Adventures in Thesis Writing: Medea and the Strong Female Character Archetype

This year I’m attempting to write an honours thesis in amongst getting married, keeping my day job, running Slink Chunk, eating and sleeping (maybe). And, not only am I an enthusiastically overcommiter,  I’m also a notorious follower of tangents. So I thought, in the interest of maintaining my mental health (and having a bit of fun doing it), I might spend a bit of time following these tangents in blog form, and get them out of my system. This is adventures in thesis writing.

So I've been reading a lot about violent women in classical Greek mythology, and about one violent woman in particular, Medea. The most widely known story about Medea in classical Greek mythology is that she was the lover of Jason (of the Golden Fleece fame) and when he left her for the princess of Corinth, she killed their two sons in cold blood for revenge. However, as I’ve learned through my reading, and is often the case with these kinds of characters, there’s more to the story.  Although I'm not going to start this off by being a casual advocate for infanticide, I would like to add that Medea was pretty much the reason why Jason was who he was in the stories; she learned witchcraft in order to help Jason in battle, to find the Golden Fleece, and even resurrected his beloved father from the dead (what) to please him. As Josephine Hendin suggests, the myth of Medea is basically a man’s ‘dream girl’ fantasy gone wrong; "Medea symbolises male hopes for an all powerful, all giving mother wife who will use her strength only in the service of her needy man and will do so unconditionally".  And yet, as soon as her power is turned against Jason, it becomes infinitely more dangerous, all consuming, and obliterates all other emotions that don't feed it, leaving only murderous rage behind. Hendin argues that this kind of violent power expressed by a woman is actually an act of subversion in itself, as is the obliteration of all things that are traditionally tied with womanhood; maternal instincts, submissiveness, love.  It's an interesting argument, one I'm keen to explore further as I continue my research.

 Medea,directed by  Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969

Medea,directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969

As I was reading this section of Hendin's book 'Heartbreakers' , I was really struck by the way in which Hendin argues for Medea to be read as what I could call a Strong Female Character, through obliteration of all her vulnerable, traditionally feminine aspects, and this got me thinking about Strong Female Character in a broader sense. For some background, the Strong Female Character is one that is able to overcome any obstacle, physical or emotional, whilst always maintaining iron constitution. She can throw a punch like any man, she stays cool in a crisis, and she doesn't cry. She is everything the patriarchy has told us that women can't be, and nothing that a woman should traditionally be; soft, kind, loving ie. vulnerable. And she's also kind of boring.

Clem Bastow wrote a great article about this for Daily Life called “I’m sick of Strong Female Characters in Film”, and articulated some of the discomfort I’d been feeling about SFCs perfectly in this statement;

It has become de rigeur for columnists and commentators to expect - nay, demand - a certain quota of strong female characters in all major releases. And that is not strongly written female characters, but Strong Female Characters: unflappable, ostensibly feminist, ready with a round-house kick to the temple and handy with at least four types of automatic firearms.”

At this stage of my research journey, I would argue that SFC can have important symbolic value as an inspirational archetype, but I've found in my general consumption of popular culture over the last 20-odd years, that because the SFC is unfuckwithable, her arc doesn't go anywhere, and if her arc doesn't go anywhere, then I don't really care what happens to her. I don't even think it's so much a question of being able to relate to a character, but to give that character room to breath, to be able to actually react to their environments and their situation in interesting ways. The problem that I imagine a lot of writers face is that because there is this tradition of vulnerable female characters in our patriarchal history, having a female character that shows any kind of traditional feminine weakness is seen to be reinforcing these stereotypes. The problem with this line of thinking is that these new female characters are pushed too far in the other direction, and we get these superwomen who have all of their shit together and not much to contribute to a deeper conversation about gender roles and construction of character. As Clem says, “the irony of the celebration of and hunger for Strong Female Characters is that they perpetuate macho notions of strength and capability, which just happen to be communicated by women and girls.”

You will come to learn as we go through, I'm not the biggest fan of absolutes, or of binary thinking. In fact, I hate them, they are the bane of my existence, and everyone would do away with it right now, please and thank you. Personally, I don't think that female characters should have their vulnerability neutered in order to avoid being cast as a damsel in distress. Vulnerability is important for character growth; so are flaws. What I do think needs to be altered, however, is how a female characters are made to express their vulnerability.

But that’s something for next time...