"Captivating" Review: 1-12, "The Heart of a Woman"

broken heart
[art by papermoth]

I am working with the “revised and expanded” edition of Captivating. If you’re reading along with me, remember to write “Book Club” at the top of your comment.

One of the most frustrating things about the early chapters of this book is that Stasi does what a lot of other conservative evangelical women are required to do if they start saying things that could, at all, be interpreted as slightly femininst: she makes feminism the enemy. I’ve written about this phenomena before, so it wasn’t exactly surprising that she said this:

To be told when you are young and searching that “you can be anything” is not helpful. It’s too vast. It gives no direction. To be told when you are older that “you can do anything a man can do” isn’t helpful either. I didn’t want to be a man. What does it mean to be a woman?

She’s done a few . . . interesting . . . things in this paragraph. The first is thinking there’s a problem with women having too many options because it’s just too overwhelming for us. Women, apparently, need direction. We can’t be left on our own, to make up our mind on what we want for ourselves without the guiding light of Gender Roles.

If women can’t “be anything,” what can we be? What is beyond us? What are we not capable of? What should we not try to be? She answers this question when she conflates the statement “you can do anything a man can do” with becoming a man. These are not the same– and, I would argue that this is an extremely reductionist approach to feminism. However, she says that “you can do anything a man can do” isn’t helpful because doing what a man does is synonymous with being a man.

Stasi is assuming that gender is somehow based on our actions.

Enforcing this idea– that gender is tied to action– is one of the ways that patriarchy is self-perpetuating. There are currently many “signifiers” and “gender-coded behaviors” that are assigned either masculine or feminine labels, but this assignation is completely arbitrary, and subject to frequent and inexplicable change over time. When men perform an action thought to be “feminine,” they are punished– they are a sissy, a pussy. When women perform an action thought to be “masculine,” they are also punished– they are bossy, or a slut.

Stasi doesn’t really get into the meat of her chapter until page nine, when she begins laying out the thesis for the rest of the book:

All women have three basic desires that were given to us by God; we want to be romanced, to have a great adventure, and to be beautiful.

belle gif
in short, every woman on the planet is Belle

To Be Romanced

Stasi insists that all girls grew up wanting to play some version of damsel-in-distress because we all want to be fought for, and “This desire is set deep in the heart of every girl– and every woman.” If a woman like me were to pipe up with “uhm, no– actually, I hated being forced to play that game, and I don’t like being fought over,” Stasi would dismiss me by saying that I’m only “downplaying” my desire, that I’m “ashamed” of it and “Come now, wouldn’t you want to ride through the Scottish Highlands with a man like Mel Gibson?”

Uhm . . . no.

I’ve also been “fought over” by men, and it is not pleasant. It did not make me feel “wanted.” It made me feel used and like less than a toy. The men who were “fighting” over me had no interest in what I wanted– which was, in reality, neither of them.

But, apparently, in Stasi’s world, I don’t exist. Or, I’m deluding myself and I don’t understand my own life.

An Irreplaceable Role in a Great Adventure

This section starts off well:

I sensed that the men in these [WWII] movies were a part of something heroic, valiant, and worthy. I longed to be a part of it, too. In the depths of my soul, I longed to be a part of something large and good; something that required all of me; something dangerous and worth dying for.

There is something fierce in the heart of a woman . . . A woman is a warrior too.

So far, so good, but this is where she changes course again:

But she is meant to be a warrior in a uniquely feminine way.

Just . . . ugh.

I wish I could even understand what Stasi means by this. She tries to explain by referencing pop culture, and cites The Lord of the Rings (the films, not the book) as an example. She talks about how Arwen, Galadriel, and Eowyn are “valiant” and that they had “irreplaceable roles in a Great Story.”

I think you could only possibly argue that for Eowyn, since film-Arwen is literally a replacement. After the scene when she slays the Witch King of Angmar (with Merry’s help, notably), Eowyn is immediately shipped back to being a stereotypical woman by both Tolkien and Jackson. In the book Eowyn declares:

I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.

Another one of the significant problems with this book is that neither John nor Stasi engage with the media they are consuming critically or with awareness, which becomes glaringly obvious in the next chapter. I absolutely adore The Lord of the Rings, but I am an aware and conscientious reader, so I know I need to keep in front of me as I watch and read that Jackson and Tolkien incorporated tropes and stereotypes about women in their work– things which Stasi claims to think are “damaging.”

She also finishes this section by asserting that while yes, women “want adventure in the great wide somewhere,” we all want to be in this adventure with someone.

We want an adventure that is shared . . . Made in the image of a perfect relationship, we are relational to the core of our beings . . . We long to be an irreplaceable part of a shared adventure.

This is a stereotype. Many conservative evangelicals set up women as being more “relational” than men– that we are “nurturers” and “caretakers,” that we are more naturally given to fostering relationships and communities. Because this is our assigned role in our culture, women tend to do it– but not every single last woman in America is a nurturing mother-figure who desperately wants to be in a relationship, just like not every man is a power-hungry risk-taking ladder-climbing suit.

However, Stasi again tells women who don’t fit this mold that the only reason why we don’t fit it is “because we have been hurt, or are worn out.” Which, ok, yes, sometimes people want to withdraw from relationships because they’ve been hurt. That’s a human thing. However, I’ve met a lot of people– men and women– who just didn’t really need relationships the way that Stasi is describing. But, again . . . they don’t exist. They can’t exist, or John and Stasi’s entire premise for writing a book like this would completely evaporate.

I’m going to stop before we get into the section “Beauty to Unveil” because heavens is there a lot to unpack in that section.


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  • I’m actually fascinated that you’re doing this, because I grew up with Captivated. I read this book and LOVED it when I read it as a teenager. Obviously, it’s been years since I read it, so it’s just so interesting to me to look back and realize that a lot of what I drank in wholeheartedly as a teenager messed up my mentalities about a lot of things.

    I will say this, though. Reading some of John Eldredge’s other books on the heart and healing (not about gender roles at all) were very healing for me. I do think the Eldredge’s have a sincere heart to help others, but they are flawed individuals just like anyone else. It’s interesting to grow up and realize that the people you looked up to–no matter how sincere–are never, ever, ever perfect.

  • srs

    So,,, did (do?) young evangelical women really want their brothers in Christ to commit violence against each other for them? (Because to us, that is what “fight” means.)

  • “We long to be an irreplaceable part of a shared adventure”

    Fair enough. Like Xena sharing her adventures w/ Gabrielle, and Buffy sharing her adventures w/ her “scooby gang”.

    Or am I missing something?

    • Well, in the context of the chapter, Stasi means “with a husband.”

      However, even if that weren’t the case, there are still people that are fine being by themselves and it’s not because they are “hurt” people.

  • Kayla_Sue

    “Many conservative evangelicals set up women as being more “relational” than men– that we are “nurturers” and “caretakers,” that we are more naturally given to fostering relationships and communities.”

    And of course, as they assert this, they simultaneously fail to realize that a large part of the reason we are “relational” and men are not is cultural. Individuals absorb what they are taught, and the people that taught it in the first place see it as reinforcement of the idea that we have a natural aptitude for it. It’s a big circle jerk, if you’ll pardon the turn of phrase.

  • Celeste

    I read this very differently. I see Stasi saying as a Christian we aren’t looking to be ‘any’thing but we want to become that one we were made to be. We teach out children they can be anything. They can’t. Our height, health, gifts rule many things in and out, and I growing would have loved direction to discover who I was made to be, what my gifts and abilities made possible an made unique about me.

    In terms of doing anything a man can do, but wanting to be a woman, and being a warrior in a feminine way, to me says don’t deny your womanhood, don’t deny the way you were physically made to be, or pretend that the physical and hormonal way of being you have doesn’t impact your way of being. If I become a carpenter, I can still embrace the fact that I am a woman. If I am a dancer, I can still rejoice in being a woman.

    As for being relational, I believe all human beings were made to be relational. We are all interdependent and we were made firstly to be in relationship with God and secondly with each other.

    As for being fought for, this doesn’t need violence, more determination and seeking. One of the things Stasi looks at at times is our relationships with our fathers, and one of the things I was most moved by was a need to grieve that my earthly father had never fought for me. He didn’t fight to protect me, to see me, to be part of my life. People who truly love us should do this as I will fight for my children, for their growth, their protection etc.

    I find much that is beautiful in both Stasi and John’s books and hear voices that are not political or agendaed only with a heart to see people feel a deep peace and knowledge of the love of the Father and to be fulfilled in the purpose he has for us.

    • I would agree with this interpretation of the “you can be anything is too vast” paragraph if it weren’t for the last line combined with Stasi’s gender essentiallism all the way through this book. The implication, whether or not it was intentional, is that Stasi thinks that there are things woman can’t do because they are women and not because they may not have talents or abilities in that area.

      There is also a HUGE difference between being fought over and being fought for.

      • Yes…taken out of context, some of this doesn’t sound so bad. But I suspect that in context it’s much worse.

  • I’ll just chip in my two cents here — not directly related to the content of this portion of the book, but from what I’ve seen so far, I think in a certain sense this book is even worse than Fascinating Womanhood. I think basically anyone with even a tenuous grasp on reality would feel skeeved out by FW. But this one is much more subtle and insidious.

  • PJB

    I felt the same way reading through Captivating: it’s entirely circular, and apparently, I don’t exist. “Being a woman is good. Women are womanly, so it’s OK to be who you are. Who you are is valuable. Unless you’re not womanly the way I am womanly. In which case, you can forget about ever being acceptable. Are you sure you aren’t repressing who you REALLY are? Maybe you should change into a more stereotypical woman: because there is something wrong with women like you. Women who are womanly like me get to ‘be ourselves’ because we are God’s design. You get to fake it until you make it.”

    Way to go Stacy: You can make (what? guessing the stats here…) maybe 85% of women feel warm and fuzzy about themselves and how they fit God’s design for our gender. Too bad all those warm feelings come at the cost of the 15% that you don’t think are entitled to be members of the same gender as you and your cool womanly friends. That’s OK, Stacy. We’ve met you before. “Mean girls” have been excluding others from their version of femininity since we all turned 10 years old. I don’t think you get to recruit God into your clique just because you married a minister though.

  • I agree with Jeremy. FW is obvious and Captivating is much more subtle. A person needs to really read critically to unpack all the Eldredges are saying…which is why we are thankful that you are doing this, Samantha! Much of the messages that I have been taught about gender roles have been subtle and implied…while still being told, “you can be anything you want” (except a minister or church leader, of course!)

    I picked up the Captivating book and workbook on the recommendation from a friend of mine. I read chapter one and was not impressed enough to keep reading, but didn’t actually put my finger on what about it was bothersome. And then some things DID ring true…and she does it by starting a paragraph out well and then throwing in a sentence at the end…like you pointed out.

  • Gram Pol

    So by “great adventure” she means “I want to matter, to do something that matters (in a good way)”? I can buy that. But all women want to be romanced? No. Cared about, sure, but that’s a lot more broad than “romanced.”

    And as for being beautiful — what’s wrong with just being comfortable in your own skin, Stasi?

    • To be fair, she makes it clear she’s not talking about physical beauty.

  • I disagree with your characterization of Eowyn, actually. Tolkien said in one of his letters that he wrote her as a person who wasn’t a soldier by nature, but was capable of great bravery and courage when circumstances demanded it. I imagine she was based more on his own experiences than on fantasy tropes he unwittingly helped invent. Tolkien himself was more of a scholar than a soldier, and after (barely) surviving WW2, he happily returned to the world of academia and raised four kids with his wife. Eowyn, similarly, was a hero on the battlefield, but happily gave it up to become a doctor (based on her choice of words, it looks like she would’ve replaced the chief physician in the House of Healing, not Ioreth) and enjoy life with someone she loved when there was no more need for fighting.

    • Gahhh, I meant WW1 lol

      • That is very interesting, Amethyst. I must have missed that one — I know I read a collection of his letters before. I wish Tolkein studies would become a big thing. I would be all over that, lol. Tolkein and gender is an especially interesting topic. He was really an interesting mix of some pretty progressive ideas and … “for his day” stuff, if you are inclined to be charitable towards him. One of the major themes of his books is of course the idea that the weak/humble can tilt the scales and perform feats equal to the greatest, more traditional hero types. So in the Eowyn/Merry Witch King beat down scene … he’s kind of really driving that point home. He’s subverting the concept of hero, and I think that scene by itself pretty much sums up all of LOTR. So I don’t quite read it as Eowyn needing help from some sort of male, even if it is a dude who eats 6 meals a day and is like 4 feet tall. It is also worth pointing out that Eowyn’s defiance and courage is what motivates Merry in the first place for his assist.

        Of course, on the flip side of that, even if you buy my argument, that puts Eowyn, a woman, in the weak/humble/underdog group, and outside the “normal” hero group! So it’s still not super great in that sense.

        Even still, in my opinion, it’s one of the best scenes ever. Even Gandalf was pretty hesitant to face the dread Witch King. Eowyn inflicts a pretty serious degree of pwnage on his spectral ass, to be sure.

        Alright, this rant is officially long enough. In my defense, this is the internet. Hopefully you’ll cut a nerd a little slack.

        • Tolkien studies, are a pretty big thing, though a lot of the work is amateur. A Worldcat search for “Tolkien” and “biography” gives 174 books, though some entries are repetitions and many also include CS Lewis; it is impossible to write a bio of one without including at least some material on the other.

          Eowyn…personally I wish that more people, both sexes, shared Eowyn’s attitude. And perhaps Tolkien agreed. But that’s not how the character is taken by most conservatives.

          Odd bird, Tolkien: radical in his writing, conservative in his life. He both defended and doubted the Christian legitimacy of his fantasies.

    • Aibird

      What you wrote here reminds me of this article about Eowyn: http://www.norsemyth.org/2013/02/tolkiens-heathen-feminist-part-one.html

      It really digs into the text about Eowyn and her role within the book. I also really appreciate how it highlights Tolkien’s love for Norse mythology and how that’s woven into Eowyn’s tale.

  • I think I got about this far into the book before I stopped, because I too, am one of the people Stasi thinks doesn’t exist and all the help the book was recommended for, went out the window because of the erasure. I didn’t need _another_ person telling me I’m broken because of who I am.

  • Muff Potter

    Ya’ want a good example of a valiant woman in film? Check out Sonmi-451 in the film adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.

  • Melody

    “Stasi insists that all girls grew up wanting to play some version of damsel-in-distress because we all want to be fought for, and “This desire is set deep in the heart of every girl– and every woman.”

    I remember that, as a young girl, I was sitting on the swings with my best friend one day and she said that two boys from our class would fight the dragon and that we were the princesses. I felt pretty bummed out because I wanted to fight the dragon too! Not wait around for them to ‘save’ us…

  • Joy

    “in short, every woman on the planet is Belle”

    Well, that is true in the sense that one of my main desires in life is to read.