Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Princess and the Medusa: Musings on Women's Power

It used to be that women had to choose between being the Madonna or the Whore. Then popular culture became obsessed with women as Victims and Vixens (and in the case of sad train wrecks like Amy Winehouse and Brittany Spears, portraying the two aspects as one). As Peggy Orenstein writes in a recent article for New York Times Magazine titled Girls will be Girls:

Hillary Clinton isn’t the only woman struggling to find an ideal mix of feminism and femininity, one that allows a woman to behave both like and unlike a man without being penalized either way. Mothers of daughters, even if they don’t support the former first lady, feel, if not her pain, at least her conflict.

Today I would like to discuss two other female archetypes confronted by modern women: The Princess and the Medusa.

In an article titled What's Wrong with Cinderella, Orenstein writes:

Diana may be dead and Masako disgraced, but here in America, we are in the midst of a royal moment. To call princesses a “trend” among girls is like calling Harry Potter a book. Sales at Disney Consumer Products, which started the craze six years ago by packaging nine of its female characters under one royal rubric, have shot up to $3 billion, globally, this year, from $300 million in 2001. There are now more than 25,000 Disney Princess items. “Princess,” as some Disney execs call it, is not only the fastest-growing brand the company has ever created; they say it is on its way to becoming the largest girls’ franchise on the planet.

The Princess archetype has undergone some revision of late, even at Disney. One of personal favorites is Mai from The Princess Diaries. In the books, written by Mary Cabot, she is a vegetarian, an environmentalist and animal rights activist. Some of her spunk shows up in the films (although much of her activism is given to the character of her best friend). I am also a fan of the Paper Bag Princess Elizabeth, who fights the dragon all on her own and dumps the clueless Prince.

They Tried To Tell Us We're Too Jung

Now let us turn from the Princess to the Medusa. We all know the story: For her, every day is a bad hair day, her mere gaze turns men to stone, yada, yada, yada. The Greek hero (who comes into the Medusa myth much later) cuts her head off. End of story. It doesn't take a Jungian professor to tell us what this means. Medusa is a monster, a Gordon. In earlier times, middle aged women were often insulted by being called gossips, gorgons, or crones. Modern feminists are currently reclaiming Medusa. Alicia La Vin in a student article on Women in Antiquity writes that

means "sovereign female wisdom," in Sanskrit.....imported into Greece from Libya (Medusa was) worshipped by the Libyan Amazons as their Serpent-Goddess..... In her images, her hair sometimes resembles dread locks, showing her origins in Africa...Medusa has historically been seen as the archetype of the nasty mother, however she is far more complex. She symbolizes the following: Sovereign female wisdom. The female mysteries. All the forces of the primordial Great Goddess: She is universal Creativity and Destruction in eternal Transformation. She is the Guardian of the Thresholds and the Mediatrix between the Realms of heaven, earth and the underworld. She is Mistress of the Beasts...She is the ultimate truth of reality, the wholeness beyond duality. She rips away our mortal illusions....forbidden yet liberating wisdom...As a young and beautiful woman she is fertility and life. As crone she consumes by devouring all on the earth plane. Through death we must return to the source, the abyss of transformation, the timeless realm. We must yield to her and her terms of mortality. She reflects a culture in harmony with nature.

Pretty strong stuff. As we all know, this level of female power it scares this culture to death. (1) Far better the pink and perky princess: Orenstein writes,

I worry about what playing Little Mermaid is teaching her. I’ve spent much of my career writing about experiences that undermine girls’ well-being, warning parents that a preoccupation with body and beauty (encouraged by films, TV, magazines and, yes, toys) is perilous to their daughters’ mental and physical health. Am I now supposed to shrug and forget all that? If trafficking in stereotypes doesn’t matter at 3, when does it matter? At 6? Eight? Thirteen?

......On the other hand, maybe I’m still surfing a washed-out second wave of feminism in a third-wave world. Maybe princesses are in fact a sign of progress, an indication that girls can embrace their predilection for pink without compromising strength or ambition; that, at long last, they can “have it all.”
......There are no studies proving that playing princess directly damages girls’ self-esteem or dampens other aspirations. On the other hand, there is evidence that young women who hold the most conventionally feminine beliefs — who avoid conflict and think they should be perpetually nice and pretty — are more likely to be depressed than others and less likely to use contraception. What’s more, the 23 percent decline in girls’ participation in sports and other vigorous activity between middle and high school has been linked to their sense that athletics is unfeminine. And in a survey released last October by Girls Inc., school-age girls overwhelmingly reported a paralyzing pressure to be “perfect”: not only to get straight A’s and be the student-body president, editor of the newspaper and captain of the swim team but also to be “kind and caring,” “please everyone, be very thin and dress right.” Give those girls a pumpkin and a glass slipper and they’d be in business.

Most of us fantasized about being Princess when we were little girls. What's so wrong about that?

....“Playing princess is not the issue,” argues Lyn Mikel Brown, an author, with Sharon Lamb, of “Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes.” “The issue is 25,000 Princess products,” says Brown, a professor of education and human development at Colby College. “When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice: it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play. There’s the illusion of more choices out there for girls, but if you look around, you’ll see their choices are steadily narrowing.” ....The relentless resegregation of childhood appears to have sneaked up without any further discussion about sex roles, about what it now means to be a boy or to be a girl. Or maybe it has happened in lieu of such discussion because it’s easier this way.

And what's with all that pink? Orenstein tells us that

Girls’ obsession with that color may seem like something they’re born with, like the ability to breathe or talk on the phone for hours on end. But according to Jo Paoletti, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, it ain’t so. When colors were first introduced to the nursery in the early part of the 20th century, pink was considered the more masculine hue, a pastel version of red. Blue, with its intimations of the Virgin Mary, constancy and faithfulness, was thought to be dainty. Why or when that switched is not clear, but as late as the 1930s a significant percentage of adults in one national survey held to that split. Perhaps that’s why so many early Disney heroines — Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Wendy, Alice-in-Wonderland — are swathed in varying shades of azure.

I found this bit oddly heartening:

(Purple, incidentally, may be the next color to swap teams: once the realm of kings and N.F.L. players, it is fast becoming the bolder girl’s version of pink.)

Susan Faludi wrote this in her book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.

Feminism's agenda is basic: It asks that women not be forced to "choose" between public justice and private happiness. It asks that women be free to define themselves -- instead of having their identity defined for them, time and again, by their culture and their men.

Orenstein notes that:

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, when amplifying age and sex differences became a key strategy of children’s marketing (recall the emergence of “ ’tween”), that pink became seemingly innate to girls, part of what defined them as female, at least for the first few years. The infatuation with the girlie girl certainly could, at least in part, be a reaction against the so-called second wave of the women’s movement of the 1960s and ’70s (the first wave was the fight for suffrage), which fought for reproductive rights and economic, social and legal equality. If nothing else, pink and Princess have resuscitated the fantasy of romance that that era of feminism threatened, the privileges that traditional femininity conferred on women despite its costs...

Let us look again at the Medusa. Once a protective Goddess, she is now seen as a fearsome, man-hating, monster.. Marija Gimbutus, author of The Language of the Goddess writes that Medusa is:

...a potent Goddess dealing with life and death, not the later Indo-European monster to be slain by heroes such as Perseus. She is linked with Artemis. Artemis and Hecate are one, a lunar Goddess of the life cycle with two aspects: one, standing at the beginning of the cycle, the other at the end: one young, pure and beautiful, connected with young life, and the other gruesome, connected with death.

There is an art piece that appears with this essay at my blog. (If you are using a Reader, you can go to the site and check it out). It shows Angelina Jolie as the Medusa and it is an image that makes me smile. If some men are afraid of women in general, imagine how they feel about an Amazonian Goddess like Jolie? I find this woman's story compelling, not because of her relationships with certain men, but because of her personal rise and rebirth. In Jolie we can see a woman grow from a self- destructive and wild child - one rejected and betrayed by her father - to activist, truth teller and healer. If you look at the image I've posted, you will see the Medusa in her original state: beautiful, seductive, protective, healing, and, yes, dangerous, especially to those who are unjust. Woman's power has always been tied to the culture's fear of that power, and never more so then now. (Ibid) In an time of economic and ecological meltdown, it would serve us to take back the Medusa as she once was: Queen, Priestess and Protector.

Those of us honor women's power will find that they swim upstream against a heavy force. Orenstein writes:

Some scholars I spoke with say that given its post-9/11 timing, princess mania is a response to a newly dangerous world. “Historically, princess worship has emerged during periods of uncertainty and profound social change,” observes Miriam Forman-Brunell, a historian at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Francis Hodgson Burnett’s original“Little Princess” was published at a time of rapid urbanization, immigration and poverty; Shirley Temple’s film version was a hit during the Great Depression. “The original folk tales themselves,” Forman-Brunell says, “spring from medieval and early modern European culture that faced all kinds of economic and demographic and social upheaval — famine, war, disease, terror of wolves. Girls play savior during times of economic crisis and instability.” That’s a heavy burden for little shoulders. Perhaps that’s why the magic wand has become an essential part of the princess get-up. In the original stories — even the Disney versions of them — it’s not the girl herself who’s magic; it’s the fairy godmother. Now if Forman-Brunell is right, we adults have become the cursed creatures whom girls have the thaumaturgic power to transform.

Paganism teaches us that we each have the power to transform ourselves. The snakes in the Medusa's hair represent the power of such transformation, as well as wisdom, healing, rebirth, and change. As such, they serve as timely images for modern women. An article titled Medusa in Myth and Literary History notes that:

Robert Graves (Greek Myths, 1958) believes that the myth of Perseus preserves the memory of the conflicts which occurred between men and women in the transition from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society. In fact the function of the Gorgon's mask was to keep men at a safe distance from the sacred ceremonies and mysteries reserved for women, i.e. those which celebrated the Triple Goddess, the Moon. Graves reminds us that the Orphic poems referred to the full moon as the 'Gorgon's head'. The mask was also worn by young maidens to ward off male lust.

(Note: For those involved in ritual work, Medusa is a powerful, protective force in defense against the rape and abuse of women.)

The episode of Perseus' victory over Medusa represents the end of female ascendancy and the taking over of the temples by men, who had become the masters of the divine which Medusa's head had concealed from them.

Her-story - and ours - has been distorted, her power vilified, her very Self decried as unsafe and unclean. It is time to reclaim the Medusa for ourselves. The first step is to reclaim our own image(s) and use our strength as we deem fit. To do this, we must address the issue of women's power in our own way. The Suppressed History website has an article with a multicultural perspective titled Women's Power and it asks a question many of us have asked about the right uses of power today:

What does that mean? Women who openly display their power, knowledge, and skill, receiving public recognition and honor. But also females who manage to wield power in societies that try to limit it or decree female submission; where their leadership is stigmatized and their creativity disdained. And women who resist and overthrow oppressive traditions and regimes. Who break The Rules in defiance of unjust legal and religious "authorities." Who pursue their vision in spite of the personal cost.

Women have determined the course of events and the forms of human culture. We originated, founded, governed, prophesied, created great art, fought for our rights, and for our peoples. These are the women edited out of history, their stories omitted, distorted, and replaced with an endless litany of men (and the occasional queen or meddling concubine). Our ignorance of these women is greatly compounded by the omission of information on societies which accorded females power in public life, diplomacy, religion, medicine, the arts as well as family structure and inheritance. Both racism and sexism are implicated in these silences and gaps.

...Women's history demands a global perspective. There's far more to it than Queen Elizabeth I or Susan B. Anthony. We need to refocus historical attention from the school of "famous women" (often royal females) to encompass broader groupings of women with power: clan mothers and female elders; priestesses, diviners, medicine women and healers; market women, weavers, and other female arts and professions. These "female spheres of power," as I call them, vary greatly from culture to culture. Some of them, particularly the spiritual callings, retain aspects of women's self-determination even in societies that insist on formal subordination of female to male in private and public space. (1)

Finally, we come to it: We do not need to reject the Princess, we simply need to re-imagine her. We can claim the sexual, protective force of the Medusa, as well. The fundamental difference between the dysfunctional versions of both Princess and the Medusa is this: one of them has to finally grow up and become Queen while the other has to let go of her anger about the past and use her power in the present moment. My friend Anne Hill recently joked that she wants a button that says "Ask Me About My Feminist Rage." I love my women friends; they are fierce, funny, forces for change. Is it true that our angry gaze can petrify some? Then let's use that gaze, make it potent with learning, truth and wit, and turn the old ways into stone. As women, we must not mindlessly enact this culture's silly fantasies. Nor can we blindly react against the dysfunctional mindset that treats women as evil and worth-less. And let us not act out to our own cost, either from despair or in the desire to please and be accepted, for what is the good in that? Even in the worst of times we must act, authentically, with courage, compassion and conviction. It is in living this creative, whole-hearted role - the one we finally write for ourselves - that we claim our birthright.

It's your power. Claim it, and use it wisely,



(1) Many other bloggers have pointed readers to Robin Morgan's essay Goodbye To All That when it first came out, so why remark on it again? Firstly, because some people may not have seen it, and I think it's something every woman and woman-friendly man (be they Republican, Democratic or Independent) should read. Secondly, because it will shed light on the events soon to come, and how such events are spun by the media, who, let us not forget, live to serve their corporate masters.

I'm not telling you how to vote. I'm asking you to examine and question and one of the most important moments in American history. Feminists have said for years that the personal is political. Well, folks, when it comes to gender fear and loathing, it doesn't get more personal than this.


Goodbye to the toxic viciousness . . .

Carl Bernstein's disgust at Hillary’s “thick ankles.” Nixon-trickster Roger Stone’s new Hillary-hating 527 group, “Citizens United Not Timid” (check the capital letters). John McCain answering “How do we beat the bitch?" with “Excellent question!” Would he have dared reply similarly to “How do we beat the black bastard?” For shame.

Goodbye to the HRC nutcracker with metal spikes between splayed thighs. If it was a tap-dancing blackface doll, we would be righteously outraged—and they would not be selling it in airports. Shame.

Goodbye to the most intimately violent T-shirts in election history, including one with the murderous slogan “If Only Hillary had married O.J. Instead!” Shame.

Goodbye to Comedy Central’s “Southpark” featuring a storyline in which terrorists secrete a bomb in HRC’s vagina. I refuse to wrench my brain down into the gutter far enough to find a race-based comparison. For shame.

Goodbye to the sick, malicious idea that this is funny. This is not “Clinton hating,” not “Hillary hating.” This is sociopathic woman-hating. If it were about Jews, we would recognize it instantly as anti-Semitic propaganda; if about race, as KKK poison. Hell, PETA would go ballistic if such vomitous spew were directed at animals. Where is our sense of outrage—as citizens, voters, Americans?

Go read the rest of the article - it's worth your time.

I would also recommend reading Politics and Misogny by Bob Herbert


Related Articles:

The Villification of the Other: Fear of Women in Politics

Art: Medusa Angelina as portrayed in a photoshop contest by Zulittle

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