Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Wondering Wednesday: The Archetype of the Descending Woman

In the movie, Stardust, actress Michelle Pfeiffer plays the leader of three old witches, filled with a murderous lust for beauty. In order to restore their youth and beauty, Lamia (played by Pfeiffer) sets out across the land to capture, kill, and eat the heart of a fallen star. Throughout the movie, Lamia plays out all the cliches about older women obsessed over restoring her lost beauty, even to the point of deception and murder. The contrast is heightened by the innocence, sweetness, and beauty of the young fallen star.

This story has played itself out for centuries in our European fairy tales and literature. In Snow White, the beautiful, but deeply wicked stepmother feels threatened by the beauty and innocence of her young stepdaughter. Convinced Snow White's beauty and charm represent a significant threat to her power and station, she plots to take Snow White's life. I think Lamia and the Evil Stepmother from Snow White represent an archetype of the descending woman.

Some have labeled these figures as the villains, and while they are villains in the strict sense of the word, I think there is a deeper lesson or great nuance to be considered in the story of these women. Both Lamia and The Evil Stepmother (TES) are descending women. They have begun to age, or have already aged significantly). In a society which values women's beauty and fertility, their value and power have diminished. They view the ascending woman (usually a beautiful young maiden) with fear and distrust knowing they will soon be displaced.

The ironic thing about both Lamia and TES is that they both possess remarkable power and skills. Instead of utilizing their power to solidify a power base that would used for good, they focus on the petty and the artificial.Both of them utterly waste their talents, skills, and power in the quest for the artificial and superficial. I feel a certain sympathy with these women--not their evil actions, but the desperation behind their quest for beauty.

I live in a society which is extremely worldly. While women have unprecedented opportunities for education, meaningful careers, political opportunities, and major opportunities to wield great influence, much of modern day media would still place women in the box of beauty--from start to finish. The power of beauty and sex appeal (which I think has replaced the value of fertility) seduces women, young and old, into basing their identity and self-worth on these factors. One only need to take a look at supermarket magazines to see the message over and over again--women are powerful if they are sexually attractive to men.

Several months ago, I happened to look at two magazines promoting physical fitness. One was a magazine geared toward women and the other was focused on men. On the women's magazine, a celebrity posed seductively, her breasts barely contained by a bit of fabric. This celebrity was extremely talented and gifted at her profession and that in an of itself was noteworthy. But her value on the magazine cover was her body--a body that was probably photo-shopped excessively. This young woman had probably spent hours to eating a certain way and exercising obsessively for long periods of time to try and mold herself into the "ideal" woman.

The contrast of the men's magazine was startling. A male celebrity was featured on the cover of the fitness magazine. He was completely covered, with just a hint of bicep showing from his t-shirt. The cover highlighted his professional accomplishments. In our world, we celebrate the beauty of women and the accomplishments of men.

If this tendency is that pervasive in our current culture, where women have incredible options available to them, how much more so would this have been prevalent in the culture where Grimm's fairy tales sprung up? Women's options and power were limited and were dependent on their fathers, and hopefully, husbands for them to be able to progress and develop. Can we really blame TES or Lamia for panicking about the threat of the ascending young woman poised to take their place and position? Who is to say that Snow White didn't grow up and fear the beauty of next generation as she started to descend from her own position of power? Could TES be a shadow of what was to come for Snow White?

I think this relentless message of beauty=power is a trap to destroy women from developing and strengthening their own power. There is power in developing one's natural talents and utilizing them well for good. There is power in developing character traits of integrity and virtue. One of the greatest powers that is often unrecognized or misunderstood is the power of motherhood. (And I mean motherhood in the broadest sense where a woman nurtures and teaches another individual--be that a child, friend, student, etc.)

It's easy to see how destructive objectifying women's bodies is to our culture. I think the desire of young teen girls to send sexually explicit selfies stems from a false understanding of what power and strength really is--fed to them by the media. I think the way women seek to reconstruct their bodies with plastic surgery, obsessive exercise, and fanatic diets is just as poisonous and dangerous as Lammia's effort to obtain the heart of the fallen star to restore her lost beauty. I see girls and women engage in brutal competition and bullying for the sake of maintaining prominence as destructive as was TES's quest to destroy Snow White. Every little girl (and woman) identifies with Snow White, but TES probably lurks inside of all us, planted by a shallow and superficial society.

It requires tremendous effort and care to counteract the effects of this society.  It requires courage to develop self-worth that isn't based on the outward appearance. It requires constant effort to cultivate and maintain genuine power based on character and genuine accomplishment.

How do we counter-act the culture of objectifying women? How do we create a culture which values women for who they are instead of what they look like? How do we nurture strength of character in our young daughters and teach them to develop themselves instead of their bodies?


1 comment:

Luisa Perkins said...

It's so hard. I feel like a little guppy swimming upstream.

One thing I've always tried to do is model comfort with my body and appearance in front of my children. I don't diet; I don't complain about how I look.

And I never buy fashion or "health" magazines; they're nothing but traps. I don't know if I've been successful in raising children less focused on the appearance of women, but I've tried.