On the Archetypal Significance of TV Epics and Ridiculously Embarrassing Celebrity Crushes

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Epic

I inclined 

To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin

Til Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind,

He said: I made the Iliad from such

A local row. Gods make their own importance.

-Patrick Kavanagh

Outlander season 2 is complete, and boy has it been a season for the ages. As this new droughtlander begins, I’m left feeling and thinking all the things. Thoughts are swirling like a whirlpool in my mind, buzzing like the stones at Craigh na Dun, making it nearly impossible to compose an articulate review at all, not to mention doing anything other than to continue to re-feel (perhaps to reveal?) everything this series is.

I’ve watched and re-watched the finale several times, re-watched half of season 1, and read countless reviews. I’ve been comforted and amused by some of the thoughts of other viewers about the strengths and the weaknesses of the season, particularly this one by the legendary and hilarious Connie Verzak. I’ve been annoyed by the critics, particularly the misogynistic ones. And, I’ve been in intuitive feeler space – a lot.

There’s much I could say about the choices the team made this year – a lot I could engage with on the topic, but most of it has been said already, and I’m not inclined to do so. It’s splitting hairs at this point anyway, and for me, doing so is not the most interesting way to engage with great art. Instead, I’ll say this to all parties involved: BRAVO! This series originates from some incredibly complex source material. The fact that Ron D. Moore, Maril Davis and crew were able to make something so coherent, so exquisitely compelling translate to screen is a task of Herculean magnitude. I salute this entire group of artists for what they have accomplished.

Outlander fans are legion, and we are passionate because the work simply is that  compelling. If you read regularly, you’ll know that I’ve already written about jumping on the #teamfraser wagon when it comes to my sense of the presence of overwhelming archetypal images in Outlander. I firmly believe that it’s a positive depiction of an aphroditic, erotic bond between these characters, written from a feminist perspective, that fans respond to when it comes to this this series. Frankly, we’ve had dry times in our media when it comes to depictions of love in this way, and I will defend it to the end against anyone who claims it to be “just a bodice ripper,” “mommy porn,” or a “just series for women” for several reasons, not the least of which is that 1). it is a patently unfair assessment, 2). there wasn’t all that much in terms of “bodice ripping” in season 2 anyway, and 3). that this attitude suggests that even if it were such a thing that would somehow make the work less important.

Now that that’s said – whew, I feel better – I need to talk about the archetypal importance of Outlander as an epic. I need to talk about the revival of the epic tradition on television, because epic is vital to our psychological health and like so many other mythic modalities is often diminished by a culture that overwhelms us with imagery while simultaneously offering us little in terms of both emotionally effective and affective content. You see, this is transcendent storytelling folks, and it is, in fact, authentically epic, not just colloquially so.

Epic is, of course, a literary term. It is generally defined as a long poem, most often from the ancient oral traditions, that crosses an extended period of time and space and recounts the legendary deeds of a hero or group of heroes. Epics are meant to be grand, poetic, engaging, and all encompassing. They are meant to swallow you broken and return you whole. Sound familiar? Good. We’ll get to that in a moment.

First, I am compelled to confess something to you, dear reader. I have been gripped more deeply by this entire series than by anything else I’ve ever encountered (while that might be a no DUH, I still need to say it). And that’s saying a lot. In my years as a student and scholar of mythology, I’ve engaged many stories in myriad ways. Indeed, I have engaged this series and for over a year now. I’ve been living and breathing it. I just can’t seem to put the story down, and I don’t foresee that I will do so any time in the near future. I keep re-reading and re-watching. And every time I do, it takes my breath away. The first time I encountered the penultimate climax chapter in Dragonfly in Amber, from the moment Dougal walks in as Claire and Jamie plot to kill the Stuart Prince to the agonizing moment when Claire hurls herself against the stone, I completely disappeared into the story. It blew my mind, and when I put it down, I realized that I’d not been breathing. It was as though at that moment I too had traveled back through the stones with Claire, back to my life in 21st century Southern California. The reality of it was jarring, disorientating, and frankly, somewhat frightening. That had simply never happened to me before.

The way this series affects me has become downright embarrassing. I recently attended a SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actor’s Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) event with my husband’s niece. She’s an actress and as a member of SAG-AFTRA, she received a notification email that there was going to be an evening with Caitroina Balfe. She immediately thought of me and got tickets. I was elated. I was compelled. I HAD to go.

This isn’t like me. I love stories and I’ve always been a film and TV buff, but I’m not usually quite THIS much of a fangirl. I live in an industry town. Santa Barbara has been a Hollywood ally/destination for as long Hollywood has existed. In fact, some of the earliest silent films were produced right here. It’s part of our culture in the same way it is in LA. I paraphrase what the late great Robin Williams once said about LA: it’s a place where the guy playing basketball next to you at the gym who looks like George Clooney actually IS George Clooney. Santa Barbarans are used to having celebrities around, and they don’t tend to faze us. I’ve been here for over 20 years and have gotten used to seeing people whose work in the entertainment community I admire. I thought I’d be fine. I believed I was unshakeable. I knew I would be excited, but I thought it would be an event like others I’d been to with celebrities. Super cool. I wanted to hear what she had to say. That’s it.

I decided to head down a day early to spend the night with my BFF, an amazing artist who lives in downtown LA’s The Brewery artist collective, and whom I had been desperately trying to convert to the fandom. She and I decided to make it an Outlander day. We drove to the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills to check out the exhibit they had running there and drool over the costumes. We wandered out for some coffee and we waited until it was time for me to meet up with my niece for the event. As we sat and talked, my friend began to recount her own recent experience at a SAG-AFTRA event. She mentioned that at the event she had attended, that several other cast members also showed. I found myself hoping that that wouldn’t be the case. As much as I love Sam Heughan as an actor and respect his work as an altruist, I intuited (correctly, as it turned out) that seeing him in person would be an experience I would not, at this juncture, be able to gracefully navigate.

Speaking of Sam, let’s just pause for a moment to say his name and breathe it in like a mantra.

Inhale Sam…

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Exhale Jamie…

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Alright. Feel better? Good. Knew you would. Me too. So. Much. Better.😀

Nope. I was totally fine just seeing Caitroina. Somehow I just KNEW that seeing the two of them together would constellate energy for me would come dangerously close to frying my psychological circuits – i.e. I likely would have fainted.

I could feel the excitement and nervousness welling up inside, an experience that only continued to strengthen as I met with my niece and stood in line for the event. It was the oddest sensation I’ve ever experienced, something between nervous joy and complete panic. The event itself was great. They screened an episode for us (season 2, episode 7, Faith) and then Caitroina came out to talk to us. It is a wonderful interview, mostly things I’ve heard her speak to in the past, but somehow hearing it in a room full of actors made the quality of the craft come alive in a more meaningful way.

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And this camera view is pretty much where I was. I sat quietly and listened, engaged and excited, – all the nods – and I remained relatively calm. The interview ended, and she left the room. As we all shuffled out the door, my niece and I decided to head down the hall to use the restroom. We talked about our impressions as we quietly went about our business, washing hands, brushing hair, the usual things one wishes to do before heading on the road home from an event. Then we walked out into the narrow hallway, and I ran face to face with Caitroina Balfe walking toward me with a group of event coordinators.

You’d think for a super fan such as myself, this would be the moment I would jump into action and tell her how glorious I find her work to be, but it didn’t happen like that at all. I froze. I can’t explain it other than to say that I felt an energetic glow coming off her the moment I saw her. I gasped (audibly) and didn’t move. She walked by and said hello to my niece and me with a smile, as she continued on her way down the hall. I was completely taken back by my reaction, and I also knew that it was both mythic and archetypal.

I was aware, completely and in that moment that my reaction had absolutely nothing to do with her on a physical level. As fabulous as she is, she was simply fulfilling a role that artists have fulfilled across time – that is to offer herself up as a channel and to be a catalyst for that transformational power that has traditionally been known as the mythic gods, what we often call archetypal images/energies in story.

I had, at that moment, experienced what depth psychologist James Hillman calls being arrested by beauty. Not her beauty, per se, though she is truly a lovely woman filled with luminous energy, but arrested by the beauty of the epic her presence evokes and invokes in me. This is why I’d hoped she would be on her own that day, because truly, just experiencing her part of this energy was enough to render me speechless. Having him there might have killed me.😉

Artists intuit this archetypal power. We know it intimately. It’s why we do what we do. When we do our  best work, we give ourselves over to it so that through our art, others can also experience the power of creativity we channel. That level of engagement can be dangerous. Marilyn Monroe is a classic example. She became so identified with the archetypal energy she channeled that it completely destroyed her. Vivian Leigh is another example of someone who worked so closely with the unconscious that it ultimately destroyed her sanity.  Forest Whitaker has spoken honestly about it, noting that it took several months of purification through meditative practices for him to be able to rid himself of Idi Amin after his Oscar winning role in The Last King of Scotland. Yes, that level engagement can be dangerous, but it can also be the most powerful form of communication we have.

In her work on epic and cosmos, literary critic Louise Cowan writes that “…epic poets have to open their imaginations to an arena of sufficient scope that the gods may enter.”[i] I certainly felt the presence of this kind of mythic energy at SAG-AFTRA that day, and I know I’m not alone. There are many, many readers that have been captivated and transformed by this series of books since the first book was published – about 25 years ago when the two principal stars and me were preteens – too young to be aware that this epic that would prove so significant.

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Humanity has had many epics about war, the conquering of the foe, and the hero’s journey back to wholeness. In fact, it is generally believed that the entire reason for the Greek epic tradition was to heal a people and process the trauma of war. And we seem to continue to be in that moment, as the 2016 Emmy award nominations this morning reveal a shocking 23 nominations for the war epic Game of Thrones, but no nominations for the principal actors of Outlander.

Although war is certainly central to Outlander as well, what I’m left with is a firm belief that Outlander’s significance as an epic lives in what it reveals about the archetypal expression of passion, devotion, and creation. Our dominant cultural consciousness, seems to miss that epic has the ability to return all kinds of images to wholeness. In doing so, it call upon the concepts of what Plato calls the forms and the ideals, a mode of philosophical expression that this series does extremely well. It presents us with an ideal form of what is possible when partners invest their whole beings to the creative potentialities of relationship, and it tracks that investment across time and space with consistently powerful, fully formed characters, both masculine and feminine. By returning this story to the 18th century – the genesis of the enlightenment, it re-creates the modern western world for us, or least it offers a possibility for us to do so.

This is the psychological efficacy of epic. It allows our imaginations to breathe as we take an extensive and immersive journey with characters that reflects who we are and where we’ve been as a species. Epics create and order the world in long form. They give that process of creation attention, and they allow us to witness it. Television is uniquely positioned to offer a globalized version of this ancient mythic genre. It is impossible to over state the significance of this medium in creating global cultural identity and in regards to its ability to shape our attitudes about gender and relationship.

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It is of vital significance that epics like Outlander, a story about the way two whole, creative beings come together to make a new world, continue to have a central role in the myth making medium of television because this story of creativity is the power of Eros. We must make room in this process for this and other culturally subversive perspectives. Perhaps it is the life giving, feminist aspect of the story that balances it and makes it threatening to its detractors. Cowan writes, “the epic assumes that the sacred marriage of the two equal and complementary powers is possible and that in that wedding the whole world is renewed.”[ii] As far as I’m concerned, this is made clearer in Outlander than in any other offering of our contemporary image based forum for myth.

Ultimately, Outlander shows that sustaining the erotic charge not only creates life; it is life. Maybe we, like Claire and Jamie, are living in the last days of something, in our own 20 years of exile – of patriarchal purgatory before we will be able to reconnect and rebuild our cosmos in a way that truly values “rare women” and “loves them well.” But after this forced exile will come a chance for reconnection, a chance to value, cherish, and satisfy our rare women, heal the wounds and soothe the scars of our men, and in the end as a part of that process transcend gender all together to create something new. That WOULD be epic, would it not?

[i] The Epic Cosmos, 11.

[ii] IBID, 22.

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The Heart of the Underworld: Heroes, Villains, or Both?

Here’s a Guest Blog I got to write for Carol Pearson’s site. 

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In a blog I posted on my own site, “Fairy Tales and Disney: Do We Still Believe?,” I discussed ABC’s hit show Once Upon A Time, examining whether or not fairy tales remain relevant in our culture, and specifically pointing out how Once Upon A Time is relevant because it navigates questions of belief and what it means to be a believer, as well as what it means to have a true, honest “heart.”

This show is the creation of Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, the creators of another hit show for ABC, Lost. Once Upon A Time is nonlinear, circular storytelling that often uses parallel narrative and immersive techniques to convey story without the expected kind of structure. Central to the show from its earliest origin in 2011 is the question of what love can do to change our stories and heal the traumas of our past. Questions of belief and heart are fundamental to Disney’s myths, and since ABC’s parent company is Disney, it makes sense that ABC’s fairy tale mash-up would examine these questions. The concept of “heart” has been central to Disney’s myth from the beginning.

From Walt Disney’s famous quip “It’s gotta have heart,” which became a mantra for the studio, to the line “If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme,”[1] the image of the heart has been ever-present in Disney’s stories. Optimism of all types, and particularly about the way love has the power to change us is an essential part of Disney’s ethos, but Disney’s stories also have always argued that the connectedness that love brings is a fundamental meaning of life, and that true love/true connection is the most powerful magic of all.

In Once Upon a Time, this belief in the heart as true love’s ultimate magic is tested again and again. When Prince Charming dies, Snow White literally breaks her heart in two and places half of it in his chest. From the unlikely romance between Regina (Snow White’s evil stepmother) and Robin Hood, to the redemption of Captain Hook through his love for “Emma Swan the savior” (the daughter of Snow White and Charming, i.e., the product of true love), the heart’s ability to lay the traumas of the past down and learn to offer forgiveness and trust love proves to be the show’s prescription for transformation from villain to hero. This prescription to give and receive love is not limited to romance. Heart’s love and trust are also shown to be the ingredients necessary for the healing of all relationships in this mythic landscape, which through parallel narrative and back story seems to offer a deeper, more holistic interpretation.

Not that all the characters choose to become heroes. One of the things I’ve always loved about Once Upon A Time is its insistence on telling the stories through fractured, pastiche-like piecing together of the traditional tales. Season five delves more deeply into the shadow of the heart image than any of the previous ones, continuing to press the boundaries of how far a character can go and still be redeemed. It spends much of the season with what it calls “the dark ones”, and then, just when it seems as though this show has covered the bases of all the Disney villains, it throws us the ultimate in challenging mythic locales—the Underworld and Hades, Greek myth’s archetypal image of death or transformation.

A tragic death spurs Emma, her family, and her friends to journey to the Underworld to attempt retrieve the soul of her beloved Captain Hook. This version of the Underworld is a parallel, albeit sepia toned and broken, version of Storybrooke, Maine, the town where the storybook characters have lived for the whole of the show[2]. We see Hades soon after the characters arrive in the underworld, and as expected he is prickly, unwelcoming, and clearly a trickster and not the devil, but still a complex character who holds the souls of the dead in the Underworld hostage, manipulating them so that they cannot find out what their “unfinished business” is and move on to a “better place or a worse one” as befits the penultimate choices they decide to make.

In this case, it is a kaleidoscopic version of Hades and Persephone’s love affair. This Hades is cursed by Zeus to rule the Underworld. The reason Zeus has cursed him remains unclear. In Disney’s 1997 animated film Hercules, Hercules banishes Hades to the river of souls for leading a rebellion against Zeus. In that version of the myth, Hades hates his brother, seeing him as a tyrant. This is a re-visioning of the myth, and certainly harkens to Christian images of Lucifer challenging God and being banished to “hell.” Although the reason for him being banished to the underworld isn’t spelled out in this version, the cursing is present. This Hades has been cursed to have his heart stopped. Consequently, he cannot feel joy or experience anything but a desire for revenge.

In an episode titled “Our Decay,” Once Upon A Time gives its fractured version of Hades falling in love with Persephone. This time, Hades finds his “lost daughter” love in the form of Zelena, the wicked witch of the west. In this version of the story, Zelena is the child of the miller’s daughter from Rumpelstiltskin and the sister of Snow White’s evil stepmother. She was banished to Oz by her mother as a child, and it’s clear that her wickedness stems from the abandonment she feels from that. In this way, she clearly is a shadow version of Persephone—the Persephone that would be if Demeter abandoned her to the Underworld instead of challenging Zeus in order to find her.

In a past version of Oz, as Zelena struggles with her plans to destroy Dorothy, she encounters Hades in the woods. Hades confides in Zelena that he has been cursed and that if he found someone to love, his heart would begin to beat again and the curse would be broken. The two spend time together and begin to develop romantic feelings for each other, but Zelena, unable to trust anyone, betrays Hades, winning her battle against Dorothy but sending Hades back to the Underworld in the process.

The series then flashes forward to “where we are now.” In the town of Storybrooke, Zelena fights Belle and The Blue Fairy to try to gain access to the daughter she had with Robin Hood. In an interesting twist, this version casts Zelena as Demeter at this moment, refusing to give up on her daughter and literally going anywhere to be with her. Hades opens a portal between worlds and Zelena grabs her daughter and goes into the Underworld with the child. Belle follows after her, steals the child back, and returns her to Robin Hood and Regina, who at this point has made the choice to trust, love, and become a hero herself.

Hades tells Zelena that he has made the Underworld look like Storybrooke just for her and her child. He wants to create a home for them, to make them feel comfortable. For a couple of episodes he tries to convince her that his intentions toward her are honest. At first, she doesn’t believe him, but then something happens that changes everything. Zelena encounters her mother Cora and her sister Regina together. Their mother is dead, but Zelena and Regina are not. After spending so much time in the Underworld, Cora has come to peace with her past mistakes. She wants to make peace with her daughters so that she can move on to a “better place,” so she returns a memory to them that she had removed by magic when they were children. She reminds them of a time when they were friends and trusted each other. This seemingly small action seems to erase all of the hatred between the women, and suddenly Zelena becomes convinced that she can “redeem” Hades. But can she and will she?

Hades is faced with a choice of whether to tear up a contract he holds in revenge against other characters or to choose Zelena. He chooses her, and when he does so, his heart begins to beat again. His “seemingly” selfless actions have broken the curse that has kept him bound to the Underworld. This is not the end of the story, however. Because Hades is a trickster, it is not clear whether his intentions are honest. His choices have led Zelena to trust him, and it is clear that they do love each other, but how far will that love take them?

Shortly after Hades’ curse is broken, he opens another portal between worlds. They head back to Storybrooke, but trailers for the finale suggest that all will not end easily or happily there. In this version of the myth, Hades and Persephone, while unified, still carry their darkness with them, and like an addiction, this darkness will always be present, something to access if they want to be villains, or choose to change if they want to be heroes.

Once Upon A Time’s heroes are selfless. They choose to love without personal gain and without fear of loss. This is the paradox of this rendering of Hades and Persephone. Will they change from villain to hero? Once Upon A Time suggests that facing our shadow is not irrevocable. It shows us that, as Jung suggests, individuation—coming to consciousness of our own shadows—is the process of a lifetime. While we are alive, while our hearts still beat, our choices are too complex to be categorized simply, but with our connection to our hearts come the freedom to choose.

[1] Written for Pinocchio (1940) by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington.

[2] This version of Underworld is reminiscent of the video game Epic Mickey that was created for Nintendo’s WII in partnership with Disney, where Mickey fights his way through Underland, a dystopian version of Disneyland. The buildings are in ruins, and nothing is quite what it appears.

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The Goddess of Spring and the Origin of the Disney Maiden

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Between 1929 and 1939, the Walt Disney Animation Studio rode high on the success of its animated short cartoons. While many animation studios suffered a downturn due to the Great Depression, Walt Disney enjoyed his very own Midas touch. Of particular significance during this period are the Silly Symphonies cartoons. These shorts, which include such classics as The Skeleton Dance (1929) and Flowers and Trees (1932), are visionary achievements specifically intended to give Walt’s animators the time and space necessary to push the industry forward. Over their ten-year run, the Silly Symphonies won seven Academy Awards for the studio and spawned several imitators, most notably Warner Bros.’ Merrie Melodies series. One might argue, however, that none of these imitators have the visionary quality and mythic grit that Disney’s Silly Symphonies possess.

By 1934, Walt Disney and his team were beginning to dream the possibility of a feature length animated film into being. Walt knew that he wanted his forthcoming feature film’s narrative to be drawn from the well of classical European myth and fairy tale—stories he expected to be largely in the public domain. These were the stories he was raised on and with which he knew his audience would be most familiar. Two of his favorite choices were the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White and the myth of Persephone’s abduction by Hades. For reasons unknown to those of us outside the archives, Walt chose to use the Persephone myth as the practice project for his animators. Disney’s version of the myth, titled The Goddess of Spring, was released on November 3, 1934.

The cartoon itself is charming. Like most cartoons of its time, it caricaturizes live action film, utilizing motifs that were common during the 1930s. Persephone, who is never called by name, resembles a young Mary Pickford—no surprise, since in the 1930s Mary Pickford was known as America’s Sweetheart. Pickford and Disney were friendly acquaintances, working together through the production company United Artists, of which Pickford was a partner and Walt Disney Productions a client.

Also in the Disney short, Hades is presented as the name of the underworld itself, rather than the name of Persephone’s paramour. Disney’s version of Hades borrows its imagery from medieval conceptions of Hell, and the god in charge, called by the Hellenized name Pluto, is presented as a cross between the Satan of medieval/renaissance European Christianity and Bella Lugosi’s Dracula. Like all the Silly Symphonies, it uses music as the narrative conduit for the story, is melodramatic and theatrical, and comes across very much as a piece created in the heritage of silent film.

For me, the two most notable details about this short are that Walt Disney intended it to be a forum through which his animators could work on the human form and that for this experimental work on the human form he chose this particular myth. This might suggest an understanding of the vitality of the Eleusinian Mysteries, but Walt Disney likely had no personal knowledge of them. What he did understand, however intuitively, is the mythic potency of Persephone’s journey.

Below is a link to the cartoon available on youtube.com.

Even at this early point in Disney history, the journey of the archetypal maiden was not new to the studio. Some of Walt’s earliest short cartoons, known as the Alice Comedies, feature a live action girl drawn into a cartoon world where she encounters all manner of cartoon craziness. Girlish inquisitive young women have been central characters in the Disney mythos since the beginning. The Goddess of Spring, however, paves the way for Disney’s version of one of humanity’s central archetypal experiences: the maiden coming into a mature knowledge of self through trials, trauma, tenacity, and resurrection.

I find it incredibly significant that as the Disney artists begin to explore a naturalistic style of the human figure, they choose to do so through a myth that speaks so profoundly to the natural cycles of death and resurrection, perhaps the most universal of all human experiences. One might even argue that this universality is what makes life cycles so difficult to access with vulnerability. We fear them, but we cannot escape them. And in choosing Persephone to be the first animated heroic humanoid maiden, Disney opens the audience’s imagination to what Jungians might call the anima complex, but what I would call a profound heart-based experience of the feminine divine.

Walt Disney often quipped that “It’s gotta have heart.” He always challenged the depth to which a cartoon could make his audience feel. And Disney’s genius is that in opening an avenue to emotion, he also offers safe passage for the trip—a sense that like Persephone the audience will always rise. Disney’s Princesses continue this lineage, living Persephone’s story as aspects of the ever-evolving face of the feminine divine.

Unfortunately, the Disney Princesses have been largely controversial in the last thirty years or so. They are often seen as anti-feminist, passive, weak, and over-interested in beauty and romance. I would submit that while some of these criticisms are valid and should be critiques of society at large, we often underappreciate that the strength of these characters comes from their kindness and goodness. They evolve into strong women through their unique stories of abduction into unexpected circumstances. And they rise, assisted by both their own strength of will and the transformative power of love. These mythic elements are fundamental to the Disney tradition.

So the next time you see a Disney Princess, perhaps you also will see an echo of Persephone’s story and remember that, in the animated world, at least, she is the first Disney Princess—the archetypal maiden, the lost daughter, the bringer of spring, the one who conquers mighty Hades, and its queen.

Thoughts? What about this surprises you? Do you have a particular reaction to any of Disney’s Maidens? Which of the Disney Princesses do you think have been the most popular with little girls? Why do you think they attract the audience they have? We’d love to hear about it. Comment below and Tweet to us @carolspearson/@mythscholar with #IAmPersephone.

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The Alchemy of Claire and Jamie: The Sacred Marriage in Outlander’s “The Reckoning”

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Approximately ten years ago now, Bruce and I were sitting at dinner with our friends/neighbors and their friends from Australia. Our neighbors are way too much fun. Though they have lived in Santa Barbara for at least forty years, Kathleen was born in Australia and Eric was born in Scotland, which means that Bruce connects with them on the side of Celtic culture, and I am simply amused at being with them. On this particular occasion, I was gushing to our friend Kay about how obsessed I am with all things Scottish, Irish, and really just all things generally Gaelic. She looked at me with eyes wide and said: “Have you read Outlander?” “Outlander,” I replied, “I haven’t even heard of it. What is it?” She looked at me and said, “I’ll write it down for you. You just need to read it.” Thennnnnnnn, I went to grad school. I did a PhD. And I read nothing except Jung, Campbell, and Hillman for almost a decade. Imagine my joy when I heard that Starz had given the green light to a series! Finally, I would find an entrance into the lovely world of Diana Gabaldon’s mythic imagination.

Now, I am aware that I am beyond late jumping on this bandwagon, but I have recently become completely obsessed with this series. I’ve seen all the episodes at least 3 times, and I am currently in the middle of reading Drums of Autumn (book 4). There are so many rich things that I could explore about it, but one particular insight came to me as I was watching episode 9 (The Reckoning) a few days ago. I realized that Outlander gets done in about five minutes on the show and two chapters in the book what it took the 50 Shades series three books and a whole film to attempt to (largely unsuccessfully) address–that is the relationship between sexuality, ego destruction, psychological healing, and recreation. Being visually inclined as I am, I would like to examine the show. Let’s look at Jamie and Claire as archetypal energies themselves, and then we can examine the episode itself.

Jamie and Claire: The Warrior and The Healer

These characters are far too rich to boil down to one archetypal image each. The power of mythic images is that they resonate on a high vibration, offering kaleidoscopic facets that speak to each participant in the language and image that addresses what the participant needs to engage at that moment. This is certainly the case with Jamie and Claire. Their power as images lies in the archetypal wholeness they represent. And there are many different avenues that might be traversed in discussion about them. By way of introducing who they are, however, I’d like to look some conscious aspects of them, which happen to be the aspects of them that resonate personally with me.

Without a doubt, Jamie is an archetypal image of the warrior. Tall, broad, and strong–he symbolizes the best there is to offer in the image of the mythic protector. Furthermore, he represents a particularly American fantasy of the Scottish highlander, an image that has been fused in popular culture with what is often called the “Scottish” or “Celtic Warrior Poet,” that is the kind of warrior who fights because he feels and loves so much, an archetype that I am well acquainted with, being married to a man who deeply identifies with this image, and who has an uncle that embodies this energy in the family structure as well. Jamie embodies the kind of warrior that fights to protect that which they are passionate about. Whether he is fighting off English soldiers or receiving a whipping for a young woman just to help her avoid humiliation, Jamie embodies honor, duty, unbending strength, and the brave Scottish heart.  If you are curious what this archetypal image might look like in contemporary popular culture, check this out the iconic ending scene of Braveheart.

Claire is an archetypal healer, a nurse, a nurturer with the soul of a mother bear. Soft and loving though she often is, she is every bit as fierce as Jamie. She is as fiery, passionate, and brilliant as she is stubborn, a personality that makes her the perfect partner to our American fantasy of the Scottish highlander. Claire embodies a potentiality for a motherly kind of nurturing, but foremost, she represents the power of female sexuality In contrast to a great many stories presented in our time, Claire makes no apologies for her desires, be they sexual or any other, nor for her abilities, and her opinions. Images of this kind of female character are present all over popular culture currently, from Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser to Virginia Johnson of Masters of Sex.

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Fans of this series love the connection between Jamie and Claire. In their interaction with each other, these characters create and inhabit the energetic space that the Greeks understood as the love affair between Ares and Aphrodite; war and beauty. In their most positive form, these archetypes inspire humanity to amazing feats of sacrifice for the protection of their beloved passion. Ares and Aphrodite are generally depicted as an entwined pair of lovers incapable of keeping their gaze and touch from one another. That kind of connection exists between Claire and Jamie. From the moment that they meet to their first kiss at their wedding, a heat begins to build between them that represents the passion between love, beauty, and the warrior. That heat becomes the centerpiece for the entire series (both in the books and the television series). An exploration of this passion continues for the next episode, an exercise in the way love evolves over time. It’s quite sweet, but if these characters did not delve into the realm of shadow, they would not offer a sense of wholeness to the mythic patron, and this is what Outlander does so well in contrast to other current stories that traverse similar territory…*cough, cough* 50 ShadesGame of Thrones

–As an aside, the actors on this show do a brilliant job of constellating this energy. Through the brilliance of Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan, Claire and Jamie’s passionate encounters dance across the television screen in a tender, yet simultaneously raw and un-sanitized depiction. It’s beautifully acted, shot, and adapted, really. The entire cast and crew should be commended, and if they don’t receive tons of Emmy nominations next year, there is no justice.–

As I see it, the alchemical relationship between Claire and Jamie as developed through The Reckoning begins to uncover the aspects of shadow necessary to truly unite Claire and Jamie. In depth psychological circles, much has been discussed of hermeneutical possibilities of this ancient science of alchemy through a metaphorical lens. This fusion of energies that are traditionally understood to be masculine and feminine create an alchemical process often known by Jungians as the coniunctio or the sacred marriage–an alchemical process of turning lead into gold, of fusing masculine and feminine…or metaphorically melding elements together to create something new, something golden and precious is present in this episode of Outlander. If, as I’ve previously suggested, Claire and Jamie represent archetypal interpretations of beauty, love, passion, and protection, a true connection between them must mingle these archetypal energies, which means that aspects of both of these archetypes already exist within them. In other words, as much as she is an image of love and beauty, Claire is also an image of the passionate and powerful warrior, and as much as Jamie fights like a lion, he also constellates the golden beauty of Aphrodite.

In The Reckoning, this becomes quite clear. During the fight they have after Jamie rescues Claire from their archnemesis Jack Randall the two viciously and fiercely scream at each other, all the while laying out their hurt and vulnerability to each other. After a scene of violent name calling, Jamie opens to Claire, telling her of his terror at the prospect of returning to Fort William, where Jack Randall nearly flogged him to death. He sinks to the ground with tears in his eyes telling her that she’s “tearing his guts out.” It is clear that feared not for his own life, but also for Claire, who (his actions prove) he loves more than his own life. In return, she offers him compassion as they both ask forgiveness of one another. A voice over from Jamie notes that he had already forgiven anything she had done or ever could do and that that was falling in love.

This scene turns directly into another where Jamie whips Claire with his belt, giving her “justice” for what her disobedience nearly costs the men. Jamie wants to resolve the situation. He kindly tells her that “if it was only me that you hurt, I wouldna say more about it” and then he pulls out his belt and approaches her. Of course, she considers this punishment to be injustice. She kicks him in the face and calls him a sadist, begging him to listen to reason and not follow through with the sentence he believes she deserves, but she fails and he whips her. The scene is portrayed as comical as it is serious. Jamie doesn’t really want to punish her, it is important to remember that he is a man of the 18th century and in that time a husband is responsible to his community to deal with respond to the actions of his wife. In the context of Highlander culture, this is the punishment she deserves. On the other hand, it is clear that some part of this complex hero enjoys releasing the frustration his fear has created, as he appreciates that she is a woman who will fight back against him when she believes him wrong.

This “punishment” creates a rift in the relationship between the two. Jamie begins to realize that he will need to find a new way forward with his wife. After helping to solve some clan politics, he comes to understand that true relationship is not forged through imposition of will. As he is the one who has done wrong, it is up to him to approach her for forgiveness. He must re-open the connection between them that was closed when he insisted on rigidly maintaining the old roles between husband and wife. Returning to their chamber, he tells Claire that he has watched his uncle begin to bend, that it was more important to him at that moment that he restore peace than to be correct, and that made him “mindful.” He then proceeds say that perhaps things need to be different between them. He kneels before her, offering fealty, and vows to take his own blade into his chest if he ever again raises a hand “in rebellion” against her. Asking if that is not enough, he looks at her entreatingly, asking if she wants to live apart, if she no longer wants him. She tells him that she should want to leave him, but she doesn’t.

This simple action re-opens the energetic connection between them–Jamie tells her how much he wants her, asks if she will have him. When she acquiesces, they have the kind of mad, passionate, encounter that rips open the boundaries between two people, during which Claire takes a dagger and holds it to his throat telling him that if he ever raises a hand to her again, she will “cut out his heart and have it for breakfast.” Again Cait and Sam play this so well together, because through their talent and interpersonal connection, the viewer can actually witness the archetypal energies between them melding into each other as they volley domination and submission passion and love back and forth at each other.

Claire becomes the image of archetypal, seductive devouring feminine, and Jamie becomes an image of the archetypal masculine in ecstasy at this experience of being consumed. And immediately after, Jamie takes command over Claire, covers her, and tells her that he “means to make her call him master.” Afterward, Jamie kisses Claire sweetly and recites one of the most iconic lines from the book: “I am your master, and you are mine. It seems I canna possess your soul without losing my own.” At that moment, what this entire scene has been building up to is obvious. They have truly become one.  They have faced their own darkness, each other’s darkness, and they have brought the aspects into consciousness necessary to bond. They are aware that they have the power to destroy each other, a destructive impulse that Dr. Sabina Spielrein, a notable elder of psychoanalysis, observes is a necessary part of sexuality as it precipitates the destruction of the ego and the recreation of a new identity. Through the process, they have consumed each other, and through this consumption, they have been made whole. They have taken the lead of these archetypes and turned then into gold. And in the landscape of Diana Gabaldon’s imagination, for Claire and Jamie, this bond is irrevocable.

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The Beginning in the End. The End in the Beginning: Mad Men Drops Out and Sells Out. Spoilers Ahead!!!

Readers: I just realized I never finished this blog….so here it is. Please forgive the lateness of the hour in posting this.

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Last night was Mad Men‘s series finale. It was a bittersweet ending to a show that revived the 1960s for viewers, many of whom didn’t live through it the first time around (myself included). Though admittedly I didn’t watch the first few years, last summer I got hooked on the drama and binged watched my way through the whole series in less than a month.

Full disclosure: As a Gen Xer who was born in the year of the Star Wars IV (seven years after the show ends), I don’t have actual experience of this era. I am fully aware that from this position of hindsight any analysis I do of Mad Men is colored the fact that I can not look at this era without also linking the 20 year period that would come after. In other words, I can’t talk about the 60s without thinking about the 70s and 80s.

From my little mythie/depth psychological perspective, I’ve always understood Mad Men as a metaphor rather than simple history. The fact that it taps into the metaphorical realm of archetypes accounts for its great popularity. As with all other great epics, it speaks both to the story itself and its larger contemporary culture. Mad Men provides us with one of the great American “everyman” anti-heros, Don Draper, who I’ve previously written about as a metaphor for American ambition.

Through his relentless search for meaning, Don becomes an metaphor for what Jungians call the ego–ego being the psychological structure that forms one’s identity. The ego is what allows the psyche to have a sense of self. It holds the identity together, and interestingly enough, it is often both fragile and unshakably strong.

So what happens to Don’s ego to ambition and utopianism in end of Mad Men? Though earnest in his search for enlightenment, the enlightenment itself becomes a commodity. What happens to Don at the end of one of America’s most poignant, world-shaking, and prolific decades? He goes on pilgrimage to Esalen Institute. He breaks open. He sees his truth through another’s. He cries. He practices transcendental meditation.  And then he has a epiphany. The series leaves us with an image of him meditating as it then crosses over into a Coca Cola commercial, perhaps THE most iconic one ever.

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“It’s the real thing. What the world wants today. It’s the real thing…”

Many have questioned whether the creators of the show mean to suggest that Don created this iconic advertisement after returning from his time at Esalen. In the end, however, it really doesn’t matter whether they suggest that or not. What they are getting at is that there is the paradox that lies inextricably within American mythology; within the American experience/experiment. It’s the paradox inherent in the metaphor–that just as the American ego achieves a small moment of epiphany, an enlightenment, it channels that moment into selling something. In this case, that something  happens to be a carcinogenic, sugary addictive substance.

I’m just gonna leave that thought there for you all to drink in. Until next time readers!

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Off to the Highlands: Pixar’s Brave and the Allure of Scotland to the American Imagination

Hello dear readers!

Recently, I’ve begun reading the Outlander series (and watching it on TV–its epic…just go read/watch it). This has gotten my thoughts up again about notions of Scottish-ness in the American mythic imagination. The following are some musings that I gave as a paper at a Film and Myth conference in Milwaukee, Wi. back in 2012. It’s a long post. More of an essay than a blog proper. Enjoy!

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Pixar continues to dazzle fans. They are experts in the ability to fuse technology with powerful story. This makes their presence in The Walt Disney Company key to this generation’s renewal of Disney myths. From the animation of America’s favorite toys, to our love affair with cars, Pixar reinterprets American identity from a point of view that is aware of both history and myth. Disney is, arguably, America’s most powerful and influential private sector myth-making enterprise. In the years since their 2006 merger with Disney, Pixar has become the most powerful purveyor of the mythic voice in The Walt Disney Company’s ethos.

Their films reveal—as all myths do—the complexes and collective archetypal base of a culture’s psyche. They craft identity, as folklorist Alan Dundes suggests, they tell stories of how things come to be. They are also specific. They equate a sense of belonging. They are the stories that people tell to say—these are the stories that belong to us. To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the American mythopoetic process—played out in Disney/Pixar’s animated films—is an insistence that because of the diverse social and ethnic background of Americans, the world’s myths ARE America’s myths.

Typically, Pixar has shied away from an appropriation of myths and fairy tales from other cultures, preferring to keep their storytelling safely situated within a specifically American context. With few notable exceptions (Finding Nemo and Ratatouille for example), their fantasies are American fantasies—toys from American toy companies, uniquely American superheroes, a road trip down America’s “Main Street Highway,” and little girls chasing a place that is “like America, but south.” This stands in contrast to the films of The Walt Disney Animation Studio that has generally chosen to reinterpret myths, legends and, most notably, fairy tales from abroad. Pixar’s latest film Brave breaks this pattern. It traverses the fertile ground of Disney fairy tale with an original story, which I’d argue is loosely inspired by Robert San Souci’s Brave Margaret tale. It is set in medieval Scotland, a time a couple of centuries before the legendary and mythic era of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. As an animated film, Brave, is a caricature of myth. It is, however, also a fairy tale.

Although the debate over the primacy of myth over fairy tales is ongoing, I prefer to think of them as complimentary mediums that work in contrasting relationship to each other. In The Feminine in Fairy Tales, Jungian disciple Marie Louise von Franz suggests, “Fairy tales…migrate and cannot be linked up with a national collective consciousness. They rather contain a tremendous amount of compensatory material and usually contradict or compensate collective conscious ideas” (8). If myths are the stories that tell us who we are, fairy tales are the stories that tell us what in the unconscious unites humanity. Fairy tales are purely archetypal, which is why national identity is not central to the genre. Fairy tales are easily appropriated and re-told in any cultural milieu.

This might be why Americans are so quick to meld myth and fairy tale. American myths are often poly-cultural—a key feature of diasporic culture. This is also why it is difficult to define American mythology. This appropriation of fairy tale has created a style of storytelling that is comforting to Americans and mythically potent globally. Brave is an example of archetypal motifs explored through culturalized specificity. It is Scotland through American mythic fairy tale—a Scottish virgin goddess wrapped in an American princess story. The hows and whys of the American archetypal Scot is the focus of the following musings.

From Disney’s live action Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue to Randall Wallace’s screenplay for Braveheart, Scottish characters in American film often represent courage, dogged adherence to individual freedom, and the claim to one’s own fate or destiny. Scotland is a country from which many Americans claim heritage even if, perhaps, it is only an imagined or ideological heritage.

In America, myth-makers often develop their identity through a balance of ideology—land of the free and home of the Brave—and the creation of cultural/national inheritance rather than cultural/national history. Colonialists to the core, it is not simply land and power that we inhabit. Americans are also colonizers of stories. Ideologically speaking, American culture prizes the uniqueness of each perspective. It suggests that what unites us as Americans is our quest for liberty, and that liberty requires that the story of each “clans-member” be heard and respected. This notion of liberty requires Americans to adopt a certain amount of psychological malleability. It is an ideology that—in its best forms—opens the imagination to possibilities for every level of reinvention.

So why Scotland? Why the Scots? What has made this tiny country, which continues to be annexed by Britain and has landmass about the size of the state of Maine so integral to American identity? I would suggest that it is for two central reasons: first-a heritage of political ideology amenable to American myth, and the impact the thinkers of Scotland had on the American Revolution. Second is the cultural appropriation partnership between Scotland and America. The Scots seem to participate in the American appropriation of their mythic cultural heritage, and indeed they often relish the image of “Auld Scotland” and the rugged, indomitable Scot as inextricable from America’s mythic notions of autonomy, freedom, and heroism. It feeds into their sense of their own identity. These mythic images exist in a state of flux, and as well shall see, they provide a backdrop for the exploration of Disney/Pixar’s penultimate girl power princess—Merida, who may be understood as a reiteration of Disney/Pixar’s anima complex—an image of the divine feminine in a generally male dominated studio.

To begin with the historical roots of an American interpretation of the archetypal Scot, it would be safe to suggest that the Scottish people as an ethnic group are central to America’s ideological and political identity. In their book, The Scottish Invention of America: Democracy and Human Rights—The History of Liberty and Freedom from the Ancient Celts to the New Millenium, Alexander Leslie Klieforth and Robert John Munro note that the root of America’s political and ideological relationship with Scotland traces back to the Declaration of Arbroath Abby—signed in 1320—in which the leaders of Scotland issued their declaration of independence from England: “it is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honors that we are fighting, but for freedom—for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself” (5). This is ideological liberty and a genesis of civil rights in fourteenth century  over four hundred and fifty years before the American Declaration of Independence was conceived. Skip ahead about five hundred years, and the 18th century, saw many referring to Edinburgh as “the Athens of the North”. Scottish philosophy influenced thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Paine, who in turn predicated the American Revolution.

In the American colonies, Scottish philosophy became so entwined with American patriotism that “King George allegedly called The American Revolution a ‘Presbyterian war’” (5), complicated though this relationship with the Scots happened to be.

The Scotch-Irish Intelligentsia: By the 19th century, the Scotch-Irish or Ulster-Scots represented an image of “Scottishness” which rose to such high prominence that in 1891 a speaker “declared that the synonym for the Scotch-Irish ‘race’ lay in the phrases ‘national freedom, general education, and sound scriptural faith’” (Scazs, 9). By April of 1954, The William and Mary Quarterly had an entire issue dedicated to the links between Scotland and America. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the Scotch-Irish or Ulster-Scots remained a symbol American affluence.

So what is it that has allowed American filmmakers the narrative leeway to present medieval Scottish characters the way they are often presented today? How did America’s sense of Scottish identity turn from Scotch-Irish Presbyterians to Mel Gibson as William Wallace to Princess Merida and Queen Elinor? In contrast to history, myth allows for the presence of stories filled with sentiment, patriotism, nostalgia, and romance. American mythology in general and, Disney/Pixar storytelling in particular, tends to be deeply nostalgic—a term that is often used to argue against interpreting such stories as being mythic. The term “’nostalgia” comes from the Greek “nostos which means homecoming” and “algia which means severe pain, grief or distress.” Nostalgia as a homecoming of the mind is the crux of American myth. In his book simply titled Myth, Laurence Coupe suggests that it is our mythic expressions regarding home that carry the greatest potential for psychological healing. He writes, “Perhaps mythos, which has the power to release us from the limits of the given logos can restore us to oikos…” (214). In other words, stories have the power to release us from the limits of language and restore us to home.

To the extent that sentiment rules an unconscious drive for nostalgia, romance rules myth. This “romance” of Scottishness creates a longing for the re-creation of an archetypal Scotland of the mind. This romance begins in history, as it becomes a seminal aspect of the American myth of liberty. One might argue that this makes Hollywood—arguably the most potent maker of American myth—the natural choice for a continued dialectic between the mythic imagination and American cultural practices.

Enter what has been called “The Braveheart Effect.” In the last twenty years since Braveheart, practice has grown up around these notions of Scottishness. This includes American movements to reclaim clans-lands in Scotland, a revival of Highland Games/tartans, and perhaps the most powerful piece of the “Braveheart effect,” the image of the “warrior poet” This image has become a standard for masculinity among those engaged in contemporary Neo-Celtic culture.

In large part, it is because of these Hollywood images of that an interest in Neo-Pagan practice, a revival of a largely neglected tartan tradition, tattooing (common in ancient Celtic practice and forbidden for much of Christian history), an affection for the Thistle (Scotland’s national flower) and a revival of the tales of the “wee” folk, or the Scottish Will O’ The Wisps are all part of collective consciousness. The image of the highlander has eclipsed the image of the Scottish gentleman on the golf course, the seminarian, and perhaps even the rough and rugged Westward Ho pioneer.

Team DunBroch—In fact, while crafting Brave, Disney/Pixar participated so deeply in this romance of Scotland that it registered the tartans of the realm of DunBroch with the Scottish National Tartan Registry. By doing this, Brave speaks to the impact the “Braveheart effect” has on the concept of heritage building, creating a mirror image of Braveheart, which intentionally plays into the central Disney maxim for story: It’s gotta have heart.

On November 21, 2010, the Los Angeles Times posted an article suggesting that The Walt Disney Company was closing the book on fairy tales for the present (despite the widely popular Once Upon A Time television series—I’m not sure they are done). In other words, the big wigs at Disney are saying that they will leave Brave, and Merida as their last animated last word on the fairy tale princess until, as Ed Catmull, Pixar fellow and president of Disney Animation Studio suggests, the time comes to reinterpret them again. You may be thinking, yes, yes, this makes sense…but why another princess? And why the Scottish woman?

In August of 2011, I attended the Disney 23 Expo where Disney luminary, Don Hahn, gave a presentation on creativity and its psychological importance. In his presentation, he spoke about C.G. Jung’s concept of the archetypes as the genesis of what we create. He argued that Disney artists, like any artist, intuit and respond to changes in archetypal energies. Beyond any argument (true as it may be) that Disney/Pixar is riding the girl power/archer trend, it is also responding to a deeply felt shift in the feminine aspects of America’s collective psyche. The characters in Brave are part of this feminist shift within the studio, a shift in the anima complex.

The choice of Scotland and Scottish women as a zenith of Disney/Pixar’s animated word on fairy tale women makes sense in regards to a mythic fascination with the archetypal Celtic woman. “The Braveheart effect’s” intensely masculinized image of Scottishness casts the spirited Celtic woman in a supporting, albeit unforgettable role (think Jessica Lange in Rob Roy). This, however, is an unacceptable and inaccurate portrayal of the ancient Celtic woman. Klieforth and Munro remind us that most scholars of ancient Celtic culture agree that women had a remarkably egalitarian role in their society. They fought in battle, were equal to men, and maintained civil rights and property before, during, and after their marriages. Even Julius Caesar, (himself full of distain for the Celtic people) was impressed by the power of the Celtic woman. In contemporary American culture, the image of the Celtic woman often evokes the persona of a woman who refuses to sacrifice position, consequence, community, or heart. Merida and Elinor re-envision the archetypal Celtic woman: a feminine balance and a temper to the prevalence of “The Braveheart effect.” These images remind contemporary neo-Celtic culture devotees that the ancient world was a place where women were prevalent and goddesses were powerful.

Merida’s Brave Feminist Heart ALL stories in the canon of The Walt Disney Company ultimately speak to transformative nature of love and the importance of familial bonds, and Brave is no exception. Despite the gags and spectacular visual effects, Brave is fundamentally the story of a virgin princess who celebrates her own power and comes to learn to balance it. So, who IS Merida? She is an adolescent woman feeling the ennui of being oppressed by an insistence that she become the kind of princess her mother expects her to be. She shuns the idea of marriage, insisting that she has the power to shoot for her own hand as she desperately seeks to maintain her own identity.

The oppression she feels from her mother is made ever more acute by the ineffectual, good-natured barbarism of her father, and the stupidity of the men in power around her—again mirroring the world of Braveheart. She rebels, spouting rhetoric that could have come directly from William Wallace himself, and in her effort to change her mother; she unwittingly sets out on a quest to change herself and all those around her. However, in order to fulfill her desire, she must, like the virgin goddesses of the ancient world, withdraw to wildness of the forest.

This virgin archetype, as explored in Brave, evokes the presence of the Greek archer/bear goddess Artemis and the Celtic bear/warrior goddess Artio. Pixar conflate the two—a fact clearly indicated by the original name of Brenda Chapman’s screenplay for Brave, which was The Bear and the Bow. Toby D. Griffen, professor of German at Southern Illinois University, suggests that a connection between these two may be possible, as they share an etymological origin over 6000 years old, which is further suggests is the root of this names that later became Celtic Goddess Artio, Roman Goddess Diana and the Greek Goddess Artemis. Merida draws from this ancient well, in which the virgin goddess represents independence, ferocity and nature’s balance.

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Greek myth heralds Artemis as an archer, the goddess of the hunt, and twin sister of the god Apollo. She is the daughter of the sky-god Zeus and a mortal woman, Leto. According to the myth, by the age of three Artemis had already asked her father to allow her to remain a virgin. Like Zeus, Merida’s father, King Fergus, takes pride in her skill as an archer. Also, like Artemis, Merida prizes her freedom and individuality among all else. In Pagan Meditations: The Worlds of Aphrodite, Artemis and Hestia, depth psychologist Ginette Paris suggest that one who wishes to honor Artemis must accept that they may “neither see nor possess her; there is a core in the mysteries of untouched nature and of femininity that must remain virgin…the girl, the virgin, the Amazon, the archer—untamable and undomesticable primitive femininity” (115).

In her retreat to the safety of the Artemesian wild, Merida entreats the help of an archetypal fairy tale witch, as she carelessly plots to change her mother—though unaware what that change will entail. Beyond her abilities as an archer, it is Merida’s “indomesticable” spirit—her ferocity and her fearlessness—that connect her to Artemis. But in a twist on the myths of Artemis, Merida’s transformation, her loyalty and protection for her mother even after she is responsible for transforming her into a bear teaches her that her actions effect more than herself. This is accomplished by use of a fairy tale embedded in the narrative.

Artio

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By contrast, the ancient Celtic goddess Artio is also depicted as being connected to the bear. She is a bear totem first and an archer second. There is nothing fiercer in nature than a mother bear protecting her cub. Furthermore, fewer animals hibernate in such an intensely unique way as the bear. The bear goddess protects nature’s balance. She offers a sense that this balance does not require the hand of humanity to sustain it. In Brave, queen Elinor becomes an unwitting image of the bear goddess. Her transformation awakens her primal need to protect her daughter—to give her the unfettered space she deserves. As a bear, she begins to understand Merida’s Artemisian nature, as the highly cultured Elinor begins to lose her human self in her animal self. Merida, the archer with the wild ginger hair is clearly influenced by Artemis, and her mother, queen Elinor, is a symbol of control and duty.

Their relationship is a fascinating twist on the archetype of the Disney princess and on virgin goddess mythology. The early Disney princesses were almost passively communal—Snow White and the dwarves, Sleeping Beauty and the fairies, etc…Since Beauty and the Beast’s Belle, however, this archetypal image has changed dramatically. In preparing for this presentation, I read many reviews of this film. Several reviewers (even Ebert) suggest that Merida is too boyish for a Disney/Pixar princess. Some also suggest that she is, perhaps, a template for new lesbian princess. These critiques, while interesting, effortlessly miss the point of the archetypal images explored in Brave. In dwelling on cultural gender roles and Merida’s sexuality, one misses the archetypal power of Merida’s virginity—that is, a woman who belongs only to herself, and is not a pawn in the sexual games of men. That is, women in relationship to each other, and to the balance of the feminine and the masculine within them both. This film presents Merida as an antithesis to this traditional passivity. In choosing to transform Elinor into the bear, Disney/Pixar reinterprets the nurturing balance of nature as the companion of the virgin, rather than the virgin herself.

In order to break the spell that has turned her mother into a bear, Merida and Elinor must, “mend the bond torn by pride,” an epitaph given to them by the witch. MEND seems to be the focus of this piece. Julie Fowlis’ song, Into the Open Air gets at this message of mending. It plays while Merida and her mother are on their quest to break the spell. “I try to speak to you everyday but each word we spoke, the wind blew away. Could these walls come crumbling down? I want to feel my feet on the ground. And leave behind this prison we share. Step into the open air.” As they begin to listen to each other, they begin to break the spell.

This is consistent with Disney/Pixar’s overarching mythic message. As Douglas Brode suggests in his book, From Walt to Woodstock: How Disney Created Counterculture, “America, in Disney’s broad view, is not liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional, Democrat or Republican. The genius of the system resided in a symbiotic relationship of each complementary opposition–an ever-shifting balance between rugged individualism and commitment to community.” The women in Brave suggest that perhaps the American archetype of Scottishness has become TOO insistently individualistic, too obsessively masculinized. Perhaps Pixar is responding to a cultural need for community building as opposed to rugged-individualism or factionalism. Perhaps it responds to an American weariness with an individualism that precludes community. Either way, this film suggests that balance IS American, Feminist, and EMPOWERING. And perhaps Pixar, whose culture is notably cooperative, is uniquely suited to this type of narrative.

Ultimately, Brave is a love song to the wild, virgin goddess’s role in psychological balance. It advocates that she be respected. However, because it is a Disney/Pixar story, it also advocates for the importance of community and companionship. Brave suggests that dependence and independence are not mutually exclusive, and that weaving these together might require the touch of particularly clan-orientated archetypal women. This is why Scotland…why the Scot…why the Celtic woman. It is precisely because of the American associations with neo-Celticism and the archetypal freedom fighting Scot that this story is possible, and that it is effective.

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Filed under Depth Psychology, Disney/Pixar, Essays, Fairy Tales, Movie Reviews, Walt Disney

I Survived Fifty Shades of Grey

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Greetings Readers!

Well, y’all, I finally bit the bullet and watched/read Fifty Shades. In fact, for you dear readers, I actually read the entire trilogy. Lest you think I’m the slowest reader on the round earth, I didn’t actually receive the books until after the 1st of April. Originally, I wanted to borrow them, not buy them, but alas that wasn’t meant to be. Now that I’m done, I’d like to share some of the thoughts I had while I read them. Expect an op ed piece below:

My Kingdom for a Better Editor!

For the love of Pete, could this poor woman have had a better editor? Please? Someone needed to tell her that it isn’t wise to write the exact same scene over and over across three books.  I feel that much of the well deserved technical criticism of these books could have been avoided if they had only had a better editor. There are some moments here that are actually well written…even some moments that are actually authentically arousing. If only…if only…

Mythiness

I stand by some of my original assessment of the story. There is a deep and dark presence of the imagery connected to Hades and Persephone in these books. We know that this was Twilight fan fiction originally, which means that Hades and Persephone were always destined to be there. Note* if you don’t remember Hades and Persephone, google or read my other blog about Fifty Shades.

The images are everywhere: Seattle as a place–the rain, the grey…so much of the time. The solitude of Christian’s apartment. The lack of color in the decor. The way Christian whisks her away there without really telling her what is going on. The thresholding of the entrance to his apartment in the depths of his garage. His broody-ness. His despair. His loneliness. His self-loathing. His unexpected outbursts. His attempt to control his environment. The fact that he, in essence, takes Anastasia (thought I’ll not argue she is raped in the traditional sense…although one could argue whether or not our contemporary definition of rape is really what the myth points to either). Anastasia is an archetypal image of innocence, virginity, and purity who willingly steps deep into the dark. What Anastasia is NOT, however is Bella Swan. She is NOT the archetype of submission. That is the point of the entire story. Every. Single. Time. Christian tries to drag her down to his underworld of pain. And Every. Single. Time. she remerges. Christian loves her for that. He is drawn to her for it. And frankly, she is just as drawn to him. She chooses to work through his pain with him. That’s Hades and Persephone. The dark descent into the underworld–transformation–and the reemergence into the renewal of spring.

Now, where I was WRONG in my original assessment is where I suggested that this is ONLY a Hades and Persephone story. I actually began to doubt my thoughts on that score almost immediately sitting in the movie theater. Now having seen and read it I must admit that there is plenty of the authentically erotic in it. Archetypes of love (Aphrodite/Eros) and the soul (Psyche) run rampant over the entire series. Despite the darkness in this story, there is much of color, lightness, sweetness, and joy. Keep in mind though, that a lot of it is what Jungians call shadow aspects of these things. So much of this series is about the pain of becoming. Everything in this series is about beginning to learn about the unknown and the kind of mess that comes from that. It’s about the healing that comes through delving into the ickiness. Yeah, it ain’t pretty, but life ain’t always pretty. No relationship is pretty all the time–which leads into my next point.

Christian Grey: Millennial Man

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After chewing and chewing on this for a long time, it finally occurred to me that the archetypal energy behind the piece…that archetype that has so many people riled up, is of the masculine, not the feminine. Anastasia may be girlish, kind of naive, and insecure, but she knows who she is. She is strong and stubborn, as well as loving and determined. Christian, on the other hand, is broken. And he has been broken by a system that preys on the disenfranchised–sexually, financially, and socially. As the child of a drug addicted prostitute with no father figure in his early life other than his mother’s violent pimps and as a teen who is sexually abused by his mother’s friend, he is essentially a traumatized man-child. He IS the archetypal masculine that has been damaged by the patriarchy. He represents the messiness that happens when a man–a character seen as a tool of the patriarchy–who has been victimized tries to balance compensatory measures against the need for love without shame or guilt.

Many have suggested that Christian is an abuser. I don’t believe that it is helpful to classify him in that way. Abusers are generally narcissistic, often sociopathic characters. Christian is not. It is the depth of his empathy that causes him to shut down in the first place. He feels too much. And he has no way to process what he feels. Much like his archetypal precursors–Mr. Darcy, the Beast, Edward Lewis–his bad behavior is connected to childhood wounding, not to the essential nature of his character. I’m not excusing his bad behavior (believe me, I am exceedingly supportive of abuse victims. Not only are my mother and my sister survivors of abuse, but I myself have been in two relationships that stepped over the line of abuse. On the flip side, my brother-in-law was also the victim of horrific abuse from his first wife. I have dear friends that I love deeply who have been empowered to escape abusive situations. There is no excuse for it, nor should there be. Everyone has a right to freedom, love, and safety, and we must fight to support them all.), but what I am suggesting is my feminist friends-in-arms might consider for a second that our archetypal images of masculinity might just be that darn broken. What should we do with these broken images? Should we throw them all out? How are we to heal if we give up on them? How can we expect them to be something other than what they are, because these images speak to the reality of what we are truly feeling and experiencing.

We don’t need to tolerate abusive behavior, but if we truly love and accept others we should certainly seek to understand how the behavior originates. In my opinion, Anastasia shows us that our images of the maiden are doing just fine. Childlike though she may be, this maiden has grit. She will grow to be a powerful woman. But the masculine, the hero, he is the one in peril. Beyond the fact that he doesn’t even know who he is and how much privilege he has, he is disconnected emotionally, so out of touch with his heart that he doesn’t even have the ability to access his pain. Of course, that is, until Anastasia leaves him. It is at that point that he recognizes that if he should be lucky enough to see her return to him, he has to learn to open up to his wounds, even if he is terrified that the pain has the potential to unravel him.

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Over and over again in the series, Christian steps forward to receive love from Ana. And each time he comes forward, eyes wide, head down awaiting the blow of rejection. I see this all around me; men who are starving for love, no sense of how to be and how to love. I am convinced that this makes Christian Grey an archetypal image of a millennial age male. These are the guys who came of age in the era of Fight Club, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Columbine at the tail end of gen x and the beginning of gen y (the generation often first associated as millennials, as they reached legal voting/drinking age at the cusp of the millennium). Look around at the 30-ish year old men you know. How are they doing? Christian is frozen, transfixed and trapped in the realm of the dead, ruling a quasi-patriarchal emotional underworld that they neither understand, nor feel a connection to.

The most interesting thing about Christian Grey is that he senses his need for the healing that a union with the feminine can provide. And he is driven to seek it out, but when he manages to find it, he is terrified by even the slightest possibility that he might lose it. So he does what the mythic masculine has often have done to compensate this fear, both in myth and in life. He attempts to control everything. And as we are still in the messiness of the shadow of patriarchy, he seems to pull it off. His wealth, his lifestyle, and his privilege make it seem from the outside as though he is in control. A close read, however, reveals the opposite. Underneath all the opulence, Christian is still the scared little boy left orphaned and clinging to his mother’s lifeless body. That is what is unconscious in our archetypal masculine. In a culture often dominated by Don Draper-esque the anti-hero and the literal Donald Trump false leader, I look around and ask the question: who is building positive images of men? Where do they go for healing? Where are the positive heroes? As singer Paula Cole once crooned, “where have all the cowboys gone?” Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps men are asking themselves a similar question. I do see some work happening out there, particularly with groups like my myth colleague Kwame Scruggs’ organization Alchemy, Inc. There is some great work being done to rebuild images of the archetypal masculine, but the mytho-cultural impact of Fifty Shades proves to me that so much more needs to be done.

Ultimately, I’m not suggesting that we feminist women should step down and baby these broken men. What I am suggesting is that we stand up even higher and offer them a hand up with us, as only the divine feminine can–in compassion, kindness, and with a swift kick in the ass.

Oh, and one more thing: if you want to read an amazing dissertation on this topic, keep your eyes peeled for work by my friend Art Deilbert–Toward New Masculine Identities. His work analyzes Arthurian tradition, suggesting that men can find healing in the character of Perceval as what he calls a lunar hero (in contrast to the common solar hero)–a lunar hero being a man in touch with the messy, emotional underworld of nighttime consciousness. Just read it, if you can. It is genius…and he is so right.

http://www.pacifica.edu/about-pacifica/pacifica-graduate-institute-student-services/dissertation-oral-defenses/entry/toward-new-masculine-identities

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