Ask people to name a woman in the Iliad, the story of the Trojan War, and they will name Helen, the cause of that war, who was known for her beauty.
Ask people to name a man, and they will not name Paris, also known for his beauty but otherwise considered a pansy even though Helen eloped with him. Instead, they will name Achilles (or Hector, Odysseus etc), who were heroes.
So: beauty for women; strength for men (see Hercules). Right?
I began contemplating this when Solid Gold commented under a recent post in my thread on heroes and heroism that
the real question is whether a woman can be a hero.
I think that question deserves books. But I thought I’d share a tidbit from an article about storytelling (another big thread on The Hannibal Blog) that attempts an answer. (Thanks to Jag Bhalla for the link.)
It cites research by a professor of English at Washington & Jefferson College named Jonathan Gottschall, who is apparently one of the scholars known informally as “literary Darwinists.” (The ideas of that great thinker seem to be infinitely extensible.)
As far as I can tell, these literary Darwinists have corroborated the thesis of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell that all humans in all cultures and ages tend to re-tell fundamentally the same archetypal stories. But whereas Jung and Campbell used psychological logic, the literary Darwinists are using the (Darwinian) logic of relative reproductive success.
And so Gottschall analyzed “90 folktale collections, each consisting of 50 to 100 stories,” ranging from industrial nations to hunter-gatherer tribes, and found overwhelmingly similar gender depictions:
- strong male protagonists (aka “heroes”) and
- beautiful female protagonists.
We couldn’t even find one culture that had more emphasis on male beauty,
Gottschall is quoted.
In all, the stories had had three times more male than female main characters and six times more references to female beauty than to male beauty.
That difference in gender stereotypes, [Gottschall] suggests, may reflect the classic Darwinian emphasis on reproductive health in women, signified by youth and beauty, and on the desirable male ability to provide for a family, signaled by physical power and success.
Let me try to make this Darwinian logic more explicit:
- Let’s say you have two hypothetical tribes, each reflecting its values through the stories it tells.
- Tribe A values male beauty and female strength whereas Tribe B values male strength and female beauty.
- We might assume that, over time, Tribe B not only reproduces more than Tribe A, but even that it does so at the expense of Tribe A (resources, conflict, etc).
- Ergo, we, who are by necessity descendants of Tribe B, live to retell its stories, the B stories.