Heroines and “literary Darwinism”


Helen and Paris


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:

  1. Let’s say you have two hypothetical tribes, each reflecting its values through the stories it tells.
  2. Tribe A values male beauty and female strength whereas Tribe B values male strength and female beauty.
  3. 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).
  4. Ergo, we, who are by necessity descendants of Tribe B, live to retell its stories, the B stories.


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“Sex” or “gender”?

I began the previous post with a parenthetical slur on Americans (of which I am half-one), propping myself up on two creaky stereotypes:

  1. that Americans can’t (really) speak English, and
  2. that political correctness is in part to blame.

Specifically, the issue was which of these two words was correct in the specific context:

  • Sex, or
  • Gender

Well, I thought I might regale you once again with the opinion of Johnny Grimond, our (The Economist‘s) doyen of usage and author of our official Style Guide, in which style quite often becomes a window into a very British, ironic and sophisticated worldview. Here is Johnny on the matter:

Gender is nowadays used in several ways. One is common in feminist writing, where the term has a technical meaning. “One is not born a woman, one becomes one,” argued Simone de Beauvoir: in other words, one chooses one’s gender. In such a context it would be absurd to use the word sex; the term must be gender. But, in using it thus, try to explain what you mean by it. Even feminists do not agree on a definition.

The primary use of gender, though, is in grammar, where it applies to words, not people. If someone is female, that is her sex, not her gender. (The gender of Mädchen, the German word for girl, is neuter, as is Weib, a wife or woman.) So do not use gender as a synonym for sex. Gender studies probably means feminism.

See also Political correctness

That said, I seem to remember reading somewhere–and I wish I knew where–that Sandra Day O’Connor started using gender instead of sex when she got to the Supreme Court, because she was worried that the word sex would conjure up all the wrong images in her (male) colleagues’ minds during deliberations.

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How not to burn out sexually: Nina Hartley

Nina Hartley

Nina Hartley

For my piece in the current issue of The Economist, I had the pleasure of talking to, among other people, the equivalent of Meryl Streep in the porn industry: Nina Hartley. She is 50 and says she loves sex more than ever, on camera or off. She has been at it (the camera part) since 1984.

A somewhat unfortunate part of my job, as I am increasingly discovering, is that the most interesting parts of my research and my conversations often fall well outside the realm of what can make it into my articles. Yes, of course, readers might care about how the porn industry is doing. But they’re human so they must also be curious about, well, sex. After all, it’s not everyday that you get to talk to somebody who does it for a living.

In my case, I was just a tad shy for the first few moments. It helped that I have never “consumed” Nina’s “content” so I had no visuals to distract me. Still: How would I talk to somebody who views having sex as I view writing?

It turned out that Nina was very easy and very interesting to talk to. The conversation ranged just as it would have ranged with anybody else. Our health care debate drives her “mad.” California can’t govern itself. That sort of thing.

Performing sex on camera, she said, is

a highly paid form of blue-collar work… sort of like farm labor.

Everybody is an independent contractor and there are no benefits. No benefits. It’s important in such a conversation not to reach for the double entendres.

About the porn industry, Nina was somewhat nostalgic and sentimental. In the 80s, when she started, it was apparently a glamorous sort of thing. The product was hard to get and had rarity value, the production took place in a subculture that considered itself revolutionary. There was a frisson, a pioneer spirit, a certain excitement.

Now it’s seedy, cheap, everywhere. She wouldn’t start again today if she were young now.

So why is she still in it?

In large part because she actually likes the sex, she told me. She thinks that women increase their sensitivity in middle age. At least that is happening to her.

My enjoyment of sex has increased, but for most [performers] it goes down, especially the men.

I asked her if she meant that doing it on camera makes people “numb.” Sometimes, she says. Many performers stop having sex in their private lives altogether. The men basically have to, since they couldn’t have private sex, then perform as well the next day on camera, and any hint of “having trouble” might kill their career. But they also genuinely lose interest.

Nina sees her role now as “mentor” as well as actress, so she counsels the young performers not to let that happen.

Frankly, it amazes me that it–burning out–hasn’t happened to her. She must be a modern Aphrodite.

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Birthday eulogy to Darwin

Olivia Judson

Olivia Judson

Still apropos of Charles Darwin, whom The Hannibal Blog named runner-up for the title of greatest thinker ever: Olivia Judson commemorates his 200th birthday today with this fantastic biographical sketch of the man as well as the scientist. And a great man he was.

Olivia, incidentally, used to be a colleague of mine at The Economist. As a prank, she once dressed up as Dr Tatiana, a sultry sex expert, and apparently duped a senior editor just long enough for it to be embarrassing (to him) and memorable (to us). This led to a widely read Christmas Special in The Economist in which she plays agony aunt to critters from bees to spiders and counsels them on their sexual problems. This then led to an entire book.

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