Over the past few years, I’ve seen several good essays on the simplistic concept of “strong women,” “strong women characters,” “kick-ass heroines,” and so forth. But I haven’t been watching the growth of the #strongisthenewskinny tag, which has 573,000 likes on Facebook and 22,000 tweets. Fortunately, Anne Thériault at The Daily Dot has been paying attention.
Oscar-nominee Carey Mulligan recently spoke out about the double-edged sword of “strong” women. In an interview with Elle UK about her role in the upcoming movie Suffragette, Mulligan said: “The idea that women are inherently weak—and we’ve identified the few strong ones to tell stories about—is mad.” And she’s right—the idea that strength is a trait men have by default and something women can only sometimes aspire to is both pervasive and damaging. But the issue with the way “strong” is applied to women also goes much deeper than that. …
In a Google search of most popular photos associated with the [#strongisthenewskinny] meme, nearly every single woman is skinny, white, blonde, and beautiful. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with being skinny or beautiful, but it seems ridiculous to posit that strong is the new skinny when strong actually seems to be the same old skinny after all. Is there really such a vast difference between telling women to aspire to one idealized body type and telling them to aspire to a slightly different one?
I opened this post with a photo of Holley Mangold, who was on the U.S. women’s weightlifting team in the 2012 Olympics. Somehow, although she’s one of the physically strongest women in the world, she’s not a #strongisthenewskinny icon. Neither is Alicia Garza, strong enough to be a co-founder of #blacklivesmatter. Neither is Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize fighting for democracy in Burma, and has been strong enough to survive nearly 15 years of house arrest from 1995 to 2010. Neither is Anita Sarkeesian, who survived being a prime target of Gamergate. I couldn’t tell you how much Garza, Suu Kyi, and Sarkeesian can bench press, but I can tell you how much I’d want any or all of them in my corner if I was in trouble.
Thériault goes on from talking about the limitations of “strong” as a body image trope to discuss the question of “strong female characters” and she pulls from a number of excellent sources. Don’t just read her essay, click the links.
In the end, however, she and I agree that — even if “strong” is interpreted broadly and not viewed as worthy of note when applied to women — it’s insufficient.
we don’t need updated standards for how women look or act—we need to scrap those standards altogether. We need characters and memes that reflect the diversity of women’s lives. There is nothing wrong with being strong—…strength is an admirable character trait—but we deserve images, characters, and ideals that are deeper than just one version of what “strong” is. We deserve women that seem real.
For me, that would be women who are strong in some ways and not so strong in others, who partake of all kinds of human qualities: some stereotyped, some surprising. Come to think of it, that’s what I want in depictions of men, also, though the preconceived notions are different. And while I’m asking, I want thousands more examples of characters outside the gender binary.
Maybe the tag we need is #realisthenewgoal .