the art of being a heroine
The word makes you think, maybe, of a damsel in distress: flinging hand to forehead, tied to a railroad track by a villain with impressive facial hair.
Heroines provide opportunities for the hero to prove his heroism. They serve and support by acting as the hero’s moral conscience, or by serving as his muse, or by dying prematurely so that he can go after the bad guys and seek vengeance in manly ways.
“In the whole mythological tradition,” Joseph Campbell is quoted as saying, “the woman is there.”
She doesn’t need to go on any quest, because “All she has to do is to realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to. When a woman realizes what her wonderful character is, she’s not going to get messed up with the notion of being pseudo-male.”
I don’t buy it.
As a little girl, I wasn’t playing house or planning my dream wedding or decapitating Barbie dolls in increasingly creative ways.
I fantasized about being a female Jedi Knight.
I enacted entire scenarios in the family living room. I hungered for female action heroes like Ripley or Nikita or Sarah O’Conner: women who kicked ass but demonstrated a complex and full-blooded humanity (otherwise known as “being a three dimensional character”).
Buffy? We were starved for her.
It’s not that we didn’t care about cute boys and awesome clothes and best friends forever; we just knew that there was a world out there, and we wanted to explore it, dancing on a moonlit foreign beach to the rhythm of our own deepest natures. We heard the call of the times as fiercely as anyone. We, too, wanted to rise in answer, instead of watching from the sidelines and waiting
(so much waiting)
for the hero to come claim his reward.
But words like strong and powerful cut against the softness of traditional femininity. Adventurous and independent and bold get tagged as male characteristics.
If a woman demonstrates these traits, she is somehow not quite feminine.
She is “messed up with the notion of being pseudo-male.”
I don’t buy that, either.
If women get “messed up”, it’s because we absorb the message that in order to pursue worldly accomplishment, to take up public space, our femininity needs to pack itself away. We learn that our job as females is not to be heroic, but perfect.
Perfection involves whittling ourselves down to size.
In her poem “A Work of Artifice”, Marge Piercy argues that the quote-unquote “female role” is so restrictive that girls are shaped from birth in order not to outgrow it: “the bound feet/ the crippled brain/ the hair curlers/ the hands you/ love to touch.”
If you want to go big or go home, “femininity” becomes something a woman needs to suppress. We learn to mock ‘girly’ things like manicures and Lifetime movies. To declare: I hate the color pink. To declare: I prefer the company of men. To declare: I don’t trust other women.
We grow up steeped like tea bags in messages that convey something shameful about being in a female body: body hair and body fat, periods and appetites, desire. We must remove, monitor, conceal, repress, suppress, pare away, control.
We must be pure.
“I’d come to see….” writes Carol Lee Flinders, “that at critical junctures language regularly fails women for the simple reason that in male-centered cultures language just isn’t set up to speak for women or carry women’s meanings. This is one of the subtler aspects of the silencing of women.”
We’re silenced not because we’re forbidden to express ourselves; we’re silenced because the words we need either don’t ‘belong’ to us, or don’t exist.
In an earlier post, trying to stake out the ground between being traditionally, passively feminine and being “pseudo-male”, I identified the “creatrix”:
“…a woman who maintains strong relationships with others while cultivating her natural gifts and pursuing mastery, for however long it takes her. She actively uses her gifts in service of herself, her loved ones, and the world. She is grounded, sensual, and comfortable in her body. She recognizes her birthright to pleasure and play. She believes in interdependence and interbeing: she is her own person while knowing that we are at least partly defined by our relationships. She may or may not have kids. Chances are she tried the conventional thing, or came close – the wedding, the ‘safe’ job or career, the house in the suburbs – and it didn’t work out. So now she lives in the country/on the beach/in a loft downtown/in Thailand.
She is not afraid of power: standing up to it, speaking truth to it, or using it to advance her own agenda.
She is not afraid to have an agenda.”
Recently I came across this quote by Henry David Thoreau:
“One should be always on the trail of one’s own deepest nature. For it is the fearless living out of your own essential nature that connects you to the Divine. Finding and then embracing our calling helps bring us to our true self.”
That, I thought, is how to be heroic, for men and women both: to fearlessly live out your “own essential nature” in a way that connects you to meaning, your true self, a sense of the bigger picture; to be at home in the world.
To be whole.