Questions and Answers on my ‘Strong Female Character’ Trope Article

 

Someone drew my attention to a bit of a brouhaha that has been going on over on Twitter about an article I wrote a year and a half ago, in which I questioned the trope of the ‘strong female character’. I thought I’d take some time to clear up some of the apparent confusion.

I confess, reading the discussion was a depressing reminder of just how incredibly reactive and careless people’s reading can be on the Internet. On an issue as emotive as gender, people tend to jump to unwarranted conclusions, operating with reactive impressions, rather than attentive readings. Unfortunately, much of the following will have to address basic failures of comprehension.

 

‘His worldview is problematic because it doesn’t derive from Scripture but from a culturally constructed vision of gender that is supposedly “biological.” The problem is that it’s not biblical enough.’ Is this true?

At the outset, considering how much work I’ve done on the biblical witness and how broadly I’ve thrown my net in exploring what the Scripture has to say on this subject, it is, to be frank, rather strange to receive this accusation from someone who has done considerably less work in the area. My concern has always been to read the Bible on such subjects closely, thoroughly, and comprehensively. By contrast, a highly selective and piecemeal reading is all too often characteristic of critics such as the person in question, a reading that takes modern concerns to the text and seeks to find biblical support, rather than an intensive, extensive, and attentive engagement with the Bible’s own witness on the Bible’s own terms. The result of such readings, as I shall later argue, is a radically distorted sense of the Bible’s actual teaching and priorities.

The accusation that my position is supposedly derived from a mistaken understanding of biology is one I deny on various counts. It is not derived from biology, but, rather, is attentive to biology, alongside many other sources. The term ‘biology’ can also be an unhelpful term in this context: I have tried to attend to nature, which is considerably broader than biology.

As for the accusation of a ‘culturally constructed vision of gender’, I believe that such visions of gender are not merely arbitrary constructions of power upon an inert and plastic nature, but that they must negotiate with the natural reality of our sexed nature, which they construe in various conventions and customs. There are some key things to notice about this.

First, like wearing clothing or speaking language, gender is a human universal: despite the many differences between the ways in which they do so, every human culture socially distinguishes between men and women.

Second, gender difference is almost invariably accentuated in various ways. Few cultures treat gender difference as an unfortunate difference to be eradicated or minimized, but as a beautiful and glorious thing in which our humanity is most elevated. Gender is the key human difference that constitutes the dance of society. When we want to appear most glorious, we tend to dress in ways that foreground our masculinity and femininity.

Because of the typical accentuation of gender difference, nature cannot simply be read off culture. However, culture is natural to us as human beings and the elevation of the biological reality of sexual dimorphism into the cultural reality of gender with it. C.S. Lewis observed that ‘the naked man was the man who had undergone a process of naking, that is, of stripping or peeling.’ The wearing of clothing is natural to mature human beings, much as the speaking of language is. To be naked is to have a layer of our glory as humanity removed, to be reduced to a childlike or ‘peeled’ state. Likewise, gender is part of our glory as human beings, that which ‘dresses up’ our natural bodily differences into something distinctively and gloriously human.

Third, within the great variety of ways in which different cultures dance out or dress up the difference between men and women, great consistencies are to be seen, consistencies that reveal that we are all producing variations on the same underlying themes. Anywhere you go in the world, pronounced cultural differences between men and women exist, differences in which men and women remain quite recognizably men and women. If the sexes were to switch places, the confusion would swiftly be discovered.

Fourth, the cultural differences between men and women are naturally creative construals and presentations of the natural differences between them. They are created differences, yet they are not arbitrary differences, as they negotiate, foreground, and accentuate the natural character of sexual dimorphism.

We can’t simply read nature off culture, but the extensive consistencies and convergences between cultures when it comes to gender are illuminating. And, in addition to this, both culture and the drawing of gender distinctions are natural to human beings. Much as in the case of language, gender difference can take innumerable forms. However, like language, it is both natural to us and must relate effectively to the world.

Scripture highlights this fact by declaring cultural distinctions between genders to be natural (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:14-15). The point is not that specific gender distinctions are unavoidable, but that the drawing of gender distinctions is natural to humanity, and that the ways that our culture draws such distinctions are not to be lightly dismissed, even though they may occasionally need to be replaced by better ways of drawing the distinction.

 

Do I ‘think that social justice is a modern liberal post-Christian pursuit and not something connected to God’s Word and God’s vision for human flourishing’?

‘Social justice’ is an extremely heavily loaded term. In the sense that this terminology currently functions, I believe that it is a highly compromised and flawed pursuit, even if well-intentioned. As ‘social justice’ usually operates, it is bound up with what René Girard describes as a perverse ‘victimology’ cult. It is also oriented around the demand of ‘equality’, a highly questionable value, which owes a lot to a technique-driven society that treats all persons as commensurable and natural differences as obstacles to the parity of outcomes that should exist.

God’s vision for human flourishing does not orbit around the value of equality, but is about each person flourishing in their own proper ways and in their differences. In this vision, the differences between men and women make a difference and this difference is essentially good, albeit distorted by the Fall. The expectation that men and women should get equal outcomes is based on the futile attempt to erase the created differences between men and women—creation itself fuelling a deep ressentiment—rather than to welcome them in ways that enable both men and women to flourish in their own fashion.

 

Why is it bad to have more female heroes? Am I unacquainted with ICU nurses?

Far from it being bad to have more heroines, it is something that we desperately need! My point in my article was that the ‘strong female character’ trope fails us on this front because it places so much of the weight of potential female heroism upon women’s conformity to a narrow set of more characteristically male strengths (a vision of heroism constraining for men, yet radically more so for women) and on women’s occupation of roles that play to those strengths. This merely reinforces the assumption that, to be heroic, you need to be like a fighting man.

If you read my article, you will see that it is arguing that, for a true recognition of female heroism, we need to move beyond accumulating token female characters in roles modelled upon a particularly male model of heroism, and to expand our vision of what heroism itself means. Films that explored the heroism of ICU nurses would be wonderful. ICU nurses don’t need to be engaged in combat or to have incredible marital arts skills in order to be heroic. We should learn to attend to and to admire the heroism of such persons without feeling that they cannot truly be heroic if they can’t best a trained male fighter in hand-to-hand combat. Recognizing the reality of their heroism requires an attention that the in-your-face (yet often merely apparent) heroism of the fighter does not. But it badly needs to be cultivated.

The ‘strong female character’ trope is a lazy solution for female empowerment. While it may give many women a cathartic sense of women’s agency being recognized on the screen, it does so by reinforcing the underlying problem. It gives the impression that women’s agency only qualifies for our attention insofar as it conforms itself to certain models of masculine agency.

For a society that increasingly lives vicariously through its consumption of screen entertainment, the catharsis of seeing women’s agency prominently displayed on the screen may seem to be enough, and be regarded as a salutary challenge to the wider realms of life where their agency is often overlooked altogether. However, the terms upon which women’s agency is being recognized must be recognized, as they reinforce the real-world problems that women face. Strip almost any one of the ‘strong female characters’ of their fighting abilities and they would suddenly cease to enjoy a place in the centre of the frame. While many contemporary ‘strong female characters’ exhibit a wide range of different traits and agency that far exceeds fighting, we only get to discover this because they are gifted warriors. However, in the real world the most gifted warriors are, almost to a man … men. Here our media aren’t teaching us to recognize women’s actual heroism, just to chafe against reality.

There is no need to deny the existence of the few exceptions to these patterns to make this point. The point is not that no women are strong, but that very few women are stronger than the average man and that, when we get to the extremes of strength, we are dealing almost exclusively with men. The problem with the ‘strong female character’ is not that such characters exist in popular movies and TV series, but that the representation of women in much popular entertainment is so dependent on characters conforming to that trope.

People tend to be very poor at thinking about group differences (especially gender differences) that involve overlapping distributions. We are often reminded, for instance, that the difference between two particular groups on a specific trait may be much smaller than the variation within either one of the groups. Or we will be reminded of how much overlap there is between them. Furthermore, as people tend to think individualistically, they tend to fixate on the issue of the range of possible values that exist within a group’s distribution and pay little attention to group effects.

Height is a good way to illustrate the issues with such objections. The variation in both male and female height is truly immense, especially for men (both the tallest and the shortest persons ever recorded are men). When the variation in a group is so great that it exceeds the bounds of another group in both directions, isn’t it meaningless to talk about differences between the two groups? Also, the average height difference between men and women is only about 5 inches, dwarfed by the size of the variation and with plenty of women being taller than the average male height. Anyone who says that men are taller than women will often face strong objections from people who think about such things individualistically, with reminders that people like Gwendoline Christie (6’3”) exist. Yet there is no need to deny the existence of exceptionally tall women in order to maintain the significance of height difference between the sexes. When we go above six feet, for instance, only one person in about two thousand will be a woman. If we were looking for the tallest ten percent of society, it would almost exclusively be male.

If the most prominent women in our blockbuster movies and most popular TV shows were overwhelmingly over six feet in height, their presence wouldn’t necessarily be empowering to women. They would soon cease to represent a healthy recognition of the existence of exceptionally tall women and would function as the expectation that women must be exceptionally tall to be recognized. Likewise, the problem is not with the existence of physically strong women or of women with elite fighting abilities, but the huge dependence upon the trope, a dependence that reveals an egalitarian society’s inability to handle natural differences between the sexes.

My point is not that women’s agency and heroism should be removed from our screens (quite the opposite: note that, far from being a principled resistance to the attempt to represent women’s agency and heroism, my article ends with a discussion of how we could do better here), but that they should truly be recognized, rather than forced into an unnatural straitjacket. It is not an injustice that women are naturally weaker than men, but it is an injustice when we suggest that women must be of comparable strength to men for their agency and characters to be recognized. The resistance to natural difference merely imposes an unrealistic standard upon women.

 

What about the women who financially supported Jesus and his disciples?

What about them? Does the Bible make its recognition of the significance of their actions contingent upon their aptitude for physical combat? No. Indeed, our ability to recognize their actions and those of many other women like them may depend upon attentiveness to the actual form of women’s agency in Scripture, rather than to our narrow cultural expectations of what ‘strong women’ must look like.

 

I quote statistics about men’s different upper body strength relative to women in about ‘4-5 essays’, but surely this is ‘not a fact upon which to hang a whole worldview about the genders.’

To my knowledge, I have quoted that particular fact in no more than three different pieces and in none of them was it the foundation for my argument. It is most definitely not a fact upon which to hang a whole account of the sexes, which is why I never do anything remotely like that. I use the fact, not to ground a ‘whole worldview about the genders’, but to point out the natural imbalance between the sexes, especially at the extremes of physical performance. Men’s bodies and psychologies are suited for combat in a great many ways that women’s bodies and psychologies are not and, in a society that is increasingly focused upon fighting women in its entertainment, it is important to remind ourselves of this.

This sort of accusation, sadly characteristic of the seemingly reactive reading of the person in question, is such a bad faith engagement with my arguments that I am wary of dignifying it with a response. However, for the sake of those following the conversation, rebuttal may be important.

 

Realistically how many modern men rely on their upper body strength when caring for, protecting and serving their wives?

This would be quite the devastating challenge were I basing an entire understanding about the genders and their respective roles upon the greater upper body strength of men.

But I’m not, so it isn’t.

 

Am I denying that women are strong enough to care for others?

Certainly not. Challenging the helpfulness of a dominant trope that foregrounds women engaging in violence is not denying that there are many ways in which women show strength in caring for others.

 

‘The emphasis on women’s central (only?) roles as wives and child-bearers is an a priori lens of Roberts’s and others that leads them to overlook women’s other forms of strength seen in Scripture. Note how Alastair deals with Jael and Deborah…in passing.’

Scripture repeatedly presents the bearing of children and the faithful managing of a household as the primary form that women’s vocations will take. It is not the only form and there are some women who will have more exceptional forms of calling, but it is consistently represented as the centre of gravity for women’s activity.

From the creation of the woman onwards, her calling is primarily focused upon the raising up of seed. In Genesis 2, the man was created from and for the taming of the land, while the woman was created from the side of the man, with her calling centring upon the formation of human union and communion through marriage, the bearing of children, the forming of homes and communities. The judgment on the man after the Fall focuses upon his subduing of the land, while the judgment on the woman focuses upon her bearing and raising of children.

When Scripture talks about the calling of women, it focuses upon the realm of marriage, childbearing and the managing of the household. In Titus 2:4-5, older women are called to ‘admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed.’ In 1 Timothy 5:14, Paul declares that younger widows should ‘marry, bear children, manage the house.’ In 1 Timothy 2:15 it is childbearing that Paul presents as central to the calling of Eve and her daughters. The work of wise women in Proverbs also focuses upon the managing of their households too (Proverbs 14:1; 31:10ff). They engage in economic activity, but as those building their households and homes, not as independent careerists. This is all very unwelcome to modern ears, but this is what Scripture focuses upon when it comes to women.

Scripture repeatedly presents women’s work in the bearing of children and raising of their households as heroic in character and as a prominent work of social reproduction that is to be foregrounded and honoured in society. Women and their work in the bearing, protecting, and raising of children are front and centre in many of the most pivotal narratives of Scripture. The story of the patriarchs has women struggling to give birth at the heart of it. The story of the Exodus begins with women giving birth. The story of the kingdom begins with the prayer of Hannah. The story of the gospel begins with Elizabeth and Mary.

It must, however, be recognized that this calling of women was not as socially marginalizing in Scripture as it is in the modern world, in which the realm of the household has ceased to be at the heart of society, the primary engine of both production and social reproduction. Rather than a settled reality, which accumulated social capital over generations, the modern home is a private domestic bubble that will exist for a couple of decades, before it dissolves as children leave home and scatter to different parts of the country or world. It is primarily a realm of private consumption with little social power or influence.

We live in a society that has increasingly outsourced the traditional operations of the family onto the state and other economic and productive agencies. Our society is dependent upon the normalization of the suppression of women’s fertility through contraception and abortion so that they can untether themselves from the collapsing domestic sphere. As marriage and the family are enervated and no longer afford the same social influence they once enjoyed. Rather than representing a true realm of interdependence, pooling of resources, and combining of efforts, capable of bearing considerable weight, both men and women place relatively little practical weight on their marriages nowadays when compared to other ages of history. The modern women is (often understandably) careful to maintain her economic independence, so that she never needs her marriage, even if she might want it. Marriage just isn’t that reliable an enterprise any longer and, especially, as her husband has far less resting on the marriage than he would have done in the past, she can’t afford to fall into a relationship of unilateral dependence.

Our broader cultural situation is not something that Scripture presents as healthy. Indeed, it challenges us to recognize the dysfunctional and alienated character of our social order. While it doesn’t support those who want to normalize the independent career-driven woman, it doesn’t support those who simply want to confine women to the modern home either. Rather, it calls for a more careful understanding and wise negotiation of a compromised situation, in which both the limits of the home and the demands of the career generally prove alienating for women. It also requires a deeper reckoning with the alienated character of men’s labour.

Of course, people who come to Scripture with their cultural itches, looking for scriptural resources to scratch them, will fail to appreciate Scripture’s broader indictment upon the form of society that gives rise to such itches in the first place. They will extrapolate extensive visions from isolated characters like Deborah or Jael, without attending closely either to the broader sweep of Scripture or to the stories of Deborah and Jael themselves. They will presume the validity of the terms, categories, and concerns of their own societies and never allow Scripture to hold them in question.

In contrast to such approaches, our duty must be to deal with Scripture more comprehensively and on its own terms. We must be attentive to its categories and concerns and use these both to understand what it says and to assess our own cultures. If your concern is merely arguing for ‘equality’, you will pounce upon texts such as Galatians 3:28 or Genesis 1:27 as statements of the equality of every individual and easily assume everything else that our society rests upon that term. However, as I pointed out recently, this is simply not how such texts function when understood within Scripture’s own conceptual frameworks.

 

So, what about Jael and Deborah?

I am accused of dealing with Jael and Deborah only in passing. Yet such an accusation could arguably be levelled even more strongly against Scripture itself. Deborah and Jael appear during a period of national oppression in Israel’s early history, their deeds recounted in a single story near the beginning of the book of Judges. After that, they vanish from the scene and no other women quite like them come along. For instance, apart from the murderous usurper, Athaliah, there is no women among the forty-two regents of Israel and Judah and no woman other than Deborah among the almost twenty judges of Israel mentioned at various points in Scripture. This isn’t because brave and influential women are absent from either the subsequent pages of Scripture or Israelite society, but because Jael and Deborah are not representative of the more typical forms of female courage and virtue that Scripture most foregrounds and celebrates.

Scripture wants us to celebrate the actions of such women, but they are not the norm and are not normalized. Both Jael and Deborah are presented by Scripture itself—in the context of its wider representation of women, and within their own narratives—as exceptional cases. Those who are desperate to discover scriptural warrant for breaking of gender stereotypes and norms place considerable weight upon such texts, yet neglect the vast swathes of Scripture that present the norm against which such exceptions appear. They also neglect to observe the way that gender norms are reinforced even in the accounts of exceptions.

Deborah’s calling as a judge is closely related to the fact that she is a prophetess, someone who could deliver the word of the Lord to Barak and others (cf. Judges 4:6-7). While most of the other judges were primarily military men, going out before Israel, leading them against their enemies, the dynamic with Deborah was different and perhaps more akin to figures like Samuel or Moses, other prophetic judges. Deborah sat under her palm tree and delivered judgment upon the cases brought to her by the children of Israel.

Deborah is a Mosaic figure who, like Moses, presides over the new birth of a nation when all had seemed lost. Like Moses, she is the divinely-instructed prophet who directs the battle from behind the scenes, leading to a miraculous victory over a powerful army of chariots through a sudden torrent of water. The chariots of Pharaoh were swept away by the waters of the Red Sea; the chariots of Jabin were swept away by the River Kishon (5:20-21). Like Moses, she sings a song of victory afterwards. These parallels are important and some indication of the significance of Deborah’s work.

The crushing or suppression of the virility of a nation was always one of most important concerns for an oppressing power. Removing the weapons, killing or enslaving the males, and emasculating and subjugating their leaders were ways in which a nation could be brought under the domination of another. Scripture presents us with a number of such moments in history. The Exodus is one example: Pharaoh enslaves Israel and kills their boys. In this situation, deliverance arose from women, as women delivered the infant Moses and protected the Israelite boys from Pharaoh. Women protected the seed that would crush the serpent’s head. Deborah is associated with the other women who lived at such times, with Jochebed, Miriam, and the Hebrew midwives, with Hannah, with Esther, with Elizabeth and Mary.

The highways were deserted,
And the travelers walked along the byways.
Village life ceased, it ceased in Israel,
Until I, Deborah, arose,
Arose a mother in Israel.
They chose new gods;
Then there was war in the gates;
Not a shield or spear was seen among forty thousand in Israel. (Judges 5:6b-8)

Deborah describes herself as ‘a mother in Israel’, someone who arose at a point of crisis in Israel’s history, when men were without strength and it needed to experience something akin to a new birth. One of the problems with people regarding Deborah as a biblical normalization of gender-neutralized leadership is that they fail to take into account this background and the character of Deborah’s work. Deborah’s calling is to act as a mother in Israel, someone who will protect and raise up the seed that will ultimately lead and deliver.

Like Joan of Arc, Deborah is a prophetic woman who leads a movement to restore the rule of her nation at a moment of crisis and the utter breakdown of its power. She is not an ordinary leader in a time of peace. Barak is like the Dauphin, who must be helped to achieve his victory, after which the security and power of the nation can be restored under his rule.

Barak was instructed to go to battle, but suffered a minor judgment when he requested that Deborah accompany him. Unlike the typical male judge, Deborah’s absence from the battle was assumed to be the natural and appropriate situation: she was neither a warrior nor a military commander. She was also a woman. The judgment upon Barak for calling Deborah to accompany him was that the opposing general would be delivered into the hands of a woman, who would do Barak’s job for him. Had Barak courageously followed the word of the Lord and not called for Deborah to accompany him, she would not have gone to the battle and Sisera would have been delivered into Barak’s own hand, galvanizing Barak’s authority in Israel.

Both Deborah’s presence with him in the battle (albeit not in the actual fighting) and Jael’s slaying of Sisera were associated with Barak’s failure to assume his proper role. Crushing the head of the serpent Sisera’s head was the task of the seed, which Barak was supposed to be. However, since the seed was not yet powerful enough to crush the serpent’s head himself, the woman had to do it for him. This was a sign that the woman’s task in raising her seed was not yet done.

Deborah and Jael are commonly appealed to as biblical examples of fighting women, examples that are supposedly evidence that fighting wars shouldn’t be gendered (despite the fact that women are notably absent from the many myriads of fighting people elsewhere in Scripture). Putting to one side the fact that Deborah’s presence at the battle and Jael’s crushing of Sisera’s head wasn’t the original divine intention, it is important to note that neither Deborah nor Jael fight. Deborah directs the battle from the top of Mount Tabor and Jael kills a man in his sleep.

Deborah and Jael’s actions are worthy of praise, but neither Deborah nor Jael are warrior women. They are women who, under exceptional circumstances that represent breaks from the norm, and on account of the failure of men to step forward, play surprising and courageous non-combat parts in a divinely orchestrated military victory. Deborah and Jael are heroines of no small stature in Scripture and we should study and appreciate their story. However, anyone who uses the characters of Deborah and Jael to normalize women’s place in warfare is being either careless or dishonest with the text.

One final point to attend to here is the fact that, even in their break from the norm, the womanhood of both Deborah and Jael is foregrounded in various ways and is significant to the narrative. Jael deceiving the serpent Sisera and crushing his head is a poetic reversal of the serpent’s deception of Eve and a minor fulfilment of the promise of Genesis 3:15. Jael’s slaying of Sisera occurs, not as she goes out to the battle, but as she invites him into her tent, deceives him with the apparent extension of hospitality, then pierces his head with the domestic tool of a tent peg. Jael, not being a fighter, employs the tactic of cunning deception, which is characteristic of women in their struggle against the serpents of history (Sarai against Pharaoh, Rebekah against Pharaoh and Abimelech, Rachel against Laban, Tamar against Judah, the Hebrew midwives against Pharaoh, Rahab against the king of Jericho, Michael against Saul, Esther against Haman, etc.). The Song of Deborah does not class Jael with the warriors, but with ‘women in tents’ (5:24).

Likewise, Deborah doesn’t cast herself as a warrior, but as a mother. What she does is a significant departure from the norm, but it is nonetheless a motherly action. At the end of her Song she focuses on her rival and counterpart in the conflict, the mother of Sisera, waiting in vain for her son to arrive home. She imagines Sisera’s mother’s ladies explaining Sisera’s delay, suggesting that he was gathering plunder and raping and capturing women, not realizing that, in another piece of poetic justice, he had just been ‘penetrated’ by a woman.

These considerations help us better to understand how Deborah and Jael, while both are exceptions to the norm, are nevertheless expressions of it. They don’t destroy or reject the gendered frameworks of society, but reveal some of the surprising forms that they can take on exceptional occasions. They are orderly anomalies.

 

Is my handling of Proverbs 31 problematic, ‘circumscribing the wife’s role to “domestic craft-work”’ and ignoring the economic and charitable activities she engages in?

This accusation is based upon a quotation from Peter Leithart in which he writes: ‘…the woman’s work is domestic, economic, craft-work, and yet the poem celebrates it in heroic terms.’ Note both the commas and the presence of the term ‘economic’, which Leithart and I are supposedly ‘ignoring’. This is one of several instances that seem to manifest a depressing low level of basic reading comprehension in my critics.

The problem with far too many contemporary Christian readings of passages such as Proverbs 31 is that they are either looking for proof that women should stay at home or looking for proof that women should enjoy careers and lives outside of the home’s confines. Both approaches result from a modern situation where work and the household have become alienated from each other.

The vision of Proverbs 31 is of the woman who manages a productive and fruitful household with wisdom and providence. She is not a detached individual pursuing a career, but the centripetal force of a community that she forms around her. She is the heart of her home, the tree of life in its midst. She is the one who builds up her household with her shrewd economic management and the spring whose waters flow out of her household to give life to all around. She is her husband’s glory and desire; he praises her and builds her up with his own strength.

In this biblical vision, economic, charitable, productive, and other activities are all extensions of the life of the home, not alienated from it as they are in modern society. When the woman buys a field and plants a vineyard, she is not working to extend her boss’s dominion, earning money doing alienated labour in another’s ‘household’, but is extending the dominion of her own. This is the biblical vision of what is good, a vision that should chasten our far more limited ideals. The biblical vision of women’s calling is focused upon their marrying, bearing children, and managing their households. But this vision can only properly be understood against the background of an understanding of the household as the heart of the world, not a marginalized reservation cut off from society. Unfortunately, when people approach the Bible on the terms set by our culture, they miss this.

As I’ve already noted, this vision is decidedly difficult to realize in the current context. It provides a challenging measure against which we can perceive the failure of our society and perhaps means by which things can be changed. If we use such a vision either to condemn women who work outside the home, or women who stay at home, we will be missing the point. Both approaches are typically compromised in the current environment and should not be treated as ideals or as healthy patterns. Our duty is to perceive correctly, speak truthfully, recognize our limitations, and prudently pursue the good to the measure that we can in the situations within which we find ourselves.

 

Do I have an a priori commitment to the position that ‘biology reveals women’s societal roles’ and that women ‘are the weaker vessel not just physically but societally as well’?

No, I don’t. What I actually believe is that the societal differences between men and women arise in large measure from biological and psychological differences between the sexes. These differences are of various kinds: some are more categorical in character (e.g. women get pregnant while men don’t), while others are about more relative differences (e.g. men are more thing-oriented than women, while women are more person-oriented than men). Such relative differences, unlike the more categorical differences, have plenty of exceptions. However, despite not being categorical differences, they can have a huge impact at the more general societal level, among other things, scuppering attempts to achieve parity.

My beliefs on these fronts can be amply supported by a wealth of cross-cultural empirical research. They help to account for pronounced empirical differences between the sexes that exist across many human (and a number of animal) societies. They also relate closely with the natural teleology of sexual difference. For instance, much as chimps exhibit pronounced sex differences in play behaviours, so we should expect the play behaviours and interests of human males and females to correspond in various ways with their reproductive roles. The existence of significantly different distributions of behavioural tendencies between the sexes isn’t hard to substantiate for those who don’t have their eyes shut. The shape of these behavioural differences is also seldom hard to explain for those who take the differences in natural reproductive roles seriously. In an advanced technological and contraceptive society, we may have become unmindful of the existence of natural reproductive roles, but this doesn’t mean that they cease to exist.

This isn’t a belief in strict biological determinism when it comes to men and women’s behaviours, nor is it the belief that we should simply read societal roles off biology. However, it is the belief that nature matters and that we cannot explain society well if we don’t take it seriously. My points here are primarily descriptive, rather than prescriptive. The point is not that biology means that men and women must occupy specific roles but that natural differences mean that every human society will tend to be producing variations on the same underlying themes. God created men and women differently, for different purposes, and the differences between us really make a difference.

It is not difficult to show that men and women aren’t blank slates, but that natural differences between them lead to different behaviours and different social outcomes. People like to point to the effects of socialization as that which establishes the greatest differences between the sexes. However, important though socialization can be, if the differences in question were socialized, it is truly strange that we should encounter the same patterns in so many cultures (and many similar patterns in related species) otherwise independent of each other. It is also worth noticing how socialization can fail. For instance, attempts to socialize girls exposed to high levels of androgens in the womb fail badly, as they typically adopt male-typical behaviours.

I also believe that women are the weaker vessel societally, a position that, while it can be qualified in certain ways, would seem to be amply demonstrated by the cross-cultural evidence. In almost all human societies, women have a far more intimate bond with their children than their husbands. Beyond even the burdens of pregnancy and nursing, and putting psychological differences between the sexes to one side, the duties of child-rearing will fairly unavoidably fall chiefly upon their shoulders. Without contraception, baby formula, a whole raft of domestic appliances, the welfare state and extensive social institutions, and many other such developments, women will operate largely from the home and will rely heavily upon their husbands for provision. My point here is not to idealize such a situation—in our movement beyond many aspects of such a situation, we have a lot to be thankful for—but to point out that God created men and women in a way that made imbalances of societal power almost inevitable.

Male dominance in public rule wasn’t simply established by some compelling theoretical argument that was accepted by societies around the world. It is the sort of thing that arises fairly organically out of our natures. The greater physical strength of men is only one factor among a great many, although it is important (besides, the most powerful people in society are seldom those who are physically the strongest). Male-typical sociality creates broader, larger, less personal, and more outward-oriented groups, bound together by common agency. Such ‘bands’ of men have a much greater creative power, and not just because they are physically stronger. Men’s greater thing-orientation also drives them more towards the development of physical and social structures, systems, institutions, and laws. Male agonism privileges strength and high agency and equips men for operating in untamed realms. The broader structures of social power primarily arise out of the activity of men. The more intimate forms of social influence, by contrast, are more closely related to the activity of women.

The apparent exceptions to the pattern are worth studying. The dominance of women in society tends to appear in situations where, for instance, the society is subjugated by an external power that closes down the agency of men, where the society is relatively undeveloped, where men are largely absent, or where there is limited scope for the development of broader networks of power (e.g. peoples on isolated islands). In other situations, the natural virility of men will tend to produce a situation where men are the most prominent public figures, as they create greater networks and structures of power.

The problem with the consistent and predictable objections to such observations is that they come from people who seemingly make no real effort to reckon with natural differences and often treat the existence of such differences as if they were great injustices. And this is a theological question that we must ask too (one rarely posed, although Gerald Hiestand’s recent treatment of the question in Beauty, Order, and Mystery is a welcome exception). If ‘equality’, in the modern sense of that term, were really God’s great concern, why did he create men so much stronger than women in a world that demanded and rewarded physical strength? Why did he create women to bear such a disproportionate burden of the weight of the task of procreation? If ‘equality’ were God’s purpose, why are sexual differences so pronounced when it comes to the core tasks of the human vocation: being fruitful, multiplying, filling the earth, subduing it, and exercising dominion?

Facile attempts to brush off ‘biological’ groundings of gender roles neglect the fact that the way that God created us is such that the greater prominence of men in societal life doesn’t need to be undergirded by lots of prescriptive arguments: it is simply a descriptive and pretty unavoidable reality.

 

What about men who are physically weak or ill, or the women who are particularly strong? Or what about situations when women have to act on behalf of men who lack the power to act?

The person asking this question seems to be assuming that my reference to differences in physical strength is designed to ground an entire prescriptive account of gender roles, as if I were arguing that each and every man either is or must be physically stronger than each and every woman (or at least his spouse). However, it is only intended to demonstrate a significant empirical difference between the sexes, a difference that has extensive social consequences. It is not the claim that all men are physically strong or even that all men should be physically strong. It is not the claim that it is unwomanly to be physically strong, or that it is sinful for women to develop or exercise their physical strength.

General norms can have exceptions. The norms aren’t negated by such exceptions and those who defend and express the norms need not be threatened by the exceptions. The norms don’t disappear simply on account of some unusual cases, especially when a number of these cases are recognized to be departures from an ideal in various respects (e.g. situations where a man is ill or disabled).


I don’t intend to get into any discussion in the comments, but have at it.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, Controversies, Culture, Judges, OT, Questions and Answers, Sex and Sexuality, Society, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to Questions and Answers on my ‘Strong Female Character’ Trope Article

  1. Renee Byrd says:

    Can I join y’all’s catfight club😹😺😸? Meow, meow.

  2. katie says:

    The original “bad-ass woman” article was my first introduction to your writing, and it is still my favorite. I am currently rereading Mansfield Park, and really enjoying the unusual pleasure of a passive but thoughtful and growing heroine. It’s a total lack of imagination that makes us bristle at anything other than spunk and sass.

  3. katie says:

    Patrick – 😂. I’d absolutely believe that, but only because Austen would be laughing at what a twit Mary was.

  4. Patrick M says:

    I did a quick search of “Jael / Deborah” on the website and I can think of a lot of words to describe your thoughts in the link below. “In passing” would not be the first two:

    https://alastairadversaria.com/2011/12/08/some-lengthy-thoughts-on-women-leadership/

  5. Hi Alastair,
    This seems to me to be a very good rebuttal.
    Before I read it, I had not seen the twitter thread you referred to, but I have now tracked it down. I am struck yet again by the way so many people present their own opinions as though they were facts, and the extent to which so many others accept these opinions as though they were facts and applaud them and pass them on to others, who also applaud them etc.etc. – a dynamic which does violence to truth, justice and mercy, and which ignores the warnings of James about the unbridled tongue and the forest fire! I have never had the slightest interest in science fiction, so I can’t comment on the films, but over the years I have become pretty good at recognizing an unbridled tongue!

    • Thanks for the comment, Christine.

      Yes, as I’ve argued on many occasions, it is incredibly difficult to have illuminating discussions in socially-saturated, fast-moving, soundbite-driven contexts.

      Much of the problem here is simply the medium. If you were to get many of the same people in a private conversation between three or four people in a relaxed environment, progress could likely be made. However, social media encourages herd dynamics and firestorms of viral emotion, rather than reflective and deliberative engagement.

    • Hi Alastair, I. finally decided to elaborate a bit on my most recent (brief!) comment here.
      The online misquoting and misrepresentation of your work about ‘strong women’ especially jarred with me for a few reasons:
      As our online conversations are via the written word, we have more time than we do in the spontaneity of face-to-face conversations to reflect and weigh our words carefully, and less excuse for ‘shooting from the hip’ and for making careless mistakes.
      Christians in high profile positions in the church, or professionally, or both, have, I believe, a greater responsibility to their followers than do lower-profile Christians, though we all have a responsibility to each other.
      We all make mistakes – I make them every day – but that is part of being human so it does not surprise me. But I think that, as Christians, we need to be open to correction/contrary evidence and be ready to correct our errors and to apologise to people we have mallgned, either intentionally or unintentionally.
      The person whose tweets you quoted and responded to is in a high-profile position and, as far as I know, she has made no attempt to correct her errors, and no attempt to apologise to you.
      I am mindful of the fact that Jesus told us to love our enemies. I am also mindful of the fact that the Lord disciplines those He loves.

      • Correction: *maligned* – I might have known that I wouldn’t get through this without at least one typo!

      • Sadly, I think that social media tends to bring out the worst in people.

        I have no reason to believe that the person in question is purposefully misinterpreting or misrepresenting me. In my experience dealing with her, I’ve found her to be a very careless reader in the charged context of social media, whose personal set of concerns makes it difficult for her to engage with the bigger picture.

  6. Renee Byrd says:

    1. The strong female trope is usually written, I presume, by men, who can only conceptualize strength as one being physically strong. The problem could be solved by having more female writers who could accurately depict strong women. Women writers would easily and quickly change this problem.
    2. The strong male trope also needs to be eliminated since not all men are physically strong, since not all men make good warriors, since physical strength isn’t the only strength men should have, since some men sit on the couch or recliner and play video games or watch Netflix in their spare time and don’t hit the gym. The “ideal” man should not be a warrior. Y’all are multi-faceted too – just like women.
    3. The female warrior trope could also have to do with male violence towards females, whether physical or sexual. Females, in those cases, would have to use physical force to save ourselves, to escape the violent male. Here’s a very personal perspective on this: Because I was physically abused by my dad and boyfriends (something I would feel comfortable telling anyone as shame should not silence), I began working out and even took boxing lessons for a year so that I could better defend myself if someone ever came at me again.
    4. An invitation to females, especially the female referred to in this response, to discuss these issues publicly would be more than helpful. After all, resolution comes through discussion, not fighting.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Renee. In response to your points:

      1. I don’t think it is that easy. How many big blockbusters are there nowadays where the agency of writers is at the foreground? Far too often it seems as if films and TV shows are written by committees, or by writers that can be switched out from installment to installment. Rather than being story- and character-driven, they are driven by the desire to maximize audiences through carefully-engineered entertainment, which provides the desired fan service and appeals across audiences. Yet carefully-engineered entertainment that attempts to be all things to all people is seldom good art.

      Contrast The Force Awakens with the original Star Wars trilogy, for instance. The original Star Wars trilogy had the pyrotechnics of space battles and the like, but behind all that it was story-driven, a narrative about growth. It told the story of Luke’s growth from a boy to a mature man, who had gained strength, faced his weaknesses and failed, yet had grown in mastery over himself through patient training. It told the story of Han’s growth from a roguish but selfish smuggler, who was only in it for himself and was fairly abominable in his treatment of Princess Leia, to a man who was prepared to commit himself fully to the cause of the rebellion and to her, treating her as a counterpart, not just a potential lay. It told the story of the heart of the father being turned to his son and the heart of the son being turned to his father. It told the story of peace and order being returned to the galaxy through these processes of personal growth.

      The ‘soft reboot’ of The Force Awakens returns us to the status quo ante, as if the great battles of the original trilogy never really occurred. Once again we have rebels fighting space Nazis with a planet-destroying orb. All the beats of A New Hope are hit: it worked the first time, so it will work again! Han has split up with Leia and is off doing his smuggling thing again, as if the personal growth of the first trilogy was meaningless. Luke is off who-knows-where, having seemingly clocked out of the cause. And the heart of the son of the next generation is still estranged from his father. What we get is a lot of crowd-pleasing action that follows the tried-and-proven formula with added diversity, but at the expense of meaningful growth. Story is sacrificed for cheap entertainment and events are sapped of consequence. But entertainment engineered to please crowds is enough to produce the third highest grossing film of all time.

      Writers worked on The Force Awakens, but the creation is largely a corporate one, rather than the work of artists creating on their own terms. Writers increasingly seem to function more like employees at McDonalds than like chefs with their own restaurants. Audiences like superhero and Star Wars movies, so Marvel and Disney can churn out sequel after sequel, in an industrial-style process. The result of the almost surefire success of such franchises is a great laziness when it comes to doing things that are truly new. If things were to change, it would have to involve a new injection of creativity, a spirit of artistry, and risk-taking into the entertainment industry. I’m not holding my breath.

      2. In contrast to women, men are often called to be warriors and are naturally suited for that calling. For instance, almost all of the main male characters in Scripture were fighting men, who killed people or otherwise engaged in violence. Warfare has been a formative experience for countless men and holds considerable appeal, an appeal that needs to be understood, challenged, questioned, and properly channeled. This has been the case throughout human history and across societies. Clearly the fighting man trope is overplayed, and many men are not warriors, or their being warriors is of lesser importance to their broader callings. However, the fighting man trope exists for a reason; it resonates with reality in many ways.

      3. I am very sorry to hear about your experience. Yes, I think there is something to that, and some ‘strong female characters’ are really developed against the background of abuse (e.g. Jessica Jones). As I’ve already discussed, Jael is a character who resorts to violence in a context of abusive or oppressive men. Sisera, even by his own mother’s estimation (at least in Deborah’s imagining), is a rapist. He enters into a women’s tent, where men weren’t generally supposed to go. Among other things, Jael’s action may have involved a measure of self-defense. Yet such situations, while appropriate responses to abuse, are not the ordinary or good way of things. They are responses to radical dysfunction, rather than the healthy norm.

      4. People are welcome to respond: as I said, the comments are open. However, I can’t commit myself to participation, although, as I usually do, I will try to leave a few comments. This is mainly because I am exceedingly busy at the moment, as I am heading away for a few days tomorrow.

      I purposefully didn’t mention the woman who brought forward most of the objections by name. I have interacted with her before and have found her to be a frustrating interlocutor, who misrepresents my positions and engages uncharitably and carelessly. I’ve read her book: she clearly has a set of (often understandable) concerns that she is bringing to the text, but the insistence of these concerns seem to make it difficult for her to stand back and work with the bigger picture and treat the Bible on its own terms.

      From extensive experience interacting with her and other like her, I fear that ‘discussion’ would merely produce more heat than light. There are lots of people outraged by my positions on such issues, but exceedingly few people who will closely, attentively, and charitably engage with them. Outrage has never bothered me, but interacting with reactive people, especially in the charged and socially-saturated contexts of social media, is a waste of time and effort and tends merely to harden everyone in their pre-existing opinions. A detailed and close response to criticisms consistently gets brushed off with dismissive comments. I can give three or four hours to a detailed and point-by-point response to criticisms—as I do in the post above—and all I get is an angry tweet that sparks a storm of outrage in response, and that tweet typically shows that the person hasn’t even taken the minimal time required to read and understand my arguments carefully, but has just reactively jumped to a conclusion. This is why I generally refrain from responding to reactive people nowadays and write primarily for the sake of fair-minded onlookers, who may be uncertain of what to believe and are prepared to weigh up and test the arguments on both sides. Whether or not they agree with me, such people are more likely to be thinking.

      A lesson I have learnt over the years is that there is little point in trying to win over reactive people. I try to be consistent in criticizing people across the board and I have noticed that, when I criticize certain people, some reactive individuals will start cheering me on and will firmly attach themselves to me, pitting me against the parties they have an animus against. As most of the people I surround myself with are more inclined to push back at what I say, even when they largely agree, it instinctively feels good to have such a wholeheartedly affirming response. However, I have learned that such reactive people will turn on you the moment that you criticize one of their pet positions. They aren’t truly thinking, but merely using arguments to rationalize antagonisms and validate themselves. Such persons are unstable and, until they deal with the psychological instincts, personal wounds, partisan antagonisms, and social dynamics driving their thinking processes, there is little to be gained from attempting to ‘change’ their minds and it is best to keep one’s distance, lest one gets sucked into the same dynamics.

      • Renee Byrd says:

        1. Nice perspective – I had never thought about that, and I concur.
        2. True! There have always been more male vs. female warriors, maybe bc kids and the probability of rape if we were POWs. Women who don’t have kids and who want to fight despite the possibility of rape should have at it, tho imo.
        3. “Healthy norms” are really exceptions these days with dysfunction being the new normal. Men in the church have to figure out ways to sympathetically address the luggage all these women are carrying around concerning men.
        4. You shouldn’t try to “win over” reactive, unstable people. I agree! You should love them, which involves being patient with their weaknesses, possibly by charitably engaging even the most uncharitable critic. How will they learn if you don’t teach them (through demonstration) how to do this? “Psychological instincts, personal wounds, partisan antagonisms, and social dynamics” are often bound up with sin that has been enacted upon the person, so bearing that in mind should lead anyone to view even the most antagonistic person in a sympathetic light. Your point shouldn’t be to get them to change their mind but to listen to what is on their mind. Reactive people can be calmed down as quickly as they get stirred up. Also, you can’t really choose your audience. I mean, you can, but that’s many times not who your audience ends up being. I still would push for waaaayyyyyyy more public conversation between men and women about all of these touchy issues.
        5. Thanks for engaging even though you were super busy! ✌👋👊

      • Thanks, Renee.

        I definitely agree with you when it comes to the importance of loving reactive people and also about the ways in which reactive people tend to act out of wounds inflicted upon them by others’ sins. Reactivity is, at its heart, a lack of the boundaries that enable one to respond as one’s own self-defined agent, rather than merely instinctively reacting, as a kneejerk response to others. And people who have had their boundaries violated or constrained by others are very likely to be reactive.

        However, there are times and places. My experience has been that such reactive people can be helpfully interacted with in less public and social settings, where they can be put at ease in friendly personal conversation. In the charged and socially-saturated context of social media, it is best just to give them as wide a berth as possible. Sadly, this is especially the case for women, as people gather around women in a way that they don’t for men (people tend to be more likely to gather behind men and to gather around women: we tend to have different sorts of power in groups). A popular yet reactive woman will tend to produce stampedes on social media, as a crowd of people will swoop in to affirm and support her.

        I didn’t always follow this approach of avoiding such interactions, but, after seeing discourse going nowhere and antagonisms growing worse when debating issues with such people on social media, it is increasingly my policy to avoid them there. Otherwise, everything becomes unpleasant, about persons and the antagonisms between them, rather than about issues.

  7. p duggie says:

    Thanks for this. A back of my mind concern is the hammering about how different the modern industrial home and family organization is from the pre-industrial patterns, and how much is lost thereby. The thing I’d like to see you address is some persons claim that even in pre-industrial family organization there is a wide variety of schemas, some of which seem to feed right into the modern nuclear family and some of which don’t.

    This came home to me as a very godly missionary to a tribal muslim culture shared that his Christian raising of independent children who would be expected to move out of the house and live independently was a reflection of, in his view, his cherishing their own individual worth as humans in the image of God with their own lives to lead instead of being tied down to clan life as they would be in their tribal Muslim society.

    i realize I’m not reading you as carefully as I could and I see your claims that our industrial lives are still inescapable and have advantages, but I’d gesture at this image i’m linking below and wonder if the “industrial nuclear family” is really just the anglo-saxon folkway writ large?

    Also, since it’s so cold today, I really appreciate that my household can be one of consumption instead of a production one spending massive time producing enough canned good and salt pork to last through the long winter.

    • There are numerous significant dimensions of marriage culture that determine its shape in a given society. For instance: 1. occurrence of consanguineous marriage; 2. form of consanguineous marriage (e.g. the dominance of cousin marriage on the father’s side in many Arab cultures); 3. forms and levels of exogamy; 4. strength of extended family and kinship structures; 5. inheritance practices; 6. the strength of relations between the generations; 7. patri- or matri-lineality and patri- or matri-localism; 8. typical age of marriage and relative ages of marriage partners; 9. degree of parental involvement in arranging marriage; 10. levels of reproduction; 11. child-rearing patterns (e.g. some societies privilege the maternal uncle in child-rearing because he is the male who can be sure of kinship with the child); 12. the generalization of martially-oriented sexual norms to include even the unmarried. Dozens of other varying factors could be mentioned. These vary from culture to culture, often under the influence of geographical, economical, and other such factors.

      Modern Western culture represents a radicalization of certain forms of marriage, especially those of Anglo-Saxon culture. However, we really need to recognize differences of degree here. Adult children not living with parents is a very different thing from adult children scattering to the four winds of heaven. Rather, in such situations, the adult children would generally live in the same neighbourhood. The result would be a much lower viscosity society than clannish cultures, but not the radically atomized society that we have today.

  8. p duggie says:

    Alastair, you say

    “Male dominance in public rule wasn’t simply established by some compelling theoretical argument that was accepted by societies around the world.”

    but Genesis 4:23 says

    “Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech, listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.”

    Are you sure this wasn’t the compelling argument that established male dominance?

  9. Pingback: Strong women, who can know? | The End Time

  10. Geoff says:

    Thank you for your clear handling of scripture, from which all else radiates.

  11. Stephen Crawford says:

    The discussion of Deborah and Jael was really wonderful. As was your description of the Proverbs 31 woman–the fruitful tree in the midst of the garden, streams flowing from the home out into the world. You’ve given me a lot to chew on.

    Question (though if you don’t have time to answer, don’t! And of course I’m interested in everyone’s feedback): Most of your analysis seems to proceed by way of comparison–at least that’s my impression after reading your post. Men are generally stronger than women. And that’s certainly the issue that’s most germane, since you were originally reflecting on this stock character that’s emerged of the woman who beats up a bunch of men. I don’t really disagree with your conclusions, but I’m wondering if you could say more about the fact that women are still strong. They have strength. It’s generally less than the strength, especially physical, that men possess, but that doesn’t mean it’s not strength. And some of the work of making a home–especially a pre-modern home–will be physically demanding and require strength, even though it may require less strength than a sword fight. I guess this is what I’m wondering: are there ways to be more clear about this, and, if so, do you imagine that women will find it helpful to hear? (Obviously, other perspectives are especially helpful for that last question.)

    I guess I’m asking this in part to offer up for examination my own way of talking about these issues. Because when I’ve told people that men are called to be strong–in whatever way they’re called to be strong–they jump to the conclusion that women therefore aren’t called to be strong. But that doesn’t follow. So I’ve started teaching, with some success, that women are called to be strong, and men are called to be strong. But for a man, when someone rests in his strength it’s deeply satisfying to him in a way that’s just not true for women generally. It touches something deep in his soul. On the other hand, men are called to be tender. And women are called to be tender. But women shouldn’t be surprised if, when someone rests in their tenderness, they find it deeply satisfying in a way that’s just not true for men generally, that such an experience touches something deep in their soul.

    Thoughts?

    • Thanks, Stephen. Unfortunately, your comment was caught in my spam filter, and I’ve only just seen it.

      Yes, women clearly have strength, much as they have height. Being strong, like being tall, is primarily relative in the sense that I am using it. The relative character of strength comes to the foreground when we are speaking about extreme feats of physical strength or about combat between persons. Men are, by almost any conventional standard, clearly the stronger sex.

      As you point out, the physical demands of working in a pre-modern domestic context could be considerable, something that this recent research underlines. And women can both enjoy exerting their strength and developing it further (although nowadays ‘strength’ can be defined more relative to workout equipment than to the gruelling demands of hard physical labour, becoming a more autonomous value, about optimizing one’s body, rather than exerting one’s power upon creation).

      One of the problems with the conversation about the ‘strong female character’ trope is that it is related to some further broader discussions, which need to be brought in at certain points. One of these concerns the character of manliness and womanliness. While both men and women can be ‘strong’, strength is a highly gendered trait (in ways that lead height analogies to break down). It is highly gendered, not because women don’t have strength, but because strength (of some type or other) is far more integral to what it means to be a man and because the forms that strength takes can be highly gendered.

      A further concern relates to the presence of women in conflict. The sense that women playing the role of active combatants in warfare and conflict is extraordinary and often problematic is one that is stubbornly present across many cultures, even where women occasionally fight. The Bible clearly tells many stories of combat, but also presents women’s active role within it as highly exceptional, occurring only in a vanishingly small number of extreme and unusual situations (Jael and the woman from Thebez who drops the upper millstone on Abimelech are the examples that come to mind). This is not ultimately based upon the claim that women lack physical strength, but upon a deeper commitment to the inappropriateness of women in combat.

      To modern minds, which think of persons fundamentally as self-determining, detached gender-neutral individuals, the only way such distinctions could even remotely be justified is by arguments from comparative strength (and most won’t even admit those). Many will firmly oppose such arguments, observing, not without some legitimacy, that the strongest women should still be included in such circumstances and that this is no basis for a categorical opposition to women in combat. Such women are clearly physically capable of fighting.

      There are a number of levels on which distinctions can be drawn here. We can distinguish between the physical capacities of men and women: there is extensive evidence that men are built for combat in ways that women aren’t. We can observe the relative strengths of men and women in this regard. We can also observe the contrasting tendencies of men and women: men are, in general, behaviourally oriented towards combat in ways that women, as a general rule, aren’t. We can observe the contrasting ways in which combat relates to men and women’s teloi and to the virtues of manliness and womanliness. Combat can accentuate manliness (in both its negative and positive forms), but tends to compromise womanliness. We can also observe how combat relates to men and women’s more fundamental callings.

      These last two distinctions are the key ones here. I purposefully skirted this deeper discussion in my treatment of the subject, but it is extremely important. The approach you mention relates to the first of these two distinctions and to the way that strength is a sine qua non of manliness in a way that it isn’t of womanliness.

  12. Amanda says:

    Hi Alastair,
    My husband and I have a very boyish boy. He’s 9 yo. He’s on that typical stage when boys don’t like to be around girls, nor like anything from the girls’ world. Besides, my son likes to highlight quite often how boys are stronger, faster, more this and that than girls.

    One of the reasons I’m bothered with this is because I’m afraid he won’t move from it afterwards (we live in a macho culture country, although my husband is not a chauvinist at all.) When I try to show my son that the differences between boys and girls are good are desirable, and that he shouldn’t tease girls just because they like pink, princesses and bears, my message simply doesn’t go through.

    Based on his own experience, my husband says it’s just a phase and I shouldn’t be concerned about it. However, I remember how angry I was when boys teased me just because I liked girls’ stuff. It was so frequent and so bothersome that in the end I became a proud tomboy, and in my teens I refused make up, dresses or anything that would make me girly. I don’t want my boy to cause this in girls, nor to grow up and become a cahuvinist like most man in my country.

    Is this a reason for concern? How can I teach a boy to value a girl’s world?

    • Thanks for your question, Amanda.

      I think that your husband is correct that it is a phase (I went through something like your son’s stage too), but perhaps not that it is ‘just’ a phase. Phases may not last for more than a few years at most, but it can be extremely important that we grow healthily out of them, rather than being stunted in our growth by them. The phase may not last, but the damage caused by a phase poorly navigated can last for decades.

      Your son’s desire to dis-identify from female peers and to identify with male peers is definitely a healthy thing in principle, although it often can have unhealthy dimensions to it, such as those you describe. Rather than fighting against this ‘phase’, it is important to help him to pass through this stage of his growth well, so that he doesn’t become stunted in the ways that you fear. Instead of pushing back against the phase, you will be trying to channel it well.

      Your son’s development will involve various dimensions of growth such as: 1) a dis-identification from girls and the feminine realm that you represent; 2) a closer gendered identification with male peers; 3) an aspiration towards the manhood represented by those older male models in his life he wants to emulate; 4) a new attraction to women and hopefully a new valuing of those things that women value, now as one who is dis-identified from women, yet more closely engaged with them.

      Encouraging and enabling 1) and 2) in various ways can be important. Rather than being an obstacle to his becoming a man, by seeking to prevent his dis-identification, you can support him in that move by giving him the space to distinguish himself as a male and affirming him in various ways in that. Although it may seem to be a distancing in some respects—as it is just that—the part that you play here will be really crucial for his growth (and, as you support his dis-identification from the more female realm of his earlier childhood, he may be less inclined to fight against feminine values than he will if he is kept in situations where it is harder for him to do so). You are the woman who has naturally and properly dominated his childhood and as you step back to give him space and encourage him in this stage of his growth you will make a big difference for him. Your husband will also have new possibilities to make a positive impact at this critical stage.

      3) and 4) are hugely important. At the heart of a mature manliness is a deep valuing of women and what they care about, while being clearly distinguished from them. While the boyish urge to dis-identify leads the child to disparage female pursuits and interests, the mature man regards women and their pursuits and interests exceedingly highly, without losing his distinctness from them. Macho or chauvinist culture is a state of arrested development, which falls short of this.

      The mature man is someone who gives his strength to pursue, commit himself to, protect, provide for, empower, give security to, and upbuild his wife in particular and the children that she bears. The immature man regards women as an unwelcome force limiting his agency and tying him down, while the mature man recognizes that a good woman gives direction and purpose to his labours. The mature man’s labour is largely driven by his regard for a particular woman and what she creates.

      This really is the goal that your son needs to be led towards. In the task of leading him, you will need the help of good men to provide him with lived examples, good teaching, and personal support. However, your positive—and necessarily patient and charitable!—regard for him and his appropriately boyish values, interests, and clumsily emerging masculinity in this stage of his dis-identification can be an important step on the way for him to, as his maturity develops, to begin to return the favour. Hopefully this will lead to him growing through and beyond this stage, rather than being damaged by it.

      • Amanda says:

        Thank you so much for your thoughtful answer. I never thought that this de-identification was an important step for him, much less that I had any role other than “containing the damage”. This is very, very helpful. Thank you!

  13. Brian says:

    Mr Roberts,

    Thanks so much for this article. It was thought-provoking, helpful and at times convicting to my conscience as a father of five daughters. Whilst my wife and I would describe ourselves as common-sense complementarian Christians as well as lovers of Western culture in its best forms and stories, I realize how lazy I have been in engaging my children in these very salient issues to their self-concept.

    This is especially true in our game-playing. We are occasional role-playing gamers, and as the Game-master I use the One Ring rpg system. It’s based on Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and is highly sympathetic to his clear heroic structures within our adventures/shared storytelling.

    However, in considering the “kickass princess” trope, I have fallen into the same trap that tends to provide only warrior-like categories for personal advancement for young women.

    I am thinking hard about this section of your article:

    “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.”

    I therefore am thinking hard of ways in our role-playing to not only include combat opportunities vs. servants of evil, but also imaginatively allow and support “resolve, wisdom, courage, love, kindness, self-sacrifice, and other traits”.

    I think rpgs are an underestimated tool for helping girls explore life vicariously and framing the gender question in a balanced way that honors how the Creator made them.

    Brian Huseland,
    Formerly of Warrington, Cheshire
    huselands@hotmail.com

  14. bethyada says:

    Good article. You wrote: The existence of significantly different distributions of behavioural tendencies between the sexes isn’t hard to substantiate for those who don’t have their eyes open.

    I suspect you meant: The existence of significantly different distributions of behavioural tendencies between the sexes isn’t hard to substantiate for those who don’t have their eyes shut.

    Or perhaps: The existence of significantly different distributions of behavioural tendencies between the sexes isn’t hard to substantiate for those who have their eyes open.

    Or even, though I doubt it: The existence of significantly different distributions of behavioural tendencies between the sexes is hard to substantiate for those who don’t have their eyes open.

  15. Pingback: Feminism in Full Flower: Ronda Rousey Joins the WWE | CrossPolitic Show & Podcast

  16. BétonBrut says:

    “On an issue as emotive as gender, people tend to jump to unwarranted conclusions . . .” I look forward to your post on the ‘an issue as emotive as gender’ trope!

    PS When you say, ‘Films that explored [sic] the heroism of ICU nurses would be wonderful.’ Do you mean films that explore the heroism of *female* ICU nurses would be wonderful? Correct me if I’m wrong, but men can be nurses too, no?

    • No, I meant ICU nurses more generally, although the person asking the question may have presumed that ICU nurses are just female. My point was, among other things, that our model of heroism is one that is heavily skewed in the direction of traits that are, at the extremes we tend to focus upon, almost exclusively male. For women to appear in such a frame, they have to exhibit traits that are not merely accentuated forms of typical female strengths and virtues, but must conform more to male strengths and tendencies.

      However, this limited and heavily male heroic frame, while playing to accentuated male virtues and strengths, is one that also excludes many other forms of male heroism, preventing us from truly recognizing not merely the strength and heroism of female nurses but also of male nurses.

  17. BétonBrut says:

    Excellent! I too would welcome more films featuring male nurses. I’d also welcome more films featuring female central bankers.

    Here’s a thing, you seem to put great store in the way that *some* cultures codify gender, specifically in terms of dress and dance, and take these as indicative of the essential natural of gender. At the same time, you argue that other cultural representations of gender, particularly those of many modern feature films, are profoundly unhealthy.

    So, how can we tell which cultural representations of gender are healthy, and which are unhealthy; which are natural, and which are unnatural?

    To take one example, why would it be wrong to read contemporary pop-culture as indicative of the reality of human nature, and the reality of gender? Specifically, events such as Comic-Con where many young women choose to wear Jyn Erso costumes, or Harley Quinn costumes, or to crossdress as one of the male Doctor Whos, or Link from Legend of Zelda, or Sheldon Cooper, or Iron Man, or any number of other male pop culture characters, and men do the same; why does Comic-Con fail to reveal something essential about human nature, and the nature of gender, where other cultures succeed?

    • The fact that women like to create outfits and dress up in them, often in ways designed to accentuate their physical attractiveness, or that they are typically much more invested in cosplaying than men is hardly some radical break with what we already knew about differences between male and female tendencies! Nor should the fact that women are considerably more involved in the fan fiction community come as any surprise.

      Yes, we can learn some things about human nature from such things. However, what we can learn is quite limited by the fact that we are increasingly abstracted from the natural order within which and for which we were created, caught up in a realm of substanceless spectacle, sterile sex, and universal technique. Our world has been radically terraformed by late modernity. How men and women function under such conditions is revelatory of nature in a somewhat analogous manner to the ways that the human body functions in zero gravity are revelatory of the body’s purpose.

  18. BétonBrut says:

    Evening! I’ve been taking a deep dive into your writings on the trope of the ‘strong female character’.

    I’m a little confused by your thoughts in Luke Skywalker. Early in the essay you say, “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.” However, later you say, “The teenage boy who identifies with Luke Skywalker is . . . “ and again, “Luke’s journey is a recognizably male one . . .” So can any “young viewer” identify with Luke, or is it just young men, as you imply later?

    One other point, you quote a bunch of studies to show that women tend to have less upper body strength than men, and then slip in that men and women have “natural inclinations” many scripts also fail bear in mind. However, you don’t offer and scholarship for the claim about “natural inclinations”. Why not, when that is the more controversial statement?

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