(6/29/01 6:45:04 am)
| Female cruelty in fiction|
Female cruelty in fairytales is often used, it seems, as a device to promote feminine "virtues" such as passivity and obedience.
Western culture has had this schema of the ideal woman being passive, patient, kind and obedient for a long long time, whereas activity and cruelty are coded as male attributes. These precepts work in all kinds of fiction irrespective of the truth in the real world.
When you get stepmothers and queens in fairytales being cruel, these characters are set up as contrary to the "natural" conduct of women. They use their authority to be actively cruel, and their activity is usually punished. Similarly in The Goose Girl the usurping servant takes an active role & is on the make, and is therefore bad in the story.
Because these active women are termed "wicked", their opposites, the heroines, enforce opposite values as "good". So the Goose Girl is passive and tells no-one about her plight because she promised not to; similarly in Bluebeard the bride doesn't run away from the castle or take any active role, she simply waits to be rescued by her proactive brothers. The heroines are shining examples of doing nothing.
It seems to me that the fairytales enforce conventional gender stereotypes by setting up cruel women as freaks of nature.
Interestingly, in Euripides' Medea, these precepts are turned into a paradox. What is Medea supposed to do about her plight of being abandoned by her husband, and banished from the city? The conventional role set for her by society would say "put up and shut up", but that clearly won't do in her circumstances. But obviously the choice she makes, the active "masculine" cruelty of infanticide, won't do either. Euripides shows how neither of these gendered roles are flexible enough.
Medea is described as "worse than a man" even before she commits infanticide; she combines "male" attributes with her role as a "mother" and "wife". The power of the play comes from the fact of a woman taking a "masculine" action; if Medea *was* a man, would the story have the same power to shock?
In fairytales there are plenty of topsy-turvey heirarchies, but are gender roles ever transgressed in a positive way? In the structured fictional world, aren't women with male attributes, or vice versa, always held up as contemptible? I'd be interested to hear of an example where this wasn't so.
(6/29/01 7:16:45 am)
| Re: cruelty...|
I find the first thing Westerners find striking about the movie is the lack of a distinctive 'bad guy'. I found this myself when I began to watch Japanese movies and read Japanese literature - while there are ppl who initiate destruction or harm others and generally do bad things, they are not portrayed as purely evil beings who must be punished. I find evil characters are viewed as weak as opposed to evil.
I don't know if this is an Eastern thing but thinking back, I don't remember reading any Chinese folk tales w/clear master villians either. Just stories about smart ass kids... albeit, I haven't read much of Chinese lit so I could be missing out on a lot.
Perhaps this lack of a clear evil character is a reflection of Eastern religions/ideologies like Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto(ism) or even Confucious (i can't believe i don't remember how to spell this *shame*!) compared to say, Christianity... I don't think there's a Satan character in any of the Eastern religions I know.
Personally, I find this ambiguity refreshing (perhaps b/c I've always sympathized with the bad guy!)
(6/29/01 7:26:36 am)
| Re: Female cruelty in fiction|
In the structured fictional world, aren't women with male attributes, or vice versa, always held up as contemptible? I'd be interested to hear of an example where this wasn't so.
Off the top of my head, the story of Inanna/Ishtar who was worshiped by the Sumerians/Babylonians.. She's a goddess of war, love and fertility. She's pretty cruel too, sentencing her husband to the underworld. Granted, I don't think she takes on a male role specifically (unless you count assertiveness or war as a male-specific behaviour).
(6/29/01 7:52:00 am)
| function of cruelty|
I am not entirely willing to reduce the cruelty of certain characters into examples of where individuals transgress beyond socially accepted behavoir of gender. (by that I mean that what I read in your posting is that when women are cruel, they appear to be acting out "masculine" traits. I think we would agree that men who behave badly to their daughters aren't acting out "feminine" ones.) Both men and women perform acts of cruelty on the heroine. Fathers cut off their daughters arms, or try to rape them, brothers cannibalize an older sister and try to make the younger sister eat the meat, step mothers try to do away with their step daughters...I think it has less to do with a description of a failing of gender roles, and more to do with a narrative device intended to create an unacceptable life for the heroine at the home of birth, forcing her to leave and undergo a rite of passage, which will end at the home of marriage. Boys return home, but girls in exogamous societies don't come home. Often in narratives unspeakable crimes occur at home to insure that the girls can never return. Cruel acts by both genders are commited on the family or the heroine to instigate the narrative movement of the story and propell the girl "out there" to seek her marriage partner and new home. Because these acts of cruelty are committed by both genders, because what they share in common is the result of forcing the young female heroine into her journey, I experience them less as statements of masculine/feminine roles, and more as acts of violence and transgression with a purpose.
As for Medea, I've always had a skewed reading of her (and to which I am probably the only person who reads her this way!). I put her in the same camp as Baba Yaga. She is a force of nature, a fantastic creature, daughter of a sorcerer and quite powerful on her own. The task of the hero I think is to wrestle from the ambiguous fantastic its creative potential, and form an alliance with it. Medea and her father represent the dual possibility of the fantastic, and when Medea agrees to help Jason, she becomes for a limited time anyway, the "fantastic bride." But it is Jason's failure to honor his commitment to the fantastic that drives the tragedy. He forgets who Medea is, he forgets that she is fantastic and he dishonors her when he tries to reduce her to a mere mortal woman. Her rage is that of the fantastic and the murder of her children is their reabsorption into the nature and in a sense into her domain. I've never read her as a "human mother"...that would be to make the same mistake that Jason does in underestimating her. I read her as a fantastic force that reclaims her own progeny as a punishment for human arrogance and mistreatment. By their mortal death, Jason can not have access to his sons. But in murdering their human form, Medea returns the fantastic possibilities (the children as extensions of her power) to herself and the fantastic world out of which she comes.
So I don't think of her actions as "masculinized" so much as I think of her as that ambiguous force from the fantastic world which the hero must learn to negotiate correctly. Jason begins heroic, but his arrogance and his mistreatment of the forces that have brought him success becomes his undoing.
Also, if you read the much older versions of many of tales, heroines like Sleeping Beauty, normally the seen as the queen of passivity, are actually rather busy young women and capable of directing their futures. In my various versions of Bluebeard and Robber Bridegroom, the heroine's do take an active part in succeeding against their brutal husbands, so I'm a little confused by your reading of the tale. In a South African version of the Goose Girl, ("Untombi Yapansi")the young woman is quite aware of the journey she undertakes, and her transformation from the servant "Dog @#%$" into the fantastic bride is accompanied by the girl resurrecting from the earth her entire village that had had perished in fire due to the crime of cannibalism. Through the girl's rite of passage and ritual purification, the village is purified and restored. A rather nice gynocentric point of view where the acts of a female heroine get you back into Eden!
(7/2/01 9:49:33 am)
| Eat or be eaten|
"for instance, why does being eaten appear as the quintessential threat to the autonomy of the hero/ine in story after story?"
To jump back to this, one explanation of the cannibalistic element in fairy tales goes like this: People in fairy tales show their love for each other by feeding each other; cannibalism--the witch trying to cook Hansel & Gretel, etc--embodies then the perversion of love. It's not merely wicked or cruel, it's something even uglier. And it runs all through literature. The most obvious example that comes to me at the moment is from Titus Andronicus where he bakes the barbarian queens sons into pies for her dinner because they have raped and mutilated his daughter.
Midori, I don't think your reading of Medea is skewed at all. While I never broke the structure down as ably as you have, I had always thought that Jason invites the horrors that befall him. Considering her a supernatural force that is only checked by love and unleashed again when the love is rejected makes perfect sense to me. In fact, I like this interpretation a lot.
Looking at Medea this way reminds me of Maeve, the queen of Connacht in The Tain, who is amorally cruel and ambitious. But she's also a potent sexual figure as well, and very much a supernatural force in her way. She seduces, manipulates and misleads warrior after warrior in her ambition to get the bull she wants and to kill Cu Chulainn. Cold-blooded she might be, but nobody ever says she's acting like a man.
That raises, possibly, the image of the Celts as Tacitus produced it--which may or may not be completely fabulous--where the female warriors are portrayed as far more terrifying to the Romans and far more ruthless than the males. For that matter, Cu Chulainn learns all of his skills from women warriors. They're considered to be the best.
(7/2/01 12:33:52 pm)
Do you know anything about cannibalism as descriptive of an actual event, reflected in tales, rather than a symbolic event/motif in tales? I have some vague recollection of references to it as this--perhaps in Beast to the Blonde . . . or a Tatar book.
I am sure this has been discussed before here, and is a departure from the cruelty discussion (sorry--I've just been lurking on it--but it fascinates me--because, secretly, I've always loved one kind of cruelty, at least, in tales, such as that of Girl Who Trod on a Loaf).
(7/2/01 3:40:22 pm)
| Florio's Montaigne|
If you have a notion, there is an interesting little document by Michel de Montaigne in "The Essays", translated by John Florio(1630) on cannibals. "Book 1, Chapter 30, 'Of the Cannibals'". It reads like a strange cross between social anthropology, mythology and early utopic literature. It weaves story and the social practice together in spots. Though it may reveal more of its own peculiar agenda than any thing else.
(7/3/01 2:59:27 am)
I must say I like your take on Medea very much too, in that she can be seen as a "fantastic bride". This makes sense of my favorite part of the play, in which she is taken up in the dragon chariot at the end, unrepentant, and neither Jason nor the furies can touch her; by this token she becomes her own justification.
I saw a production recently that presented the play as a social drama & removed the supernatural elements altogether; its easy to forget how the supernatural is inherent to these kinds of fiction (and fairytales) and not just superadded machinery.
(7/3/01 11:12:20 pm)
| medea query|
Are you familiar with the version of Medea by Augusta Webster?
(7/4/01 12:44:41 pm)
| RE: Princess Mononoke|
I happened to watch it just this last weekend. I noticed the lack of a single villain right away and thought - they're trying to be highbrow, let's see if they pull it off.
To an extent, they did, but I thought it took away from the impact the movie had. About the only time I think the technique really works is when it's person-against-person rather than group-against-group.
(7/5/01 7:57:07 am)
| Re: RE: Princess Mononoke|
I think Miyazaki was definetely trying to be epic w/PM but I don't think he was trying to be high brow w/a lack of a clear villian. All his films share this aspect - Laputa, Naussica, Kiki's Delivery Service, Totoro My Neighbor... Also, he directs his films w/ a Japanese society in mind (esp children/youth) and not necessarily a Western audience, the Japanese audience being more accustomed to the notion of ambigously 'bad' characters.
But I agree, a personal conflict is more human and the audience is quicker to connect.
(7/8/01 12:59:53 am)
| The ecstasy of the agony|
"Can you clarify your point that class rather than gender is the determining point in cruelty? And what is being determined? I was a little confused by this comment and it seems central to your reply."
Actually, Karen went a long way in answering this for me, and in one sentence. Such is her eloquence. She wrote, "Class may be the enabling factor, but, in many cases, the mode of oppression is principally and ostensibly sexist or racist."
there have been various articles over the years reporting that women are now committing more white collar crimes than they used to. Why? Because they have more opportunity. While things may not be equal, women certainly hold more positions of power than 30 years ago. I bring this up because gains for women in the socio-economic arena have "enabled" them to commit more crimes.
It is this enabling, which has everything to do with class, that is interesting to me. You asked about what was being determined. All I meant by that was who had the power to be cruel, who had the ability, who was enabled? The ruling class is the enabled class. There has been some research done on the wives of slave owners in the US, and it was found that they were often very cruel to the female house slaves, who the master may want as a sex partner. Class enabled the wives of the masters to be cruel to the female slaves.
One might object that in times of revolution this notion is turned on its head, but that's only possible if we judge revolutionists as suddenly being the ruling class. Indeed, if slaves rise up and slaughter their master, is that murder or liberation? A crime, or justice?
I can always count on you, can't I?
Okay, you bring up a lot of things, so I'll do my best.
"Why do so many storytellers configure the struggle for power and supremacy in terms of a cannibal dialectic?"
I don't know, but my guess would be that, barring any superstition about gaining the power of your enemy through ingestion, that eating the one you hate dehumanizes the person. After all, what do people eat? Animals. We have dominion over them. We control them. We "harvest" them. To eat someone is to treat them like an animal, to deny their humanity. Jeffrey Dahmer made statement about hating blacks and gays, and most of his victims were black and/or gay. A white man eating his enemy.
"In particular, I thought of Foucault's assertion that the mode of execution was frequently determined on the basis of class rather than crime."
I humbly defer to you on this. However, and I'm sure you're aware of this, Australia was populated by people who were shipped off not based on their crime, if, indeed, they had committed a crime, but on their class. You do make me wonder, though, how many noblemen were drawn and quartered.
"As abhorrent as it is to consider, rapes in times of war are often systematic, strategic manoeuvres on the part of invading armies- as if dispossession must be played out in the theatre of the body before it can be complete and irrevocable."
Here I just want to mention that I read an article about rape used as a weapon of war in Bosnia-Herzogovina (sp?). I can't recall the source, but I think it was either Salon.com or motherjones.com. Regardless, the article spoke of the shame that rape brings to a woman's family in that culture. It seems that a woman is expected to kill herself after being raped to redeem her family's "honor." In this instance, I think we have a more honest sexist cruelty, than the one committed by the army. Of course, what the soldiers did is so common that it should shock no one. It should, however, outrage us, and yes, I'm making a moral judgment there.
"The fact remains that the overwhelming majority of serial killers are straight, white men and the overwhelming majority of their victims are young women. This does not mean that no one else is capable of cruelty or murder- not at all. It would, however, be naive to assert that women and men are always or even often subjected to the same threats- in a darkened, run down city street a man will probably fear a physical attack while a woman will inevitably fear the threat of sexual violence first and foremost."
Yes, but the vast majority of murderers are not serial killers. More women kill their children than men, too. Statistics can provide evidence, but it's often hard to draw firm conclusions based on raw numbers. Also, I'm unsure, very unsure, about the assertion that women, in general, fear rape more than death. At least, I've never come across anything suggesting that.
"However, within the relatively/allegedly more peaceful First world city, I believe that you will find that most violent crimes which are motivated by hate rather than money *are* committed on the basis of gender, race and/or sexual preference."
But, ummm, well, you kind of limited the argument there, didn't you? Of course violent crimes that "are motivated by hate rather than money" are committed for some other reason. Although, in the celebrated Matthew Shepard (sp?) case, there was a class component that most of the media didn't mention. His killers were low class, and he was upper-middle class.
"Now, with the advent of "free trade" and the truly appalling conditions under which many people (often young women, might I add) in developing countries are forced to produce consumer goods for multinational corporations, you could certainly argue that the class system has gone global and that money calls the tune when it comes to human rights."
I agree. Capitalism must continue to expand until it fills every corner of the globe. That is the nature of the beast. Of course, money called the tune before the free trade agreements of the 1990's. Just ask Kissinger. (And Sukarno, for that matter.)
"Nevertheless, I think we must inevitably return to our usual point of contention- I do not think that you can ascribe oppression or cruelty to any one factor. Often the discrimination is enforced according to a mixture of gender, race and class issues. Class may be the enabling factor, but, in many cases, the mode of oppression is principally and ostensibly sexist or racist."
Forgive me, Karen, but I think you contradict yourself a bit here. If class is the enabling factor, then everything else must follow from it. Women are second-class because the ruling class does not want to let go of its power. Blacks are largely condemned to ghettoes because of the threat to white workers, who already have the jobs and therefore have more status. The Irish were spat upon in the US, called the "white niggers of Ireland," and it took a long time before they were accepted, and there is still a lingering suspicion in some quarters. Now, is this because of racism? Is it xenophobia? I don't know. I do know, however, that any group that seeks to gain a piece of the pie, a pie that is already divided, is met with hostility, and that includes women.
But, alas and alack, we've gotten too far off topic here, and I will dismiss myself from any further comments. After all, this is not a political board.