What is “Female?”

In the past two posts we’ve been exploring the story idea that “the female carries the mystery.”

But what exactly does “female” mean?

Kathleen Turner and William Hurt clash in Lawrence Kasdan’s “Body Heat”

Our reader Amber in an August 7 comment said

Then I understood that it wasn’t female as a gender, but female as the concept. The feminine pull vs the masculine push. In this instance, the female “hide” vs the masculine “seek”.

Andrea Reiman added something equally interesting.

The feminine is chaos, the masculine is order. Mountains are masculine, water is feminine, etc. But [“the] female carries the mystery” is a more nuanced understanding of chaos. Well, she does conceive, carry, and give birth, but it is a complete mystery how the conception took place, what is developing in utero, and what specific impact that offspring will have, right?

I confess I’m treading tentatively into this concept myself. Here’s another take from The Kybalion (1912, the Yogi Publication Society) expounding on one of the seven principles of Hermetic philosophy—the Principle of Gender:

The office is Gender is solely that of creating, producing, generating, etc. and its manifestations are visible on every plane of phenomena … the part of the Masculine Principle seems to be that of directing a certain inherent energy toward the Feminine Principle, and thus starting into activity the creative processes. But the Feminine principle is the one always doing the active creative work—and this is so on all planes. And yet each principle is incapable of operative energy without the assistance of the other.

In story terms, whatever element or character we might call “female” is the one that contains the “answer” to the question posed by the story itself—and that answer, at its most profound, is always a mystery.

I wrote, two posts ago, that I thought the feminine in Moby Dick (a book without literally female characters) was the ocean itself, the unfathomable depths of the sea. And that the female in Seven Samurai (a movie without a primary feminine character) was the flooded rice fields that the villagers were planting in the final scene.

Both these “female” elements are primal, elemental, ultimately unknowable—and of course cosmically “creative.” Both are the sources of life. And in both cases, how the feminine produces that life (as Andrea Reiman says above) is an absolute mystery.

The male element and the female element (with Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab) in “Moby Dick.”

Neither story universe could exist without these female elements. They are the ground and foundation of the worlds of both sagas. All the “male” action in each drama—that taken by the whalers in Moby Dick and the bandits, the villagers, and the samurai in Seven Samurai—is about attempts to penetrate, conquer, understand, and achieve dominion over the “female” element, which is ultimately unconquerable and unknowable.

In both stories, the male stands in awe of the female (though he may never overtly articulate this), while striving simultaneously to overpower it and surrender to it. This struggle/attempt at union is what produces the drama. It’s what makes the story.

The seminal male-female union/clash in contemporary books and films seems to be the Detective (or the male lover) and the Femme Fatale (or damsel in distress.) Think Chinatown or Body Heat or Farewell, My Lovely. In such stories, as with Moby Dick or Seven Samurai, the male principle becomes bewitched by or drawn by powerful passions into a literal mystery (a crime, a backstory, a traumatic past) whose unknown element is held by, defended by, and often manipulated by the female.

The story itself is the record of the attempt(s) by the male principle to “get to the bottom” of that mystery held and protected by the female.

Deep stuff, ain’t it? We’ll keep exploring next week.





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  1. Rebecca H on August 21, 2019 at 8:55 am

    So, I may be getting a little esoteric here…
    I’m thinking in terms of the simultaneous and conflicting desires of the male principle to overcome and to surrender when faced with the awe of the feminine. I’d say it also goes the other way. The feminine both wants to hide and reveal the secret (which I see as the end result of creativity) so it draws in the male to attempt to discover the secret, but continues to hide and protect it.
    So, if the male principle surrenders to the female, the secret is not revealed and the status quo is maintained. No drama, no story, no creativity, no new life.
    If the male principle overcomes the female, the secret is revealed, and we have drama and a good story along the way, resulting in new ‘life.’
    So, what part does Resistance play in this drama? Is it what prevents the male from attempting to discover the secret of the female? I think you could support that. But, I’d also argue that Resistance generates the fear that masculine and feminine principles have for each other, fear that can overshadow the natural, beautiful awe they share and turn it ugly.
    Perhaps the outer story is finding the secret and allowing it to be revealed, and the inner is fighting and overcoming the fear that Resistance throws at the male and female principles in their struggle to unite and create life.
    I’m working on a novel that explores the nature and process of creativity – where it comes from, what drives it, what stops it, and who pays the price to make it happen, so that’s the lens I’m looking through. This series has been fascinating, and I thank you for exploring it.

  2. Travis Fields on August 21, 2019 at 9:02 am

    Good stuff — as a fan of classic Film Noir and an even bigger fan of modern Noir, I’m on board with this.

    Various film critics have posited the idea that the Femme Fatale became a popular archetype after in the classic Noir era because “the powers that be” (men) decided women who’d gotten jobs during WWII needed to go back to being dutiful housewives who men might find a bit boring or too good for their own good, and the Femme Fatale was a personification of the sex and danger men seek, and a warning not to go too far astray from the norm.

    There may be a bit of truth to the theory.

    But it’s the kind of theory that strikes me as wish-fulfillment, because it assumes that “the powers that be” all got together and came to an agreement. But in reality, the powers that be were divided between one Studio Head and another Studio Head, Republican and Democrat, Capitalists and Socialists, Protestant and Catholic, etc. Even in a more-conformist era dealing with the strictures of the Hayes Code and the Catholic League of Decency (or whatever it was called) it’s hard for me to imagine the powers that be were all on the same page as the film critics.

    Not to mention, a lot of the classic Noir Films were made while WW II was still going on, and the men who created them didn’t even CALL them Noirs — the term was coined by French film critics after the War was over! And can we see a sea change in the message those movies were sending beginning in 1946? I know I can’t.

    While I tend to think of Noir as its own Genre, it’s probably easier to argue that it’s a subgenre of the Crime film, and Noir is actually a Style, a Mood or even a Point of View.

    Btw, it could be argued that Captain Ahab (a madman) and Moby Dick (an angry male sperm whale) are fighting over dominion of the Ocean (a metaphorical woman).

  3. Krista Carter on August 21, 2019 at 9:07 am

    This is the best article I’ve ever read about the Feminine in literature. I’ve been studying femininity/masculinity for about 5 years, now. It’s become my life’s work to explore it in my writing, and I have come to the same conclusion about the deep, mysterious Feminine and the Masculine’s response to it. Thank you for sharing this series and for spreading these concepts.

  4. Peter Brockwell on August 21, 2019 at 9:08 am

    So cool. Really interesting. Thanks Steve. Jordan Peterson talks about these principles tool, adding a few ideas: that the male is also the interpretative framework that allows us to integrate new information, and is the present culture. Whereas female is linked to the unknown new information that will need interpretation – ie the fresh data that doesn’t fit our current filter. To fully interpret the new (female) data, there must be a renewal of the interpretive framework (male).

    I’m sure I’m massacring Dr Peterson’s statements, but it nevertheless seems to fit, and is very interesting too.

  5. Maureen Anderson on August 21, 2019 at 9:31 am

    Am I the only one who keeps hearing this song lyric in the background as I read this set of posts? “Woman draws her life from man and gives it back again.”

  6. Patricia Cameron on August 21, 2019 at 10:33 am

    Interesting. In the current times, I can understand some trepidation in entering this area of discussion. The works cited are all written by men, and probably primarily for men. Would be intriguing to explore how the feminine (the elemental power of creation) operates in the works of women, in women’s imagination.

    • Charlotte Rodziewicz on August 23, 2019 at 6:12 am

      Thank you!

    • Lauren kutsko on August 23, 2019 at 2:46 pm

      Great idea.

  7. wanda on August 21, 2019 at 10:37 am

    I started following you after I finally read, The War of Art. I’d bought it when it first came out and although I knew i needed it, hadn’t the maturity or courage to read it. Flash forward 15 years, your book carried through a move I read it. I was right to have hung on to it; i needed it. I have only one goal in following you–writing a better version of something that happened to me almost 30 years ago. Sporadically your posts have been hitting the mark but the last two, and especially today, bang on. I appreciate that. Speaking this writers language I’ve realized that a lot of the time, that’s all learning anything is, translating a language into something you can understand about something you already know. Like learning to read a recipe in Russian. You already know how to cook, you just need the translation. An oversimplification perhaps but it’s what comes to mind. Perhaps what i’m really trying to say is the truth is heard in any language it’s spoken. I hear you Steven and I appreciate you. Thanks

  8. Lorie Groetzinger on August 21, 2019 at 11:38 am

    I’ve been reading and contemplating The War of Art for quite a few years now and it finally dawned on me that you may have a blog! So here I am. My medium is paint, fabric and thread and am currently working on a project with the theme Transparent / Opaque. My focus is on how we can never know everything but that if we play our cards right and have faith, things will become clear and be revealed to us (transparent). But most of the time our lives are hidden from that and we are in the mystery (opaque). What a wonderful game! I liked the comment about the female principle hiding without knowing it. As a woman, I don’t feel like I’m hiding anything but it is perceived as such. In this way, are we not just God’s pawns? In Hinduism, there are 5 aspects to God: creation, sustenance, destruction, concealment and grace. I was fascinated when i read concealment for the first time. Why would God conceal anything from us? Perhaps She/He is the ultimate mystery writer! Steven, thank you for your books and blog. You keep me on track!

  9. Tina on August 21, 2019 at 1:11 pm

    In contemporary books and films the female/male clash/union has changed. The Detective is the female and the male is the challenge. Sometimes there is no major male character Perhaps the male is the mysterious sky? Or the moody, bottomless sea?

  10. Joe Jansen on August 21, 2019 at 2:09 pm

    Lots of depth in today’s comments. Good to see.

  11. Julie on August 21, 2019 at 2:36 pm

    I am loving this!

  12. Patrick on August 21, 2019 at 3:36 pm

    “The female carries the mystery”…..Steve Pressfield: a concept “I have only the sketchiest and most tenuous handle on”….I’m with Steve. But, I’m looking forward to more analysis and discussion on the subject. Interesting, recently finished a screenplay (short) that takes place in a jungle setting (no female characters). But, as I re-read it after this post, the ‘jungle’ in my story IS the female (the mystery) as you’ve defined it above, not unlike the “unfathomable depths of the sea” of Moby Dick. Thoughts on whether or not this concept is not learned but already in our bones and we just need to be “reminded”, and then see it everywhere?

    thanks again, Steve.

  13. Cyd Madsen on August 21, 2019 at 3:47 pm

    This is a timely post for me as I prepare to write a script with a female protagonist. Of course, now that I’m hooked into this project (and writing in general after a deep dive into War Of Art), I’m looking at and for gender in everything. My husband and I are great fans of murder mysteries from “across the pond” that we view each night on BritBox or Acorn, specifically Vera and Shetland, both based on books written by Ann Cleeves. Near the end of his life, Joseph Campbell called for a new mythology. It could be there in Shetland: A good man standing on the precipice of an endless fall who remains constant despite what he encounters in his work and life. (I could go on for hours about what I’m seeing in that but that’s for another time.). Vera is a most unlikely detective. She calls everyone pet or love, dresses like a bag lady, and has a tremendous pull on her sergeant that takes him away from his gorgeous wife and adorable children. He can’t leave Vera. She’s not at all a noir vixen, and yet she pulls the mystery out of the story and solves the crime. She *is* the feminine without a single trapping of what we’d think of as feminine. It’s no wonder that it’s the most popular TV show in the UK. We’re often drawn to that which we can’t explain but understand at a visceral level.

  14. Pauline Brin on August 21, 2019 at 6:21 pm

    I agree with The Kybalion. The feminine and masculine are not separate or opposing energies. Both are two indivisible aspects of the same consciousness – the one tree of life. The tree survives only by being both strong and gentle, unyielding and ever yielding, unwilling to give way and effortlessly giving way. Each being aspects of the same life power.

    I think the Legend of Bagger Vance is a fine example of the feminine and masculine. If the feminine carries the mystery of life, what is the role of the masculine? I offer it is to be the servant of, the steward. Baggar Vance represents the feminine. He carries the mysteries of life. Symbolically, in a golf game. Take note, Baggar Vance did not caddie alone. He had an assistant caddie. His name was Hardy Greaves; and he represents the masculine.

    Rannulph Junugh: “You really love this game don’t you?”

    Hardy Greaves: “It’s the greatest game there is.”

    Hardy never abandons the game. In the final scene, Baggar Vance beckons and Hardy Greaves heeds. The two indivisibles were what made the ending of this story so wonderfully poetic.

  15. Van darling on August 22, 2019 at 6:40 am

    Ahh, what complex characters we all are. I’m fortunate enough to grok the depth of exploration you are all about. The War of Art sits next to Several short sentences about writing by Verlyn Klinkenborg both books present pathways to the concepts possibly used for presenting our ideas. Simple, straightforward nothing twisted or hidden. The depths are there for us to discover.

  16. Jay Cadmus on August 22, 2019 at 1:30 pm

    Waiting to read the three postings in one sitting was worth the wait. I always learn a different way of looking upon the art of story from your writing. Thanks. .

  17. Regina Holt on August 22, 2019 at 5:57 pm

    animus/anima el/elle Yin/yang

    Together they do make whole but not exactly a circle, it’s something else. (Another shape perhaps with dimensions?)

    I love your examples of the non-obvious females. There were some comments on the non-obvious males. I’d love to see your take on them at some point too.

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