Hello readers and welcome to me being driven slowly crazy by well-meaning people who can’t really be criticized for saying what they believe to be a compliment. Clearly this isn’t obvious, so I’m here to tell you: calling someone a “strong woman” is exactly the same as calling someone a “clean African American.” Or a “non-lazy Mexican,” or a “surprisingly relaxed Asian,” or a “non-whiny gay guy,” or an “unusually attractive lesbian,” or a “surprisingly intelligent dyslexic.” It’s only a compliment in-so-far-as it’s an insult to everyone else in your category except you. In addition to being given this confusing compliment myself, I have also had people comment on the “strong women” characters in my novel Bits of String too Small to Save. Thanks! But also huh? Because all I can say is: … they’re just normal women.
Strong Women are Normal Women
I did a fun interview with The Ultimate Bucket List podcast the other day (click to listen), after which, the very nice and clearly well-meaning host told me I was very unusual and he thinks his readership will enjoy the episode because they like “strong women.” I cringed at the compliment. I mean, would anyone interview some interesting guy, then compliment him by saying he’s a “strong man?” The subject of the compliment would look at you weird, in a way that suggests, “Dude, saying ‘strong man’ is subtly redundant, like saying ‘green grass.’ People already know grass is supposed to be green.”
Moreover, calling a man “strong” would be weird on another level because–unless you’re talking literally about rugby-playing or blacksmithing–the implication is that you’re talking about the person’s mental/emotional strength. To hear an unusual man talk about his life and then compliment him by calling him a “strong man” would suggest that other men are not mentally/emotionally strong, only the unusual ones. This would just be downright confusing, because there is no tacit culture-wide assumption that typical men are weak and therefore atypical ones are “strong,” or that men are not just naturally always mentally/emotionally strong.
Still Impressed When Women are “Strong?” Really?
Ergo: The compliment of calling someone a “strong woman” suggests she’s some kind of unusual woman in that most women are not strong, mentally/emotionally. Yet, in truth, most women are, which I’m not saying as some kind of feminist pronouncement, but as a tiresome statement of the long-established obvious. This kind of strength is, in fact, something we’re kind of known for. Most men (and women) would agree with this unless they have only met very stupid, uninteresting, useless, and silly women and lived a weirdly sheltered life where they were raised by and among, perhaps, mentally deficient child pageant queens. (And even then…)
I mean, I always appreciate the intention to give a compliment, but this choice of words: “You’re such a strong woman!” reveals an underlying assumption that women are not typically mentally/emotionally strong. Which, if you think about it (and I don’t care if you’re a feminist or not. All you have to be is someone who has ever met a woman in your life) makes no sense unless you’re seriously living in the olden days, and even then.
Truth is, most men, at least most I’ve ever met, when asked about their own mothers, describe them as “strong.” Because life is hard, and when you’ve known someone a long time, no matter what they’ve gone through, you realize it has usually made them pretty strong. Young people who have never faced challenges are typically kind of mentally/emotionally weak, whereas the older you get, the more strong life makes you. Right? So suggesting most women are not “strong” suggests most women don’t endure hardship–an archaic notion if I ever heard one. I mean, gosh, avoiding hardship would be kind of nice, but let’s face it, that’s not even true in Disney movies, anymore.
If You Were Raised by a Dumb-Dumb … Don’t Let On
Aren’t we past this in America, today? Didn’t the feminist movement, way back in the seventies or whenever, already establish that women aren’t intrinsically weak and stupid? Do people still need to make this point? On the same note, I recently bought some old stuff at a junk shop, whereupon the junk shop purveyor–an old fashioned redneck if ever I met one–said, after instructing me at length on something I obviously already knew, finally said, “You’re the first woman I ever met who knows how to use a ratchet tie-down,” to which I responded: “My advice? Don’t advertise what a sheltered life you’ve lived.” Which is also my advice to anyone who thinks women who are strong are unusual.
Hot tip to people who use the term “strong woman!” as a compliment: you might never have noticed this, but when women deal with men, the first thing they do in conversation is assume you’re not a dumb-dumb. We women never ever ever open a conversation with the tacit and observable assumption that you are a dumb-dumb or a weakling. That would be WILDLY INSULTING. Yet men (and some women, let’s face it) do just the opposite, and we know this because they compliment us (“so strong!”) if we don’t turn out to be dumb-dumbs or weaklings. It’s 2021 now, right? Someplace in Asia they just invented a flying car. It’s the future. Can we move into it, please?
I know this is all a bit upsetting, but don’t be confused or stressed. If you encounter, out in the wild, a woman whom you consider strong, you can still tell her you think she’s strong, but if you tell her she’s a “strong woman,” it’s a compliment that beggars comparison to calling someone a “pleasantly hairless chimpanzee.”