how to be a dangerous woman (in fiction + life)
I went through a period in my life when people kept telling me how ‘strong’ I was. You must be very strong. You’re such a strong woman. You’re strong!
It got annoying.
And not because I disagreed with the premise.
I just didn’t understand why this wasn’t the assumption to begin with.
The bar for my behavior seemed set rather low. All I had to do to exceed expectations was to refuse to live down to them.
Strength in and of itself is not strategic, and it’s not necessarily powerful, and I wonder if we tend to forget that.
A strategic woman, a powerful woman, is a brilliantly disruptive woman.
I admire women who are dangerous.
But the major reason I tend to roll my eyes when we talk about “strong” women is because – ironically – the whole conversation starts from a place that’s insulting (despite the best intentions). It assumes that ‘we’ are not strong – how could we be? In pop culture, this is the kind of ‘strength’ defined in masculine terms. It creates characters that aren’t real women so much as stereotypes and fantasy figures
alpha professionals whose laserlike focus on career advancement has turned them into grim, celibate automatons; robotic, lone-wolf, ascetic action heroines whose monomaniacal devotion to their crime-fighting makes them lean and cranky and very impatient; murderous 20-something comic-book salesgirls who dream of one day sidekicking for a superhero; avenging brides; poker-faced assassins; and gloomy ninjas with commitment issues.
….a prostitute with a machine gun for a leg or a propulsion engineer with a sideline in avionics whose maternal instincts and belief in herself allow her to take apart an airborne plane and discover a terrorist plot despite being gaslighted by the flight crew
And the thing about fantasies is this: they don’t exist.
And since they don’t exist, they can’t actually threaten the status quo. Buffy slays vampires and looks cute in heels – awesome! But what does that have to do with life as we actually know it? In comparison, the female love interest in the movie STOP LOSS is a more ‘realistic’ female character who is also ‘strong’: she can handle a gun, she demonstrates mad driving skills, she is smart and gutsy and competent because she’s not doing any of that stupid wussy idiotic female stuff, like knitting or baking cupcakes or reading tabloid magazines or getting her nails done or wearing pink or decorating the kids’ treehouse. Goddess forbid.
But we don’t see her driving the plot, forging her destiny or playing her own game. She’s shown in reaction to her boyfriend’s decisions, which he makes independently of her needs and wants. She’s quote-unquote strong, but she isn’t all that powerful.
I can’t help thinking that the whole ‘strong woman’ thing is a kind of decoy: a conversation that keeps us busy but doesn’t actually achieve anything.
The conversation is framed in a way that underscores and reinforces the idea that men are men and women are….not.
It also denies the fact that women have always been strong, birthed babies and held dying children and endured oppression and fought for the rights of others (and sometimes even themselves) and waited for husbands and sons to come back from wars and managed households and worked in factories and lived in the streets and nursed the sick and dying and worked the fields and kept families together and survived domestic violence and sexual violence and started businesses and reinvented themselves and carried water for miles and so on and so on: they saw work that needed to be done and they did it, and they continue to do it.
But that kind of female strength isn’t glamorous or even all that visible or acknowledged. These are not the tasks that win prizes or promotions or partnerships. Meanwhile, slaying vampires and kicking werewolf ass — while wearing tight leather pants – is supposed to be ‘empowering’, in the same way that the strong stoic bare-chested pirate confessing his innermost feelings to some virginal thing who has changed his nature forever is supposed to be ‘romantic’. It’s a very pretty story but it’s a sidestep of reality. It’s a play at feeling powerful without the work and risk and cost involved.
Maybe what we really want to see more of in ourselves isn’t strength so much as achievement and boldness, ambition and power.
(Except I wasn’t entirely comfortable writing those words, and were you comfortable reading them? It’s a weird sort of female taboo, under your skin, still wiggling around.)
Except when a woman takes steps to go after these things – even just to utter the sentence, “I want to be great” – somebody somewhere is going to freak out, and some voice inside her is going to tsk-tsk that nice girls don’t do that kind of thing.
As author and psychotherapist Linda S. Austin puts it:
…women must be even more psychologically brave than their male counterparts to succeed. After all, it is so clearly within the scope of expected male behavior to take independent, autonomous action. The bolder a man of achievement is, the more he is actually conforming to his gender stereotype; his social position becomes safer than ever, and he…gratifies the expectations of his parents, family, and society. For a woman, boldness put her distinctly at odds with the role that society expects of her. She leaves the safety of conformity to group expectations for a solitary adventure that is hers alone.
A powerful man falls into the category of powerful men.
A powerful woman creates (still!) her own category.
She is by her very nature a challenger and a rebel.
She has to defy the ingrained gender norms which encourage a woman to be good…but not great.
To be bright…but not brilliant.
To be creative…but not disruptive or innovative.
To play the game…but not to change it.
To play by the rules…instead of shifting the battlefield, to where she can make new rules.
A powerful woman learns to embrace the contradiction of herself, to work it instead of being pulled apart.
A powerful woman figures out how to rock being herself, instead of letting others define her identity and her reality.
A powerful woman owns her story and creates her own meaning, which fuels motivation and resiliency.
A powerful woman develops capacity for risk and tolerance for failure, and her ability to learn from failure.
A powerful woman defines her own vision and values. She lives her vision, and not a state of constant reaction.
A powerful woman develops her selfhood instead of sacrificing it, piece by piece and bit by bit, to others.
A powerful woman is not afraid to raise the level of her ambition.
A powerful woman knows that at some point she needs to be where the boys are…and where the girls aren’t.
A powerful woman knows her worth. She asks for it.
A powerful woman defines the problems that intrigue her and sets about to solve them and make her contribution.
A powerful woman is a lover and a fighter.
She’s maybe a little bit dangerous.
It’s good to be a little bit dangerous.
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