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Why I don’t like "strong women" August 14, 2007

Posted by Winter in feminist blogging, feminist theory.
1 comment so far

I have problems with the term “strong women.” Since I started reading feminist blogs, I’ve seen it bandied around a lot: we like and admire strong women, we want to be strong women, we want to see strong women represented on television and in films; we want female musicians to convey the impression that they are strong women through their music and self-presentation.

First Problem: this term is practically meaningless. That’s not simply because it’s overused without being defined, it’s because the definition of a “strong woman” is entirely subjective. What’s a strong woman? A hardcore feminist who singlehandedly sets up a women’s centre? A woman who works as a stripper to pay her way through college? A high powered female CEO? A woman who pulls double shifts in TESCO to make sure her kids have everything they need? A female body builder? A woman who smells of extra mature cheddar cheese?

Second and more serious problem: I don’t think the implications of the term “strong women” are exactly pro-women. It’s one of those terms that implies the existence of a binary oppositon. If there are strong women then presumably there are also weak women — women who are not as good as the strong women, women with whom it is not good to identify. Who are the weak women? Does anyone want to answer that one, because I know I don’t? And when we use the term strong woman in any particular context, what values are we affirming? Should feminists happily make use of a term which implies, rather moralistically, that some women are more admirable than others based on arbitrary and subjective notions of female strength. I don’t think so, not least because categorising women in simplistic and often binary terms has long been a feature of gendered oppression. Every woman is complex and multifaceted.

The desire for strong women is often expressed in relation to arts and the media. Sometimes we judge the quality of books and films on the basis of whether or not they contain strong women characters. I undertand this feeling, but I think the language is inadaquate if what we really mean to say is that we don’t want to see sexist and misogynist representations and oversimplistic stereotypes, which is not quite the same thing as requesting more strong women. The last thing I want to read or watch is feminist propaganda packed with amazingly capable, powerful, strong-willed women. I want representations that acknowledge the complexity and range of female experience, and that doesn’t always mean female characters I like, admire or identify with.