Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?
Who is this lady far too smartly outfitted, who shamelessly gazes at herself in the mirror? How has she moved through the ages, exchanging her old polished metal plate for a brand new smartphone? The image of the queenly woman still bears in collective imagery several contradictory functions. In these she is simultaneously a ruler and an immoderate figure, a leader but not always self-controlled. However, many of her more recent manifestations show that even archaic allusions to royalty can become symbols of progress — especially if you know where, and how, to look.
The Good, the Bad, and the Contradictory
The queen is in several respects a strong feminine archetype. The third arcana of Tarot, she symbolizes stability, dawning enterprise; at the top of the hierarchical pyramid, she represents female social success. But this success usually comes with a cost — a vision of the strong, female leader as filled with evil and jealousy.
As Joseph Campbell argued in his foundational essay, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” we only rewrite the same myths through time. Figures haunting contemporary pop culture inherit the characteristics of their elders. The archetype of envious woman has been represented in tales about the Grimhilde queen, die böse Köningin (the evil queen); the middle-aged lady with ice-cold beauty, such as Snow White’s cruel stepmother, willing to kill her stepdaughter because of her growing beauty. Old women, like Erinyes among Greeks, embody remorse and evil. Thus we have since long ago integrated in our representations the idea that once a woman is not shining in her “looks,” and is past a certain age, she is deemed worthless (at best) and at worst, an evil, dangerous force.
In one such variation this “queen” is Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (2006). The movie was based on the novel of the same name, which was not-so-discreetly inspired by the true redactor-in-chief: Anna Wintour of Vogue.
The movie prominently features Meryl Streep in this role of fashion ruler, wearing outfits that costume designer Patricia Field wanted to be timeless. Priestley was dressed as an image of control: a trench-coat over a dark suit, for instance, all pieces in the vibe of Donna Karan’s ’80s and ’90s workwear known to be classical, flattering, and practical. But it was also a style all Priestly’s own. This dark costume is a smart illustration of her leadership and of the seductive face of “the devil.” This supposedly tyrannical figure was, in fact, so dazzling that her character fueled a bestselling novel and a blockbuster film.
The Devil Wears Prada easily passes the Bechdel Test — because the main characters don’t talk much about guys, more about fashion — and yet is eminently problematic in its representation of feminine psyche. The heroine achieves social ascension by an extreme makeover, analyzed by Andrew Joseph Pegoda for its questionable presentation female success. A true fashion movie, built otherwise on a binary architecture, reminding us of the dark ages of fairy tales, with their not-so-great lady characters. The moral of the story is basically: outside of guys and swag, no salvation is coming. The movie manages to brush an easy and petty caricature of the fashion world, which the heroine overlooks with her intellectual disdain.
But to be mistress of one’s appearance and events, is it truly so wrong?
The time has come for us to reclaim the queen as a positive figure, a model or an ideal. We could in this regard stand with Michelle Perrot and advocate for new historical narratives about women, since “until now women are far more imagined than written or recounted.”
Through this understanding of our shared historical perception, the last season of Game of Thrones, and its elaborate debates about the role of Queen Daenerys, offers a unique take on challenging these old stories. The show raised a lot of commentary for its troubling representation of feminine characters and yet developed complex narrative arcs for these. The question of the show’s ending — whether it smartly staged the death of a revolutionary ideal or reinforced a stereotype of toxic femininity — reveals that the old storylines are being unsettled, if not yet undone.
Every woman who breaches the preset order, is immediately considered to be excessive. The queen embodies this excess, this madness, of an old predator, decayed, a vamp. Or a young diva, outcast, over the top, blowing things out of proportion.
A New Emergence
In the last few years marketing has seized the queen’s image as a figure of empowerment, following the lead of pop icons, such as Beyoncé (a.k.a. Queen B). They defend a right to a different appearance, carefreeness and freedom of choice. In the case of R&B icons, the incarnation of the queen by artists such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, Aliyah and many others is also a matter of appropriation of power by women of color. If one watches Homecoming, the documentary on Queen B’s performance at 2018 Coachella festival, it becomes clear that behind the Egyptian queen Nefertiti costume and the artistic direction recalling the atmosphere of black American universities, there’s a concrete political purpose, challenging negative representations of gender and race. There’s a parallel to draw with the MET’s 2019 Spring exhibition “Camp: Notes on Fashion.” The excess, the awkward has become a mode of expression as much as an aesthetic. Queens are undoubtedly camp and of public interest. Ru Paul probably wouldn’t disagree.
This reclamation of the very word “queen” is not brand new. There’s an affiliation with LGBTQ counterculture and the ballroom scene brought to mainstream culture through the most famous Queen of Pop, Madonna. As the series Pose brilliantly shows, the pageant and dance competition is about self acceptance and an ideal freedom of gender and sexuality, an access to expression for queer people of color.
Generally well cultivated, the queen is very often perceived from the outside as a smart, cautious person, with moral values. A queen is also wise, someone who gives good advice and finds the best strategies. The figure appears in a new generation of leaders on screen, from Damages (Glenn Close ) How to Get Away with Murder (Viola Davis) or the fifth season of House of Cards (Robin Wright). These scenarios give top billing to those women who have exploded glass ceilings, reflecting a kind of societal evolution and a celebration of female “rulers.”
But when you look at economic figures, women still lack access to key leadership positions, and all too often women are not perceived as skillful leaders. Women occupy only 20% of the highest political positions in the U.S., and we can count only a dozen women heads of state in the world. The LIEPP study in France pointed out that a major factor in this disparity is women’s own self-censorship. Considering these obstacles, the representation of those powerful figures in fiction have a prominent role to play, modeling ideals that need to be out there.
The archetypes staged by advertisements and cinema have their roots in a long history, or what psychologist Karl Jung called the “collective unconscious.” If we don’t highlight these, examine, and then challenge them, the images, as superficial and frozen they might be, can shape us. At the same time, the idea of political power in itself is not quite as opposed to femininity as it used to be — or at least, it doesn’t immediately infuse women with evil characteristics.
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