Difficult Damsels: Poetry About Bad Women – A Poetic Mess
Music Credit: Rose (Prod. by Lukrembo)
Hi Pen Pals, I’m Jyn Arro and you’re listening to A Poetic Mess, the podcast where we turn the beautiful and ugly messes of our lives into poetry.
As you can all hopefully tell, I am feeling a lot more comfortable recording this podcast now that we are eight episodes in. I think if you go back and listen to my first few you can kind of tell how uncomfortable I felt because I didn’t really know what to do with my voice. I was thinking way too much about it and now I’ve found my pace and tone and groove and I feel more natural at this.
It’ll only get better from here!
I’ve learned a lot about how this podcast is flowing and discovered where and how I want to tweak it starting from today. You know, the whole premise is making poetry out of life and life being poetic in both pleasant and unpleasant ways. So, rather than the short discussion and analysis blurbs I’ve been giving alongside each of the three or four poems I recite, I will instead be beginning with a poem or prose of the day.
The poem of the day will include the topic, theme, and or structure that will be the focus of our analysis for the rest of the episode to facilitate more meaningful discussion and breakdowns of the material. I will include other poems or pieces of writing if they are relevant to the topic.
So, without further adieu, let’s start off in this new, exciting direction with our poem of the day: Difficult Damsels by Nikita Gill from her book Fierce Fairytales: Poems and Stories to Stir Your Soul.
Not all girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice. These are girls made of dark lace and witchcraft and a little bit of vice. These are daughters made claw first and story-mad, tiger roar and wolf-bad. These are women made of terrible tempests and savage storms and the untamed unwanted. These are damsels made of flawless fearlessness made of more bravery than knights have ever seen. These are princesses made of valour and poison alike and they are here to hold court as your queens.
The Fairytale Princess and the “Strong” Women
If I were to describe this poem in one sentence it would be a poem with bite. There is an undeniable tone of defiance woven through every single line and stanza. It is unapologetically feminist and insistent on refuting the tropes commonly associated with women specifically in the fairytale and fantasy genres. Instead of easily won damsels, women are described as difficult, as witches who are not perfect and pure but rather capable of aggression, anger, bravery, and leadership. All of these are ideas and commentary on the feminine experience that she includes in her poem commentary that contradicts and protests against how fairytales have traditionally depicted women.
In the essay, Good and Bad Beyond Belief: Teaching Gender Lessons through Fairy Tales and Feminist Theory, writers Jerilyn Fisher and Ellen S. Silberthey state that “…fairy tales exert a noticeable influence on cultural ideals of goodness, images of evil, models of manhood and womanhood, and fantasies about “true love.” A majority of the stories most frequently retold, such as “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” and “Rapunzel,” feature a young girl’s halting progression to royal marriage, her dream-come-true repeatedly threatened by the wicked deed of a depraved stepmother, witch, or enchantress. The fairy tale father, oblivious to his child’s misery, never intercedes; nor is he reproached for being inattentive. Ultimately, the prince delivers the heroine from women’s wrath. His power to save her and her utter dependence on him seem key to their imagined future happiness.”
With this being the history of fairy tales and similar lore, Gill’s poem subverts the personalities and traits of the heroine to instead possess those that would be assigned to the prince or noble knight. And this is a tactic that has been used to varying degrees of success, in much of modern storytelling as the continuation of the feminist movement seeks to change the way women are written. Ideally, in a manner that evolves and refines these characters although there have certainly been examples of the description of a quote “strong, independent woman” being used and abused for hollow representation on a page instead of fully fleshing out a multifaceted character who lives up to said description.
These days I’ve seen plenty of shows, movies, and books be critiqued for advertising their stories as having strong female leads only to find that she is only strong in theory but never in the practice of her actions, voice, or thoughts. By all accounts, these women leads may even follow the original cookie-cutter fairytale concept of a beauty who falls in love with a beast to eventually live happily ever after… except now this story is also meant to be read as empowering with the addition of a word or two carelessly thrown in there to remind you that she is different because she is quote “strong.”
The other unforgivable sin I’ve seen in the way these stories are both marketed and told is the overkill in assuring the audience or reader that the main character is in fact: a woman. Rather than naturally and narratively allowing the events to unfold the same way one would with a male lead, the storyteller makes a point to remind us that a woman is wielding the sword, a woman has an opinion, or a woman is saving the day. If a woman is truly meant to fulfill the role of a hero then her personality and character traits should be so explicitly explored throughout the story that readers know not only the gender she identifies as but who she is as a person and how her gender affects her lived experience, along with the parts of her that aren’t intrinsically tied to her femininity such as maybe her morals or certain preferences.
Of Valour and Poison
This is where Nikita Gill does really well with Difficult Damsels, because not only does she imply that women can be heroes, princesses, and queens with influence over their own stories, as well as, the qualities needed to lead others. She also claims words that have been used as insults and gross tropes that conceptually made a woman a villain or undesirable or both.
She does not shy away from bad traits or accusatory language but claims them as ways in which women can and do walk through the world. Words like ‘mad’, ‘savage’, ‘unwanted’, and ‘poison’ are affirmed as tools or ways of being women also have at their disposal or that are a part of the feminine experience. Gill never says these are for the explicit purpose of harming others, but she does imply that they are a means to achieve independence and self-reliance. But their inclusion can also simply signify that she wanted to write a poem that allows women the room to be less than good and maybe even villains worthy of understanding. And she does this without said negative descriptions being detrimental commentary on the innate sinfulness of the gender as a whole as stories have so often painted women. Think of the commonly overused tropes of the temptress, Jezebel, or seductress.
If you think back to the material Difficult Damsels is pulling from, fairytales, you can easily spot that the women who are presented as princesses or queens are subservient, obedient, and overall docile in demeanor, down to the volume of their delicate voice. Whereas the women who are villains are grandiose, loud, flamboyant, and dramatic, and typically don’t have a prince, king, or any husband-like figure overseeing their actions. These villainesses are easily identified as separate from their angelic heroine counterparts. Which is another important thing to note about the poem – not once does Gill explicitly refer to women as villains.
The wording of her quite short poem handles the application of negative descriptions of women with the utmost care by leaving space for said unruliness, malice, and lack of desirability to not automatically label such a woman as the “bad guy.” Aggression, roughness, anger, and similar expressions have many justifications when they come from a heroic man but when they come from a woman on screen or on paper the word that comes to mind to describe her is usually: bitch. Her anger is not justified, it’s an overreaction; her roughness is not justified, it’s a lack of femininity; her aggression is not justified, it’s a sign of cruelty – and they all brand her as the villain of a story.
What Makes a Woman Bad?
In the analysis essay Things Walt Never Told Us, author Kay Stone perfectly summarizes how femininity and any form of assertiveness are presented as dissonant in fairytales: “Some [Brothers] Grimm heroines do show a bit of spirit, but they are not usually rewarded for it. In “The Clever Peasant Lass” (AT 875) the girl is threatened with abandonment by her boorish husband, and the proud daughter in “King Thrushbeard” (AT 900) is humbled by both her father and her unwanted husband. Only Gretel (“Hansel and Gretel,” AT 327) is allowed a brief moment of violence in order to save herself and her brother. No other popular Grimm heroines destroy the villain.”
Difficult Damsels, meanwhile, are just that – difficult. The title from the get-go lets the reader know that the poem they are about to read and the way women are described, even when in negative terms, does not make them villains simply because they are not easy to manage or deal with. And that idea, hopefully, presents the poignant questions: Why is a good woman an easy one? Why is a bad woman a difficult one?
Perhaps the answer is more obvious than we would think, because a good woman is easily forgotten and ignored, leaving ample space for a knight in shining armor or Prince Charming. While a bad woman commands attention and acknowledgment, because ignoring her would most likely result in the ruin of the decorative princess and claiming the power of the prince or king for herself… and we can’t have a ruthless Queen but by all means let’s crown the King who’s going to behead his wife. Pulling again from Good and Bad Beyond Belief: Teaching Gender Lessons through Fairy Tales and Feminist Theory, “…as a character, the bad mother is at the center, dominating not just the princess, but the plot. In contrast to the good mother (Cinderella’s or Snow Whites’s, for example), who has a barely perceptible part to play–appearing literally for a sentence or two before dying–the wicked stepmother assumes a starring role as the girl’s tenacious adversary. In terms of narrative significance, a fiercely competitive, vicious and pathological mother becomes the extant symbol of adult womanhood.”
They go on to observe that this type of woman is denounced as an expression of womanhood completely off-limits to the onlooking little girl lest they too become ugly, old hags whose shallowness or ambition reward them with death. “…for the preadolescent girl–be she, protagonist or reader–emulating the witch (the only available, living “model” of feminine maturity) would surely incur severe social criticism, a fate unequivocally represented by the stepmother’s demise. Thus, the dutiful daughter assumes instead the passive, feminine identity of the first queen, avoiding any identification with the active principle embodied in the characterization of the bad mother/witch.”
See, a good woman is an easy one because difficult women are active purveyors of their needs and wants, the latter of which poses the threat of staking her claim over something that might otherwise have gone to a man. Notice how the villainesses often have their positions of power, such as her title as head of a family or the Queen of a kingdom, stripped from her but neither position is ever given to the heroine without sharing the power with her husband-to-be.
In Pursuit of a Happy Ending
Femininity and villainy have had a contentious relationship and oftentimes toxic dynamic in literature and other means of storytelling for a very, very long time. And such a history is not going to self-reflect and dissipate overnight, even less so if mediums such as poetry and resources like feminist and film theory remain in a bubble of academic hierarchy and traditional literary elitism. But as writers and poets, we have an incredible power in our hands to change the trajectory of this art we love so much. We can literally write a better character, rhyme a better poem, and craft a better ending.
And that is what I hope today’s episode encouraged you to do and why I decided to switch up my format. I want to be able to dive a bit deeper into the poems I pick to explore in this short amount of time to help your writing process flourish and feel inspired for at least 15 minutes out of your busy day.
Thank you for listening [or reading] and I cannot wait to continue to write with you, my fellow poetry lovers and pen-wielders. My first poetry book, Book of Mirrors, is out now on Amazon. You can stay in touch, share your poems with me, or read my poetry and other works @ JynArro across all social media platforms and jynarro.com.
You can support the podcast and my work at paypal.me/ByJynArro.
Till next time, this has been A Poetic Mess.