Saturday, December 12, 2020

Julie Burchill on Strong, Empowered Women

Repeat after me: strong, empowered women. See, that wasn’t too difficult. Now repeat it again and again, like an incantation.

It will be like magic. Of a sudden women will become strong and empowered. After all, physical strength differentials between the male and the female of the species must be a social construction. You don’t really think that biology makes men stronger than women. If you do, repeat after me, again and again: strong, empowered women.

One understands that this specific incantation has been de rigueur for decades now. You can’t talk about a woman in public life without declaring her to be strong and empowered. No matter what she does, she is strong. No matter what she does, it is empowering.

Or, at least, such was the case until the #MeToo movement flooded the media with stories about weak, vulnerable, female victims. Apparently, certain males of the species, beginning with Wild Bill Clinton, did not buy the strong, empowered women shtick. Think about it: if you were married to Hillary Clinton wouldn’t you know that it was a shtick.

Now we are implored to shower these strong, empowered female victims with essence of empathy. What good is any of it if you cannot share the feeling?

Keep in mind, America’s currently pathetic obsession with empathy derives from Bubba himself. Wasn’t he the first politician to feel everyone’s pain? When he wasn’t causing it, that is.

These reflections were elicited by a wondrous column by one Julie Burchill, in the Guardian. Amazingly, the column dates to 2003. Thus, before #MeToo, before the triggering, before the world woke up to traumatized women. She wrote it seventeen years ago, but the column resonates perfectly with today’s national drama.

Strangely, the British Burchill, one of the best essayists in the English language, is barely known on this side of the pond. Admittedly, her writing takes no prisoners. You might say that it is strong and empowered. It is always a joy to read. And yet, too few Americans even know who she is.

In her meditation on strong women, Burchill took out after a certain group of women--- we might consider them aging feminists-- who, upon being dumped by their most recent paramours, rationalize their failure by declaring that said male could not deal with a strong woman.

In Burchill’s prose:

Whenever some showbiz/media/royal serial spinster wants to do a bit of damage limitation over the indignity of being dumped by their latest balding boulevardier, at some point she'll come up with the excuse that she's a Strong Woman. And men, apparently, just can't handle it

Of course, if you have to shout from the rafters-- whatever are you doing in the rafters?-- that you are strong and empowered, the chances are good that you are neither. Strong and empowered does not need to brag about it. By Burchill’s reasoning, these women are really weak ninnies:

No, the reason self-proclaimed Strong Women end up alone is that they're not Strong Women at all, but Weak Ninnies. As "empowering" has come to mean a woman's right to thongs and pole-dancing, rather than equal pay, so a Strong Woman is now not one who has struggled to survive poverty and oppression, but one whose life of emotional incontinence and sucking up to men has been thwarted - before she "struggles" back to her usual state of self-deception. 

These weak women live lives of emotional incontinence. And they hone their skills sucking up to men-- what might that imply? And men do not respect them. They might have earned some respect by struggling against oppression, but that is not their modus operandi. 

Consider the case of Sarah Ferguson, formerly the wife of Prince Andrew, Duke of York. As it happens, said Duke is in the tabloids nearly every day now, and not because he has been irresistibly drawn to strong empowered women.

So, Burchill asks what constitutes the strength and empowerment of one Sarah Ferguson. Has she earned her achievements by working in the world, by pursuing job opportunities? Not a chance. She married a prince and bore him two children. One recalls at this moment another strong empowered woman, by name of Melinda Gates. One notes the national embarrassment caused by her husband, a really rich guy named Bill Gates, who, not knowing anything about epidemiology or medicine or viruses, seems to take himself for an expert on such matters. Now, his wife, who married lots of money, has managed to regale us with her absurdly unpatriotic ramblings-- namely, that she regrets the fact that the coronavirus vaccines, the ones that were produced in the United States or by American companies, will first be given to Americans. Identifying as a citizen of the world, Melinda wants the vaccine to be distributed equally around the world. Why do people take her seriously, at all?

If you thought that the very rich in this country, especially those who did not earn their fortunes, loved their country and identified as citizens of the country, think again.

Back to Sarah Ferguson, and to the Burchill take. After all, Ferguson had the misfortune to label herself a strong woman. Is this identity based on achievement and accomplishment? Not at all.

Which is how we get that model of female achievement and independence, Sarah Ferguson, explaining her single state thus: "To take me on is quite a lot. You have to take on everything that goes with me, which is a strong woman. I don't know if anyone out there is going to be daring enough."

The only way this deranged statement makes sense is if one presumes that the "strong woman" in question is a vile-tempered bodyguard with the strength of 10 bouncers who'll go for the throat of any mere man who dares make eyes at her mistress. And then you realise that the poor deluded woman, whose only claim to fame is that the second son of the monarch once squirted some sperm inside her, and who in her autobiography boasted that she had chosen to "obey" her husband in her marriage vows (despite being mature and worldly; tellingly, the young, virginal Diana demanded that the word be excised, showing a glimpse of the spirit that would soon shine through), has mistaken herself for a feminist role model, hated for her dignity and courage. Whereas what she is despised for is not seeing the shamefulness of making a handsome living from being a parasite on parasites, the living embodiment of that "Your dog's so dirty, his fleas have fleas" joke.

Fancy that, Sarah Ferguson is pretending to be a feminist role model. 

As for the women who really are strong, Burchill has a bunch of candidates, women who work in the world and women who really do suffer from the patriarchy. One notes that today’s feminists never seem to find the courage to stand up against honor killings, wife beatings and genital mutilation. In fact, when push came to shove, and when the political leader most in tune with these practices, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, was elected president of Egypt, the first foreign dignitary to sit down with him and to render his regime legitimate was… you guessed it… Hillary Clinton.

After all, the Brotherhood election outreach had consisted in sending mobile infirmary vans into the poor neighborhoods of Cairo so that parents could have their twelve year old daughters mutilated without having to endure the indignity of taking them to clinics or hospitals.

Female empowerment, thy name is not Hillary Clinton.

For her part, Burchill prefers Hard Women to Strong Women. Many of her examples are British; some are not very familiar. But still:

Showbiz, of course, is nothing but a big playpen, and the much-touted traumas of the mummers, crooners and jesters within it are nothing compared with the troubles of real people, but inside its lush city limits are a number of women who do make you want to stand up and cheer, women who might be described as Strong Women if the phrase had not been rendered so risible. Instead, I think of them as Hard Women: Kylie, Jordan, Ulrika, Joan Collins, Barbara Windsor. Diverse though these examples are, they share a brazen, blameless good humour; they never explain, never complain - they are "troupers" who have all come to a state of showbiz grace in which they understand that female toughness is an extreme form of politeness, and of grace.

Politeness and grace-- surely, the world needs more of it..

And then, Burchill offers a few words disparaging the absurdity of the therapy culture, the one that is promoting the illusion of strong, empowered women. She prefers hard women, the ones who are not triggered, who are not hypersensitive, but who are tough enough to allow offensive behavior to bounce off of them:

In an age of psycho-babble nice-speak, the demonisation of the stiff upper lip and the deification of "vulnerability", the Hard Woman - that is, the lucky soul whose bad experiences bounce off rather than damage - threatens the touchy-feely status quo.

And also:

Bleat, whine and endlessly pick at your spiritual scars, and you'll qualify as a Strong Woman. But smile, shrug and say, "Onwards and upwards!" and you're a suitable case for treatment. In the past, ambitious women had to pretend to be stupid to be acceptable; now, they must pretend to be complex, traumatised "survivors". In the light of this sexist, miserabilist orthodoxy, surely clear-eyed, hard-hearted happiness is the most maddeningly subversive weapon a woman can wield. Say cheese!

So, enough with the victims. Enough with the traumatized survivors. Would it not be a good thing if strong women can take it in stride, can let it bounce off of them, and might even return some of what they are receiving. Then again, if such was the standard we could not be working to criminalize human behavior, the threaten, intimidate and prosecute males-- thus ruining relations between the sexes, for a generation.


trigger warning said...

Strong, empowered...

This amuses me whenever I read it. The definition of "empowered" is:

"(v) give (someone) the authority or power to do something"

If "empowered" women are so "strong", why do they need "empowering" (i.e., someone else to give them power)? "Empowered" women can only exist, like hothouse flowers, in the cosseted environs of Incelville.

whitney said...

I like the parasite on parasite line. Very fitting. If anyone ever read the Bible anymore they would notice proverb after proverb is filled with the horrors of a nagging and quarrelsome wife i.e. The Strong Woman

Sam L. said...

"Apparently, certain males of the species, beginning with Wild Bill Clinton, did not buy the strong, empowered women shtick. Think about it: if you were married to Hillary Clinton wouldn’t you know that it was a shtick." Stuart, you gave me my first laugh of the day! I THANK you!

My wife is strong. She raised two boys, divorced her husband, long before we met.

Melinda Gates: Apparently, she does does not understand that the President of America's JOB is to take care of America FIRST.

Anonymous said...

Everyone knows that when an older woman (I am one) calls herself "strong and empowered," it means she's grown old and isn't as attractive. A man is supposed to think "strong and empowered" will compensate and even supersede that fact. It won't! One has to become philosophical about it, as there is no choice.

Ares Olympus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.