Only a Girl Can Save Us

This somewhat rambling essay has a simple theme, which shall be illustrated at the popular and theological levels. As much as male heroes feature prominently in the Christian imagination, it is the female, especially the young woman, who is necessary for the redemption of the cosmos. To speak so is not an attempt to Christianize feminism, nor to provide a new and novel feminist take on Christianity. Rather, it is to recognize a major theme in traditional Christianity that too often of late has been eclipsed.

Part 1: The Popular Scene

In Disney’s 1993 Beauty and the Beast, when the protagonist, Belle, walks into a mysterious castle, a talking candlestick exclaims, “She’s the girl: the one we have been waiting for! She has come to break the spell!” The details of the spell are well known in American popular culture: a young prince, who was selfish and unkind, was cursed by an enchantress for refusing hospitality to an old beggar woman.

Not only does the enchantress turn the prince into a Beast, but she places “a powerful spell upon the castle and all who lived there.” This spell turns all the human servants of the castle into domestic physical objects like clocks, dishes, and candlesticks. The only way the spell can be broken is for the Prince/Beast to “learn to love another, and to earn her love in return.” There are more details–an enchanted rose and mirror–but what concerns us is primarily two elements of the curse: that a girl is necessary to the breaking of the curse, and that her love will restore all of the other characters to their full humanity.

In one of the songs written for the film, but cut from the original release (it was subsequently added again in a special edition), the cursed characters sing that they hope to be “Human again / when the girl finally sets us all free… We’ll be all that we were / Thanks to him, thanks to her.” And sure enough, when Belle utters the words “I love you” over the dead Beast at the end of the film, the Prince and all the other characters are restored to their human form, and the castle changes from a place of gloom to a place of illumination.

In all this, Belle is acting out a particular role: she is the savior of a whole community, and key to her ability to save is that she is a girl. Baked into the logic of the story-world is the principle that no man could do what she does.

Three years later in American popular culture, another riff on the heroine came to prime time television: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Every week, the introductory scene of Buffy explained: “In every generation, there is a chosen one: she alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.” In the Buffy TV universe, there is no such thing as a male Slayer. And whenever a Slayer is killed, another girl receives the power of the Slayer and carries on her work.

The day in/day out work of the Slayer is mostly predictable and episodic, involving the hunting and slaying of evil monsters, most often vampires. But across Buffy’s seven seasons, Buffy at times performs more drastic feats, saving her hometown, and once or twice the earth itself, from being taken over by demonic forces. Buffy must often sacrifice what she loves most–even her own life–to perform these feats of salvation.

In the final episode of the series, Buffy goes above and beyond the salvation of humanity to an even greater work: she decides to rewrite the laws of magic so that every girl who could have been a Slayer (given that there is only one at a time) will become a Slayer. No more is there one girl in all the world with the power to fight evil: many girls become slayers, many girls become evil-fighters, many girls become world-savers.

Why have I summarized these two heroine-driven popular stories from the ’90s? Because there’s a conversation going on today, over 20 years later, about the political meaning of popular storytelling that centers around heroines, from 2017’s Wonder Woman film to the ongoing Star Wars sequels to this year’s Captain Marvel. There seem to be two loud camps in this conversation.

The first is the camp that celebrates such films as great leaps forward in popular American storytelling, as pieces of political art that, one by one, add to a great and cresting redress of the misogyny of the popular storytelling of the past. This camp reads the popular storytelling of the twentieth century (and, by extension, most past centuries) as predominantly, even exclusively, male-driven: male storytellers telling male-centered stories to male audiences. At their most optimistic, this camp celebrates the new heroines as the hope of future generations: that girls growing up in twenty-first century America and beyond can look to popular storytelling and, for the first time in history, see female role-models who are interesting and admirable.

The other main loud camp–which I will call the critics–agrees with the first camp (the celebrators) that such storytelling is an example of political art, but their stomachs are turned by it. They see each new female-led superhero movie or book series as a reckless and sometimes disingenuous attack on a time-honored narrative tradition, where men are the main heroes and women the supporting love interests. They see the highlighting of the heroism of the female, and the (frequent) attendant diminishing of the role of the male, as not just a novel narrative structure, but as an insidious undermining of inherited culture. At their most pessimistic, they worry that as society changes, boys will cease to have role models, that they will look to popular storytelling and find that there are no interesting or admirable men.

It would be easy to use the characters of Belle and Buffy to respond to each camp. Both, for instance, show that our current decade holds no monopoly on popular heroine-driven storytelling. Both also are arguably richer examples of the heroism of the female protagonist than our recent spate of Katnisses, Reys, and Captain Marvels. But there is limited worth in playing the game of “my favorite heroine could beat up yours.” I could also ask whether it is entirely consistent of those who bemoan the Wonder Women of the present to find Disney Classics of the past like Beauty and the Beast endearing and innocuous.

If I could say something to both camps, it would be that popular storytelling in America has been, since the nineteenth century, a wide and diverse landscape, containing at all times aesthetic movements and narrative traditions that pull in opposing directions. For every James Fenimore Cooper with his strong male heroes with blazing muskets, there was a Henry Longfellow, whose protagonists were little Catholic nuns, or emperor-defying Jewish matrons. For every fists-and-whiskey Earnest Hemingway, there was a humane and introspective Gwendolyn Brooks. For every Hefner, an Anscombe. Of course, this ongoing branching of popular art in many directions at once does not mean we should never bemoan or praise a particular direction. But it does mean that both utopian and doomsaying predictions about any one strain in art risk myopia.

Part 2: Ancient Hymns and Heroines

But my overall point is this: the narrative trope of the girl upon whom the salvation of humanity depends is a deeply, traditionally Christian concept, rooted in the doctrine and hymnography of the early Church.

As I write this, it is the season of Lent, which means, in the Eastern Christian tradition, that it is the part of the year when every Friday there is a special service called the Akathist to the Theotokos. At the Akathist service, Orthodox Christians sing together a long, ancient poem about the role of Mary in the salvation of man. The Akathist was likely written in the fourth or fifth century, and has long been an important part of Lenten devotion. In the opening stanza, we sing,

Rejoice, Thou through whom the curse will cease!

Rejoice, recall of fallen Adam:

Rejoice, redemption of the tears of Eve! …

Rejoice, for Thou bearest Him Who beareth all! Rejoice, star that causest the Sun to appear: Rejoice, womb of the Divine Incarnation!

Rejoice, Thou through whom creation is renewed!

In the Akathist hymn, Mary is characterized as one who undoes the curse that Adam and Eve received. Whereas Eve weeps tears for her disobedience, Mary rejoices in her role as the one who brings God to earth through her obedience. This conception of Mary as the new Eve would go on to be an important trope in other Greek and Syriac poetry by writers like Jacob of Serug and Romanos the Melodist. And this conception is central to the Christian doctrine of redemption.

Mary is not ancillary to our salvation; she is necessary for our salvation. For God to become man, a woman–and only a woman–must step into the role of God-bearer, of Theotokos.

In the repeating chorus of the Akathist, Mary is described and praised not, as one might expect, in maternal terms, but as a martial hero:

To Thee, the Champion Leader, we Thy servants dedicate a feast of victory and of thanksgiving

as ones rescued out of sufferings, O Theotokos:

but as Thou art one with might which is invincible,

from all dangers that can be do Thou deliver us, that we may cry to Thee: Rejoice O Unwedded Bride!

Mary’s role here is that of leader, rescuer, and mighty one. These roles that are today sometimes described as uniquely “masculine” or “manly” are repeatedly used by the Church of Mary, a woman. An imagination shaped by poems like this ancient Akathist should not find it difficult to accept characters like Belle, Buffy, or Diana of Themiscyra–each will rhyme, to a greater or lesser degree, with the archetype of Mary.

Lest the Akathist seem an isolated example of female heroism in the devotion of the church, I will point to another hymn that expands on the doctrines of the Akathist. This is one of the Troparia for the resurrection, which is sung most Sundays of the year during the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in the Orthodox Church:

Having learned from the angel

The joyful message of the resurrection

The women disciples of the Lord

Cast from themselves the ancestral condemnation

And proudly broke the news to the disciples,

Saying, “Death has been spoiled.

Christ God has risen,

Granting the world great mercy.”

This hymn focuses not only on Mary, but all of the women disciples of Christ. Having learned that Christ is risen, they do a curious thing: they “cast [off] the ancestral condemnation,” that is, the curse that they as women received through Eve’s disobedience.

Thus, in the resurrection of Christ, the old curse inherited from the sin of the first parents is undone, and can be cast off by those who would seek a new role. The role the women disciples take on is the role of evangelists, for they preach the resurrection to the male disciples, upending the conventional role of men as educators of women. In the new salvation made possible by Mary and Christ, women need not wait for a man to explain God to them: they have directly learned themselves from the angel of Christ’s resurrection, and become the first to preach to the world this “great mercy.”

In the Akathist, Mary is a reverse image of Eve. Eve was tempted by a fallen angel to say no to God. Mary is offered a role in God’s incarnation by a faithful angel and says yes to God. In the resurrection troparion a group of women again meet a faithful angel and say yes to a new and heroic role. They are daughters not of Eve, but of Mary; for over a thousand years, when Christians have sung these hymns, they too have been offered the chance to re-orient their conception of women toward what the Gospels reveal: that women are and can be mighty warriors, saviors, evangelists, curse-breakers: in a word, heroes.

The hagiography of the church reveals that such a conception of heroic womanhood has indeed been manifest in the lives of many, from St. Lucy, St. Helen, and St. Nina in the ancient church to more recent figures like Joan of Arc, St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, and Mother Maria of Paris.

To show the many other places in early Church literature where the principles we have described above are found would extend this essay overlong. But I would like to point to a few places, for those who want to read further. First, look to the first Treatise on Human Nature, by St. Basil the Great, where he praises the heroism of the female ascetics and chides male monks for not living up to their example. Look to the heroines of the early Christian poets, especially those in the poems of Prudentius, the Empress Eudocia, and Romanos the Melodist. Finally, look to the third ecumenical council, in which the Church united to affirm that Mary is truly Theotokos, and thus necessary to our salvation.

I spoke of myopia earlier, and I’d like to return to it, for I find much of the popular conversation concerning women and heroism myopic, especially in relation to the doctrine of the hymnography and hagiography I’ve been discussing. For instance, whether or not the makers of the recent films know it, both Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel include elements that can be found in early Christian literature about heroines.

As I’ve written elsewhere, when Wonder Woman defeats the god of War and restores concord among those who were formerly enemies, she is acting out a scene that can also be found at the end of Prudentius’s Psychomachia, where a female warrior overcomes a personified War to create a new peace for humanity. And when, in Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers accesses her full powers, bursting into flames that are harmless to her but deadly to her enemies, she matches the early Christian imagery of Mary, the one who is aflame but unconsumed: aflame with incarnate divinity, but unconsumed in her virtuous humanity. Of course, the Christian heritage of such narrative tropes and imagery are nowhere discussed in the popular celebrations or dismissals of either film.

When the camp of critics bemoans that these recent heroines are usurping roles that should, by right of some misty tradition, be only for men, and when the camp of celebrators exhort the critics to throw off their old fashioned notions and embrace the new feminist progress, they both reveal the same misconception. This is, simply, the misconception that traditional Christianity does not conceive of women as heroes.

But this is not the case, as we’ve seen. And when, as often happens, those who claim to speak from the perspective of Christian tradition seem unable to accept the woman as hero, it is not because they are too Christian in their thinking, but because they are not sufficiently Christian in their thinking. Instead, they seem most akin to those who would hold women under that old “ancestral condemnation.” And this view is antithetical to a full, traditional Christian understanding of the Gospels and the early councils of the Church, however much it has crept back into vogue in more recent times.

I do not mean to imply, of course, that there is no place for male heroes in the Christian imagination. To jump to such a conclusion would be to commit the same fallacy as that camp of critics. Christ, after all, was male. And the Christian imagination, in its fullness, is always tending toward the redemption of all being, the male no less than the female, the animal no less than the human, the flesh no less than the spirit. But we are not living in an age where we are in danger of forgetting that men can be heroes.

Perhaps other ages will struggle with seeing this, but our visions are otherwise clouded. What we require is to take to heart that the words of Beauty and the Beast are expressive of a deeply Christian truth: “we’ll be all that we were / thanks to him,” yes, and also, “thanks to her.”