Authority v. Femininity

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.


  1. scarlett says

    I’ve just finished reading this book on movies and movie history, and one of the things that struck me was how responsible straight white men are for getting up on screen movies about straight white men – it’s as if they are unable to comprehend that audiences would see movies about blacks, hispanics, gays, lesbians, women, hermaphrodites – anything so long as it involves a character whose motives you can understand against a backdrop of good writing. One of the things that came up often was that these straight white men are so deluded in their fantasy that ‘the audience only wants to see straight white men’ that they ignore all evidence to the contrary.

    They ignore the popularity of characters like Zoe Washburn (sorry, forgot her maiden name) from Firefly, a woman who outranks her husband, is a capable leader/2IC but is still beautiful and sexy. They ignore the popularity of BsG and it’s very capable female characters who still have sex lives and romantic entanglements. They ignore the popularity of the Terminator movies, with Sarah Conner as a woman who was lover, mother and heroine. They ignore the popularity of Boston Legal, where a sixty-something Shirley Schmit is still romantically – and sexually – involved with men while keeping her male partners from doing too much damage with their various escapades, or where Denise Bauer can be both brilliant lawyer and girlfriend/lover.

    There’s sweeping the evidence under the rug. Then there’s that scene from The Simpsons where the rug was a metre off the floor, doing nothing to hide the mountains of evidence beneath it.

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    That’s exactly what I’ve been saying all this time – they swear there’s all this evidence that audiences don’t want to see anything but white male heroes. And it’s just not true. We have not yet had a real test case that proves one way or the other, and I see a lot of indication that people will watch anyone in the lead, if the show is entertaining.

    What’s the book?

  3. Maartje says

    I was trying to think of good female leaders. Ivanova from Babylon 5 was a good one. She was the 2IC of the base, but she was basically the one who ran the station while the boss was doing more important things. They showed her femininity (godawful word by the way) by not always doing her hair in the same way and putting her in sexy nightwear every time she was in her quarters. That was kinda silly, but I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt that their intent was good. There were hints that she was gay, but also that she was straight and it never came into question around her command.

    In the non-sci-fic scene I think Claire McLeod of McLeod’s Daughters is a good one. She’s pretty butch but it is immediately clear that she is a good boss, through the three years she’s in the show it is also made abundantly clear that she is a woman, not girly but definitely a fully functioning woman with some womanly as well as androgynous traits. They really showed it in stead of just telling that Yes she’s the leader and Yes, she’s a woman like they did on Voyager.

  4. Jennifer Kesler says

    I’m planning to watch Babylon V one of these days – from your description it sounds a little like Major Kira from DS9 to me. She’s a soldier early on and might seem butch to people who like to slap those labels on characters, but in the second season she has a romantic relationship in which she still functions very much like her usual “butch” self, but she’s also affectionate, sexual, etc… all while retaining her strength, determination, and authority. And THEN in the third season they show an alternate universe Kira who appears not only to be bisexual, but interested in having a sexual relationship with her alternate self (which says far more about the alternate’s personality than does her orientation, IMO). So in the end, even the most narrow-minded viewer is left with no option but to see Kira as a woman, a commander and a lover, all in one rich package.

    I think Revena is going to write about her one of these days. I’m still wading through Season 5, so there may be more than what I’ve described here.

  5. Revena says

    Yeah, I’ll definitely write about Kira Nerys. It’s gonna be a little harder than writing about some other characters, though, because I can be a real fangirl about her. 😉

  6. scarlett says

    It’s called ‘Hollywood” Warts ‘n’ All 1905-2005′. It lists about 500 moivies alphabetically an includes details about the actors, procuers, the attitudes of the day – for example, in one movie which was meant to feature an interracial relationship (asian man, white woman) it was considered to be ‘too risque’ to have an oriental man seduce a white woman, so they had the oriental played by a white man – not that it did any good, audiences were still outraged. And there’s a bit in the North by Borthwest entry about producers marrying women – or girls – a third their age, thinking that’s the way things are in real life, and perpetuating the myth by having their on-screen heroes hook up with leading ladies young enough to be their daughters!

  7. says

    On the issue of Ivanova’s sexuality:

    I believe that Ivanova was either bisexual, or generally straight but open to a same-sex relationship if it were just the right person.* She has had two sexual relationshps that we know of, a serious heterosexual one that occurred before the series (“Episode 107: War Prayer”), and a homosexual one that may have been serious or woould have been likely to become serious with Talia Winters (“Episode 207: A Race Through Dark Places”, Episode 220: Divided Loyalties”), before it was cut short by events (I won’t say exactly what in case people who haven’t seen it before want to be surprised). Ranger Marcus Cole was in love with her, but this doesn’t really tell us much about her, because he never directly told her of his feelings and she never reciprocated them.

    In general, Ivanova seemed to try to avoid relationships, she seemed to have difficulty trusting people and was unwilling to risk getting hurt. So there is a lot of room for speculation as to her preferences.

    *J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5, suggested this possibility.

  8. says

    Another Babylon 5 example of a woman whose femininit and leadership were never presented as conflicting is Tessa Halloran, aka Number One (Marjorie Monaghan) [seasons 4 and 5] who led the terrorist/freedom fighter group Free Mars.

    In addition to a lot of scenes demonstrating that she is pretty hard-nosed (I’d describe in more detail, but I haven’t seen them in a few years), there was one where she basically tells a male character pretty much out of the blue that he is going to sleep with her tonight.

  9. Maartje says

    Yeah, the australian series. But I’m dutch, there are a few australian shows on TV here. They’re even re-running the flying doctors!

  10. scarlett says

    I had a feeling you weren’t Australian – not only from the name, but McLeod’s isn’t very popular here. Apparantly loads of shows have gone on for years after they meant to be cancelled because they were more popular in Europe then they were here (ie, Heartbreak High).

  11. SunlessNick says

    And he does. And they both have a good time.

    Babylon 5 also contains a nice instance of a female character simply wanting friendly sex for the sake of liking friendly sex: there’s an episode where a contingent of soldiers stops on the station on the way to a battle; we’re introduced to several of them through the eyes of a couple of the station’s regulars. One of the soldiers is a woman who goes out with the station’s (male) head of security for a bit of celebrating life before the battle – he’s IIRC the one who wants to make the connection more personal – she’s both angry and sorry that he sees it differently from her. But they part on good terms.

    She dies in the battle, but it doesn’t feel like a casual sex = death judgment on her, because all the soldiers we get to know do so. It just feels like an instance of how Babylon 5’s universe can be a bleak and painful place.

  12. DragonLadyK says

    If we’re talking about femininity and leadership, especially in the context of Babylon 5, we need to talk about Delenn. Delenn fulfilled prophesy in defiance of her entire government because she felt it was right, sent Jack the Ripper packing with his tail between his legs, never let being in love with John Sheridan stop her from telling him he was wrong, she led numerous space battles, stopped a civil war, told off the Shadows, reorganized her entire civilizations’s structure twice, led an ultra-top-secret military, and was president of an interstellar alliance for multiple terms. She did all this in demure robes, meeting and marrying her soulmate, experimenting with human dating customs, having a girls’ night with Ivanova, and with the kind of graceful inner strength of principle that has been expected of women since the time of Paul. Oh. And she had a baby.

    Delenn was awesome, and the fanboys LOVED her.

  13. Raeka says

    I hate to necro-thread, but as a female college student going into a male-dominated field (computer science), with a roommate (also female) wanting to go into business (including starting a company once she graduates), and both of us involved in a student group aimed at undergraduates interested in business…this topic is extremely interesting to me. So much so that I googled ‘female authority’ in the hopes of finding similar articles.

    The vast majority of results seemed to concern something called Loving Female Authority, a type of femdom lifestyle where the husband submits to the ‘loving female authority of [his wife]’ –sometimes up to the point of wearing a chastity belt. I think one of the links led to an article discussing how many orgasms the man should be allowed to have per year.

    Putting aside the anti- or pro-feminism of the lifestyle itself, I was mostly perturbed that so many of the results had to do with this Loving Female Authority idea, which seemed mostly to concern itself with womens’ authority in the home and bedroom. I had been hoping for something rather more professionally-oriented. (Also, part of me objects to their use of the word ‘authority’ in their title for this lifestyle, but exploring why would be a longer post than I feel like writing right now.)

    To be fair, I then googled ‘male authority’, which of course turned up a bunch of articles either on feminism and patriarchy, or religiously-based posts on the roles of men and women. (I even read some of them, which was a bad idea, since I have a habit of trying really hard to see the other person’s point of view –which then makes me subtly sick at imagining being what they’re telling me I should be.)

    I even tried googling just plain ol’ ‘authority’, which turned up a few articles on political and other abstract forms of authority, one article on Obama’s authority apparently being undermined, and five billion links to organizations or departments with ‘authority’ in their name.

    Perhaps it all boils down to the fact I didn’t choose very good search terms –‘female professionalism’ seems to have turned up a few more articles more in line with what I wanted– but some part of me is still sad, and slightly worried, that a relatively minor femdom lifestyle is the most relevant result on the internet when searching for ‘female authority’. Hopefully my search in real life will go better.

    Anyways. I hope my tiny discovery is worth the necro-threading, and I apologize if its not the most researched or well thought-out; I like analysis up to a point, but then I just get exhausted with it and have to do something brainless. Much as I love this site, most of my energy must be reserved for passing my courses 😛

  14. says

    Raeka, that’s very interesting, and brings out a side to this discussion that we didn’t have before: that “female authority” is perceived more as a form of roleplay than something that happens in regular daily living.

    Yeah, that’s sad, all right. Totally worth the necro-threading. :)

  15. Anemone says

    I don’t think leadership and authority (the ability to command) are the same thing. Leadership is more a matter of going ahead than commanding. I find female authority figures interesting to watch, but I find the leaders even more interesting, because they do different things from their peers. In Stargate, the movie, Sha’uri showed leadership (and courage) when she showed Daniel the hidden writings, then when she told the other slaves about their history. That’s a form of traditionally feminine leadership that is often missing in movies (but very common in the real world).

    I lost all interest in the TV show when they bumped her off.

  16. says

    I was so disappointed by her depiction in the TV series as the shyest person on Abydos. In the movie, she was quiet, but decisive and active. In the show, we do eventually learn that all this time, she’s been influencing Amonet to get her to have the harcesis child that could save them all, and we see her influencing Amonet to protect Daniel and the child, and to inform Daniel of what to do with the child. But sadly, that’s the only glimpse we get of the strength Sha’uri had – it’s like her agency had to be kept off-screen, but once they were sure she was gone, it was okay to tell us she’d done something cool. Very disappointing.

  17. Raeka says

    @Anemone: I suppose I could see your point, that ‘authority’ and ‘leadership’ are technically two very different things –but I think I end to associate the word ‘authority’ with a certain level of proficiency with something: for example, ‘he/she is the authority on -subject-‘, or ‘he/she is in authority because of these qualifications…’ And I think if you’re going to define authority as ‘the ability to command’, the way I view it is more as a given ability, like a promotion, rather than a natural ability (like if someone is ‘commanding’).

    I think I might be drifting off on a tangent. I think the point that I’m trying to make is that I see many stories of women as leaders, but they are leaders by themselves; righting the wrong no one else will stand up to, etc. So for me the phrase ‘female leader’ evokes a very different image than ‘female authority’, which implies that the female actually has authority over other people.

    I don’t know that I’m explaining this very well. It’s almost two AM. Maybe the point I’m trying to make is taking issue with the fact that female leaders are more interesting to watch than female authority figures; while yes, they may be doing things differently than their peers, it seems to be my impression that they generally don’t have peers. Sometimes, people follow them because they have no other options. If there had been a male counterpart to Sha’uri in Stargate, and they managed to work harmoniously together, who do you think people would have actually looked up to more? (My apologies if this isn’t an entirely accurate example, I don’t actually watch Stargate.)

    On the other hand, female authority figures are probably working in a position that could have gone to any number of males, could still go to a male if she gets fired/replaced –to some degree, she can’t take the risk a ‘leader’ would, in working too far outside the box, because she’s already on the edge, just being female in a position of authority (or an authoritative female, take your pick). Why would people follow her when they’ve got a trusty male who’s probably just as qualified?

  18. Anemone says

    I think leadership, in the sense of going into new territory, is highly gendered. Women tend to show leadership in social issues (Silkwood, North Country) while you are more likely to get lone men working in the laboratory or creating great art, on their own, misunderstood, etc. etc. (A Beautiful Mind).

    I think we just need more variety, period. More women striking out into unusual territory. More women leading people in organizations (we’re supposed to be better managers, aren’t we?). More women inspiring others to pull together, like sports coaches. More female peers, too, so there’s no isolation. Give a woman in authority lots of female peers and her “femininity” will be safe. I don’t know if I’ve said that right.

  19. Keith says

    You know, I’ve never thought about it before (Hi privilege! Imagining running into you again), but the idea that femininity is antithetical to authority just makes absolutely no sense in an easily demonstrated way. I mean, for the vast majority of human beings, isn’t our first experience of authority our mother? Especially if you think in terms of the “mom stays home and raises the kids while dad earns a living” paradigm that writers seem to want us to think is the norm.

    Freud would probably have a field day.

    • Maria says

      But what about “just wait until your father comes home!!” that appears in… like every sitcom except Roseanne?

      • Keith says

        I meant that in the real world, we all have this obvious example of a female in authority in our lives, and yet we’re still being fed this weird idea that authority is incompatible with femininity. But I guess we also get fed this idea that “mother” means nurturing and safe, not authoritative. This does not match with my experience with my mother, nor with other mothers I’ve known.

          • says

            Keith, it’s not that anyone’s unaware women can be authoritative. Even if they didn’t have a mom, or their mom wasn’t authoritative, it is a fact most people come across. Additionally, part of femininity is delicacy, and there are few things less delicate than periods and childbirth, and it’s common knowledge these things are very icky and raw, and yet assigned by nature to women. I think most people get that there’s a lot about being female that is not remotely “feminine.”

            I mean, in Victorian novels, women are always fainting at the sight of blood. Did they just go into a coma one week out of every month? The whole thing is absurd.

            Feminine is an act women put on to make insecure men feel like finally, there’s someone in their lives they can dominate. Feminine appears soft, delicate, vulnerably, kinda stupid. It’s an act, and MOST grownups know it – just as “masculine” is an act. It’s all about getting deeply insecure young men laid.

            That’s why for those of us who don’t play feminine, there’s a much smaller hetero dating pool to be had, but it’s generally higher quality.


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