Calling for more diverse representation and better roles for women in film and literature is well and good, but what exactly is a strong female character? Many of the first examples that come to mind are either masculine characters with an estrogen paint-job, or women whose story function is to serve as support elements for stronger male characters.
What is feminine power?
Historically speaking, the female power archetypes can be broken down into three basic types: the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. These archeytpes never really went away, but many expressions have changed and mutated from healthy examples of feminine agency to actors that exist primarily to prop up a patriarchal view of women’s role in the world.
The Maiden is a telling statement of a woman’s potential utility for society. In many later classical sources it was an icon of literal fertility. The maiden’s worth was in her value as potential marriage property and brood-mare-to-be. She was an economic bargaining chip, a future mother for children, and earner of a large dowry from desirous suitors. She was attractive, desirous, and an object to be coveted.
Broken down further and cleaned of patriarchal influence, the Maiden is youth. She is potential. She is the choice not yet made, the girl with her future ahead of her, she is strength waiting to be applied. The feminist Maiden can be anything, and that absolute flexibility of choice is her strength.
Taken at face value, the Mother is the nurturer. She raises the children, girls to become Maiden, boys to become healthy men. She is the 50s housewife maintaining an orderly home so that her pipe-smoking husband can go earn a living. She is the neolithic tribeswoman watching the creche and tanning leather while the men go hunt. She is the enabler of the powerful men, minding the details that heroes don’t have time for.
While there’s nothing wrong with being a nurturing person, homemaker, or parent, The Mother archetype is more than the sum of these parts. She is the productive member of society. She is the contributor. She is the creator, whether it be new life, new art, new ideas.
The Crone is the repository of wisdom and good advice. No longer valuable property, no longer a creator of children, finally valued for what she has to say by virtue of not having died in childbirth. The Crone is the advisor, the mentor the hero visits before setting out into the mysterious woods to find his destiny.
As a modern archetype, any woman of any age can manifest the Crone. She represents both the end to or refusal of the responsibilities of the Mother/Creator and Maiden, but also the crafty woman whose wisdom exists not to lie in wait for the hero, but to be used for her own benefit or parceled out as she sees fit.
While these icons are presented in feminine language, men can of course manifest aspects of potential, creator, and sage. They don’t have achytpes for these traits, because we don’t need to come out and say that these basic elements of the human condition are achievable for men.
Female power archetypes aren’t about achieving personal excellence, they’re about reaching a basic parity for the privilege that men are assumed to possess. Until we achieve a true gender equality, women will be hard-pressed to move beyond Maiden, Mother, and Crone.
Do you disagree? Can you think of powerful female archetypes that don’t derive from Mother, Maiden, or Crone? Share them with us in the comments!