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Alison Horbury investigates the reprisal of the myth of Persephone - a mother-daughter plot of separation and initiation - in post-feminist television cultures where, she argues, it functions as a symptom expressing a complex around the question of sexual difference - what Lacan calls 'sexuation', where this question has been otherwise foreclosed.



Introduction: Why Persephone?

In the last decade of the twentieth century — a moment controversially identified in the West as being the origins of a ‘post’ feminist turn — several common themes came to underpin the narratives of popular television heroines, despite differences in the genre and style of each programme. These narratives begin with a motherless heroine who undergoes a symbolic or real death and rebirth, after which she awakens to her position within some kind of underworld. Often this world is influenced by a male figure of immanent power, whose relation to the heroine is framed as paternalistic or avuncular. The heroine’s physical body occupies the centre of an impasse over epistemology and representation, resulting in a penetration of her body — a real or symbolic rape — by persons or institutions attempting to map and harness it. There is commonly an imperative to recover a missing mother to the heroine’s world because this mother mirrors or twins the heroine: the two must be distinguished to resolve the crisis over the heroine’s body. This becomes the site for an investigation into the heroine’s ‘authentic identity,’ resulting in the discovery of a female genealogical line, including a sister whose narrative echoes the heroine’s. Consequently, this inquiry takes on the form of an origin myth, a searching for traces of primal scenes in her past to decipher her ‘becoming’ as a subject.
Alison Horbury

1. The Myth of Persephone and the Hymn to Demeter

The myth of Persephone survives from at least 2000 BC and has informed art and storytelling in literature, poetry, dance, and theatre throughout the centuries (Foley 1999, 151–69). Though myth formed part of Greek theology, it was a religion with no formal ‘divine scripture’ nor ‘priestly class of interpreters’ and was instead lived through ritual and mythic storytelling (Foley 1999, 84). Linked to a significant ritual in ancient Greece — the Eleusinian mysteries — the Homeric Hymn to Demeter is an example of the way myths are ‘endlessly changed and reimagined for every generation by its artists and poets,’ where each successive generation ‘is left to fill in what we experience as the gaps and to explain the religious significance of the story in the context of his/her knowledge’ (Foley 1999, 84–5). Yet, as the myth appears in a range of cultural and political epochs, its original ‘meaning’ — intended or otherwise — remains contested. This malleability nevertheless makes it, as Hayes notes, a palimpsest, for each time it is retold it reveals ‘vital changes in the relationship between human beings and the natural world, as well as major shifts in the economy of social power over the millennia’ (1994a, 2).
Alison Horbury

2. Persephone in Heroine Television: The Post-feminist Impasse

If the Persephone myth is invoked in debates over feminine identity, then the retelling of her story in heroine television fits with traditional preoccupations of this space, for, as Brunsdon argues, even if not selfconsciously occupied with ‘addressing feminism,’ heroine television concerns itself with ‘addressing the agenda that feminism has made public’ (1997, 34). Yet, with the emergence of ‘post’ feminist ideas in the seminal dramedy Ally McBeal, heroine television begins to express not simply what feminism has made public about women, but ideas about feminism within this public discourse. Ally thus denotes a significant shift in the network of influence between critical feminist discourse, public cultural commentary, and the dramatization of women in media texts — one that produces an impasse in traditional feminist methods of analysing women in media texts. This chapter demonstrates how this shift exposes the limits of feminist cultural criticism applied to representations of women in media when those representations articulate a critique of the feminist ideas upon which feminist cultural criticism operates.
Alison Horbury

3. Persephone as Narrative Symptom: Narrative Transactions in Long-Form Viewership

If the narrative of Persephone in post-feminist heroine television is a symptom that substitutes for the deadlocked debates about the body of the woman in culture, how is it staged for the viewer? I continue with Ally McBeal to illustrate how this Persephone symptom can be read as a form of fantasy — a structure that acts out what has been foreclosed — and ask, what is the relationship, in the consumption practices of fans and longform serial texts, between the textual symptom (Persephone) and the producers and consumers of this symptom? For Peter Brooks, ‘the study of human fiction-making and psychic process are convergent activities, and superimposable forms of analysis’ (1994, 35–6), and I propose that the relationship is, on a cultural level, analogous to the dynamic in the psychoanalytic clinic, where the analysand presents his or her symptom to the analyst for examination and interpretation, just as the presentation of the Persephone myth in heroine television is examined and interpreted by the audience through the negotiated decoding practices of individual viewers. The more successful the animation of the symptom, the more audiences identify with and seek out the narrative, effecting a positive transference, what Brooks calls the narrative ‘transaction’ (1985, 216–37).
Alison Horbury

4. Persephone as Epistemological Impasse: The Real Body of Sydney Bristow and ‘The Woman Here Depicted’

From the pilot episode onwards, Alias’ heroine, Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), finds herself within a Persephone complex rich in similarities to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. As with Korê, Sydney is a young woman alone in the world as her mother, Laura Bristow (Lina Olin), died early in Sydney’s childhood, leaving Sydney to the care of an estranged father, Jack Bristow (Victor Garber). Subsequently, as a young adult Sydney is seduced into an ‘underground’ realm in the form of a secret division of America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) called ‘SD-6’ (‘Section Disparue’ — French for ‘the section that does not exist’). There, a Hades figure, Arvin Sloane (Ron Rifkin) recruits her as a spy with, as it transpires, the questionable consent of her father. Once immersed in this (yet to be revealed) criminal underworld, Sydney goes through several real and symbolic deaths and rebirths and discovers her body bears the physical markers named in the 500 year old Rambaldi prophecy: ‘Mullie Hick Petrata’ — The Chosen One. This discovery requires Sydney recover her dead mother (now believed alive as former KGB spy Irina Derevko) in order to distinguish herself from the physical likeness she shares with her. Sydney is mentally and bodily penetrated in relation to this prophecy in a series of symbolic rapes via scientific experiments performed without her consent. She discovers her mother’s two sisters who each invoke Hekate as Demeter’s helpmate in the search for her lost daughter, for as it turns out, Sydney also has a half-sister in her own image — Nadia Santos (Mia Maestro) — who has, likewise, been recruited into the criminal underworld (without consent) and is also named in the Rambaldi prophecy.
Alison Horbury

5. Persephone as Methodological Impasse: Feminine Jouissance in Veronica’s ‘Two Stories’

As we have seen in previous chapters, feminist discourses are at an impasse over post-feminist sensibilities, specifically over the Real of sexual difference. What the Persephone plot in Veronica Mars amplifies is precisely where this touches on feminine sexuality. Specifically, Veronica Mars shows us where the methodological impasses of feminist cultural criticisms speak of a moral foreclosure towards pleasure, for where the series explores the mystery of its heroine’s sexual initiation, it animates the foreclosure of the Real of the drives in critiques of post-feminist expressions of feminine sexuality. The heroine, 17-year-old Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell), is a witty, intelligent teen-sleuth who works in the family P.I. business ‘Mars Investigations’ after school. The scene of her sexual initiation is, as with Persephone’s in the Hymn, hidden from view as, drugged, Veronica cannot remember her first sexual experience, though believes it to have been rape. In an echo of Suter’s work on the Hymn (2005, 39), however, Veronica’s sleuthing reveals there are literally ‘two stories’ to her initiation: rape by a fellow student and, it is later revealed, consensual sex with an ex-boyfriend. How these two stories are interpreted is, as with the Hymn, shaped by the epistemologies of the era in which they are told.
Alison Horbury

6. Persephone as Historical Impasse: ‘Confrontation and Accommodation’ of the Postfeminist Heroine

In contrast to the stark framing of post-feminist extremes in Veronica Mars, the romantic dramedy of Grey’s Anatomy articulates, Levine argues, ‘a feminist-friendly fiction or fantasy’ that ushers in a ‘new phase in postfeminist culture’ (2013, 140–6; original emphasis) that, I suggest, presents post-feminism in the historical sense, of having moved on to ‘different problems and concerns’ (Gill 2007, 249).1 For while feminism appears to have ‘truly changed’ this world (Levine 2013, 146), it remains historically distanced from heroine Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), in the figure of her mother. Strikingly, however, the themes of Persephone unfold as real psychic symptoms for Meredith, who self-diagnoses her constant malaise as a response to: ‘the mother thing, the father thing, the sister thing [and] the dying and coming back to life thing’ (‘Kung Fu Fighting’ 4.6).
Alison Horbury

7. Conclusion: The Persephone Complex

What is the value of the Persephone myth in post-feminist television for women? Persephone’s resonance in the feminist imaginary provides a strong clue to her function in stories about women, but the particular circumstances of the new context — post-feminist heroine television — presents a unique situation, where questions about feminine sexuation are animated in a space presumed to be ‘beyond’ such ideas. Where heroine television has historically distilled ‘the agenda that feminism has made public’ (Brunsdon 1997, 34), it is now triangulated with critical, popular, and political discourses, such that heroine television begins to ‘make public’ what these discourses think about feminism. A traditional feminist critique that looks for feminist ideas — ‘the current state of feminist thinking’ or the cumulative effect of developments ‘in feminist’s conceptual and theoretical agenda’ (Brooks 1997, 4–7) — in the text finds it absent and in its place, a ‘resurgence in ideas of natural sexual difference’ (Gill 2007, 255). Feminist scholars develop a range of hypotheses regarding why, but few engage with post-feminist revisionism as a legitimate critique of feminism and, consequently, assume where feminism is absent its opposite must be present — patriarchy. This is the post-feminist impasse.
Alison Horbury


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