Great Hera! Wonder Woman on Feminism and Religion blog

If you would like to start out your new year by reading a new post I wrote for the Feminism and Religion blog on Wonder Woman and taking women’s power back from the mainstream media, please click here.

Awaken, Snow White: Choose Your Spiritual Power Well

Snow White has, once again, arisen from her magic sleeping death. Her tale is featured in two new movies: Mirror, Mirror is a light-hearted, family-oriented take featuring what has to be admitted is a pretty boffo Bollywood ending while Snow White and The Huntsman is a summer action-adventure version complete with massive battles and Snow White looking remarkably like Joan of Arc in many scenes.

If you don’t remember Bollywood, battle scenes or Joan of Arc in either the Grimm’s fairy tale or the similar iconic 1937 Disney animated movie, you are correct. The two remakes have little in common with the Grimm’s tale. However, I do believe that stories have a life of their own and that they emerge or re-emerge, sometimes in altered form, when they are needed. The two new movies have a stunning number of themes common to each other but not the original story or 1930s animation that seem to speak to the importance of women’s spiritual power in our troubled times.

If you haven’t read the original Grimms tale, you can easily find both versions (one from 1812 and another from 1819) on the internet. The plot is almost exactly the same as the Disney movie. However, the Grimm versions have enough goddess symbolism – black, white, red, mirrors, owls, hawks and ravens – to show a likely connection to much older stories of  female divinity. The last scene in Grimm’s tale – the evil queen forced to dance herself to death in red-hot iron shoes – even invokes visions of wrathful goddesses. The story might even speak to the overthrow of the ancient religion: in the 1812 version the evil queen is Snow White’s mother, the dwarves refuse to bury Snow White in the earth, and “pure” Snow White is consistently spoken of as pious while the evil queen is “godless.”

Neither remake intentionally mines the rich symbolism of the original story to explore themes of women’s spirituality. In fact, the production notes of Snow White and the Huntsmen specifically state that it is intended to be a “masculinization” of the original story. Whuh? I think they are referring to the battles and action-adventure tone. This, to me, doesn’t speak well of perceptions of either men or women (if they think that Grimm’s passive, housewifely Snow White is “feminine” and violence is “masculine”), which makes the fact that both movies can be seen as strongly supportive and evocative of women’s deep spiritual and strong and timely political power all the more fascinating.

If we consider the commonalities of the two movies as a possible re-emerging of an ancient story that holds  messages from some deep place within us, what do they say?

Both movies take place at a time of great desperation. The evil queen has rendered her queendom barren and repressed. The earth is being destroyed, people are starving, and despair and distrust are rampant. The connection to the Persephone and other similar stories is strong in the Huntsman movie, where Snow White is said to be life itself who will heal the earth. Again in the Huntsman movie, women are particularly endangered by the queen who has them kidnapped to steal their youth and beauty. While the 21st century is more hopeful than the queendoms in the two movies, what we do now environmentally, politically and socially could mean either salvation or doom and the threats to women’s rights have recently become especially vicious. Message: We are in times of great decision and danger.

In both movies, Snow White becomes a political leader, leading her people in revolution against the evil queen. In Hollywood’s action- adventure movies, leadership equals warfare and that’s the unfortunate path each takes. If we can look beyond this, however, we see that in each movie Snow White is followed by her people, men included, because of her personal qualities rather than her skills as a warrior or status as princess. She has an inner power that is irresistible and just what is needed at that moment. Message: The time for women leaders who will lead not by might in battle but by our spiritual strength, wisdom, and commitment to peace and justice has come.

Women’s communities are strong in each movie and provide Snow White with essential support. In Mirror, Mirror, it is the women servants who care for Snow White and teach her the self-confidence she needs when she grows into a woman.  The Huntsman version has an amazing sequence of Snow White and her entourage being sheltered by a village of courageous veiled women and children who have mutilated their faces rather than be taken by the evil queen to steal their beauty and who are bravely committed to one another and Snow White. Message: An essential element of women’s true power comes from women supporting one another.

Ultimately, the Snow Whites and evil queens in both movies choose their spiritual power wisely or unwisely. Snow White and the evil queen can be seen as two faces of female power: one is dedicated to service, truth, and using inner resources for a better world and the other is consumed with fear, uses deceit and violence, and has no concern for the havoc and destruction her actions cause. In Mirror, Mirror, the evil queen even has an alter-reflection who warns her against using her power for evil instead of good. Though Snow White clearly has the strongest power, the evil queen is also able to create massive misery for herself, others, and the entire earth itself. Message: All women are powerful, but we must choose how to use our power wisely.

In both movies, learning to rewrite our personal stories is key. Both Snow Whites grow up being told by the evil queen that they are powerless, yet each finds her own power. The Huntsman’s evil queen grows up being told that her beauty is her only protection, and she never rewrites that story for herself, but lives it to her own and others’ destruction. (Interestingly, the evil queen in the Grimm stories is concerned only with Snow White’s beauty, not her youth. It’s only our youth-obsessed culture that has made old age a symbol of evil or female powerlessness in these movies.) Message: We must examine our personal stories and rewrite them when we must. We must also look at our cultural stories that have led to our global catastrophes and rewrite those, sometimes with the help of the ancient stories.

While these movies aren’t what I would have created as a Snow White remake, given their violence, especially, I have to admit that I wish I had seen either one of them when I was a child rather than the 1937 Disney version with its message of female powerlessness and the idea that charming princes are all women need. Even if the intent of making the movies was to sell tickets and they include lots and lots of fighting, I still love that they can both be seen as exploring women’s spiritual power and leadership as a force for great good. These aren’t the only movies that can be made from a retelling of Snow White. Perhaps the next one can speak of women’s power beyond the paradigm of violence as a way to solve conflict.  Let this be a challenge for us to find new ways to retell old stories, or undo the changes made to ancient stories, of women’s power whether to ourselves, each other in small groups, or through the media. The time has come.





SEEING DOUBLE: Goddess Pairs Pop into Popular Culture

One of the unexpected twists and turns of raising a child is becoming very well-acquainted with popular culture. I hadn’t really seen much commercial television or  many movies for a good 15 years before I started watching them with my son and being occasionally surprised and delighted to see goddesses popping up in the oddest places. Most recently I’ve been thinking about double, sister, or mother-daughter goddess pairs. This archetype could be one goddess with both destructive and creator sides, like Kali, or goddesses of both the underworld of the dead and the upper world of the living, like Inanna and her sister Ereshkigal or Demeter and Persephone, or any of many other similar traditions from around the world.

I grew up watching the Wizard of Oz movie, but I hadn’t thought about the two witches as goddess archetypes till recently. They are identical sisters, one “evil” and bent on death and destruction and the other “good” and helpful (with a really great sparkly dress).  This past year, I also found a very delightful time traveler by the name of River Song in the British science fiction series “Doctor Who,” one of my son’s favorites. River Song has two aspects – she can be a gun-totin’ avenger who wreaks havoc and beats up evil aliens when she needs to while being at other times a deeply wise, profoundly loving and transformative figure who sacrifices her own life for others. All of these characters strike me as having elements of the double goddesses, as being both “wrathful” and “compassionate,” life-giving and life-taking. As I think about the witches, they seem as if they could be caricatures of the double-goddess, the trappings of the dualities of these goddesses without the depth and spirit, battling rather than transforming and expressing the dualities of life.  At the same time, River Song seems to me to be a 21st century version of the double-goddess–well-integrated, powerful, and able to effectively navigate our century (and the future).  I doubt that either the witches or River Song were written with any ancient goddess figures in mind, but their similarities and differences, given that they were written about 100 years apart, seem telling to me.

Both the witches and River Song obviously have this double component and each are part of fantasy fiction. Both are theoretically aimed at families with kids. Both, I think, have deeper messages than most entertaining fiction, whether the political issues that supposedly underlie the Wizard of Oz or the Doctor Who values of non-violence (mostly…) and kindness. Quite importantly, both are portrayals of real female spiritual power. In the Wizard of Oz, it is the witches who really can make things happen, whereas the male wizard is just a charade. River Song’s influence is more usually more subtle, making significant transformations in situations and other characters with a few words or a well-placed gift.

At the same time, both have very significant differences. The Oz witches are fragmented into two beings and neither one has any component of the other, rendering them so one-sided as to have no relationship to real women’s lives. In contrast, River Song’s two aspects are well-integrated. She was brainwashed as a child to be an assassin (she has a lot of backstory…), but rather than completely denying that experience, she has made it critical to her ability to both defend herself and others and her wisdom that comes from deep and sad life experience. She is in control of her two aspects and can choose which to express depending on which is needed. This seems to me to be a fairly good description of how real women use their power – acknowledging all aspects of themselves and being able to call on whichever they need to reach their spiritual and worldly goals.

In addition, the witches and River Song seem to me to be moving in opposite directions in terms of stereotypes of women. The two Oz witches reinforce the image of women as “good” or “evil” that has caused so much destruction and repression over the millennia. While again, that was not the intent, the reinforcement, especially given the wide distribution of both books and movie, was real. River Song moves the stereotype towards oblivion by being complex, emotionally human (if not strictly biologically human), and able to use both aspects of herself for good. She also has a healthy sexuality, loving the way she looks and going after who she wants to be in a relationship with.

Of course, the characters were created at very different times. The Wizard of Oz was written in about 1900 before women could vote, when women had few career or life choices, and when only a few pioneers in the western world like Matilda Joslyn Gage considered the importance of female spirituality or ancient goddess archetypes. River Song follows on decades of research, publications, and more public awareness of female divinity in history and in contemporary women, whether any of these consciously went into her creation or not. I like to think that this speaks well of how much more openness to and acceptance of women’s spiritual power there is now than 100 years ago, or even 20 years ago, since I really can’t see a River Song-type character in popular television turning up much before that.

To me, a major task of our generation is to find ways to translate the rich heritage of female divinity, including those goddesses that are millennia old, for our own times. River Song and other characters reflective of positive female divinity are, to me, fresh voices in how to do that, even if this was not an intent of their creation. (The witches in the Wizard of Oz are, to me, reminders of how far we have come. ) I would never have placed a complex wrathful goddess in a science fiction tv show, but she works wonderfully and subtly speaks to the social and ecological issues addressed in the episodes. She and other similar characters may not be responsible for major transformations in how people experience and express their spirituality, but they can be cracks that help open the door to new ways of thinking.

Where are you seeing goddesses in places you didn’t expect?



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