Identity And The Archetypal Myth Of Ophelia
I think about identity a lot. The word itself implies strength. The notion of an ‘assured sense of self’ is, after all, an attractive one.
For all of it’s clearly defined allure, however, I think identity (and identifying) can also make a person vulnerable. I’ve come to see how the confusion, curiosity and subsequent projections of others can affect our view of ourselves. For example, I’ve never felt uncomfortable being me, yet I’ve noticed in others a sense of questioning discomfort, as though on my behalf.
Growing up with skin almost ebony in colour, chunky little thighs, a rounded belly and masses of hair, I was a happy girl, safe in the awareness that I was just another version of human. This train of thought was actively encouraged by the vibrant, intelligent and strikingly beautiful woman I knew as ‘Mother’. Rather conveniently, she also happened to have vibrant, intelligent and strikingly beautiful friends- as attractive on the inside as they were externally, and nothing other in between.
Like my mother, they were artists and despite their beauty, there was no doubt to me that their real beauty lay in what they did with their talents. Their outward appearance had little to do with who they were. To me this was abundantly clear. Safe to say I was keen to be just like my mother and her friends, who never bothered to make themselves any different for the sake of fitting in. Under their influence I followed suit so neither would I.
This nascent confidence meant I could tackle the topic of identity, right?
Cut to a recent photo shoot for Belladonna magazine based on the story of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, immortalised in Sir John Everett Millais’ iconic painting hung at Tate Britain.
Truth is, I was caught off guard when a friend posed an interesting question: if I was shooting an editorial about identity and being comfortable in my own skin, why did I feel the need to wear ramrod straight, European-style hair extensions? This gave me pause and raised a multitude of questions on the politics of Afro (and not-so-Afro) hair.
I’d justified the extensions as being necessary: the point was to emulate the willowy hair of Ophelia in a pool of ill-fated, murky water. But when that question came up I became conflicted. Was the hair thing a microcosm of a bigger problem?
The whole editorial was based on Ophelia. Her archetype, her delicate beauty replicated over and over in art and culture, rooting itself deeply into many a female subconscious. Google her and note how each rendition of this fictional figure resembles the one before her: pallid skin (insinuating both death and fairness), a hauntingly vulnerable disposition, golden-red hair floating eerily in a pool of marsh water.
Considering these paintings were created over a century ago (and inspired by a play that is now 400 years old), it is not surprising the heroine would so predictably fall into the tropes of an idealised, feminine beauty of that time: white, thin, and delicate-as fragile in image as she was depicted in character, one who was driven to suicide when torn between the love of her father, and her lover Hamlet.
Women of colour are completely absent from this entire context and narrative, it is not our story. Although, given the description I’ve just relayed, why would we want to be? I’d rather not be ‘elevated’ to the same cultural positioning as Caucasian women only to be objectified by a narrative as limiting as that portraying a winsome victim. Perhaps this outdated perspective is just that. As we establish within ourselves, our own archetypes, may we celebrate the fact that doors are now being nudged open for all women, in all skintones.
Ophelia’s appeal was of her time and place, and whether you love the skill of the Shakespearean tale, or the stunning beauty of Millais’ pre-Raphaelite painting, she’s an archetypal myth that’s in need of an update in order to inspire any further than masterful prose or brush alone.
I’m a bi-cultural woman with a penchant for dusty books, coffee and obsessive Instagramming. I am pro-active, independent, curious, and meticulous about what I share with the world. Ophelia’s raison d’être was created many centuries ago in a man’s mind, while mine is a gift I am carving out for myself in a new world.
Originally published on ThandieKay.com.