I’ve been watching Star Trek: Voyager on DVD lately, and a single line of dialog has been stuck in my head for days. It’s a scene in which Q comments to Captain Janeway that she’s so authoritative but still manages to preserve her femininity. Now, Q is needling her at the time, so I’m not sure whether this reflects the view of the writers or merely the view of an antagonistic character. But it reflects a view I’ve heard in real life more than once: that authority and femininity are mutually exclusive. That perhaps a woman can strike a balance between the two, but she can’t possibly wield them both at the same time.
But what does feminine mean in this context? What is it an authoritative woman loses, in the eyes of men? The patriarchy insists, despite all logic and evidence, that all men are leadership material and no women are (occasional tokens excepted). The pressure men feel to appear leaders is extreme, and may well account for much of their typical aggression and violence. Women who demonstrate authority make it that much harder for men to continue the charade. And without the charade, they’re put into direct conflict with the patriarchy.
I have to admit to some personal experience here, so you can evaluate for yourself whether it’s coloring my view, or informing it. I’m a naturally authoritative and dominant woman, even though I don’t enjoy telling people what to do. People sense that I can function well in a crisis, so they come to me; and then they rebuke me for being… well, all those labels that usually get slapped on authoritative women. And of course, my sexual orientation must be lesbian, because a woman who’s comfortable with authority must wish to be a man, and therefore wish to have sex with women (two great leaps of illogic there). As it happens, I’m heterosexual; but in the meantime, I hope I’ve been a credit to the lesbian community. I have never taken that “accusation” as an insult worthy of correcting, even though I’m sure that’s how it’s intended.
So what a woman loses when she takes on power is sex appeal to men, which is based on her willingness not to take charge. Are men really unable to find their equals attractive? A number of marriages among my acquaintances – both equally powerful and responsible in the home and workplace – seem to indicate otherwise. But TV continues to perpetuate the myth.
I’ve written before about the lack of female characters who are allowed to exhibit leadership skills, using Sam Carter of Stargate as my primary example. As Sam’s command (authority) responsibilities grew, her leadership skills shrank until she was unable to get a roomful of pilots to listen to her lecture on a ship she helped build. And increasingly, she needed cuddling from her boss at the end of tough missions. Had she been able to command a roomful of young studs, had she been able to complete tough missions without hugs at the end, the show’s creators seem to feel she would have lost all sexual appeal to the target male audience.
Interestingly, I saw more female than male fans complain that Sam was “butch” or “a lesbian”. But maybe it was just a case of men not daring to be so un-PC, because I heard a lot of stories of male viewers developing sympathy for Sam the more she acted like a confused and needy teenager, and some examples appeared in comments on this site.
Leadership traits can be forged out of supportive upbringings with good values, or unstable childhoods that call for a lot of early crisis management. They can come from adult experiences, too, like boot camp, management training, or child-rearing. They do not come from the Y-chromosome, and they do not detract from any perceived value of the X-chromosome. If men find authoritative women unappealing, that suggests they’re incapable of a relationship between equals, and the job of feminism still has a long way to go.