So says Carina Chocano, anyway, in Sunday's New York Times: enough with the "strong female characters," she writes, give 'em to us weak.
Strangely, I think she has a point.
And while I take issue with her choice of words, I think there's a lesson in here for those of us in real life, too. Where Hollywood offers us "strong female characters" who, as Chocano suggests, are "tough, cold, terse, taciturn and prone to scowling and not saying goodbye when they hang up the phone" -- showing us that "in order for a female character to be worth identifying with, she should really try to rein in all that gross girly stuff" -- real life offers women a similar unspoken message.
When women first entered the workplace, our strategy was pretty simple: if you want to be accepted, abide by one single, golden rule -- blend in! We aimed not only to play like the boys, but to look like them, too (one word: shoulderpads). To this day, countless career guides instruct women never to cry at the office, and to keep those pictures of the kids out of sight, lest you be seen as less than serious. Emotional. Womanly.
Notice I didn't use the word "weak."
Speaking of that, here's a little more from Chocano:
'Strength,' in the parlance, is the 21st-century equivalent of 'virtue.' And what we think of as 'virtuous,' or culturally sanctioned, socially acceptable behavior now, in women as in men, is the ability to play down qualities that have been traditionally considered feminine, and play up the qualities that have traditionally been considered masculine. 'Strong female characters,' in other words, are often just female characters with the gendered behavior taken out. This makes me think that the problem is not that there aren't enough 'strong' female characters in the movies -- it's that there aren't enough realistically weak ones.
But what if those qualities that have been traditionally considered feminine weren't weak at all? What if they were just a different kind of strength -- a form of strength that the culture has conditioned us to see as weakness, when it hasn't managed to condition it right out of us?
Sounds outrageous, huh? Little wonder, said author/speaker/Omega Institute cofounder Elizabeth Lesser, when we spoke with her while researching our book: over the course of human history, the feminine aspect, in a Jungian sense, "has been left out of what we consider to be the most important way of exerting power in the world, [and] it's not thriving in many women, and it's not thriving in men."
Then she brought up something really interesting: In a meeting, when someone cries, it's perceived as a sign of weakness. But when someone yells or bullies or gets angry... well, not so much. But really, the responses represent two sides of the same coin: the feminine and masculine reactions to feeling diminished, or attacked, or frustrated... and neither is especially productive. One just happens to be The Way Things Are Done Around Here. Unsurprising, when you consider who's been building and populating those boardrooms for the bulk of their history. And given that de facto culture, it's really no wonder that so many women feel forced to squash parts of themselves.
Granted, it can feel like we're still a long ways off -- like the women who play like the boys, the "strong female characters" are the ones who are getting ahead. We talked about it during our conversation, and Lesser offered a pleasantly positive spin. "They're more viable, at this stage of evolution, toward a more feminine structure of leadership and power... Social evolution happens in stages, and it's always a lot slower than the people on the edge would like it to be, so I think that these are the least scary women within the paradigm of patriarchal leadership. The women [who] are truly in touch with their feminine -- the women who are courageously speaking from an authentic voice, as opposed to trying to be like one of the boys -- that's going to take a little longer, but I still think it's a really good step."
And, you know, any big journey begins with a single step.
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