Aja! Strong Women

April 22, 2012 § 11 Comments

I’ve been thinking a lot about strong women lately.

I’ve been thinking a lot about women who are sexual, and have power. I’ve been thinking about the way they’re portrayed, both in contemporary media and in the stories that have been around as long as there have been storytellers.

I’m not the first to be thinking about these things. Second-wave feminism in the 1970’s sparked a slew of female critics who looked directly at fairy tales to explain conflicting views of a woman’s role in 20th Century society. Karen E. Rowe, whose essay “Feminism and Fairy Tales” blended second wave feminism with intense literary criticism; Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, whose book Madwoman in the Attic laid bare the angel vs. monster dichotomy used to depict most female characters in Victorian lit and beyond; Even now, freelance writers like Chloe Angyal are taking up the second-wave fairy tale critic torch in her essay “Snow Job That’s the Unfairest of The All,” published last week in the Sydney Morning Herald.

No, I’m not the first to be pondering the “strong female character” as she exists in fairy tales, and I probably won’t be the last. Nonetheless, readers, indulge me.

I’ve been working on an article about female archetypes and how they stand up in contemporary revisionist films—and also what that says about the ways in which archetypal views of women have (or haven’t) changed in popular culture, and society. What does beauty have to do with power? What does beauty have to do with innocence and virtue? And what does all this have to do with Rush Limbaugh, and the conflating of the abortion pill and Plan B?

But let’s not get too off track. As I said, that’s a different article.

In my research for said piece, I’ve come across a gem—Angela Carter’s Virago Book of Fairy Tales, which she edited with the purpose of sharing clever, strong, irreverent female fairy tale characters from all over the globe. The collection, published in 1990, shortly before Carter’s death in 1992 of lung cancer, was put together with the intention of showing “the extraordinary richness and diversity with which femininity, in practice, is represented in ‘unofficial’ culture: its strategies, its plots, its hard work.”

Carter begins her collection with this piece of fried gold, an Eskimo nugget:

Sermerssuaq was so powerful that she could lift a kayak on the tips of three fingers. She could kill a seal merely by drumming on its head with her fists. She could rip asunder a fox or hare. Once she arm-wrestled with Qasordlanguaq, another powerful woman, and beat her so easily that she said: Poor Qasordlanguaq could not even beat one of her own lice at arm-wrestling. Most men she could beat and then she would tell them: Where were you when the testicles were given out? Sometimes this Sermerssuaq would show off her clitoris. It was so big that the skin of a fox would not easily cover it. Aja, and she was the mother of nine children too!

I read this in the midst of my ponderings about strong women, evil queens, and what a woman is judged by in our society, and a question occurred to me. This question is not readily answered by the text itself, which doesn’t exactly address physicality aside from size.

So I ask you this question, oh ye products of your time, because I truly want to know:

As you read this piece, and undoubtedly formed a mental image in your mind of what you were reading, did you visualize Sermerssuaq?

Was she beautiful?

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§ 11 Responses to Aja! Strong Women

  • I’m ashamed to say I visualised her as quite manly but then what do we consider feminine? I did not imagine her as ugly but not what would be regarded as beautiful.

    • crfricke says:

      Don’t be ashamed! I had the same reaction, too, before I looked back into the text to see what had suggested that. It really made me think about what “manly” and “feminine” really means, and how much of that is what we’ve always been told it means. Those things run deep– Thanks so much for reading!

  • jwhittz says:

    If by that you meant “did she meet the (ridiculously) narrow criteria of ideal Western beauty?”–nope.
    But that’s not all there is to beauty, as you well know.

    • crfricke says:

      I suspect she doesn’t either, but when I first read it, and then went back to look at what formed that impression, I wondered why I thought that–there’s nothing here to say that she’s NOT attractive, except for the actions that we’ve been taught aren’t feminine–how much would it change the game if, instead of “she was the mother of nine children” after all that arm-wrestling and clit-showing, it said “Aja! And she looked just like Cindy Crawford too!”

      • jwhittz says:

        And to actually answer your question: I pictured “generic Inuit woman”, with a round, broad face, dark hair and eyes, totally bundled in furs. Probably wielding a spear. This was mostly informed by the fact that you told us it was an Eskimo tale. But she definitely didn’t look like the “pretty” version of that.
        Until you asked if she was beautiful. And then I changed the picture so she was more conventionally beautiful. I’m not sure why, maybe just to be contrary? I’ll have to examine that reaction at little more.

  • As powerful, yes. As a force to be reckoned with, yes. If a tornado can be beautiful, or a hurricane (as in the personifications of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler), then yes.

    • crfricke says:

      I absolutely agree–though I still wonder why we qualify our answers to this question. So nobody (me included) pictured an Amazonian model on their first read? That’s very telling! I love, love the comparison of her to a hurricane!

  • Jennifer Lynn Krohn says:

    When I first read this I wasn’t ready to comment, because I did not find her beautiful, which was quite distressing. I had imagined her as an giant from European folklore. When I read the part about her picking up the canoe with the tips of her fingers, imagined her canoe as being able to fit in her palm. However, I want to note that even if I didn’t think of her as beautiful, she was a character I liked and I wanted to get to know better.

  • […] unlike the Eskimo folk woman Sermerssuaq, whose physical appearance remains up for debate, let me tell you: Baba Yaga is ugly as […]

  • Miss Roslyn says:

    I thought she was beautiful until she started mocking her opponents. I had a image of a strong, athletic (and actually of a similar body type of the woman who teaches Pump/weight classes at my gym who has shoulders made of envy) Then the image changed to something more unappealing when she mentioned the weakness of others.

    I spend a lot of my recreational time fighting and teaching martial arts so I suppose her ‘masculine’ traits weren’t so masculine to me, but her mocking of her opponents is something I find repulsive and so it made her ugly.

    But still my ideas of beauty are influenced very strongly by what I spend time thinking of as an ideal.

    • crfricke says:

      That’s a really great point–I love that your take on this question was so personal, and based not on what we think of beautiful in the popular sense, but not entirely positive either. Really interesting read on it–thanks!

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