When you can't un-see the patterns
Women and Other Monsters + Girl Squads, a Brave Book Pairing
You know how when you first notice something, a pattern of some sort, and then you can’t un-see the pattern, and you wonder how you could have possibly missed it in the first place?
I experienced this not long ago when I attended a leadership retreat as part of a volunteer organization. One of the icebreaker questions was this:
“Almost everyone has wished at some point that they had taken a different path in life. What path do you sometimes wish you had taken?”
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Each of the dozen or so of us told a brief story about the road not traveled. Several people mentioned wishing they could have been in a band or the theater. Another person really thought they would have made a great Major League Baseball announcer. One had wanted to go into the family construction business, but it didn’t pan out, then later abandoned an idea of becoming an archaeologist. Another had curtailed a planned stint in the Peace Corps. Someone else had originally wanted to be a priest.
We nodded in agreement when we heard each story, understanding the common feeling of what if? that accompanies these moments of reflection.
It wasn’t until several days later that I noticed a pattern. The men had stories that might have turned out differently if they’d been more ambitious, had more natural talent, practiced more, or gotten a break where someone said, “Hey, you’d make a great baseball announcer!”
But over half the women—ones in their late 50s to 70s—had stories of paths not taken that they had no choice about or were actively discouraged from taking because of being female. A Catholic woman had dreamed of being a priest when she was little, until of course, she found out she couldn’t. (And nuns were not nearly as cool.)
The woman who had worked summers helping her father in his construction business hoped to take it over when he retired—except he discouraged her, saying the guys on the crew would hate having to clean up their language and use an indoor toilet to pee. When she volunteered for an archaeology dig, she stayed in a motel instead of at the dig site because women couldn’t/wouldn’t be provided bathroom facilities.
The woman who’d passed up the Peace Corps could have gone, but her parents weren’t crazy about her going to a third-world country in her early twenties. I didn’t think to wonder until later if they would have felt the same if she were a son.
At first, these all seemed like individual stories, not part of a pattern. The woman with the family construction business had joked, “Who knew so much of my future would be determined by bathrooms?”
We all laughed, including me. Until I saw what had actually played out right in front of us, with me not even noticing at first.
The two books in today’s Brave Book Pairing, Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology, by Jess Zimmerman, and Girl Squads: 20 Female Friendships That Changed History, by Sam Maggs, evoke similar pattern-recognition experiences, but for different reasons.
Women and Other Monsters is a keen interrogation of the impact Greek female mythological creatures have had on Western culture, with a call to ways we might re-imagine and reclaim their legacy. Each chapter examines a different creature through a deft weaving of the author’s personal experiences along with her incisive yet accessible cultural criticism, bringing in everything from Aerosmith’s Crazy video to Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return.
If you weren’t a Greek mythology geek like I was (my code name for a seventh-grade crush was Perseus), not to worry. You’re probably familiar with more Greek mythology than you realize.
Remember the mid-‘90s Hugh Grant movie Sirens? And the reference to Scylla and Charybdis in the Police song “Wrapped Around Your Finger”? Just this year, an Amazon Prime commercial featured Medusa (although they flipped the script by making anyone Medusa looks at turn to stone instead of anyone who looks at her—the better to sell sunglasses).
And Season Five, Episode 7 of the Netflix series The Crown finds Princess Diana ruminating on what it’s like being recently separated from her husband, Prince Charles.
“It’s a strange sort of no-man’s land—or no-woman’s land. Neither married nor single, neither royal nor normal. Like a harpy. One of those mythological creatures—half woman, half bird.”
Maybe you remember that Sirens are temptresses, but did you know, or remember, that they lure sailors to their deaths against a rocky island with their irresistible song?
“Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis” means caught between two bad options. But did you know Scylla is a six-headed, twelve-legged creature whose lower extremities are sometimes pictured as barking dogs? She inhabits one side of a narrow strait, devouring hapless sailors who stray too close. And Charybdis is the gaping maw of a (female) whirlpool on the other side ready to consume sailors who come too close to her.
Are we sensing a pattern yet? Get too close to that seductive beauty, that monstrous body, that voracious female hunger, and you’re a goner. The comments getting the most traction on the YouTube video of the Amazon Prime commercial are from men outraged that it plays for laughs when Medusa turns a guy to stone for winking at her in a bar when she’s hanging with her besties.
The harpy could be something beautiful though, right? All the grace of a bird with a woman’s intelligence and style.
But no. Harpies are mutant creatures with heads of beautiful virgins and clawed bodies oozing discharge and stench. They’re also snatchers. As Zimmerman tells us, in The Aeneid, Aeneas and his crew slaughter some cattle they find on an island, only to have the harpies swoop in to claw away or befoul the meat with their filthy talons before the men can eat.
A harpy is a woman who not only doesn’t belong, but takes what doesn’t belong to her. Zimmerman writes, “To call a woman a harpy is both to deride her ambition and to reinforce the idea … that everything she’s ever earned has been stolen from the mouths of men.”
Which makes Princess Diana’s comment in The Crown all the more apt. She was beautiful, yes, but took attention away from her husband, and had the audacity to want more out of her circumscribed role.
Never mind that the island and cattle actually belonged to the harpies’ family. Never mind that in the real world, the consequence for a guy getting rejected by “Medusa” is a bruised ego, but a woman who rebuffs a man’s advances risks anything from vindictive rumors to actual bodily harm.
These mythological creatures are more than just ancient fairy tales.
“Monsters exist in opposition to normality … but if the expectations are too narrow, nearly anything can become monstrous. If you are only allowed to be tiny, it is grotesque to be medium. If you are only allowed to be quiet, it is freakish to be loud … Women have been monsters, and monsters have been women, in centuries’ worth of stories, because stories are a way to encode these expectations and pass them on.”
— Jess Zimmerman, Women and Other Monsters
Reading Women and Other Monsters is like realizing the pattern on the wall you’ve passed by for years is actually a door. You saw it, but didn’t see it. These stories are so embedded in Western culture it’s easy to pass right by and not notice.
I appreciated the book for giving me a new lens to view these myths I’ve lived with for so long, and I keep going back to it. But there’s a downside to not being able to un-see how far back these patterns go.
When it all gets to be a bit much, there’s Girl Squads: 20 Female Friendships that Changed History. This book is an unabashed celebration of girl power that pushes back on the narrative that women must always be in competition with each other.
It’s written for a Young Adult audience (which is funny because I told you in the last edition of Brave Book Pairings that I don’t read much YA), so the tone is a bit rah-rah for my taste. But each of the twenty short chapters is extensively researched, and many of them touch on cultures and periods I knew little or nothing about.
There are five sections: Athlete Squads, Political & Activist Squads, Warrior Squads, Scientist Squads, and Artist Squads. Each section contains four entries from different time periods, such as “The Feminist Musicians Who Rocked Medieval France,” “The Vietnamese Sisters Who Led an Uprising,” “The Ladies of the US Supreme Court,” and “The Daring Free-Divers of the Korea Strait.”
In a piece of serendipitous timing, I read the chapter about the Dahomey Amazons, “The Royal Regiment That Astounded the World” right before the feature film inspired by the Dahomey, The Woman King came out.
The book acknowledges where recorded history is sparse, and is clear about what isn’t known and what is known, including less admirable aspects of the people in question, such as Dahomey profiting from slave trading:
“Only a handful of historians (as in, like, five) have made it their mission to bring to light as much information about the Dahomey Amazons as they can. Despite scholarly differences of opinion … we can be certain that the Amazons were real, and they were fierce … Without a doubt, as a kingdom, Dahomey perpetuated and profited from the most despicable acts imaginable. But the Dahomey Amazons are proof that, even in the most heinous circumstances, a group of strong women can exemplify strength, bravery, and leadership.”
— Sam Maggs, Girl Squads
The point of both these books isn’t that all women are paragons of virtue. We aren’t, and we shouldn’t have to be. It’s that women are human, not monsters, with human flaws and strengths.
Zimmerman writes, “The qualities we hail as heroic in Western culture—courage and fortitude, selflessness and nobility, steadiness of mind and will—are not unique to men … But in the male-dominated myth, folklore, and literature that defines our culture, they’ve been annexed as ‘masculine’ traits. We’re still struggling to create or consume stories about valorous women, unless they also display the ‘feminine’ virtues: passive sex appeal and fragility that requires rescue.”
Women and Other Monsters aims to show the traits we’ve been told make mythical monsters dangerous “are actually their greatest strengths, and ours.” Girl Squads gives 20 stories of valorous women for making new patterns.
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