As the head of education for the Rubin Museum, I’m often thinking about our role in the formation of youth identity. Our youth development initiatives focus on providing experiences for teens to learn and examine their own lives utilizing the art and culture of Himalayan Asia as an initial lens, but what happens after they leave the museum is the most exciting. As we work with about 60 teens in after school experiences every year, I’m always surprised with the connections young women in our programs make with powerful female deities. This is not to say that the young men in our programs don’t also have transformative experiences, but for this post I want to discuss what I am seeing in the positive transformation of the identity in young women both in popular culture and at the museum.
I was inspired to start thinking about this topic last week when I read an article in the New York Times about Katniss Everdeen, the main character in the Hunger Games series. Clearly the movie is a success, and I was one of the folks who rushed to see this intriguing story about a young women forced into a battle of 24 youths where only one may survive. My interest in the Hunger Games started last year when I noticed a few of my Education teammates reading the books. When you work in museums, you have to always be on the prowl for what is interesting or new in young adult fiction—It helps to keep programs relevant (As good as Tess of the D’ubervilles is, Hardy’s classic just isn’t as accessible to students today). At the time I didn’t get too crazy about the book series (I was voraciously reading Game of Thrones with the other half of our office), but a few weeks before the movie came out, I needed something to read. Nine days (and many sleepless nights) later I finished all three books in the series. There was just something about Katniss that was so original and compelling that I immediately connected.
In a New York Times article A.O. Scott and Manhola Dargas mention that Katniss is new type of female hero: she is both mother and father, independent and connected, attached and disconnected. Above all else, she is powerful, and completes what she has to do with little superfluous action. In addition Scott contributed that:
“Katniss is carrying the burden of multiple symbolic identities. She’s an athlete, a media celebrity and a warrior as well as a sister, a daughter, a loyal friend and (potential) girlfriend. In genre terms she is a western hero, an action hero, a romantic heroine and a tween idol. She is Natty Bumppo, Diana the chaste huntress of classical myth, and also the synthesis of Harry Potter and Bella Swan—the Boy Who Lived and the Girl Who Must Choose”
Katniss navigates these multiple identities in her horrible circumstances, and it’s never easy for her—or as I am becoming ever more aware, it’s not easy for any young women—for when it comes to issues of gender and equality, the odds are never in their favor.
A few weeks ago I was facilitating a midterm for a class I am co-teaching with Laura Lombard on divine objects in religious and secular spaces. For the midterm, our religious study students needed to pick two works in the gallery to speak about for ten minutes. In my group (entirely comprised of women) two students focused on Durga. What was intriguing to the young women about our amazing sculpture of Durga beheading the buffalo demon Mahisha, was that sculpture presents her as both powerful and serene; she is neither shrew nor seductress. The artist(s) presented Durga as having equal parts power and beauty. For the young women in the group, the conversation centered on Durga’s impressive power and motivational attributes, and that powerful female figures were often not present in Western religious stories or art (we did discuss Joan of Arc, Esther and a few others, but it was a real challenge for the group to name more than three).
The conversation reminded me of two teen projects that students made a few years ago in the RMA Teens program. Two teen artists re-imagined Durga in different ways: One young artist cast herself as Durga, and dawned a costume and trident to pose as Durga in a narrative photo shoot. Another artist utilized a more graphic style of illustration to capture both the power and beauty of Durga.
I can’t help thinking that by concentrating and taking time to create these works, that he student artists spent time contemplating their own conceptions of femininity and power. I won’t go as far as to say that the experiences restructured issues of feminine identity for these young artists, but it definitely made me appreciate that our programs introduce students to a broader understanding of the world and their possible roles in it.
I brought the subject of Katniss and Durga up with Pauline Noyes, who oversees our Teen Programs and she explained:
“Teens find Durga refreshing as an alternative to the reality that both Hindu mythology and media today which upholds stereotypes regarding women’s roles and representations that rarely reflect the voice of real women or girls. Students relate underlying messages about female roles in society as represented in Hindu stories to the impact of stereotypes in media and marketing they are exposed to on a daily basis. They discuss their reaction to the way the women in Hindu illustrated stories are visually represented: semi-clad, as temptresses, and how this might parallel how they see women depicted in the media. Durga/Katniss as the spirit of rebellion mirrors challenging stereotypes in our society. Also, with our collection of mainly heroic or idealized deities such as Durga, our collection is well suited to help youth consider positive alternative ways of knowing and living. Simply seeing the multi-headed and multi-armed deities they get a sense of being more.”
Katniss and Durga share common similarities that make them unconventional role models: Both have fierce iconography (Katniss with her bow and Durga with her 18+ weapons), both take on their tasks in the stead of others willingly (Katniss for Prim, Durga for Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma), and both make unbelievable transformations (Katniss into the Mockinjay, and Durga to Kali). I see Katniss and Durga surpassing gender norms and being incredible influences in the identity formation for both young men and women—I know that both inspire me. They are just two examples of how the arts play an integral role in our lives.
Dargas, M. & Scott A.O. (2012, April 8). A radical female hero from dystopia. The New York Times. p. AR1.