1202 Seminar 5 – Heroines

The gender analysis of heroes is at one level very straightforward: like most other aspects of our society, it shows a marked male bias.  The majority of our heroes, even today, are men, and even the few female heroes we have are often constrained, limited, exoticised/sexualised, or in other ways taken less than seriously.  However, we can still ask certain meaningful research questions about heroines, for example (again, not an exhaustive list):

1.   What are the common characteristics or features of heroines – are they different than those of heroes, and what does this tell us (about our gendered notions of heroism)?

2.   What kinds of roles are available for heroines?  What can they excel at (and what can’t they) in the eyes of society?

3.   Are these constraints surface/structural (i.e. just a temporary facet of our present society), or are they deep and abiding (i.e. stemming from something in our unconscious/instinctual nature, and thus likely to remain)?

4.   Based on the answers to the above, can we really say that there are such things as female heroes, according to our theory and definition of heroism?


Greek/Roman and Norse Heroines/Goddesses: the Maternal and Consort Functions

Remembering the demi-divine origins of classical heroism, we should look to classical goddesses and heroines for a clue to the fundamental nature of heroines.  One thing that needs to be noted is that the dominant role of women in classical mythology is as wife and mother.  The prime god in Greek, Roman and Norse mythology is male (Zeus, Jupiter and Odin), and he is the main judge, authority, fate-decider, and active agent.  The prime goddess (Hera, Juno and Frigga) are largely defined in relation to their husbands, as their wives and consorts.  In their respective pantheons, they are assigned roles which are distinctly maternal and womanly: Frigga was the goddess in charge of women and assisted them at childbirth; apparently her name has an Indo-Aryan root meaning something like “love” or “lovely.”  One of the main norse stories of Frigga has her in a very maternal role, as the mother of Baldur who has a premonition of her son’s death and so goes through the whole earth pleading with every object to swear not to harm him.  When Baldur does die (through a blunder on Frigga’s part and the schemes of Loki), Frigga then pleads with Hel the ruler of the underworld to release her son (which again fails, thanks to Loki).  Juno and Hera have more of a protective and sovereign function than Frigga (Norse myths, like their culture, was strongly male- and warrior-centred), but they were also defined by their patronage of women, marriage, fertility, etc.  In addition to this patronage of women, Hera and Juno are also depicted as vindictive and jealous female deities: Hera is the often-betrayed wife of Zeus who has many dalliances with mortal women, and Hera is the sworn enemy and tormentor of these demi-god offspring, especially Hercules.  Juno, while having more complex and plural roles and characteristics than Hera, like Hera has a jealous and vindictive streak, particularly in the role assigned to her in Virgil’s Aeneid, where she is a spiteful opponent to Aeneas, constantly seeking to thwart his career and destiny. 

           Other goddesses play similar roles: Aphrodite the Greek goddess of beauty represents sexual allure, the charms and temptations of the female form.  Demeter is the goddess of the harvest, but of course the harvest represents the earth’s fertility, which is in turn associated with childbirth.  Athena, the goddess of wisdom, seems to have a less feminine attribute, but wisdom and counsel are still relatively passive roles in a martial era – certainly all the goddesses have much more passive and distinctly feminised roles and attributes compared to male gods like Ares (war), Vulcan (fire, but also artifice, i.e. technology and craft), Apollo (light, sun, medicine, life-giving).  In Norse mythology, Freya rules over the part of the afterlife to which non-warriors go (whereas Odin rules over Valhalla, where all the dead warriors go).  Geror, eventual consort of Freyr, is known for her demure nature and initially resists many advances by Freyr (through his proxy Skirnir) – she is thus a figure of fertility, Spring (perhaps of domesticity), protected and demure but finally yielding fruitfulness.

           While it is easy to dismiss these maternal-consort figures as exaggerated fantasies of female nature in a primitive and chauvinistic age, it is interesting (or alarming) that some of these characteristics stick around for a long time.  Elizabeth I, a very talismanic English queen, was known as the “Virgin Queen” (she didn’t marry, but that of course didn’t mean she was a virgin), her virginity somehow part of the mystique of her reign (which was a period of national expansion and martial glory) – like the classical mythology, her sexuality (an almost symbolic purity) was somehow associated with the power of her reign.  (It may be strange to think of virginity as a “sexual” function, when it seems like the opposite – the absence/denial of sexual congress – but of course to think of a woman as a virgin is to think of her as sexualised, as sexually available/desired though not [yet] sexually attained.  It is certainly to deny/elide her other, non-sexual characteristics in favour of this sexual one).  Many contemporary heroines are charismatic or effective precisely because of their beauty or sexuality (Princess Diana, Angelina Jolie, Sarah Palin, CIA operative Valerie Plame).  And of course the role of the public figure as wife/mother/consort has not changed all that much in thousands of years (Crown Princess Masako of Japan, Princess Grace of Monaco).

           There thus seems to be a deep and abiding human response to women which pays particular attention to the characteristics of beauty and sexuality, and thus their sexualised roles (reproduction, sexual consort, and a more vague set of characteristics associated with maternity – protection, nurture, unending love/loyalty, etc).  Even when constructions of the heroine change, e.g. in a more technocratic, liberal-feminist era, some aspects of that maternal-sexual characterisation persists.


Women Warriors: Sexuality, Exoticism, Tragedy 

Not all heroines/goddesses are characterised chiefly by the roles/characteristics of mother/consort.  There are many examples of women in warrior-like capacities and roles, both from mythology and history: the Valkyries, Atalanta the Greek huntress/athlete, Mulan, Queen Boudica (or Boadicea), Joan of Arc, etc.  Warrior women are not a recent invention, but have long historical precedents.  Without getting into a more detailed analysis, we can say in a general way that the dual heroic roles of mother-consort and warrior have existed side by side – usually in different agents, but sometimes the characteristics (in different combinations) may be combined in a single agent/figure.  Thus for example the legendary British warrior-queen Boudica, who led an uprising of the Iceni tribe against the Romans: her role as warrior-leader begins when her husband dies leaving her as his heir, which the Romans refuse to recognise under their law (and because they wanted an excuse to annex the kingdom).  Boudica is flogged and her daughters are raped by the Romans.  So her role as warrior-queen originally stems from her role as wife and consort to her husband the king (which she insists on, despite its contestation and denial under patriarchal Roman law), and secondarily out of the outrage at the rape of her daughters.  Warrior-regal and female roles are closely interwoven, in this instance.

           Another class of women warriors, and another example of the way in which female sexuality is woven into their warrior roles, is the virgin.  Joan of Arc, known popularly as the “Maid of Orleans,” is an example – “maid” meaning virgin. Joan had to go to battle in male garb – or rather, the armour which she borrowed to go into battle completely concealed her feminine features, hiding them under the customary accoutrements of the male warrior.  Joan is credited with helping the French defeat the Burgundian army and their allies the English, coming in at a particularly low point in French military fortunes and morale.  Like Elizabeth I, Joan’s charisma depended considerably on her virginity rather than on any actual prowess or ability.  One has to wonder what effect a girl (she was supposedly 19 years old when she was captured by the English and put on trial) could have on an army on the back foot – an effect that seasoned warriors and the rest of the French army did not already have.  Clearly the effect must have been to do with symbolic, psychological and spiritual power, rather than military knowledge or martial prowess.  What was Joan’s special feature that made this heroic difference?  She was a charismatic symbol because she was a young girl who heard God telling her to lead the French against the English – i.e. she embodied Divine/heavenly endorsement of the French cause, which was the only significant difference she could have made to this military/political conflict.  Part of her construction of heroism was precisely this emphasis on her spiritual dimension, which depends on her purity, which in turn depends on the denial of her sexuality in her identity as “virgin.”  Joan as virgin-warrior is a kind of mystical charismatic figure, because of her odd position as sexual and yet chaste (a paradox inherent in the virgin), female occupying a male position. (Compare the legendary notion that only a virgin could tame a unicorn – the unicorn an obvious phallic symbol, the virgin possessing some kind of power over the male/phallic unicorn because of the potent combination of sexuality and chastity).

           Joan is only one of a number of women-warriors for whom virginity (whether explicit or implicit) is a central feature.  These include Hua Mulan, the legendary Chinese warrior who defends China against tribal invaders; the Greek goddess Artemis the virginal huntress/warrior; Atalanta, the princess/goddess who loved the hunt and didn’t want to be married, so she only agreed to be married to the man who could beat her in a footrace; Anat, a middle-eastern female deity (often called the “virgin Anat”) who is also characterised by her violent battles with and victories over male deities; and others.  The Amazons, legendary warriors recounted by Greek poets and historians, were reputed to deny themselves sexual congress (except once a year when they had sex with the men of a neighbouring tribe in order to perpetuate their race) – thus, a kind of symbolic virginity, with only ritual sexuality.

           Virginity is one version of the sexual power of the heroine – a peculiar kind of sexual power that also involves a paradoxical affirmation-denial of female sexuality.  But there are other kinds of sexualised women-warriors: the valkyries, in Norse legends, are women who, while not exactly warriors, are closely associated with battle.  They are the “choosers of the slain,” who select the bravest (male) warriors who die in battle for entry into Valhalla.  There the valkyries bring mead and are also consorts to the warriors, while they wait for Ragnarok (the final apocalyptic battle).  So the Valkyries are a kind of female inspiration for valour/battle, as well as the sexual reward for male warriors who qualify for Valhalla.  (Red Sonja, Conan’s spin-off companion of the chain-mail bikini, is an almost direct descendent/derivative from the Valkyrie).  Many of the comic-book heroes are overtly sexualised warriors/heroines, fighters who are also overtly sexualised: Catwoman, Vampirella, Storm/Mystique/Jean Grey in X-Men, Wonder Woman, all might be seen as valkyrie-type or Amazonian figures.

           Then there are non-martial heroines who are overtly sexualised: in fact, their heroic quality employs their female sexuality, capitalizing on male sexual desires and fantasies in order to accomplish their goals: these include the legendary World War I spy Mata Hari who was accused of being a German spy, sleeping with powerful politicians and military leaders and thus gaining valuable intelligence.  Erin Brokovich, the real-life legal assistant who used a combination of charm, determination and flirtation to mobilize a community to mount a class-action suit, might be seen as a minor version of the overtly sexualised heroine.  Then how about pioneering feminists who dared (against the grain of conservative sexuality) to talk about women’s sexual desire and needs, to boldly legitimize such needs at a time (1950, 1960s) when women were believed not to have sexual desires and were only supposed to serve the sexual desires of their husbands?  Are these in a sense not just sexualised heroines, but heroines of sexuality itself?  To push this idea to the edge, how about women whose “heroism” consists of pushing their feminine sexual role to the extreme – attempting to transform the female sexual role from exploited to awe-inspiring: e.g. the infamous Annabel Chong, who turned from Singapore convent girl to porn star and star of a record-setting (at that time) group sex film (commemorated in Ng Yi-Sheng’s play 251, Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Snuff (although he changes the name of the protagonist), and a documentary Sex: The Annabel Chong Story).

           And does this evolving history finally lead us to Ripley – a kind of post-feminine female (bald head, scraggly build, no make-up, stronger than men – and yet strangely maternalized and gendered in her actions/plot and function)?

           Thus there may be a range of ways in which the female sexuality of heroines is deployed – from powerful/charismatic virgin to sexualised women associated with male warriors (the valkyrie figure) to powerful warriors who were actual or symbolic virgins (the amazon/Anat) figure to figures who are heroic because of and via their sexuality (Mata Hari, Annabel Chong), to “post-feminine” heroines who are brave warriors and androgynous/sexless and yet also strangely maternal (Ripley).  Underlying this variety/range of heroines, the common strand of female sexuality (including the maternal function as an extension/variant of this sexuality) shows us the way that female sexuality is inextricably bound with the identity of the heroine: this is in contrast to male heroes, whose heroism is not tied to sexuality.  The female sexuality of the heroine is also strangely ahistorical, (relatively) unchanging over time – it may point to female sexuality (more so than male) being one of those “deep structures” of the human psyche, and the construction of (variously) sexualised heroines as appealing not just to male sexual fantasies, but also to some degree of fear of the female (man’s dependency on them, for procreation and sexual fulfilment, and therefore also a degree of mistrust/fear because of that dependency), and perhaps also fear/longing for the mother figure.  It should be noted that female goddesses were often associated with (archetypal) natural processes: Spring/rebirth, death and life, marriage itself, etc.  Earth itself was associated with a feminine figure (Gaia or Gaea or Gea, from which we get “geography” or earth studies), and even today we refer to “Mother Earth.”  So were phenomena like luck or fortune (“Lady Luck”).  All these seem to point to and stem from a deep (male) fear of the feminine, as something antithetical to men and yet on which men were in so many ways dependent.


Antitheses of the Female Role: Villainesses, Perverse Sexuality/Maternity

One way to posit and understand female sexuality as a deep structure in the human psyche is to consider recurring and related archetypes/constructions: we have already considered the virgin (which Northrop Frye considered an archetype, pointing to its recurrence in many folk tales and stories, in the form of what he called the “jeune fille” (young girl).  Another sexualised female archetype is the evil stepmother (the Jungian “male mater,” Latin for evil mother).  These took the form not just of literal evil stepmothers, but also wicked crones, repressive matriarchs (who blocked young girls’ sexual fulfilment), witches, or even young-looking but evil-intentioned and untrustworthy women (black widows, temptresses or “scarlet women,” etc). 

           The basic idea of the Male Mater or old crone seems to have been the denial of sexuality, marriage/congress, and reproduction.  The old crone’s body itself is a kind of daunting figure that represents the antithesis of the young, nubile, reproductive body.  The old crone’s body thus became the easy symbol/vehicle for (male) fears about magic and supernatural powers associated with women, a kind of “dark side” (asexual) of women that was associated not with sex and new life, but with death, impotence/castration (often taking the form of magic/enchantment), imprisonment (that’s why old crones are often seen as locking up young children – the witch in Hansel and Gretel, Baba Yaga, Gagool who leads the white men into a cavernous trap in Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, etc). 

           So if the sexualised heroine is one response to the female – still anxious and fearful, but here because of an exaggerated sexualised role, and definitely intermixed with an element of desire – the crone or Male Mater is the other, opposite response: anxiety and fear because of the crone’s threat to and repression of healthy heterosexual congress, marriage, and male sexual potency.  (This threat is not lessened when the Male Mater is not a crone but a young-seeming and still-attractive woman: such a figure can still represent the antithesis/threat/repression of sexuality, e.g. the castrating woman who tempts only so that she can physically or symbolically castrate the man before congress; or the black widow who uses her looks not to ensure congress, but to kill men for profit/pleasure.  In fact, the attractive Male Mater is an even more threatening figure than the old crone).  The sexualised heroine and the crone represent the 2 exaggerated ends of the sexuality of the woman, in the human psyche.

           Sexualised women are not always heroines of course (they also have to fulfil the other criteria we have talked about – “greatness,” “timeliness,” “sacrifice,” “affirmation of humanity,” all or some combination of these).  But there is a tendency for exaggeratedly sexualised women to be associated with heroine-figures, and for heroine-figures to have a strong/central sexual component; this is probably because both heroines and overtly sexualised figures are exaggerated, larger-than-life constructs, and thus tend to be conflated or at least overlapping.  By the same token, we can expect crones (who are exaggeratedly anti-sexual or sexually-repressive figures) to have some kind of anti-heroic and villainous connotation as well, and conversely many female villains would have anti-sexual or crone-like qualities: e.g. the American serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who claimed that she killed her 7 male victims because they tried to rape her when she was working as a prostitute.  This collocation of sexual availability (prostitute) but the utter denial of that sexuality by killing the men (the ultimate castration, rendering the men totally impotent in death), is an example of the Male Mater who is not necessarily a crone.  In fiction, we could think of the beautiful ice-queen figure, e.g. the White Witch in Narnia (not a trace/ounce of sexuality in her function, utter frigidity, marked especially by her castrating/killing function – she kills Aslan the male lion, imprisons Edmund, threatens to destroy the real of Peter, etc).  Or the enchantress Circe in The Odyssey, whose beauty and allure is suggested (so she is not a crone as such), but whose enchanted isle and food render men impotent by turning them into beasts.  Or beautiful ghosts, who utterly deny sexuality because they are insubstantial and vengeful.




Sexuality, Power, Constraint: Women in Myth and the Real World

Overall what we see (in different cultures, in real life and in fiction, in classical times and the present – with some differences/changes, but with a surprising amount of persistence/consistency) is that female heroes are:

1.   Much more constrained and subordinated compared to male heroes: often in consort/sidekick roles (Frigga, Batgirl), sometimes in warrior mode (Joan of Arc, Amazons, Boudica) but where their martial prowess is somehow tied to a sexual condition (never to have sex – the eternal dialectic of sexually-nubile but unattainable/unconsummated; or impelled into warfare by a dead husband’s will and the rape of one’s daughters).

2.   Thus what constrains and limits women heroes is their sexuality, which can take a range of roles/characterisations, from sexual consort/server to male sexual desire, to oddity whose charisma (in a male/martial world) is precisely because they are non-male, but also non-attainable/pure (what happens when the virgin is violated?  Somehow power is lost, not just in a logic of magic, but also in terms of real-world charisma/spirituality/morality).

3.   Late capitalist/contemporary society may play with variants on the heroine in many ways (we’ve only touched on Ripley, whom we saw in some sense as a “post-feminine” woman – but we could consider Annabel Chong as a kind of postmodern woman hero; also the lesbian or hermaphrodite mankiller [e.g. Mrs Fothergill in Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise], the powerful android (Blade Runner; the fembots in Austin Powers).  Yet it is interesting that in all these recent variants, the question of sexuality is never far away, in contrast to male heroes for whom sexuality is not a big/central issue.  Ripley plays a strongly maternal role; Annabel Chong is the post-modern figure of the nymphomaniac as powerful figure; Mrs Fothergill has a crush on the male villain; the female androids in Blade Runner are very sexualised (Zhora works as a stripper, Rachael is the object of Deckard’s romantic/sexual interest).