Flipping through the stations at prime time or through the magazines in the grocery store, we find so much advice on how to direct our actions or shape our expectations, but little (if any) of it shows healthy ways of staying true to oneself. People relying on such entertainment may get some pretty interesting ideas in their head about who they ought to be. Magazine columns love to spurt out sassy words of wisdom. Don’t call him, let him call you. Don’t say I love you before he does. Let him chase you. Keep him guessing. Always stay one step ahead. Be calm and play it cool.
Television is just about as dynamic with its stereotyping. Aside from being exceptionally pretty, revered “strong” female characters are A. the bad ass girl who can track a criminal, shoot a gun, or perform open-heart surgery with precision, but can’t show a soft side until coerced by the super-intuitive male lead, B. the sassy girlfriend/wife who rolls her eyes at and tolerates with sarcasm everything she is so clever to understand that her stupid boyfriend/husband is too simple to wrap his mind around. C. The put-you-in-your-place, “I don’t take no crap from nobody,” cold, hard bitch who’s not afraid to let anyone know what she thinks. Sometimes she’s also the outlier who is just fine by herself because she’s not like the other girls.
Taking cues from these social medium, which many people and most youth do, it would seem that for a woman to be strong, respected, and attractive, she would have to be distant from others. According to pervasive social messages, being cool is the same as being unfeeling and in control. However, when we put these attributes into context, we can see how they have become so mainstream and why we should but less stock in them as models for real life.
The advice coming from advice columns are coming from one distant person’s point of view. We scarcely take people’s advice who we know, yet millions trust their most personal problems with an “experts” who’s only credentials are a nice thumbnail photo and probably a degree in journalism. Likewise, the characters who have lead roles in movies and television are created by one biased person or small group of people (often mostly men) who are typically more interested in ratings and ticket sales than on content. They aren’t thinking of real life or the impact of what messages they’re relaying are, they’re thinking of something they perceive as being interesting to an audience and that might be true to them. Yet we take these outlines of people and hold them as social norms.
I am reminded of the influence these messages have when I am in trying times in relationships. I should feel angry, I should be hurt, I should cut up his picture and delete his phone number, I should cut and run, I should be a bad ass mother who won’t take no crap from nobody!!! (bonus points if you get that reference). Momentarily, when I’m not sure what to do, I fall back on these lessons. I can’t tell you how many numbers I’ve deleted in these fits of “empowerment” or how many times I’ve said, “who do you think I am?” I didn’t want to be the stupid girl; I wanted to be the strong girl (a,b,or c). No use running the risk of getting played if I’m supposed to be the winner.
However, what I’ve learned since then is that just because I don’t lose doesn’t mean I win. It only means I’m not playing, and I hate standing on the sidelines. Every wall I put up to box me into this impervious tough-girl character limits my freedom to find answers on my own. Every wall that makes me less vulnerable to pain also makes me less vulnerable to joy. The hard and fast rules of being a strong woman don’t always fit into being a complete person. Ironically, the restraints we put on ourselves to be what we view as strong often provide easy-outs in conflict. Rather than address how we feel or how we can work it out, we cut people out or wash our hands of the problem.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we relinquish strength altogether. I am only proposing that we broaden our definition of what it means to be strong. Rather than honoring stoicism, respect the strength it takes to forgive, to say what you feel, to be honest about your motivations, and to work with others when they are challenging you. Instead of defining a win as coming out on top of those around you, define it as bringing others to the top with you. Instead of acting in self preservation, give everything you have to give. When you act this way, you see quite quickly that being vulnerable is no easy task. It’s scary, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s painful. However, once you are able to go through the difficulty and reach the other side, you find yourself feeling quite strong.