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What makes a strong woman?

April 18th, 2012 donnahoke

Yesterday, there was a Joss Whedon quote going around Facebook:

Q: Why do you write strong female characters?

A: Because you’re still asking me that question.

I reposted it, and thirteen of my women friends, and a lone man (shout out to Steve Roylance!), liked it. I didn’t really need those stats to tell me that a lot of men (and even plenty of women) don’t care for strong women; I’ve frequently seen it borne out in every day life. 

But there are some, like Steve, and Patrick Gabridge, who is writing an entire series about women artists who juggle their work with parenting (today, I am featured:, who seem to respect them. That Patrick would even choose to do this series shows his admiration for women who take charge and get things done, and I’m honored to be a part of it. I don’t mind being called a strong woman by someone who seems to think that’s a compliment and not a synonym for crazy bitch.

Nonetheless, the confluence of both the Whedon quote and my interview got me to thinking today (and if I’m thinking, I really hope this means my cold is getting better) what exactly people mean when they call me a strong woman. There are plenty of adjectives that get used: persistent, proactive, opinionated, frank, stubborn. You see how any one of those can easily these can be euphemisms for pushy, abrasive, unladylike, and yes, bitchy—words I’ve also heard attached to my name.

And the truth is, very often when I’m called strong, it doesn’t feel like a compliment. Very often, when I’m called strong, it’s in the context of a crisis, and it means “you can  handle death, divorce, job loss,” without falling apart. It can mean “you don’t need help or understanding,” and very often, it feels like “you don’t have feelings.” Which simply isn’t true—for me, my strong mother and sisters, the strong young women I hope I’m raising, or any other strong women I know. But if a woman doesn’t have feelings, it’s easier to call her a crazy bitch because you know, she won’t care.

In her book Bossy Pants, Tiny Fey does a far better job of explaining why some people find strong women threatening than I could ever do here, and that’s not really what I set out to do today. I just wanted to say thank you to those men who admire strong women, thank you to those women who stay strong even when those around you would prefer you to be weak, thank you to Patrick for featuring me on his blog, and thank you to those who know that just because I don’t blubber, I’m not unfeeling. I might not wear my heart on my sleeve, but I do write plays. If that’s not putting it all out there, I don’t know what it is.


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