumption that the strength and agency of women is to be found primarily in the breaking of gender norms and in measuring up to or competing with men in realms in which they dominate has often led to a profoundly constrained appreciation of the female characters in Scripture. Characters like Deborah and Jael—a judge who was involved in warfare and a woman who killed a man with a tent-peg while he slept—receive great appreciation, while other characters can be neglected.

It is interesting to notice, for instance, how much attention the biblical text gives to the most uniquely female activity of all—the bearing of children—and to the other womanly activities that surround that. In the stories of Sarah, of Rebekah, of Rachel and Leah, of the Hebrew midwives, Jochebed, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter, of Ruth, or of Mary and Elizabeth we see that the bearing of children isn’t just a passive activity, but is one of the most powerful, prominent, and pivotal activities of all.

The dawn of the great new movements of God repeatedly occurs in women’s spaces. The choice of Jacob over Esau occurs in Rebekah’s womb and Rebekah is the one who ensures that God’s choice is honoured. The births of the twelve children of Jacob—who would become the twelve tribes of Israel—are narrated in terms of God’s dealings with and remembering of the wives of Jacob. The story of the Exodus begins with the heroism of women in bearing and rescuing Moses and other Hebrew boys. The story of the kingdom begins with the prayer of Hannah in the temple for a son. The story of the gospel begins with the blessedness and faithfulness of Mary and Elizabeth. Women’s position on the frontline of God’s work in history has nothing to do with them having to be Strong Female Characters yet, when we misidentify true female strength in such a manner, we may miss this fact entirely. These women typically elude flat stereotypes, but they aren’t preoccupied with inverting and subverting them—which is often just another manner in which people can be bound by them.

Scripture celebrates the strength of women. Proverbs 31:10-31 is a striking example here. In twenty-two statements concerning the ‘valorous woman’ (v.10), the writer extols the virtues of the wise wife. These statements are an alphabetical acrostic, in which the entire book is summed up in the complete woman, who covers all of the bases from aleph to tav. The placement of this passage at the end of the book is not accidental, some awkward appending of excess material to the conclusion of the collection. Rather, it brings the underlying themes of the book to full and true resolution. It is the capstone of the book.

Here the book’s interwoven themes of the young man’s quest for love and the search for wisdom arrive at a poetic resolution in a climactic statement that unites them. The figure of Lady Wisdom, by whom God created the world, is incarnated in the virtuous wife. Peter Leithart observes:

The portrait reaches back to the beginning of Proverbs and the portrait of wisdom. Like Lady Wisdom, the excellent wife’s value is far above jewels (v. 10; cf. 3:15; 8:11). Like Lady Wisdom, the excellent wife offers food (31:15; cf. 9:2, 5). The excellent wife brings gain (31:11), like Wisdom (cf. 3:14). Wisdom begins from the fear of Yahweh, which is precisely what animates the excellent wife (31:30).

This woman is described in striking language. ‘Virtuous wife’ literally means ‘woman of valor’. She is characterized by strength (vv.17, 25). She gets ‘plunder’ (v.11) and ‘prey’ (v.15) for her family. She girds herself with strength (v.17), like a warrior heading out to battle. She rejoices and is celebrated like a hero returning from a great victory. She is the powerful wise woman, who through the prudent ruling of her household, brings prosperity and joy to her husband and family, and is honoured by all who know her. Beauty and charm are deceitful and fleeting, yet this woman is marked out by enduring faithfulness and determined action.

The manner and the content of this characterization are instructive for us in considering the true strength of women as recognized and celebrated by Scripture. It is a portrait that explicitly resists the reduction of women to the passivity of beauty (v.30), focusing rather upon the prudence, economy, wisdom, providence, faith, productivity, and industry of their activity. More striking still,

…the woman’s work is domestic, economic, craft-work, and yet the poem celebrates it in heroic terms. A heroic poem for someone engaged in domestic labor is remarkable in the ancient world, and shows something of how God regards the work of women. The great battle of the world is between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman—not the seed of the man! In their care for their households, wise women are on the front lines of God’s holy war.

Our failure to see the heroism and the strength of such a diligent and active woman is a failure to see the world as God does. The strength of such a woman is not that of conformity to more typically male forms of strength, but rather of the reflection of the work of the master creator, Lady Wisdom, within her own world of activity.

As we start to perceive the problems with the Strong Female Character and the prevailing ‘empowering’ representations of women within much of our entertainment media—representations that substitute for and dissemble, yet arise from the anxieties of, real world weaknesses—a new way of seeing may be opened up to us. Without ever needing to deny the truth that women are in some important senses the ‘weaker vessel’, or to downplay or resist the strengths of men, we can arrive at a position from which we can see profound strength in places and persons we never thought to look for it in. Rather than trying to craft new stereotype-assaulting representations, we may find that God’s representation of women thoroughly eludes such strictures, without obsessively rebelling against them. Here new possibilities emerge—representation without ressentiment, celebration without competition, differentiation without diminishment.

Originally published at Mere Orthodoxy.

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham) is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast and is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scriptureseries on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged. This post was originally posted on his blog