Strong Women and Weak Men

Oh boy, here I go again! More of my strange views of men and women, particularly as regards to fiction.

What set me off this time was a book blog I was reading. The book premise sounded interesting, so I clicked on to see if the author could sell me. I was almost ready to pick up the book when the author started virtual signaling. She talked about how she changed up the myth she was using because “she only writes female characters”.

Nothing irritates me more than virtue signaling.

So I quit reading and tried to figure out why that had gotten under my skin the way it had. I’m writing multiple stories right now. The female characters in both of them are stronger than the men, mentally, sometimes physically, and as relates to their powers, definitely. I have nothing against strong women. As I mentioned in one of my other blogs, I don’t actually know any weak women.

But it’s writing them in a vacuum that bugs me. Guys are people, too. When I read, or write, or, heck, hang with friends, I want a mix. Men and women have different perspectives, and the interplay between them is so fascinating.

I looked at the books I like to read and write. And … aha … there’s a pattern.

Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones. Sophie is a Strong Woman helping a Weak Man who is under just as bad a curse as she is. Howl has more magic than she does, sure, but he can’t save himself without help.

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The Lake House, by Kate Morton. The main characters are all women–Alice the author, Sadie the cop, Eleanor the mother. All of them are mentored, helped, or in the case of Eleanor, desperately trying to help the men in their lives. The men are critically flawed in endearing and sometimes frightening ways, and these women shoulder impossible burdens to help them.

The Beaumont and Beasley series by Kyle Schultz. Although these books are told first person from the male perspective, Beasley is hampered by his sheer logic. Magic can’t exist, therefore, it doesn’t. Lady Cordelia comes along and wrecks that paradigm by accidentally turning him into a Beast. She’s better educated than him, knows magic, and has all kinds of magical connections. But they need each other, because she’s trying to break his curse, and he’s the detective who still reasons out motives and puts together clues. (Great series, too.)

The more I thought about it, the more I realized the argument about Strong Women isn’t stated very well. A Strong Woman is Strong, not when she can beat a man in a fistfight, but when she can reach out to a Weak Man and help him become strong.

Everybody needs help, men and women alike. In Proverbs, Solomon observes that an excellent wife will do her husband good, not evil, all the days of his life. He also points out that a wise woman builds her house, but a foolish woman tears it down with her hands.

In books, part of a character arc is that a character must start in a place that demands that they change in some way. Sophie acted like an old woman before she was cursed to become one. Alice believes she’s responsible for the disappearance of her baby brother. Beasley thinks he has reality all figured out. They all start in a place of weakness. But that’s part of the joy of fiction–that journey from weakness to strength, or acceptance, or whatever the goal of the story is.

When a male character is weak, often a Strong Woman can come along and help him out. This leads to the complex interplay between genders, that push and pull of attraction and affection. Conversely, a Weak Woman will need a Strong Man, but that’s taboo in our culture, for some reason–admitting that a woman might ever be weak for some reason.

(This works in reverse, too–the strong one can tear down the weak one, and the weak one can undermine the strong one. These are toxic relationships, and aren’t the point of this blog.)

As part of the ongoing cultural discussion about Strong Women, I thought this was an interesting new angle to explore. Strength is fine, but it means nothing unless it’s used wisely, to build up others. That same strength can destroy and shatter. As writers (and readers!) it’s something to be aware of.

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5 thoughts on “Strong Women and Weak Men

  1. I was ready to roll my eyes. The Strong Woman vs. Strong Man debate has been done to death, IMHO. Just write freaking complex, multi-dimensional characters and stop whining about agendas all the time.

    HOWEVER, you brought up an interesting dichotomy with the Strong Woman, Weak Man idea and the Strong Man, Weak Woman. BTW, I think you definitely see the Weak Woman, Strong Man dichotomy in the genre I call “terrorize the fluffies” – also known as having some type of ISFP or INFP sort of highly idealistic female protagonist who meets a Strong and Manly-Man-Man and she Shows Him How to Feel and he Protects Her With Manly-Man Strength. Usually she has a superpower and he is Strong. Popular trope in certain types of YA stories, particularly in clean reads. I don’t mind the trope, but I wonder if that’s some kind of backlash effect. 😉

    ANYWAY, you offered some interesting angles there. Although I think the Strong/Weak dynamic, without some sense of mutual benefit, can very, very quickly turn into codependency, regardless of who is Strong. There has to be a balance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The codependency thing is when one person remains weak and manipulative and drags the other down. But like I said, that’s a toxic relationship, and beyond the scope of this blog. I was more interested in one person helping another grow and mature.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think there can be a sense of unintentional, implied codependency when there is a lack of growth in general, whether or not the manipulation is meant or even conscious. Growth is the key.

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  2. You always express your thoughts in ways that encourage people to think more. How neat. Thanks, as always, for sharing them.

    Part of the weirdness about strong/weak men/women stereotypes that remains prevalent may be tied to self-image. It is common to assume that confidence equals arrogance, and is therefore evil pride; whereas self-doubt or low self-esteem equals humility, and is therefore secretly the better. Both, I think, are aspects of thinking far too much about ourselves.

    Any character who behaves either too much like the type, or completely outside the bounds of believable, should bother the reader. *Should.*

    I think a part of what made Howl’s Moving Castle work (in terms of your Strong Woman/Weak Man argument) is that Sophie doesn’t see herself as strong or valuable. That character arc/growth is obvious to Howl, and dawns on the rest of us, but for most of the story she Just Doesn’t See It. Until she embraces that she is already enough to deserve happiness, she cannot free herself. Howl, in delightful contrast to this, is trapped in that choice he made as a child. Making adult decisions and commitments isn’t going to happen until he gets through the roadblock of confronting that choice. He doesn’t see any of his behavior as avoidance. For this, he needs Sophie and her sturdy cheer. The push and acceptance of each other is not identical, but it balances.

    Compared with certain popular fiction options (with sparkly vampires, for example), the complete opposite happens. The young heroine can’t understand why anyone likes her, much less the object of her fascination. But because she becomes the center of his universe, her worth is validated. (Bugs me to no end.) Sparkle Man made one choice as a teenager that has impacted him for eternity. He hates himself for it. And now that he’s “in love”, he will make all the decisions for her regarding her future, because he knows best. There’s no balance, because she throws herself completely into his world on the artificial premise that being “his” is all she needs. It’s Sola, Luna, et Talia all over again. Grr.

    In the one, the reader needs the characters to perceive their own strengths and weaknesses if they are going to make it to a satisfactory ending. In the other, the reader must embrace the characters’ chosen misconceptions in order to believe in the conclusion.

    When RED was made a film, a former CIA operative provided commentary on the DVD. He took a moment when Rebecca Pidgeon arrives on screen to talk about how normal it’s become in the spook world for women to be in charge, since they’re smarter and more organized. Completely devoid of ego. How often, as readers or writers, do we put ego in the right perspective?

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