Here’s the truth: Making space for more female heroes opens a corresponding space for more female villains.
A famous footballer has been arrested on domestic violence charges after a family gathering got out of control, BleacherReport revealed on Saturday.
That’s unfortunately not an uncommon headline, until you take into account that that footballer is a woman—in fact, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and U.S. women’s national goalkeeper Hope Solo, an athlete the Guardian lauds as “consistently, the best women’s goalkeeper in the world.”
Too bad, then, that this icon couldn’t appear alongside her teammates in their game against France last Thursday because she was at the family event that devolved into her being jailed without bail after assaulting both her sister and her teenage nephew.
Unlike her lawyer, who insists that “Hope is not guilty of any crime,” I have no intention of trying to defend Solo for such repeated idiocy. This isn’t the first time Solo’s been involved in a domestic violence incident: In 2012, she married ex-Seattle Seahawks player Jerramy Stevens just a few hours after he appeared in court himself for assaulting her.
What interests me are the questions this new case of a famous-woman-gone-wrong brings up about the relationship of women to their own morality. Depending on who you’re talking to, it’s either unthinkable or inevitable that an empowered woman like Hope Solo would beat up her adolescent nephew. Funny, then, that at the time of this writing, the big feminist blogs have so far remained mum in terms of commentary on the case: Feministing, for instance, hasn’t even mentioned it yet, and Jezebel gave a two-line run-down of the facts only.
The Guardian’s Graham Parker did a little better, quoting a reviewer of Hope Solo’s autobiography:
In order for the world to pay attention in 1999, a female athlete had to be a role model loved by everyone. In 2012, she doesn’t. And that may be a weird form of social progress.
But Parker goes no further in telling us why Solo should represent social progress. Feminists, probably reasoning that conceding the moral high ground in any case whatsoever will hurt the cause, seem completely unprepared to analyze what it means when a bright apple like Hope Solo seems to have gone so rotten. Who wants to argue that having more women as public protagonists implies that we’ll see more women publicly acting awful?
As far back as Eden, women’s inherent “goodness”—or lack thereof—has proved central to beliefs about their proper role in the world. Any religious readers out there will probably remember Genesis’s characterization of women, the original bringers of sin to humanity, who suffer an inherent moral weakness that we’re cursed to remedy by suffering through the redemptive acts of childbirth and childrearing. On the other hand, given that motherhood is meant to turn women into saints, lots of men like to think of their women as their “better halves,” with better-developed moral compasses designed to help their partner correct their endearing man-foolishness.
The modern gender-equality movement, particularly in the wake of the Elliot Rodger shooting, is no stranger to the idea that women have the moral high ground. With the #YesAllWomen tweets, millions of women poured out a sense of pent-up female grievance reflecting a generalized righteous indignation, a sense that if men only listened to us more, the world would be a better place.
This line of thinking is not new, according to Barbara Ehrenreich, who says that in the early days of the Second Wave, the women’s movement’s…
…strategy and vision rested on the assumption, implicit or stated outright, that women were morally superior to men. We had a lot of debates over whether it was biology or conditioning that gave women the moral edge—or simply the experience of being a woman in a sexist culture. But the assumption of superiority, or at least a lesser inclination toward cruelty and violence, was more or less beyond debate.
The problem with this women=good/men=bad dichotomy is that it’s simply not true, as proved by Hope Solo and far more extreme cases like the women of Abu Ghraib. But neither is it logically implied by a belief in gender equality. The central premise of feminism is that patriarchy stifles any form of public protagonism by women. Sadly, though, there’s no guarantee that getting more women into leading roles is going to create a more moral corp of leaders. As Alternet put it, “a uterus is no substitute for a conscience.”
I’ve written in the past about how girls are generally deprived of the “agency training” that’s routinely given to boys. This, in turn, often leads to agency issues and a sense of moral ambiguity among women: “Passivity is a more comfortable moral space to occupy, because sins of omission—the ones you commit by not acting—are harder to point out.”
In fact, much male agonizing about what it means to be “a good man” reflects similar worries about moral ambiguity—that is, what is the right way to use the protagonism that society overwhelmingly bestows on them as men. In other words, acting ethically when you’re under pressure to act all the time is more complicated than it looks, whether you’re male or female.
So, in short, yes, I’m saying the thing that Jezebel and Feministing haven’t quite managed to stutter out: Making space for more female heroes opens a corresponding space for more female villains. As we see more women presidents it’s unfortunately likely that we’ll also see more women murderers, cult leaders, suicide bombers, and Hope Solos.
It was Barbara Ehrenreich again who so eloquently stated after Abu Ghraib why, as feminists, promising anything otherwise would be just plain wrong:
We have to realize … that the kind of feminism based on an assumption of female moral superiority is not only naive; it also is a lazy and self-indulgent form of feminism. Self-indulgent because it assumes that a victory for a woman—a promotion, a college degree, the right to serve alongside men in the military—is by its very nature a victory for all of humanity. And lazy because it assumes that we have only one struggle—the struggle for gender equality—when in fact we have many more.
Samantha Eyler is a freelance American writer, editor, and translator based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.