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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Archetypes Part 2: Virgins, Vixens and Victims

Okay-- a couple of things before I start.

Thing the first: I'd like to thank Samurai for asking awesome questions and generally talking this shit over with me. Thanks to her, there will probably be a part four to this little shindig. Blame her.

Thing the second: I saw a lovely grandmotherly sort of woman dancing on the street corner with a sign--except in stead of 'Eat at Joe's' or 'Apartment for Rent', this one was homemade and said "Yard Sale"-- she was awesome, props out to ya sweetheart.

Thing the third: I knit during my entire training. At first it freaked the trainer out--I got the hairy eyeball for about a half an hour... then she saw that I was paying attention and participating, and she let me alone. By Day Three, she hardly noticed me. By Day four, she was congratulating me on Lady Cory's Punk Goth Brocade--which is finally finished.

All that being said, and bypassing the really boring domestic stuff that I can't remember now because my brain is fried, on to the three V's!

You see, the thing is, I've never taken any feminist literature classes or even any women's studies. My own gender has uniformly bored me in fiction, unless she was the heroine of a romance novel because, let's face it, some of that is wish fulfillment and I've always been a big fan of the girl who got the hot guy. But thinking back on the reading I HAVE done--Tale of Two Cities, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Beauty (by Robin McKinley), The War of the Oaks (Emma Bull), and a zillion and one serial romances that I read just to clear the crap out of my brain cells, I have come to a few conclusions.

First conclusion--until contemporary literature, women have never been written to fulfill the classical archetypes. They haven't. Women don't get to cross geographical boundaries, are ALWAYS expected to fulfill the domestic personal agenda, and, most importantly, they ALWAYS had less weight in society than the men. They just didn't get to do hero shit--at least not in Western culture. Now that doesn't mean that some great female parts haven't been written--it just means that her archetypes have been different.

Now I'm sure someone has come up with this before--I can't possibly be the first person to come to this conclusion, but, like I said, this wasn't my area of expertise in school--I always wanted to be the guy with the sword, not the damsel in distress.

The way I figure it, for a while, there were three basic female heroic archetypes out there: Virgins, Vixens, and Victims, and, superficially at least, we can figure out which one of these a heroine is in relationship to the penis.

You heard that right--think about it:

There's the Virgin: O-my-God-I've-never-seen-one-of-those-before! But you have one, so you must be stronger, more powerful and more capable than I am, and therefore I shall dedicate my life to serving you and your big piece of manly equipment, because I may not have seen one before now, but I get that it's pretty awesome. Of course, a woman can't be a virgin forever--not if her hero is worth his salt, but there are plenty of Virgins out there who have had sex AND children--it's all in the attitude. Juliet had certainly seen Romeo's penis by the end of R & J, but that didn't stop her from killing herself when he was dead because she thought that was the best one she'd ever get to see. I mean, why take Romeo's side after the death of Tybalt, if it wasn't because Tybalt had a penis she wouldn't get to see, and Romeo's was due to make an appearance that very night? Viola? A Virgin. Jane Eyre? A Virgin--although, in Jane's defense, she did reject St. John because she didn't want to be one of those forever. But, she also ditched all her higher priorities to go serve Rochester in his blindness--mostly, I assume, because even though he was blind, he did have a penis that he knew how to use. Hell--Victor Frankenstein's Elizabeth got killed before she even got to SEE the penis--she was the uber-virgin, and brother didn't he milk THAT to death!

In modern literature, if you want to see a Virgin, well... open any Harlequin, Silhouette, Danielle Steele, etc. etc. etc. romance from the 1880-1980. I don't care if she's a porn star, the heroine is still attached to the hero because for some reason, his particular penis does things for her that she's never experienced before. (*snark* Of course in PNR/UCF, which we'll get to in a moment, said member often has design features that make this the literal truth. But more about that later.)

Which brings us to the Vixen.

Now, while the Virgin has never seen one of those before, the Vixen has seen plenty--or, well, at least one. The difference between the Virgin and the Vixen is all attitude. While the Virgin wants to worship it for what it might do to/for her, the Vixen just wants to cut that fucker off. (Mate wanted me to add that she usually wants to USE it before she cuts it off. Mate, of course, is right about this, as he is about so many things. Thanks Mate!)

Lady MacBeth? She pretty much grabbed her husband's pubes in one hand, his testicles in the other, and old Roddy himself between her teeth and then gave a big fat yank and told him, "If you want them back you big baby, you'd damned well better do what I say!" Catherine and Heathcliffe frolicked on the moors, then she ran off to marry a spineless weenie, and then she came back to emasculate Heathcliffe as a ghost and a memory. That bitch had her hands on his marriage tackle even from death--and even when she refused to marry the big misanthropic bastard. (I guess he wasn't actually a catch, but the least she could have done was let him go, you know?) Even Jane Austen's Emma had to let Mr. Knightly carry the marriage tackle with some dignity before she was allowed to win his hand (okay, that's actually good advice for most women--guys don't look good with boobs, we're not really supposed to have swinging balls--we should respect this as basic human nature--that's my two cents, for what it's worth.)

In modern literature, Vixens are the mistresses, the ex-wives, and the ball-busting bosses--pretty much across the board Anybody remember that 'Cake' song? "I want a girl in a short skirt and a LLLOOOOONNNNGGG jacket.". Of course, many Vixens are very sympathetic--just as many Virgins are ice queens who need a trip through a glass-blower's forge before you want them in your bed--but I never said that Virgins were the 'heroes' and Vixens were the 'villains'--that's the thing. The girls just don't get the major heroic appellations: Heroes have societal heft--very often, the villain's motivation in the story is the QUEST for societal heft--that's why Morgaine La Fay (or Morgause, depending on your version) can be a villain, but Guenivere ain't ever going to be a hero--until women got some social equality, the classical heroic archetypes aren't equipped to hold water.

Which, of course, gets us to 'the Victim', who may have seen the penis, may have even LIKED the penis--but some problem from her past, some glitch in her present, some quirk of her character, insists that she's not WORTHY of the penis. She's the girl who has made 'powerlessness' her superpower.

Guenivere can't make King Arthur stay home? Poor baby... she'll just accidentally fall on Launcelot's penis and instigate a war. We just feel so baaaaaad for her--it's not her fault, poor thing. She's just such a brave little victim, isn't she? Elizabeth Bennett doesn't have enough money? She'll make up for it in wit and chutzpah--but she's still not going to defeat the big, bad, Catherine de Bourgh unless she marries the guy with the penis as a big finger in the face of society! Lucy Manette loves her penis (okay, her HUSBAND'S penis) enough to go to dangerous France for him in the middle of a revolution? Well, by all means, let's sic a homicidal Vixen on her ass with a knitting needle sharpened to a high gloss, because a Victim can never be stalked by enough dangerous predators, who smell blood, helplessness, and a stiff, brave upper lip!

You want modern day Victims? Julie Garwood? Amanda Quick? Sharon Sala? Modern romantic writers have made a living writing about the girl who is not worthy of the penis because her resourcefulness has enabled her to provide for herself. She's physically able--heck, a lot of times she's exceptionally kick-ass--but she's so mentally damaged, she denies herself the penis until the very end. She's just not WORTHY of love--she has to prove herself again and again and again. Even Katherine Hepburn in Philadelphia Story--one of the most 'heroic' heroines in early film, given the fact that she really DOES carry weight in society--gets her happy ending because she finally allows herself to be vulnerable to Jimmy Stewart--and Cary Grant gets to use this to prove to her that she's not REALLY a Vixen, she's just a Victim to her own fears about men.


Now don't get me wrong--I'm being a snarky bitch, but I love all of these characters--ESPECIALLY the modern ones. Because the thing about the Victim is that she's usually VERY brave--very often, she's admirable, smart, resourceful, and fully developed as a character--but until recently, it has usually been her vulnerability that attracts the men, very often 'in spite' of the strength that makes us appreciate the girl in the first place.

But it's the 'until recently' that I want to get into now, because the heroine had improved so much in the last twenty-five years that she's hardly recognizable as a big V anymore.

You want proof? Take a look at The Princess Bride. Now, we all love Princess Buttercup--but look at what she actually DOES in the course of the movie:

A. She gives up on life completely after Wesley dies.
B. She stands by helplessly in the fire-swamp when Wesley was being attacked. (For Christ's sake, pick up a fucking piece of driftwood and club that fucker on the head!)
C. She abandons Wesley and doesn't try to find him.
D. She decides to stand up to the evil Prince Humperdink by COMMITTING SUICIDE? (Bad Prince--now you have to clean up the mess--that'll learn ya!)

Now let's look at... well, Anita Blake, Sookie Stackhouse, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Captain Janeway, the females aboard the Serenity (ESPECIALLY Zoe, the second in command), the Witches from Charmed, Princess Arwen in the film (NOT in the book), Melinda Gordon the Ghost Whisperer, Eve Dallas and so on and so on and so on.

The first thing we notice about all these women?

They're all science fiction/fantasy characters. Part of that is because sci/fi is my glitch--it just is. But I was sitting here, racking my brains trying to find another show in which a female character has enough societal weight to have to make balancing the personal and the heroic agendas a real conflict, and the the only non-sci-fi heroine I came up with was Cherry Jones' president in this season of 24. However, since I've been calling Jack Bauer a Gothic Super Hero for the last three seasons, I'm not sure if she even counts as a non-sci-fi character at all. I think there's a couple of reasons for this--the most notable one being that sci-fi/fantasy characters get the option of having some sort of magic equalizing power to make up for the differences in sheer stinking physical prowess that give the combat edge to men without a lot of training on the part of the women. (Hullo Eve Dallas and Xena Warrior Princes, who both work out like madwomen and are constantly training at arms.)

The thing about these characters is that their efforts to make the world a better place GET GREATER OR EQUAL BILLING with their efforts to engage in active, meaningful relationships with the penis. This makes them TRUE romantic heroines (Janeway might even qualify as an epic heroine, with the exception of one memorable episode featuring mmmmm... Chakotay!) by definition the men have been living up to for a couple of hundred years. What it DOESN'T make them is American Romantic heroines--because something really weird happens to a girl who lives so far beyond societies rules that she's making up her own little world.

She goes Gothic.

And that's where I'm going to have to leave it for now--I gotta date with two teenagers at Wal-Mart--see you if I survive.

Edited to Add: Don't worry, Sanna fans--I'm going into the American Romantic Heroine (there is such a thing) and why she usually swings darkside tomorrow!)

10 comments:

NeedleTart said...

Elizabeth Moon, "Paksanarian". Definitely a hero, of course, she is a virgin to the very end, but it's an interesting trip (almost said "ride" but that would be wrong).

Donna Lee said...

I'm glad you mentioned Eve Dallas ( a personal favorite). I kept thinking she is a heroine but had to start out as a victim and is still a victim on some levels. I guess you'll just have to write us a book about a female heroine. Right now, Roxie's Sanna gets my vote for heroine. Smart, takes care of herself, not emotionally damaged, not afraid to stand up for herself and others.....but you know all this!

TinkingBell said...

Darlin' - you forgot the whore4s - if we're going with V I imagine that would be the Vamp.

There's a great book called 'Damned Whores and God's Police' about how men classify women - but your archetypes must include the whore - has any penis she wants and doesn't care much about the owners - often also very empowered - but male writers usually (except for people like Charles de Lint and David Weber) don't like empowered and sexual women that much. - see - back to the madonna/whore stereotypes.

Julie said...

Bwahahahahaha. Awesomeness. If I'd had you as a prof in College - The English Years, I might have stayed in, just for the fun of it.

I'll probably e-mail you some more after I think about this a while.

KnitTech said...

If you look at the Roman/Greek pantheon, women were only two things: virgins or whores. (Three if you count the Amazon; but really they were "virgins" who could kick ass.)

Very enlightening.

Roxie said...

Love, love, love it! The empowered female protagonist is not just a guy in drag but is uniquely female AND strong in her own way. This is delightful!!

Louiz said...

What about the women from celtic folk stories, esp. the Irish ones? Not that I can remember a particular one right at this annoying moment but...

Aha! Electra, and her sister (who's name I forget) from the Theban plays (think, daughter of Oedipus). She just gets on. She has to bury her brother, and deal with her usurping uncle... but she gets on and does. It's so long since I read it I can't remember how it ends, but I have a feeling she does something stupid like killing herself but will have to read it and check.

Plus interesting but shall have to read it again without someone trying to decorate my hair with potato...

Rachel Cotterill said...

> I always wanted to be the guy with the sword, not the damsel in distress.

Me too, me too! Let's go out and play with our toy swords :)

Enjoyed your analysis, I'm looking forward to the continuation...

DecRaink said...

Extremely interesting, again....
I especially liked when you mentioned the SciFi/Fantasy women. Those books and shows are pretty much at the center of my nerd/geek/whatever you want to call it universe. I have been reading the Anita Blake books since high school and she kinds is one of my Heroes... same with the women from Serenity, etc (Sookie Stackhouse also rocks but she sometimes gets a nit whiny for my tastes and sits back and lets things happen to her too much)
Merry Gentry (another Laurell K Hamilton female heroine) is also kick but.. along with the lead characters (mostly ALL females) in Tamora Peirce's books.... and in your Little Godddess books with Cory... anyway, I think I lost track of what I was going to say which is, basically, Interesting take on Heroes.....

Georgia said...

Interesting exploration, and an entertaining read. That being said, maybe a small book on the exploration of the development of the female as a hero within literature and story arcs could be seen in the future? That might be a great segway to corporate publication of all your books? But nonfiction is hard because you have to do all the research to support, and while it must exist (as your arguments are totally valid with beautiful examples), thats SOOOO much work!

Plus, I am not sure I want to distract you any way from Rampant...

But, from on English major to another, great insights.