Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 9: The Maiden’s Shadow Archetypes


In so many ways, we view life as a story. Within the lifelong journey of this story, the first challenge is that of becoming an autonomous individual—an independent and responsible adult. However obvious that may be, the journey itself cannot be taken for granted. Indeed, although we may all grow up chronologically, the struggle to truly leave childhood behind is one that is often prolonged and even aborted for a great many of us.

Within the model of the six archetypal character arcs, this first initiatory journey is represented by the Maiden. She faces external antagonists, metaphorically (and often literally) represented by the Too-Good Mother, the Naive Father, and the Predator-Groom who would devour her youth and innocence. But she also faces internal danger from the shadowy counter-archetypes that, out of fear and egoism, would prevent her from embracing a new perspective and completing her journey.

For the Maiden, these shadow archetypes are represented by the Damsel and the Vixen. The Damsel represents the passive polarity within the Maiden’s shadow, the Vixen the aggressive polarity.

Before we dig into these important archetypes, I will say a quick word about both of their titles, since both archetypes are currently fraught with controversy in modern portrayals.

The Damsel, of course, represents the much despised damsel in distress—usually objectified within the Hero’s Journey (although not without cause, as we discussed in the Hero’s post, since rescuing the Damsel—as played by any character—is an important moment within the Hero Arc, especially since the Damsel can be seen to represent not just an individual character, but a part of the Hero’s own psyche—as do all characters within any particular journey).

Recognizing how the Damsel has often been reduced to a stereotype is important, but it is also important not to discredit the psychological reality of the archetype itself. In The Heroine’s Journey (which mostly speaks to the Queen Arc), paranormal romance author Gail Carringer points out:

The damsel trope is a profoundly powerful representation of weakness. We authors must be wary of who appears weak or victimized in our books, as the message this sends can detrimentally impact an audience’s sense of self-worth.

An equally troublesome archetype/stereotype in today’s media is what I have (after long deliberation) chosen to term the Vixen. Kim Hudson, author of The Virgin’s Promise, and others use the name Whore for this archetype, but to me this seems a bit much for such a young archetype. Similar to the Damsel, the Whore is a viable archetype—and yet it has been used so often to stereotype female sexuality that it requires the same caution as Carringer gives the Damsel.

It is important to recognize that the comparatively powerless Maiden has fewer resources at her disposal when in her aggressive shadow archetype than do any of the successive archetypes. Indeed, instead of “aggressively” controlling others as she would be able to do in the aggressive forms of later arcs (such as the King/Tyrant), she is only able to use what skills her childhood has so far given her. This often takes the form less of actual aggression with others and more of attempts at manipulation. Inevitably, this shadow archetype is one of the most tragic, since it represents a vulnerable character who is ultimately selling off far more of herself than she is able to get in return from others.

That said, I have chosen not to use the term Whore (although you’ll see it in some of the sources I quote), in case it might be a stumbling block, and have instead chosen the (admittedly also not entirely problem-free) title of Vixen.

Once again with our series-wide reminder: The arcs and their related archetypes are alternately characterized as feminine and masculine. This is primarily indicating the ebb and flow between integration and individuation, among other qualities. Together all six primary life arcs create a progression that can be found in any human life (provided we complete our early arcs in order to reach the later arcs with a proper foundation). In short, although I will use feminine pronouns in relation to the feminine arcs and masculine pronouns in relation to the masculine arcs, archetypal representations within these journeys can be of any gender.

The Damsel: A Passive Refusal to Initiate Into Adulthood

Like all the passive archetypes, the Damsel carries a frozen shard of fear in her heart. As the youngest of the negative archetypes, her fear is largely unformed and unnamed. There is a deep innocence to it. She has depended on others all her life to take care of her, and (unlike the Vixen) she has probably been comparatively lucky in that there were people to do so.

But via her very innocent cared-for-ness, she has never been challenged to rise up. Even if the fear is implicit and unnamed, she is afraid of having to fend for herself—because not only has she never done it, she has also probably been discouraged from doing so. In Sacred Contracts, Caroline Myss notes:

The shadow side of this archetype mistakenly teaches old patriarchal views that women are weak and teaches them to be helpless and in need of protection. It leads a woman to expect to have someone else who will fight her battles for her while she remains devoted and physically attractive and concealed in a castle.

Like Rapunzel in Tangled, the Damsel has been told “Mother Knows Best” and “kept safe” through fearsome stories of the wicked adult world.

But as Clarissa Pinkola Estés points out in Women Who Run With the Wolves (which is basically a guide to overcoming the Damsel):

…the reward for being nice in oppressive circumstances is to be mistreated more.

Or as Zora Neale Hurston says in one of my all-time favorite quotes:

If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.

Most of the passive archetypes represent a sort of faux “goodness”—or at least an attempt on the character’s part to avoid being bad. But this avoidance is not active; it is passive. Because it is rooted in fear, it ultimately leads the character to avoid doing the wrong thing by simply… doing nothing. Estés says:

An incompletely initiated woman in this depleted state erroneously thinks she is deriving more spiritual credit by staying than she thinks she will gain by going. Others are caught up in, as they say in Mexico, dar a algo un tirón fuerte, always tugging at the sleeve of the Virgin, meaning they are working hard and ever harder to prove that they are acceptable, that they are good people.

The Damsel is often represented by another familiar archetype—that of the Good Girl, or sometimes Daddy’s Little Girl. Estés again:

It is interesting to note that daughters who have naive fathers often take far longer to awaken…. It can be said that the father, who symbolizes the function of the psyche that is supposed to guide us in the outer world, is, in fact [in this representation], very ignorant about how the outer world and the inner world work in tandem. When the fathering function of the psyche fails to have knowing about issues of soul, we are easily betrayed.

In the beginning, while still a Child, the Damsel’s apparent goodness may seem like maturity. She may be praised for being too “wise” and “mature” to make the seemingly reckless mistakes of the Maiden—which she herself confuses with the unhealthy aggression of the Vixen.

But as time goes on, and life demands she grow up whether she’s ready or not, her true lack of maturity begins to show through. She is not prepared to take care of herself. She lacks both the wisdom and the experience—and, contrary to what she always believed, there will come a day when no one rides in to save her. At the moment when she is truly confronted with the challenges of autonomy, her supposed maturity will leave her defenseless.

The Damsel’s Potential Arcs: Positive and Negative

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Within most Maiden Arcs, the protagonist will almost always start out in a very Damsel-like space. This means that, inherent within the Damsel, is all of the Maiden’s potential. Even if she gets stuck in the Damsel space far beyond what would be chronologically preferable, she is like a seed in the winter ground—all the necessary energy for transformation and growth is still latent within her. Particularly since the Child/Damsel marks the beginning of the entire cycle of life arcs, there resides within her great potential for a Positive-Change Arc.

Equally, however, there is the potential for a Negative-Change Arc. If she stays too long a Damsel, she may devolve into her aggressive polarity—the Vixen. But she may also simply regress deeper into a determinedly “innocent” and “helpless” state, refusing to face life head on and instead relying on Blanche DuBois’s “kindness of strangers” to get through life. But as with Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, this determined refusal to grow will only nudge her down the line of passive, stunted archetypes as she grows older.

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes:

The literature of psychoanalysis abounds in examples of … desperate fixations. What they represent is an impotence to put off the infantile ego, with its sphere of emotional relationships and ideals. One is bound in by the walls of childhood; the father and mother stand as threshold guardians, and the timorous soul, fearful of some punishment, fails to make the passage through the door and come to birth in the world without.

The Vixen: A Manipulative/Aggressive Attempt to Avoid the Initiation Into Adulthood

Like all the aggressive polarities, the Vixen possesses at least a little more consciousness than the Damsel. She sees enough to recognize her antagonists, to resent restraint upon her existence, and to take advantage of what power is immediately available.

Unlike the Damsel, her courage extends beyond “doing nothing out of fear of doing the wrong thing.” But this is not to say that she, too, isn’t terrified of growing up and totally claiming her own power—along with its responsibility. What courage she has is not enough to let her brave the soul-changing difficulties of a true Maiden Arc—which would end with her individuating from her authority figures. The result is that, despite whatever power she believes she wields through her rebellion and manipulation, she is just as helpless as the Damsel. Or as Kim Hudson puts it in The Virgin’s Promise:

The Whore believes she must appease or please people and is thereby a victim.

Just as the Damsel is often represented as the Good Girl, the Vixen is inevitably the Bad Girl. She’s mouthy and defiant in the face of authority—but only to a point. Her seeming power and independence, in comparison to the Damsel (and even the Maiden in the beginning), is a facade. As soon as anyone stronger leans on her, she collapses—sometimes out of fear, but usually simply because she isn’t strong enough to fight back.

And so she resorts to sneaky and manipulative methods for getting what she wants. She “sells” herself by devaluing her worthiness and right to mature into a full-fledged Maiden Arc. Instead, she hides behind the seeming power of her rage. Estés observes:

When a woman has trouble letting go of anger or rage, it’s often because she’s using rage to empower herself.

The Vixen is in a hard place. She refuses to fully accept the authority of those who govern her world (and who probably do protect and provide for her in at least some measure), but she also finds herself unable to entirely accept responsibility for herself by fully claiming her personal sovereignty. In The Wounded Woman, Linda Schierse Leonard points out:

…those daughters who have reacted against the too authoritarian father are likely to have problems accepting their own authority.

The Vixen’s Potential Arcs: Positive and Negative

The Vixen offers the inherent potential for a dramatic Positive-Change Arc. Like all the shadow archetypes, she too will probably show her face to at least some degree in any Maiden Arc.

Caroline Myss discusses what she calls the Prostitute as one of four “Archetypes of Survival” within everyone (along with the Child, the Victim, and the Saboteur). She outlines the surprising power of this archetype and the deep potential for growth within it:

The Prostitute archetype engages lessons in integrity and the sale or negotiation of one’s integrity or spirit due to fears of physical and financial survival or for financial gain. This archetype activates the aspects of the unconscious that are related to seduction and control, whereby you are as capable of buying a controlling interest in another person as you are in selling your own power. Prostitution should also be understood as the selling of your talents, ideas, and any other expression of the self—or the selling-out of them. This archetype is universal and its core learning relates to the need to birth and refine self-esteem and self-respect.

Of course, the Vixen also holds the potential for stagnation and even deeper devolution into the shadow archetypes. Instead of using her inherent strength to reorient herself into a powerful Maiden Arc, she might instead follow a tragic Negative Arc in which she becomes even more victimized by the depredations and neglect of her authority figures. One more quote from Estés:

Women who try to make their deeper feelings invisible are deadening themselves. The light goes out. It is a painful form of suspended animation.

Or the Vixen might summon the strength to grow—not into the following positive archetype of the Hero, but rather into the subsequent aggressive counter-archetype of the Bully (to be discussed next week). Leonard speaks of this in an interesting way:

…too often in order to break out of the puella [eternal girl] dependency, they imitate the masculine model and so perpetuate the devaluation of the feminine.

Key Points of the Maiden’s Shadow Archetypes

For easy reference and comparison, I will be sharing some scannable summations of each arc’s key points:

Passive Shadow Archetype: Damsel is Submissive (to protect from consequences of Dependence)

Aggressive Shadow Archetype: Vixen is Deceptive (aggressive use of Dependence)

Positive Maiden Arc: Innocent to Individual (moves from Protected World to Real World)

Maiden’s Story: An Initiation.

Maiden’s Symbolic Setting: Home

Maidens Lie vs. Truth: Submission vs. Sovereignty.

“Submission to authority figures is necessary for survival.” versus “Personal sovereignty is necessary for growth and survival.

Maidens Initial Motto: “We, the clan.”

Maiden’s Archetypal Antagonist: Authority/Predator

Maidens Relationship to Own Negative Shadow Archetypes:

Either Damsel finally owns her Potential by embracing her Strength.

Or Vixen learns to wield her true Potential with true Strength.

Examples of the Damsel and Vixen Archetypes

Examples of the Damsel and Vixen archetypes include the following. Click on the links for structural analyses.

Damsel

  • Paula Alquist in Gaslight
  • Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca
  • Neil Perry in Dead Poets Society
  • Beth in Little Women
  • Celie Johnson in The Color Purple
  • Dora Copperfield in David Copperfield
  • Rapunzel in Tangled

Vixen

  • Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda
  • Pip in Great Expectations
  • Charlotte Flax in Mermaids
  • Cathy Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights
  • Antonio Salieri in Amadeus (among other aggressive counter-archetypes)
  • Lydia Bennet in Pride & Prejudice
  • Abigail in The Favourite

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will study the shadow archetypes of the Hero: the Coward and the Bully.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any further examples of stories that feature either the Damsel or the Vixen? Tell me in the comments!

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