How Female Stereotypes are Used to Justify Deviance
Throughout history, women have been portrayed by men in literature, art and film under their own patriarchal assumptions of what femininity is. When certain women don't fit their ideal, they create an archetype to explain their deviance.
One of the first examples of this is in The Bible. Eve goes against the patriarchal word of God and eats the apple in order to gain more knowledge. Eve is blamed for the fall of man, as she defies order and wishes to transcend her role of submission and passivity. However, to explain a woman’s defiance, the Bible introduces Satan to show that it was her weakness to the temptation of the devil that caused her to deviate.
This takes away Eve’s autonomy and the wish to transform herself and makes what would be a strength, into a weakness.
The Bible even states that ‘all wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman: let the portion of a sinner fall upon her’ (Ecclesiasticus 25:19). The bible was one of the first known texts to use evil to explain a woman’s wish to break free of patriarchy, and this has become a canonical idea that has been repeated in culture and the media.
The figure of the witch was first popularised during witch hunts, dating back to the 15th Century. Just as then, when the figure was used to define assertive women, we can see that our culture uses this prominent archetype to condemn women.
Heather Shipley in her essay ‘Fairies, Mermaids, Mothers, and Princesses: Sexual Difference and Gender Roles in Peter Pan’ states that:
‘women borrow the disguises they are required to assume within this male cultural model; mother, virgin, and princess. Women are relegated to the roles of male prescription and fantasy… and breaking out of these prescribed roles places women outside the societal model in liminal and unacceptable positions: witches, crones, hags’.
In the Malleus Maleficarum, a casebook for witch-hunters, published in 1486, it is reasoned that:
‘she is more carnal than a man, as is clear from her many carnal abominations. And it should be noted that there was a defect in the formation of the first woman since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives’.
It is interesting how sexuality is seen as a parallel with deception and this is the perfect example of how patriarchy castigates women that do not fit their fantasy, through the fear that she may not be controlled.
Women were categorised under this label of ‘witch’ because they transcended the male idea of innocence and passivity. When women appear strong and unable to control, they are categorised under a negative stereotype.
In modern-day, this witch hunt still occurs. Men are continuing to condemn women for not fitting their ideal, which is seen in media and popular culture.
The archetype of the female CEO is a modern example- a working woman that is cold and untouchable, who doesn't wish to have children and will always remain single because she pushes men away. This is an example of warning against a woman’s wish to be successful and fulfil an impressive career, by portraying her as callous and unmaternal. There is nothing wrong with wanting to pursue a career instead of being a mother, but the media often portray this negatively and align her lack of maternity with heartlessness.
Another is the stepmother figure, the woman who has taken the perfect and domestic mother’s place. This evil stepmother figure is often lazy, cruel and cares more about her appearance than her adopted children. Stemming from the tale of Cinderella, this figure is used to warn against the evils of not being domestic and fulfilling a woman’s expected duties as a mother and wife.
Next, we have the mean girl. The image of perfection in high school movies that wears designer outfits and has the ability to make others do her bidding. She is often portrayed as a bully, however, this archetype is used to explain a woman’s ability to lead others, whilst being materialistic. She is defeated by the protagonist who is often meek and passive, who detests materialism and is essentially a patriarchal ideal. This archetype seeks to suppress feminism and perpetuates the idea that a woman who cares about fashion and beauty should not be taken seriously.
Our culture has long tried to oppress women and excuse their strength and autonomy by creating these archetypes which portray them as evil. By doing so, they create a warning to other women on the dangers of straying from the model female.