The past year has been a painful one, a year in which powerful men proved that the gains made by women are capable of being eroded, undermined, ignored, or reversed. The most prominent industries have been studded with high-profile cases of serial sexual assault, both state and federal courts have taken steps to eviscerate a woman's right to choose, and the world, globally, must daily face orange-tinted evidence of the worst of American prejudices.
Though the rhetoric is not new to this year, the call for art and entertainment featuring 'strong women' has intensified as the occasional sprinkle of salt in the wound has become a veritable saline flood. It would be lovely if an answer to sexism and misogyny could be unearthed in privileging one quality in fictional characters, or fictionalized depictions of real people, but if it were that easy, we wouldn't still be living in the world we live in.
On the one hand, strength is a very useful quality for any human being, and that's been true since the first australopithecus conked a saber-toothed tiger on its noggin. It's especially useful for women, who consistently face greater violence, merely by virtue of existing as women, than men do. Fantasies of strength enable an illusion that systemic violence can be overcome, one poke in a domestic abuser's eye and kick to a rapist's groin at a time, but these are fantasies that ignore the reality of the imperfectable human body. They trade the facts of the body, its vulnerabilities and weaknesses, for the dream of a body in flawless mechanical order.
Our heroines, the ones that get praised as signs of political progressiveness, better reflect our fear and terror that we're not making progress than genuine progressive movement forward. Wonder Woman is the quintessential example, but 'strong women' as a trope has become so reified that it's a searchable genre on Netflix. The problem with using strength as a signifier of feminist progress is that it places all responsibility on individuals, while paying no heed to systemic injustice except as a purveyor of traumas that are overcome. 'Strong women' are survivors of their traumas, they 'kick ass,' they're 'fierce' and 'badass' and 'frickin' awesome.' 'Strong women' don't need to be rescued, despite the fact that real women (like real men) do, regardless of their strength, often need rescuing.
The Manichean logic of a feminism of strength is to simply oppose patriarchally mandated feminine weakness with a feminist mandated feminine strength. And in so doing, most women are either forced to conform to a feminist set of standards, or be excluded entirely. By focusing on exceptions, the Wonder Women who, by whatever combination of luck, natural gifts, and determination, succeed where most fail, the standards of patriarchy are not annihilated, but simply put upside down.
Fictional characters can't be equated, one-to-one, with living, breathing women, but our critical treatment of fictional characters reflects one prismatic facet of our general attitudes towards the female. Feminist culture, no less than the larger, uglier, dog-eat-dog patriarchy that surrounds it, won't listen to the voices of those women who betray a weakness. Hillary Clinton lost the election and now we can't seem to stop telling her to shut up. The silencing of women who fail to live up to the Wonder Woman standard has become a salient feature of feminist discourse and activism, fueled by this rhetoric of 'strong women.' I can think of no more alarming sign of the movement's deterioration. As long as a sick woman, a fat woman, a woman who cries easily, a woman who can't get past her traumas, a woman who loses, a woman who needs, a woman who fails, can't be feminist by definition, feminism is just another face for patriarchy. As long as we insist that only 'strong women' can be our heroines, only 'strong women' our icons, feminism fails.