Complexities of representation of women in traditional narrative

Christmas season's TV brings a lot of classic stories back to people's narrative environment. Many of these contain complex and multilayered representations of humanity's quest for self-understanding. These narratives play other roles, as well, connected to the psychological well-being of individuals. They are broadcast in moments of communal and familial rituals designed to promote group cohesion and they play a performative role, as well.

One of the complexities is the interweaving of new and old imagery much of which is self-contradictory. The old imagery's validity is reinforced by the emotional value attached to it.

And a significant source of these contradictions is the representation of women and their roles. On the one hand, women in older narratives are frequently used to fill the roles of men's catalysts defined by their appearance and desirability (possibly homekeeping/caring prowess or fertility). Complementary to this, is the negative version of the same image. E.g. a woman pretending to some of these qualities to capture the male.

But the picture is complicated by the presence (at least from the 30s) of an independent enterprising woman who has many of the traditionally male properties such as wit, courage, intelligence or physical prowess. This image is typically subordinated to at least some aspects of the other images but their presence, at least temporarily, gives them the role of an independent agent not defined only through their suitability or otherwise to the man.

The holiday favorite 'Singing in the rain' is one of the examples demonstrating this contradiction being on the cusp of a narrative transformation (Funny Face is an interesting throwback). The central female character is certainly independent and challenges the central male character intellectually (as opposed to the scheming vacuuity of the central negative female who is a fraud both intellectually and as a woman). However, one of the film's musical intermezzos: 'Beautiful Girl' demonstrates with great splendor the woman as she should be - simply an object to be admired and whose only agency is to preserve her qualities as such an object.

What exactly is the impact of such a narrative is an open question. One of the weakest points in much of critical thinking (including feminism) is to assume a straightforward causal link between exposure to such a narrative and adherence to certain views or predilection for certain actions. But a suitable model has not yet emerged (which is the crux of much of misguided criticism of the humanities from sciences). The depiction of women in key narratives and the position of women in society certainly do seem to correlate but it is not as clear as it might be assumed what drives the change or even what principles govern the mutual feedback between the two.

For instance, in more recent narratives, the emphasis on the female role is frequently reversed. The woman is primarily an independent agent who is forced into the narrative mold only eventually. (This is a gross oversimplification that needs unpicking.) But the overall shape of both the position of women in society and their conceptualization is much more stabel than it might appear on the surface.