HELEN OF TROY, looking (as usual) decidedly un-Greek
I like what’s happening to my nine-year-old middleborn, Erin B. And I don’t like what’s happening to me.
First of all: I know I’ve blogged a lot recently about bedtime myths and legends, and I don’t want to give the impression that my kids are on some force-fed diet of classic western civ. Every night I give them a choice of whatever they want to read. And for the last several weeks, the girls always yell, “Myth! Myth!” (To which I can only respond, “Yeth?”)
Last week it was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight — one of my favorite Arthurian legends, despite some admittedly strange bits. One reason I like it: I have a hunch that Gawain derives from Gowan, which is Gaelic for “blacksmith” and the root of our family name. Anyhoo, Gawain arrives in the Forest of Wirral, only days before his scheduled re-encounter with the Green Knight. Tired, he spots a nice castle and makes for it. The lord of the castle takes him in and gives him a great meal. Ahem:
After the meal was finished, the lord of the castle brought Gawain into a sitting room and sat him in a chair by a roaring fire. At last, the lady of the castle came to visit them. She was so very beautiful that she outshone even Queen Guinevere…
“Why does she always have to be ‘so beautiful’?!”
I blinked. It was Erin, her face scrunched into a frown. “Well…she doesn’t have to be, B. She just is.”
“But they always are! ALL the ladies in the myths are (in a mocking voice) ‘so beautiful’! Every one!”
Huh?? “They aren’t always…” My voice trailed off a bit in the manner of someone who realizes, too late, that he’s talking through his hat. Clearly she had noticed something I had not.
“Yes! They are! What about the one last night?” The night before we read Pyramus and Thisbe, the deep precursor to Romeo and Juliet. I reached up and pulled our condensed Age of Fable off the shelf and thumbed to the story.
Pyramus was the handsomest youth, and Thisbe the fairest maiden, in all Babylonia.
Hm. “Okay, so two in a row. But…”
Hm. I flipped to Cupid and Psyche:
A certain king and queen had three daughters. Two were very common, but the beauty of the youngest was so wonderful that mere words…
Psyche Entering Cupid’s Garden
John William Waterhouse (c. 1904)
Huh. I began to search my mind, desperately, for a myth I had recently trotted before my girls in which a woman’s intelligence was praised, or her strength — something beyond her looks.
“Aha!” I said at last. “What about Atalanta? She was smart and faster than all the men!” I flipped to the page. “And her beauty wasn’t part of the story. Here: ‘Atalanta was a maiden whose face was boyish for a girl, yet too girlish for a boy.’ See?”
“Keep reading,” she said. “I remember.”
Sure enough, in the next paragraph, Atalanta, in a footrace, “darted forward, and as she ran, she looked more beautiful than ever.”
“I began to search my mind, desperately,
for a myth I had recently trotted before my girls
in which a woman’s intelligence was praised, or her strength —
something beyond her looks.”
No use going back one more night, I knew. That was the night we read about the Trojan War — starring Helen of Troy, “the most beautiful woman in all the known world.”
I was about to bring up Medusa, but she’s the exception that proves the rule. According to Ovid, she was once beautiful, until she seduced Poseidon, and jealous Athena turned her into a hideous snake-haired beast. Again, looks are at the center of things.
One of the most interesting things about Erin’s exasperation is that (even by the testimony of non-parentals) she is a beautiful girl. Yet she can see that reducing a person to a single surface attribute is insulting, limiting, even when she herself has that attribute in spades. When she was not even three years old, we did a great little routine for friends and family. I’d say “Erin is beautiful and smart,” to which she would reply, without missing a beat, “An unnnnbeatable combo!”
I was proud of her for recognizing the anti-feminist vein in the old stories–and ashamed of myself for going numb to it. Why did I need my nine-year-old to remind me? There was a time when objectifying references to women made me howl. Fifteen years teaching at a women’s college will do that for you. Sure, I went to Berkeley, but it took a Catholic women’s college (yes, the irony drips) to thoroughly wake me up, to make me a feminist. I know that if I’m not outraged, I’m not paying attention. I know that.
Three days ago, I did it again. Erin walked into the kitchen wearing a fantastic American Indian costume Becca had just whipped up for Hallowe’en. So what did NeanderDad say?
“Erin, look at you! Are you gonna be an Indian princess?”
“No!” she said hotly.
That’s right: I said SQUAW! I said SQUAW! Holy crap!
“Uh…you’re a…you’re a warrior!”
Okay. The nonviolence advocate in me winced, but the feminist in me stood tall. Almost as tall as my nine-year-old daughter.