Archetypes, Foils, and Gender Norms

Through much of Western history “Man” has been an archetype with woman his convenient foil.

These two tired tropes have served us well in some regards – a simple way to summarize all that is strong and stern, or all that is weak and emotional. A tool for understanding not only ourselves, but our broader social context.

There are, of course, problems with this approach.

Consider, for example, the quote, “The perfect woman is a higher type of human than the perfect man, and also something much more rare.”

At first blush that may sound good. Perhaps I should be flattered. But of course Friedrich Nietzsche, who wrote the above in Human, All Too Human, isn’t exactly known for his raging feminist philosophy.

Perhaps because he also liked to write things like, “From the beginning, nothing has been more alien, repugnant, and hostile to woman than truth—her great art is the lie, her highest concern is mere appearance and beauty.”

But I’m not sure I find the second quote particularly more problematic than the first. They both take women as a foil – Man is the object of interest, and Woman a mere tool for understanding this more important truth.

One solution seeks to right this historic wrong by flipping the paradigm, making Woman a central concern in her own right. Perhaps it is Woman who should be the archetype with man demoted to foil – little more than a shadow which serves to illustrate its master.

But I find that approach unsatisfactory.

No sentence which begins “Woman is…” will end well for me. Women are not a monolith. Men are not a monolith. And gender is not a two item list.

We’re all individual people. With shared traits and divergent traits. Neither an archetype nor a foil.

We’ve put generations of effort into defining our gender norms. Women are this. Men are that. But which ever way you prioritize that list, a bifurcated system does little to express who we actually are.

I am glad to see efforts to promote strong women, to show real images of women, and to treat women as more than a shadow for the other half of society.

But these efforts are not enough. They still feel too narrow, too defining. Perhaps we need to think more radically – not about what it means to be Woman or what it means to be Man, but about what it means to be a Person.


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