Feminism

"Captivating" Review: ix-xii, the Introduction

broken heart
[art by papermoth]

Today, I’m covering pages ix-xii from this edition of Captivating: Unveiling the Mystery of a Woman’s Soul, the introduction.

Last week, some of you said that you’d like to read along with me, which I think is fantastic. When you comment with your own thoughts on this section, write “Book Club” in the first line of your comment, then hit return/enter, just so it’s clear who’s commenting on the book  itself and who’s commenting on my post (although your comments can be a mix, of course).

It is obvious, all throughout this book, that John and Stasi are trying, diligently, to avoid the pitfalls of other Christian gender-specific books. Stasi makes it clear that what she wants to communicate to her readers isn’t another “book about all the things you’re failing to do as a woman,” that she doesn’t want to give us another list of things to do in order to achieve “godly femininity.” She acknowledges that there isn’t only one way to be a woman, that there are Cinderellas and Joan of Arcs and neither one is necessarily the way to go.

However, struggle as they will to avoid those pitfalls, they can’t help falling into them:

Writing a book for men was a fairly straightforward proposition. Not that men are simpletons. But they are the less complicated of the two genders trying to navigate love and life together. Both men and women know this to be true.

How do we recover essential femininity without falling into stereotypes, or worse, ushering in more pressure and shame on our readers? That is the last thing that a woman needs. And yet, there is an essence that God has given to every woman.

I’m sorry, I do not know any such thing. My partner, a cisgender male, is exactly as marvelously complex as I am. He is interesting, dynamic, full of nuances and surprises. He is a human being, and that makes him complicated. Over the brief two years we’ve been together, I have found that every single element that could possibly be attributed to the “men are simple, women are complicated” stereotype is due to American culture.

His interactions with other men may seem to be more “straightforward” and “less complicated” because a) anything that could make male interaction “complicated” is read as “feminine” and thus suppressed, and b) we are trained to see male interactions and male behavior as normal, and female interactions and female behavior as deviant and abnormal. Being male is the standard through which we evaluate whether or not something is “simple” (and thus male), or complicated (and thus female). Because of this reality, it’s not that our interactions, feelings, and lives are more or less complicated, but that we are taught to evaluate all of these things through the lens of the male experience. Our dominant social narratives have been constructed, almost exclusively, by rich, white men– and because that male viewpoint is the one we absorb on a daily basis, of course it’s going to seem “simple” while viewpoints that differ from it are going to seem “complicated.”

For example: men simply “duke it out” in order to solve conflict, right? Of course, I’ve never actually seen that in action– in my experience, boys and girls were equally as likely to get into a physical tussle. There were girls who did not like violence, and there were also boys who did not like violence. The difference was, the girls were culturally rewarded for this dislike, while the boys were punished for being a “sissy” (a word that derives from “sister”).  As mature adults, men solve their differences the exact same way women do– through communication. I’ve seen people approach conflict resolution in a stereotypically “feminine” way, and I’ve seen it done in a “masculine” way– but the people involved could be men, women, neither, or both. Both approaches, however, had the same elements if the situation was resolved and relationship restored– the communication included honesty, humility, and respect from all parties.

By embracing gender essentialism, Stasi and John have set themselves up for inevitable failure. If your basic assumption in beginning a book is that men and women are inherently and drastically different from one another and that these differences are not caused (or even exacerbated) by culture, then you cannot escape the conclusion that at least some of the “stereotypes” that Stasi finds so damaging are true, and based in an unassailable reality. If you believe that God has given every single last woman on the planet the same “heart” and the same “desires” regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, upbringing, sexuality, social class, and education, then you are working from a list of “10 things to be the woman you ought to be,” which Stasi condemns as “soul-killing.”

Sometime between the dreams of your youth and yesterday, something precious has been lost. And that treasure is your heart, your priceless feminine heart. God has set within you a femininity that is powerful and tender, fierce and alluring. No doubt it has been misunderstood. Surely it has been assaulted. But it is there, your true heart, and it is worth recovering. You are captivating.

It is paragraphs like that one that show me exactly why this book has been compelling to so many women– as a thought, it’s beautiful. She’s telling me that I am fierce and powerful and beautiful– it is a similar sentiment to what I tell my friends in order to encourage them. I like thinking of myself as fierce (and since Fascinating Womanhood, “competent” has become one of my favorite compliments).

But there’s a problem, even here. Not all women are feminine, and this is not because their “femininity” was lost, damaged, or assaulted– or that they’re burying it because they’ve been hurt, as Stasi will claim later. I am a cisgender woman– I identify with the gender I was assigned at birth. Most of the time, I “present” or “express” as “femme.” These things, my supposed “anatomical” sex, my gender identity, and my gender expression, are not the same thing. While I have never struggled with my identity, I have often struggled with my gender expression.

For example, these two images are of the same person, Gwendolyn Christie, who plays Brienne of Tarth on HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation of Martins’ A Song of Ice and Fire:

gender expression

On the left, playing Brienne, Gwendolyn is shown with a host of Western-culture masculine signifiers– armor, sword, short “undone” hair, grimness, and the masculine parts of her stature/musculature are exaggerated. On the right, though, she is wearing glamorous makeup, her hair is long and angelically flowing, and her facial expression is evoking something more stereotypically soft and feminine.

Then there’s things like Meg Allen’s photography project. As far as I’m aware, all of these women are cisgender (please correct me if I’m wrong), but none of them present as femme. It’s even possible for a non-binary person to choose to present as femme if they/ze want (see @themelmoshow and @awhooker –they’re incredible).

Insisting that there is something “essential” about a cisgender woman’s heart, and part of this “essentiality” is femininity is problematic in a variety of ways, but it contributes to the culture that allows transphobia to flourish. It’s part of the culture that allows trans women of color to be arrested for walking down a street and for trans men and women to be one of the most vulnerable populations in the world.

It also perpetuates the kyriarchal systems that force men and women to conform to a rigid set of gender-coded images, signifiers, behaviors, and interactions and refuses us all the ability to explore who we actually are.

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  • Cathy Hendricks

    How a person is raised has a great influence on later behavior. Some mother’s “spoil” their sons by doing everything for them. I tend to call the result “mommy’s boys.
    They have grown up thinking women owe them everything.
    They cannot fend for themselves, cook a meal, do laundry, fix anything that is broken.
    I prefer my independent man. My husband, of fifty years, can cook, clean, do laundry. We have never called a repairman since my husband is capable and knowledgable.

    • “We have never called a repairman since my husband is capable and knowledgable.”

      I’m not calling you out here, or anything like that, but this is one of those stereotypes that personally rubs me the wrong way. The idea that men, and especially husbands and fathers, are supposed to be competent at fixing a wide variety of things was born out of the Great Depression (when nobody could afford to hire a repairman) and it’s kind of troubling that it’s persisted this long. I’m not handy around the house. I’m good with electronics, and make a very good living programming computers, but I couldn’t fix a dishwasher if my life depended on it. Economically, it makes no sense for me to spend time trying to learn how to fix things around the house, as it makes a lot more sense for me to just work more, earn more money and hire someone else to make the fix for me.

      Yet, this idea persists (and again, I’m not suggesting that you’re intending to further that idea) that I’m somehow inadequately providing for my family simply as a result of not knowing how to replace a carburetor. I’m not unique among my friends in this fact, but it seems like I get a lot of gruff from my parents’ and grandparents’ generation for not being someone who’s handy despite making more than enough to comfortably be able to afford professional assistance when something breaks.

      This is just another one of those things that the post talked about, where men who don’t conform to male stereotypes are looked down upon. Since it touches me personally, I wanted to take a moment to point it out.

      • Katie S

        On the other hand, I’m a woman who is the handy one around the house. I was always much better at doing things around the house than my ex. If Cathy thinks that a man “who can’t fend for himself” is a momma’s boy, what about women that can’t fend for themselves? Do they think men owe them everything?
        All of this ignores that people are just different. Gender essentialism harms both men and women if they don’t conform to the “right” stereotype.

        • Me too – I do most of the projects and if I can’t, we usually call someone. My husband just doesn’t enjoy it, doesn’t like to build stuff etc. and I do.

  • Marie

    Hi Samantha 🙂 I LOVE this review series so far and can’t wait to read the rest!

    Something that came to mind as I was reading this review is that I think you’re talking about two different things here, and they seem a bit muddled together toward the end. Gender identity (male, female, or non-binary/other) and gender expression are very different, like you pointed out. But…I guess the second to the last paragraph seems take on a lot at once, and I’m wondering if maybe you could unpack that a bit?

    Specifically, does Staci ever say that she is writing only about cis women? I would assume so, but is that ever stated or dealt with?

    For my “book club” comment:

    This book was super damaging to me when I read it as a young adult/college student. The idea that women need to be rescued is SUPER damaging, and it creates this idea that we need to depend on men/others to take care of us. Which can land and trap you in some very abusive situations.

    I don’t remember if those things were explicitly stated, but I they were things I learned from this book.

    I grew up believing in gender essentialism, and I was always trying to be “the woman God wanted me to be.” But I’m nothing like the women Staci describes in this book. I don’t value external appearance. Like, at all. I keep my hair short because it is a pain in the butt to take care of otherwise. I am not nurturing. I value my career. I like working. I’m not naturally good with people/relationships, and I don’t want to have kids.

    And these are things I was always made to feel ashamed of in the Christian church. I felt like a failure to God because I didn’t have long flowing hair and magical social skills. Books like Staci’s only served to confirm what I had already been taught: that I was “wrong” somehow.

    Then I started going to counseling and learning the wisdom of common sense. Once I accepted that people just are how they are, I was able to start becoming a healthy, balanced adult.

    I know this book has helped some people, especially people who relate to the type of femininity she describes. But for those of us who don’t, who, like you said, express or experience our femininity in any way other than the “norm,” it was very damaging.

    Again, thank you for writing this series. I hope my ramblings were helpful, and I look forward to your next entry. Cheers!

    • Specifically, does Staci ever say that she is writing only about cis women?

      I didn’t get the sense reading the book that Stasi had any concept of anything other than the traditional understanding of ‘woman’. She doesn’t acknowledge that there could be any other way to be, which is typical of conservative Christianity that considers the Genesis account of male/female to be definitive. Anything else within that framework is ‘fallen humanity’.

  • Water

    It seems like Staci trades the “here are 10 things you need to do to be a good woman” for “here are 10 things that are true about you, because you are a woman” – which in itself wouldn’t be bad except that a lot of her “must be trues” are NOT necessarily true.

  • Aibird

    Thank you for being so aware and inclusive of transgender people in this post. It’s why I love coming to your blog. I know you’ll be safe.

    . I read bits and pieces of books like that in the past, and that was damaging enough. I won’t read the book itself, but I will follow along with your deconstruction. I enjoy how well you unpack and examine these books.

    What you unpack here is the conversation I tried to have with a dear old friend of mine. She believes in gender essentialism one hundred percent, but can’t seem to fathom why I don’t. I’ve come out to her, so she knows I’m not cisgender and that I am not straight. But she just states it as a “disagreement.” Uh, since when is my identity a “disagreement?” I am who I am, and she can’t dictate who I am just because I don’t fit in her carefully crafted worldview. Reading your blog deconstructions of these books helps me understand a bit where she’s coming from — though I still have no idea how to make it clear to her that life isn’t as clear cut and shiny as she seems to think it is. We’re all complex, messy, and beautiful and definitely not that easy to define.

    It’s just sad to me when people refuse to see all the colors and variations that is humanity and insist on living in a world that’s black and white only.

  • Just my experience (in the legal profession): the whole “men are simple” nonsense is often used as an excuse by women – particularly Christian women – to avoid actually showing basic human sympathy toward their men. After all, if all he “really” wants from you is sex and a sandwich, you don’t have to actually get to know him as a person, to learn his dreams and fears and what makes him tick. Men don’t get credit for desiring to be loved and cherished, desiring emotional intimacy, or really even needing love. Nope, he’s just horny.

    For what it’s worth, I think we would go a lot further in improving marriages if, rather than just perpetuating stereotypes, we taught spouses how to view each other as fully human, as complex and messy as that is.

    • Dana

      I have always thought that this sort of teaching does a disservice to men as well as women. (Wild at Heart does this, aimed at men). Whenever, you try to put half of the human race into a box, you are limiting them and taking away their uniqueness and potential.
      And, I can not believe how boring it would be to share your life with someone that you never took the time to know and appreciate as an unique individual!!

      • Cathy Hendricks

        getting to know my husband was easy. We met and started our conversation on the last Friday of Oct., 1961. We have been talking ever sense. My husband is brilliant. He remembers so much and I love to hear him expound on various subjects when one of our friends asks him a question, whether on the Bible or other deep things. At least nothing that needs repaired in the house gets diagnosed or repaired by someone other than my husband. Not a lot of money; but we have found that God is enough. God has equipped each of us with skills that complement each other.
        I guess my diatribe is a result of a conversation with a friend whose husband requires being waited on. Oh, she cannot serve leftovers because his mother never did. If she were incapacitated he would still expect her to do everything around the house and would be incapable of doing a thing to help.
        Our marriage, when we started out, has never been the normal in our church and among our friends. If it needs doing either of us can do it. It is refreshing to see couples that have both capable of so much more than was taught. fifty years ago when we got married.

        • Wait– how do you *not* serve leftovers? … I didn’t know it was possible to cook that way.

          • Cathy Hendricks

            I did not know that it is possible to never serve left overs either. It means my.friend has to make sure she uses precisely the amount of food they can eat for each meal and then cook new the next day. crazy, right

          • My husband’s family does not serve leftovers, either. But to them, that means that leftovers are never served as a meal. They consider it OK to have leftovers in the fridge that members of the household can snack on (which still boggles my mind – other than teenagers, who considers a drumstick a snack?). So for the first year we were married, my husband expected no leftovers. I soon learned that I could serve leftovers, as long as I didn’t put the same thing on the table two days in a row. When he cooks, though, he always makes one-off meals that have no leftovers or only one serving left over. I guess this is one area where we agree to disagree, sort of like sugar on cereal before or after adding the milk.

  • I have found that every single element that could possibly be attributed to the “men are simple, women are complicated” stereotype is due to American culture.’

    This is an intriguing comment. I’d love to see you expand this on this more. I’ve heard that the colour pink has been associated with femininity only in the last 100 years (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/when-did-girls-start-wearing-pink-1370097/?no-ist), so clearly some of our gender signifiers are purely cultural. It’d be interesting to collect examples from other cultures that have different ideas of what ‘typical male behaviour’ or ‘typical female behaviour’ looks like.

    • Kate

      Having recently returned from some time in East Africa, one of my favorite examples is the Maasai tribe of Tanzania and Kenya, among whom long, styled, dyed hair is the mark of not just a man, but a young, spear-carrying warrior in the peak of his strength and virility. A shaved head is feminine, the mark of the woman or the warrior who has retired, become an elder, and married.

      Or consider the Native American cultures who considered field work the exclusive domain of the women, and so looked askance at weak white men who had to do their own hoeing, planting, and harvesting.

      In Western rules of chivalry (which linger in the sorts of books Samantha’s reviewing), the man lets the woman go first through the door and carries heavy items because he is the stronger and must protect her from tasks beyond her capability. In Tanzanian cultures, the man walks in front, carrying his knife to kill snakes or fight any enemies they may encounter; the woman carries everything else because she is the stronger and his hands must be free. (I stopped protesting this the day a four-foot black cobra came into the kitchen and I was very glad to have my sister’s boyfriend take charge of bashing his head in.)

  • Book Club: I think, reviewing this book now – after 8 1/2 years of living in Asia – I see how American stereotypical this is. But there are more articles like this one that tackle the pitfalls of using “American” as “default” and disregarding culture. http://www.psmag.com/magazines/magazine-feature-story-magazines/joe-henrich-weird-ultimatum-game-shaking-up-psychology-economics-53135/

    I think that has actually been the big shakeup for me over the years – America is weird. It’s not default culture and yet we try and believe and write like it is. Many of the debates now have almost nothing to do with Christianity, and everything to do with American culture and our belief that “everybody” thinks like this.

    In China, family structure was different. The default was two working parents with the child (or children now – children who were only children can legally have two) being taken care of by the grandparents, who are retired and are expected to indulge their grandchildren in their tons of free time that they now have as retirees……so seeing grandpas at the park playing mahjong and watching a gaggle of busy toddlers was just normal…..but would probably be considered a bit bizarre in the US.

    Femininity and the cultural way we perceive it falls into this category of cultural construct. And the Eldregdes are promoting ideas that are very American, but seeing them as the default.

    • To imagine the picture in China, picture a bunch of old men playing dominos in place of the mommy play groups in the park, and all drinking beer while toddlers (a few infants in bassinets here and there) and tell me that wouldn’t draw some stares in the US!

  • Book club: This is my second reading. I purchased the book when it was first released. I was in my mid-20s and living in a community with some cultish tendencies, where women could lead just about anything at church as well as anywhere else but somehow still had to wear long skirts rather than trousers during services or if working on the church site, to ‘not be a temptation to the young men’. Super confusing as you can imagine. I would have called myself independent and clued in about the world but my actual experience was limited and my fairly sheltered yet messed up upbringing as a white lower middle-class girl in France and in the UK meant I might as well have been wearing a blindfold, especially when it comes to the possibility of christianity existing outside of conservatism. I just did not have the language for it.

    Anyway, that was a long time ago! But it means I read the book completely differently than I am this time around. Overall, I’d say the book had a big impact on me back then, because even then being a misunderstood French person in a very different culture, I was occasionally labelled as ‘argumentative’ and ‘too much’ by male authority figures who were supposed to mentor me in the church, and I lacked discernment so I read it as ‘this is because I’m a woman’ rather than ‘this is because you church bloke are an asshole’.

    All this to say that this time this book is winding me up from the first sentence. Is there anything more cringe-worthy than someone starting a book about women with ‘Now we are on holy ground’? I don’t know how to articulate why the whole ‘feminine mystique’ annoys me, apart from the fact that it is more often used by men rather than women to simultaneously put womanhood onto a pedestal and make it acceptable and even expected that women are too complicated to ever be understood by ‘us mere men’ and that it is pointless to even try.

    I am also deeply suspicious of any book that starts its introduction by making a sweeping statement about men being ‘the less complicated of the two genders’ and confidently stating that ‘both men and women know this to be true.’ Ahem, actually, no, I DON’T actually know this to be true. Are men not capable of deep thought and complex emotions?

    I just feel that the book is setting itself up to fail from the very first page, and I’ve barely scraped the surface of issues raised by Samantha and other commenters.

  • Cathy Hendricks

    actually. prior to WWII pink was the boy color and blue was the girl color. Manufacturers and retailers are to blame for starting it the other way and parents bought into it. Start a new color revolution. Color is just color. As for which toys for which sex? I was born in 1942 and I always had the toys everyone wanted to play with. I had dolls and a great collection of trucks.

  • Please stop using terms that marginalize women, like “cis.” Women do not gain any privilege over “trans” people by accepting their gender role. Thanks.

    • Please familiarize yourself with my comment policy before you continue commenting. This comment is transphobic and if you continue saying transphobic things, you will be blocked.

      My policy is to offer commenters a single warning, except in cases of threats and rape apologia. If you would like to have a conversation about why your comment is transphobic, feel free to contact me.