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The Manic Pixie Dream Girls of Antiquity

  • #literature
  • #antiquity
  • #film

For reference, MPDG is a common trope described here and there. This essay tries to make sense of women in antiquity literature in this context. It presumes some knowledge of antiquity literature writings (and characters such as Pandora, Eve and Penelope), but it should be reasonably interesting even if you are unfamiliar with these characters.

Pandora

Pandora is the ideal woman. She does everything her creator, Zeus, instructs her to. She shows no feelings, no motivations, no ideas. No identity, in fact. She is a pawn in a fight between the humans, gods, and titans. And yet, even in these torrid circumstances, she is built to be the epitome of pure, feminine beauty. She is a submissive, enigmatic, mechanical idea of a woman (if you can call her that). This is the ideal woman. In a misogynist, patriarchal society, this is the ideal woman.

When we treat Pandora as a stereotypical (albeit flawed) model of an ideal woman, we can see how, in breaking this prototype, Eve and Penelope assert the long road to women’s revolutions. Eve and Pandora are flawed characters. And these flaws, are, in fact, a sign of the established society’s fear of the resistance.

Pandora is an objective-driven character. Unlike gods and men, she is never even treated as a first-class citizen in the Theogony: the book talks at length about her characteristics and her deficiencies, but somehow, Hesiod forgets to mention her name. The idea of women, in Hesiod’s writings overall, is best described as this archetype that taps into the fantasy of soulmates: women exist only to “complete” men. They have no wants, no aspirations of their own. Instead, they are a collection of vague traits society has projected on them. Pandora is the penultimate stereotype of a “cold-hearted bitch” (Hesiod, Works and Days, 69) that exists only to please her father and husband. Young (Works and Days, 64), shallow (her only skills: weaving and deceiving (Works and Days, 65-79)), ethereal and childlike (Works and Days, 73): If you make a checklist of traits associated with Pandora, she is what modern screenwriting would chalk up to be a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”. Modern critics would see her as someone who exists in the minds of bad screenwriters trying really hard to force a narrative. How is it that Hesiod, writer of such timeless books, is evaluated as a bad screenwriter by modern standards? The “problem” is, Hesiod is not a modern writer. I think, for Hesiod, this isn’t a case of poor writing, it is a byproduct of poor consideration for the very state of women. He (and the society) has treated women as objects for so long, he fails to recognize the impracticality of this concept of a woman.

Hesiod’s writings’ express a lot of confusion about what an ideal woman is supposed to be, and for good reason: Greek society is at a crossroads. The modern women’s rights revolutions still have a ways to go, but the fire of dissatisfaction has started brewing in their thoughts and actions. The idea of women as characterless, emotionless automatons is no longer sustainable. As they develop a voice, there is an inherent fear of the consequences of the unknown. And Hesiod’s writing represents this tug of war between the established view of a woman and the resistance to it.

On one hand, Hesiod repeatedly enforces the idea that the ideal woman is someone having no character, as an unadulterated (mentally, and physically) virgin (Works and Days, 695-705). Yet, on the flip side, in Works and Days, Zeus describes women as distractions for men. In a zero-sum game, if you give your opponents a line of attack, they will try their best to cling to it, often failing to notice how they make themselves weaker on other fronts. Of course, if society assigns value to women being objects of lust, a subset of them will become very successful at being exactly that — succulent whores. Of course, women will be “helpmates in deeds of harshness” (Hesiod, Theogony, 601) when that is the image you have been projecting on them for years, Zeus!

Eve

Now, let us look at Eve through this lens. The “inciting incident” of Genesis is the consumption of the forbidden fruit, and this event is a direct consequence of Eve’s actions. Yet, in Genesis, Eve’s existence feels rather incidental. She is made (or rather, extracted) when Adam is looking for a helper, and her very description, wo-man, hints at the shallowness of the character. Again, from a modern screenwriting perspective, Eve’s character arc would be of vital importance. And yet again, just like the “Magical Girlfriend” (Yamato Nadeshiko) of a Shōnen manga (comics primarily intended for “boys” or “youth”), another derogatory, poorly thought out ideal of a woman (an eastern equivalent to the western “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”), Eve’s remarkable initiative is covered up as an innocent mistake. Notably, while Priestly accounts of the Bible are notorious for being extremely specific about character life spans (Genesis 4:17-26 and Genesis 11:10-31), sadly, Eve’s character is seen as so mundane, so irrelevant, that P does not even consider describing her life span. In fact, all of Eve’s actions are presented very matter-of-factly. We hear nothing about her dilemma before she eats the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:6) or the subsequent asymmetrical pains of childbirth (Genesis 3:16). This feels like a deliberate attempt by the author to dismiss women. He only notes Eve’s contributions when they were too important to ignore. Otherwise, they are just negligible footnotes of a character.

The very basis of Genesis is quite suggestive of the societal tides of change. The flood and the eating of the forbidden fruit of knowledge are both euphemisms for new beginnings, for the act of letting go. They are vivid suggestions of the importance of not getting trapped by dogma. And yet, sadly, the authors of the Bible themselves don’t pay attention to their own lesson: they see women for what they currently are and fail to recognize what they could (and would) become. Eve’s similarities to Pandora signal how strongly she fits the female stereotype, and how much a dystopian society would prefer for women to have no innovative thoughts of their own. She, too, is a caricature of a woman trapped in a tight jar of a body. Her only purpose, to open this jar of humans, to perform “Genesis”. How poetic, then, that “hope”, perhaps the most important element of genesis, was left trapped in Pandora’s jar.

Penelope

Penelope lives in a society of neglect. Even Athena, a female goddess, thinks that the average woman would steal wealth and resources from her old house and marry another suitor in Penelope’s situation (Homer, Odyssey, 15.20). 1 Yet, for us, the reader, who has seen Penelope’s perspective, this sounds so uncharacteristic of her, it almost seems like Athena is mocking women. In a society full of neglect, care is the strongest signal of rebellion. She cares about her (possibly dead) soulmate Odysseus. She cares about giving her aging father-in-law an honorable burial (Odyssey, 2.101). She cares about the plight of the Xenoi, the beggars (Odyssey, 19.90-100), even when that means defying some of the most decorated warriors/suitors of Ithaca. Unlike Laertes, who is so overcome by grief that he flees to the countryside (Odyssey, 1.190), Penelope is a strong, free spirit who takes control of her own destiny, and refuses to abide by the impractical ideals of a male-dominated society.

Notably, Homer, perhaps as a message to the society, really tries to make sure we note this specialty of Penelope’s nature: Telemachus, describing his mother’s independent nature, says, “She may be clever, but she acts on whims.” (Odyssey, 19.133) and Agamemnon, too, expresses his jealousy to Odysseus, saying “you got yourself a wife of virtue — great Penelope” (Odyssey, 24.194).

The Times They Are a-Changin’

In the grand scheme of things, these writings actually reflect something deeply ingrained in the society of the time. Eve and Penelope are complementary representations of the zeitgeist of their respective societies and times that signal the “acts of defiance” of the women of Antiquity. They are signals of the upcoming, grander, women’s revolution. It is not that Pandora and Eve are “Manic Pixie Dream Girls” written by asinine writer-directors of Hollywood. Instead, they are representations of the knee-jerk reaction of the patriarchal society to the symptoms of the revolution.

  1. Unsurprisingly, Hesiod shares this belief: “You trust a thief when you trust a woman.” (Works and Days, 375)