The Archetype of Female Vengeance

Pretty Poison: The Archetype of Female Vengeance

Yancy Lael
December 5, 2018

383cd761d645b6bdba11aa84eee578c7.jpgPhoto credit: Pinterest

There is a popular myth that female murderers choose poison as their weapon of choice. Why? My theory is because it’s quiet. Clean. Introspective.

It doesn’t require brawn (which many women biologically do not possess, in contrast to their male counterparts). It requires creativity and a little bit of wile.

There’s a seductiveness to poison as well.

Think DC Comics’ Poison Ivy with the lethal but irresistible lips. Or the gleaming, succulent red apple offered to Snow White from the jealous queen. Or Practical Magic’s sexy Gillian Owens mixing belladonna into her violent boyfriend’s liquor each night so they can have all the passion she wants without the angry bruises inspired by his temper. Or the stunningly vengeful Ingrid Magnussen of Janet Fitch’s evocative novel, White Oleander.

It’s an expected medium of violence for women in a culture that demands allure and intrigue from the supposedly gentler sex.

Then there’s the fact that in the old days, poison was often the only way a woman could maintain any sovereignty over her life.

Women knew their way around the dark magic of the plant world because they had to. They might need to abort a pregnancy that threatened their survival (socially, financially, or physically). Or even to sicken — or permanently silence — the man of the house if his will bruised and battered her body, or the bodies of her children.

In medieval times, women would conspicuously hide powdered poisons in rings or necklaces with hidden compartments. As the keepers of the kitchens, they had easy access to whatever went into their husbands’ mouths, and with one little shake and one little stir, they’d have the chance to protect themselves from further violence. And for some, maybe even feel the satisfaction of revenge.

It’s no surprise then, that as time has gone by, our culture has personified this connection between women and poison into an archetypal figure of the beautiful, dangerous siren. Pretty poison. Beautiful. Seductive. But bound to destroy the man they give their attention to.

They pull him in with their raw sexuality, but underneath those batting eyelids, those undulating hips, lies a vengeful wildcat. And you never know when she’s going to strike.

That’s the story, at least.

But who is to blame for the powdered poison whisked so stealthily into the violent husband’s drink? What the Italian call versare alla traditora (the traitor’s way pouring)? Who seduces whom? What’s really underneath that pretty poison?

It’s easy to point the finger. It’s easy for women to say it’s the fault of men because they lead with aggression and possession. It’s easy for men to say it’s the fault of women because we deceived and entranced — the seduction of Eve, bringing Adam to his knees.

The truth is, there is so much more to this archetype than meets the eye. Pretty Poison reflects the imbalance of power between genders and the dark pathways that a woman might follow in order to get her power back. There is so much more to her than the façade she puts on, or even the supposed wildcat that lurks within.

There is even so much more to the man who is raised in a society that teaches him not to partner, but to dominate, not to hold space, but to take it.

One day, we will have to acknowledge that true seduction is a dance between two people, not a manipulation of one party by another. We will have to take responsibility for what intoxicates us and what intoxicants we willingly choose to imbibe. And we will have to learn how to remain in our full power, swelling with, but mindfully containing, all the passion and destruction inherent in the soul of a woman.

Yancy Lael


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