Crippled by the burden of the womb, is a woman truly more limited than a man? Does the colour of ambition bloom on her and if that ambition does sprout, will it bud-like flowers slipping through cracks on washed-out walls or will she pile up as another man woman in the attic?
As Simone De Beauvoir in her most famous work, The Second Sex puts it, “one is not born a woman but becomes one” – she astutely unpacks how social structures are instrumental in creating patriarchy. Women are socialized and trained to assimilate into stereotypical femininity that looms at opposing ends of hegemonic masculinity pre-conditioning those women that don’t assimilate as ‘the other.’
History stands out with multiple reminders of what the male gaze makes out of the women in power, how it reduces the prowess of leaders like Cleopatra, Anne Boleyn and Catherine the Great by obscuring them through centuries of objectification and demonization – labelling them as another madwoman in the attic. The commonality between Cleopatra, Anne and Catherine is their misrepresentation. All three went down in history as “the snare, the delusion, the seductress” which just serves to highlight how the idea of the female is caged or limited either to her representation as a damsel in distress or a femme fatale.
Since these women didn’t conform to the stereotypical standards and were far from the products of periods which idealized women as submissive and subservient, their ambition and drive get labelled as either ‘amoral’ or ‘reckless’ – when it was, in fact, radical, posing a major threat to the frameworks of patriarchal tyranny. The fact that the history lessons are filled with anecdotes of great men and their greatness, it does make one wonder what space does it leave out for women? What niche does it accommodate them in?
These imprecise historical analyses are in turn followed by distorted fictional and cinematic references. To point out for instance, in the cinematic retelling of Cleopatra’s life, the only impression that it leaves on the viewer’s minds is of Elizabeth Taylor’s beauty and everything about the queen herself is lost in inaccuracies. Even ‘the other Boleyn girl’ that illustrates the life of Anne just paints her as a transgressive Tudor queen with an insatiable greed for power.
In the end, we need to deviate from a sexist construction that oscillates around scandalous commentary into a narrative that reveals the real picture and demonstrates why we need to rethink Cleopatra and others as canny political strategists, tough negotiators and not simply define their worth through their physicality or the men in their life. After all, the woman in the attic can only break free if we can disband the normative ideology that dubs her insane.
Compiled by: Shivangi Sinha