On The Meaning Of The Amazon

December 3, 2008 at 3:26 pm (feminism, LGBT, proclamations, sexism)

I’m thinking today of the mythical Amazons. I say “mythical” not to make any statement about their actuality, but because I’m thinking specifically of the mythology. That is, what does this mythic idea mean?

The idea is of a woman warrior, but she’s more than that. She is a person who occupies the space between sexes. She cuts off one breast, the better to shoot arrows, but leaves the other: a combatant who can nurse children. All her life is dimorphic. Women are her friends and comrades, men her enemies; her daughters are treasured children, her sons left out to die.

I am being somewhat ahistorical here. I’m interpreting this idea from my vantage point as a 21st century dyke, wondering what the symbol means today — I find its simple endurance as an idea noteworthy — and, to a lesser (and less informed) extent, what it might have meant once, what purpose this idea serves.

So. The Amazon is, I think, the visceral reaction to the gendering of violence. We code violence as male and tenderness as female and, therefore, men as dangerous and women as nurturing. Trapped in such a system, people respond in many ways — most frequently by performing these roles and behaving as if they are natural and inevitable. But I don’t think of any of us is truly comfortable with this incredibly reductive picture of human nature. The life of the Amazon is a life of both protest against this system and capitulation to it: a rejection of the system on the system’s own terms. The Amazon is following an older, crueler Golden Rule — treat others as they treat you. In a world where men, and only men, are brutal, and women, and only women, are kind,* the Amazon, in an imperfect stand against cruelty, becomes callous to men and considerate to women.

This is a profound assent to the premises of the gender system — she accepts that women are one way and men another. But it also, inevitably, gets her kicked out of that same institution. As soon as she practices both violence and tenderness, even in her sexist way, she is no longer qualified for membership in the group “woman.” This contradiction embodies the essence of life under this regime: we are trapped and re-trapped in the system even as we are constantly kicked out of it, constantly deemed unworthy of our assigned class. And that’s the real cruelty of it.

Even in exile there is no escape.

* This is not the real world. It is the world the gender system tells us we live in, though.

Cross-posted at Revolutionary Act.



  1. On The Meaning Of The Amazon | Revolutionary Act said,

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  2. Infra said,

    Do you think that this might have to do, not so much with gender roles themselves, but with the need to define a role in terms of something particularly powerful? By which I mean something that, by its nature and/or expression, can inspire awe.

    Things like awe impose a distance — a psychological one, in the sense of the sublime, that which can be experienced but not readily or logically understood. It would seem to me that distance, in this sense, becomes fundamental to definition — to the drawing of boundaries that others, of their own volition, will not cross.

    Maybe this volitional separation is enforced by or arises from the need, when faced with things defined by powerful forces (the ability to give life and the ability to take it being the most obvious), to evaluate one’s own capabilities — especially in terms of what might need to be sacrificed in order to take on the role or the function. When those capabilities are socially defined, especially in terms of biology, that evaluation becomes less personal than it might otherwise be; the definition can be taken from the outside (worn like clothing, as it were), rather than developed from within.

    Maybe roles have their power because, in that sense, they’re the path of least resistance.

  3. Daisy said,

    Infra: yes, that makes sense. I think that relates to what I was trying to say some weeks back about having more gender roles, which are available to more people — that need to access power that others willingly respect. The mention of clothing is an apt one; like clothing, much of the usefulness is that, in combining these outside elements, one can cultivate a role that other people recognize and understand. Not to bring in other branches of thought with all their own flaws, but those roles are very much archetypes; that’s their very usefulness.

    But, I do think the Amazon is a response to the gender system insomuch as she is a rejection of the system’s insistence that roles cannot — can never — be chosen or rearranged.

  4. opit said,

    I suspect something even odder may be involved.
    People are said to cope with situations by adopting mimickry of alternate personas : ‘becoming’ another personality.
    You find this in kids who have a family identity as the ‘good kid’, ‘troublemaker’,’whiner’, ‘sneak’….and so on.
    You feel the pressure of gender role because it seems especially misplaced : but I doubt many others feel free of it. Still…social progress has been measured by individuals successfully ‘kicking against the pricks’.

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