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Workshop: Female Archetypes


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Jean Lorrah

February 20, 1999

Archetypes are characters and plots that exist the world around and throughout time--they exist in all eras, in all cultures. Every so often an author attempts to "create a new archetype," something that is simply not possible. A new _character_, yes--but an archetype is by definition not something that can be created by one person.

Often a feminist writer seeks to create a "new feminist archetype." But that is not possible. Xena, for example, is not a new feminist archetype; she is the amazon, the female warrior. Female warriors already exist throughout time, in all cultures--check out Penthesilia, Boadicea, and Mulan.

Here is the advice I give to writers who want to put female characters in the role of male archetypes, in this case a female wizard (not sorceress or witch, an archetype in her own right, but a woman taking the Merlin/Gandalf role):

Beware going against archetypes. When you find NO examples of a kind of character in literature before a particular political movement occurs, and only one or two DURING that political movement, you know you are attempting to invent an archetype.

But that doesn't work. The universal unconscious of humankind is what creates archetypes, and whether we like it or not as modern feminists, the universal unconscious has created maiden, mother, crone, siren, witch, sorceress, seductress, and even the prostitute with the heart of gold, but it has NOT created a female wizard. The crone comes closest to the desired character, but at best she is reluctantly respected for her power and wisdom. The crone may be feared but not loved. Only maiden and mother are loved.

Remember, even Queen Elizabeth I, in order to maintain her rule, played the maiden her entire life, even while she evolved into crone without ever becoming mother. It wouldn't work with today's media; in her day she just kept the public at a distance and wore enveloping costumes, wigs, and masklike makeup. Later Queens, after female monarchy was accepted, had success with "mother," but "crone" gets 'em every time--look at the problems of Elizabeth II.

Archetypes exist in the mass unconscious, and one person alone cannot create them. Golda Meier, Indira Ghandi, Margaret Thatcher, and Mother Teresa all lived or are living as women of power in this century, but none has succeeded in changing the archetypes available to older women.

The ones who succeed in maintaining the "mother" role are beloved. The ones who wield power but are not maternal may be reluctantly respected, but they are seen as "crone." The crone has knowledge and power. Both men and other women are afraid of her, and if they become too afraid they will burn her at the stake.

The older woman of power who is nonthreatening is still respected as "mother" long after her reproductive years are over. Far younger women are relegated to "crone" status as soon as they exhibit assertiveness. Fairy godmothers and Miss Marple are old mothers. Murphy Brown is a young crone.

We can raise _consciousness_, but we cannot change the subconscious mind. It is not under our control. Fight your readers' subconscious minds and you will just drive them away from your books, no matter how good your intentions.

It's not _mother_ nature you can't fight. It's _human_ nature.



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