Thursday, March 06, 2008

Myth Motifs and Gender Stereotypes

By this point, it should be obvious how much I enjoy looking at themes and story-archetypes that worm their way through various mythologies and folk tales. There's one, however, that I keep coming across, and it nags at me because of its ubiquity and its general misogyny. Here's the basic format:
Woman is told by a male authority figure not to look in/at something, but is given no reason. Woman looks in/at said thing. Bad stuff happens.

That's pretty generalized, but it's at the heart of more myths than I care to count:
  • Bluebeard--Bluebeard's newest wife is told not to look in the forbidden room; she does, and finds the remains of Bluebeard's previous murdered wives. He attacks her in punishment.
  • Pandora's Box--Pandora, the first woman, is told by Zeus not to open her jar/box; when she does, she unleashes all manner of evil into the world, preserving only hope.
  • Cupid and Psyche--Cupid visits his new wife at night, in the dark, and tells her never to try to see his face/reveal his true form. She looks at him while asleep, and manages to fall in love with him, but he flees when he finds out she's seen him.
  • Lot's Wife--Lot, his wife, and their daughters are fleeing Sodom as Yahweh rains fire and brimstone down on the city. Yahweh tells them not to look back; Lot's wife looks back. As punishment, she is turned into a pillar of salt.
  • Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" (not sure if it's in the de Beaumont version)--takes a page from Bluebeard; Belle is told by the Beast that she cannot enter the West Wing of the castle. She does, where she discovers the magical rose that binds the Beast, and when discovered she is cast out.

Expand it just a little and you can include the story of Eve as well. There are more, though some are slipping my mind at the time, but the pattern should be fairly clear. And of all of these, I can think of only two variations where a male character is the one to turn back: one classical, one more modern.
  • Orpheus--Orpheus the poet descends into the Underworld to rescue Eurydice, who was killed on their wedding night. After softening the hearts of Hades and Persephone with his song, they allow Eurydice to follow Orpheus back to the world above, on the condition that he does not look back until they have left the Underworld. Almost at the end of their journey, Orpheus turns back, only to see Eurydice disappear forever.
  • The Girl with the Ribbon--a man falls in love with a woman who never removes a ribbon that she wears around her neck (usually of a specified color; I first read it as black, but I've heard it as green, red, and pink as well). Eventually the two are married, but she makes him promise that he will never try to remove the ribbon. Eventually, he does, and her head falls off.

That last one there scared the hell out of me as a kid. Most ghost stories didn't, but for some reason that one stuck with me.

It's interesting to see how nearly all these different myths, from various places around Eurasia, play on this notion of women's curiosity and disobedience of male authority figures, who expect them to obey unquestioningly and without any stated reasons. Even Orpheus is portrayed with stereotypically "feminine" traits, being an emotional musician who never even consummated his marriage. Only in the modern telling do we get a really complete gender reversal.

In folktales with male protagonists, cleverness is a virtue. How many stories of giants and genies end with the male underdog outsmarting their physical foes? Yet for these women, curiosity is a singularly dangerous trait. I applaud the more modern retellings for spinning the heroines' intellects into a positive quality, but I still wonder why this theme is so prevalent in the earlier stories. I have little doubt that this was part of teaching young girls the proper way to think and behave, preparing them for lives of quiet obedience; after all, when girls showed an inclination toward curiosity, their parents could point back to these stories and say "don't be another Eve/Pandora/etc." But what about the attitude and stereotype at the heart of these stories? Where did that come from? Aren't men just as curious as women? Haven't men been taking credit for the fruits of curiosity (science, for instance) since the dawn of civilization? I suspect that it's partly a relic from a time when men's curiosity was seen as something that could be directed toward producitive ends through training and education, while women's curiosity was useful only in producing unhappy shrews who longed for the same rights that men received by default. But I really don't have anything to back that up.

In any case, I think it's interesting to look at, and I'd be interested in your input--has someone done the legwork to explain all this? Are there stories that I'm forgetting? What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Too simple, Tom! These stories aren't even a little bit confined to Europe and Asia -- you can find 'em all over, and there are plenty where the curious woman's disobedience is cast unambiguously as a virtue.

And therefore, the question becomes: if it isn't about obedience, what's it about?

SallyP said...

Ah, a little folklore and mythology pointing out that having brains and being a woman is a dangerous combination. And don't even get me started on Fairy Tales!

Actually, I am generalizing, but as you say, curiosity is generally thought of as a good thing. What separates us from the apes as it were. But in general, and certainly in the past, an intelligent woman was thought to be an aberration. A man didn't mind ONE intelligent woman, but they certainly didn't want a bunch of them. They might get...ideas!

Tom Foss said...

Plok: Could you be a little more specific? Specifically regarding the other legends to which you refer?

Incidentally, I have read a fairly old version of Red Riding Hood where she escapes by outsmarting the wolf. I don't remember the details, only that it's the oldest version of the story in the Norton Anthology of Fairy Tales (or something like that).

Sally: indeed. Silly women, they think they're people.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, no, I'm afraid that would involve rooting through old class materials...but there's no shortage of 'em, and look, here's the Internet...

Grr, but I really, really think you're not looking deeply enough here, Tom.

"Pandora's Box--Pandora, the first woman, is told by Zeus not to open her jar/box; when she does, she unleashes all manner of evil into the world, preserving only hope." Now that's not about admonishing girls to obey their husbands (well, for that matter neither is Bluebeard!), that's a straight-up Creation Myth -- consequently, I don't think it does much for your hypothesis.

Tom Foss said...

Pandora is a straight-up creation myth, as is the story of Eve and the Serpent...and yet both have this element of the "curious woman" causing calamity because they don't blindly obey the male authority figures in their lives--in both cases, gods, and in both cases, directly their fathers. It seems to me that "obey your male authority" is pretty clear in both.

I think it's a little misguided to suggest that a myth can "only" be a creation myth, or "only" a primer for proper behavior.

Bluebeard does have the additional twist that she'd almost certainly end up dead either way, and that's something I'd have to chew on a bit (I'd be curious to see some of the early versions of the story, for instance, and how they compare with later tellings). I didn't exactly write this as a thesis, just a musing.

Back to Pandora, I admit I saw something of a sexual connotation there as well; perhaps it's just the modern double-connotation of "box", but something about "all the evils of the world came out of a woman's inability to keep her container closed" spoke to various cuckolding/infidelity stereotypes, and would easily fit as another layer of the "obedience" aspect of these stories.

Incidentally, the Internet's great and all, but what search string could I use to find more of these stories? I had a hard enough time trying to find some kind of title for the "girl with the ribbon" story.

Tom Foss said...

I just read a couple of versions of the Bluebeard story, and both heavily imply that the reason for the wife's impending (though interrupted) doom was because she disobediently looked into the forbidden room/closet. From Perrault:
"I very well know. You went into the closet, did you not? Very well, madam; you shall go back, and take your place among the ladies you saw there."

From "King Bluebeard":
"Wife, why did you not heed my warning? Your hour has now struck! Prepare yourself to die, for you have been in the forbidden room!"

The second one especially is pretty on-the-nose about it.

As far as positive portrayals of clever women in folktales, I realized Scheherezade was another example. Too bad she doesn't quite match the "disobedient and curious" model, though.

Anonymous said...

(But, damn it, she doesn't die! She gets saved!)

I find just going to Wikipedia and clicking on links eventually lands you in half-decently interesting mythological territory.

And not that "Women And Looking" wouldn't be a great paper, because it would.

But the thing is, any given motif can stretch to cover many meanings. The curious woman is a motif with some very interesting symbolic weight on it -- cosmological Necessity, for one -- but the total meaning of Woman-as-Symbol is usually only indirectly employed -- usually only incompletely employed -- in the manufacture of folktales. And thus details are important: Eve doesn't start out curious, but she becomes persuaded; Hope is in Pandora's womb, too, along with everything else; Bluebeard dies, killed by indissoluble filial bonds; Psyche and Cupid live happily ever after; Lot's wife is turned into salt instead of into something else. And I agree with you that a myth doesn't have to serve only this function or that function, definitely: that's why I see the straightforward "nail that stands up is soon hammered down" thing as a suspect interpretation, because it's too simple. You seem to say it's misogynistic stereotype, built-in to the symbolism itself, but I see that as a tint of contemporary bias. Certainly the Curious Woman can be made part of a cautionary tale about minding the menfolk, but I'm not sure every mythological Curious Woman fits neatly into that interpretation.

Sorry if I sound a bit snippy, I don't mean to -- I know this was just musing, not thesis. Hey, and like I said, "Women And Looking" would be a great title for a paper!

Avalon's Willow said...

The Red Ribbon. I found references to it as The Green Ribbon and that the story is originally by Alvin Schwartz (Not the Comic Book Writer) from the book "In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories".

What does it say about a modern horror tale where the man feels his right to know / have things his way results in the death of his wife?

Growing up I always resented the versions where it seemed the curious women were incapable of self-control and trustworthiness.

I especially detested Psyche for letting someone else's fears and malicious thoughts control her actions.

I'm currently looking up stories about The Armless Maiden and what women are expected to sacrifice for the sake of their Authority Figures and whether or not it's the female hero's journey towards complete womanhood.

I've been wanting to write stories about such folktales as old women's sayings and warnings of wisdom.

Though right now I'm left thinking the warning for 'Don't Look' is that the menfolk need to feel powerful and in charge and they also like to challenge a woman's purity (ability to resist temptation) so DON'T or the sh*t will hit the fan and your life goes to pot.

Anonymous said...

Jeez, I had a hell of a time on Wikipedia...looks like I may have to go down to the storage locker after all.

But first. You know, Eve eats the apple and Pandora opens the box, and in both cases that's how the world we know is created -- so who cares what the gods would rather? You know? Why not argue that the lesson of the Curious Woman in this case is that Necessity and Change are inevitable, no matter what godly desires may be? Why not argue that Prometheus and Pandora, like Adam and Eve, are hypostatic figures in this sense?

And then you've got all the other stuff about food and sex -- like Bluebeard. Who's got both a Mystery about him (what's with the blue beard?), and a Secret (why does he kill his wives?), and who dies in the end, enriching his wife's family.

So, what's up with that?

Suppose for a moment that Bluebeard's secret is that he's impotent, and that's why the wives all have to die, because sooner or later they figure it out. The KEY to the CLOSET with the MAGIC BLOOD on it that won't come off? Yikes: you could sure argue that "don't open that door!" means "ignore the impotent man behind the curtain!", couldn't you? In which case the admonition here would absolutely not be "do what your husband says, and be grateful to him for treating you so nice", would it? I've never studied Bluebeard, but I can sure think of a couple cute little wrinkles to put on the interpretation of this story, I'll tellya...even though that impotence thing is probably wrong, there's a lot of places to run with it.

I'm just saying.

Tom Foss said...

(But, damn it, she doesn't die! She gets saved!)

By a tacked-on filius ex machina, no less, which is part of why I'd like to read some of the earlier versions. Yes, she gets saved, and all the Prince does is kiss Sleeping Beauty, and the Three Little Pigs live happily ever after.

But I'm not looking for stories that all end the same, or result in the same fate for the protagonist; my hypothesis (as it were) was:
"Woman is told by a male authority figure not to look in/at something, but is given no reason. Woman looks in/at said thing. Bad stuff happens."
Attempted murder, I think, falls under the category of "bad stuff."

As far as Eve goes, I recognize that it's not quite the same--eating, instead of looking in, and she is given a reason (which, as the snake rightly says, turns out to be a lie--lots to unpack in that story).

I see what you're saying about extrapolating this out further, it just seems like my vision is more tightly focused. I'm just, for the purposes of this post anyway, looking at this forbid-look-bad stuff motif, not necessarily the associated plot devices and symbols. If I had the necessary resources available, and the time to do the research, maybe I'd take a broader look at what this all means, beyond the obvious (though sometimes the obvious really is obvious--Perrault thought the moral of Bluebeard was "Curiosity, in spite of its appeal, often leads to deep regret. To the displeasure of many a maiden, its enjoyment is short lived. Once satisfied, it ceases to exist, and always costs dearly." And Red Riding Hood--especially early versions--is a pretty clear "little girls should stay away from dirty old men" admonition).

And then you've got all the other stuff about food and sex -- like Bluebeard. Who's got both a Mystery about him (what's with the blue beard?), and a Secret (why does he kill his wives?), and who dies in the end, enriching his wife's family.

So, what's up with that?

Maybe this is, yet again, "words with more modern secondary connotations" speaking, but what if it's a story about a (necessarily) closeted homosexual? Or, perhaps more believably, a Jew? On one hand, he's a charming guy with a weird quirk who goes away for long periods of time, has a secret that no one can look into (which immediately reveals his distaste for women), and always needs a wife around (for show, at least). On the other hand, he has a strange beard, he's ridiculously wealthy, other people in the village distrust him, he goes off to secret meetings and has a secret room, where he sacrifices his good, local wives and performs some kind of blood magic (i.e., the key).

Certainly there are more wrinkles, and more potential interpretations, but they all involve a broader view than the one I was looking for when I wrote this post.

Tom Foss said...

Oh, and Avalon's Willow: the armless woman story looks interesting; I'll have to take a look at that for my own interest. My first thought when I read your story was "Titus Andronicus," but it really doesn't look (from the Wikipedia entry) that that would have anything to do with it.

As for "The Red Ribbon," I thought I'd read that in one of Schwartz's "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" series books (with a black ribbon), but I could be wrong. My impression, however, was that a lot of those stories, while written by Schwartz, were compiled from earlier legends. Stories like "The Hook" and "Bloody Mary" especially.

Anonymous said...

But surely the number one most immediate consequence of Looking is not Bad Stuff or Punishment, but rather Discovery and Change?

I guess adhering to "bad stuff" as principal consequence, in my view, biases the interpretation of this Looking motif: it practically demands the modern conclusion that it's all about a social power-relation of male and female. Not that I'm saying such power relations are absent, unimportant, or unworthy of consideration! Far from it...I just like the interpretation that says the Curious Woman is an agent of discovery, that the system of authority, the system of secrets, can't repress.

Of course the story of Lot's Wife doesn't necessarily tally with that, so you've got me there. Oh well!

Homosexuality, yes: that'd work, how did that one slip by me?

Jeremy Rizza said...

Great post!

A few years ago, I wrote a (pretty bad) story about Epimetheus, Pandora's husband. He was the brother of Prometheus, and was as foolish as Prometheus was clever. I found exactly one reference to the Pandora myth that claimed he opened the box, and not her. Kind of an "exception that proves the rule" thing, I guess.

A contradictory theme I've noticed in folklore is the "wise wife/foolish husband" story. (I wonder if some of these stories informed the otherwise-original characters of the baker and his wife in "Into the Woods.") These tales tend to be humorous, though, and I get the impression they're meant to be funny because of the inversion of traditional roles. So in a way, they're still pretty sexist.

Unknown said...

Hi Tom, I came across your blog while researching a similar "mythology" archetype or as you put it:

"Woman is told by a male authority figure not to look in/at something, but is given no reason. Woman looks in/at said thing. Bad stuff happens."

I have been turning this question over in my head for some time, and I liked the discussion on your blog. As a woman, I am especially interested in how stories and myths can influence the way women are viewed in male dominated cultures and how, as innocuous as they may seem, these stories can influence women’s self-perception. I just thought I would add a few thoughts. I notice that many of these stories (Pandora, Eve and the story of Persephone) are all indeed creation myths.

There are a few other creation myths that I have come across that fall into this theme. You should check out the Alaskan Native creation story of “how Raven steals the light.” In short: a rich chief keeps the sun, moon and stars locked in his hut under the charge of his daughter. Raven tricks her (this happens in different ways in different versions of the stories) and as a result he steals the moon, sun and stars and puts them up in the heavens so all the people can have light.

I have always liked this story because in a way, the woman fails (she is responsible for the loss of her father’s property) but she also gives the light to the world. I compare this to the story of Eve, who eats from the tree of knowledge and causes “the fall of man” but also brings knowledge to humankind. It is a pity that the negative aspects of these stories (women’s weakness and failure to follow instructions) are what people seem to focus on, rather than the fact that the women are, in many ways, the heroines of these stories. It is women who have the curiosity or bravery to make the choices that ultimately enrich (and complicate) the world we live in.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Not Important said...

That ribbon story scared teh bejeebus out of me when I was a kid, too.