Beauty and the Beast: New visions of women’s relationship with animals
by Betty Ann Brown
Our disrespect for wild animals and our disrespect for farmed animals has created this situation where disease can spill over to infect human beings…
If we do not do things differently, we are finished.
To be “closer to animals” in our culture is to be denigrated…
When human society moves beyond speciesism–to membership in animal-kind–“animal” imagery will no longer demean women or assist in their oppression, but will represent their liberation.
Mary loved her little lamb. Cinderella sang to the birds. Little Red Riding Hood tricked the Wolf. Eve spoke to the serpent. From nursery rhymes to fairy tales to the Judeo-Christian Bible, the foundational texts of Western civilization assert that women have unique relationships with non-human animals. Once limited to oral and written presentations, such texts today populate the mass media horizon, reified in books, films, videos, and digital formats.
This essay explores how contemporary women artists depict woman/non-human animal relationships, how these depictions descend from historic texts, and how contemporary artists are challenging old ways of seeing animal-kind. It is important to underscore that what we “know” about the world–including beliefs about women’s relationships with non-human animals–is learned, often through spoken, written and visually described narratives. Such narratives are neither “natural” nor “universal.” Instead, they are culturally constructed. Given that our “knowing” about the world is created (not automatic), we can challenge and perhaps overturn such “knowing” by generating alternative representations in art, literature, and the mass media.
The link between women and animals has deep roots in the dualist thought of Western culture. In circa 350 BCE, Aristotle codified a series of key conceptual binaries in his Generation of Animals.[i] The philosopher contrasted male vs. female, mind vs. body, master vs. slave, and culture vs. nature. Aristotle wrote during the Classical Period of Ancient Greek culture, a time when Greek ideology was being rebuilt on a humanistic premise that contrasted with the “primitive” societies that preceded it. An unarticulated corollary of Aristotle’s system was the civilized/barbaric binary that juxtaposed the Greeks and their Middle Eastern enemies, especially the Persians, who were in actuality neither primitive nor barbaric. “Historians usually mark the beginning of the Classical Period from a historical event: the [449 BCE] defeat of the Persian invaders of Greece by the allied Hellenic city-states…The sense of Hellenic identity became so strong after that close escape from domination by Asian ‘barbarians’ that thereafter the civilizations of Europe and Asia took distinctly separate paths.”[ii]
More than two thousand years later, Post Structuralist theorists like Jacques Derrida and Helen Cixous remind us that such binaries, also known as bipolar oppositions, are based on two concepts that are linked historically; that they are considered absolutes (like black and white, with no gray between them); and that they are opposed/in conflict. One member of the binary pair is valued; the other member is devalued.[iii] According to Aristotle’s arrangement, the first member of each pair (male, mind, master, culture) was privileged, the second member (female, body, slave, nature [including animals]) was considered less worthy. Rosemary Radford Ruether argues that this framework, which she terms “the male ideology of transcendent dualism,” is at the root of both the oppression of women and the exploitation of animals.[iv]
Some members of the Greek-based dualist pairs were aligned. Men produced culture and were considered more intelligent (i.e., man linked with culture and mind). Women, like slaves and non-human animals, were valued not for their intellectual abilities, but for their bodies (woman linked with nature and the body). As Carol J. Adams and Jose Donovan remind us, “Historically, the ideological justification for women’s alleged inferiority has been made by appropriating them to animals: from Aristotle on, women’s bodies have been seen to intrude upon their rationality.”[v]
How have Western cultural stories that link women and animals devalued both of them? One part of the answer can be seen in the beginning of the Judeo-Christian Bible. The Book of Genesis (Genesis 2:4-3:24) tells us that Eve’s unholy interaction with the serpent brought death into the world and damned all humans to lives of suffering. Many historic illustrations of Genesis depict the serpent with breasts and long hair, thereby gendering evil as female. Michelangelo did so on the Sistine Chapel ceiling in 1477-1480 CE.[vi]
Certainly since man’s expulsion from the Biblical Garden of Eden, serpents have been considered deadly, frightening creatures in Western culture. Genesis 3:14 tells us that God “cursed” the serpent “above all livestock and all wild animals.” Based on the story in Genesis, snakes are seen as symbols of temptation, deception and chaos from the underworld.
Another historic example cultural enmity toward snakes is the Ancient Greek gorgon Medusa, a humanoid female with serpentine hair. (Sarah Perry reinterpreted the Medusa myth in a gigantic sculpture.) Medusa was so terrifying that even the bravest warriors were turned to stone if they looked into her eyes. (Beliefs about animals are NOT universal. Other cultures often say snakes as representing the life cycle and fertility. Here is just one example. The Ancient Aztecs considered snakes positive and powerful: Their deities Quetzalcoatl and Coatlicue had extensive serpentine iconography.[vii] Today, Judithe Hernandez continues positive presentations of the reptile in works like her Autumn Reigns from 2013.)
Another woman-animal monster from the Greeks was Phaea who appeared as a giant female pig. The Greek hero-king Theseus– best known for killing the half man-half bull Minotaur–also killed Phaea. Indeed, some scholars link Theseus’s heroic acts with the rejection of ancient woman- and nature-centered religions in favor of the subsequent belief system that privileged anthropomorphic deities over human-animal combinations.[viii]
Theseus epic feat of slaying the Minotaur symbolized the rejection of earlier uses of bullhorns as the ultimate symbols of power. The Mesopotamian god Shamash who wore a bullhorn crown, and the Egyptian goddess Hathor who had bovine attributes, are two examples of Minotaur-like beings who were worshipped by ancient societies but viewed as monstrous (and thus uncivilized) by the Classical Greeks. Theseus was also famed for killing centaurs, the human-horse combinations that symbolized barbarism and chaotic, out-of-control nature to the Greeks. (Another parallel: The Biblical story of the Moses destroying the golden bull, first mentioned in the book of Exodus, can be read as rejecting the earlier nature-based religions, not unlike the Greek myth of Theseus killing the Minotaur.)
The post-Theseus view of non-human animals was pivotal in the Western development of the culture vs. nature binary. For Classical Greek society, to have animal attributes (like a bull head or a pig body) was to be a despised monster. As the old nature-based religions were eclipsed by human-centered and patriarchal practices, both women and non-human animals were devalued.
Eve and the Ancient Nature-Based Goddesses
The Classical Greek view stands in remarkable contrast to the earlier Mesopotamian and Egyptian views of the divine. The Mesopotamian Inanna (later known as Ishtar) was the goddess of love, beauty, war, justice and political power. The Burney Relief portrays her with large bird-like wings, clawed feline feet, and a bullhorn headdress.[ix] She stands on two recumbent lions and is flanked by two owls. Her animal associations articulate her many powers.
The Egyptian Hathor (mentioned above) was the primeval goddess from whom all other deities were generated. She was depicted as a cow, or as a woman with cow head, or as a fully human figure with bullhorns. In each case, the bovine imagery underscored her fertility and her nurturing powers. A parallel in Hindu culture is found in Kamadhenu, the Hindu goddess who is portrayed as a cow with a woman’s head and breasts, or as a full cow figure. Like Hathor, Kamadhenu was considered the Great Mother. And like the Mesopotamian Ishtar, the Hindu goddess Durga–who represents the feminine power of the universe–is typically accompanied by a lion or tiger.[x]
Contemporary women artists re-interpret–and thereby re-value–Eve and the ancient goddesses. Many reclaim the Biblical tale of the Fall or the Fall of Man (sic). According to Genesis, the Garden of Eden was an earthly paradise, with abundant water and plant life. In the center grew the Tree of Life (the Axis Mundi) as well as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. When Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, they were jettisoned from innocent communion with God into forced separation from the divine, which led to sin, guilt, suffering and mortality.
(Another Hindu parallel: I have always thought that the “evil” Eve was a negative inversion of female figures known in India as the Yakshi or Yakshini. On the gateway of the Great Stupa of Sanchi, for example, two female figures reach up to grab tree branches laden with fruit. [xi] Yakshinis are associated with centuries-old sacred groves, and represent fertility to the Hindu, Jain and Buddhist faiths.[xii])
Here are some of the contemporary women artists–and there are many–who reinterpret Eve and the serpent. Lezley Saar does a riff on Eve with her Forbidden Fruit from 2017. An African or African-American woman holds a coiled snake, its pointed fangs piercing a round green sphere (an apple? a lime? a passion fruit?) She gazes at the reptile without fear or hesitation.
Meagan Boyd’s images of the divine feminine often include serpent symbols.[xiii]Her Sisters presents two black women and a large green snake undulating below them. Her Forbidden Fruit shows the Eve-like figure with serpent, plant and water imagery.
Palmer Earl’s Eve’s Moment places a nude Caucasian Eve on a branch of the fateful Edenic tree. The snake curls around her shoulders as she takes a bite of fruit. Earl’s painting is done on pages taken from the biblical book of Genesis.
Many women artists also look back at the ancient goddesses. Palmer Earl’s The Return portrays a female deity flanked by a bull and lion–the two most powerful animals of the Middle East.
Hunter Clarke’s female figures often have non-human animal heads. Clarke has produced an ongoing series of paintings of a nude woman with the head of a large cat (lioness, leopard, cheetah, etc.) recalling the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet. And Julie Buffalohead (in A Little Medicine and Magic, 2018) gives her female protagonist a fox head.[xiv]
In 2004, Carlee Fernandez did a series of performances and related photographs of herself merging with a large black bear.[xv] In this work, she echoes the imagery of Artio, the Celtic bear goddess. Artio had dominion over nature and fertility. She awoke in the spring, just as bears were coming out of hibernation.[xvi] (Fernandez wearing the bear head might remind readers of the notorious Guerrilla Girls, the group of feminist activists who work to expose gender and racial biases in the art world.[xvii] The Guerrilla Girls wear gorilla heads to maintain anonymity. In doing so, they echo the human body with animal head precedents from the Ancient Middle East.)
Some contemporary portrayals are canny inversions. Hunter Clarke has done several animal-headed women in poses that echo Christian Virgin and Child altarpieces. Her Neither Defiled nor Immaculate depicts a seated human mother and child arranged much like Giotto’s iconic Madonna Ognissanti (c. 1310), except that Clarke gives the woman a hyena head. The hyena recalls British Surrealist Leonora Carrington’s 1937 Self Portrait with a hyena and a rocking horse.[xviii]
Nursery Rhymes and Fairy Tales
“Mary had a little lamb” is an American nursery rhyme first published in1830. It may have been based on the story of actual girl who brought her pet lamb to school in Massachusetts.[xix] Whether true or not, the rhyme is heard in nurseries throughout the world. German artist Britta Glodde created a Pop Surrealism riff on the nursery rhyme. A young girl in 19th century attire chases after a white lamb that is ascending to heaven in a tiny wooden boat.[xx] (Glodde has also portrayed female figures with snake hair and bullhorns, echoing the old goddesses.)
One of the most popular fairy tales of Western culture is Cinderella, the tale of a poor servant girl who met and married the prince. As with the ditty about Mary and her lamb, the story of Cinderella also may derive from actual event. The Greek geographer Strabo recounts the tale of Greek slave girl who ended up marrying the king (pharaoh) of Egypt. The Cinderella narrative was codified–as were so many fairy tales–by the Brothers Grimm in 1812 and popularized by the Walt Disney musical animation of 1950.[xxi] Both retellings include scenes of the girl speaking to birds.
Emily Warren portrayed Cinderella as a hyperbolically sexualized superhero, carrying her glass slipper like holy relic.[xxii] In Camille Rose Garcia’s illustration of Cinderella at the Ball, the prince has wolf head. (Garcia thus links the Prince with the Big Bad Wolf. See below.)
Snow White is another wildly popular fairy tale. Exiled from her palatial home, Snow White wonders through the forest and is befriend by the animals there. There have been 27 Snow White films, since the first in 1916. The 1937 version was the first animated feature film by the Disney Studio.[xxiii] It is one of the top ten performers at US box offices, and perhaps the highest-grossing animated film ever. Camille Rose Garcia portrayed Snow White deep in the forest, bidding farewell to her animal friends, including a deer, bear, and lion, as well as several birds, a centipede and a spider. Like many of Garcia’s works, the scene is dystopian, with oily black water and blackened Spanish moss oozing off bare tree limbs.
The tale of Little Red Riding Hood pits a young girl against the Big Bad Wolf she encounters in the forest, on the way to her grandmother’s house. First recorded in the 10th century, Little Red Riding Hood has inspired numerous books and films. Disney produced a short animation of the tale as early as 1922 (probably his first ever animated cartoon). Almost 100 years later, Camille Rose Garcia created a mixed media sculptural version of the wolf with the Grandmother’s red-roofed house tottering on his immense rounded head. Like much of Garcia’s oeuvre, the wolf is nightmarish–but also darkly humorous.
Kiki Smith has been exploring the relationships between humans and non-human animals since 2001. She is particularly interested in wolves and has done several works related to the Little Red Riding Hood story. Lying with the Wolf (2001), for example, depicts a nude woman lying in an intimate embrace with a large wolf.[xxiv] They relate as co-equals, eschewing the man-over-nature hierarchy that has persisted throughout Western culture.
Another one of Kiki Smith’s Red Riding Hood-related works (Rapture, bronze sculpture, 2001) shows the nude woman standing over a reclining wolf. As art historian Allison Young asserts, these works “represent a feminist approach to popular folktales […] Borrowing from divergent sources in order to forge a new story line, Smith demonstrated the slippery relationship between a visual image and its multiple references, adopting a narrative style indebted to feminist re-writings of history.” Young goes on the state, “The artistic narratives portrayed in her work are ones in which binaries are flipped and opposing qualities are merged; in so doing, Smith asserts a critical feminist position that favors the articulation of multiple meanings.”[xxv]
In the traditional telling, Little Red Riding Hood represents feminine innocence, and the Big Bad Wolf embodies the evil(s) of nature. Kiki Smith does not precisely “flip” the good vs. evil binary. Instead, she depicts the two symbolic characters as operating on a level playing field. In a similar way, Lian Tianmiao sculpts a nude woman interacting with a non-human animal–in this case a frog–in a revisioning of The Frog Prince tale. The princess meets the frog at a pond and befriends him. In recent versions, she kisses him to break the spell and return him to his human form. (Also recorded by the Brothers Grimm, The Frog Prince tale may have roots back to the time of the Roman Empire. Again, there is a Disney version, from 2009). Lian Tianmiao’s fiberglass and silk sculpture shows a frog gathering the strands of a young woman’s veil (wedding veil?) as she stands nude and vulnerable before him. So much Western cultural narrative has positioned human above nature; Lian Tianmiao’s woman is equal or perhaps even subservient to the amphibian.[xxvi]
Cornucopia of Equality
In addition to “flipping” binaries and re-writing traditional narratives, several women artists look to the equalizing of the human/non-human animal relationship as one that proffers the potential of infinite abundance.
Jennybird Alcantara’s Lullaby of the Bounty in Repose (2020) inspired the subtitle of this section. It is indeed an image of bounty, a veritable cornucopia of women (including one horned all-red woman, perhaps the evil serpent) along with snakes, birds, and rabbits. All of these creatures are inserted in a glorious bouquet that recalls the work of Rachel Ruysch, famed flower painter from The Hague.[xxvii] It’s a total visual delight, a multivalent concoction of women and nature.
Alcantara’s current exhibition at KP Projects, “Reveries of the Untamed Darlings,” takes its name from a painting of the same title that merges a woman, tiger, serpent, bird, and deer with a lush bouquet of flowers. It is like a smash-up between a 17th century Dutch still life and a contemporary animation, hyperrealist in its depiction of flora and rather “Disney” in its representation of animals, especially human animals.
Bibi Davidson presents a compelling image of balanced human-animal intimacy, but in this case, the intimacy of female companionship is seen in the comfortable companionship of a woman and an anthropomorphic rabbit (Friendship). In other works, Davidson equates her female protagonists (often alter-egos of the artist herself) with owls and blackbirds, cats and wolves.
Sarah Stone’s New World painting depicts an Eve-like woman whose headless body merges with a central Tree of Life image. On the other side of the tree is a serpent, and below him/her an armadillo. Stone’s Seeing in the Dark is also bilaterally split by a Tree of Life or Axis Mundi. The tree appears to spring out of a woman’s body, with birds and koi fish flowing out of it.
Deidre Sullivan-Beeman often portrays women in earnest dialogue with non-human animals. Some examples are: Flamingo Girl (2019), Seahorse Girl (2018), Bluebird Girl (2018), and Goldfish Girl (2016).[xxviii] Each pairs a young woman with the named animal. Long Ago Girl (2018) presents a woman dressed in 18th century courtly attire. Under her bustled skirt, she shelters an ark-like array of wild creatures: tigers, zebras, deer, elephants, even a dodo bird. The protective gesture is taken from historic images of the Madonna of Mercy, where humanity kneels under the cloak (or pallium) of the Virgin Mary.[xxix]
Laura Larson’s Saint Brigid (2015) deploys a similar image of female protection. Brigid was, possibly, a 5th century nun who became one of Ireland’s patron saints. She shares her name with an important Celtic goddess, who was protector of domesticated animals. Some scholars suggest that the early monks adopted the ancient goddess to their Christian theology.[xxx] Larson presents a woman’s face with a cowhide cape. Protected under the cape is a mountain of tiny animals, from horses to sheep to pigs, all nurtured and sheltered by the goddess/saint.
Kate MacDowell is a ceramic sculptor. Her three Nursemaid figures from 2015 depict human babies cared for by maternal monkeys.[xxxi] The cross-species embraces are strangely engaging. Predator depicts an owl, with its dead head pealed back to reveal a human skull inside. The artist also depicts human skulls inside a red fox, a rabbit, and a bat. MacDowell’s work refutes the historic perception of humans as separate from non-human animals. We are part of them, they are part of us.
I end with Karen Hackenberg’s “Divining Line” series of painted diptychs from 2008. Each pairs a human with an animal. The animals, whether house cat or black bear, are resized, so that the human and non-human animals are visually equivalent.
To name them good…
Genesis 2:20 tells us that God gave Adam the power to give names “to all the livestock, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field.” The power of naming continues to be important and “a major category of patriarchal epithets”[xxxii] is non-human animal pejoratives leveled at women: Bitch, pussy, shrew, and pig are only a few examples.
Lots of women artists today take back that potent power of naming. They name themselves animals, honored to be part of animalkind, grateful to feel at one with nature. I could continue spiraling through history, pulling the threads of women, animals, and the feminist revisioning of nature, but I’ll stop here. And end with this quote from Valerie Andrew’s 1990 book A Passion for This Earth: Exploring a New Partnership of Man, Woman, and Nature:
As a child, one has that magical capacity to move among the many eras of the earth; to see the land as an animal does; to experience the sky from the perspective of a flower or a bee; to feel the earth quiver and breathe beneath us; to know a hundred different smells of mud and listen unselfconsciously to the soughing of the trees.
Let us embrace the sense of oneness with all animalkind, as poetically articulated by Valerie Andrews and elegantly envisioned by the many amazing artists discussed here.
[iii] See especially Helene Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” 1976.https://www.jstor.org/stable/3173239?origin=JSTOR-pdf&seq=1
[iv] Rosemary Radford Ruether, cited in Adams & Donovan, op cit.
[xii]https://books.google.com/books?id=TlVeuxIgjwQC&pg=PA16&lpg=PA16&dq=yakshi+at+sanchi+stupa&source=bl&ots=Mjx1nnsiwX&sig=ACfU3U3OeiBFpDB3bSoJkVNEPkb_qkj6Dg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjex4qQs6LqAhXEGc0KHfrLBtc4ChDoATACegQIChAB#v=onepage&q=yakshi%20at%20sanchi%20stupa&f=false. See also: https://www.khanacademy.org/partner-content/asian-art-museum/aam-buddhism-topic/buddhism/a/railing-pillar-with-female-figure-beneath-a-tree
[xxx] “Saint Brigid of Ireland, Biography and Facts.” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Brigit-of-Ireland
[xxxii] Ruth Todasco, quoted in Adams & Donovan, op cit.