Blues Women and Female Myth

Mischievous. Powerful. Confident. In control. These are just some of the words in phrases we used today in class to describe this dynamic 1936 photograph of Bessie Smith. About a week ago, a friend of mine sent me this fascinating article about female “trickster” archetypes in literature and pop culture that immediately came to mind during our discussion. Near the beginning, Maria Tartar’s rumination quotes Simone de Beauvoir’s assessment of women in popular and folk culture: “In song and story the young man is seen departing adventurously in search of a woman; he slays the dragons and giants; she is locked in a tower, a palace, a garden, a cave, she is chained to a rock, a captive, sound asleep: she waits.” From there, Tartar recounts a counter-narrative of powerful, smart,defiant female characters, sketching out the popular culture landscape where Lisbeth Sanders brutally tortures men who have assaulted her and Buffy Summers keeps up a stream of witty commentary while staking vampires. [1] Tartar’s tricksters, like many male tricksters of folk legend like Coyote, Loki, Hermes, and Anansi, are not cast negatively, but as powerful beings able to beat the odds. Though they existed far from the world of folk legend and fairytale, female blues singers like Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey certainly fit Tartar’s definition of the defiant, brilliant female “trickster” that stands in direct counterpoint to de Beauvoir’s helpless Sleeping Beauty.

The parallels between the Tartar’s female trickster and Davis’ blues women are numerous. In both cases, the women possess “arsenals of verbal weapons” [2] (in Davis’ case, male-penned blues lyrics heaped with irony and asides by their female performers, in Tartar’s, stories and spycraft of women as varied as Scheherazade of One Thousand and One Nights and Carrie Mathison of the contemporary television drama Homeland). In both cases, the women are “outsider[s]… belittled and misconstrued by the dominant culture that has been incapable of deciphering [their] art.” [3] Most importantly, in both cases the women wrest agency and power from dominant cultures that seek to make them silent and sexless.

After reading Angela Davis’ Blues Legacies and Black Feminism and discussing these amazing blues women in class today, I find myself disappointed in Tartar’s article, though. Aside from Scheherazade, Tartar presents a female trickster who is universally white, and who even benefits from the mask of innocence that her whiteness provides her (a loaded issue all on its own that deserves its own blog post). Though it is incredibly important to examine the blues women of Davis’ work as part of a specifically African-American, working class, feminist consciousness, I also see them as part of a larger narrative of female defiance of expected roles – precisely the sort of narrative that Tartar is sketching out here. Tartar’s article ends on a somewhat weak note when she declares, “These days, the trickiest of them all may be Lady Gaga.” [4] I can’t help but wonder: what about the female performers who came before? What about the blues women and their cultural descendents? They deserve to be part of this larger feminist narrative as well.

[1] Maria Tartar, “Sleeping Beauties vs. Gonzo Girls,” The New Yorker Online, 8 March 2013. (

[2] Tartar, “ Sleeping Beauties vs. Gonzo Girls.”

[3] Angela Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 125.

[4] Tartar, “ Sleeping Beauties vs. Gonzo Girls.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s