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"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.

Social Issues

the awesome power of the gender swap

trigger warning for transphobia

I love gender swapping.


And, I’ve also been fascinated by it for as long as I can remember. I started writing gender-flipped fanfiction stories of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings when I was 11, although I had no idea that’s what I was doing at the time. Part of it was realizing that the books and stories that I adored had no women in them, so I provided my own by making Obi-Wan or Legolas a girl. But, as I wrote out those rather silly little stories in leftover scraps of notebooks, I was doing something interesting: when I transformed Obi-Wan into a girl, what I identified about his personality and character stayed the same. I wasn’t seeing Obi-Wan or Legolas as men, and I wasn’t internally labeling their characteristics as inherently masculine. The fact that I wasn’t amputating their character or personality when I made them women speaks volumes for my frame of mind when I was younger.

As I got older, though, I stopped doing that. I was still writing fan-fiction, but I started creating my own female characters and inserting them into the larger narrative– although these characters were literally silenced or repressed in some way. One character had her memory wiped. Another was brainwashed into believing she was weak. All of these stories revolved around these women discovering themselves and their power (oh, and falling in love with either Obi-Wan or Legolas . . . blush).

I forgot about gender-swapping or gender-flipping. My innocent childhood belief that men and women are people with their own individual differences was slowly eroded over years of gender-essentialist conditioning. Lines appeared between what was “male” and “female.” I learned that there must be hard, clear boundaries between gender and sex or our entire society falls apart. We have to be able to know what gender a person is by looking at them for less than a second. If we have to guess, or it’s not instantly obvious, than that person is obviously a pervert.

This was brutal on my personal development because I was growing up in the Quiverful South. Even though I fit into a lot of “girly-girl” stereotypes of American culture, I did not fit into the “lady like” stereotype I was supposed to be earnestly devoting myself to. I actively hated it, all while believing that I must be that way in order to be following God. I didn’t exactly have a lot of options. I spent most of my teenage years being taken aside and lectured by most of the women in my church. There would be whole Sunday school lessons devoted to the “womanly arts,” and the other three girl would be looking at me sideways because I was the only girl in that room who “needed to hear it.” When I would play with the other children and teenagers at homeschool meetups, I would be heavily berated by the other teenagers for wanting to be a soldier or a pilot in the war story we were acting out instead of the girlfriend back home pining away for her love. For a while I would fight for it, but . . . I started giving in. Ok, and I would admit in defeat. I’m a girl, I guess I should go pretend to be a secretary.

When I eventually decided I was going to college, several of the women at church told me that they had “washed their hands of me” and that I was basically doomed. I was never going to be a godly woman if I kept doing things like believing that I deserved an education and did not submit to my proper place below men. It was “feminine pride” and it would be my downfall.

However, when I getting ready for college, my mother decided that I was going to eventually decide I wanted to wear makeup, and since I knew absolutely nothing about it, she bought me Face Forward by Kevyn Aucoin. I didn’t even crack the spine my freshman year, but it turned out she was right– I did eventually decide I wanted to understand this whole “makeup” thing.

When I opened the book, I swear, magic dust must have fallen out of it.

At first, I was fascinated by the amazing transformations he was able to accomplish. He took pretty-but-still–normal-looking-women and created movie stars. It was amazing, and it made me feel powerful. I learned I could do the same thing on my own, although with much subtler effect. I could make my lips look poutier, or my eyes more cat-like. I thought it was incredible, and played around with “make overs” for many of my friends.

The back half of the book, though . . . initially, I didn’t go anywhere near it. Kevyn devotes a huge section of his book to incredibly dramatic make-ups, making over Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and things– which was amazing how skillfully he did it. And then I turned the page, and staring up at me was Amber Valetta:


made up to look like both Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.

gable lombard

A few pages later, and Gwyneth Paltrow was James Dean.

james dean

Another page, and I saw someone named Alex who Kevyn had transformed into Linda Evangelista:


At first, my years of gender essentialist beliefs kicked in and I avoided the back of the book like the plague. I couldn’t force myself to go anywhere near that– but what else could you expect from a male makeup artist? Obviously something was very wrong with him, for him to be in a career that should only appeal to women. That’s why he’d done that. Because he was fundamentally unable to see the world properly. See? That’s what not having a Christian world view will do to you. You won’t see how clear and purposeful God was in creating two very separate, very distinct genders.

But . . . there were moments when I would go through those pages and stare. And I would feel horrible, wracked with guilt, and I would tell myself it was just morbid curiosity. That was it. I wasn’t feeling drawn to those images. There wasn’t anything there that was speaking to me in a way I couldn’t understand. No.

Eventually– a very long eventually— I started seeing those pictures the way 11-year-old-me would have seen them. As interesting. As powerful. As a very basic identification that we are maybe not as different as I’d been taught to believe. That I wasn’t limited by the “female role” that was being ascribed to me– that I could stretch beyond those requirements and figure out who I was and what I wanted independent of what sex or gender I “belonged” to. I could explore the parts of myself that weren’t ladylike. I could be proud of the characteristics I had that were “masculine.” I didn’t have to be ashamed.

So, today, when I see artists like Maaria re-imagine a whole world by asking the question does Harry Potter need to be a boy and create astounding art:

harriet potter

I’ve learned to appreciate both the question they’re asking and the statement they’re making. They’re pulling us into a world where everything doesn’t have to be the way we’ve always believed it is– that we have the power and ability to change and grow and be something more.

Feminism, Social Issues

modesty rules and transphobia

trans flag

Trigger warning for transphobia, slurs.

I’m extremely hesitant to talk about this issue. I’ve been doing all I can to learn from and listen to trans* women and men– to do everything I can to understand and to love. I’m someone who is cisgender (“cis” meaning “on this side” and “trans” meaning “across”)– and completely cisgender: I fit almost totally into cultural and societal gender norms (not conservative evangelical ones, but that’s another conversation). Because of that, it’s difficult for me to truly wrap my mind around what it could be like, or to imagine myself “walking in the footsteps of a stranger.” I try, but I am just now starting to learn, and there’s a lot I don’t understand.

For example, just yesterday I was listening to a woman on twitter, and she was frustrated with the term “transgendered” being used so often in conversations about Chelsea Manning. It took me a while to figure out why, since it was a term I was used to hearing at that point. But then it hit me like a ton of bricks: I’m cisgender, not cisgendered. I am cis. It’s not a verb. “Transgendered” implies that being trans* is a process, an action, when it’s not. Trans* men and women are. A trans* woman, although she might have been born anatomically male, is a woman, end of story.

I’m also learning about concepts like “dead names,”(Chelsea Manning is no longer Bradley, and referring to her as such is more than just insensitive) and how important it is to recognize the humanity and autonomy of trans* people– just like every other human being on this planet.

But, this process is difficult for me, and I’m realizing that it’s directly tied to the Modesty Culture I grew up in.

There are many reasons that women are given for why we’re to be “modest.” Today, many of the reasons I hear revolve around the “stumbling block” idea– that women are to make choices based on how men perceive and react to those choices.

But, in the intensely fundamentalist environment I grew up in, the primary reason for “modesty” was integrally linked to femininity. This remained true throughout my fundamentalist experience– all the way up through college. Modesty, among other things, meant dressing like a woman. Looking like a woman. Acting like a woman. Being lady like and delicate.

Most of that revolved around wearing skirts and culottes. We weren’t allowed to wear anything that even approached something that looked like pants. At one point, I heard a pastor preach against wearing skirts with a jeans-type zipper and button fastener in the front. Because those look like mens’ pants, and that’s not feminine. I also heard messages preached against business suits, blazers, and button-up shirts. If we were going to wear button-up shirts, they could not be made out of cotton, could not be Oxford style, and we had to make sure that they buttoned “correctly.”

Tied up in all of this was horrible, rampant transphobia– in the extreme. Cross-dressing? Abomination. Drag? Straight for the pits of hell. Long hair on a man? A horrible shame and a curse upon him. I can’t tell you how many stories I heard growing up where some preacher was in line somewhere, standing behind a man with long hair, and being “horrified and appalled” when they realized that who they had assumed to be a woman was actually a man. The first time I ever heard about the sorts of procedures and treatments trans* people need, like hormone replacement therapy (part of the standard course of treatment for gender dysphoria), I was in a revival service, and the evangelist was railing against “those disgusting hermaphrodites.”

I’m coming to learn that transphobia is the most accurate term to describe these sorts of people and ideas. It is purely based on fear– and a powerful, nearly-overwhelming fear at that. And it’s not just fear of the unknown, on something that almost can’t be known unless it’s your experience, although that’s a part of it.

It’s fear of what trans* people, and other LGBTQ people while we’re at it, represent to fundamentalist Christians: a breakdown of gender roles, and, therefore, a breakdown of patriarchy. I realize that’s a big, grand claim– almost to the point of being vague and useless. But, I grew up in a culture where they use the term “biblical patriarchy”– and it’s a good thing. I had a hard time, at first, understanding what feminists meant when they said “patriarchy” because it represented “biblical thinking about gender roles” to me.

Trans* people fly in the face of biblical patriarchal teachings. They are living, breathing, proof that what they think about men and woman is essentially, deeply flawed. Gender isn’t a binary. Sex isn’t even a binary. It’s fluid, it doesn’t fit inside boxes, and, sometimes, it defies definition. It isn’t a matter of either/or. Our gender can grow and change over time.

But, for the people I grew up with, not forcing yourself to fit inside Victorian gender boxes is not just a sin, it’s an abomination. Being a woman doesn’t just mean I have a vagina: it means that I’m submissive, passive, vacillating, beautiful, weak, fragile, delicate . . . Being a man means being dominant, aggressive, decisive, bold, strong . . . and straying outside of those boundaries means violating something very deep, something that is seen and portrayed as being so much a part of nature that not identifying as cisgender is unthinkable.

I’m not exactly covering new territory here– everything I’ve said here . . . to anyone who isn’t just now discovering these things, it’s old and tiresome and monotonous. There’s much more vibrant and interesting discussions to be had, experiences to be shared. But, it’s where I am. It’s not where I’ll always be. But I’m learning, and I hope you’ll learn with me.

To quote the magnificent Flavia Dzodan, “my feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit.”