A wrap-up of my project sooner than expected means getting back to the blog sooner than expected. Thanks again... deeply... for hanging in and expressing concern about the diminishing frequency of posts.
As an inaugural to Phase II of the blog, below you will find the article that I had always intended as the intro to the blog, laying out some principles of male/female energy that I believe underlie not just DD, but male/female relationships as a whole. Perhaps it will serve as a helpful reference point for a deeper understanding of the issues we all grapple with in regards to power in relationships and a furtherance of the very cool dialogue all of you have been adding to over the past year.
This article is a bit long and involved, which is why I've been putting off writing it. What follows is essentially a quick summary of a decade's worth of work on this subject -- radically simplified. Unfortunately, even simplified, the concepts required are fairly complex in places, so to do any sort of even basic justice to the idea requires a bit more length than is ideal for a blog.
Some of you will hopefully find it useful.
From time to time, I am asked by various writers, researchers and filmmakers to talk with them about how I reconcile my feminist views with my preference for a DD lifestyle. Understandably, this seems like a paradox to most people (even many in the DD world -- hence the title of and reason for The Disciplined Feminist in the first place!).
The interviewers are invariably surprised when I tell them that I don't see any contradiction between feminism and assuming a submissive role in a relationship with a man. They are momentarily confused, but then (ah ha!) they hit on the Big Explanation that Makes It All Make Sense To Them. They suggest that DD is consistent with feminism because I'm exercising my feminist imperative by "choosing" this way of viewing male/female relationships. (ie, we all have the Right to Choose, which is what makes us feminists).
Most people do see feminism as a choice issue above all else. Whether it's something as inflammatory as abortion or the more garden-variety choices of whether or not to marry, have children or pursue a career (or going further back in history, the right to vote), we seem to have defined feminism as the power to choose one's own destiny. A woman is either a feminist or not (your choice), depending on... well, what choices we make. We then advertise our feminism to the world with, again, our choices.
I would submit, however, that fundamentally, a true understanding of feminism at its deepest level has little or nothing to do with choice. While the ability to shape our destinies is a nice byproduct of a more egalitarian society, it is not and should not be confused with feminism.
Putting aside any contemporary, political definitions of feminism (are there any other kind, I wonder?), I suggest that feminism, at its core, is fundamentally about reclaiming the value and worth of being female. The word "feminine" forms the root of the word and thus -- as most linguists and anthropologists would agree -- the root of the concept.
To be a feminist is to insist that the mere act of being female -- of being feminine -- is a sacred experience. To be a feminist is to reclaim the power that contemporary Western culture has stripped away from women beginning in the pre-Christian era right up to the present extremist right wing religious movement in America. It is to say that feminine power, the feminine experience, is as worthy of honor and expression as the masculine experience.
To be a feminist is to claim the sacred right to be female.
All very well. But what does that mean? What is the sacred right to be female and what does it mean, then, to be feminine?
(apologies to those of you who already know this stuff)
As part of my personal journey, I've spent close to a decade now studying Jungian psychology, with an emphasis on archetypes and a special emphasis on the "heroine's journey" as it reveals itself in myth, fairy tale and contemporary storytelling. For those of you not familiar with all that stuff, that's a long, semi-fancy way of saying I'm interested in how human beings, collectively and at their deepest levels, experience what it means to be a woman. (If anyone is interested in exploring these issues and wants a recommended reading list, let me know and I'd be happy to recommend books that have been helpful to me along the way.)
As any of you who have studied archetypes and myth know, this is an extremely rich and complex subject, and by invoking it here, I run the risk of oversimplifying something that deserves a far more comprehensive explanation and treatment than is possible in a blog article. This is intended as a starting point for discussion, not a definitive or exhaustive examination of feminism and archetype (which is a life's work!). So please don't write and tell me that "it's more complicated than that." Yes, it is. But at the same time, it's also simpler, too.
Archetypal myth work is based on the premise that the reason story has been fundamental to all human civilizations since the beginning of time (even back to cave paintings and stories by the fire before written language) is that story is humankind's way of passing on our collective experiences to the next generation and articulate our deepest, most profound experiences.
This type of work is based on the idea -- supported by 2000+ years of history and anthropology -- that the same themes and patterns of story emerge across all cultures, language barriers and time periods, and that this pattern is the key to understanding our deepest, most authentic selves.
THE HERO'S JOURNEY
Joseph Campbell is one of the most famous in this field -- he posited that all men must go through a set sequence of life challenges, what he called "the hero's journey," to become complete, integrated human beings.
As many, many have pointed out since Campbell (including Campbell himself), the male journey and the female journey are fundamentally, clearly different. If one looks at the earliest, pre-Christian myths available to us, there is a startlingly clear and distinct difference between stories in which a man goes on a quest or journey and a woman goes on a quest or journey.
When a man goes on a journey, he generally (and this is, again, very simplified) leaves the home of his father with a specific mission in mind (to get the Grail, to slay the dragon). On his way, he encounters physical obstacles and must prove his character, his bravery and his worth in order to secure the prize and return home to claim his rightful place in the kingdom. The way in which the hero proves his worth is outwardly-directed. He fights, he climbs, he struggles through walls of thorns or battles raging rivers. He breaks through things, breaks down things, thrusts outward with his lance or his spear or his fists. Only once he has overcome all physical obstacles in his path through the use of force does he earn the right to return home and become king.
To become integrated, a man on his hero's journey must extend himself outward into the world. This is why calling someone a "man of action" is one of the highest compliments you can pay a man and why being a "self-made man" is one of our society's highest goals.
This "hero's journey" is manifested in our culture most obviously by a man's quest for professional success, athletic prowess or sexual conquest. Making the deal, scoring the goal, bedding the woman are all outwardly-directed acts designed to elevate status and prove to the world (and more importantly, himself) that he's fit to be king. (Side note: This is also why a smart woman knows that any man worth having will put his work before his family -- and a smart woman wouldn't ask him to be any other way)
Most people are familiar with the hero's journey. Hollywood's been making money off it for years -- it's the standard structure of most mainstream action/adventure movies ("Die Hard," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Dirty Harry," and of course, "Star Wars" which was overtly based on Campbell's work), as well as spy, western and detective novels and comic books.
THE HEROINE'S JOURNEY
Because Western culture has elevated the masculine as superior to the feminine, most people aren't as familiar with the heroine's journey. (There are movies about the female journey, but they tend to be indie films.)
Our patriarchal culture has done a lousy job of educating us on what these feminine-centered myths are (but a really good job of supressing them!), so I'm going to take up a bit of space to tell one of the most famous -- the Descent of the Goddess is the grandmama of all heroine's journey myths and for the record, it pre-dates Christianity and patriarchal power structures, so it was not written to "keep woman in her place" as many later fairy tales were.
For those of you interested in this sort of thing, it's worth pointing out that the other big famous heroine's journey myth is the legend of Persephone and Demeter, but the Descent of the Goddess came first and many believe it forms the basis for the Persephone/Demeter myth.
THE DESCENT OF THE GODDESS
So then, a brief retelling of the Descent of the Goddess (again, apologies to those of you who already know this!):
Inanna is the Queen of the Overworld, where things aren't going very well for her. For a variety of reasons (depending on the version of the story), she is motivated to visit her twin sister, Erishkigal, the Queen of the Underworld, who is grieving inconsolably from a broken heart.
To honor her sister, Inanna puts on her finest robes and presents herself at the entrance to the Underworld. However, to gain entry, she must pass through seven gates. At each gate, Inanna is required to remove one article of her fine clothing -- her crown, her robe, her shoes, etc. When she finally gains entrance to the Underworld, she is completely naked.
Even then, her sister Erishkigal won't see her and is offended at Inanna's presumption at intruding on Erishkigal's domain. Erishkigal orders Inanna hung by her hands and whipped until the skin falls from her bones and she is just a skeleton. There Inanna's body hangs for three days and and nights, dead.
Inanna's best female friend in the Overworld becomes worried when Inanna fails to return from her journey. The friend goes everywhere asking for help to rescue Inanna, but the only one who agrees to help is the God of the Sea. The Sea God fashions two sexless creatures of clay and animates them. The two clay creatures go down to the Underworld and present themselves to Erishkigal. Erishkigal is in such deep grief that all she can do is weep in her dark cave.
The two clay figures do not speak to Erishkigal. They merely witness her pain and hear her cries -- but this is key because everyone else has been too frightened of her to get anywhere near her. She's been crying alone in the dark for ages.
Just having a witness to validate and acknowledge her pain is so healing to Erishkigal that she is able to function again. In gratitude, she asks the two clay creatures what she can do to repay them, and they ask that she can restore Inanna's life and allow her to return to the Overworld.
Erishkigal complies. Inanna's body and life are restored to her, Erkshigal's broken heart is mended, the two sisters have a loving reunion, and Inanna returns to the Overworld a stronger and more complete individual to preside over a peaceful and just kingdom. In short, she lives happily ever after.
HOW ALL THIS RELATES TO FEMINISM
Contained in the story of Inanna is, many would argue, the essence of what feminism really means. Our journey as women is different. It is not to find ourselves by expressing outward into the world by force or penetration, but by surrendering inwards, and giving up false power (ie, Inanna's fine robes, our attempts to act like men) to find a more authentic power (ie, connection with our true selves). Being strident, bitchy, overly assertive or masculine are the contemporary "robes" that we must be willing to be stripped of if we're going to find our true feminine selves.
Analyzing the lessons of the heroine's journey contained in the Descent of the Goddess is a life's work (and many have made it just that), but for our purposes, the thing to notice here is that the way in which Inanna -- ie, the feminine -- seeks wisdom and wholeness is exactly opposite from the way a hero would (remembering that we're taking Descent of the Goddess as representative of feminine mythology). The solution to the hero's problems is to go forth and conquer; the solution to the heroine's problems is to go below and submit.
Inanna does not find power by going on a hero's journey; she finds power by claiming the right to undertake her own unique feminine journey. And she finds it by yielding rather than attacking. Instead of fighting her way through the gates or defeating those who would hang and beat her as a hero would, Inanna submits completely and without protest to the indignity and pain of the experience. This is the only way in for her.
Inanna returns to the physical world a healthy, empowered, complete woman. She does this not by fighting, but by submitting, by going without struggle into the depths of herself and surrendering her pride, her modesty and her physical power. Then -- and only then -- is she allowed access to her truer nature and her true pain. Had she struggled, she would have been denied entrance to the Underworld and by extension, denied knowledge of connection with her true Self and the opportunity to heal her broken heart.
The power that comes with yielding is not a weaker or inferior form of power, but rather a different one (albeit one that's threatening and alien to our war and aggressive-centered culture). Inanna is not weak. She is a queen -- a real one, not a false one who rules by trying to be a king. The fact that feminism has been sold to contemporary women as requiring us to act like men is a cruel, abusive and confusing lie that does more to DIS-honor the feminine spirit than the honor it (how much honor can there be in claiming that to be worthwhile, you must reject and act in direct opposition to your truest self?).
THE PART ABOUT SEX
There are those who suggest that myths are not a valid enough basis for claiming that female energy is inherently submissive resist this idea at all costs. This resistance is understandable, given that the idea that feminine energy is about yielding can seem very frightening to those of us raised to believe that equal means masculine, and given the reality that there are plenty of predators lurking to take advantage of any yielding we do.
However, any doubt that female energy is primarily inwardly directed and yielding seems quickly dispelled when we look at something much closer to home and completely outside the scope of cultural manipulation, etc.-- sex.
The most basic place to find contemporary, non-mythological evidence of the difference between the heroine's journey and the hero's journey is in the sex act. The male's role in the sex act is to act outwardly. His penis protrudes out -- literally -- into the world. To consummate the act, he penetrates into the woman -- an act of aggression and force.
The female's role in the sex act is, of course, opposite of the male's (hence yin/yang and other concepts of balance). Our sex organs are internal, not external. No matter how "feminist" (in the misunderstood way of using the term) a woman is, to consummate the sex act, we must submit to being penetrated, entered -- acted upon -- by our "hero." Yes, there are other ways to find sexual pleasure, but it all still comes down the basic, biologically hard-wired Sex Act: a man takes action and a woman submits.
It is no accident that particularly in goddess-centered spirituality (but also in the mystic texts of mainstream religions like Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism), the sex act is considered a sacred ritual for connecting with God. A male and female joined in intercourse is our most profound symbol of unity, wholeness and the elevation of the human spirit. And it is inescapably an act which cannot take place unless the female submits to penetration by the male.
In short, to find the sacred, each must play our part. The male must act and the female must submit. Put another way, the male must give and the female must receive for the spark of life to be ignited.
There is no real "choice" here. If you want to have sex -- arguably the most basic and primal expression of gender -- and you are a woman, submission and yielding of physical control is required. And if you want to have good sex, I'd argue that a yielding of psychological control is required, too. If you want to find true completion in a relationship or within yourself, that same yielding of physical and psychological control is equally required, albeit in more subtle and complex ways.
So, too, is "choice" an illusion when it comes to defining feminism. We don't have a choice as to how our archetypal selves feel and act or what they require to feel whole. 2000+ years of history and our basic biological makeup tells us who we are at our most primal levels and no amount of kicking and screaming and post-modern protest is going to change that -- at least not in our lifetimes. Archetypes and inner truths don't care about the Pill or the ERA or wage parity. They care about the deepest, truest parts of our nature that strength back to before recorded history.
A woman's journey is inward, a man' s journey is outward. A man's journey to wholeness requires outward action; a woman's journey to wholeness requires "taking in," absorbing or yielding.
We can choose not to go on the journey, of course, or we can choose to go on the wrong one, and in that sense, there is always choice. But to truly claim our power as women -- to truly be "feminist" -- requires an act of surrender akin to stripping off our pretensions (right down to the skin on our bones) and allowing ourselves to submit completely to the wisdom of our subconscious.
HOW DD RELATES TO ALL THIS
DD is, of course, a fundamental, deeply ritualized and externalized re-enactment of the heroine's journey, of this sacred joining of in and out, force and submission. By allowing our bodies to be stripped and beaten, our wills to be humbled and our tears to flow in the presence of a loving witness, we are literally re-creating the Descent of the Goddess with each punishment. I would argue that this is why the experience is so deeply psychologically resonant, for women in particular, but men also (that's another article).
Those who are disturbed by this construct of male/female power have, over the years, done much to rationalize why it just ain't so. They insist that men and women aren't so different and women certainly don't have to submit to be self-actualized. But just because we're not comfortable with a truth doesn't make it less true.
Can the heroine's journey, the act of yielding, go wrong? Be abused? Absolutely. Just as the hero can get eaten by the dragon, so too can the heroine be taken advantage of and exploited in her act of submission. But just because there are dragons out there that eat heroes doesn't make the hero's journey any less valid or necessary to spiritual fulfillment. And just because there are those out there who would (and have) sought to use the yielding power of the feminine to debase, subjugate and abuse women doesn't make those truths less valuable, less sacred, or less true.
Going through the motions in the real world, we are all Inanna, struggling to find our way without the benefit of a transcendant journey of descent into the depths of who we really are. And deep in all of our hearts, weeping alone in her cave, is our own private Erishkigal, waiting for us to come and heal her broken heart.
THE TRUE POWER OF THE FEMININE
The power of the yielding submissive feminine is in the dignity of Jackie Kennedy walking behind her husband's casket, the compassion and courage of Princess Diana holding the hand of an AIDS victim or the eloquence of Maya Angelou sharing her story of rising above her abusive childhood.
The power of the feminine is not confined to women. Martin Luther King and Gandhi knew the power of yielding and used it to change the world by fighting violent discrimination with non-violent resistence. Jesus knew it when he went willingly to the cross and submitted quietly to the violence of his tormenters (and for that matter, Mary knew it when she let him go).
Any time anyone, male or female, chooses to nurture instead of attack or forgive instead of seeking revenge, it is the power of the true Feminine changing the world.
My deepest wish for all of us this holiday season is that we open ourselves to the power of these ancient truths and that we all take a moment to find gratitude for the blessing of our awareness of the sacred power of DD to help us find our way to our own Underworlds and discover for ourselves the awesome power of true Feminism, and that once there, we glory in our true Selves and celebrate our differences. (And if we are blessed to have found a companion to help us get there, so much the better.)
A wrap-up of my project sooner than expected means getting back to the blog sooner than expected. Thanks again... deeply... for hanging in and expressing concern about the diminishing frequency of posts.