Role Monsters The Monstrous Female Ambition of the Harpy
“When women grab for space men thought reserved for their use alone, those men will surely call us foul.”
This is Role Monsters, a series on monstrous female archetypes by Jess Zimmerman.
Myth and folklore teem with frightening women: man-seducers and baby-stealers, menacing witches and avenging spirits, rapacious bird-women and all-devouring forces of nature. In our stories and our culture, we underline the idea that women who step out of bounds—who are angry or greedy or ambitious, who are overtly sexual or insufficiently sexy—aren’t just outside the norm: They’re monstrous. Women often try to tamp down those qualities that we’re told violate “natural” femininity. But what if we embraced our inner monsters?
On March 8, International Women’s Day, a little girl faced down a bull in lower Manhattan. Both the girl and the bull were bronze statues: the bull a long-standing and iconic piece of guerilla art by Arturo Di Modica, and the girl a new addition by Kristen Visbal, intended to draw attention to the need for more women in high-level corporate positions. Though the new statue, called “Fearless Girl,” was intended as a one-month installation, its social media popularity won it a stay of execution: The city declared that Visbal’s sculpture would remain in place until February 2018. But Di Modica, incensed, demanded that it be removed .
There are a number of valid objections to make to the statue as a work of art. It uses a little girl as a stand-in for women as a whole, infantilizing women even as it purports to elevate them. It was paid for by State Street Global Advisors, an asset management firm with five women on its twenty-eight-person leadership team, giving it the Pepsi-ad luster of misapplied, condescending morality: social justice lip service as marketing buzz. These were not Di Modica’s objections. His objection was this: The girl, by opposing his bull, was stealing his thunder.
“She’s attacking the bull,” he complained —paradoxically, by turning the bull into an attacker, the villain of a double piece. Her presence changed the context, turning a pure celebration of capitalist victory into an embarrassing commentary on exclusion. Instead of the market itself, the bull now represented the white male stranglehold on the market’s shiny bronze nuts.
photo via Daniel Norton/flickr
Di Modica was not, his lawyers were quick to specify, opposed to the girl herself. “None of us here are in any way not proponents of gender equality,” one lawyer didn’t not say. They didn’t need her taken down entirely—just placed elsewhere, maybe facing the Stock Exchange. The problem wasn’t the statue; the problem was the addition of a female element to a space Di Modica had laid claim to when he plopped the bull down without a permit in 1989.
With this argument, the Fearless Girl, previously something of a stunt, finally became an actual reflection of the challenges faced by women in male-dominated fields. Ambitious women are derided as grasping, threatening, even unnatural, not because female success is explicitly devalued—we’ve got no problem with the Fearless Girl being somewhere —but because success is seen as the birthright province of men. Women take away from male accomplishment: steal it, change it, defile it. In isolation, female ambition is laudable, the kind of thing asset management firms make statues about. In context, it’s considered monstrous.
If you lived through 2016, or indeed any year before that going back to 1992, you probably heard Hillary Clinton being called a harpy. If not, you can Google “Hillary Clinton” and “harpy” right now; there are nearly two million results. “A Shrill, Harpy-Like Hillary Clinton Screams At Her Audience,” trumpets one headline on right-wing blog RedState. It’s a pointed insult, far more so than simply calling her monstrous. A harpy is a monster, but specifically a female monster. More than that, she’s specifically a female monster who snatches the rightful property of men.
The harpies were always thieves; it’s right there in the name, from harpezein, “snatcher.” In Homer, they’re storm spirits who carry people off unawares. But the defining story of the Harpies is the one canonized in the journey of the Argonauts, in which the Harpies are foul bird-woman creatures sent to torment King Phineus of Thrace. Any time Phineus is served food, the creatures swoop down and claw it away, either devouring it or rendering it inedible with their disgusting smell. They are ravenous, but their appetite isn’t just for food; what they can’t eat they are content to merely destroy. The important thing is that their target goes hungry.
A vulture that scavenged or befouled food would not be monstrous; wild creatures eat where they can and shit where they must. There are two things that make a harpy a monster: her single-minded focus on depriving others, and her human female face.
Even the most motivated women don’t usually want to be harpies. A Harvard study on MBA students, published in March 2017, found that female students downplay career aspirations and assertiveness in order to perform well on the “marriage market.” (That’s the term the researchers used.) The subjects, newly-admitted MBAs, were asked to rate their ambition and leadership qualities, and to describe desired compensation and willingness for work and travel. When they thought their answers were private, single and married women gave similar answers. When they thought their classmates—including men—would see the results, the single women students rated themselves lower on leadership and ambition, said they’d be willing to work fewer hours and travel less, and asked for a yearly salary $18,000 lower than married women. Another related study showed that single women chose less career-driven hypothetical jobs when they were told single men would see their results.
Why would ambition, leadership, desire for more pay hurt women in the “marriage market”? Because every minute a woman gives to her career is a minute she’s taking away from her husband and her family duties. Because salaries, work travel, career-mindedness are the natural province of men. Because men own women’s time, and men own success. They may parcel it out to us like an allowance, but grab the whole wad and you’re morally suspect at best.
The wage gap is sometimes explained away by saying that “women choose less demanding jobs.” It’s not a sufficient explanation—women are also paid less than men for the same job —but insofar as it’s true, this is why: because matching with men ambition for ambition is seen as greed and theft.
What would it take to swoop down anyway, snatching your measure of glory from men who hold their nose as you approach? It requires much more than being impossibly dedicated, impossibly driven. Being a monster is harder than being a hero.
photo via Dun.can/flickr
Virgil was not kind to the harpies. “No monster is more malevolent than these, no scourge of gods or pestilence more savage ever rose from the Stygian waves,” says the Aeneid (in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation). “These birds may wear the face of virgins, but their bellies drip with disgusting discharge, and their hands are talons, and their features pale and famished.” John Dryden’s translation says they have “virgin faces, but with wombs obscene,” which probably says more about Dryden than anything else.
When Aeneas encounters the harpies, he and his crew are in the middle of slaughtering and eating some livestock they found roaming around on an island. Aeneas, narrating, fondly recalls discovering the cows and goats wandering “unguarded”; the crew kills as many as they want to eat and a few more to share with the gods. But then the harpies swoop in, “plundering our banquet with the filthy touch of their talons.” Aeneas and his men are incensed by this foul attack on their rightfully stolen property. Hopped up on vengeance, they chase down the harpies, fruitlessly hacking at the creatures’ blade-proof skin with their swords.
It does not occur to them to wonder about the ownership of the meal they’re fighting to defend. But in fact, the harpy Celaeno says, the slaughtered cattle belonged to her and her sisters. The harpies weren’t spoiling Aeneas’s feast for fun. They had come for their own.
Celaeno curses Aeneas for the theft and the attacks, a curse that turns out to be toothless. But the defining moment of this encounter is the point when the harpies swoop in on the stolen food and are beaten back with swords for being rapacious, disgusting beasts. A man who lays claim to unguarded property is a hero. A woman who grasps for her share is an abomination.
Hillary the Harpy was, for the most part, a creature of campaign season. Before Clinton was running for office, when she was Secretary of State—fourth in the presidential line of succession, one of the highest US political offices—she was literally the most popular politician in the country. Before that, she ran for president in 2008, and her favorability ratings dropped below 50 percent; before that, she was a sitting senator, and generally well-liked. “It’s not her success that seems to arouse ire,” writes feminist commentator Sady Doyle, “but the act of campaigning itself.”
The same pattern, Doyle points out, applies to Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren: She was wildly popular in office, widely derided on the trail. “Thus, the single worst thing a female politician can do to herself is to look for a job in politics,” Doyle writes. “We can accept women in power, but not women’s desire for more of it.”
Nobody here is against equality, or at least equality of a kind. We could all get along if women would take what was granted to them and no more. If the harpies would eat their own food. If the girl would stand somewhere else.
What makes a woman’s ambition predatory, grotesque, is the perception that it overflows its natural bounds. The harpy aspires to what does not belong to her. The allowable territory grows and shrinks with time: Once it would have been unthinkable to aim for a job at all, let alone leadership of a country. But wherever we draw the line for women, only a monster would look beyond.
Of course it’s the monsters who move the line, who annex new territory, who snatch back their cattle and curse the thieves. Are women willing to be disgusting to make those inroads? Are we willing to be obscene?
When the statue was first installed, State Street marketing officer Stephen Tisdalle rushed to mediate the Fearless Girl’s fearlessness. “She’s not angry at the bull,” he told The New York Times . Instead, “she’s confident, she knows what she’s capable of, and she’s wanting the bull to take note.” This girl, facing down this bull, is supposed to be a powerful call for powerful women, but rest assured: She only wants as much as we’ve decided she deserves.
No little girl, however bold, can represent the true paradox of female ambition: that we are only supposed to aspire as far as what’s already been granted. What we need is a great bronze harpy astride the bull, clawing at its flesh. Di Modica might not care for that—but then again, he’s not supposed to. When women embrace their harpies, when we grab for space and resources men thought reserved for their use alone, those men will surely call us foul.
Imagine her now: The Grasping Monster, belly dripping with disgusting discharge, pushing aside the Fearless Girl with one clawed hand. Staring down the bull with his stolen power, on his stolen land. She knows what she’s capable of, and she is angry. She has come for her own.