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.

She’s dangerous.

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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Aug 24, 2011

25 comments · Add Yours

Awesome. Just awesome.


As always, you challenge me to dig a little deeper in my thinking, and for that I am grateful. You’ve addressed a lot in this article, and I’ll be engaging with your ideas for awhile, I am sure.

About the danger aspect, what do you think a powerful woman endangers?

To me, the danger of being a powerful woman is being alienated from others.

The danger for a strong woman is not being liked, being misunderstood, being separate. She has to seek others for whom her power isn’t threatening.

The danger of a powerful woman is that others’ perceptions of women are at risk. You can see the confusion on someone’s face when you tell them you don’t have a husband, children, house, or job. They don’t know where to place you. They default to feeling sorry for you because you aren’t playing the role of the good woman.

What’s at risk at the hands of a strong woman are stereotypes, shallow thinking, and comfortable assumptions. Reading your work, I know that my beliefs and thoughts are going to be challenged.

I’m curious to know what you consider dangerous about a strong woman. The points you list in 6 are exciting to me, not dangerous.

Thanks, Justine, for being you and for having the brains and the courage and heart to write from your truths.


As always, Justine, your post came at a good moment in my life. I was actually having doubts about having been a woman always in search of being strong any way she could. Our environment as women forces us to rethink our role from time to time as we are not supposed to live to far outside the box compared to our male counterparts. Thanks as always for your insightful vision.


Is a woman a woman or is she defined by the group ‘women’? There is no individuality in the use of ‘We.’

We should be defined as ‘me’ first. Then by what ever roll we take on. Be it father, mother, sister, brother friend, man or woman. What ever the roll is. 

I believe, it’s something that came out of the 60’s power movements. A breaking up of everyone into groups, because there is power in being a victim. That’s why there is an implied assumption that you are not strong, and need to be told your strong. Didn’t you know that women are an oppressed  minority and need to be told how strong you are so you can fight the ‘man.’

Or is it a false sense that if you say something enough time it becomes reality. Of not actually looking at the person to see if they are strong, but to just say that to them, “You are strong!”(What ever ‘strong’ means.) This leads to a false sense of strength.  And can be used as an excuse.  A reason not to have to do the work to be come strong or stronger, because it already is so. How, because I said so that’s how. But what about positive thinking/reinforcement? 
Positive thinking/reinforcement with out action is just wishful thinking.

Why do we allow ourselves to be defined by or even put into groups?

Why do we allow ourselves to be defined by others?



Wow this resonated with me. Especially this line: She has to defy the ingrained gender norms which encourage a woman to be good…but not great.

Often times when people say: “you have to be strong” or “You’ve such strength” they are often encouraging you to deny your own desires and toe the expected line. For ex., stay in a marriage for the sake of the kids. Just as you have to define who you are and what you want…you also have to define your own strengths.


Thanks for your inspiring post.For me strength has come to mean achieving control over my emotions.I’m torn as I attempt this because runaway emotions seems to be a woman’s issue. I wonder as I strategize to keep my emotions at bay, if I’m not muting a valuable female part of myself.

I agree with you that admiring a strong woman is demeaning because it sets the bar down with the hand wringing, nagging, irrational behavior we constantly see from women (on TV and real life).This behavior was likely once a legitimate form of survival as it aided in a woman’s ability to maintain the relationships necessary to raising children.Maintaining a healthy group dynamic is nuanced and demands constant emotional pinging. But this behavior now seems to be a huge handicap.

Worry is exhausting and terribly inefficient but women are more prone to worry than men. I feel if I’m going to achieve what I want to achieve in my life I have to “man up,” and it annoys me that I think in these terms.


“Maybe what we really want to see more of in ourselves isn’t strength so much as achievement and boldness, ambition and power. ”

Actually, reading that got me excited and going, “yes” this!”

But then, I am perhaps a dangerous woman myself. In leaving my marriage I’ve been called brave and strong, and that was affirming to hear, but when I think about it – you’re so right. Taking charge of a situation I’m not happy with, changing that situation? Being proactive and accepting that I am allowed to have needs and they can be met? That’s … brave?

I’ve taken to saying, unapologetic, that I win life.


@Cynthia Morris I use the word ‘dangerous’ because it’s unsettling, it has the power to disrupt and change the game, it makes some people uneasy, it creates some controversy, it goes into those areas of what a woman is not supposed to be and not supposed to want (at least for herself; it’s fine to want those things for other people, like your husband or your kids) etc. As well as for all the reasons you mentioned.


The very term “strong woman” already puts the two genders at odds before any conversation even starts.

I’ll be the first to admit I have some sexism in me—I’m a product of my times, and more unfortunately, pornography (which is a whole story unto itself; hmmm, maybe I need to write that…)—but I don’t want to BE sexist. I work at not being, but if I’m tired or on autopilot or thinking about sex, I can fall into it.

I like confident women, women who feel good about themselves and go after the things they want. But I also like a woman who is vulnerable and open. I think the “strong woman” thing automatically assumes the former negates the latter; i.e., a woman needs to be a bitch to be strong. Not true.

Hundreds of years of a patriarchal society is taking a long time to erode, but it’s happening.

Reading this over, I have no idea what the hell I’m trying to say. But I’m posting it anyway.


This is epic.

I’m working on a shared work with my oldest son (10 years old) — fantasy/sci-fi with a female lead character. He writes from the point of view of the kids. I write the main storyline, then he matches it.

I’ve been struggling with my side a bit, plus life overall in that I just started a web magazine and we’re in growing pains, so this just hit me RIGHT when I needed it.

I will be blogging a response about this soon.

Thank you!


Yeah, I think that’s the big problem with that particular idea of ‘strength’, for men and for women — it denies the very real strength and power of vulnerability. There is *power* in being open and vulnerable — by choice, not necessarily by compulsion — it can make you stronger because of how it draws other people to you, makes your experience a shared, relatable experience and fosters interdependency — look at how it builds trust and credibility online, which builds influence, and look at how powerful *that* is.


Jess, a book I recommend for you — which someone recommended to me — and I think you’ll really resonate with — Slaying the Mermaid: Women + the Culture of Sacrifice.

(Note how you also felt compelled to say that you’re ‘unapologetic’. Interesting, isn’t it?)


@justine “To play by the rules…instead of shifting the battlefield, so she can play by her own rules.”

Choosing one’s own battlefield is always advantageous, whether its making the most of social capital or something else. I have been damned by many sides in stating that in college, for example, women are expected to throw their uteruses out the window and act like a man.

No! I am a woman, not a man. Motherhood (at 19 I might add) has taught me to love being a woman. But, when you’re taught to run with the big boys your whole life by trying to be like them, it’s tough. Instead, we should learn to run with those who are standing up and making choices for themselves, even if that place is run by men right now.


Good point. Huh. I’m going to the library today, will look it up and also The Princess that you recommended. :)

Interestingly, I scheduled this post for today:


Two things:

1. Strong men and women are made out of the same stuff. They’re intelligent, they’re talented, they’re hard working, they’re ambitious. The difference between a strong person and a weak person (who may have all of those traits) is that the weak person is usually averse to conflict. If you try to sail the ocean, you’re going to make waves. The strong person accepts this, the weak person worries about how the people on shore are going to feel when those waves hit.

2. People need to stop basing a woman’s value based on her children/family. Here is a chick who did a pretty badass thing — she was the first reporter to report live from Gafaddi’s compound in Libya. She rode with the rebels in a convoy and reported live when other journalists were turning away — that’s pretty badass, regardless of sex. So what does the article say?

“Mother-of-four Crawford later trumped her rivals again by becoming the first television journalist to report live from Colonel Gaddafi’s compound in Tripoli.”

When was the last time you saw an article about a male journalist start with “Father of three Smith reported live from the war-zone.”


The tittle of the post is “how to be a dangerous woman (in fiction + life)” not, ‘how to be a dangerous woman (in fiction + life) if those around me approve and allow me to’

You can define yourself or you can let others define you.

Dave Sheperd not to call you out and pick on you, but I am. People are going to say and think what ever it is that they do. To your point #2 do you think that the reporter cares what others think of what she’s doing, or is it she’s just living her life doing. What she wants.
Do you think she wakes up going and think, what gender stereo types can I break to day. Or is she just living her life. Maybe that is her whole reason for doing it. I don’t know I’m not her, and she can’t control what others say and think.

Maybe the news article was trying to build her up, not tear her down. Look she’s all this, and she still does this. It’s all on how we look at being a mother and homemaker, that defines how and what we read into how the reporter is described in the news article. I think this says more about us then it does about what she does or doesn’t do.

Just, my 2 cents,


Love this with a passion! I’ve always been a bit dangerous – pushing outside the glass ceiling when it wasn’t done. Fought for my place at management’s table – then tossed it to be kick-ass on my own. Love this. But women are strong by nature, IMO. In whatever they do. While I’m anything but feminine, I adore seeing a women step up and excell being, well, pink and lacy and all Susie-homemaker, too. Being strong in whatever direction she wants to be. It’s empowering.


Justine, I love you.

Since my “radical feminist awakening” in college, conversations like this have been way less common than I would have wished. (Has nothing changed in the past couple of decades?)

Thank you for so eloquently writing the truth.


I always enjoy your posts because they’re not only well-written but make me think. Sometimes they even make me think about the way I think, as this one does. Thanks for the brain exercise.



Thank you. Very timely for me–I’ve got a one-year-old daugter, and this past year I’ve thought daily about how women are in the world, how men view them, and my part in helping her grow into a strong woman.

Thank god my wife’s there to counterbalance my plan to keep her in the basement until she’s 25. My daughter, that is.


“But we don’t see her driving the plot, forging her destiny or playing her own game.” The only time a woman is portrayed as ‘strong’ in a film is when her character is a psychopath. Then she’s written with a will and a plan of her own.
I’ve received the “Be strong”, “You’re so strong” encouragement and that’s all it is. They kindly hope that saying you’re strong will make you a strong person, because hey somehow don’t really believe you’re strong.
I believe in marking yourself as a little dangerous and quietly strong…a ‘don’t underestimate me, don’t cross me’ kind of attitude, which I’ve always carried. Like you and many others, I’ve done what was necessary to get through difficult times and deal with tough situations. i don’t need someone to tell me I’m strong. I’ve live strong, damning those stereotypes. So do you, i’ve noticed.
Thanks for another amazing and thoughtful post. Love the way you express yourself!


Thank you for yet another incredible post. I can’t help but think how deeply this connects to being a writer- how it is a bold step to take and to feel confident about it.

I’m retweeting and linking this on my blog.


I am a feminist Dad raising 2 bright, articulate, confident, self-aware girls. My eldest is now working on her master’s degree in Pharmacology, which she will receive next year at the age of 21. She has a bumper sticker that says “Well-behaved women seldom make history” and she has always blazed her own trail where none existed as a strong young woman.

I love this post, and have tried to instill many of the beliefs espoused by Justine in my girls. I grew up rebelling against societal norms and I found it even more important to teach my kids to think outside the box, because for American girls, the box is largely invalid. I know we live in a sexist culture, and I chose to teach my girls to defy it.

The fact that society still has these weak expectations of women actually works to the benefit of those who choose to ignore and exceed them. I have always told my girls that tenacity, self confidence and self-sufficiency give you the power to set your own goals and achieve them. Also, that if they understand the biases that exist without acquiescing to them, they can even use them to occasional advantage. I don’t think that strong successful women actually need to fight to change the system, unless they choose that as their calling and it gives them fulfillment. But by just living a successful life of achievement, whatever that may be, these women are already changing the system from within, and that is change that will last.


Keep on sayin’ it, sister.


I truly appreciate this post. I have so often been told that I’ll be okay because I’m so strong. As my son told me, you get knocked down a lot but you always get back up. Well I don’t want to HAVE to be strong. And I’d like to not be knocked down in the first place. I like the idea of being dangerous since I’ve too often been in danger. I like the idea of knowing my worth


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