As a Catholic woman, the Catholic Church has told me that the person I should look to and emulate as an example of my gender is Mary, the Mother of God. I always had a problem relating to Mary, however; this is perhaps heretical, but I used to feel like Mary didn’t do anything. She gave birth to Jesus, she has a few other scenes with the gospel, but that is mostly it. I also felt Mary has largely no personality. She passively and humbly accepts everything God or Jesus does. Now, in the Catholic tradition Mary is considered sinless, so you might argue I couldn’t relate to Mary because of that. For example, in fiction, characters who have no flaws are pretty boring, right? But Jesus is also sinless and I could relate to him just fine. Jesus weeps over the death of Lazarus; he feels sorrow over Judas’s betrayal; he yells at God and attempts to bargain with God; he gets angry and flips the tables of the money changers. But Mary is always just humble and serene. At least that is what I thought—but I was wrong.
This version of Mary as the passive submissive female to a male church, savior, or god is what feminist theologians call the patriarchal feminine. This is a female figure who is lifted up as the ideal woman for a patriarchal society. Mary’s acting the submissive passive female to a male God and Christ, or even her husband Joseph, sends the message that if women truly want to follow God, then they too must be submissive to men.
Of course this version of Mary lifted up by the patriarchy is not in any way accurate. Mary is actually a very empowered figure. However, Mary as the patriarchal feminine is what we find in both theology and in pop culture.
Lady Saika has already discussed the Mother of God figures in pop culture, which, like Mary,
are women portrayed as pure, perfect people who give birth to savior babies. I’m going to take that a step further. To be the true patriarchal feminine, a woman’s perfection needs to be connected to how they submit to the more powerful male figures in their lives.
Shmi Skywalker and Padmé Amidala (Star Wars):
Padmé occasionally stands up for herself, but for the most part she lays there and dies of a broken heart while Anakin goes around killing people because of love… or something. So much for Padmé being a badass no-nonsense politician—by the time the third movie rolls around, Padmé’s pregnancy seems to have disabled her spine, allowing people like Anakin and Obi-Wan to make decisions for her as she never did in the previous movies. Well, to be fair, in the other movies the men made decisions for Padmé too, but at least she fought with them about it. But I guess she “learns her lesson” in the third movie and just accepts what the men tell her to do.
Shmi, on the other hand, was always a sweet serene female character that passively accepts her fate as a slave. She defers to everyone from Anakin to Qui-Gon Jinn. She later passively accepts her death as she dies in Anakin’s arms. I have never seen a woman so passively content with her horrible fate at the hands of male characters.
Bella Swan (Twilight):
Wait… I spoke too soon. Oh God, Bella Swan, why, why do you exist? Bella defers to pretty much every male character around her around except for her father. Feminist Reni Eddo-Lodge says it best:
On the contrary, Stephenie Meyer’s protagonist displays very little courage, demonstrates very little fortitude, and is constant in need of reassurance or protection from the dominant male figures in her life. Bella Swan spends the majority of the Twilight saga standing precariously on the side-lines of the action, in full faith that men will fight her battles for her. Throughout the Twilight saga, she is constantly described as fragile and breakable, her victimhood consequently exploited and fetishized. Much of the physical interaction between Bella and her male counterparts reveals a loss of control- or rather, a willing relinquishment. She is often pulled, dragged and restrained by her love interests Jacob Black and Edward Cullen, with these adjectives betraying the physical manifestations of her willing oppression that leak into the fibre of the text.
Bella is basically the poster child of passively submitting to the men in her life for “her own good.” In the books Bella acts utterly helpless, unable to make any decisions (other than wanting to be with Edward) until a male figure guides her in the right direction.
Arwen (Lord of the Rings):
Those of you who have not read the books may be confused, because movie Arwen has far more agency than book Arwen. In the books, Arwen is a very minor character who is barely seen or mentioned. She gives up her immortality to be with Aragorn, but Tolkien never explains why she has to do that, especially since she still dies of a broken heart after Aragorn dies. So she still never really grows old and dies with him, and other immortal elves can die of a broken heart, so nothing about her death comes off as human. Why did she need to give up her immortality? Nobody knows—Arwen has no personality, identity, interests, or goals of her own; her only purpose is to love Aragorn. She submits herself to him, even gives her very life over to him, and that’s it. That’s all there is to Arwen’s character.
There are other utterly passive, submissive female characters who invoke this idea of the patriarchal feminine, but don’t necessarily have male figures to whom they submit. For example, characters like Cinderella who passively accept their fate again push this idea that it’s virtuous for women to be passive and submissive like Mary was.
But as I said, Mary the mother of God was not what the patriarchy tells us she is. When an angel tells Mary she is going to give birth to a savior, she questions the angel. A being much more powerful than her—and Mary talks back to it. Other figures in the Bible have done this and nearly died. Mary agrees to become pregnant, implying that she could have refused, which makes becoming pregnant her choice. She bravely takes on this role even though it causes her to deal with slut-shaming for the rest of her life. In the Bible people call Jesus the son of Mary, which implies that Joseph is not his father—i
n biblical terms, they are calling Jesus a bastard and Mary a whore. When Mary first becomes pregnant, she doesn’t go to Joseph or any man for help. She goes to her cousin Elizabeth, another woman. Mary rebukes Jesus as a child for running away from her and going to the temple when he is twelve, and gives orders to Jesus as an adult at the wedding at Cana. Mary is a woman to whom the Apostles deferred and whom they called mother. Mary was not shy about giving orders or taking charge. She was hardly a submissive figure in Jesus’s life. If anything, she was a brave and empowered woman who freaking raised God. So maybe next time a church leader or a TV show’s writers decide to talk about what makes a “good woman,” they will describe a figure who is a little more like the real Mary and a little less like the patriarchal lie.