Yin/Yang Heroes & Heroines

In the course of writing about Jung’s concept of the animus (the internalized masculine aspect of women), I came across a different idea that is now coloring how I see movie heroes and heroines. Genia Pauli Haddon proposes that instead of dividing everything into the polar extremes of feminine and masculine, we think in terms of four different ways of being. Jung would actually approve, I think, since he kept saying that four was the number of completion. Certainly our old idea of male-is-male and female-is-female omits a lot of possible ways of being.

Instead, Haddon says, we should think in terms of yin and yang. Yin is soft, receptive, flexible, adaptable, subtle, often hidden or in the shadows. It is allied with the moon, earth, water, and night. People associate yin with the feminine. Yang is active, hard, focused, aggressive, unyielding. It is allied with the sun, sky, fire, and day. People associate it with the masculine.

Haddon’s idea is that both men and women can behave in either yin or yang ways. A yin woman and a yang male correspond to our traditional ideas about the sexes. But a yang woman and a yin man fall between these opposites. A yang woman is not like a yang man. She is assertive rather than aggressive, for one thing. Where a yang man makes things  happen in a direct and determined fashion — often battering down all obstacles — a yang woman works with the situation, fostering something new in a way that honors the process as much as the outcome. Haddon likens the way a yang woman works to the uterine contractions of birth, pushing out a child in a rhythmic way that protects the baby. I think of a masseuse gently working with a tight muscle to encourage it to relax.

A  yin man is more like a yang woman than a yang man. He too works with the situation in a behind-the-scenes way. But he’s more likely to have an agenda. Haddon suggests that the masculine way of doing something — whether yin or  yang — is goal-oriented. The point is to accomplish something, to make something happen. The feminine seeks rather to enable something to come into being on its own terms. It’s a subtle distinction.  One way to think about it might be the difference between the coach who trains a kid to be good at a sport, and the supportive parent who drives the kid to practices and meets and buys the uniform and cheers from the sidelines. The coach’s agenda is impersonal: s/he wants the team to win. The parent’s agenda is personal: s/he wants the kid to have a positive experience of the sport. (Hopefully.)

I taught a class on “The Avengers” this last week, specifically on Trickster characters in the movie. As we discussed the Black Widow, I quoted from Lori Landay’s book Madcaps, Screwballs, & Con Women: The Female Trickster in American CultureLanday says that the female trickster is captivating, manipulative, sexually attractive but not sentimental, and able to  “survive in situations specifically hostile to women.” Joss Whedon loves such women; he points out in his commentary on “The Avengers” that he always has a female character who appears fragile and extremely feminine, but who turns out to be tougher than anyone around her: Buffy of the “Buffy” TV series, River Tam of the “Firefly” series and “Serenity,” and Echo of the “Dollhouse” series. Joss didn’t write the character of the Black Widow, but she is just his cup of tea.

As we discussed the Black Widow, I realized that she is a perfect example of the yang heroine. Coulson sends her to enlist Bruce Banner to the cause, knowing full well that Banner needs persuading, not pushing. (Banner/The Hulk is an example of someone who flip-flops between being all yin & passive — Banner is forever on the run, trying to NOT DO anything — and all yang/aggressive when he’s in Hulk mode. He eventually learns how to integrate the two.) She also tricks Loki, the trickster-god, into revealing his secrets by seeming to yield to Loki’s mind games. The character of Pepper Potts is another yang heroine who ably assists Tony Stark in everything he wants to do, while at the same time encouraging him in certain directions.

The movie has its share of both yin and yang males. Captain America and Thor are pure yang heroes. They are big men with bulging muscles, they always cut straight to the point, and — let’s be honest — they don’t have much of a sense of humor. They’re serious about everything all the time. They both have an overly developed sense of responsibility, and in a fight, they hit hard, overwhelming their opponents by sheer strength.

In contrast, the yin hero Tony Stark makes a lot of jokes, wanders around poking and prying at things, and adapts immediately to any situation. Hawkeye appears to take a back seat, but he’s got his eye on everything and sees into the situation in a way no one else does. Just as Stark is close to Pepper, Hawkeye is close to the Black Widow; the yin man and the yang woman work well together.

Thor’s love, Jane Foster, has been sent away for her own safety; although she’s the most intelligent of the women, she, like Thor, is likely to barge into situations without thinking. Jane’s a perfect example of the woman who tries to be yang like a man would be: extremely intelligent and working in a male-dominated field, she thinks that she has to argue and push to accomplish her goals. She is precisely what Jung called the “animus-possessed” woman. But Haddon makes the argument that many women from the 1960s on tried to be yang in this way because, while they aren’t cut out to be yin women, they haven’t had a role model for how yang femininity works. I’m so cheered to see movies offering this model.

Similarly, yin men have had a difficult time of it, because the alpha males are the ones we’ve celebrated in this culture. But this is changing as well. I recently came across an article in Cosmopolitan (it was lying on the stack at the gym and I needed something to read while I put in my 30 minutes on the treadmill) about how male “sidekick” characters in movies or TV shows are becoming as popular, if not more so, with women viewers.

Yin & yang are inextricably bound together; they need each other. I wrote some time ago about all the shows that now feature a smart, kick-ass woman paired with an intuitive, easygoing man. I hadn’t encountered Haddon’s idea then, but now I’m seeing this as another expression of the yang woman and the yin man.

We still love our yang heroes. I don’t think we’ve totally lost the yin woman either. Next week my class will be looking at “Lars and the Real Girl,” which features a truly yin woman. Only problem is, she’s not real. Does this mean we don’t know what to think about yin women, any more? Stay tuned . . .

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