Revista Mulheres e Literatura – vol. 3 – 1999

The ‘new Eve’ or the transformation of patriarchal myth as represented by Brazilian women writers

The ‘new Eve’ or the transformation of patriarchal myth as represented by Brazilian women writers

Gerhild Reisner
Universität Salzburg 

I. Introduction:

The purpose of this essay is to analyse the patriarchal myths concerning femininity with regards to different theories taken from feminist literature. Accordingly, myths about femininity, when read as a representation of women, are products and projections of the male fantasy. But they also carry the exiled and the suppressed with them which have not been able to enter into the self defined masculine world. When supposing a femininity, which is opposed to the male subject, there is the danger that the old patriarchal description of woman as nature will be repeated. However, should femininity be demythologised, it is most probable that the patriarchal order of things and the acceptance of a masculine subjectivity will be rebuilt.

Based on these considerations, illustrated with several examples from modern Brazilian prose, this essay should demonstrate how female protagonists are presented on a very complicated level of discourse. Not only this but also how they take part in a liberal-humanist discourse about freedom, self determination and rationality as well as in the specific feminine discourse about uncertainty, internalised subjectivity and irrational intuition. And all this takes place whilst searching for an uninterrupted, autonomous feminine self identity. Furthermore, it should be demonstrated how different myths concerning femininity are transformed in such Brazilian literature through deconstruction, re-reading and altered perspectives.

In the first section several standpoints in the debate about mythical femininity will be worked through and, following that, the working on and transformation of the said modern Brazilian prose will be examined with the use of several examples.


II. An attempt to define the myth

A return to the myth has become a central as well as contrary, yes even a hostile, term in the humanistic discourse during the last decade. The hypothesis of contemporary assembly discussions regarding the mythological renaissance appoints itself to the dissolution of the positivist academic ideal as well as to the explanation of obligatory concepts of reason which has benefited the analysis of the (irrational) logic of power. The effectiveness of the reality of the semiotic-symbolic – or the collective illusions, the fantastic, the arbitrary constructs, the aesthetic in general and their appropriate codes – has meanwhile become a significant part of the cartography of academia. At the same time, symbolic power has long since established itself where the controls of programmatic rationality no longer reign, whilst the imaginations of the social spaces crystallise themselves into new symbolic conglomerates. The establishment of these conceptions of the world allow the myth, at the end of day, to appear as a form of conversion, the result of which seems to be a correct distortion: the disarming of such dangerousness, the alarming manifestation of which (being without doubt fascism), would seem to be even more pressing as classical ideological criticism encourages less and less the repeated packing away of such myths. The terms used to describe these myths have formed at the intersection between religious studies, philosophy, ethnology and psychology. There are two concepts in the contemporary discourse about myth which seem relevant for the examination of the selected Brazilian literature with regards to the integration of mythical femininity:

“(…) the interest in myth being an unreachable form of expressing the archaic stages of the formation of consciousness, partly as a result of the mass popular new interpretation of C.G. Jung’s psychoanalysis; the myth as an historic and existential form of later rationalisation; its synthetic strength as protector of the coherence to a common social knowledge in a shattered world; a guide to negotiation in which it offers basic materialistic convictions.

(…) the interpretation of the term myth from Claude Lévi-Strauss which, when structured as language, is defined by the way in which its particles of reality are dismantled and newly combined, resulting in the logical assembly of the following methods of constructing reality: the myth as a particular method of expression, to be observed as a narrative unit, the consequences of which must be isolated whereby the general isotope (namely a particular mythological universe) defines its own particular myth in its society – as according to the semiologist A. Greimas.”

By using a differentiated understanding of the Barthesian definition of the term myth – myth is a secondary semiological system, of which the deficient moment of reception is factual – it is possible to contextualise the myths in their contemporary cultures. Roland Barthes described them in detail in “Everyday Myths”. The term myth occupies an interesting position within mythology itself. It differentiates itself from different traditional terms concerning myth which have been won from the historical research into Greek mythology and ethnological studies.


III. Definition of mythical femininity

Simone de Beauvoir considers in detail the Western form of mythical femininity in her 1949 published book Le Deuxième Sexe, a book of epochal importance. More than a decade before the new feminist movement and in a time where 19th and early 20th century feminism had almost been forgotten, Beauvoir attempted to take a complete empirical and historical stock of the female situation as well as its philosophical reasoning. She developed a basic terminology for the definition of gender differences with which feminist theory still works today: the one / the other, transcendence / immanence, the myth of the female biological gender / social gender. She was the first to systematically analyse woman as the ‘other’ and to demand that they become a subject.

For Beauvoir, the ‘other’ is a basic category of human thinking. She assumes that human beings cannot define anything as being ‘one’ without comparing it to the ‘other’; that meanings can only be defined by binary, hierarchical analogies. This applies to both epistemological and social theory: the self-definition of human societies constantly presses the ‘other’ into excluded or suppressed groups, classes, casts or races. She assumes that “the subject can only define itself through contrastive juxtaposition: it has the need to confirm itself as fundamental by defining the ‘other’ as irrelevant, as object.

Later feminist theorists such as Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous or Jessica Benjamin would question the necessity of the desire to destroy the ‘other’. For Beauvoir, however, a reciprocal recognition of two subjects, that are not influenced by the desire to destroy and suppress, would be unthinkable. Woman as ‘other’ is, according to Beauvoir, a myth created by man. She serves him as a screen upon which he can project his hopes and fears. Woman should, for him, be “a diaphaneity of nature’s consciousness and, thereby, a naturally born submissive consciousness” (ebd., 154). He sees nature’s mediator in her. As a result, woman is defined as being immanent: as natural, internally apathetic, as being totally contemporary and in the reality of a blossoming physicality. However, the masculine subject interprets himself as a defective creature cut off from reality which does not exist until it confronts itself with an ‘other’: it establishes itself as an infinitely transcendental being. In order that man can establish himself as consciousness, will, soul and transcendent being, woman must accept the burden of the other, dependent, natural and death-bound side of the splintered human existence: she is unconsciousness, passivity, body. So much Beauvoir’s analysis of Western mythical femininity.

Despite the apparent evidence that men do have a body and that women really are capable of thinking, this myth has proved to possess an amazingly tenacious liveliness. Beauvoir, however, does not succeed in overcoming the influence of masculine prejudice in her interpretation of women which she elsewhere interprets brilliantly. She demands that women should overcome their restricted existence as immanence and establish themselves as a subject. She forgets, however, to demand that men should also overcome their restricted existence as immanence and recognise themselves as body. When reading the French essayist, the masculine values of soul, transcendence, aggression are positively connoted whereas body, nature and immanence are negatively connoted. Beauvoir issues women the type of subjectivity to which they have long since become a sacrifice: the masculine self-establishment as ruling subject. Woman’s self-realisation is, according to her, based upon the overcoming of one’s female existence.

It is only post-structuralist theorists such as Irigaray or Cixous who undertake to question binary opposites such as transcendence / immanence, soul / body, subject / other: they ask for a different subjectivity and rationality which do not have to debase or deny body and life.

In order to question the patriarchal order of things, a decoding and articulation of that which is suppressed by the myths drowned in lust and fear found in art are necessary. The feminist demythologisation must proceed a rescuing of the myth when it wants to avoid a simple reproduction of patriarchal values. In her book, Die imaginierte Weiblichkeit, Silvia Bovenschen demonstrated this as a scholarly motif, which developed to a cultural representation of the feminine in the 18th century. Bovenschen shows how the permission given to women to take part in the masculine intellectual discourse in the age of Enlightenment paralleled a vanishing of the feminine mythical, literary imagination.

Quoting Virginia Woolf, the comparison between the Western history of literature and history of reality leaves us to see woman as a “peculiar monstrosity”:


“In the kingdom of fantasy, she is of utmost importance; practically, she is completely meaningless. […] Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts about literature pass through her lips; in real life she could hardly read, hardly spell and was the property of her husband.” (Woolf 1981, 51).


The absence of woman as subject in history corresponds with her extreme presence as the personification of myth. The images which the history of literature hands down include contradictory images such as that of the Madonna, the idealised woman, the witch, the youthful naiveté, the temptress, the loving mother or the femme fatale. However, this complex of stereotypical images finds itself in a dualistic schema: they divide femininity into an idealised and demonic form. Woman is pure infinite femininity or spoil sport, ‘lily’ or ‘rose’, saint or bitch, angel or devil. She is always identified with nature.

The psychoanalyst Christa Rohde-Dachser defines patriarchal mythical femininity as defensive fantasies of the masculine subject, as a compromise between desire and fear, which can be compared with dream and symptoms of neurosis. In patriarchal society, femininity is awarded that which is bracketed out of the masculine self-definition:


“Femininity […] thereby possesses a kind of container function: in an imaginary, feminine defined and, at the same time, from the man’s world severely segregated space, man disposes of his fears, wishes, yearnings and desires – his life which he has not yet lived, one could also say, in order to maintain and always call upon it.” (Rohde-Dachser 1991, 100)


The images of femininity serve to define the collective rejected as culturally acceptable and as a result, to quieten, control and make available. This imaginary femininity does not have much to do with the real woman; it denominates more a negative image of the masculine gender identity. As a wealth of patriarchal fears and utopias, woman becomes an embodiment of the masculine unconsciousness. As an embodiment of the suppressed, woman becomes on the one side an image of the motherly natural origin from which the masculine subject has receded into a fantasy of regression and fusion – the place of reconciliation, temptation and seduction, lust and physicality.

The approach towards discussing mythical femininity can be concluded as follows: when feminists propose an essential femininity, which they place in opposition to the masculine subject, they are in danger of repeating the old patriarchal attribution of woman to nature; should they try to demythologise femininity, the hidden trap of a repetition of the patriarchal order of things and the acceptance of a masculine subject threatens to snare.

Bovenschen tries to reckon out this problematic. Like the American literary critics, she bases her discussion on the discrepancy between a shadowy existence and illustriousness, between the absence of woman in history and their abundant presence in literature. She doubts however the possibility of a definite separation between mythical femininity and the real woman:

The term feminine is not exhausted by the social form of female existence, rather it gains substance from the reality of the imagination. The mythological, meanwhile idealised, meanwhile demonised


(…) femininity materialises out of the relationship between the sexes and out of that relationship women have to [make out] themselves which is won out of this alien substance. […] Looking back, this morphology of the imaginary femininity places itself in the position of feminine history. The demarcation between an other’s definition and one’s own interpretation is no longer clear.” (Bovenschen 1979, 40f.)


Bovenschen does not, therefore, simply put such mythical femininity to one side; it has much more to do with “the probing and deconstructing of the different forms of considering and presenting femininity. And most of all, to create an accessible basis for the analysis of femininity’s heteromorphic form in the history of culture” (ebd., 14).


IV. The transformation of mythical femininity in modern Brazilian literature)

In Brazilian literature we find an abundance of mythical images concerning women. The wide variety of images find themselves to a great extent in a dualistic system. They split femininity into an idealised and demonic form. They swing between idolisation and damnation, embody the suppressed and enigmatic and are mythically related to nature. This contradicts the modern Brazilian woman’s actual situation who, as a result of her battle for freedom from the old gender role clichés, has tried to redefine herself through a ever more present literature in the last three decades. In Brazil, since the 1970’s, we find an increasing interest in the literary work of women writers who must now be seen in context to the downfall of the military dictatorship, the lifting of censorship and the metamorphosis of the understanding of women’s role in society.

A primary theme in this corpus of text is the search for a self-defined autonomous identity, the placing of the self on a fictional level and to subvert and rewrite handed down images of femininity. In this search for the self, these modern women authors relate themselves differently to their writing: as writer in front of the mirror, as “testemunha”, as witness to the different social and cultural conditions, or as a discursive subject searching for a feminine textual identity.

The focus on this search for identity is predominant in the last twenty years of Brazilian literature, even when the thematic is somewhat historical or epic as can be seen, for example, in Ana Miranda’s work and that of Nélida Piñon. The latter develops a plot in her novels which can be defined as a psychic happening related to the transcendental. She connects individual fate to historical development as in her book República dos Sonhos, for example. The strategies towards self-presentation manifest themselves in the description and rewriting of traditional feminine icons such as the idealised mother, the femme fatale or by creating new personal masques. Questioning conventional views of woman and women writers, they often weave into their textual fabric the fantasized perceptions others may have of them: precisely by adopting them, they deconstruct and redefine these perceptions in a mode of defiance. To support this process, contamination of language, silence, reappropriation, subversion and experimenting with language often define the “tone” of women’s literary expression.

The female body is often presented as fragmentary, a body which is not primarily obliged to be erotic but which is mainly occupied with a textual metamorphosis in which the expression of the body’s mutilation and fragmentation seeks to redefine the feminine wholeness. It is not just the creatively dismantled female body but also the voice which fragmentarily expresses itself. Many female authors subjected their fear of speaking and personal expression to their prose and/or poetry where female protagonists take shelter in images of illness, internalised malignant growths and death (see Lya Luft’s fiction). To rewrite the female body, or at least parts of it, also means redefining its desires. The erotic is not primarily presented in terms of sexuality, but in many different forms. Sylvia Molloy addresses this point as follows: “What one finds in women’s writing, in terms of erotic desire, is a slippage from sex to text: the text is an erotic encounter in which the poet makes love to her words.”

A woman writer, who exemplifies this standpoint is the well-known Brazilian writer and literary critic H. P. Cunha. For Cuhna the most prevalent theme in Brazilian women’s literature in the 1960’s and 1970’s is the search for identity. She presents her female protagonists as internally torn characters who are thrown back and forth between their conditioned states and the wish to free themselves from feelings of inadequacy; this, in turn, prevents them from developing into autonomous human beings. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, there is a growing tendency in Brazilian women’s literature towards the transformation of traditional feminine imagery and the establishment of new values. It is as if the split woman from earlier decades could sweep together her various incomplete identities and develop a new identity without mutilation and feelings of guilt. Temporal perspective and the paralleling of different levels of time play an important role in this self-discovery. The necessity to return to past experiences leads to a break with the lineal time pattern in favour of a circular interpretation of time; an oscillation between past and present. Despite the importance of remembering in Mulher no Espelho, Cunha breaks away from lineal temporality in her novel As Doze Cores do Vermelho and, thereby, instigates a logically developed handling of the plot in a much stronger way. She bases different subplot structures on three simultaneous temporal levels which are organised into three blocks over 48 modules (or chapters) each spread across two pages. To be able to explain this structuring more clearly, I would like to quote a passage from the Introduction:

“Esta é uma estória de simultaneidades, em trés vozes, num tecido que se estende e se desdobra nas trés colunas de cada capítulo. Uma pintora, a personagem principal, na primeira coluna, se apresenta como o eu que se reporta ao passado. A segunda coluna se sustenta por uma voz dirigida à protagonista através de um você no presente. O ela da terceira coluna se refere à personagem em suas vivências futuras. Centralizando a trama nesta rede, a protagonista se compõe e decompõe, enlaçada às demais personagens que a acompanham no entrançado do percurso.”


Whilst on the one side each part is inseparably connected to the whole, each has nonetheless an independent existence of its own. Fragments and wholeness, momentary reception and change in life. For Cunha, life is the putting together of pieces which are interwoven into a multiple layering of meaning. The protagonist’s mosaic-like personality contradicts the expectations of her social environment and tries to go her own way in order to become her self.

In Lygia Fagundes Telles’ story “A Sauna” (In: Seminário dos Ratos. 5a ed. Rio de Janeiro: Verlag, 1997 p. 51-83) we are confronted with two images of a transformed imagined femininity. Both of the story’s feminine protagonists Marina and Rosa represent two different images of women: Marina manifests the active self-confident feminist who commits herself to the feminist movement, whilst Rosa embodies the obsequious woman who sacrifices and adjusts in order to serve the male protagonist (a painter) as a maternal replacement (“…se for do tipo maternal, se quiser ser minha mãezinha”). The painter does not actually love Rosa, rather just her portrait which he paints for her (“Eu te amo! Gritei porque o retrato estava como eu queria, […]”) in the form he wants her to be. Through the hidden wishes projected onto Rosa, which manifest themselves through adjectives such as “retardada”, “anémica”, “laboriosa”, “adocicada”, “tranqüila”, “louca”, “rejeitada”, “obscura”, a complex and extensive image of this woman is to be found. This confirms Erna Pfeiffer’s hypothesis that women’s literature in general “is a gradual melting of previous contradictory feminine images such as those of saint and bitch into one of multilayered complexity in which there is space for many facets and dimensions”. (E. Pfeiffer. Als die Puppen zu sprechen begannen…, Richard, p. 3). We experience a very late, slow conscious metamorphosis in Rosa. She turns from an obsequious woman who, in the imagination of the painter, is only perceived as a portrait painted by him and not as a human being, to an independent personality who leaves the painter in order to establish a life of her own.

The painter sees his wife Marina as judge and jury (“Marina, meu juiz”), as the one who does not allow him to forget, as a kind of internal voice, as enlightenment of his past. He feels suppressed by her, mocking her when he, for example, talks about her work in the feminist movement (“Vai ver, é esse movimento cretino que está cretinizando o mulherio. Não querem machos e viram machonas”), yet also wanting to be pitied by her (“Por que nunca se enternece comigo?”)

As a result of the way the painter abuses Rosa’s dependence and his negative comments regarding Marina’s commitment to the feminist movement as well as the way in which his self-reflection in the sauna is interrupted at the most crucial moment, one can describe him as being chauvinistic. An important facet of the Latin-American machismo, according to E. Pfeiffer, is “…the own insecurity related to the masculine gender role identity” and “the feeling of existential maternal dependence. (E. Pfeiffer. La Condición Feminina. Feminine life coherence according to the conditions of the Latin-American machismo. FE 32, Richard, p. 9).

This neurotic mother-fixation is also to be found in Maria Alice Barrosos’ novel Um Nome para Matar , published in 1992 in German. This novel portrays two interwoven levels of plot concerning the fate of a place named Parada de Deus over approximately two hundred years. One such level of plot follows the first three generations of the Moura Alves family. The core of the novel concerns the unhappy relationship between the youngest member of the family, Oceano, and Marina Corina. There is no kind of partnership between husband and wife and the atmosphere is marred by many generations of violence. The male members of the Moura Alves family betray their wives with slaves, servants and prostitutes. On the other hand, the women have no choice. They are left to accept the situation and to live an untainted life.

Barroso executes a break from such stereotypical behaviours and qualifies those feminine images found in the patriarchal family system: in the case of Moura Alves it is basically the oldest son who inherits after Heleno’s death. Although it is actually Paula who after her husband’s death, her character and powerful temperament having been suppressed by his brutality, has things under control not just as a mother but also as the head of the house. After the death of her husband, Paula behaves just like him: she lives out her sexuality at night with the black Hacienda lease-holders. Paula’s children, although fully grown, obey her now as ever; a brief frown from their mother is often enough. They do not even attempt to argue against her recent, although unwanted, marriage. To come back to the neurotic relationship between husband and wife, one can confirm that both parties indulge in a most violent relationship, both as perpetrator and victim.

In Maria Alice Barroso’s novel, the traditional family structures are once again found: Chico and Heleno embody the powerful, violent side of the perpetrator-victim principle, which expresses itself in numerous sexual acts, underlined by the automatic acceptance of their supremacy.

Oceano’s characterisation demonstrates both sides of this principle: on the one hand, he is the violent man of power who tolerates no resistance and personifies a respect for honour and power which his great-grandfather had long since advocated. On the other, however, he does not treat his wife with physical violence; his idea of love has nothing to do with the acting out of power in its traditional form. He cannot cope with Maria Corina’s free and open way of life; his upbringing has not provided him with the ability to be tolerant. He succumbs to his wife’s erotic attractiveness and hides his love for her, making it to a secret, because he fears being abused – the power his wife has over him through her sexuality makes Oceano suspicious because she has nothing to do with the chaste image of the suppressed woman with which he has been impregnated. As a result, he suffers from a painful bout of jealousy and rescues his sanity through the use of violence, a principle which he has inherited form his forefathers. His environment also puts him under pressure: his reservation towards marrying Maria Corina is regarded as being weak, whilst the social pressure under which he suffers brings him so far as to murder his wife in order to reestablish his honourable status. The author projects a mysterious personality onto the battling for power and religious taboos: the silent, impenetrable and cruel Capitão Oceano whose obsession to revenge his wife’s apparent unfaithfulness threateningly overpowers the novel’s content. In this fearful and diseased relationship, Alice Barroso reworks the myth of Othello and Desdemona and, herewith, includes an array of miniature dramatic jealousies and hate relationships which fill the mythical space and temporal structure of the novel.

Another literary model which makes the rereading of the heteromorphic femininity is offered by Marina Colasanti. Whilst Marina Colasanti’s work spans journalism, the writing of essays, children’s literature, short stories, poetry and art, it shows not only a constant concern for the role of the Brazilian woman, but also for the social, ethical and moral justification of the century-old suppression of women. Primarily, it is her fairy tales which provide a deeper illustration of women in the history of culture and their status in today’s Brazilian culture. To achieve this, the author makes use of the fantastic and its application to the unconsciousness, creating an utopia – a place without time and space – from which another past can be reconstructed. The fantastical serves as a vehicle for the metamorphosis through which the female characters overcome their stagnant existence as imaginary femininity and become a dynamic subjectivity. They are introduced into the mythical realm of the narrative as subjects in the genesis, as signifiers of a cultural renovation. It is this process of metamorphosis which, according to Warner, constitutes the decisive element of the fairy tale more than anything else. For Colasanti fairy tales are “…a specific literary genre characterized by its mythic content, a genre that can be placed in the category of fantastic literature”. This allows Colasanti to provide her feminine characters with subjectivity, the ability to act and take initiative. Because of an urgent need for self discovery, the female protagonists, often archetypes of fairy tale figures, search for adventure not through heroic deeds, but rather by interacting with other beings of their cosmic world. They undertake mythical journeys, through which they rediscover their identity and thereby redefine it. Moving towards the reestablishment of their identity, they experience a never ending and limitless struggle – in the tradition of those storytellers who conclude their stories with the following words: this is my story, I told it, and I release it into your hands. (Warner XXV). This process of inversion forms a new myth which serves to present a different ideological model to the Brazilian readership. Colasanti’s fairy tales are supported by open dialogue with the reader as their characters penetrate the unexplored territory of the unconscious. As opposed to an epic narrator who narrates the honourable traits of the male hero, beautifying them individually, Colasanti, as storyteller, chooses specific images from the absurd, cruel and shattered reality of the feminine cultural history. She perverts these images or rebuilds them and positions them in her narrative in a surprising manner and in unpredictable places.


V. Conclusion:

More and more Brazilian women writers attempt, as a counterdraft to the projection of feminine images, a mimetic traverse of the male projections; their aim is to construct a different realm. This mimetic procedure, according to Irigaray, is the women’s exclusive discourse, unless she wants to accept the masculine discourse and subjectivity. Because of the predominating patriarchal order, there is no place left for the woman whereupon she can found her own identity. Thus, she is left with only one possibility: to attempt to reconstruct her own realm by trespassing the masculine attributes. The new domain of female self-identification is one of searching where the subjective, the imaginative and the unconscious are seen as a source for inspiration, making the literary work created by women into a new interactive dimension between inner and outer worlds. Any modus of writing in which the imaginative and real intersect becomes a meeting point where women’s way of acting in the world change from absence or negation into an affirmation of being. Thereby, they change the deluded concept of being different into an autonomous self. By accepting and at the same time deconstructing the images projected onto them, they create a basic terminology for the analysis of the heteromorphic feminine conception in cultural history and, thus, take an active part in the cultural production. By the end of the millennium, the literary models applied by Brazilian women writers in their work can be defined as the identification of a new direction for women in the role of discursive subjects or of subjects of a new historic discourse.

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