Why fear and desire are inseparable in the feminine.
By Cypress Chernik
Disclaimer: mentions of blood
The snakes on her head were still moving when it was sliced off her body. What colour was Medusa’s blood? Red, of course. I imagine that the sword, his hands, the beheaded corpse that fell to the ground, it was all caked with sticky, red blood. Because that’s how you do it, boys. That’s how you solve the endless puzzle of the fairer sex—the confusing maze that is female whim and woe. The maze, that, combed through over and over again never seems to end; there’s no answer to the societal fear that is the feminine.
We have this perception of fear as a bad thing. It is generally accepted that the correct response to fear is to conquer what we fear with force—to overcome and exceed the limits of our mental confinement. To find strength within ourselves to push back against a thing that makes us feel inferior or powerless. To protect each other, and to better survive. The unfortunate thing is that there is a direct correlation between the things we fear and the things we desire. Fear only exists because behind it is something we want, and thus, being creative creatures, we like to invent elaborate metaphors and costumes to dress fear in. Take sirens, for example. We might know them now as sexy fish women who sing us to our deaths with the promise of love and sex, but in their original mythological form, they were hideous bird creatures who sang songs of hidden knowledge and truth to unsuspecting sailors. The temptation of deeper truths represented a very real collective fear for ancient Greek sailors—the possibility that one might go too far out to sea in search of truth, only to be confronted with death. In all versions, the sirens are women. In fact, being female is an important part of being a beckoning and irresistible force. It’s just that now, sirens represent a very Western fear of being lied to and cheated on by beautiful women.
This is just one example of women representing both a fear and a desire, or rather, the fear of desire. When is a woman loved, successfully? And how do we face our fears? We can return to Medusa, who would tell us that it is neither possible to love a woman nor to face her (literally).
Every girl has been her. Every girl has walked, chin raised, mind wandering without focusing, barefoot, through the temple of Athena. Every girl has been empty and innocent, absent of darkness in her brow and weight in her spine, and perhaps caught the eye of a wolf. There is something scary about a girl taken by the world or by sin. What if someone else takes her first? More importantly, what is a woman who stands with her arms open to wisdom and her mind receptive to sensation capable of?
He heard the light, grazing echo of her footsteps. Medusa was beautiful, and Poseidon was tempted. Enticed, captivated, tantalized—and, do you know what else he was? He was scared.
So now I ask you to imagine her between sins. In the time between the sin of desire (though perhaps desire is the wrong word—rather, curiosity) and the sin of hideousness. She lies on the floor of the temple, her white dress stained with blood. The wolf has had his prey, and he is nowhere to be seen. He conquered his fear. He conquered the sublime and beautiful thing that is innocence, an innocence once so expansive and large that it had brought him sniffing to religion. Her eyes focus and unfocus, vision blurry at times through tears that come of their own volition.
So, there you have it. How a girl becomes a woman—a woman with writhing, venomous snakes for hair, but a woman nevertheless. I won’t repeat the story of Medusa’s end, but I will go back to talking about fear. What is so scary about women? It is the presence of desire. No matter how hard we try, whether in ancient Greece or in the modern West, we cannot separate a woman from the desire of her. Every woman has been Medusa, and every woman has felt conquered, subdued, or beheaded by those who both want and resent her. In our patriarchal archive of myth and literature, it is just so easy to equate a woman to the things that society fears. Witches, harpies, stepsisters, and homewreckers; because we fear the occult unknown, because we fear chaos and destruction, because we fear ugliness, because we fear disturbance of the sanitized, familial, picturesque lives that we pretend to lead.
I’m not saying that men never represent fears. However, men rarely represent both desire and fear (except Lucifer himself), and rather tend to represent grand, abstract concepts like death and darkness–can one blame Poseidon for embodying the sea, or Perseus for wielding courage? There is no connotation attached to the fact of being a man, but to the act of being a woman we attach a footnote of desirability.
The deeper we dive into literature, the more we find that written women are more symbols than people. More women, than people. If an extraterrestrial species only knew about human women what they had read from humanity’s most famous representations of women in art, well, they would be scared of women. But real women don’t really walk barefoot through temples. Their deaths are not beautiful, their pain is not romantic, and their rage doesn’t turn people to stone.
Real women are not scary, but desired.