Thursday, January 12, 2012

In praise of Red Queens

It's not until a really vital and vibrant myth envelopes you in its wings that you see just how wingless so many other myths are, the myths that get the lion's share of pop culture usage. 
And after some close examination I now know why... there's not enough red queens. There aren't enough wild women archetypes either. The only female archetypes we get are 'the anima' - the male fantasy girl, the poor little princess, i.e. female ego, the mother - homogenized into a selfless breast. When a negative female archeytpe does show up, she's either a shrill devouring mother, sexless and narcissistic -- or a ballbusting femme fatale.

But the red queen runs counter to all of these/
Myths and fairy tales are all rich with archetypes -- the shadow, the anima /animus, the wise old man, the wild man, the dark father, the evil queen, etc. but if you look at the most popular mythic franchises in Hollywood- Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, the Marvel-verse you find plenty of all the others but no evil or neutral queens. Only the Narnia and Twilight series have evil queens, and the latter especially is given raspberries by the fanboys who proclaim the Rings-Potter-Star Wars trifecta as the best sci-fi / fantasy in Hollywood and Narnia a bunch of kiddie--and Twilight a bunch of girly--crap. Man, that's sexist. 99.9% of the characters in those three franchises you and everyone else likes are male; there's only two women in the entire Star Wars universe, and they're both 'good' princesses. The same is true with LOTR. It's even worse. The bitches if anywhere are all secondary, objectified or desexed and immaterial aside from being love objects, and certainly not morally ambivalent, beyond good and evil, as royalty must be, perforce.

We need more queens beyond good and evil, for it is there--beyond good and evil--all putr archetypal energies--yhe backbone of enduring myth--can be found. And the fantasy industry shows its nerdy, unlaid, apron-strung girlophobia by ignoring this archetype. Things get stale until a great evil queen finally shows up; when she does she's like a breath of fresh, beyond good and evil air.

Below is a list of red queens divided by archetypal role:

The (Primary / Devouring) Red Queen
Queen of Hearts - Alice in Wonderland
Victoria - Twilight
Maleficent - Maleficent
The White Witch  -Chronicles of Narnia
Mrs. Iselin - The Manchurian Candidate
Catherine the Great - The Scarlet Empress
The Great Tyrant - Barbarella 

Imperious in her whims, the primary red queen represents the unfulfilled potential of adulthood, when wealth and rank allow spoiled girls to sidestep full maturity and any accompanying humility. They are generally childless, preferring animal familiar lackeys--doting subservient cats, trolls, crows, ravens, mice, owls, or steely-eyed hawks. They are vengeful and reserve special loathing for prettier, younger, naive, innocent girls and young virile men who spurn their own often unseemly advances.

The Secondary Variation: The Little (sadisto-nymphonic) Princess

Salome - King of Kings 
Fah Lo Suee - Mask of Fu Manchu
Princess Aura - Flash Gordon
Scarlett O'Hara - Gone with the Wind
Cleopatra- Caesar and Cleopatra
Carmen Sternwood - The Big Sleep
Bunny - The Big Lebowski
Marylee Hadley - Written on the Wind
Drucilla - Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Tollea / Naja - Cobra Woman

As her father notes to Marlowe, Carmen is "still a little girl who likes to pull the wings off flies." These are nubile young wantons grown up in wealth and power, and--with all the percs of being gorgeous and young to boot--become egotistical monsters, untamed by the empathic development that results from having limits, perceiving one's own faults, and equating one's negative actions towards others with others' negative actions towards oneself. Given too much free time and parental indulgence they become egocentric hedonistic sadists, obsessed by the few things left that they can't have, i.e, 'principled' men who are in love with someone else (or--as with John the Baptist--an ideal). So Scarlett pursues Ashley for decades, obsessed, until she gets him, at which point she realizes he sucks, and throws him away and runs back to manly Rhett, who's figured out by now the only way to win Scarlett's love is to spurn it. Aura loves Flash, but largely no doubt because he loves Dale. If he were to turn around and confess his love back to Aura, she'd lose all interest; thus he does her a favor by giving her something to chase. Fah Lo Suee is the most unrepentant sadist and therefore the hottest.

These girls may be immature, vain, and sadistic but they're super sexy --they're far from under the thumb of their rich and largely absentee fathers. The hero is always a little tempted by their charms but he rises above it, which always pisses us off a little watching the film, at first. But if he did give in and fool around with her he'd be undeserving of our respect (and there's often a kind of secondary hero who is in love with them, such as the Sternberg chauffeur (unseen) in The Big Sleep, Hank in Night of the Iguana, or Prince Barin in Flash Gordon). That doesn't mean we--snug in the morally anonymous darkness of the audience--can't desire her, like Herod lusting after step-daughter Salome, knowing we'll never have to risk actually running into her at a party or some other location where our attraction might well be our undoing, leading her to toy with us like "the type of girl who still likes to pull the wings off flies."

Salome, mid-dance, in King of Kings (1961)

And if we do meet her in the real world, maybe our experience with her here in myth will be enough warning to save our lives, wallets, self-respect, families, and social liberties. We can only hope she doesn't come along while we're verging on a midlife crisis. She's more dangerous than a dozen motorcycles. 

The Tertiary Variation: Trickster
Julie Newmar as Catwoman - Batman (TV)
Rita Hayworth - Gilda
The Derevko Sisters - Alias
Mystique - X-Men
Catherine Trammel - Basic Instinct
Marlene Dietrich -everything
Suzy Kendall - Fraulein Doktor

She promises sex and delivers debt. She's whisked away by fate or duty on the day of your marriage ceremony and the next time you see her she says she's her evil twin. She takes your money and somehow you can't get mad at her because you know she doesn't really care about it--she's doing it for you in some Kafka-esque way. She is the embodiment of the trickster: intelligent, beyond good and evil, using her sex appeal as a lure but more for fun than sadism. She's too intelligent for that, keeping the eternal dance of fire and persona alive, or, as in Irena Derevko, a deeply embedded plan to save the earth, or keep herself amused. Catwoman for example is evil, but Batman loves her (and vice versa) and so each self-sabotages their efforts to kill or catch each other, or even to keep each other trapped. The chase is the thing. The agreement is unspoken but biding - no killing, for now, just elaborate traps that one may, with luck and thought, escape, to keep the game alive, while buying the other some time for a head start before the next encounter.

The Quarternary Variation: The Ancient/Young Woman
Ursula - Little Mermaid
The Evil Queen - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
She - She
The Three Sisters - Suspiria, Inferno
Elizabeth Bathory - The Countess, I Vampiri, Countess Dracula, etc.
Jessica Lange and Maid  - American Horror Story Season 1
The Red Queen (hologram) - Resident Evil series

She can be both young and old: the evil queen with her apple basket; Ursula turned young, with Ariel's voice; She before she steps into the fountain of youth one time too many; the hottie who rises from the bath in room 237 but is old and decaying by the time she reaches the door. The 'swindle' behind youth and beauty, the bait-and-switch of the midway, the genetic con job that lets you slip a marital ring around your nose while you're too distracted by the shiny cape to bolt and buck. 

If you're a woman, the queen is your mother, desperate to sabotage your maturity and somehow drain off your youthful bloom for herself.

Or it can even be you--from the illusory safety of the mirror-mirror on the wall--realizing your own beauty was just a framed shadow doomed to slow fade with the dawn's rising. 
Snap thy faceted selfies whilst ye can--
the velvet dark your wobbly setting--
and adjust your glasses prescription ever stronger 
to match the shrinking screen of your sharpening cell.

In short, wise up punk-ass mainstream Hollywood! Don't be scared of the red queens! Help revive true myth, and breathe the salty air of your own mortal huskiness.

Why is Hollywood so afraid of these women? The catch-22 is that the men who write and create and approve these things are afraid of them, and the men who aren't are too fucked up and iconoclastic to do too much about it. The women meanwhile, are often not the best choices to depict them as they, for all their strength, are archetypes more from the male unconscious than the female. Often liberated female directors have conflicted attitudes towards these archetypes. They're either bound up in the idea they have to represent Woman and not archetypes, i.e. to become a slave of message-heavy realism, or if they dare to bring in archetypes, choose their own animus forces, i.e. to make complex portraits of men in action only from a more sex object and unknowable form (ala Hurt Locker) than most. The question is what will the future minority and female directors and writers create once they are no longer willing slaves to either one of their animuses -- the controlling paternal animus --the buzzkill authority that the female is never convinced to question as far its 'rightness - and the wild artistic animus, which perforce is bound towards the destructive and impulsive. In each case the risk is a kind on non-classic. On the one side, inert social message films, on the other, abstract and often shrill 'art.' 

There are a few geniuses who feminine mythic energy to the screen, Angela Carter, whose fairy tale adaptations and revisions ("The Bloody Chamber") inspired works such as Helene Cattet's Bluebeard and Neil Jordan's In the Company of Wolves. And Linda Woolverton, writer of Disney revisionisms ala Maleficent. 


  1. Oh surely, surely there's a place for Angela Lansbury's devouring mother in Manchurian Candidate? Pretty please?

  2. Of course! I had her in mind too when I started. I added her immediately after reading this.

  3. Amen, brother! What a great post...

    In a very similar vein, a recent viewing of Lady Frankenstein underlined for me that fact that the (cinematic) world would be a better place with more women Mad Scientists.

  4. Very true, Daniel. You have given me a story idea.


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