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?