Essay: An Archetype for Feminine Sexual Awakening: 50 Shades of Persephone (Revisited)
Awhile back, I wrote an article about how our love affair with Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey could point to the Persephone Archetype at work in our society.
Here’s the big idea:
“Persephone was a virginal young goddess. Hades was the god of the Underworld. One day, while Persephone was out picking flowers and going “la la la!”, the ground opened up and Hades appeared. He abducted Persephone and took her to the Underworld, ignoring her screams. However, her mother—the goddess of agriculture—was understandably pissed off, and brought on winter, causing all the crops to die. Zeus ordered Hades to return Persephone to her mother (so winter wouldn’t be of Westeros proportions), but unfortunately, Persephone had eaten some pomegranate seeds. Nobody who ate food in the Underworld could ever go home. But Hades found a loophole: Persephone would spend half the year with her mother, and half the year with him, as Queen of the Underworld.
“A quick retelling of the story doesn’t really reveal how Persephone and Hades are Ana and Christian. Or Bella and Edward, for that matter.
“The Persephone journey is about a naïve young woman who gets involved in a destructive and sexually abusive relationship. It brutally destroys the sweet innocent part of her that doesn’t know how to set healthy boundaries, and she becomes a better, stronger, more empowered version of herself—a Queen.”
Since every myth has layers of meaning, here’s another layer to that one.
I had a chat with a depth psychology student on Twitter. She lived in San Francisco, and she was telling me that among her friends and in the general area of the city, 50 Shades of Grey wasn’t as popular as in areas like the South and Midwest.
My San Fran depth psychology pal observed that the disproportionate interest showed up in areas where women’s sexualities are more socially repressed—in more religious parts of the country, for example—while in areas that had “embraced their shadow,” as she put it, the film and book were a little less popular.
I hadn’t even noticed this trend, but once I started paying attention, I saw it clearly.
Even in Ancient Greece, where the myth of Persephone was hugely popular and served as part of the basis for the Eleusinian Mysteries, women were not exactly first class citizens. To, you know, grossly understate the situation. (Although the Mysteries themselves may have developed in an earlier time when women had more power.)
But Leslie, you’re saying, I loved 50 Shades of Grey and my sexuality isn’t repressed.
Okay, fair enough.
But are you sure about that? Because I think that our society, as a whole, represses sexuality and forces it into dysfunctional shapes all too often. (That goes for masculine and feminine sexuality, but this post is mostly about feminine sexuality.) And what a society thinks and does in regards to a thing, generally affects the members of said society regarding that thing.
For god’s sake, we’re debating abortion. We’re having discussions about whether pregnancy and healthy period cycles fall under the umbrella of “health care” (if we debate whether birth control should be covered by health care providers, we’re also debating whether pregnancy and healthy menses matter to us as health issues). Many women these days can’t have orgasms, or just don’t know how to have them. (Check out this article from Psychology Today which discusses anorgasmia, and then gently guides the reader to become acquainted with her own genitals and sexual response with a hand mirror and different kinds of self touch. It also recommends doing this alone because the desire to please a partner may interfere with the woman’s ability to experience pleasure.) Way too many schools across the US don’t teach sex education, or teach abstinence only. I could go on for awhile longer, but I won’t.
So yes, I would say we are repressive about sexuality, and especially female sexuality.
It makes complete sense to me that our society is crazy for an archetype about a virginal young woman with no sexual power, who submits to a dominant, even cruel man and is sexually liberated by this submission. (Even though real abusive relationships are anything but liberating.)
But why does she have to be so submissive? Wouldn’t the idea that this archetype reflects a need for liberation and expression make more sense if she was, you know, actually liberated? Actually powerful?
She has to be submissive because we’re talking about a repressed aspect of the psyche that cannot express itself. We’re talking about a girl-like, childish aspect of the feminine that has not been allowed to develop. This is her symbolic initiation into sexual womanhood, so it has to be done by sex. It also has to be done in a violent way that symbolically “kills” the sweet powerless young thing she used to be.
In CG Jung’s “Man and His Symbols,” Joseph L. Henderson has an essay that includes an analysis of Beauty and the Beast, which can be compared to the stories 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight because it’s also about a sweet young thing who gets involved with a big scary monster man, falls in love with him, and thereby redeems both herself and him.
“It is as if she wished to be rescued from a love holding her to an exclusively virtuous and unreal attitude. [In Persephone’s case, this would be her love for her mother Demeter.]
“By learning to love Beast she awakens to the power of human love concealed in its animal (and therefore imperfect) but genuinely erotic form . . . In this way she redeems herself and her image of the masculine from the forces of repression, bringing to consciousness her capacity to trust her love as something that combines spirit and nature in the best sense of the words.”
This quote totally reflects the way that Ana, in 50 Shades of Grey, “redeems herself,” and even “redeems her image of the masculine,” when Christian turns into someone who no longer needs to do so much BDSM, and actually falls in love with her.
It also happens in Twilight, when Bella turns into a vampire and finds her own power, and also saves Edward in a very real way—after all, he no longer wants to kill her, and he actually likes her more as a vampire than as a human. (Oh, and he’s happy, too. I imagine that makes a difference when you live forever.)
In this way, the feminine Persephone archetype allows her repressed naïve inner self to die a brutal violent death, and comes into her power to find real partnership with the masculine.
The relationship, when done in a healthy way, transforms both the woman and the man into higher versions of themselves.
It may be that every individual woman, in the course of a healthy life progress through adolescence and into a sexually mature adulthood, will go through something like the Persephone journey . . . although hopefully we won’t all be abused by power-drunk Hades men.
And I’m not saying every woman who loved 50 Shades of Grey is subconsciously crying out for sexual expression. But it may be that an entire society, in the course of raising up the feminine half of itself to a fuller mode of power and expression, may just become a little infatuated with this archetype.
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