Celluloid myths: The virtuous woman, Part 2 of 4

The Virgin in Prayer by Sassoferrato (1640-50, © National Gallery, London)

The Virgin Mary set an impossible standard for women brought up under the influence of Western mythology. She incorporated two mutually incompatible states of being – a Virgin AND a Mother. And the heroines of Western mythology ever since have had to live up to that. Odysseus slept his way through a rack of goddesses and queens along his journey, but his wife Penelope had to remain chaste at all costs or she would have lost her worth.

The movies have given us many versions of the chaste Diana, huntress of the moon: Lillian Gish, Mary Astor, Grace Kelly, Julie Andrews and, of course, Doris Day. But the ideal of virtue in a woman has changed over the years. The Good Woman has shifted focus from Mrs. Hardy and Mary Poppins to the Warrior Maiden – Nikita and Ripley. Gals who take no more nonsense from men but to prove that, they have taken on the super hero qualities of the boys. But perhaps this isn’t their final reincarnation after all. Perhaps our idea of the Virtuous Woman may yet see another overhaul.

Producers: Dheera Sujan & Michele Ernsting

Broadcast: February 11, 2000