Femme Fatale: Revisited
Virginia Woolf once wrote of an angel that lived in her head and in her home. An angel that flew above her as she wrote and told her that she was doing a man’s job, and that she should work harder to be “sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess that you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure.” She also wrote that she needed to kill this sweetly-haunting angel in order to fully be free to write. Woolf’s words made me think that perhaps we all have an angel in our heads and in our homes that we need to dispose of.
Those that know me know Bernini is my favorite artist. I find his pieces to be the most beautiful in existence. As I was walking through the exhibit that the Borghese museum in Rome, Italy, that showcased his works last week, I came to the small room that holds my personal favorite piece, called Apollo and Daphne. It’s exquisite, and it depicts the god Apollo who has been struck with cupid’s arrow to love Daphne, a nymph who has pledged herself to Dianna the goddess of the hunt. As Apollo chases her, she prays to the goddess of the earth who turns her into a tree so she may escape the reach of Apollo. The piece memorializes the fear and desperation of a woman who was under the oppression of a man who had more power than she did.
As I walked into the next room of the Borghese, I found my second favorite piece of art, also by Bernini, called the Rape of Proserpina. No single piece of art has moved me so fully. It depicts Hades, the god of the underworld, kidnapping Persephone and dragging her back to his kingdom. If you look at the piece’s miraculous detail you can see that Bernini has caught the harsh impressions of Hades’ hands on Persephone’s legs, and if you look even closer you can see tiny, desperate tears of stone falling onto Persephone’s cheeks. Bernini carved this sorrowful scene with such precision, beauty, and emotion that it has lasted centuries and hundreds of thousands of people have stood in front of it seeing Daphne’s will being taken away by an oppressive male.
These priceless and beautiful pieces of art made me think about the angel that Virginia Woolf wrote about. These women (albeit fictional) are frozen in their moments of fear and oppression and fighting for their final moments of freedom. Have I let an angel similar to Woolf’s freeze me in these types of “Bernini” moments because I refuse to kill my own oppressive personal angel, comprised of society’s opinions of who I should be as a woman? I think that, maybe a little bit, I have.
Not long ago I considered changing my major. I’m a Pre-Management major, with intentions to apply to BYU’s undergraduate business school, the Information Systems program specifically, one of the most competitive in the nation. I was feeling intimidated by a program dominated by males, with classes taught predominantly by males, who all go into an industry dominated by males. I thought perhaps I need something easier, more reserved. How often people have asked me “how can you be a mom and pursue a business career?” Questions like this and assumptions of how women should be based on society’s standards made me question my own purpose. I began to wonder if maybe society was right, was I not reserved enough? Not concerned enough with being a mother and wife? Was I preparing myself to enter a field meant for men? I had my own personal Virginia Woolf moment, an angel whispering into my ear saying, “be sympathetic; be tender… never let anyone guess you have a mind of your own.”
While abroad this semester I have had ample opportunity to notice the lesser role of women throughout history in all aspects of life including but not limited to literature, art, theater, business and politics. It is so blatantly written into history and society that it’s impossible to ignore. These findings have also given me the opportunity to question my own feelings about my role as a woman in society and what my mark on history will be. My experiences abroad have led me to realize that it wasn’t me who was doing something irrational by wanting to enter a “man’s world,” but it was society’s irrationality for expecting me not to. In art and literature I’ve seen women like Anna Karenina, Persephone, Daphne, and Virginia Woolf all trapped in a society expecting angels of women and something else entirely of men. For me to sit back and accept this as “the way it is” would be unfair to not only myself, but to women as a whole. I realized that for me to kill my personal Woolf-like angel, I needed to defy society’s expectations for me and create my own expectations for myself, expectations that allow me to reach my personal potential, not the potential that is laid out for me by societal standards. Perhaps it isn’t just me that needs to kill my personal angel, but society that needs to kill a large ever-present version of Woolf’s angel that has its hand in every home.
Woolf wrote, “I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defense. Had I not killed her she would have killed me.” I needed Woolf’s words and my experiences abroad this semester to have the courage to kill my own angel, who was in some ways killing parts of me, or my potential. And now that my angel is gone, who I am and who I will become, is limitless.