Sunday, June 23, 2024

Navigating Through ‘Feral Feminism’ – The Beauty & The Witch Archetypes

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As with many of my brain quirks nowadays, this article started with a meme. Tumblr user givemearmstopraywith posted a linked arms meme that interconnected three feminist writers, noting that, “[T]he highest feminine ideal is the ability to be feral in peace[.]” That insight teleported me back to a childhood of creek beds, torn fairy wings, and aggressive make-believe. It also helped me frame an interrelated aesthetic between two music videos that I wanted to analyze: ‘Bottom of the River’ and ‘Do You Ever Dream?’ by folk rock band Delta Rae. The ensuing research reconnected me to my academic background in fairy tales, struggling to find a succinct, direct definition of ‘feral feminism’. So I developed my own.

Feral Feminism — A Framework:

As an ideal, feral feminism embraces the natural and supernaturally feminine, rather than the capitalistic feminine pushed by society. It is a reclamation of the body and the wild, of all things associated with the feminine. And in my opinion, it is best embodied by feminine archetypes of the ‘Other’ like the witch, as she functions as a liminal figure, liberated and internally empowered. (For me, using ‘feminism’ instead of ‘feminine’ implies a sociopolitical practice and depiction of feral femininity.) That being said, the allure of the witch is best understood in contrast to another empowering archetype that is also ferally feminist: the romance and maturation of Beauty from Beauty and the Beast. For this comparison, I will be primarily drawing from Betsy Hearne’s 1989 book, Beauty and the Beast, and from Silvia Federici’s 2004 Caliban and the Witch.

Beauty is self-sacrificing, the witch self-sufficient. Both archetypes need to grow but grow in different ways. Othered through her objectification, referred to only as ‘Beauty’ in some stories rather than a name, Beauty must leave her family and the public sphere. To find herself, she must enter the private sphere and face her worst fears, personified through the Beast, himself an ‘Other’. On the other hand, the witch’s clashes with society reflect a breakdown in feminine communal spheres through individual alienation. She is the age-old ‘bad woman’ who arouses fear and intrigue, a threat to the constructed order, and thus fit for demonization.

The goal of this piece is to frame my ideas for future articles, such as the upcoming one on Delta Rae’s music videos, by reviewing a concise history of Beauty and the Beast stories and the witch archetype. And I have many ideas, because of my background in this field. Thus, my commentary on Beauty and the Beast (BatB) will be heavily influenced by two papers I wrote while in college. One paper discussed different adaptations of BatB in terms of psychosocial gender roles, through the lens of Jungian archetypes. Then this spring, I wrote a paper on BatB and the power dynamics within the domestic institution and domestic space.

Beauty and the Beast — Pro-Women Origins:

Dated as four thousand years old, the BatB folk tale type began as a maturation-through-marriage story and part of its modern evolution includes commentary on gender roles, especially toxic masculinity, as the protagonist shifted from the Beauty character to the Beast. In terms of Western literary tradition, BatB is rooted in Greek mythology — its marital rituals and its association of marriage with death. (Due to the scope of the fairy tale, I focus my scholarship and analysis on Europe and its subsequent colonies, because when you have a thesis, you grind narrow that topic down.) Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, a French governess, wrote La Belle et La Bête, an abridged retelling of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s epic, more politically-engaged romance (Hearne p. 26-27). Villeneuve’s piece was published in 1740, Beaumont’s more successful version in 1756. Notably, Beaumont also published her story in a children’s magazine directed towards young girls, and when she “[described] her teaching methods, the governess defended her girls’ capacity to think for themselves.” BatB stories originally focused on the pain, anxiety, sexual awakening, and overall transformation of young women through domestication.

In my first article for The Fandomentals, I discussed the Heroine’s Journey and its relationship to a global history of arranged marriages. A girl’s transition into adulthood was marked by her transference from her father to her husband, and she left home, having to start over in a new environment amidst new power dynamics. Because of its cyclicality, the Heroine’s Journey is a narrative structure built on change and contradiction. In my paper this past spring, I discussed what I called “domestic subgenres” to frame BatB as a story type usually focused on the feminine experience, generating my own definition: “Domestic subgenres are stories usually written by women and about women, and they focus on the psychological interiority of marriage alongside the physical space of the home, and this allows for significant feminist commentary on the institution.” These subgenres include domestic realism and the nascent domestic noir. The former originates in the mid-nineteenth century and has been called “women’s fiction” or “sentimental fiction”, with the works of Jane Austen being some of the most famous. The latter includes novels like Gone Girl and A Simple Favor. (In 2013, Julia Crouch had coined the term to better define her psychological thrillers.) Thus, BatB forms the domestic subgenre of fairy tales.

In terms of Greek mythology, BatB appears most prominently in the stories about Hades and Persephone and Eros and Psyche. The former traces a young goddess’s ascension to becoming the Iron Queen of the Underworld, while the latter about a mortal princess who becomes the Goddess of the Soul, both within the context of marriage. Hades recognizes Persephone’s powers, offering her equal rulership of his domain while Psyche is elevated after having won approval from the gods, having gone on a quest of atonement because she lost her husband’s trust. Not only are there shared themes of class and power, but there are also themes of death and rebirth. In regards to Persephone, the ‘rape’ originally referred to her abduction, which triggered her coming-of-age, as she was taken from her mother Demeter to the Underworld. It was a metaphorical death. In his 1976 translation of The Homeric Hymns, classics scholar Apostolos N. Athanassakis notes that Demeter wears a mourning veil even before Persephone’s abduction, elaborating that it was possibly “a case in which later ritual influences mythopoetic compositions,” (p. 75). This “ritual” being the intertwining of marriage and death that marked the end of girlhood. Psyche too ‘dies’ when she marries, her family expecting her to be devoured by a monster. Her wedding procession has the dual purpose of being a funeral procession, Psyche left on the mountainside like a virgin sacrifice.

The connection between marriage and death reflects the very real psychological process for families, especially between mothers and daughters, as patriarchal figures handled the arrangements like handling transactions. In her 2016 book, Exposed, Stacy Alaimo poses the question, “Is it possible, then, to reenvision the home—a place constructed of literal and metaphorical walls—as a liminal zone, an invitation for pleasurable interconnections?” (p. 22). As a domestic subgenre, BatB explores this tension as the Beauty protagonist confronts her newfound aloneness, having been stripped of familial and patriarchal systems of support and oppression. It is a necessary loss as it forces Beauty off the pedestal of benevolent sexism, allowing this ‘girl’ to grow up into a complex adult.

The domestic space is represented by the married couple’s home, and in BatB stories, the Beauty character goes from her family’s home to that of the animal bridegroom’s, which is often isolated within nature. Her spatial reality reflects the change in power that comes with marriage and the added vulnerability. Her anxiety then connects to the body, whether through possible sexual violation or through being actually devoured by the monster, reflecting the maiden’s anxiety about her suitor. That being said, the newfound freedom from the familiar catalyzes Beauty, who begins to question everything she once knew. Indeed, liminality as a concept is designed for this. It usually refers to a place between places, such as the dark forest of Red Riding Hood or the cave in Dagobah, where Luke Skywalker encounters his greatest fear. For the first time in her sheltered life, she can explore her ‘wild’ feelings.

Beaumont built on these themes and tropes, codifying them. The class elements filter through Beauty’s poverty in contrast to the Beast’s riches, and though the Beast controls the arrangement of her imprisonment, he submits himself to her emotionally. He declares her “mistress” of his estate and only interacts with her at dinner, offering a nightly proposal of marriage. The Beauty character also becomes queen after having undergone a lesson on perception, Beaumont reinforcing her support of educated women with references to Beauty’s love of reading and music. (Yes, the Beast has a well-stocked library in this version too.) Hearne notes that Beast’s redemption “depends on another’s love and consent,” (p. 132-133), and so this widespread notion that Beauty comes to accept the Beast because she believes that she can change him is just false. BatB stories resonate with audiences because of the vulnerability between the characters, reflecting everyone’s inner desires and fears regarding their inner monstrosities, while offering hope and transformative love.

As the Beast’s domination over Beauty’s life and then his subsequent vulnerability change her, so does her subversive gaze and empathy change him. He acts as an externalization of her subconscious, a living projection of her animalism and sexuality kept repressed by parental and societal expectations. His emotional evolution, well before the physical transformation, proves the power of her feminine-coded beliefs. In the introduction to Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, editor Jayne Ann Krentz explains that “In the romance novels, […] the woman always wins. With courage, intelligence, and gentleness she brings the most dangerous creature on earth, the human male, to his knees. More than that, she forces him to acknowledge her power as a woman,” (p. 5). Overall, the Beauty character and her journey with her love interest focus on perception and power, as the two allow for her to unlock her relationship with herself and with nature.

Lastly, modern scholarship looks to the Aarne-Thompson-Uther (ATU) classification system, which categorizes folk tales around the world. ATU organizes the different variants of BatB under Type 425: The Search for the Lost Husband. Beaumont’s version, the most influential story, forms the foundation for Type 425C: Beauty and the Beast. The twentieth century saw her work revisited and updated, such as the emotional narrative shifted towards the Beast, who became more animalistic and generally conflicted. For example, Jean Cocteau adapted Beaumont’s story for a 1946 film, addressing perceptions of manhood by contrasting the Beast against Beauty’s gross, Gastonian suitor. His version later influenced Disney’s 1991 film — which lyricist Howard Ashman had been heavily involved with in terms of music and narrative. Cocteau and Ashman were both openly gay, Ashman even succumbing to AIDS during the production of Beauty and the Beast. They helped to form the trend of the Beast’s arc being analogous to toxic masculinity. Modern fantasy father and Santa grandad George R. R. Martin was also influenced by Cocteau’s adaptation, again using BatB to address gender roles.

The witch, on the other hand, is a total, singular emancipation of the body and its suppression.

The Witch — A Bodily Understanding:

An Italian-American scholar and Marxist feminist, Silvia Federici focuses on deconstructing the origins of capitalism and its relationship to women’s rights. She cites the European witch hunts as being as fundamental to the formation of capitalism as land privatization, colonialism, and slavery were. It was also a period when women were stripped of rights and privileges that they had in medieval times, especially on issues related to bodily autonomy like reproductive control. As Federici explains in Caliban and The Witch,

[T]he body has been for women in capitalist society what the factory has been for male waged workers: the primary ground of their exploitation and resistance, as the female body has been appropriated by the state and [by] men and forced to function as a means for the reproduction and accumulation of labor. (p. 26)

Essentially, women became chattel to bear the next generation of workers, while society and the state “naturalized” women’s labor, creating a built-in, domestic slave class that kept the home running so men could work away from the family. While women didn’t have a great time under feudalism, the rise of capitalism engineered a philosophy that divorced humans from nature and from their own bodies, the witch a scapegoat for bodily connection as well as social and financial independence:

[T]he figure of the witch […] in this volume is placed at the center-stage, as the embodiment of a world of female subjects that capitalism had to destroy: the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the [obeah] woman who poisoned the master’s food and inspired the slaves to revolt. (p. 16)

In short, the witch can stand as shorthand for a variety of other, real socio-historical archetypes, a conglomeration of the paths that can lead women to being the ‘Other’, complicated by intersections of class and race.

The witch hunts took place from the early fifteenth century to the mid-eighteenth century. In regards to all the people tortured and executed, most of whom were women, modern estimates range from about thirty thousand to a hundred thousand. Contrary to popular belief, the Salem witch trials never burned accused witches at the stake. Witch-burnings were primarily in Europe, though the accusations all shared features related to gender, sexuality, and a woman’s place in society. For example, the first known Italian witch to be charged with witchcraft and then burned at the stake was a healer named Finicella.

In the summer of 1424, a plague struck Rome, and the visiting Saint Bernardino of Siena riled the panicked masses into a frenzy. Bernardino wrote that Finicella confessed to killing thirty children, including her son, without the pain of torture. (The lack of torture is debatable.) In his 2015 book, The Witches’ Ointment, Thomas Hatsis deconstructs Bernardino’s smearing of Finicella, revealing the saint’s contempt towards a woman professionally successful and not bound to class hierarchies:

[U]nder the accusations of sorcery there are indications of a true folk healer, a further clue given in the form of Bernardino’s misogynistic admonishment of women like Finicella: “O doctors, how much you have studied … amid much expense, peril, and labor, but it is the dog-faced old woman who gathers all the honor!” It would seem that […] local Romans sought Finicella’s services over those of elite physicians[.] (p. 131)

Hatsis’s observations align with research from the 1970s, which argued that “the first accusations of witchcraft in Europe grew out of church-affiliated male doctors’ anxieties about competition from female healers,” (Kapsalis). Charges of witchcraft often came hand-in-hand with charges related to sex, medicine, or infanticide, all in relation to regulating a woman’s reproductive autonomy. Feminine sexuality was seen as an inherent threat; witches were said to even possess the power to make men’s penises disappear, hiding them in the nests of trees (Kapsalis). In the eyes of the state, the Church, and general society, women threatened men’s very bodily existence.

All of this violence — fire and blood — then forces us to beg the question: what, in fact, is a witch? Like any archetype, the witch is multifaceted and inhabits various incarnations, most prominently the wart-covered crone and the alluring temptress. Some stories combine these variations to stress the witch’s wickedness and diversion from normalcy. The films Hocus Pocus and Stardust, for example, both feature a trio of wizened sisters who plot to feed off an innocent’s life force in an attempt to reclaim their youth. Other stories feature witches as women struggling to balance their magic as just another facet of their daily lives, their womanhood the central problem and central solution. For example, the long-running Charmed series focused on sisters whose magic came second to their bond, supporting and healing each other through various traumas and tribulations, whether that be from a demonic assault or an emotionally abusive relationship. In her private notebook, circa October 1947, filmmaker Maya Deren pondered what a witch was, concluding that,

[a] witch is, actually, a successful (in the sense of surviving) deviant. You have a cultural, ideological, social, what-not pattern which is, for that society in question, normal (and, importantly, this is understood as a synonym for natural). Most people survive because they conform to these patterns, because they behave normally. […] But then suddenly you get a deviant which survives, and since it does not draw its support from the normal pattern, […] that deviant is understood as drawing its support from “unknown,” “supernatural” sources. […] If we cannot survive without our order, how can she [the witch] survive in solitude? Hers must be indeed a very powerful order to exist so independently, without all the intercooperation and individual compromise which we have to go through to survive. And if it is so powerful, then it could destroy us. We must try to destroy it first. (p. 33-34)

‘Deviant’ has social and sexual implications, reflecting the various charges that a witch could face, and some of the ways that women are stigmatized. The witch faces persecution for simply existing, reflecting her community’s biases, and in many ways, embracing the witch is submission to a higher power. Raised to be acquiescent and to wear a smile, women internalize the misogyny perpetrated against them, until they realize that good or bad, they face persecution. It is a surrender of self-control and the embrace of feminine power.

In an interview about her film The Love Witch, indie filmmaker Anna Biller discussed a “female narcissistic gaze” in early cinema. Archetypes of powerful women like the witch embody this perspective, the fantasy-related to power and independence. The witch’s dual nature fulfills the audience’s contradictions, especially when the witch is the protagonist. When it comes to BatB, Beauty may have been the original protagonist, but the Beast is the central force and character, the complexity that has inspired creators for centuries (Hearne p. 132). (Our writer Alejandra addressed a similar problem in media, citing Martin’s Beast from the CBS television series.) That’s partially why adaptations have shifted the bulk of the focus and character development towards the Beast, such as Disney’s 1991 adaptation and Alex Flinn’s novel, Beastly, a modern YA novel from the Beast’s perspective. As an archetype, the witch embodies the tension between Beauty and Beast without having to expose herself to any masculine or patriarchal influences. The subconscious animalism is kept internal rather than projected into another person.

Because of her independence, and historic connections to single, professional women like healers, the witch is also removed from class structures and tensions associated with Beauty. The witch offers an alternative where one’s power can be cultivated completely separate from men and from capitalistic industry. (In Beaumont’s tale, Beauty’s father had even been a wealthy merchant before losing his fortune, the family’s class anxieties further dividing Beauty from her vain sisters.) In his video essay on Federici’s book (t. 21:55), Philosophy Tube cites the Yerbamala Collective, an anti-fascist, international coven. They define themselves as liminal beings, their culture invisible to violent, oppressive systems of fascism and capitalism: “Witches are a non-consumer category…  Fascism depends on denying access and human rights to people in order to eliminate them. But witches do not exist. We cannot be eliminated.” In an age of hyper-surveillance, the witch’s ability to navigate between visibility and invisibility offers a compelling, cathartic story and example to follow in real life.

Feral Feminism A Deeper Definition:

All of those themes connected to BatB and the witch coalesce into feral feminism. Though I originally saw the term in an article about Katniss Everdeen, the author never defined ‘feral feminism’, only alluding to it with examples of Katniss’s nonconformity in relation to the Capitol’s beauty standards and to YA tropes. The closest to a definition that I could find is from this year: Kristin J. Solee’s new book, Cat Call. In her preface, Solee describes feral femininity as

a femininity that refuses domestication. See it in incisors that aren’t ground down, a larynx that unleashes too loudly, a sexual appetite that refuses to heel. To be feral is to be untamed, and to be feminine is to contain multitudes[.] […] [T]he feral feminine […] is equally embodied by […] any person who might partake in feminine expression (cis and trans women and men, nonbinary femmes…). It may be many things, but it is not bound to one kind of body. (p. xvii)

Thus, feral feminism strives to be cognizant of the intersection between environmental exploitation and the exploitation of women, celebrating the natural feminine. It focuses on fluidity, repositioning the body and consciousness as a whole, reorienting them back towards nature, such as the witch’s feline connection and Beauty’s reconciliation with her desires.

Overall, I associate this ferality with passion and general intensity, just through a feminine filter. For example, when I think of the modern, ‘civilized’ form of this feral femininity, I think of the archetypal fangirl. She’s all-feeling, vulnerable, connective, and creative, outside machinelike productivity. It is the exact opposite of forced femininity — the kind of femininity that feels freeing rather than constricting. This of course changes depending on the person. Feral feminism rejects societal and systemic hindrances, especially capitalistic, patriarchal poisons.

The witch as a successful deviant embodies this rejection, her abnormality the cornerstone upon which her identity has been built. Her body as self-controlled monster, decorated by certain symbols like the pointed hat and the red lips, demonstrates the mutability of normalcy. Whether an aged crone or young siren, the witch’s physical form can mask her power by simply shedding external markers, maintaining her true power — her sense of self separate from society: “Dwelling in the dissolve, where fundamental boundaries have begun to come undone, unraveled by unknown futures, can be a form of ethical engagement that emanates from both feminist and environmentalist practices,” (Alaimo p. 2). BatB stories focus on personal growth in regards to being Othered — whether as a Beauty or as a Beast — but by being a romance, the story is relatively contained. The witch as an archetype and symbol, on the other hand, encourages rebirth and communal growth, extending the transformation of the self to others. Federici explains that persecuting witches eroded feminine connections and power structures because, “[T]he witch-hunt destroyed a whole world of female practices, collective relations, and systems of knowledge that had been the foundation of women’s power in pre-capitalist Europe, and the condition for their resistance in the struggle against feudalism,” (p. 192). Reclaiming the witch is, recalling the Heroine’s Journey, rooted in reclaiming the divine feminine.

Feral feminism takes the feminine self-actualization and empowerment in romantic fairy tales and codifies them for a singular story; the protagonist and central narrative force are one and the same.


With Game of Thrones (GoT) finally finished, fantasy is scrambling for its replacement. New shows like Carnival Row have not-so-epically failed at replicating GoT’s success, and I hope that this generic hole inspires people to reevaluate George R. R. Martin’s older works. His various depictions of Beauty and the Beast have helped push the subgenre into the twenty-first century, allowing for more complex and engaging Beauty characters. (A close friend and I were just discussing the other week his BatB relationships in A Song of Ice and Fire: Sansa Stark and Sandor Clegane, Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth.) The witch archetype is also evolving, with reboots like the new Charmed series and upcoming Practical Magic prequel series. I look forward to further exploration of this ‘feral feminism’ and to see how I can flesh it out. Since I can’t disappear into the woods just yet, I will happily feed my inner fairy-tale fangirl till then.

Images courtesy of John William Waterhouse, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, and Silvia Federici

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