The Strong Woman* & Emasculated Man

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.

32 Responses

  1. WOOHOO! Great article — thanks so much for posting this. It made me feel comforted to know that at least one man thinks like you.

    I also liked the comments you made about examining privilege — I’m still in the process of doing this, and I think it’s a crucial thing to do that people don’t do often enough. I remember my first time reading bell hooks and discovering that feminism often didn’t give fair treatment to people of color; that was quite an eye-opener for me, and I’m glad to have had that experience.

  2. Perfect timing. I was just stewing about one of my favorite songs — Outkast’s “Roses”. I finally listened to the non-censored version recently and was appalled to realize it contained dozens of repetitions of the word “bitch”, in 4 different variations. I was already unhappy with the song — I’m really tired of hearing how beautiful women, already objectified and commoditized in our society, are somehow bad or evil for taking advantage of that objectification. (And for having a “bad attitude” about it — hell, if a man’s going to treat you like a piece of meat, why *should* you act happy/grateful about it?) But on top of that, there’s an ugly implicit message of exactly the kind of blame you’re talking about, and also that repeated, furious, hateful “bitch”. I want to like Outkast; they’re so much smarter than the usual hip hop artists who make it. They should be smart enough to see the danger in this kind of knee-jerk vilification.

    Anyway, great post again!

  3. Just chiming in with the others — lovely post! So nice to read.

    Also worth noting is the heterosexist component of such misogyny, and the way strong women are often labeled lesbian or dyke to further emphasize their threat to masculinity.

  4. Awesome post! and your commenter’s are definitely on it!

  5. I’m probably going to get angry responses for this but some women especially black DESERVE the ‘angry’ female stereotype and are straight up stupid,nasty,hateful little bitches. Let me clarify by giving a perfect example Omarosa from “The Apprentice” fits that criteria to a T she is manipulative,sneaky,obnoxious,whiny,spiteful,and very egotistical. Another example would be Coral from the “Real World” UGH I wish I could go ‘real world’ and teach her silly,snide,mean,bitchy,bitch ass what a real world whooping was like. Or Jade from “Next Top Model” who obviously chose the path of least resitance and picked on a woman who she believed to be docile aka the only Asian girl in the house. And that’s not the first time that has happened on reality tv either and don’t even get me started on the queen ode to black female stereotypes Tanisha from “Bad Girls Club” who manages to pull off a spastic Nell Carter AND ‘mammy’ cliche. Now I’m not judging all black females I criticize from reality tv because I have many p-e-r-s-o-n-a-l stories of black females I’ve had run-ins with most who I wasn’t doing CRAP to and came at me first so they had to be checked. There is a BIG difference between ‘strong’ and just being a hateful,obnoxious a-hole and yes bitch who tries to bulldoze and bully over everyone and everything wether warrented or not. Or are ALWAYS looking for a fight that doesn’t make you strong just a pathetic,little fool with a chip on her shoulder and an axe to grind even though this will anger some females I just feel both sides of the spectrum need to be looked at.

  6. What we have in Lmary’s comment above is a classic example of what astronomers call a Selection Effect. I’m sure Lmary has run into plenty of arrogant people who were not black woman and plenty of black women who were not arrogant, but Lmary is looking for incidents involving black women who have irritated, so they’re ignored. I believe psychologists call it Confirmation Bias?

    Thank you, Naamen. I may have to find a way to sneak this into my students’ brains.

  7. jsb12- Hey, awesome, I didin’t know a technical term for that phenomenon.

  8. Lmary,

    I just feel both sides of the spectrum need to be looked at.

    I’m sorry — both sides of what spectrum?? Naamen is talking about strong women. The opposite of that is weak women. You’re talking about neither — what you’ve described are either a) fake women created by TV show producers to lure in viewers with stereotypical, sensationalistic behavior, or b) women who don’t like you. Neither demonstrates weakness or strength; just your personal distastes.

  9. It is hard to examine your privilege and is a never ending process but it is by no means impossible.

    a couple of months ago i told my little brother that as a white
    male, he will encounter both resentment and favoratism. I
    told him not to feel bad about either but to be very aware of
    it when it happens. what i thought was interesting was that
    he did not initially understand what i meant. by most
    standards he is very enlightened and sensetive, but his
    response was “well honestly i think we are in the majority, so
    i doubt people even think about it much when they respond
    to me.” the point to this overlong story is that i actually
    needed to remind him that for every white man there is aprx
    one white woman- if white men are counted against every
    demographic in the country, they are by far not the majority.
    but they are still the default idea of human that would be
    used on the cover of a kellogs box to appeal to the masses.
    this default is so deeply engrained that it is rarely questioned.

    As a white female (and part time ball buster) i experience
    sexism like most women do, but no racism to speak of.
    The larger part of the country has been exposed to either
    one or both. I feel that the protection that (most) white men
    have from this experience alienates them from the rest of us
    in a way that no other demographic experiences. This
    enables their ignorance and gives them cause to be
    defensive. This condition also cuts down positive dialogue
    on all sides. Communication is the first thing that needs to
    happen. So grab your nearest worthwhile white male and
    point his privledge out to him in a friendly way! I know thats
    silly, but the really may just not know. They know on some
    level if they have the slightest bit of self-awareness,
    but it may not have really sunk in that they are protected
    from an experience that thier friends and loved ones deal
    with daily.

  10. Lmary, you have got to seriously be kidding me.

    “’m probably going to get angry responses for this but some women especially black DESERVE the ‘angry’ female stereotype and are straight up stupid,nasty,hateful little bitches.”

    Just in the same manner you went postal on someone in a comment because you couldn’t pick up on sarcasm. Pot, meet kettle.

    “Let me clarify by giving a perfect example Omarosa from “The Apprentice” fits that criteria to a T she is manipulative,sneaky,obnoxious,whiny,spiteful,and very egotistical. Another example would be Coral from the “Real World” UGH I wish I could go ‘real world’ and teach her silly,snide,mean,bitchy,bitch ass what a real world whooping was like. Or Jade from “Next Top Model” who obviously chose the path of least resitance and picked on a woman who she believed to be docile aka the only Asian girl in the house. And that’s not the first time that has happened on reality tv either and don’t even get me started on the queen ode to black female stereotypes Tanisha from “Bad Girls Club” who manages to pull off a spastic Nell Carter AND ‘mammy’ cliche. Now I’m not judging all black females I criticize from reality tv because I have many p-e-r-s-o-n-a-l stories of black females I’ve had run-ins with most who I wasn’t doing CRAP to and came at me first so they had to be checked. ”

    So, you’re using reality TV – with only what, 5 or some odd examples that you’ve come across (and keep in mind that these stereotypes are put in place by white men/women who direct these shows – stuff like this is SCRIPTED) as a form of confirmation bias towards millions of other women who probably are nothing like that.

    Because obviously, you’ve only had problems with the black ones. White people have never wronged you!

    Confirmation bias only makes you look like an idiot.

    “There is a BIG difference between ’strong’ and just being a hateful,obnoxious a-hole and yes bitch who tries to bulldoze and bully over everyone and everything wether warrented or not. Or are ALWAYS looking for a fight that doesn’t make you strong just a pathetic,little fool with a chip on her shoulder and an axe to grind even though this will anger some females I just feel both sides of the spectrum need to be looked at.”

    Females? I generally dislike the term used in such a manner, because I personally have found that it tends to be used in a less than flattering context. You want to talk about people who are always looking for a fight, but somehow, you are an exception to this rule? With the examples you’ve provided, and the vitriol that you’ve displayed in the introduction to this reply and in comment to someone else, I really, REALLY would watch my words if I were you.

  11. Lmary, I just have to shake my head when I read anything you write. Such foolishness. I am beginning to think there is no point in even engaging you because even when you do eventually apologize, you just go to another thread and repeat the same insanity again.

    Really, there’s all of ZERO value to your comment above.

  12. While I don’t agree with the language in lmary’s comment, I do agree somewhat with the sentiment.

    If the only “strong” black women to whom the majority of whitebread America has been exposed are the angry type portrayed on reality shows, how can you fault them for not knowing any better? It doesn’t matter if the roles are scripted. Perception IS reality. Just ask any politician.

    Instead of complaining that lmary is foolish or stupid or is using ‘confirmation bias’ to prove a point, change our perceptions. Because we see the angry Black woman persona and women like Omarosa, and we can’t help assume that there’s a reason the majority of WoC in our experiences and purview are characterized in that manor.

  13. My apologies. I hit submit before I had proofread that last sentence.

    Because we see the angry Black woman persona and women like Omarosa, we can’t help but assume there’s a reason the majority of WoC in our experiences and purview are characterized in that manor.

  14. Seriously, “Truth”? You’re seriously saying “Hey, it’s your responsibility to change network television to make it stop being so racist and misogynist; it’s not my responsibility to realize that perhaps TV isn’t reality and that my racist assumptions are not legitimate”? That’s your position? That you’re so lazy you can’t be bothered even to contemplate the fact that TV is not an objective recording of the world, so you’re going to sit around twiddling your thumbs until people of color and white women fix it for you?

  15. I haven’t wanted to threadjack with these thoughts, but on the one hand, Naamen encouraged us to think about how this dynamic relates to our own ethnic backgrounds, and on the other, once “Truth” starts posting ridiculous spew about how black people all over the country are responsible for making up for Omarosa, I’ve got to think that anything else is an improvement.

    So one of the things that I’ve been thinking about lately is how closely this dynamic is mirrored in American Ashkenazi Jewish culture. You have the demonization of the strong matriarchs who have held families together through times of great suffering and trial, the portrayal of those women as inherently sexually repulsive as opposed to the sexual ideal of the blonde shiksa, and the idea that such strong women emasculate their men (the stereotype of snivelling Jewish man with mommy issues). One of the things I find fascinating is that both black and Jewish women are often made to feel unattractive for exactly those physical traits that are most closely associated with their ethnic/racial identities: coarse curly hair, big noses (for Jews), particularly dark skin (for black women), etc. It’s almost as though rejecting and demonizing the accomplishments of these women is a way of rejecting the ethnic/racial identity itself–women become keepers of the identity and men purchase acceptance in the white or gentile world by selling out those women. Indeed, there’s a long tradition of Jewish men gaining popularity among gentiles by making mock of Jewish women, all the way from “take my wife, please,” to every single portrayal of a Jewish woman Woody Allen has ever had a hand in.

    This dynamic also seems to reify the idea that the definition of a man is “one who is superior to women,” and that when the women of a given ethnicity/race prove themselves to be strong and effective, there is no identity left for the men to have.

  16. Veronica,

    Thank you. I was in the middle of trying to calm down enough to respond coherently to “truth”‘s statement when I saw your reply.

    Truth,

    Stop calling yourself that. You’re on the website of a black woman who uses her anger intelligently, productively, eloquently, and positively — linked to dozens of websites featuring other real angry WoC — showcasing years’ worth of news articles, books, and research about just how much good angry WoC can do in the world… and it’s the reality TV image of angry black women you’d rather buy instead? You’re clearly not interested in the truth.

  17. Veronica,

    I think a lot of WoC get the same treatment — especially if they come from cultures perceived as threatening to the WASP power structure in some way. (Maybe this is all nonwhite cultures, in America at least.) I’ve heard the same angry/ugly/emasculating stereotype applied to Latina women, Asian women, Irish women back before they assimilated, etc. I think it’s just part of the systematic oppression of these cultures, attacking men, women, and children in different ways — and also setting all three at each others’ throats in a classic divide-and-conquer maneuver. But attacking women in this particular way — making them out to be less attractive, less “feminine”, somehow threatening to “their men”, etc., is definitely the intersection of sexism.

  18. I didn’t claim those were either my personal beliefs or my only interactions with WoC. I was, apparently ineffectually, offering up reasons why people such as lmary hold the views they do. To your point Veronica, people ARE lazy, so they WILL accept the women they see on the sitcoms and reality shows as a true picture of a Black woman. If every time they turn on the tv, white folks are confronted with this image, negative and fake though it may be, do you honestly think they’re going to look further? If they persoanlly know no WoC, is it really odd that they’d assume the people on reality tv aren’t real? Yes, I think the images on tv and in movies should be changed to reflect more positive and more realistic WoC, but I also don’t blame people for buying into that angry black woman persona at least a little. After all, it bombards us on a daily basis, how could we not?

  19. Truth,

    What you’re basically saying is, “I don’t blame people for racist thinking.” That’s what these stereotypes are. You’re excusing people for buying into them; you’re making excuses for racism.

    Did you have a point other than this? Anything constructive to add?

  20. Nevermind. It’s apparent that you’ve got your mind set on what it is you think I’m trying to say.

    Not every differing or alternate opinion is an attack.

  21. Truth,

    We can’t see you, we can’t read your mind; all we have to go on are your words. And when you say things like “how can you fault them” and “I don’t blame people for buying into” these stereotypes, you’re not leaving a lot of room for misinterpretation, IMO. That’s the kind of language you use when you know someone’s done something wrong, but you’d rather rationalize their behavior than confront/stop it. It’s also the language one uses when they’re seeking a way to blame the victim. “I don’t blame him for hitting her; she shouldn’t have mouthed off to him.” Etc.

    If you think you’ve been misunderstood, then clarify.

  22. It was really nice to see this post. I had a crazy, overbearing father and a pushover, enabling mother. Strong women who defend themselves and their kids are a solution, not a problem.

  23. *curses stupid typo*

  24. I think that strength and rudeness are two orthogonal scales. I have met all sorts of people who fall into all four quadrants: strong and polite; strong and rude; weak and polite, weak and rude. I’ve seen this in men and women, of any ethnicity you care to pick.

    I might consider calling a woman who is strong and rude a ball-buster, though in my estimation there are limited scenarios where that name applies. In any case I’d have an equally unpleasant name for a man who behaved similarly.

    In my (limited) experience in this, a ball-buster is someone who exhibits disrespect for masculinity by a) disparaging masculinity in general, b) by disparaging a particular male as a failure at masculinity, or c) takes delight in using a position of authority to run roughshod over those in inferior positions. I have not found these qualities to be particularly admired in men, either. We call men like this “assholes.”

    It seems to be the proposition of this argument that a woman who is strong and (anything) is automatically a ball-buster. I’d like to know where this comes from. I’m not particularly tuned in to the media scene, so I’m probably behind the curve here, in terms of when and where this name is getting flung around.

  25. But why wouldn’t you just call women “assholes” too? Why would you need to invoke a sexist standard?

  26. When the attacks are expressed in terms of the maleness of the target, and the inherent inferiority thereof, that is not an unreasonable characterization.

    I have yet to see a man do either a) or b) from the previous post. I have heard people say “the (male) boss is busting my balls,” though it seems to mean something a little different. I’m certainly not going to claim that the use of epithets is a science that follows rules of logic or consistency.

    The main point however, is that the author seems to be saying that what makes a man get called a good leader is what makes a woman get called a “bitch.” In my experience, what makes a woman a “bitch” is what makes a man an “asshole.” I don’t see the point of wanting to be called an “asshole” rather than a “bitch,” leaving the issue of the ill-manners that prompted the label unaddressed.

  27. Awesome article. This reinforces men like myself who has chosen to recognize a woman’s equal authority by arming us with a decent enough bullshit detector against the status-quo arguments of what will probably be my own family.

    Veronica – To me, everyone who acts like an asshole, is called an asshole, if it’s any consolation. That word has a nice ring to it. :-)

  28. I can’t help but think that some of this is simply a raging Oedipal complex on the part of many men. Could some of this be based on the old childhood fear of mommy’s disapproval?

  29. The main point however, is that the author seems to be saying that what makes a man get called a good leader is what makes a woman get called a “bitch.”

    Yes. That is true. There have been studies done on the perceptions of male and female bosses by their employees, and women who are in charge are expected to be sympathetic and friendly at far greater rates than their male counterparts, and are responded to negatively when they don’t conform. Studies of pedagogy find similarly differing reactions to male and female teachers.

    When the attacks are expressed in terms of the maleness of the target, and the inherent inferiority thereof, that is not an unreasonable characterization.

    Except that’s not how it’s generally used. And given that masculinity as a construct is often predicated on the inherent inferiority of the feminine, one would think it could afford to take a few hits.

    I don’t see the point of wanting to be called an “asshole” rather than a “bitch,” leaving the issue of the ill-manners that prompted the label unaddressed.

    Because one is a gender-specific insult and the other isn’t. Unless part of the insult you wish to level is that the woman isn’t conforming to an acceptable model of femininity, there’s no reason to use “bitch.” Also, “bitch” has taken on overtones of “a woman who is sexually exploited by a more powerful man or a man who is the receptive partner in anal sex who is being sexually exploited by a more powerful man,” either of which adds a pretty disgusting attitude toward women in general and sexuality in particular to the mix.

  30. [...] I now realize I had forgotten to link to my last post for The Angry Black Woman: The Strong Woman & Emasculated Man. It actually got linked to by feministing which is kind of [...]

  31. Naamen, exactly!

    And taking the general trend, anytime, anyone steps out of their place in the hierarchy- they get attacked. Women are attacked if they step higher than men, men are attacked if they let women lead, etc. The bullshit stays ingrained because the oppressor and the oppressed are both punished if they try to step away from the system.

    And the “argument” of “we didn’t know better”? Excuse me, if you live in any major urban area (and a good portion of non-urban ones too), you meet people of color everyday, and women make up 51% of the population- taking media stereotypes over all the real people around you?

    Under that logic, watching Silence of the Lambs should turn you into a cannibal.

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