A Strong Woman

A narrow wooden boardwalk runs through the center of a grassy plain. There are hills or small mountains in the distance. The sky is foggy and gray, and a person in jeans and a red coat is walking on the boardwalk, away from the camera. The black serif font reads, "A strong woman knows she has strength enough for the journey, but a woman of strength knows it is in the journey where she will become strong." The source is "Power of Positivity."
A narrow wooden boardwalk runs through the center of a grassy plain. There are hills or small mountains in the distance. The sky is foggy and gray, and a person in jeans and a red coat is walking on the boardwalk, away from the camera. The black serif font reads, “A strong woman knows she has strength enough for the journey, but a woman of strength knows it is in the journey where she will become strong.” The source is “Power of Positivity.”

And only the truly BEST women* understand that contrived comparisons designed to enable self-superior back-patting by devaluing other women for failing to reach arbitrary benchmarks recently created by internet randos are in fact the STRONGEST of all contrived comparisons.

What is the point of this weird hair-splitting between “women of strength” and “strong women” in the first place?

I mean, aside from encouraging strong women to second-guess the merit of one of their defining assets and instead shift their focus to petty trait-based competition with other women.

Also that boardwalk looks a little more like a “path” to me than a “journey,” but I’m not here to nitpick.**

An Instagram post with a black square featuring white handwriting font. The font alternates between script and print. Before the quotation is the tag @peacefulmindpeacefullife. The quote says, "Behind every strong woman is a story that gave her no other choice." -Nakeia Homer
An Instagram post with a black square featuring white handwriting font. The font alternates between script and print. Before the quotation is the tag @peacefulmindpeacefullife. The quote says, “Behind every strong woman is a story that gave her no other choice.” -Nakeia Homer

Usually I pick on these inspirational macros for framing everything in the world as a choice, so you’d think I’d be happy to see a different spin on that message, but of course I’m never happy about anything (on account of how I choose to be angry and sad all of the time). 

“I choose to be happy.” 

“I choose to be successful.”

“I choose to be healthy.”

“It’s not like there are any systems in place that disproportionately favor the success and stability of people with my particular demographic characteristics! Nope, I am just really good at making the right choices.”

I resist the lie at the heart of the emphasis on choice (in this context) because it’s usually just denial and/or rationalization.

Among other things, people want to believe that society is fundamentally just, and that those who do the “right” things will be rewarded and that those who do “wrong” will be held accountable. Safe people want to believe that they are safe for a reason.

This enables the denial of structural inequality, which is kind of a theme on this blog.

So.

On the surface, this quote isn’t quite playing the “success is a personal choice” game.

It should be an acknowledgement of feminine resilience, right? 

In principle, I understand how I should feel both inspired by the women and angry at the unspoken circumstances.

And yet.

With this framing, I get the sense that strong women did not, in fact, choose to become strong.

It just kind of happened.

Which feels just as problematic as the idea that poverty “just happens” because those people made poor choices. 

Can something that is almost unavoidably dictated by circumstance be intentional? Is “the only choice” really a choice, at that point? 

It’s almost like this quote reverses the typical roles of personal agency and the influence of circumstance that we often see in the “they made their choices” trope.  

Like, “the cards were so stacked against this person that they wouldn’t be here if they weren’t truly exceptional.”

I looked up the person that the quote itself is attributed to, and I want to give her the benefit of the doubt. I’m still a little suspicious of some of her messaging, but I’m also suspicious of messages in general, and in the end she is just living her life and doing her job.

For now I’ll just acknowledge that this quote is decontextualized, and it could very well be part of a more cohesive point.

So to review: instead of emphasizing the centrality of free will and choice, this message (that has presumably been isolated from its original context) accepts the existence of situations in which choice is not the only important factor, but to the extent that circumstance occludes choice.

The blog / podcast You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney explores the psychology behind common fallacies and cognitive distortions, so naturally I’m into it.

This post about “Survivorship Bias” really rocked my world.

The basic fallacy is the belief that “You should focus on the successful if you wish to become successful.” However, “When failure becomes invisible, the difference between failure and success may also become invisible.” 

McRaney relates a story about fighter planes in WWII.

The American military was looking to improve the design of these planes so that more of them would make safe returns. Engineers were examining the damage to planes that had safely made it back to base, but it was the statisticians who recommended that they would learn more from the planes they didn’t have access to: that is, the planes that had been shot down in action. 

The engineers had noted that the returned-but-damaged planes had sustained a lot of damage around the wings, and they were hoping to reinforce that area, but the stats folx pointed out that those planes had been able to make the journey in spite of heavy wing damage. The wings were fine. 

By focusing their attention on the success stories, they were creating a misleading narrative. The salient information was in the failures. What had caused them to go down? That’s where they would learn to prevent more crashes. 

“Behind every strong woman is a story that gave her no other choice.”

Only success is represented here. 

(With the reading that at least on some level, the quote suggests that success = strength and implies that failure = weakness.)

However weakness and failure are defined in this situation is invisible, and that’s a problem because un-strong women apparently did have some options available.

So even though this quote appears to reverse the framing of “choice,” the outcome is more or less the same old refrain: 

Non-success stories were chosen by those who did not choose success.

Failure was an option, and yet success was not exactly a choice. 

Amirite, ladies?!?

*When the word “women” (or its variants) is used without any additional commentary on this blog, it means all women, without having to specify trans women as a subcategory of women, because trans women are women, full stop. HOWEVER I am still including explanatory footnotes because plenty of sites also use unqualified sex and gender terms to indicate their acceptance of a binary understanding of sex and gender. And that sucks.

**Yes, I am.

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