Matrignosis: A Blog About Inner Wisdom

Think Pyschologically; Live Spiritually

Disney Princesses August 30, 2011

In the 1970’s Westerners experienced a huge surge of awareness about gender stereotypes and we began a concerted effort to free ourselves from them. One issue receiving a lot of attention was how the depictions of female characters in traditional literature unconsciously influenced little girls’ beliefs about themselves and their place in the world. This led many women, myself included, to revisit our personal stories to see how we had limited ourselves.

Huge changes occurred in our cultural stories too. Television shows like Charlie’s Angels  featured women in roles that had been traditionally reserved for men.  Scholars like Marija Gimbutas (The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe) and Merlin Stone (When God Was A Woman) wrote books that examined feminine aspects of spirituality. New volumes of fairy tales were re-written to give the female characters more power and control over their lives. Since then, our growing awareness has fostered greater gender balance in many sectors of society.

How then do we account for the phenomenon of the Disney Princesses? Some see them as positive role models for their daughters, but many see them as stereotypes which are bound to scar our daughters’ minds.  Why do they think this?  Because the rule for female leads in such tales as Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast is that they must be young, beautiful, sweetly shy, innocently seductive, charmingly vulnerable, and, for the most part, deferential to males. Moreover, although there are occasional deviations, the plots almost always follow the  masculine-hero-rescues-feminine-victim-and-conquers-villain formula for heroic behavior.

If we take these stories as literal models for gender behavior in the outer world  they are, indeed, limiting. But what if we see them as symbolic of the inner life of the soul which has a masculine and a feminine drive? What if we realize that each of us contains a sweet and vulnerable Cinderella/Snow White/Aurora/Belle Orphan who needs to be rescued from its child-like dreaminess so we can become conscious, mature, and responsible? What if we recognize the cruel Stepmothers, Stepsisters, and untamed Beasts within us who can influence us adversely if we do not become more aware of them?  What if we see that helpful Fairy Godmothers, noble Kings and Queens, and heroic savior Princes are also part of our potential and we can choose to empower them if we wish?

The characters and plots of our cultural stories are projections of our psyches that show us who we are and who we have the potential to become. If we view them as opportunities for self-reflection they can be portals to growth and self-discovery. The Disney Princesses represent a youthful stage of development of our feminine sides. As such, they will appeal to most children for a little while. A few might even stay in that stage throughout their lives — perhaps because the archetype is simply a powerful part of their true personality, or perhaps because they’re afraid to risk changing — but most will grow beyond it. And when they do, there are plenty of other role models out there to pick from.

At 6 and 9 my granddaughters have already outgrown the Disney Princesses. I wonder how long it will be before they discover Barbie and Ken…


Will the Real Little Orphan Annie Please Stand Up? August 12, 2011

Archetypes have enormous power over us whether we realize it or not. Usually we do not, and it is precisely our ignorance of them that fuels their power. Most people could care less about archetypes. Some of you will stop reading at this point because what I’ve just said holds absolutely no meaning for you. But if you’re still reading, indulge me for a moment in a little experiment. Think of the people you dislike: some you know personally and maybe a public figure or two like a politician or media personality. Now, without reading any further, write down at least five qualities about those people that annoy you the most.

Finished?  Okay.  Here are some qualities I might have listed around the age of 40.  I would have said I disliked 1) people who secretly feel superior to other people, 2) people who feel mistreated, unappreciated, or sorry for themselves but deny their own pain, 3) dependent people who expect to be taken care of, 4) pseudo-martyrs who sacrifice their own needs to stay safe and be loved, and 5) people who blame people close to them, God, or the culture as a whole in order to feel less bad about themselves. Now here’s the embarrassing truth. The qualities we most dislike in others are strong unconscious components of our own personalities. Hint: If you are tempted to feel superior to me, re-read the first quality on my list!

So what does this have to do with archetypes? After discovering Jungian psychology I began a regular program of study. One of the earliest books I read was Carol S. Pearson’s brilliant The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By. It contains a self-test of 36 statements — each related to one of the archetypes — which are to be scored from 0 to 4 in terms of how frequently they reflect our attitudes. When I tallied my score the Orphan got zero points. Great! I thought, giving myself a mental pat on the back. That’s my least favorite archetype.  Thank goodness I’ve grown beyond that childish mentality!

But when I began recording my dreams that same year I found that orphans kept popping up to demand my dream ego’s attention. At first I couldn’t imagine what these sad, needy urchins had to do with me. I was nothing like them. I had high ideals and saw myself as the heroic person I wanted to be: brave, humble, tough, competent, independent. But with continued self-study I gradually saw the powerful hold the Orphan archetype really had on my thoughts and behavior.

The Orphan’s primary characteristics are the very attitudes I most disliked in others during those early years! The fact that I disowned them and tried so hard to be their opposite proves how unconscious I was and how unworthy I felt. I had not grown beyond the Orphan mentality: it was such a deeply buried bedrock reality of my psyche that I simply could not see it. In truth, beneath my plucky Little Orphan Annie persona lurked the Orphan’s problem: despair. Pearson says, “The Orphan is a disappointed idealist, and the greater the ideals about the world, the worse reality appears.”

If it causes you pain to know that the attitudes you dislike in others describe the attitudes of your undeveloped archetypes, please do not despair.  There is hope for us the moment we set out on the path to self-knowledge. Everyone goes through an Orphan stage on the hero’s journey and we can encourage the development of our archetypes along the way. To that end you might want to add The Hero Within to your backpack.


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