On Strength, Weakness And Software Bugs

In the Olden Days – “when men were real men and women were real women, and small furry things from Alpha Centauri were real small furry things from Alpha Centauri” – people talked about women being “weak”. Even women employed this label, though whether they actually believed it is quite another story. Their universal tactic back then was to preface their self-assertion with the Tilbury Preamble, namely “Although I am but a weak woman…”, on hearing which all wise men ran for their lives.

But what did people actually mean by “weak”? Muscular strength was one element, of course, and the one that women would always have the greatest difficulty denying. Doubtless both sexes then were stronger than now, so that a medieval peasant woman could break a modern male cube-rat over her knee, while still being weaker than her neighbours the blacksmith and the knight. Modern fantasy novels in which petite women are automatically supreme martial arts experts are all very well, but those who actually know fighting say that a good big’un will always defeat a good little’un. If “weak” means lacking in specifically martial courage, then many women will surely own up to this, while at the same time echoing Medea, who said that facing spears and swords was nothing compared with birthing a child.

A certain female SF writer with a police and army background claims that women soldiers are better at “killing and moving on”. Never having accompanied soldiers of either gender to war, I have absolutely no idea whether this is actually true; what interests me, however, is why she thinks it is true. I should like to have the reasons set out, so that we can compare them with what the difference-feminists are forever writing about women’s superior empathy.

The extreme case of worshipping the “strong” woman entirely without serious thought about the meaning of the adjective is the “feminist” alienated fantasy heroine who, were she only male, would undoubtedly qualify for the modern urban acronym T.F.U. The appeal of her mayhem for female readers or viewers is obvious; whenever a man appreciates such a character, on the other hand, we may suspect masochism, or at least a runaway perversion of that ancient cultural formation called chivalry, whereby women must be cut as much slack as it occurs to them to demand. Such a man should reflect on the fact that a knife to his guts will feel precisely the same when stuck in by a woman as by a man.

There is nothing at all wrong with psychological exploration of a violent, TFU woman, especially inasmuch as this offsets the goody-two-shoes image of Woman that is peddled as much now as it ever was in the Victorian period, if not more so. Understanding a female protagonist who is TFU is as worthy an intellectual enterprise as understanding a male protagonist who is TFU, provided only that the same standards are applied as to whether we condone or applaud her or his pathological behaviour. But they never are. Popular culture is intent on teaching us to root for female psychopaths while continuing high-mindedly to reprobate male psychopaths. This asymmetrical judgment may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but will probably come back to haunt us, as young girls grow up amid such “messages”.

Women used to retaliate for being called “weak” by pointing out that they lived on average seven years longer, a differential found even in monasteries and nunneries. The implication was that they were stronger in a different but important way. Not everyone, however, has registered that the gender longevity gap is fading out; in the UK it has halved, while Danish women drink and smoke so heavily that they live no longer than Danish men. And this may remind us of another component of the “weakness” discourse of the Olden Days: the idea that women should be protected against such vices either because they had less capacity or the consequences for them were more severe. “Weakness” could thus be a shorthand for the idea that one ought not ply women with alcohol, because they couldn’t hold as much and if they got drunk could be taken advantage of; and indeed, body-weight and different enzymes do in fact mean that, on average – and, like all outliers, the occasional Desperate Danielle who can drink everyone under the table is no refutation of an average – women get blotto more easily. And above all, drunk men don’t wake up pregnant. There used thus to be two different male approaches to women and alcohol: exploitation and chivalry. It was the second that was attacked by many feminists under the rubric of “paternalism”; men should no longer dare to rule on what a woman should or should not drink, or disapprove when women got as smashed and behaved as loutishly as they themselves did. It is their own bodies they are abusing! And so we got the “laddette” culture, foetal alcohol syndrome, children damaged by foetal smoking, and the thorny (to some) question of, “When a drunk woman cheerfully goes home with a man but in the morning can’t remember how she got there, is it still rape?”

Silly question. Since female virtue is always imputed in order to satisfy the demands of self-love, it cannot be affected by male-like behaviour in a woman. Whatever is reprehensible in a man is praiseworthy in a woman, because her innate superiority can transform and revalue any action.

In the Olden Days men also called women “weak” for a reason that might seem strange to us now; namely that men considered women sexually insatiable. One of the meanings of strength in this male discourse was sexual self-mastery. Men considered that they possessed this virtue and that women did not; the women probably had a quite different opinion, especially when being raped. We might agree that the men were projecting their own lechery onto their own victims, or that the image of the sexually voracious woman came from male anxiety about being able to satisfy her. On the other hand, most modern women hold no brief for the notion that for a time replaced it, namely that women (or at any rate Ladies) felt no sexual desire at all. This may be because they falsely imagine that this extraordinarily stupid idea was imposed on women by men rather than, as was actually the case, by crusading female puritans. In this new century the idea of the infinitely raunchy woman seems to be making a comeback, though no one has yet thought to revive the equation between horny and “weak”.

Yet another thing that the men of the Olden Days meant by “weak” was that women were helpless victims of their own emotionality. In one age, it was expressed in terms of the Galenic theory of humours, in another age in terms of hormones. Pre-menstrual tension and maternal broodiness were made to stand for a wider female irrationality. Women have not generally concurred, and in our day have exacted their revenge by reversing the accusation; now it is the woman who is calm and rational, while the man is the helpless slave of testosterone.

Unfortunately, such understandable vengeance, and the determination to paint men as the truly weaker sex in all conceivable respects, has prevented any consideration of the possibility that both sexes might have some weaknesses, some gender-specific bugs in their software. It would be passing strange if one human sex were to be an engineering bodge while the other were to be perfectly designed; it may be enquired on what basis other than chauvinist self-love such a situation could reasonably be expected.

As with totalitarians who think that dictatorship is only bad when it’s the other guys in charge, so too with sexists that think that languages of superiority and inferiority are only bad when deployed in their own disfavour. If, therefore, there exist specifically female hardware faults or software bugs that differ from specifically male hardware faults or software bugs, what might these be? If men were to admit that they indeed have two weaknesses, namely “everything they say and everything they do”, might women concede in return that they too have a characteristic conceptual weakness here and there? Not a chance.

Posted on January 21, 2013 at 11:26 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

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