Updated: May 10
It's not all that good and it's not all that terrible
Now that Mother's Day is around the corner in Spain, I want to reflect on the virgin vs. whore trope in Gothic Literature and the concept of Good Mother vs. Terrible Mother in Jungian terms.
Since we were little, we have been presented with qualities we should aim at acquiring or should not pursue at all. This is all well and good if we are trying to teach children how not to harm others. However, this is taken to be a social corseting of both girls and boys when they don't behave as expected: "good girls or boys" or "bad girls or boys".
I am sure you too have felt that societal standards haven't always classified good and bad qualities in a way that match your hopes, desires and dreams.
Although my introductory statement seems old-fashioned and I'd love to say this is not the case anymore, I still see parents bringing up their kids with very harmful models.
A seven-year-old girl was being very insistent with a boy from her class the other day on the way out of my kid's school. Her dad looked down and said to the little boy:
Start getting used to this, women are just bossy
What a jaw-dropper!
There is so much toxic information in that statement, not only about the adult man's relationship with women but also the lack of cognitive flexibility to change old songs of what being men and women is all about.
The other thing is that this very bossy little girl was getting away with murder and didn't know anything about respecting others, which is a different kind of problem.
As a mother of two boys and a wife of a man who is very connected with his Anima (the feminine unconscious part of men as per Carl Jung), those parameters are not only harmful but also constraining. They are constraining not only to our boys but to the other boys and girls they might be interacting with in their lives.
And we see this all the time, not only in the street but also in our family conversations or in the entertainment we consume.
In today's entry, I want to talk to you about the concept of Good Mother and Terrible Mother in Gothic and Horror productions and why it is so important to find a balance between these two extremes.
Let's dive in:
THE VIRGIN/WHORE BINARY
I was doing my research for the critical essay collection about "Women on Supernatural" when I saw myself going down a very interesting road. The female characters in the TV show Supernatural are pretty much divided between the virgin/whore binary, mainly and most prominently in the first eight seasons.
This binomial concept coined by Freud in the early 1900s, but already present in people's unconscious minds, becomes really obvious in the show as it tends to portray the good females with good motherhood, the angelical and virginal; and the vengeful, hurt and independent women with monsters. Hence the way they appear and disappear throughout the story of the brothers.
...while women die in droves, it is the sexually active and the post-feminine female characters, typically characterized by the demons, who die particularly nasty deaths.
(Freddie Harris Ramsby, "I prefer ladies with more experience", Virgins, Whores and Post-Feminine Death in Supernatural. Death in Supernatural: Critical Essays).
I already addressed this aspect in my January issue of You Are Gothic But You Don't Know It when I was talking about the birch tree and its connection with the woman in white.
Image from You Are Gothic But You Don't Know It, created by Alicia Domínguez
What this binomial creates is a sense, still prominent in people, of guilt when stepping out of what is socially acceptable. Even in these times when the voices against discrimination are getting louder, we continue feeling the curse of patriarchal standards. These can show through hurtful behaviours against women or in little "innocent" conversations like the one about the dad warning a little boy about his bossy daughter.
REPRESENTATIONS OF THE GOOD MOTHER AND THE TERRIBLE MOTHER IN FICTION
This takes me to the next part of this entry and that I am going to connect with Mother's Day.
Mothers come in many different shapes and forms and by following the virgin/whore binary, we get to the binary good mother/bad mother.
In real life, this classification can be based on decisions women make regarding their motherhood. This can go from the moment a woman decides whether to have children or not, what choices she makes after conceiving, how she decides to give birth, how to breastfeed or how much of her personal time she dedicates to this new life.
Learning about the archetypes that run us at different stages of our lives can be crucial to understand what goes on in our minds but it can also help us understand what other women might be facing at different stages of their lives, as Shinoda Bolen says in her book Goddesses in Everywoman; Powerful Archetypes in Women's Lives.
But the first thing we should really learn is that like in the Yin Yang, there's darkness in light and light in darkness. So the good mother is not that good in the same way the terrible mother is not that terrible.
The archetype that holds both negative and positive aspects of the same idea is what psychologist Erich Neumann called and wrote about: The Great Mother.
The Good Mother can, for example, be associated with an infantile ego and then be typical for a negative-development situation. An example is the witch in the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, whose house, i.e., exterior, is made of gingerbread and candy, but who in reality eats little children. Conversely, the Terrible Mother may be associated with a tendency toward the transformative character, i.e., toward the anima...
Erich Neumann, The Great Mother, an analysis of the archetype.
Can we look at our mothers, sisters, friends and even ourselves without judging? Even when our social mask shows respect and understanding, our shadow self might be questioning and criticising actions we dislike from others that we detect in ourselves but have repressed.
THE HARMFUL LEGACIES
Fairy tales and ghost stories are full of examples of good mothers vs. terrible mothers. In fairy tales, good mothers are inexistent or get killed at the beginning of the stories. Think for example of Snow White, Cinderella or Beauty from Beauty and the Beast. There's not much said about these unvoiced females, and yet we know a lot about their evil counterparts. They almost run the whole show. Without them, in many cases, there can't be a good story or a hero's quest.
But the story of the Terrible Mother has in many cases a traumatising past where she has lost a part of her identity.
In a lot of the folklore, she is presented as motherless, as a strong woman who fights for what she wants but she has been demonised by men who due to their lack of understanding, fear them.
Other times she is presented as an old hag who is constantly chasing power by maintaining her youth and sexual powers. It's all very twisted.
Have you ever seen Regina from Once Upon a Time?
Also, remember the story of Lilith from Mesopotamic mythology and Jewish folklore.
Although there are a lot of layers and interpretations of Lilth, what we have inherited is the Jewish Medieval interpretation where she gets punished by God once she decides she isn't going to do what she has been told.
Turning her into the mother of all evil raises all the red flags of patriarchal force. Once she loses power, the easier it is to demonise and cast her. This way she is abandoned by all humanity and her fate serves as an example to other women.
The Terrible Mother is still present in horror productions these days, and I can see why. There's nothing more scary than the person you should trust the most turning into the monster that you should fear.
However, the scariest mother of all is the psychological one, the one who bases her nurturing and love on neglecting her kids. But that, my friend, is an analysis for another day.
In this entry, I have explained the binomial whore vs. virgin trope in Gothic literature and its psychological origins.
I have also told you about the other binomial good mother vs. terrible mother and the connection with the Great Mother. I have also provided you with examples of these archetypes in real life, in literature and in the cinema.
I am sure you have seen many grey areas regarding the Good Mother and Terrible Mother and how the Gothic is the best tool to explore them.
What are your thoughts? Can you tell me examples where good mothers are not so good and terrible mothers aren't so terrible?
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Until next week, stay Gothic my friend!
Thanks for reading,