How do we perceive women in this day and age? We have seemingly reached a point in human history of unprecedented equality of opportunity and independence. But is it really equality? After watching the brilliant film, “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty”, at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I could not help but ponder the mythologizing of women in our culture today. It started as an exploration of the ways in which I personally related to the filmmaker’s narrative. However, as I began to peer behind the veil of this massive issue of gender identity in modern America, I peeled back layer upon layer of symbolism and meaning tied into such a seemingly banal internal dialogue about my own relationships to women. I can barely being to scratch the surface of such a topic in this forum, but it fascinates me to the point where I cannot get it out of my mind, and film, as all art, plays such an important role in shaping the discussion. Scope and forum be damned, I am going to aim high and begin a multi-part exploration of the mythology of women in America today. Feel free to join in!
The current cultural female archetype is informed by so many different sources and replicated and reinforced in so many ways, overt and subtle, that it can hard to pin it down. Throughout most of the history of ‘civilized’ society, the female archetype was created by men in the image of their desire and women were molded to it, so it was easier to define and comprehend. Of course when we speak of a cultural archetype, we are not speaking of the internal reality or truth of women, but the accepted mythology of a women’s role within society that is broadcast externally. However, as civilization progressed and women gained more and more say in defining the female archetype of the day, it has become a much more complicated push and pull of identity. This creates a built-in feedback loop where lines become blurred between whether a woman is, at any given moment, redefining, reshaping, or merely reflecting the existing archetype. What if a woman is attempting through her actions or statements to reshape an aspect of the existing archetype that was originally defined by a man? Does that move it closer to the truth, or just further distort a falsehood? No matter how far down this particular rabbit hole one ventures, can an archetype ever really come to close to approximating an individual’s internal truth? It is in the context of these and many more complex questions that I head down the rabbit hole.
Given the nature of the film that instigated this piece, I will begin this journey where my own began, the personal. Ok, let me address the elephant in the room right off the bat: why is a man trying to dialogue about the identity of women in society today? Well, let me first say I am definitely not as arrogant as my forefathers as to try and define the role of women in society. In fact, if anything, I’d like to deconstruct the whole concept of female identity as being fundamentally different from male identity. Secondly, I am confronted and affected by the mythologizing of women in our culture every day, externally and internally, as I interact with women every day. The mythology of men in our culture is a whole different topic which I could, and may, explore at a later date, but I will only mention here that I often feel I stand far outside that mythology, and that too affects the ways in which I encounter and bump up against issues of the female archetype. So what really interests me here today is the ways in which the female archetype enters the male psyche and distorts our own personal internal reality.
How is it that a man can meet a woman, and in that present moment of first encounter feel a total connection that puts him on the same level as her in his mind, only to slowly tumble down to a lower and lower level every moment he is not with her? In that first moment when the slate is clean, the two individual personal realities are interacting and finding connections in an organic process. However, once the two are separated for any length of time, the female archetype starts to invade the psyche and usurp the memory of the woman’s reality. The longer the separation, the worse the effect. Thoughts that are not his own begin to enter the man’s mind. “She is too beautiful, she can have any guy.” “She is so kind and compassionate, I am not worthy.” They meet again, but this time a thin protective wall has been built in between their true selves and colors the interactions. The connection is still there, but it feels less solid, more doubtful. They separate again, and the usurper is more aggressive, less forgiving. “She will only hurt you, did you see all the men staring at her?” “She is too good, she will judge you for your flaws and weakness, you must hide them.” It is clear where this path is headed, but how, and why?
I have certainly had many versions of this experience myself, of different lengths and severity, with different effects and results. My dominant reaction in the past was to wall myself off emotionally until any initial connection was completely gone so when I drove them away with my aloofness I felt relieved and justified in the ending of the relationship. Lately my dominant solution has been to attempt to go in reverse, by starting with the wall up and figuring whoever could slowly break the wall down and get inside would explode the archetype. This solution was, of course, ridiculous. It was not until a recent experience when I was caught with my guard down and felt the excitement and passion of that naked intermingling of personal truths for the first time in years that I both remembered the beauty of that first encounter moment and realized the sobering persistent presence of that old vixen the female archetype. And there you see I allowed myself to consciously give in to her by even using the word vixen, which is a cliched, meaningless word that could only describe her, but not an actual individual woman.
Which brings me back full circle to the film, “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty”. It is not a linear narrative feature by any stretch of the imagination, but more a textured visual poem containing the subjective experiences and impressions of the filmmaker himself. It is part documentary in the sense that it is about a real relationship from his life and includes candid interviews with the actual woman of his desire. But everything, even these interviews, is necessarily obscured through the lens of his own motives, feelings, and memory. To his credit as an artist and a human, he acknowledges this fact, but then we could question the motive of such an acknowledgement, couldn’t we? However, it is the very existence of this questionable and distorted perspective that makes the film beautiful and meaningful. About half the film existed previously as a separate short with the intention of expressing previously unexpressed emotions to this woman with the stated goal of making her fall for him. The remainder was shot and edited in later to explore the aftermath of the filmmakers initial decisions, process, and outcomes. What was clear to me was the not only the ways in which the filmmaker mythologized this woman in his own mind, with it affecting his ability to pursue an honest relationship with her, but how he then actually mythologized her not once, but twice, on film. The different levels and layer of mythologization present in this film are staggering, and could start a myriad of debates. However, the one aspect that impresses me most comes from the recognition inherent in the title itself. What is the female archetype but a vast and dangerous oversimplification of the beauty of an individual female’s personal truth?
The real sad discovery here is that we can acknowledge and express the process, yet still fall prey to it. Why is that? Well, as I hinted at earlier, the phenomena that define and shape the prevailing female archetype of the day, the stories we tell as a society across every channel and are exposed to from earliest childhood in ways that are unavoidable without the total removal of oneself from society, seep into the deepest recesses of our subconscious and are virtually impossible to extricate completely. In other words, the female archetype is a part of our cultural mythos which cannot be escaped unless you dare to step outside of the culture entirely. What does that mean? Can it be done? And can you ever truly step back inside after you’ve done so? I will attempt to explore these questions and more as I will move beyond the personal to the cultural constructs of the female archetype in part II whenever I feel up the challenge. In the meantime, stay tuned, and join in the discussion!