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By Sophie Alka
Whether as a lover, mother, daughter, sister, or in religious life, there is a social narrative happening that is telling us that, as women, we can contribute, thrive most in the service of intellect, invention, transcendence, and genius – but as it is embodied in others, not in ourselves. This is our best hope of coming near to inhabiting these spheres, for they are inherently masculine, and therefore preclude us.
This may seem like a dated theme to be needling, yet there are parallels in contemporary popular culture which beg thought. This narrative, “the myth of the master” as Germaine Greer calls it, has its roots in the Enlightenment, and before: the renaissance man, the maverick genius in his ivory tower, the Master, who looks for inspiration and satiety to the feminine Muse. It has passed through many incarnations over the centuries from its origins in the classical Greek concept of the Muses. The Master/Muse narrative is, for example, immanent in the cults of devotion to the “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I who was cast by figures such as Raleigh as Muse to the nascent colonial and industrial ambitions of the English. This nationalistic discourse of Queen/country as Muse later reappeared in the language of Victorian Britannia. In this way, the notion of Master/ Muse fueled imperialism’s justification for slavery and frontier violence against First Nations people and lands. The concept of Muse was also employed to describe these lands as “virgin territory” or “terra nullius” – a blank canvas for European colonialists to project the identities and vanities of their utopias upon; as well as embodied in the Other – those who violence was perpetrated against. In this context, the Muse was objectified as a source of raw materials convertible to wealth, the fulfillment of romanticized ideals, and sexual gratification. Another example of this objectification via the Muse was occurring in the salons and studios of 17th to early 20th century Western artists, with the Muse embodied as the Master’s mistress: a source of raw inspiration (rarely remunerated), sexual gratification, and the embodiment of romanticized virtues. So many of our Western cultural icons live out this trope, both historically as creators, and in the literary characters they created, creatures of persistent patriarchy. As the saying goes, look behind every great man, and you shall find a great woman. But why always behind?
Greer writes that “the artistic ego is to most women repulsive for themselves, and compelling in men” (35). Seeing and recognizing single-minded creative and spiritual impulse in another is captivating, especially when one has been unknowingly taught that such light in oneself is not valued by society to the same degree. In her opening to Middlemarch (one of Western literature’s great explorations of the Master/Muse trope) George Eliot quotes the early seventeenth century play The Maid’s Tragedy: “Since I can do no good because a woman, reach constantly at something that is near it” (1). Greer elaborates:
Too often women must love where they admire, and admiring emulate, and by emulation are absorbed into the myth of the master, in which they are most fervent believers…Women are conditioned to place their love [of others] first, to value it above all other forms of satisfaction that life may offer (40).
The Master/Muse trope not only imbues our history, it is alive in the stories we create and consume today. These stories continue to unconsciously affect the way you, me, and others around us relate to each other. In 2007, film critic Nathan Rabin introduced into the modern vernacular, the concept of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” The Manic Pixie Dream Girl, in his own words, “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Rabin gives the example of Natalie Portman’s character in the film Garden State, and other writers have suggested Zooey Deschanel’s character in 100 Days of Summer, or Ramona Flowers from Scott Pilgrim vs The World as classic examples. In fact, take a microscope to the last fifty years of film, and it’s not hard to find the Manic Pixie Dream Girl all over the place. Think Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She’s in most Woody Allen films too, and her counterpoint is the legacy of the Enlightenment intellectual and Woody Allen himself: the brooding hipster. Yet our post-industrialist capitalist society has morphed the bearded, bookish intellectual into a voracious consumer of culture, always looking to possess what his co-arbiters of taste deem worthy, and if that be a bookish, wide-eyed waif who can hold a conversation on Foucault, Nietzsche, Kerouac, and McCarthy, then he wants her too. The need for a Muse lives on. And so perhaps the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope is merely the latest iteration of the dynamic of Master and Muse.
And these tropes have real-world implications. These popular stories are the social conditioning that builds these narratives into our lives and subconscious. A 2017 US study found that at the age of six years, participants of both male and female gender were more likely to attribute being “really, really smart” to boys, and boys were more likely than girls to attribute good grades in school to “innate abilities.” This is an example of how early gender conditioning teaches women and men to appreciate brilliance in men more often than women, and teaches men to have confidence in their innate worth and capacity, and women that they must work hard for it.
It is important to point out here that the bifurcation of Master/Muse roles along binary gendered lines is limiting at both ends. Both role players suffer under an illusion, under a conditioned unconscious narrative that prescribes how they must relate to others. Both are imprisoned by this romantic narrative. And yes, an invocation of the Enlightenment ideal is necessary, but so too is the presence of Romantic mores at play. Pedestalizing, projecting our hopes of transcendence and unfulfilled potential onto another, is never a recipe for their fulfilment in reality. Surrendering the realization of these dreams via our own agency, to the ease and panacea offered by a golden Other is too tempting. A person unconsciously tending towards abnegation of her own latent needs, desires, and talents in the awe and service of another’s, is denying their potential. It is an empty gratification that comes from an exchange of affection veiled by the haze of illusory projection. Such sharing of love is merely the glancing at the face of another and seeing a mirror of one’s own making, upon which is projected one’s own ideals – Master or Muse – sewn into the figure of a body.
We have been conditioned to externalize aspects of our growth and fulfillment. And society, in its limited prescriptions for how we must perform our gender, even teaches us what types of human development we are allowed to cultivate internally, and what parts we must instead seek in others.The need for an Other comes at the cost of personal growth. The Master/Muse myth is burst when a woman acts on her own yearning to create and live the genius that she is drawn to see in herself. For what one identifies and holds beautiful in another can only ever be a reflection of the rich wisdom known in our deepest self. Limiting devotion and nurturance to this external reflection denies the deeper capacity of oneself.
To recognize and nurture the curiosities and proclivities of the creative self, to be liberated from the historical gendered narrative of Master and Muse playing out in our subconscious, seems to require a constant revolutionary process of reflexivity. It takes persistent awareness of how these structures of thinking form to break the pattern. It is a deep habit to mistake a yearning for talents readily expressed by others, as a sign to devote ourselves to nurturing them in others. This mistake comes at the cost of careful cultivation of these qualities in ourselves. There is nothing more frustrating and pernicious than the unconscious acceptance that one’s talents could never be developed to the same extent as another’s, because society would and could never recognize and nurture one’s talents in the same way, and with the same freedom than if she were male. Or, for that matter, white.
We unleash this capacity, not through “mastery,” but via confidence in ourselves, our experience, and our intuition. We unleash this capacity by balancing perseverance with questioning self-doubt. And we unleash it by studying and reflecting on our own thoughts, by acting in a pattern of reciprocity, rather than obeisance, to the thoughts of others.
Casting off the mirror-veil fueling the Master/Muse narrative, opens up opportunities to see the embedded assumptions influencing our actions. A more wholesome gratification comes via self-reflection, expression, and insight – a process sacrificed for a self more acceptable to internalized social expectations. These internalized expectations are deep and binding. They are hard to unravel, and the Master/Muse narrative is one of the most Gordian of knots at its core. Perhaps it was this knowledge that motivated Virginia Woolf in part to recommend “a room of one’s own”—a private space away from the theatre of these regulating conditionings where one may unravel in peace, and the threads of one’s own creative weaving allowed to be spun. What rich future might we weave?
Understanding how cultural conditioning of all forms shapes her everyday existence is a persistent reflective process for Sophie. Sophie is also passionate about dissolving the distance between the realms of creativity, scholarship, and frontline service professions both in her own life and the lives of others. After gaining a BA in Peace & Conflict Studies and an LLB, Sophie escaped academia, ran full tilt from the legal sector, and is in training to make her education useful as a clinical psychologist. She processes her experience and finds the intersection of thought and practice through writing and film. Find her blogging at thoughtfulfilm.tumblr.com, on Twitter @sophiealka, and on Goodreads as Sophiealka.