Chicks, and Birds, and Sirens, Oh My!

Natalie Portman as the Black Swan (2010)

When it comes to animal representations of females, why is it that women are so closely associated with birds? A sexually attractive female is often referred to as a "bird" in British slang (i.e. "That bird is fit!"). Young women are also called "chicks" (as derived from "chicken"). In fact, in Cantonese, the word "chicken" could be used as a slang for "prostitute." A group of loud and possibly gossipy women (or in How I Met Your Mother's case, "woo girls") is sometimes referred to as a group of "cackling hens." For some great examples of cackling hens see/read Clare Boothe Luce's The Women (1936), but please don't watch the 2008 remake with Meg Ryan in it; if you want to watch a remake of The Women (1939), you can watch the musical remake The Opposite Sex (1956).

Before there was The First Wives Club (1996), there was The Women (1939).

In Greek mythology, the Sirens are lethal half-women, half-bird creatures who entice men to their island with their irresistible songs, only to lead men to their demise. To me, these females are a few of the original femmes fatales - way before Rita Hayworth did her "Put the Blame on Mame" striptease and Glenn Close and Michael Douglas were caught in some Fatal Attraction (1987). Sirens are often confused with harpies in Greek mythology who are also winged bird-women. Usually there are 2-3 sister sirens, who are also daughters of the river god Achelous, and the Harpies (Aello, Celaeno, and Ocypete) are sisters of Iris, a messenger to the gods, and daughters of the air nymph Electra. In terms of beauty and temperament, I always got the implication that sirens are fair but deadly maidens while harpies are scary, vicious scavenger-like bird-women, especially after having read Sartre's play Les Mouches (The Flies) which warrants a slight shudder.

John William Waterhouse's Ulysses and the Sirens (1891)

François Perrier's Aeneas and His Companions Fighting Harpies (1646-47)
 I was honestly a tad afraid to Google images of harpies, knowing how grotesque some representations of harpies are. It's interesting how some people imagine harpies as ugly female gargoyles.

Going along with the idea of sirens, I love how my favorite feminist author Margaret Atwood wrote a poem called "Siren Song." She is one witty Canadian :0). My favorite part of her poem is when the siren speaker lures her readers with "Shall I tell you the secret / and if I do, will you get me / out of this bird suit?" as if that siren could feminine masquerade out of being a winged temptress. I would talk about females represented as winged sphinxes but I could easily go on a long tangent on the topic of women represented as felines. Let's not deviate from the main topic... I'll save the discussion on sphinxes for a rainy day. Anyways, on with more females as birds...

In Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1898), the small place that protagonist Edna Pontellier decides to make her own is called a "pigeon house" simply "because it's so small and looks like a pigeon house" (619). Edna even identifies herself as a birdlike creature when she talks about her time spent with Madame Reisz to one of her beaux:
"Well, for instance, when I left her to-day, she put her arms around me and felt my shoulder-blades, to see if my wings were strong, she said, 'The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings. It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.'" (617)
Other references to females as birdlike creatures include Evelyn de Morgan's painting The Gilded Cage (1919); it serves as an allegory for a trapped female housed in comfortable surroundings, a "gilded cage," in contrast to the fluttering bird she appears to be reaching for outside her window. On a random note, this painting makes me think of young Jenny in Forrest Gump (1994) praying, "Dear God, make me a bird. So I could fly far. Far far away from here." It's a different situation for young Jenny since she's living in an abusive environment, but nevertheless that line from Forrest Gump still captures the same desperate feeling of being trapped that The Gilded Cage conveys.

The Gilded Cage (1919)

As for contemporary literature that alludes to women as birds, Maya Angelou wrote an important African-American and women studies autobiographical sketch called I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) that I have yet to read. Although she wrote poem with the same title and with the caged bird referred to as a "he," it is an interesting read if you'd like to check that out. Please keep in mind that I am not a Maya Angelou expert and am embarrassed that I still have not read anything by her yet, but I absolutely welcome any Maya Angelou recommendations :0).

 a postcard I bought a long time ago

Truth be told, I should have taken up Women Studies as a second major when I was an undergrad but you know what, that's okay cause having too many shoulda, coulda, woulda thoughts leads to unnecessary discontentment and disappointment :P. I know Women Studies have that whole stigma that females who specialize in that field are all misandrists, but just to set things straight, I don't hate men... although this one Christina Aguilera song called "I Hate Boys" is a pretty catchy misandrist tune ;). Sometimes I can get frustrated with men but that's only cause they puzzle me so.

In the famous ballet Swan Lake, a spell has been cast on the character Princess Odette, which transforms her into a swan by day and allows her to keep her true human form at night. I'd be happy to see a live ballet performance of Swan Lake, but so far, my main exposure to the Swan Lake story comes from the animated feature The Swan Princess (1994), something I used to rewatch as a kid.

I'll end this post with a nice and more familiar "bird" reference from Love Actually (2003), a movie I really should own but don't. Throughout this film, Laura Linney's character Sarah has been pining for her ridiculously good-looking co-worker Karl (played by Rodrigo Santoro). When she finally gets a chance to become even more familiar with Karl, the non-diegetic song played in the background of this intimate scene is Eva Cassidy's "Songbird," which implies that Sarah is a song "bird," metaphorically cooing or rather tweeting sweetly for Karl to love her. Speaking of tweeting, I'm probably going to tweet link this blog post on Twitter as soon as I'm done writing it.

Perhaps the most rewatched scene in Love Actually - mainly because of Rodrigo Santoro.

In the words of Sarah, said in a totally different context of course, and in regards to all life's possibilities, I'm "[f]ree as a bird. Fire away."

1 comment:

RamblingHutch said...

Have I mentioned how much I love your background? It is too cute! And interesting essay about women and birds. I never made that connection before. Why are we birds? I personally feel a lot more kinship with a rhinoceros.