Posted by: Naamen Gobert Tilahun
The nicknames are endless, bitch, ballbuster, battleaxe, ballcutter, … all of these are used in reference to a strong woman. When confronted with a woman who exudes strength the automatic reaction of some men is to fall into the whole “woe is me, she emasculated me” line of thought. The introduction of a strong woman into most men’s lives leads to the use of this defense when confronted with ugly truths. It should be no surprise that the idea has gotten so popular that the strong woman/emasculated male trope is now trotted out constantly as an excuse for bad behavior on the part of men. Males and male-apologists alike blame everything from rape, to cheating, to sexual harassment, to cat-calling, to eaves-teasing, to depression, to murder on a woman being “emasculating” thus forcing the man to react in this way.
Yeah…I call bullshit.
A little background history on me, my parents divorced when I was very young and my father got custody of me. Despite this I was in constant contact with my mother, phone calls every week, packages every month, visits every summer, all told I spent a lot of time in my mother’s mental space if not in her physical presence. You would be hard pressed to find a woman as strong as my mother, she taught me a lot of the morals and beliefs that I now apply to my everyday life.
I never once felt emasculated or was made to feel small by my mother’s competence and strength. I never feel that way today when I meet a woman in my personal or professional life who has what is called “ballbuster qualities” because I recognize that these are the same characteristics that are admired and lauded in men all over this country.
Now the main point of me stating all this is that the way we react to anyone’s strength is a personal and controllable reaction. If men are feeling this way around a strong woman it is not a “natural” or “normal” reaction in any way, it is the reaction that our white heteronormative patriarchal society wants us to have. It is the reaction of the media, and family, and so much that we read and study giving us the impression that women are less important, less smart, less driven, less everything and suddenly getting confronted by proof that this isn’t true at all.
Instead of doing the mature thing and realizing that they’ve been fed false information they fall back on how they’ve been trained to react to such an “unnatural” woman, with contempt, with insults and undermining her authority. This is because, at least subconsciously the male has realized his place of power within the dynamic and the world which those like him have created. As a newly cut cog in the patriarchal war machine he does the small motions that keep the machine flowing, contributing to larger actions that oppress women worldwide.
Now as this is theangryblackwoman.com I want to bring up the intersection this has with race. There is a certain extra layer that permeates the idea of the strong woman when it’s applied to black** women. The strong black woman is such a pervasive stereotype that it’s been the basis of movies (Deliver Us From Eva, Two Can Play That Game) and is the impetus behind the role of “sassy black friend” (Scary Movie franchise). The strong black woman is blamed for much in the African-American community both by those on the inside and the outside of the community itself. Theorists have linked the “strong black woman” with the prevalence of gangs in urban life, again falling back on the emasculation excuse offered above in two ways. Number one, the woman obviously drove off her husband by being too strong which has effected the child adversely and number two she’s doing the same with her son.
This particular use of the trope to denigrate and blame women has a large racial component because by blaming the black woman for being too strong they can ignore the intersecting race, gender, heterosexist and socio-economic reasons that oppressed groups (all oppressed groups including women, LGBTQ, those of lower socio-economic standing, etc.) have formed street gangs in the past and continue to do so. For many it is seen as their only way out of the ghetto, as their only chance for a community of people who will love them no matter what, as something they have little to no choice in.
All men are inundated with these ideas about women by the societal mores of our patriarchal society but it is their choice to buy in to the nonsense. It is their choice to become emasculated by a strong woman rather than viewing her as a valid competitor and business person. It is their choice to leave their privilege and therefore their privileged reactions unexamined. It is hard to examine your privilege and is a never ending process but it is by no means impossible. I’ve done this, other men have done this, all men can do this but chose not too because at least subconsciously and often consciously they know that the machine they are a part of benefits them and those like them. So male and male-apologists will continue to call strong women, and indeed any woman who questions them, a bitch. And I’ll continue to call them and their theory of strong women emasculating men, bullshit.
*Strong Woman – There are many different types of strength for men and women but when we discuss the strong woman of ball-busting and battleaxe fame we are discussing most often a woman who knows what she wants, goes out to get it, doesn’t allow anyone or anyone’s incompetence to stand in her way and doesn’t suffer fools. There are many different types of strength and strong women, none of them is more valid than the others. This post is not a valuing or rating of women this is simply talking about a particular trope.
**I’m focusing on black women because those tropes are the ones I know the best and it would be irresponsible of me to spout off about the racial implications when applied to Native, Asian, Latina, Middle-Eastern, etc. That is not to say I know everything when it comes to this trope being applied to black women but that is where the core of my knowledge lies. I encourage anyone who knows about the way this can interact with other racial groups and the stereotypes that dog them to expand in the comments or make a post of their own and link it in the comments.
Naamen Gobert Tilahun is a creative writer, freelancer and blogger based in San Francisco. You can visit him at Words From The Center, Words From The Edge, where he discusses writing, science-fiction, movies, and more.