Francesca Newton (Bristol) examines the age-old ‘saint or sinner’ binary in the depictions women in art.
My degree in Classics and English Literature taught me that portrayals of women in Western literature essentially come down to two Biblical characters: Eve and Mary. Women are either sexualized devils or chaste saints.
Eve holds out the fruit of temptation while the virgin Mother has an immaculate conception. Helen of Troy leads thousands to their deaths in battles over her beauty while Antigone is the childlike voice of religious justice.
Lady Macbeth seduces a reluctant hero into his downfall while Cordelia embodies the virtue silenced in favor of greed, power, vanity. Most of the time, regardless of which definition they fall under, they die.
It would be nice to think that, in reality, people know femininity isn’t so clear-cut. Sadly, rhetoric surrounding women and their experiences has, to a large extent, continued to work along this dichotomy.
Debates about women’s reproductive rights and access to contraception, for example, often work on the assumption that women’s sexuality is inherently a bad thing that needs to be controlled (the ‘Eve’ portrayal), and plenty of discussions on the need for increased representation of women in boardrooms and industries have centred on women’s supposed ability to act as a moral compass in those environments (the ‘Mary’ portrayal).
Resistance to these depictions of women in previous decades gave rise to a new and supposedly more progressive imagining of femininity. This has been influenced by two waves of thought. Firstly, ancient paganism, which often depicted women deities as elemental and chthonic, characterizing the Earth itself as the female goddess Gaia.
Then, by the 1970s, the ecofeminist movement operated on a premise of identification between the Earth and the abuses it suffers as a result of industry, thought of as masculine. The exploitation of the world and women suffer believed to be at the hands of men and of capitalism.
Combining these two together, we get The Goddess Portrayal: an idealization of women as elemental, inherently maternal, and connected to the earth in a way that gives them power far superior to that of men.
The Goddess Portrayal is far from a thing of the past. A quick search of #goddess on Instagram shows that plenty of women are still engaging with this term and embracing the paganistic features of their own femininity.
‘Goddess’ is also bestowed on women by others: plenty of self-determined ‘woke’ men have used the term to indicate their recognition of women’s power; Pharrell called his wife a ‘goddess’ for having given birth to their new child.
As nicely summed up by the context of this comment, The Goddess Portrayal focusses fundamentally on women’s reproductive abilities: women are in sync with the universe because their menstrual cycles reflect the phases of the moon; things grow inside both women and the earth, specifically after being ‘planted’ (ew) by men; women and the earth are both, ultimately, the source of life.
The Goddess Portrayal seems a better option than being either Eve or Mary, doesn’t it? It’s a depiction of femininity that embraces, as opposed to vilifies, women’s natural sexuality, and assumes an inherent connected-ness and sisterhood, rather than an often oppressive religious morality. It also beautifies the ‘natural’, embracing stretch marks and body hair as signs of women’s inherent earthiness.
But it’s also very problematic.
First, the Goddess Portrayal entirely excludes trans women. The association drawn between women and the earth is, at its most basic, bodily, focussing on the womb, the ovaries, and the vagina – body parts which should no longer automatically be associated with ‘womanhood’. It supports a binary and thus outdated image of gender.
Oddly, for a post-second wave feminist development, it also supports a version of femininity which reinforces motherhood as a prerequisite of womanhood. Since the association drawn between women and the earth goddess is based on that of fertility and growth, The Goddess Portrayal posits that a woman’s worth comes from her ability and willingness to pop out offspring.
This indicates the pre-Biblical, evolutionary foundations of this depiction, and suggests that it is not, perhaps, as empowering as we might like to think: making women believe that becoming mothers and homemakers is an assertion of their particular autonomous power is, well, kind of in the interest of the patriarchy. It also belittles the worth of women who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to have children.
Of course, it’s historically been menstruators whose bodies have been seen as a source of weakness, regardless of their gender identities – and it is issues concerning menstruators, like period poverty, which continue to be politically sidelined.
Any depiction which attempts to make menstruators feel stronger in, and prouder of, their bodies, is important: but in this case, ‘The Goddess’ – a being which is not only inherently female, but also only exists as one side of a balanced binary division – fails to feel like an appropriate metaphor.
Amongst all these issues, though, it’s worth remembering that the imagining of women as goddesses doesn’t have to be as prescriptive and homogenizing as it has become. The Goddess Portrayal as it exists now fails entirely to take into account the vast variety of women deities.
Pagan goddesses are multifaceted beings whose domains range from motherhood to agriculture to intellect and justice, and who are sexual and virginal and female and gender-fluid and good and evil, and all else besides.
Ultimately, the association of women with goddesses seeks, at its heart, to link modern us into a thought-system which historically valued women and their power for infinitely diverse reasons, reaching far beyond reproductive capacities – and this is no bad thing.
Any generalized external portrayal of women eventually becomes limiting and exclusive: so let’s be specific. If you’re not sure that Gaia suits you, or who you’re talking about, try Athena – try Artemis, try Demeter, try Hestia, Themis, Aphroditus, Phoebe, Eunomia, Harmonia, Nike, Soteria, Persephone, Panacea…
Francesca Newton, Bristol