The trailer for the latest Star Wars movie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, was released last week. Following the success of the revival of the franchise in last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, anticipation is unsurprisingly at a fever pitch. As in the case of The Force Awakens, much of the pre-release speculation and comment has been preoccupied with the question of the representation of women and minorities within it. Despite concerns about a male-heavy cast early in the film’s development, the character of Rey in The Force Awakens met with a rapturous reception when it hit the cinemas. Along with the characters of Finn and Poe Dameron, many believe that her character marks a decisive movement towards a more egalitarian and inclusive vision of Star Wars, one no longer so dominated by white male protagonists.

Jyn Erso, the heroine of Rogue One, promises more of the same. Aggressive, rebellious, reckless, and gifted in combat, she seems to be another stereotype-breaking character, destined to be welcomed as a feminist-approved role model for young girls and a welcome lesson for young Star Wars-obsessed boys about the power of women and their rightful place and prominence in a world they once considered theirs. The scattered grumblings among unreconstructed fanboys have been met with derision and dismissive pooh-poohing. The only minor disappointment is that she is not a woman of color, but people are increasingly confident that the franchise will get around to rectifying that failure of representation, much as J.J. Abrams has said that there will be openly LGBTQ characters in future installments.

Popular culture is the focus of some of the most determined attempts to shift attitudes on a host of issues within society at large, and such forms of representation are an important dimension of this. While popular media and the various ‘messages’ within it may often appear innocuous, they are frequently anything but. Behind them lie concerted efforts to change the public’s thinking and perception on key matters and some carefully calculated agendas. The supposed shallowness of pop culture is deceptive: It is a realm where brilliant and talented people go to try to shape minds at their most unguarded and impressionable. It is on the ground of entertainment media that the so-called culture wars have largely been lost.

The power of such media exists in no small measure because they are the culture that mediates our social relations and perceptions (Guy Debord: “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity”). Each of us typically produces little culture of our own, but we consume a great deal and it is in our common cultural consumption that we find our togetherness. Entertainment media provide us with the spectacle that increasingly mediates and intermediates our relations to each other, to the world, to society as a whole, and even to ourselves. We understand ourselves and reality within the terms it provides us, within the images and cultural products with which we identify.

Further to this, the internet has made possible a revolution in social viewing and consumption of entertainment media. The phenomenon of the ‘second screen’ increasingly frames our enjoyment of such media, as we discuss and form communities around our favorite movies, TV shows, books, and games. Such communities and discussions existed previously, of course, but the internet has made it possible for them to swell to previously unprecedented proportions and achieve a far greater degree of visibility. There have been many positive results of this development. It has catalyzed a proliferation of close analysis and creative engagement with entertainment media, created more demanding and critically literate audiences, and has greatly raised the power of fanbases.

It also involves a new stage in and an intensification of our identification with the spectacle. We now project an image of ourselves into the shared spectacle of the internet, of which the ‘second screen’ is a part (a good example of this is the burgeoning genre of the ‘reaction video’). This shared spectacle redoubles the mediation of ourselves and our worlds and it also involves a new development in the manner in which the older forms of the spectacle function. A formerly more passive form of identification with the consumed spectacle is now replaced by the projection of our consumption itself as its own spectacle and the spectators’ remixing of the original spectacle as a means of public self-expression. This makes our identification with the spectacle even more profound.

Popular culture producers have, for their part, become increasingly responsive to the novel phenomenon of the highly visible and connected audience, to the audience that has itself become a spectacle. They know that everything they produce will become fodder for close analysis and speculation, inspire vast works of fan fiction, encourage obsessive identification with and levels of emotional investment in characters and worlds (seen in phenomena such as ‘shipping’), and produce countless real-time reactions to and GIFs of discrete moments that serve a broader online community and establish part of its emotional currency. The much greater and closer interaction between pop culture producers and their audiences has changed the dynamic of creation, encouraging such phenomena as the undeath of the author (here’s looking at you, J.K. Rowling…).

In some cases, pop culture producers play very directly to the ‘second screen’ and the social and political concerns and values of a connected audience. Doctor Who—a science fiction series aimed predominantly at children, but with an extensive and obsessive adult audience—is an example of a TV show whose writers are frequently winking through the window of the fourth wall. Episodes of Doctor Who over the last few years have contained numerous pointed and typically gratuitous references to contemporary socially progressive concerns such as same-sex marriage, queer sexuality, transsexualism, and various feminist themes. These references usually serve no ostensive plot purpose: They are incongruous and odd, violating Chekov’s gun principle. They draw attention to themselves in a way that often seems intentional and preachy, seemingly calling for us to attend, while simultaneously chiding us for paying attention to that which should be treated as entirely natural and unexceptional. However inauthentic they may appear on the ‘first screen’, though, they play very well on the second. The intensification of the messages of such media has much to do with the development of the spectacle they offer into a means of self-signalling in the age of the internet, as audiences become more visible to themselves within a spectacle of their own.

The Economics of Strong Female Characters

Ghostbusters-2016

Supporting progressive values is good business too, and this might well be the most critical factor in their spread in popular media. Women and minorities are a huge market and attracting them to franchises that were previously dominated by straight white males can prove extremely lucrative. Egalitarian individualism is the logical ideology of the contemporary marketplace, for which all natural or structural differences between persons are to be dissolved into the business-empowering universalism of self-expressive consumerism. To the extent that the social justice movement aligns with these values, business will naturally support it. Besides, as the social justice movement in its various guises is the heir apparent of post-Christian society’s religious loyalties, people seeking to sell pop culture to us are increasingly alert to the payoffs from—frequently opportunistic—gestures towards its ideology. As Rory Ellwood observes, backing the winning team doesn’t hurt the bottom line.

Spurred in part by the new visibility and power of pop culture audiences, ascendant social progressivism has heightened concerns about inclusion and representation. Fans have always intensely identified with characters and their worlds. However, I suspect that a deepening sense of the social functions of entertainment has been one of the effects of the rise of progressive ideology among the young and of the increasing visibility of ‘fandoms’ to themselves and to pop culture producers. Providing identifiable characters for the various different constituencies of a fandom and ensuring that narratives do not overly advantage socially privileged groups in the ownership of and representation within imaginary worlds are concerns that are elevated by this sense.

Representation has been a prominent concern of the socially progressive ‘social justice’ movement, whether in its more theoretical or in its more popular incarnations. Every new popular culture product will spark thousands of hot takes and Tumblr posts closely examining how women, LGBTQ persons, persons of color, and various other minority demographics are portrayed and represented within it. The intense demands placed upon popular culture to represent demographics in an extensive, positive, affirming, and empowering manner, to provide relatable characters, and to push against stereotypes of less privileged groups encourages a situation where popular culture products are assessed as much for their alignment with progressive social and political concerns as they are for their more narrowly defined artistic merits.

Few such works can please everyone or sustain the ideological demands placed upon them and, as the Tumblr Everything’s A Problem catalogues, even works that make significant steps to please a socially progressive audience can still come under fire on various counts for their failure to conform their works sufficiently to the ideology (the new Ghostbusters fails because, although all of the ghostbusters are now women—yay!—the black woman isn’t a scientist—boo!). Receiving the nihil obstat and imprimatur of the social justice priesthood is not an easy feat.

Pop culture producers have long sought to shape society and its values, rather than just to replicate or perpetuate them or to provide escapist entertainment that leaves them untroubled. Media that were previously used to catechize the public in such things as anti-communist values are now explicitly employed to inculcate progressive ideology and explore its favored issues. Considering how explicit much popular culture has become in pursuing ideological ends and tackling prominent ideological issues, it is neither surprising nor inappropriate that people should subject its social effects and agenda to considerable scrutiny, much as Christian films and novels, which are typically deeply—and often excruciatingly—ideologically driven, demand such engagement.

For instance, The Powerpuff Girls, which was just rebooted last week, sought to engage with the issue of transsexual identity in one episode which has received a mauling for its clumsy handling of the matter from social justice advocates on Tumblr. Such social and ideological engagement is not exclusive to social progressives, of course: The recent series of South Park was an extended contrarian engagement with and lampooning of progressive issues such as political correctness, safe spaces, and white liberal culture.

This pedagogy is not merely a matter of occasional ‘Very Special Episodes’ dealing with topical social issues (although one could argue that Glee was a show frequently based around Very Special Episodes, with all of the awkward earnestness and preachiness that can come with that). It powerfully shapes narratives and characterization, as characters are favorably or unfavorably represented for ideological ends or as narratives and worlds are crafted in order to make clear points about the real world (although, as the spectacle—the ‘representation’—so often takes the place of directly lived life, the ‘real world’ features less prominently in our consciousness). Once again, such a phenomenon is not exclusive to socially progressive pop culture creators: The recent God’s Not Dead, an egregious trainwreck of a movie, is an example of a Christian film whose plot and characterization seemed to be primarily ideological contrivance.

The Ideological Colonization of Pop Culture

elsa

There has been an ideological colonization of pop culture, where old works criticized for their unexamined biases and failures of representation are replaced by new works that are quite explicitly progressive in their ideology and pointedly subversive of traditional values in their ends. Disney princesses, on account of their appeal with an impressionable demographic of young girls and their supposed role in conforming them to patriarchy, have received a particularly large degree of attention from feminists and provide some good examples of the phenomena I am discussing here.

Beginning in the mid-nineties, the more traditional Disney princesses—Snow White, Cinderella, etc.—have been replaced by a new breed of badass princesses, who explicitly resist gender norms and are more racially inclusive—Pocahontas, Mulan, Megara, Tiana, Rapunzel, Merida, Elsa, etc. (Kenneth Branagh’s recent live action reboot of Cinderella is a notable exception from the general trends here, and has been widely criticized accordingly). The ideological subtext is seldom far from the surface as these princesses demonstrate their female independence and strength through sarcasm, fighting, feistiness, rejection of their parents’ values and expectations, refusal of the traditional princess role, rejection of marriage and love at first sight, and the celebration of sisterhood.

Along the way, traditional masculinity is subtly and sometimes not so subtly satirized. For instance, against the background of the song I’ll Make A Man Out of You, Mulan, a woman disguised as a man, proves herself more competent than her male peers as they train for combat. The male characters can serve as pathetic foils or narrative punching bags against which the women can demonstrate their superior strength, virtue, independence, intelligence, wit, skill, and sassiness. Of course, the literally cartoonish over-performance of strength and independence such ideologization of the Disney princess occasionally produces betrays some profound insecurities about women’s agency and an inability to cope well with the existence of male strength, agency, intelligence, and competence.

Like many other such characters, these new Disney princesses remain quite recognizably female, and indeed feminine, in most other respects, generally exemplifying healthy relationships with men, and are often well-rounded and well-characterized protagonists. In many regards, they are a considerable improvement upon past princesses, as they exhibit more pronounced agency and interiority. They are also very far from the gender-switched scantily clad warriors with large breasts that have been the result of some embarrassing attempts by men to ‘empower’ women in heavily masculine pop culture contexts (gaming providing some of the most prominent examples here).

Yet, despite their likeableness and roundedness as characters, these new princesses betray some concerning anxieties about women’s place and agency within the world. Within the kickass princess trope lurks the implication that, to prove equality of dignity, worth, agency, and significance as a character, all of a woman’s resolve, wisdom, courage, love, kindness, self-sacrifice, and other traits simply aren’t enough—she must be capable of putting men in their place by outmatching them in endeavors and strengths that naturally favor them, or otherwise making them look weak or foolish.

Herein lies a tragic failure of imagination that weakens both men and women. Women are measured according to an unfair standard that encourages frustration and resentment, as they are pressed to play to their relative weaknesses; men, on the other hand, are ill-served as their strengths must be either pathologized, stifled, or dissembled in order to make women appear equal or stronger. Kickass princesses are an invitation to young girls to pursue their strength in a zero-sum gender game.

The rewards for a social justice-approved character can be considerable. Such a character isn’t just likeable, but represents The Cause. People can fiercely champion such figures, identifying with them on a deep and visceral level, and treating them as icons of their ideology. They are aspirational representations of the agency and place in society that people desire for themselves, affording catharsis as they resist and overcome forces that people experience as holding them back. Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max and Jessica Jones are two recent examples of characters who have received a warm reception in many feminist circles, for instance.

This concern with representation in pop culture is perhaps the most prominent social justice concern for many young people. Changing representations and breaking down stereotypes in popular media is important for many because these media play such a huge role in shaping their feelings, values, imaginations, and identities and those of their peers. Indeed, as I have suggested, such spectacles and the derivative spectacle of our spectation that they spawn are increasingly constitutive of our reality. Human beings, especially in the impressionable years of youth, are naturally imitative and form identities through emulating exemplars and through identification with others. For many, especially young people, the figures they see on their screens and encounter in their literature shape, for better or worse, their sense of themselves and of their place in the world. These fictional characters are means through which many young people form identities within an entertainment society.

Writers have long been alert to the importance of such identification, and often craft their protagonists accordingly, often forfeiting verisimilitude for the sake of facilitating easy identification. The character of Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars is a classic example of an everyman hero: The young viewer can relate to Luke and identifies with his journey. The recent rash of formulaic young adult movies featuring dystopian governments and docile populations, with an easily relatable, conventionally attractive teenager who sees through the façade, resists, forms a team, and leads others to overcome their oppression—The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Giver, etc.—all play into teenagers’ felt need to make a break with realms defined by the values of parents and teachers and to find their own place and identities in the world. Recent films have also sought to provide some everywoman heroines to complement or replace the traditional male ones—Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior, Bella Swan, Rey, etc. Not every action heroine exists for the purposes of identification; some are primarily objects of admiration or other forms of appreciation instead. However, the desire for characters with whom girls and women can identify is one of the chief reasons why so much of an emphasis is placed upon representation.

The Rise of the Action Heroine

Jessica-Jones

Partly as a result of this everywoman heroine trend, partly in order to be more inclusive in traditionally male dominated genres, partly in order to push back against stereotypes, partly in order to legitimate eye candy for male audiences, partly in response to powerful lobby groups behind the scenes, and perhaps mostly in order to increase sales, the last couple of decades have seen a meteoric rise in the number of action heroines—Xena, Buffy Summers, Trinity, Sydney Bristow, River Tam, Lara Croft, Kara Thrace, Katniss Everdeen, Michonne, Black Widow, Daisy Johnson, Peggy Carter, Imperator Furiosa, Jessica Jones, Rey, etc., etc. Women, we are assured, can fight just like men. These characters are highly confident characters who routinely outclass men in combat, despite their typically short, thin, and conventionally attractive frames (Brienne of Tarth is a marked exception here, who approaches somewhat closer to realism). Even the modern princess can be a martial artist who can prove her strength and equality to men through violence, whether physical or magical.

There is no shortage of well-rounded characters within this category, although others are lazy ‘Mary Sue’ tropes. What is perhaps most noteworthy about most of them is how much their supposed ‘strength’ and independence and their narrative importance often depends upon their capacity to match up to men in combat, requires the foil of male incompetence, villainy, and weakness, or involves the exhibition of traits and behaviors that are far more pronounced in men. Cathartic though it may be for many women to see such female characters demonstrating their equality of agency and personhood on their screens, the ways in which they typically have to do this reveal deep problems with prevailing egalitarian visions of female identity and of relations between the sexes.

In their various ways, these characters almost all represent resistance to the fact that women are, not only in the teaching of Scripture, but according to the ample evidence of reality, the ‘weaker vessel’. This relative weakness—primarily physical, but also societal—is especially pronounced in the area of physical strength and in fittingness for and orientation towards combat. The sexual difference can be exceedingly large here and, although some more exceptional women could outmatch the average man in particular feats, when we are dealing with the extremes of strength and performance, women simply cannot compete:

Men have about 90% greater upper-body strength, a difference of approximately three standard deviations (Abe et al., 2003; Lassek & Gaulin, 2009). The average man is stronger than 99.9% of women (Lassek & Gaulin, 2009). Men also have about 65% greater lower body strength (Lassek & Gaulin, 2009; Mayhew & Salm, 1990), over 45% higher vertical leap, and over 22% faster sprint times (Mayhew & Salm, 1990)…

The suspension of disbelief required of audiences watching many female action heroines is considerable. The breaking of stereotypes may open new imaginative possibilities for women’s identities, but it tends to do so at the expense of reckoning with both the physical limitations and natural inclinations of most women relative to men and the framing realities of their lives.

Of course, to some extent this is true of almost any hero in pop culture. The teenage boy who identifies with Luke Skywalker is rather hamstrung by a poor midi-chlorian count—I know, I know—relative to his hero and may well never escape his personal Tatooine. However, Luke’s journey is a recognizably male one, emphasizing common masculine traits, interests, and concerns throughout: It involves an orientation towards combat, an exceptional interest in and aptitude with technology, a concern to protect women and deliver them from harm, and the existential importance of the male mentor and of the young man’s identification with his father.

The Male Path of Strong Female Characters

The_Hobbit_-_Evangeline_Lilly_on_Tauriel_in_Battle_of_Five_Armies

The female action heroines may have many relatable personal traits, interests, and concerns for the typical girl or woman—as I have already noted, few of these heroines are merely clumsy gender-switches of male characters. However, all too often, their prominence and the recognition of their importance in the narrative rests almost entirely upon the fact that they have in some crucial respects followed a typically male path, or that they exhibit relatively male tendencies, interests, and aptitudes in key areas. Their claim to strength and the stature of their personhood lies, less in the confident development and pursuit of determined and unapologetically womanly character—with the considerable scope that provides for resisting flat stereotypes—than in their capacity to prove themselves on men’s terms, as fighters who can excel at typical male interests and activities.

Were such characters rare or occasional exceptions, it could fairly be claimed that they serve to resist the closure of certain possibilities to women—a worthwhile end indeed. However, when they increasingly represent a norm among the most prominent female characters in popular culture, they cease to be a message of empowerment and become something closer to an indictment upon the natural strengths and tendencies of women relative to men as a sex.

The concerns of inclusion, equality, and empowering representation, driven by social justice concerns for progressives, and by sales maximization for pop culture producers, have been particularly strongly addressed to genres and pop culture franchises that have traditionally catered primarily for males. Effective representation of women in such contexts can be especially complicated. When narratives are structured around combat, action, and physical struggle—as many of the most popular genres and franchises are—male agency will naturally tend to assume prominence and women will often find themselves on the narrative fringes. Though such stories only explore a few dimensions of human action, they are dimensions of human action within which exceptional males overwhelmingly predominate, and they are the stories that often dominate upon our screens.

For instance, when adapting The Hobbit for the big screen—a book whose main cast is entirely male—Peter Jackson created the character of Tauriel, a badass non-conformist she-elf, who is the head of the Mirkwood Elven guard. The inclusion of Tauriel was just one of many ways Jackson altered Tolkien’s novel by retailoring it to appeal to as broad an audience as possible and to play to their supposed desire for extreme spectacle and conflict on the scale of his previous Lord of the Rings trilogy. The inclusion of Tauriel doesn’t really represent an improvement upon Tolkien’s original tale. However, it was a gesture towards inclusivity and equality. It was probably an attempt to connect more with women in audiences by adding a character they could identify with and including a romantic dimension to the plot.

The characterization of Tauriel, like many other such characters, suffers as she is burdened with a task of representation that is too large for any single character’s shoulders. As the token woman, the interests that Tauriel exists to serve are less those internal to the world and narrative of Tolkien’s work and are primarily those of film executives and social progressives. For the latter, it is almost a matter of course that she must be a kickass fighter, as this is how women demonstrate that they are strong within such narrative worlds.

Because she must single-handedly represent ideological commitment to women’s inclusion and equality to men, there are considerable constraints upon the development of her character. Cultural insecurities about the precariousness of women’s position in a male world prevent her from being a truly interesting character. She may be ‘strong’, but she is a weak character because she has to be ‘strong’ lest the wrong message be sent (male characters don’t generally suffer such an encumbrance and can be more interesting as a result). The films would have been much better had Jackson resisted the lure of representation and inclusion—forces that often pull characters out from a healthy narrative orbit—and just focused on telling a good story.

The Trouble with Acting as if Men and Women are Interchangeable

kara-thrace

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

spirited-away

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.

Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.

$
Personal Info

Donation Total: $0

Posted by Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University in England) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespass beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast and blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria.

  • Pingback: Why We Should Jettison the ‘Strong Female Character’ | Alastair's Adversaria()

  • Pingback: Why We Should Jettison the “Strong Female Character” – CHRIST THE MORNING STAR()

  • The sheer length of this article is daunting. Also, the title comes across as: Women, Do Not Be Strong; Stay Weak. Why would I want to read an article that may be just another version of: “Sit down. Be quiet. The man will save you.” Why would I want to read that? Maybe that isn’t what’s here. However, none of the hooks of this article tell me otherwise.

    • Ciarán O’Ceileachair

      Who is the issue with, those who titled the article or the person who critiques it having not read it?

    • Bethany Persons

      You might want to read it because it will challenge some assumptions and affirm female distinctiveness.

    • pduggie

      There is no law that says you have to read it.

    • tb03

      Don’t listen to the other replies, your hunch is correct. It’s a desperate attempt to re-center American culture and conversation on white heterosexual men and their best interests. I will save this one, however. I have 2 sons, and this article will be a good tool to explain how white male supremacy confesses inept, pathetic fragility. Unfortunatly it is not concise. The length here was absolutely unnecessary as the argument was dull and rehashed, but I did say it was desperate. l’ll show my daughter as well. Women start the article as a future Jedi but end up as Lady Wisdom (in the kitchen only… let’s not get carried away! Apparently household chores are the only thing Lady actually does. The rest is nebulous, fluffy adjectives). I’ll bet my daughter will have some very interesting input!

    • lawrence090469

      It’s gender essentialism and complementarianism cut with a lot of ‘let’s just be reasonable’. Women are now entering and graduating from Ranger school, and the Army has said they can be serve combat duty.

    • Namyriah

      Please avoid any articles that differ from your own dogmas. Stay inside your bubble and be safe.

  • Thank you so much for this, Dr. Roberts. You’ve put many of my thoughts and ideas into a coherent, excellently written piece.

  • Thank you for serving the church with your gifts. This was genuinely helpful. I read the whole thing so that I could say this in good conscience!

    As always, critique is easier to write than construction. I ask that you consider writing a follow-up article expanding on the constructive elements in the close of your piece.

  • Pingback: Where have the Female characters gone? – "Un-scientific"()

  • Pingback: A Must-Read Article on Female Characters in Popular Culture()

  • Mayowa Abiola Adebiyi

    It could be a thousand pities if women wrote like men, or lived like men, or looked like men, for if two sexes are quite inadequate, considering the vastness and variety of the world, how should we manage with only one? – Virginia Woolf

    https://mayowaadebiyi.wordpress.com/2016/04/18/where-have-the-female-characters-gone/

  • Just a quick concern/caveat:

    “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.”

    When we talk about being “drawn” we’ve left the biological for the intellectual and the application of the will. Even if there is a biological component (as speculated based on the gender demographics in different types of intellectual labor), it’s negligible when it can be overridden by the will which is not less than gendered but encompasses much more than a rote determinism.

    There is a position that if an “average man” can’t read, he has simply not had enough schooling/enough resources to focus time on that. If an “average woman” can’t read, it’s her own fault? Absolutely not. It follows to other areas of intellectual labor as well.

    That position is pretty close to the, until recently, rampant and enforced inaccurate belief about women and math. Math, like reading, is just a matter of language, syntax, logic and practice.

    Then there is the problem of “money and effort to change” preferences. These very recent dollars with modest aims (usually subordinating getting girls involved with actual programs to mere awareness or buying tools/toys/resources in pink that already exist for boys) have nothing on the concentrated government spending on the educational prospects of soldiers and the informal culture shaping dollars that come from hours of popular science fiction for boys and not having to do as much housework as girls. Tinkering is commendable in boys but damnable as spinsterly in girls. Many STEM female empowerment programs are simply trying to achieve empowerment parity. The question is not empowerment at the expense of men but if women are even allowed into this technical informal social culture of men.

    At my software internship, without any prompting from me, another employee in the office of dozens where only one woman worked started talking openly and frankly about octopus based anime pornography. Keep in mind that I was working in a conservative, middle american firm with many many Christians there. If at the most moral places this kind of thing happens, can you imagine what it’s like for women in less regulated spaces that are even more informal and cultural like the university. In my entire college software program there was less than half a dozen women, all undergrad students. Those demographics for any minority group with less pronounced differences than gender would provoke a “wait why?” question about systemic correctives.

    The study you cite says that a major mediating factor in education tract choice/college major is interest and that interest divides in gender haven’t changed in the last 85 years. It also says that the number of women in STEM fields has gone up. So there is at least some artificial barrier for interest becoming reality for a number of women over those decades.

    All this to say, I am very sensitive to anything that suggests different than the notion that the life of the mind is BUILT. Math, like literacy, is a built apparatus for flourishing and neither is tied to domesticity but both can be done from home.

    Further, in places where there is no formal ‘building’ whatsoever in younger people, the capacity for integrating math/coding/ingenuity into greater humanities type projects/goals (ostensibly the natural domain of women) is impossible. These require a basic technical literacy. These projects that can be done in the home are simply not on the table. This is the most compelling place for empowering women, regardless if you agree with me that boys are informally conditioned more than girls to enjoy “deep play” with computers/math, because it’s at that level of basic understanding. Getting what’s in the book before seeing the cover.

    Too many women have simply not tried these things, because they are not given a rudimentary mandatory technical grammar in elementary, middle and high-school. When it comes a time to choose, cultural shortcuts can take precedence to lived experience. Math, Science, Engineering, Software etc are not hard. Like every subject, they are built. They are the result of the applied will + time + resources + support. We can make the first element easier by providing the other three elements.

    Given those things, anyone can do this. Whatever biological differences women have, they don’t necessitate inability or disprove discouragement, hostility or failures in educational systems’ preparedness.

    • Matthew – This is a good point and I’ll be curious to read Alastair’s thoughts, but my initial thought while reading this is that there’s nothing here that would disagree with what Alastair is saying. He says, a couple of times, I think, that he’s speaking in general terms, not universal. And as someone who has a daughter, I certainly won’t discourage her from studying math or programming if that is something that interests her. (I will probably *encourage* programming actually for the simple reason that it is one of the few lines of work that can, relatively easily, provide a reliable freelance income so that you don’t have to take a conventional job and just become a wage-slave.) So in as much as you’re saying “part of the reason women aren’t in certain fields is because we actively discourage them from doing so and that’s wrong,” I would agree.

      That being said, I *do* think there is a tendency in speaking about gender issues to want to retreat as much as we can from the hard edges we see in scripture. So we try to reduce the differences b/w men and women to nothing but biology and we try to, to take another example, reduce the realization of those differences in the church and society down to the narrowest possible definition. There’s a helpful instinct there in that we shouldn’t go beyond what scripture teaches, nor should we bind consciences when scripture is not clear. That being said, Paul seems to see the difference between men and women as being *something* more than mere biology and his argumentation for limiting ordination to men is not somehow limited only to a single question about a single area of life (the church). It’s larger than that. There are obviously ways that can be abused–and we need to be aware of that and condemn the abuse when we find it. But my worry with the way you’ve structured your otherwise very good comment about women in STEM fields is that you’ve argued right up front for seeing the differences b/w men and women as being only biological, and I think that’s a hard position to affirm given what scripture says about men and women.

      • The whole “leaving biology” thing is a response to the very real physical aptitude split between the genders. To my eyes any aptitude split in technical fields seems to be built based on years of sunk costs/hours in educational institutions and all male enclaves more than anything else.

        Certainly biblical gender is more than just biology but I really want to mark the kind of handicap as much more minimal than with muscle based differences like load bearing capacity.

      • when I was uncertain if I was thinking of enclave or conclave I got this fun example sentence from google

      • E. J.

        I do think it’s safer to try to root the differences in biology. It seems like a lot of Christians can become quasi-Platonists on this issue, treating gender as a universal and then thinking they know how each gender ought to act, without recognizing that some of the things they think are obvious enactments of their universal actually are culturally based. But biological differences can have major relational and lifestyle consequences for each gender. As I think Alastair pointed out in the article, some aspects of modern life are simply more difficult for women, and the sources of the difficulty are, to some extent, biological. Having a lot of testosterone–or not–does make a difference in how you behave. And so forth.

        Speaking as a female who tests INTJ on the MBTI (yes, I know it’s not scientific), I process information in a way that’s usually identified as masculine. That said, there’s a major difference between how I behave and relate to other people than how a man would, even if he processed information in a similar way. Nevertheless, I find gender stereotypes extremely irritating, particularly when they are perpetuated by well-meaning pastors who are trying to argue for complementarianism and, in general, just want men and women to understand each other. (I call it pop complementarianism, since some of it is based on bad pop psychology. Men are like waffles, etc.) People assume that all men feel a certain way, or all women; and then individuals who don’t quite fit the mold end up assuming things about themselves that simply aren’t true. I’ve seen highly emotional men try to insist that they fit all the usual masculine stereotypes, and logical, direct women think that they are extremely emotional. It gets ridiculous pretty quickly. And I think it can actually encourage people who know that they don’t fit the mold to consider transgender ideology, because they assume that everyone within a gender must feel the same way, and they don’t.

        Carl Trueman, I think, wrote something fairly recently saying that he tended to ignore complementarian writing, although he is a complementarian, because they have a tendency to talk nonsense about gender. I deeply sympathize. This article actually has probably come the closest to an accurate approach to complementarian arguments about gender, although I didn’t agree with everything. Katniss is fairly believable, although not particularly likeable–and she gets into a bad situation trying to save her sister. Tauriel is not believable and should never have happened. Ugh. And I definitely think that it is possible to write nuanced stories with male main characters–just look at LotR. Frodo doesn’t exactly achieve a victory of the monster-slaying sort. And there are some difficult things that the characters must accept, not fight. It’s very true, though, that most attempts to create strong female heroines, merely for the purpose of having strong female heroines, are major failures. The women in those sorts of stories are unrealistic and therefore annoying. I think a lot of women watching the Hobbit movies would have found more to identify with in Bard than they would have in Tauriel.

        • Steph E

          Yes and amen to this: “Carl Trueman, I think, wrote something fairly recently saying that he tended to ignore complementarian writing, although he is a complementarian, because they have a tendency to talk nonsense about gender.” and this: “And I think it can actually encourage people who know that they don’t fit the mold to consider transgender ideology, because they assume that everyone within a gender must feel the same way, and they don’t.”

        • hoosier_bob

          Well said. I sometimes wonder whether the proponents of “complementarian theology” ever leave the house. There’s quite a bit of variation within each sex.

          It also glosses over the role of acculturation. I spent my adolescent years in Japan, where the culture defines masculine ideals very differently. From that experience, I developed very different ways of navigating conflict and negotiating deals. In the US, that means that I’ve generally performed better in female-dominated work environments. But is there some genetic link between Caucasian women and Asian men? Hardly. The two cultures just have very different ideas of what it means to be “masculine,” which cuts against the evangelical tendency to treat manhood and womanhood as Platonic concepts.

    • Andrew

      I sense four assumptions, none of which are necessarily correct.

      The first is that females natively have equivalent aptitude and interest in STEM as males. Given that high-level STEM affinity is relatively rare even among males (and can vary by field – different STEM fields emphasise different mathematical and modelling skills), it seems to me naive to assume that female STEM affinity is equivalently distributed.

      Secondly, there seems to be an assumption that females ought to be encouraged to engage in STEM. A small number willingly do, although my experience is that the proportion of highly competent to competent people is much higher for women than men, suggesting that women who are merely competent will tend to self-filter out and choose other fields. However, an obligation to take specific action to include women either implies that men and women (as classes) bring something different to the table – which then necessarily demolishes any argument for equivalency – or that people (particularly women) who don’t express a drive to be in STEM ought to be there anyway.

      Thirdly (and this one is explicit, not an assumption), Math, Engineering and Software at a high level are hard. I’ve been involved in this field in education, in recruiting, in mentoring and as a practitioner. Aptitude and attitude both play a big part. Education and training can speed and smooth the path to taking full advantage of aptitude and broadening knowledge, and gradual improvements can be made with experience, but it actually takes a lot of the right sort of intelligence to perform in Engineering at an elite level. If you don’t take pleasure in repeatedly testing and proving yourself against the inanimate and abstract, and have the talent to do so, you won’t cut it.

      True, there are many lower-level STEM jobs, but there are also plenty of lower-level STEM practitioners. And there are plenty of non-STEM jobs. I don’t see the gain of attempting to re-train less motivated women so that they can compete for jobs in an already full field.

      Finally, the history of high-level STEM advancement has been one of highly motivated people – mostly men and a few women – with the necessary talents in the right place at the right time. I’m certain that there have been many people throughout history with STEM aptitude who never developed it due to being stuck in poverty and menial labour. Yet the field as a whole has prospered. The arguments I’ve seen along the lines of “We need more X in STEM” seem to either assume (rather than demonstrate) that more X is necessarily a good thing or seem to be motivated out of a desire to promote X rather than a desire to promote STEM. People with STEM aptitude tend to jump at the opportunity when it is dangled in front of their faces, and those who require cajoling rarely seem to have the drive required to excel. Yes, I’m sure some people have been dissuaded by their environment, but people arguing for promoting STEM among the non-inclined seems to want that rather small bucket to carry a lot of water.

      I realise all four of the above points are negative arguments. If you want a positive argument, consider whether the traits of complex geometric searches and competing with and against abstract ideas (and mastering them) might be sex-linked as well as personality linked. There’s certainly a lot more to life than STEM, but STEM has throughout history skewed very heavily male. If the mere fact that there is a difference offends you, then perhaps taking a few reproductive biology classes (animal and human) might be an educational starting point. Alternatively, the onus is on the questioner to not only prove that the sex-skew in STEM is an aberration, but model why. And “prestige” as an answer has the triple properties of being trite, simplistic and inadequate.

  • Pingback: Egalitarian ways to hurt women | Oops()

  • I find it humorous that you call Nathan Alberson a “fanboy” and his article on Rogue One “grumbling.” Did you not read his article titled “An Open Letter to Rey from Star Wars” (link below)? He is certainly not a fanboy who is just complaining. He skewered the gods of entertainment and feminism, and it had the worshippers gnashing their teeth all weekend long. And on the plus side, it’s comparatively short. Check it out:
    http://warhornmedia.com/2016/03/07/an-open-letter-to-rey-from-star-wars/

  • Conserbatives_conserve_little

    I have only seen two realistic action heroines. Starbuck with her totally unsettled angry hardening from childhood abuse who has to outdo everyone. The abuser was her mother. The mother hunger of Starbucks is palpable. The other is the girl in the first Hunger Games movie. She doesn’t want to be there. She is empathic, scared and does what she has to in former to survive..

  • Steph E

    I think a lot of this is not just how we’re defining what it means to be a woman in the media, but also how we are defining manhood. I like this Ted talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/colin_stokes_how_movies_teach_manhood#t-748377

  • Totallyunrealistic

    “Of course, to some extent this is true of almost any hero
    in pop culture. The teenage boy who identifies with Luke Skywalker is rather
    hamstrung by a poor midi-chlorian count—I know, I know—relative to his hero and
    may well never escape his personal Tatooine. However, Luke’s journey is a recognizably
    male one, emphasizing common masculine traits, interests, and concerns
    throughout: It involves an orientation towards combat, an exceptional interest
    in and aptitude with technology, a concern to protect women and deliver them
    from harm, and the existential importance of the male mentor and of the young
    man’s identification with his father.”

    Whereas, Rey’s is unrealistic. Right?

    “Of course, to some extent this is true of almost any hero
    in pop culture. The teenage girl who identifies with Rey is rather hamstrung by
    a poor midi-chlorian count I know, —I know—relative to her hero and may well
    never escape her personal Jakku. However, Rey’s journey
    is a recognizably female one, emphasizing common female experiences, societal
    pressures, and concerns throughout: It involves being economically exploited by
    the male system, male assumptions that she must lack an exceptional interest in
    and aptitude with technology, men feeling the need to patronise her and deliver
    her from situations she hasn’t asked to be assisted in, a young man believing
    himself to be intellectually her superior and trying to control her mind, a lack
    of mentors leading to her having to discover who own strength and competencies,
    and eventually a young woman’s identification with male figures who have the
    same traits as her, rather than biology. But it’s far less realistic like Luke’s
    journey. I know, I know…”

  • Lynn Fleshman

    While I appreciate and agree with your concluding remarks regarding the spiritual warfare women fight on the home front and the uniquely feminine strength exhibited in childbearing, for Christian women who are neither wives nor mothers, this presents yet another unattainable version of female strength. I am no more capable of reaching that ideal in my current circumstances than I am of becoming a galactic she-warrior. Christian men have formulated ideals of masculinity that do not hinge upon them becoming fathers and husbands, perhaps because they have looked to Jesus, who never married or bore biological children, to construct these ideals. Is something similar possible for women?

    • Barry

      I want to thank Alastair for an insightful article.

      Lynn, you are certainly not alone, but there is no limit to the role of warrior that women can play using their passions and strengths. My wife (after just a short aha! moment after talking with an elderly observant woman) is working on applying her artistic talent to create modest fashion for women that is beautiful, hip, stylish, etc. This is an important spiritual battleground for women (whether or not they have a family) because most ladies’ avant-garde fashion these days focuses on being sexy, which means exposing more skin & shapliness, which inherently limits the dignity & respect given to women, and increases men’s temptation for all kinds of disruptive and downright evil thoughts & behavior. Given the need to find contentment in our circumstances as Paul talks about, you can figure out how you can be a valiant soldier on the spiritual battlefield using your gifts, strengths skills, etc now.

      At the same time, speaking from personal experience, I used some of my single-life to help build a foundation for my subsequent married life. I gained some knowledge through community service & reading. In retrospect, I could have done better at building a foundation of being a future provider & defender of a family–the strictly masculine roles that unfortunately are ridiculed in popular media, as Alastair discussed. As a Christian, I should have known to trust the bible much more than popular media, but I think the media’s impact on me as a youth, combined with “stiff-necked” thinking as an adult, got me off-track from celebrating and my masculinity.

      • Lynn Fleshman

        Hi, Barry – my question was meant to be rhetorical, but I appreciate you taking the time to respond. I’ve entrusted my time and talents to a local church eldership team and am serving my fellow church members under their direction. I have not found it difficult to engage in the Kingdom of God as a single person. I do want to challenge definitions of male or female strength that rely on roles some men and women will never fill (roles like husband/wife and father/mother), because such definitions rely on a set of circumstances that are temporary. If gender is fundamental to identity, if it even extends to our new bodies and our life in Heaven (which, interestingly, marriage doesn’t), then it must be definable in terms that are not circumstantial or temporary.

  • Pingback: Differentiation Without Diminishment | Into the Liquid Light()

  • Ciarán O’Ceileachair

    Alastair, I’m not sure if you have seen the new Captain America. If you have, I’d be interested to hear your opinion in the development of Scarlet Witch’s character.

  • Shannon

    Just a couple quick questions:

    >>”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.”

    In what societies does there remain this dignity you speak of in “traditional female worlds”? Since you rule out Western societies, perhaps you’re implying it still prevails in Eastern ones, like Saudi Arabia or China?

    For that matter, at what point in Western history did “traditional female worlds” have the dignity you speak of? Surely not the old testament, when women were exchanged between fathers and husbands like cattle. Nor the time of Moses’ mother, when a jealous male tyrant could order the slaughter of infants in front of their mothers to safeguard his seat on the throne. Was it any time before the 16th century, when Sir Thomas More shocked the nation by giving his daughters an intellectual education? Long after his time, the question of whether women should even be educated was still being hotly contested.

    From your other remarks I gather the supposed golden age of “dignity” in “women’s traditional worlds” was some time between the 16th and the 19-20th centuries, when the workplace moved farther than walking distance from the home, and the home became the cage of isolation and boredom it is today. Please enlighten me as to when it was.

  • Pingback: Simmer Starters - May 13, 2016 - The Simmering Mind()

  • Sabretruthtiger

    “What is perhaps most noteworthy about most of them is how much their supposed ‘strength’ and independence and their narrative importance often depends upon their capacity to match up to men in combat, requires the foil of male incompetence, villainy, and weakness, or involves the exhibition of traits and behaviors that are far more pronounced in men. ”

    Rey and (Kylo Ren, Han).

  • Sabretruthtiger

    It’s all a political agenda. The explanation for the phenomenon as follows:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VggFao85vTs

  • Pingback: Why Christians Should Refuse to Celebrate Women Fighting()

  • Pingback: How Should We Think aboutt Watching Women Fight Women()

  • Pingback: How Should We Think about Watching Women Fight Women?()

  • Pingback: Sunday Sharing | Raventhreads()

  • Pingback: Wonder Woman vs Elastigirl: What is the Ideal Female Superhero? - Kuyperian Commentary()