Monday, August 11, 2014

What Does a Strong Woman Look Like?

There were four of them. Young guys in their early twenties, tall and lean and loud, more interested in being heard than working out. Otherwise, the gym was relatively quiet, about fifteen others spread throughout the weight room. 

Bethany set her water down by the lat pulldown machine and leaned over to adjust the weight.  One of the young guys approached, indignant, and said, "Hey, I'm using that!"

“Ok, can I work in with you?”

He sniffed. “No.”

He turned back to his friends and started joking with them as if she was no longer standing there. As he was talking, he picked up a pair of dumbbells and started doing shrugs. Bethany shook her head and dropped her stuff beside the lat machine. When she sat down, he looked over at her.

“Hey, I told you that I was using it.” His voice dripped with entitlement.

“No, you're not.  You're doing shrugs.”

“But my stuff is there,” he said, pointing to his towel, clearly shocked that someone would challenge him, especially a woman. A woman!

Bethany pointed to her water bottle on the other side. “My stuff is there, too.”

It wasn’t until she finally started doing her set before he backed down, though not before looking over at his friends. “What a bitch.”

When she’d finished her set, an older man approached her. “I’m glad you told them off. They’re a bunch of jackasses.”

Bethany nodded, though she hadn’t really told them off, she’d merely stood her ground. She finished her workout by spending a hard twenty minutes working the heavy bag, angry that the place she went for peace, her place, had become a place of confrontation.

When she came home, her face was red. I kissed her at the door.

“How was your workout, Love?” I asked.

“I may have gone a bit too hard.”

She told me what had happened, and I grimaced as I listened. My wife is about 5’4”, strong but small, and this seemed like just another story – one of many – that she’d told me regarding her brushes with men. From the parking lot to the grocery store to the gym, her experience in society was completely different than mine. I wasn’t completely surprised by this, I’d been lucky enough to have a number of strong female friends over the years, and they’d echoed similar situations that happened to them on a regular basis.
According to them, when you’re a girl, you grow up with it, and so dealing with incidents like that are just part of life. Yeesh. I shook my head and continued to listen to Bethany tell her story. For as much as I still found it difficult to believe, there was a time I thought I had it rough because I was a man.

Young Men are Daft (For a Reason)

When I was in my early twenties, I had these ideas about women, strange creatures that they were. Fortunately, they were easy to categorize.

a) loud and crass
b) sexy and dumb
c) smart and ugly
d) bossy and mean

And all of those could be lumped into one of these two categories

e) frigid or slutty (Madonna or Whore)

That was about it. Some combinations were possible. Occasionally a woman could be smart and plain, or they could bossy and pretty, but for the most part, there weren’t that many different types of women. Men could be a million things, have all kinds of contradictions, but that made sense. Why? Because they were men, that’s why.

Early romantic counselling for me included any number of older men telling me that women would be whatever you made them. They were mirrors. Whatever reflection you saw was a result of your own doing. Women were strange, yes, but very simple. If you were good to them, they’d look after you. If you weren’t, all kinds of bad behaviours would result. Like pets, I remember thinking. Crazy as it sounds, I did not intend that as an insult. It just seemed self-explanatory. Most of the movies I watched clearly showed what happened when women were put in tough situations. How many times did the woman bungle things up only for the man to save things? Or when was the last time you heard a woman speak intelligently about guy things. Sure, there were a few exceptions, but that’s all they were: exceptions. It wasn’t that women were doing it on purpose, it was just their nature. I understood that, of course. But damn, it was just so frustrating.

And then there was the special attention they received. That used to frustrate me, too. A woman could walk into a room, and a proper man was supposed to hold the door open for her, make sure she was okay, settle her down if things got anxious, and THEN pay the bill. And I didn’t even mention all those ridiculous fruitcakes running around screaming about feminism and equal rights. Equal rights? Women didn’t have to do ANYTHING? Men had to shoulder the load. You didn’t see us running around whining about “special rights.”

When I asked other men about this, older men, they’d smile and shrug. That was how women were. There was no explaining it, so best get used to it.

Writers: Women are NOT Hollywood

Some time in my late twenties, a good five years after I started writing full time, I noticed that my attitude regarding women began to change. My first (horrible) novel featured two men as the main characters. Writing from a woman’s perspective was as unthinkable as understanding women in the first place. My own marriage had been a colossal failure, and here I was, not yet thirty and already divorced. What did I know about women? Certainly not enough to write from their perspective.

As a writer, I’d always wanted to challenge myself, so I determined that I was going to feature two women in my next novel as my main characters. Two estranged sisters, wildly different from one another. (That novel, Ravin, led to me to my brief relationship with a literary agent.) I’d somehow developed close friendships with two women who started to show me that everything I’d perceived about women and most things I’d learned about them, from either books or movies or the “wise” advice from other men, were completely wrong. Both of them were pretty and smart and complex, filled with nuances and contradictions, just like a man. They did not fit into my categories. (Yes, a man can have a platonic friendship with a woman. Both of them stood for me in my wedding party, and they remain two of my best friends to this day.)

At the same time, I began to realize that my perception of women had been shaped as much by the narrative I’d absorbed (movies, books, music) as by my own experiences with actual women. Around this time, I’d started watching Hercules: The Legendary Journey, and when they spun Xena off of it, I watched that, too. As funny as it sounds, Xena was the first show I’d ever seen to take women seriously. Sure, Lucy Lawless was sexy and tough, but even within the campy set of the show, there were more than glimpses to some of the difficulties women faced. That, along with her relationship with Gabrielle, her quick witted younger travelling companion, was quite revealing to me. I’d never watched a show – certainly not a ‘superhero’ type show – that centered on the relationship between two women. Both of them were strong in their own way, and both of them were admirable.

What DOES a Strong Woman Look Like?

The crazy thing is that she doesn’t “look” like anything. One of the reasons I perceived women to be weak and shallow when I was young was that the definitions and answers I received regarding them weren’t answers at all, they were types. Look again at my categories. Those aren’t real humans, they’re stereotypes. And they’re still perpetuated in everything from relational best-sellers (Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars) to blockbuster movies (anything from Michael Bay) to best-selling novels written by men AND women. (Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone? Twilight?)

Over the last decade, my view of women has changed so dramatically, I can hardly recognize the boy that used to believe those stereotypes were the totality of another human being. And as a writer, I find it much easier now to write strong female characters than I do strong males. My only explanation for this is that when you work from a blank slate, as I’ve had to do, and you’re writing from an experience completely unlike your own, it’s much easier to find objectivity when you discover your characters. (Sorry, that sounds artsy, but there it is)

In Second Blood, my forthcoming fantasy novel, my female lead (De Nyara) is by far the strongest and most complex character in the book. She was also the easiest to write. And in my new novel, The Last Angel, my female lead is a strong character that again, one I find easy to “hear.”

In both fiction and life, it’s important to consider the complexity of all people, regardless of gender. By addressing this complexity you neither write shallow characters nor perceive others the same way. (With brazenly ignorant comments like, “Ugh. Typical woman!”)

A strong woman does not have to be an Amazonian princess in the same way a strong man does not have to be a warrior. A strong woman can be a stay-at-home mom or a lawyer or a politician or a nutritionist. Strength is not defined by the loudness (or quietness) of an individual or success in a certain field or recognition by others within society.

Strength, in both men and women, is found in those who act against their own self-interests to better those around them. Their family. Their friends. Their community. Strength is found in those who battle the pre-conceptions and prejudices of society and decide for themselves what they will believe. And strength is found in those unwilling to sacrifice kindness and compassion for the sake of moving up society’s hierarchical ladder, be it for money or fame or anything else. Ultimately, it is defined by our attention to self-awareness, our willingness to look into the mirror and see who we are, to see our humanity, and face whatever that reflection reveals.

I’ve been lucky in my life. I’ve been able to meet strong people, kind people, people who were selfless and gracious and compassionate. But if you were to really press me, ask me what a strong woman looked like, I’d tell you that she looked something like the one who stood up those guys at the gym, the one who refuses to kill a moth in the house and will spend time trapping it in a box to release it outside, the one who spends countless hours developing meal plans for her friends and family, most of which go unpaid. Yeah, if you were to press me hard enough, I’d tell you that she looked like my wife.


NOTE: Why not tell me about a strong woman in your life in the comments below?