Metaphors of the Feminine and Masculine Chapter 6 – Our Guiding Myth

“I can only answer the question of ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘What story or stories do I find myself a part of?'” What stories guide your behavior as a woman or a man? In our media-oriented society, we are continually bombarded with various forms of the feminine and masculine. These forms may have different faces, but the message is fairly distinct regarding gender roles. What is it that we learn from societal forms of media? Do they tell us anything about the unconscious (or conscious) desires of women and men? Do they inform us of what we can expect from life? What is it that we value in males and females as a society? By examining the current forms of social media, you can learn much about the collective myth that is being pushed and pursued in our society.
Although the following examples and their statistics are dated, they inform us of the trends that drive what society considers to be appropriate and coveted feminine and masculine behavior. Men’s magazines are centered on beautiful, sexual and sensual women. Playboy and Penthouse were the best selling men’s magazines in the 1980’s (Farrell, 1986). Farrell believed that these best selling magazines metaphorically represent the male Primary Fantasy. A man can have unlimited access to beautiful women with no fear of rejection.

For females, Better Homes and Garden and Family Circle—security and a family, represented the equivalent Primary Fantasy in the 1980s. If what America reads represents what is important to them, we need only look at what sells. In 1986, 40% of all paperback sales were romance novels. Six of the top 11 magazines were traditional women’s magazines. In fact, Better Homes and Garden outsold Playboy and Penthouse sales combined. None of the top 11 magazines were men’s magazines, nor were they of the working-women type. Interestingly, during this same time period, Farrell looked at the second ranking magazines for each sex. He felt that these second ranking magazines illustrate the means by which each sex achieves their Primary Fantasy. For women, it is Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Seventeen and Teen–beauty and men. Over 90% of the ads are focused upon glamour, beauty and fashion. The articles in these same magazines are divided between glamour and men. For men the focus is upon heroism or performance. Second ranking men’s magazines are American Legion (war hero), Sports Illustrated (sports hero), Boy’s Life (childhood preparation to perform) and Forbes (business hero). Of course, there are other societal mediums through which we are led to believe that traditional values of feminine and masculine behaviors will help us achieve a more fulfilling life. Television commercials, billboards, internet ads, and movies convey messages that we can have it all if we can just conform to the images that they flash before us. When we fall short of these idealistic images, we feel somewhat inadequate and incompetent.

These are driving forces from over 30 years ago, yet we see that this trend continues in the sense that males and females are still driven by the collective image that a man must be “manly” and women are to be “womanly.” The top four selling magazines for men today are Men’s Health, Maxim, Esquire and GQ. A quick glance at the ads and articles informs us that men are now pressured to achieve, be in top shape with beautiful women all around. Top selling magazines for women today are Women’s World, Real Simple, Cooking Light and In Style. These magazines tell us that women still feel that their place is to be a good homemaker and to be stylish at the same time! In our war torn world, it appears that males are gravitating away from the primary male fantasy of being the warrior (at least by magazine sale figures). It will be interesting to observe the changes in reading trends as they seem to reflect what we care about.

Another way to capture the societal myth, is to look at the movies that sell. In the 1990’s, the movie, Hook, featured Robin Williams as Peter Pan who had grown up. His quest was to save his own children from the clutches of Captain Hook. To do this he had to re-member (i.e., to join together) the child he once was. He had forgotten that part of his life, but when he is taken back to Neverland by Tinkerbell, he slowly remembers his “lost self.” Through the help of the “Lost Boys,” Peter Pan joins the forgotten aspects of his personality with his adult self. This contemporary myth for males illustrates a shedding of more traditional male values, which enables Peter to enjoy life once again. This particular myth is a rendition of the current movement for us to find “the child within.” If we are to save ourselves from the hooks of traditional gender behaviors we must reclaim the joyful child that once existed within each of us.

In an older, but still pertinent 1983 movie, Pretty Woman, starring Julia Roberts, we are led to believe that by being a high-class call girl, we can be “flashdanced” to happiness (Farrell, 1986). Flashdance was another movie that basically portrayed a woman as rising to the top through her relationship to a rich and powerful man. She did not have to get a college degree, find a job, “pay her dues,” or set up a retirement plan. “Indecent Proposal” was another movie of this genre. These movies perpetuate the notion of women as objects and that happiness is attained through the life of a man. Females get the message in a subtle manner that beauty is indeed skin deep and is prerequisite to having it all. Year after year, we see the same types of movies being produced. It has only been in more recent history that movie producers are focusing more on the capable and Athena type woman (as in The Hunger Games) and the more caring, sensitive males for whom parenting is a priority (TV series, Arrow).

These older stories serve to fashion male behaviors in relation to females as well. Advertisements continue to bombard our consciousness about how we “should” be (or how we expect others to “be”). If a male continually sees ads that assert that love is best expressed in the form of a $5,000 diamond ring, then, “Hey!” What’s a guy to do? Flowers on Valentines Day (don’t forget the chocolates!), presents for every conceivable holiday, and the man’s worth is based upon his ability to provide. He must not only be a provider, but he should be able to protect as well. Fifteen minutes of viewing the Francis Ford Coppola film, Apocalypse Now is enough to make males reevaluate societal definitions of a real man. This film depicts the horrors of the Vietnam War and the viewer is forced to imagine the psychological effects upon the veterans who were engaged in this type of warfare. It is a poignant example of the effects of patriarchal expectations of male warrior behaviors and the resulting inevitable feeling of betrayal experienced by many of the young men who served and trusted the decisions of the all knowing “father.”

These are but a few examples of the societal mythology for women and men–they are not personal. They do not fit everyone. Actually, it would be safe to say that it only works in Hollywood or fairy tales. Some are good and some are not. We have to be discerning when we fashion our definition of what it means to be a “real woman” and a “real man.” It is important for us to be cognizant of the subliminal affect that movies, advertisements, magazines, television shows, and the internet have on our perceptions. We need to take into account our individuality and not force ourselves into the Procrustean bed. By trusting our inner wisdom, we can explore, define and redefine our beliefs and mythologies regarding femininity and masculinity–our Self–so that we become expressions of all the potential that is within. With this, integration of the personality will bring the fullness of experience that individuation promises.

Myths, fairy tales and folklore have throughout time addressed the issues of life. These stories have illuminated the all too human situations in which we find ourselves–love, hate, war, birth, death, maturity, femininity, masculinity, and separation to name just a few. As the great mythologist, Joseph Campbell (1983) described, the function of myth is to provide a blueprint which delineates the road we will travel, with markers to indicate the inherent joys, sorrows, obstacles, and consequences of our actions. Myths enable human beings to code and organize their lives so that they can see their destination and the path they will travel (Feinstein, D., Krippner, S. & Granger, D., 1988).

These stories reveal our human strengths and weaknesses. By studying mythical characters and their personalities, we gain insight into the spectrum of human related ways of being in the world. These stories give us some indication of what we can expect of life, of our predisposed human ways of reacting to situations, and of our possible and probable solutions to the dilemmas in which we find ourselves. By examining the lessons inherent in myths, we are better prepared to venture forth upon our own personal journey through consciousness of the challenges we may face and the psychological pitfalls, which may impede our growth.

Myths are a fundamental expression of our experience (Fordham, 1963). In his autobiography, Jung (1961/1963) wrote, “Everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation, and the personality too desires to evolve out of its unconscious conditions and to experience itself as a whole. What we are to our inward vision…can only be expressed by way of myth” (p. 3). Jung was implying that forces in the unconscious continue to influence us even when we think they are neatly tucked away, ignored or unacknowledged. These neglected aspects of our personality continue to seek acknowledgment and expression, clamoring for attention and impacting our behavior, thoughts, and perceptions. Even though we may not be able to explain why we are overcome with certain moods or thoughts in particular situations, we “know” on an intuitive level that something does not feel right. It is not so much that these unconscious aspects of our personality want to “take over” but that they need to be acknowledged and accepted.

Can myths be taken as truths? Can we rely on the lessons inherent in these stories to guide our behaviors and choices? Will they illuminate the road before us that we must traverse like so many sojourners? William James (Cited in Daniels, 1988) asserted that our beliefs are sustained by our ability to obtain proof that there is truth in those convictions. Yet, before we could discover that proof, one of the necessary conditions for a particular class of truths was belief itself. In other words, until our faith makes it so, some truths cannot become true for us. It requires that we accept and believe in the actuality of that truth without solid proof of its existence. We must then act upon the faith of that belief, trusting that it will lead us to where it purports to take us.

Mythic structures are based upon make-believe which is the ability to play with and react to symbols or words “as if” they were what they represented, a concept that is similar to Adler’s idea of “fictional finalism” (Daniels, 1988). This is the case with mythologies. If we live “as if” our myth is true, then the message of the myth may become a truth for us in the consequence of our guided actions—similar to a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are thus pulled toward the future, so to speak. The future is not yet at hand, yet we act “as if” this future self or goal is in fact a reality. Living creatively empowers us to live fully and in an inspired manner.

The saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words” is descriptive of the power of symbols to our comprehension of situations. Myths are symbolic expressions of living. At a level deeper than the conscious mind, we understand the meaning behind symbolism, metaphors, myths and fairy tales. These forms of expression speak to our unconscious that somehow allows our conscious self to truly “know.” The key to progression is to bring that which is unconscious to the conscious level so that we can look it squarely in the face and deal with it, whatever “it” may be.

Symbolic understanding is exemplified in the nature of dreams. Our dreams are compensatory to our waking life, according to Jung. In other words, the important symbolic content that comes to the forefront when we sleep is usually those things that we are not paying attention to in our thoughts and actions. It is like the unconscious is tapping us on the shoulder and saying, “Excuse me. Yes, it is true that you are aware of this and that, but have you thought to look at ‘this’ aspect of the situation? Maybe if you would pay attention to this neglected aspect the solution to your problems will become clearer.” Dreams are symbolic expressions of unconscious content attempting to bubble up into consciousness according to this psychoanalytic viewpoint.

Of course, dreams leave us with additional work. Dreams are not straightforward expressions of the unconscious. Our unconscious speaks to us in symbols, therefore, our dreams consist of images that symbolize something for us. The meaning of our dreams is elusive because of this symbolism, and therefore requires that we make associations to the symbols in order to discover the personal meaning these dream symbols and situations may have for us. Through perseverance the underlying meaning presented by our unconscious will be revealed.

Perhaps you have dreamed of being in a situation where you are naked, but no one notices except for you. The meaning of this aspect of the dream can be amplified through the use of association as developed by Jung (Johnson, 1986). The two symbolic situations I would amplify are “to be naked” and that “no one notices.” Using this method the dreamer would take the word “naked” and associate as many meanings as possible. Put the word in a circle and then draw lines from the circle to the words you associate with the word, object, or phrase. Additionally, the phrase “no one notices” would be a useful dream condition to amplify as well. The key to this method is to make your associations directly to the symbolic object, phrase or statement each time. For example, my associations to “naked” would be as follows: naked=vulnerable; naked=open; naked=revealed; naked=unadorned; naked=natural; naked=unprotected. My associations to “no one notices” are: no one notices=alone; no one notices=unseen; no one notices=hidden emotions; no one notices=invisible; no one notices=ignored. Once all associations have been made, select the associations, which have more significance to the situation you find yourself in at the time you had this dream. Circle them. Ask yourself how do these associations reveal the hidden emotions or messages of my current situation?

Another method to bring meaning to dream symbols comes from the gestalt therapeutic methods of Fritz Perls (1972). For example, take an object like a chair, which may not seem to play much significance in the context of a dream. Using Perls’ technique we can amplify the meaning by becoming the chair: “I am hard. People sit on me when they are tired. I endure much weight and help to support others so that they can rest. I don’t mind too much if I am tipped over for I am durable and sturdy.” On an almost intuitive level illumination occurs when we work with symbols. With this example it could be suggested that the chair represents the part of this person’s personality that feels the weight of others leaning upon her and is yet willing to allow others to impose upon her to the point of being “tipped” off balance. She is tough. She can handle it. But the dreamer must then ask herself if this is true or is it that she is feeling the need to lean on someone herself? Maybe she does not need nor want to be so tough. Like an “Aha!” experience, we know on an intuitive level what our unconscious is trying to say to us. Similar to pictures or metaphors such as, “This situation I find myself in is like a double-edged sword,” myths enable us to relate at a knowing-level deeper than our cognitive self.

In times past, the word “myth” implied a falsehood, something we could not depend upon to be true; but, today, the word “myth” has taken on a quality wherein the understanding of life and the quests we embark upon can be better understood by looking to these stories for meaning. Myths speak to our human condition at a metaphorical level. Why is it that myths and fairy tales do not die out as we continue to develop as a technological society? The mythical settings speak to a time long gone and yet the stories continue to reveal pertinent and timely issues. Perhaps it is because dilemmas addressed in these stories are timeless in nature and common to all humanity. Myths refer to experiences of the collective race, as Jung would assert. We continue to confront the same situations, predicaments, paradoxes and sentiments that our ancestors experienced. Only the setting is different. The human condition is not bound by the strictures of time for the tasks are existential. None of us are immune from the common situations life will present to us. We must all face our developmental tasks and with some guidance from mythical sources, the process or passage will be easier.

Our Personal Mythology

The current societal myth appears to be the quest for the golden fleece of power and many of us are led blindly to strive for that prize regardless of the ramifications we may experience because of this (Ng, 1989). What is power? Power can be said to have various qualities, such as material power, military power or the power of persuasion. Regardless of its form, power speaks. The paths to power in our society are part of the mythological structure of gender related behaviors. We learn from an early age that the contemporary image of woman or man is the ideal for which we must strive. If we want to fit and excel, we must adhere to these images and emulate those behaviors. Then we can be more assured that we will be successful. We will gain acceptance and power in the larger grouping of society. This is success.

We stretch or stifle ourselves in order to fit the societal prescription for success, yet so many times we must deny our inner self in the name of conformity. We come to believe that certain personal qualities will assure success, so we go about the task of adding here, subtracting there in order to accommodate our perception of the path we must follow. We reshape our perceptions of others as well. We learn to expect certain behaviors from each gender which may be stereotypical, yet the influential character of societal expectations upon sex roles and stereotypes continues to color not only our impression of others, but our evaluation of ourselves as well. These distorted images serve to disconnect us and our individuality gets buried beneath all the layers of cultural-societal molding.

In our hands we hold a map that was formed in the developmental process. This map consists of the paths we have learned will lead to success, happiness, femininity, masculinity, etc. We plod along, referring to our old map for guidance but invariably at some point in our lives, we notice that there are holes in it and that it is faded at important junctures. So what we are left with is a worn-out, outdated “map” which includes our preconceived notions of femininity and masculinity. If we are honest with ourselves, we realize that we must create our own path rather than blindly follow preset standards and old role models. The irony of this situation is that most of us do not have solid role models to follow regarding the path to wholeness (Moore, R. & Gillette, D., 1990). Traditional models of appropriate female and male behavior no longer fit our contemporary world. Change occurs rapidly and we are at a loss regarding the transitions towards self-emergence and wholeness. We have come to a point where the guiding myths or rituals necessary for transition to more mature ways of being are absent. We seek to define just what femininity or masculinity means and invariably fall short of our target. We grope in the dark for the light switch, but cannot see.

What we each need is a mythology that is more personal and individual, one that will guide us on our unique journey. Ironically, we are already living by some form of personal mythology. We may not be aware of the content, but nevertheless, we are guided by certain principles, beliefs, values, expectations, desires and standards which in turn form the pattern of our lives which we follow. This personal mythology is the guiding myth we have construed in the process of our development–a belief system that directs us in our thoughts and actions. It is a constellation of ideas, images and emotions with a central theme that serves as an inner model for us. It becomes the template, which “we create to fit over the realities of which the world is composed” (Feinstein, 1979). In this way we learn to interpret the world according to our myths that give color and meaning to our experiences. It is not so much what happens to us that affects us so deeply. Much more poignant is how we perceive or apprehend a situation that invariably dictates our response. If we see ourselves as victors, then we will be triumphant; if we see ourselves as victims, then we will be overcome. Basically, we can abdicate the victim role. We become the masters of our destiny through our willingness to shape the course of our lives, choosing which direction we will take and then taking responsibility for those choices. If our choices fall short of our expectations we can swallow our pride, pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off and try another solution. This differs from sitting, pointing the finger at others, and blaming them for the things that go wrong in our lives.

In the process of growing up, we began to formulate and understand what is expected of us as women and men. We are constantly bombarded with messages regarding gender appropriate behaviors from our family, peers, friends, society and culture. Thus, we “add a little here, subtract a little there” from our authentic self in order to fit into the larger culture. All the beliefs we have taken in as introjects are part of the road map of life that we follow. Introjects are beliefs we have internalized without examination as a part of our personality, but which have come from an external source. We have learned that in order to achieve certain goals which society has deemed valuable, we must follow a certain path. We must be a certain type of person. We must conform to the larger whole. Thus our maps all look the same, yet they do not compensate for the fact that we are each uniquely different. The mode of our travel may seem inappropriate for the times in which we find ourselves as well. Slowly, we may come to realize that we have been pressured into conformity, not taking the time to evaluate the structure of our prevailing belief system until we are in crises. So much of our myth was already “written” for us as we were growing up and we simply began to live it out in an unconscious manner. We were subtly being shaped into little female and male tin soldiers probably not questioning how well the design fit us individually.

There comes a time when we realize the pattern of our lives may not be of our own design. It slaps us in the face and we say, “Enough!” And so, we must reckon with ourselves. Painful as it may be, we embark upon the dialectical process of evaluating, dissecting, and sorting out the values and beliefs we have grown to believe in. This task is developmental in character. In our youth we are “like the sun rising over the horizon and climbing towards the meridian.” We are focused upon establishing our financial independence, finding a mate and a niche in life. If we felt subtly uncomfortable because we had to “put aside” other parts of ourselves, we found it necessary to do so. Beliefs, desires, or experiences that are contrary to our personal belief system–our prevailing myth at that time–were probably suppressed or repressed so as not to disrupt the process. When we come to this realization, we then feel an urgency to reconcile our personality and our lives–a search to find the “self” that lies within. We stop and ask ourselves questions we did not dare to ask prior to this time of introspection. We go to our closet of stored “valuables” and begin a conscious effort to sort through the collection we have accumulated. These are the parts of our personality we have denied or set aside. We realize that we must now turn and face the mirror of our unconscious and bring forth the contents that are clamoring for attention. The dialectical process becomes a mediation between our conscious beliefs and the unconscious, neglected aspects of our personality.

When we come to this juncture in our journey it is neither wise nor necessary for us to discard all that we have collected. It would be to our benefit to keep that which we value and treasure what has worked for us. What we will discard are the worn-out aspects of our personality and belief systems that are no longer functional. By combining the old with the new, we rewrite our myth and create a new workable road map that will work for us in the present. Thus, we can integrate the thesis of our present state with the antithesis of the emerging myth and transform the two into a synthesis–a gestalt. After exploring the thesis and antithesis of our present mythology, however, our job is not done. Carl Rogers wrote, “To be what one is, is to enter fully into being a process” (Cited in Ginsberg, 1984). Life is not static. We need to continually assess and re-assess the stories we are living out. We must take what we have learned and develop a plan or guidance system so that we can have a clear path to follow–then we must act.

Our personalities are dependent upon factors that are not only internally generated, but are also influenced by environmental forces that may predispose one facet of our personality to come to life rather than another. Nature/Nurture. It is similar to a chemical combination of elements producing a given product, that product being our behavior. We are each predisposed to a particular temperament, yet the quality and quantity of nurturing we receive serves to shape the expression of that inherent spirit. To better understand how these forces have played upon our perception of gender related behavior, in the next two chapters we will explore the myths of Greece that will serve as metaphors to describe typical patterns of feminine and masculine responses to life.

Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D. (1984), a Jungian analyst in San Francisco, rejected Jung’s narrow interpretation of the feminine personality. She felt that Jung’s interpretation of the feminine psyche was restrictive. Recall that Jung believed that Eros, or the quality of connectiveness, was the true nature of females. He went on to say that Logos in women was an unfortunate accident because the expression of Logos in the female psyche manifested as opinions, not logic (as it would be in men). This belief in the inherent form of feminine consciousness would limit feminine behavior to more stereotypical forms (e.g., nurturing, compliance, passivity, dependence) and the assertion of individuality and more “masculine” behaviors would be viewed as a rebellion against a woman’s true nature. Bolen’s (1984, 1989) theory is more androgynous. There is the spirit of goal-oriented behavior and assertiveness in “true” feminine nature under this paradigm. Males are “true” to their masculinity when they display more “feminine” conduct as well. In other words, femininity and masculinity are not comprised of societal or cultural standards, but are the result of distinctiveness and unique individuality. What Bolen’s theory illuminates for the reader is a clearer understanding of why certain behaviors are not as functional in our culture/society as more stereotyped decorum.

Bolen studied the myths of Greek goddesses and gods, viewing them as metaphorical descriptions of classic human behavior. She believed that by examining the stories of these mythological deities, some truths regarding typical reactions and responses to life could be revealed. Through the analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of these characters, we could begin to relate ourselves to their stories. We would be empowered to discern how our predisposition in certain situations could relate to the mythological stories. Through our ability to discover our unconscious reactions, we would gain the strength and wisdom to form more mature, conscious responses to emotionally potent situations. By exploring both goddesses and gods, accepting that these stories describe characteristically human-related, and not just gender-related motifs, we can be entrusted to live a truer expression of individuality. What works for us on an individual basis can be seen as a strength rather than as an aberration to more “normal” forms of feminine or masculine behavior. We begin to create a more personal mythology instead of forcing ourselves into pre-formed molds of being.

In accordance with Jungian theory and the balancing of opposites, we can clarify feminine and masculine psychology through the dual exploration of qualities generally attributed to each gender. The characteristics and propensities of females are also present in males and vice versa. Where gods reside, so do the goddesses. The converse is true as well. As we commence our journey into the land of Greek mythology, the goddesses and gods should be seen as representations of archetypes. Archetypes do not really have names, per se, but are convenient ways to characterize personality traits and temperaments. By knowing the god or goddess archetypes within us, we can gain a deeper understanding regarding our motivations, frustrations, needs and desires. Some are reflections of who we are, yet others are only like vague memories. The latter may be reminders of who we were at one time. What we see may be parts of ourselves that we rejected because we thought it made us unacceptable to others. Other facets may be strengths or propensities that have not been revealed to us.

Each god or goddess had a particular way of behaving, perceiving, feeling, or responding to life, acting accordingly in various circumstances. Whenever we recognize ourselves in a myth or story, it is empowering. It is the mirror of truth that allows us to be honest. In the light of this “Aha!” experience we will gain introspective knowledge that will arm us to live as warriors on the path to self truth.