The Trickster Archetype in Pop Culture, Part Three: Tricky Ladies

jamie moriarty

I spent my 2017 academic year picking a fight with Joseph Campbell and his blithe assumption that The Hero can only ever be a dude. Well, as my focus shifts from Heroes to Tricksters, the same issues crop up. The most famous mythological Tricksters discussed in the field and in popular culture tend to come from the following list: Norse Loki, Greek Hermes, West African Anansi, Polynesian Maui, and various versions of the archetype that appear in Native American mythology in the form of the Coyote, Raven, and Hare characters. These are all Trickster gods rather than goddesses. Lewis Hyde—whose book Trickster Makes This World I’ve quoted a few times in this series—quite confidently declared that “All the standard tricksters are male”. And, in a broad sense, he’s correct. But does this need to be the case? There are plenty of folks—including one particular writer I’ll be looking at today—who say “c’mon, my guy” and disagree.

Now, to be fair to Hyde, it’s not like he yells “no girls allowed!” and shuts down all discussion of the subject at that. There’s even a whole appendix at the back of Trickster Makes This World titled ‘Trickster and Gender’ where he elaborates on his reasons to not discuss any female Tricksters in the book. Of the lady Trickster, he writes:

My own reading has turned up two or three, but before I speak of them I should say that my own sense of the category “trickster” calls for a mythic figure with an elaborated career of trickery. I say this because it is not hard to think of women who have pulled a trick or two; lying, stealing, and shameless behaviour are not masculine essences. But one or two episodes do not make a trickster.

So, even if female characters show Trickster traits (for example the Greek Baubo, who used a very Trickstery combo of cleverness and bawdy humour to make Demeter laugh, thus bringing back spring and lowkey saving the world) he can’t consider them under his rubric unless they have an elaborated career of trickery to match their masculine counterparts. And hey, from a structural point of view, fair enough—when you’re putting a theory together you want to narrow your focus as much as you can. But I do find Hyde’s dry declaration that he simply can’t think of a Trickster who’s a woman… a bit funny, considering the amount of work being done, contemporary to and even pre-dating his own, that looks at the concept of the female Trickster.

Published two years before Trickster Makes This World was Deldon Anne McNeely’s Mercury Rising: Women, Evil and the Trickster Gods, where she describes the Trickster as “an androgynous archetype which is portrayed universally as masculine*”; and published in the same year as Hyde’s book is Lori Landay’s Madcaps, Screwballs and Con Women: The Female Trickster in American Culture, which I’m going to be looking at today. And of course there have been plenty more since then, too, including Ricki Stefanie Tannen’s The Female Trickster: The Mask That Reveals (2007), which uses Jungian psychology as its focal point and TV and detective novels as its case studies; and Helena Bassil-Morozow’s study of Trickster tactics in feminist activists in The Trickster and the System (2015), which includes the intriguing suggestion that “The female trickster—particularly in the form of a feminist—is the ultimate kind of trickster”.

In a 2002 paper responding in part to Hyde, Helen Lock points out that while the agency and education (or at least, cleverness) associated with the Trickster have historically been more likely to belong to men, “These advantages are in themselves gender-neutral, but are gendered by cultural association. Trickster is not gendered—only cultural perceptions of the freedom and mobility necessary to be trickster”. And ain’t that always the way of things?

Among all this agreement that Trickery need not be a boys’ club, there’s been much exploration of what exactly a lady Trickster would look like. Given that folks like Hyde simply can’t fathom including female characters in the traditional rubric for what a Trickster is, there comes the question of whether that rubric is too restrictive and ought to be expanded—or, in the case of analysts like Landay, if lady Tricksters ought to have a rubric of their own. Maybe there’s a uniquely feminine version of the Trickster archetype, which folds uniquely feminine traits and uniquely feminine struggles in with the usual attributes and shenanigans of the Lokis and Hermes of the world.

Landay suggests Scheherazade—the narrator of the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights—as the archetypal feminine Trickster. Like all Tricksters, she makes up for her lack of strength with cleverness, and uses that cleverness to gain agency. In this case, Scheherazade is a woman with no social power and no sway, doomed to spend one night with the King before being executed in the morning like so many women before her. But she uses her skills in speech and storytelling to not only save herself but eventually win herself a position of power (and, depending on your version of the story, genuine romance too): she enthrals the King with stories, but always leaves him on a cliffhanger and refuses to tell him the ending until the next night.

It’s a con to save her own skin, running on the power of that Trickstery silver tongue, but as Landay argues the character is especially effective in this role because she is a woman: her gender is what has put her in that Trickstery position outside The Powers That Be, but she also uses the skills taught to, and traits expected of, her gender to trick and bamboozle her way to a position of power. Landay uses the Scheherazade story as a base and traces these traits throughout the literature, film, and TV of the nineteenth and twentieth century: con women who play into the expectations of the dumb blonde or the damsel in distress and, having caught the men around them off guard, end up with riches and agency; the heroines of screwball comedies who use humour to undermine the systems around them while staying comfortably within the framework of a cute and quirky romance plot; and even a couple of real life examples like the witty, sexually-liberated and controversial Mae West who played themselves into a cultural Trickster archetype of sorts in their celebrity personas.

As always, definitions have to be narrowed as much as they can, so we can’t just include any character who happens to be both woman and con artist: by Landay’s framework they have to somehow use attributes considered archetypally feminine, whether playing into them or playing them up. In Landay’s own words:

In their pursuit of autonomy and active participation in the world around them, the characters deploy trickster tactics such as deception, disguise, duplicity, subversion, feigned submission, parody, and impersonation in concert with specifically female practices such as the uses of makeup, sex appeal, emotional manipulation, and exploitation of the inconsistencies of the sex-gender system.

The con woman drawing on expectations and stereotypes of femineity, only to pull the rug out from under her (usually male) victims, is a pretty classic trope: the most recent place I’ve seen it is in the character Karen in Red Dead Redemption 2, one of a few lady thieves lending her skills to the band of outlaws that make up the main cast. One mission sees her leading a bank robbery (having flirted her way to a tipoff). Before heading into the bank, she casually turns to her partners-in-crime and asks which “routine” she should do: the “little girl lost” or “the drunken harlot”? It’s the player’s choice, and whatever they pick, Karen slips immediately into an exaggerated character and catches the bank employees off guard, whether that means them leaping to assist a weeping woman or flusteredly trying to shoo out a flirtatious inebriated one. And either way, with that guard down, Karen takes her chance to hold the place up. She had the upper hand all along, but none of the dudes around her would’ve guessed.

rdr karen

Words to live by, my girl

In essence, Landay’s lady Tricksters play into the patriarchal stereotype of “the weaker sex” and use it to their advantage while simultaneously taking the piss out of it, and while also using traits dubbed traditionally “feminine” (and thus underestimated) to find a sense of power. You see this pattern all over the place, with the vampires in What We Do in the Shadows who play up their helpless little-girl appearances to catch and eat paedophiles (likely a reference to Let the Right One In and other fiction starring immortal monsters easily mistaken for innocent young girls), with the “Jackal” in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels who lets two con men believe she’s their oblivious victim before conning them both in the film’s climax, and even looping right back to mythology with Circe (depicted most recently by Madeline Miller) who plays the dainty hostess to seafarers and reveals her true power if they try to take advantage of her, turning them into pigs and taking great joy in watching their shock and horror as their expectations are upturned.

You also see it in characters like Sansa Stark, who, in contrast to her sister Arya who finds power and agency in more traditionally masculine methods like good ol’ swordfighting, uses traditionally feminine traits like politeness and speech to find her footing in the royal court where she’s trapped. She might look submissive and dainty, but there’s a quiet cleverness to it all that leaves many people (fans included) underestimating her. This is embodied by a few characters across the series of course, including Cersei (perhaps named after Circe herself) and Margaery Tyrell.

And, to continue on a Natalie Dormer tangent, Irene Adler is another Trickster who fits Landay’s criteria. In her original form, she quietly slipped through a system that wished to control her and ended up with happiness and agency, and ended up as one of the few people who genuinely left Sherlock Holmes in the dirt, simply because she was a clever woman—something he did not expect. More recent adaptations** of her lean more into the idea of Adler as a cunning con woman bamboozling men for criminal purposes rather than just to regain control over her own fate, particularly in the Guy Ritchie movies and, most recently, Elementary. Elementary‘s “Irene” is, as it turns out, the criminal mastermind of the series, hiding under the image of the feeble and tragic girlfriend before pulling the rug out from under everyone and causing chaos. And hey, Elementary‘s Irene Adler and Moriarty being one and the same gives her “an elaborated career of trickery” that would win her a spot on Hyde’s rubric as well as Landay’s.

Sansa Stark

To be clear, I haven’t touched GoT in years, but Sansa’s still my adopted daughter

And in the end Tricksters are all about messing with expectations and turning things on their heads. Women in a patriarchal system are naturally in that Trickster Zone outside the dominant structure of power, and, following Landay’s analysis, are frequently underestimated enough to sneak through the cracks in the system and exploit them without being seen as a true threat. This is, of course, only one interpretation, but I find Landay’s particularly interesting because it looks specifically to pop culture and not only points out that the Trickster is still very much alive there, but points out that maybe we ought to expand our definitions of what exactly it is.

Tricksters are shapeshifters, after all, and it’s a little silly to think that a postmodern version of the archetype would look exactly the same as it did in the age of myth. But she also swats away assertions like Hyde’s that Tricksters are always men, by tracing this pattern from Scheherazade to Catwoman (and many in between). Ladies have always been perfectly capable of causing a ruckus.

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*The Trickster as androgynous and gender-queer is another fascinating avenue for discussion, but that’s unfortunately way too big for this post. Funnily enough, though, it’s an area where Hyde digs his proverbial grave a bit deeper, dismissing cases like Loki’s gender-fluid shapeshifting and writing that they “do not, however, seem to indicate ‘uncertain sexual status’. In [these] cases, a male figure becomes briefly female and then reverts to being male. The male is the ground, the point of departure”. He adds “The best we can do, I think, is to modify my opening assertation: the standard tricksters are male, some of whom on rare occasions become briefly female.” He says all this despite an early definition that Tricksters “cross the line and confuse the distinction” when it comes to the binaries of the world, “male and female” listed among them. Lewis Hyde may well be the next scholar I pick a fight with, now that my time in the ring with Campbell is done.

**You may notice I do not refer to her portrayal in Steven Moffat’s Sherlock. This is because I refuse on principle to acknowledge that it really happened.

10 Comments

Filed under Archetypes and Genre

10 responses to “The Trickster Archetype in Pop Culture, Part Three: Tricky Ladies

  1. Just out of curiosity (and you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to), but why do you refuse on principle to acknowledge that Steven Moffat’s Sherlock really happened? (Note that I’m not defending the show myself – I’ve only seen the first season and I think part of a special, so I don’t feel qualified to judge either way.)

    • Ha, this was mostly in reference to BBC Sherlock’s portrayal of Irene Adler when she appears in season two, which was… really not great. The writers apparently weren’t content with her just being a clever lady, and had her appear as a dominatrix by day, professional blackmailer by night, but, at the same time, undermined this power they’d given her by both having her be a pawn for Moriarty and by having Sherlock outwit her in the end… in part because she fell in love with him, and her affection is what let her guard down and did her in. And then the episode ends with Sherlock saving her life. So it was overall quite a mess ^^; there are definitely articles out there that articulate this better than I just have (if you have the time, the section on Irene in HBomberguy’s video essay “Sherlock is Garbage and Here’s Why” is very eloquent about it, especially in the comparisons he draws to the original short story she appears in) but the gist of it for me is it was just Pretty Dumb, especially because Elementary came out soon after and did, IMO, a much more interesting reinterpretation of the character.

      • Thanks, I’ll definitely check that video out! To be totally honest I didn’t fall in love with Elementary either – although I did like Irene Adler’s character a lot (albeit possibly because I also just like Natalie Dormer a lot, but still).

  2. I always like your articles, but you opened with Natalie Dormer and I was sold. 😀

  3. Roarke

    Wondering what your thoughts would be on femmes fatales in hardboiled/noir tradition as tricksters? I believe that was a case of mostly male writers grappling with the fact that contemporary women were gaining and using more power and freedom IRL, which seems like it has some parallels with what you’ve outlined here.

    One thing I love about Arya and Sansa is that they’re basically both D&D rogues, but with their skill ranks and attributes min/maxed in opposite ways.

    • I think it would depend on the individual character and how she’s written. Going by Landay’s framework, a lot would depend on how much she used those gendered expectations to trick/thwart/con the men in the story (and whether or not she succeeded in the end, I suppose). But from what little I know about that genre, I would suspect there’d definitely be a few characters there who would fall into this pattern!

      Ha, I’d never thought about that, but I dig it. There are many ways to be rogue.

  4. I guess my question would be where the motivation falls in this. I am loving the example of Scheherazade because I had never considered her as a trickster but thinking upon it, her motivation there is staying alive and coming out of a situation she really had no blame falling into whereas a figure like Loki is more mischievously motivated and quite often is in trouble because of his own actions.

    I mean, she uses her wits, the social structures and the character of the king against him but she isn’t exactly dishing out karmic punishment or something like that, if that makes sense. So in that case, is she simply using her wits to get out of a situation or is she trickstering? Is that a line that everyone draws for themselves or is the motivation not that important?

    Anyway, loving your articles and thank you so much for sharing them.

    • That’s a good point–and I think the question of motivation making or breaking a Trickster largely comes down to who exactly is defining them. For example, a writer like Lewis Hyde who’s mostly looking at the mythical Trickster gods might say that yeah, dishing out karmic retribution is a big part of what makes a Trickster a Trickster. But since Lori Landay’s examples are mostly from more modern media (apart from good old Scheherazade, who still wasn’t a Trickster GOD) they tend to have less cosmic drive and more personal motivations. However, to achieve their grabs for power and agency, Landay argues that these ladies are still bamboozling the patriarchy and its expectations, which fits them into that “upsetting a system of power” criteria that is important to Trickser-ness, even if their tricks are smaller and more personally motivated. So yes, it’s a line that different analysts draw in different places. For me, I like the idea that even more lowkey (no pun intended) Tricksters count, since it expands the definition beyond the old mythical ones and let’s us consider different, newer characters for the role, which I think is very cool.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying them–thank you for reading and taking the time to comment too!

  5. Pingback: The Monster Mash: February ’19 Roundup | The Afictionado

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