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Historical Origin of “Sexism” in Archetypes

Posted in psychology and sociology by mrob27 on 2010.05.05

2010 May 5th

I often speak with men about archetypes and the lessons they can teach about our behaviour and group interactions. Recently, one man objected to the notion that I could claim to understand the “feminine” archetypes (such as the Maiden and Crone), while another man objected to the notion that men should be encouraged to be aware of and to embody the abilities represented by the “feminine” archetypes. I also encountered a man who objected to these other two views, and believed that all of this was the result of “sexism” in our treatment of mythology, culture, and attitudes towards all aspects of psychology and sociology.

To sort this all out, I will begin with a simple “two-sided” category system. However, I do not assign anything specifically to males or females, or to what one might call “masculine personality” or “feminine personality”.

The main division I use is between “communication, perception and understanding” on the one hand, and “deduction, decision and action” on the other. Note that each occurs equally often in any living thing that exhibits behaviour, regardless of sex or gender. Also, each of these two categories includes physical, emotional and mental aspects. For example, communication can be mental (through words), emotional (facial expressions) or physical (touch, gestures, watching someone move around a room).

The first category (communication) happens between two or more people, while the other can involve a single person or more than one. If you believe in the autonomy of multiple parts of the mind (the id, ego, and super-ego, an inner child, etc.) then there is “communication” inside the mind. I consider this to be part of “decision”: you are using several of your skills at the same time. Awareness of the multi-part mind is fairly recent, and is too sophisticated a concept to be relevant here.

In ancient times when story-tellers “taught” wisdom they usually did so through fables involving characters. Many of the stories that were being told concerned psychology, behaviour, ethics and morality, group interaction, and so on — the kinds of things I am discussing when I refer to “archetypes” and why they are important.

I believe that when the story-tellers wanted to discuss a lesson related to communication, they told the story with a female character. When they wanted to discuss a lesson related to action, they chose a male character for their story.

What happens if a young child is given a vaugely-defined object (say an oddly-shaped piece of wood) to play with? A boy is likely to pretend the object is some sort of tool or weapon, and a girl is likely to treat it like a baby or doll. There is a big nature versus nurture debate regarding this phenomenon, but it does not need to be resolved here. The only thing we need to agree on is that this phenomenon also affected the story-tellers’ choices of what characters to use in their fables. (Of course, once they made such choices, the resulting oral tradition would have helped amplify the existing gender role bias in the culture).

This use of gendered characters in fables led to a gradual accumulation of beliefs (some of them subconscious) linking lessons to gender-roles. These lessons covered all the areas I listed above (behaviour, morality/ethics, group dynamics, etc.).

Over time, human cultures accumulated a vast body of literature (myths, fables, stories, etc.) containing lessons about behaviour, most of which can be classified into one or the other of the categories I set out above. Lessons regarding communication/perception/understanding are more likely to use female characters, and those regarding deduction/decision/action are more likely to use male characters.

The archetypes have been derived from the mythology fairly recently (e.g. by Jung, Moore and Gillette). The treatment of them as “masculine” and “feminine” is a convenience of nomenclature for those who study and understand the mythology. In general, a Jung/Moore/Gillette “masculine” archetype unifies lessons and wisdom imparted by myths/fables/stories that use male characters.

The association of these with actual male and female people (as distinguished from mythological characters) is an unfortunate accident caused by the terminology.

In other words, our current use of “male” and “female” to refer to the archetypes has no relevant connection to the use of the words “male” and “female” to refer to people — or to the use of “male” and “female” to refer to electrical cable connectors! This is much like the treatment of such words in the east (see for example the relation between male and female in the yin and yang distinction.) It is no surprise to me that eastern thought has less trouble with the gender words.

Given the problems of “sexism” in teachings that are meant to illustrate the same psychological principles in all people regardless of sex, it might be useful to purge all gender names from the archetypes entirely — but that will be a lot of work. Moore and Gillette describe 24 “masculine” archetypes, and there are another 24 on the “feminine” side (see my table). Nearly all of them have genderized names. That’s a lot of names to change!


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