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Damsel and Ani Difranco: Freeing Feminine Energy

Updated: Mar 18

I am a great lover of quality film. Imagery, sound, words, facial expressions, themes – so much is possible in such a short amount of time. Every once in a while, I watch a scene in a film or a film as a whole and I feel an alignment within me. Something clicks and I think, “They got that exactly right!” I recently had this feeling when I watched the 2024 film, Damsel, which is now


available on Netflix. It stars Millie Bobby Brown and Angela Bassett. Millie Bobby Brown plays the role of Elodie – a courageous, practical maiden from a dying kingdom. Angela Bassett plays Elodie’s step mother, who defies the stereotype in more ways than one. She is wise, compassionate, intuitive, strong, a truth-speaker, and has the best interest of her step-daughters as first priority. Elodie is resourceful, hard-working, and devoted. These qualities don’t save her from the trap set by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that awaits her on the heroine’s journey.

 

Elodie is wary of the deal her father made that promised a marriage to a prince in exchange for gold. She feels divided between following her instincts as a woman and doing what her family and people expect, and seemingly need. She journeys with her family to the kingdom in which she will marry, encouraged to make a good impression and be grateful for the opportunity to live royally. Everyone around her wants to believe the lie that is foreshadowed when ominous dragon heads appears in the mists near the kingdom. Stepmother instructs her to follow the rules, behave as though she is royal and belongs there in the kingdom of domination. She follows the example of those around her; watching for cues of how to proceed.

 

I know about that trap. The one that tells you if you just go along with what everyone wants, what makes everyone comfortable, you will be rewarded. If you look pretty and act sweet and overlook that gnawing feeling in the solar plexus screaming at you to run, all will be well. If you play along and uphold values you don’t actually resonate with; if you acquiesce and go against what you know to be true; if you agree to the benefits of the surface dramatizations and separate from the depths of feminine wisdom – you will be adored, appreciated, and kept.

 

Elodie is so worried that SHE will be wrong in some way, that she will “mess up,” say the wrong thing, move the wrong way, offend them, and lose what is promised to family and homeland if she plays along. It is the ultimate set up. The performed superiority of the royals makes Elodie feel less-than, nervous, self-conscious, and careful about how she treats them. Her focus is on following their lead to be sure she does not upset anyone. She even thinks she is free when she convinces the prince to ride horses and enjoy the day. She believes there is room for her to be herself, even if she has to sacrifice some of herself.


Elodie is told she is helping her people and her homeland by leaving. In other words, she is lured away from the things that give her a solid place to stand – her connection to home, the earth, the place where she was loved by her mother, the place in which she has community. These realities that sustain her are replaced by the surface level wealth of things, appearances, titles, riches – all cleverly hiding a legacy of treachery. Meanwhile, she is actually carrying the projection of a centuries old lie that reduces her existence to a transaction that shall keep the shadow of a kingdom hidden.


I remember when I shaved my head the first time. I was beginning a new life after facing a near death experience. I hadn’t realized how much of my identity as a woman had been held by my hair, and how others would react to me differently when I shaved it off. This was about the time a friend of mine with whom I worked at a vegetarian restaurant in Royal Oak, Michigan introduced me to Ani Difranco. It was perfect timing. It was one of the first initiations into my own depths, and to expressions of womanhood that did not fit the white supremacist capitalistic patriarchal mold.


 

I am not a pretty girl

That is not what I do

I ain't no damsel in distress

And I don't need to be rescued

So put me down, punk

Wouldn't you prefer a maiden fair?

Isn't there a kitten stuck up a tree somewhere?

 

I am not an angry girl

But it seems like I've got everyone fooled

Every time I say something they find hard to hear

They chalk it up to my anger

And never to their own fear

Imagine you're a girl

Just trying to finally come clean

Knowing full well they'd prefer you were dirty

And smiling

And I am sorry

But I am not a maiden fair

And I am not a kitten stuck up a tree somewhere

 

What if there are no damsels in distress?

What if I knew that and I called your bluff?

Don't you think every kitten figures out how to get down,

Whether or not you ever show up?

I am not a pretty girl

I don't really want to be a pretty girl

No, I want to be more than a pretty girl.

 

~Ani Difranco, Not a Pretty Girl


 


 

At first, Ani’s music made me uncomfortable. She was raw, emotional, courageous, vulnerable, taboo-breaking, and funny in her music. Her unexpected syncopated vocal lines kept me emotionally invested because even when I knew the song I felt like I didn’t know what was coming next. I went to see her live several times. Each time changed me in a different way. She gave permission to me and all women to just say what we meant, dress how we wanted to, and stop living to please. No wonder it made me uncomfortable at first. I was just starting to understand that my life and my body belonged to me and no one else. Ani Difranco was a version of womanhood I had not been exposed to while growing up in a working-class white family just outside of Detroit. I thought I had to be perfect in order to prove my worth. I didn’t know that it wasn’t humanly possible, so when I couldn’t be perfect, I tried harder. When that didn’t work, I just pretended I was perfect by projecting an image. My shadow grew in power and became lethal to me. By the time I was 16, I had a secret life and an eating disorder. By the time I was 21, I was confused about why starving and contorting myself to secure love and relationships wasn’t working. I was sure I was doing something wrong – or that I was something wrong. Of course, I couldn’t see the reason was that I wasn’t living my own life – I wasn’t me yet.

 

The golden thread of me was in there, always, and shone through recognizably in my endless creativity and passion for life that kept me striving. I was growing despite feeling lost. At the same time, I was covered by the shame of abandonment, the weight of perfectionism, the internal chaos of process addictions. I was meant to experience it all. I am not complaining. I was born to have an intense life of growth, joy, deep feeling, and transformation – and I have and continue to do so. Ani Difranco’s music helped me give up the conditioned requirement of being a “pretty girl” in exchange for being a woman awake to the Living Universe, embodied, voice intact, connected to the earth and my soul. She connected me to something greater – a lineage of women who had broken free in some way. Ani was just the beginning of the journey, though. I still had decades of fighting and transforming to come.



 

People talk about my image

Like I come in two dimensions

Like lipstick is a sign

of my declining mind

Like what I happen to be wearing

The day that someone takes a picture

Is my new statement for all womankind

 

~Ani Difranco, Little Plastic Castle

 

 

Damsel is an archetypal journey. It is a story that comes to life in its symbolism. Symbols are the connecting piece between our human psyche and the archetypal realm. Stories like Damsel provide correspondence potential. Through the symbols in the film, we can reach the archetypes and transcend the cultural complexes and the personal shadow. The archetypes, through symbols, grant us the possibility of transformation.

 

Working with such tales in therapeutic work can be helpful to give a meaningful context to life journeys that are frustrating and confusing. When we dissect an archetypal story, it comes to life in a different way. For example, we can see the story arch as a whole, engage it as reflective of a story arch in our own lives, and then get more specific with it. I often say to clients during this process, “tell me where you are in the story.” The story then comes to life metaphorically to give the appropriate amount of charge to what a client is experiencing. Feel the difference between saying “I am depressed. I am struggling to find motivation to go to work.” and, “I found a safe place in the cave. I am curled up on the floor, unsure of my next move.” In the second statement, we can relate to an archetypal figure, Elodie. When she was on the floor, curled up and unsure of her next move, her burns were being healed by magical glow worms. She awakened to find she was stronger, and then found a map scratched into the wall by other women who also worked to escape the trap. The story is alive, with symbolic “ways out” of our situation and inspiration to get up and find the map!

 

The systems of oppression seek to dull our experience of life to the point that we don’t realize it is happening until years have passed. The greatest goal of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is to steal our lives while we are distracted. Our struggles as a result of trauma do the same thing – trauma effects are internalized oppressive dynamics. That is why when we see a character in a film sweating, terrified, leaping across a chasm, barely stopping herself from falling by plunging her knife into the cliff – we can say, “I know that feeling.” That is the beautiful thing about archetypal correspondence. Our deepest internal experience feels matched in a way our usual life content in society doesn’t provide.

 

When I wrote above, “I know that trap,” I didn’t mean literally that I know what it is like to be tricked into thinking I was marrying a prince and then thrown down a chasm as a sacrifice to a dragon. Rather, I know the pain of believing the lies my parents wanted so badly to believe were true. I understand thinking that wearing the dress and saying the rehearsed words of those who were thrown before would somehow usher me into a place where life was how it was supposed to be. I can relate to feeling alone at the bottom of the pit in the aftermath of a fall into a fantasy I thought was real but was actually dangerous. I know the untethered, empty feeling of being disconnected from the untamed feminine energies. In my early twenties, Ani Difranco’s boldness was a bridge to that untamed, archetypal feminine power I needed.

 

When Elodie faces the dragon in the caverns, she reacts with screaming, running, hiding. Her nervous system is responding to survive. Anytime she has a moment to breathe, she begins thinking, trying to make sense of what is happening. At one point, she says out loud, “I am the sacrifice? I am the sacrifice!” This is the moment she realizes the lie. She grasps who she is to the people who adorned her with riches is nothing more than food for a dragon to help them hold onto privilege and status. She also says to herself, “Mother would want me to fight.” I love this line because while her mother is not there physically, Elodie can connect to her own worth and know that she is worth fighting for because she is not here by accident. She is not disposable. This idea of the mother’s love is archetypal and shows up in many fairy tales. In Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave, the mother’s love takes the form of a magical, helpful doll that Vasilisa keeps with her. With its help, she is able to do the impossible and escape Baba Yaga’s hut with the light in hand. Elodie realizes her situation is dire, and sees evidence of the young women who have died in that cavern. She knows the stakes and must accept her situation in reality. She holds wedding ring, which symbolizes her past self who was duped and agreed to be possessed by the systems of domination, to play the game and sacrifice herself. She drops it into the abyss, committed to herself now - awake.



 

I’m gonna do my best swan dive

Into shark-infested waters

I’m gonna pull out my tampon

and start smashing around

Cuz I don’t care

If they eat me alive

I’ve got better things to do

than survive

 

~ Ani Difranco, Swan Dive

 

The film, seen through the lens that includes white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, reflects reality. Women are both explicitly and unconsciously conditioned to uphold white supremacist capitalist patriarchy in myriad of ways. We get more attention when we are pleasant for others. Our appearance is overly focused on. We are conditioned to please. Sam Beam of Iron and Wine pokes at this fact of patriarchal conditioning with the lyric, "My lady, like a teacup on the counter, frail, pleasing everyone.” This version of womanhood in the patriarchy is represented in Floria, Elodie’s sister, who doesn’t ever doubt the fantasy being fed to all of them, envies her sister, and dismisses her stepmother’s warnings. In addition, the royal family is clearly led by a white woman, played by Robin Wright. She acts as a daughter of the patriarchy, disconnected from the feminine, committed to upholding the systems of oppression at all costs. This is symbolic of the ways in which white women perpetuate systems of oppression whenever we are not actively working to do something else. In other words, if we are not working to actively dismantle the patterns of domination in ourselves and our relationships, we are actively perpetuating systems of domination. This is because the download functions on its own in the psyche, automatically run by the cultural complexes. The queen in the story is obsessed with control and upholding the lies. Her own connection to the feminine energies is severed. She is a shell of a woman acting and speaking for systems that never valued her.

 

We can look into our culture’s imagination through the works of art produced and see clues for how we are doing at evolving and changing as a whole. Damsel introduces elements that break the usual formula given to us by the cultural complexes. The father sold his own daughter for gold and to save his kingdom – which is not so far off the mark from the patriarchal cultural complex. However, he does come back in search of her, admits he was wrong, attempts to save her, sacrifices his own life, and begs for her forgiveness. That is new. A patriarch taking accountability? We all wish it had been earlier and had saved his daughter her perilous journey, but it is different than the usual, clueless, pompous, stubborn patriarchal energy that rules the royal family in this film. This piece of the film shows us that we are beginning the process of awakening to masculine energies outside of the patriarchal capitalistic white supremacist box. Humility, honor, and truth are qualities that masculine energies can wield when in service of authenticity.

 

The character of the step mother is evolutionary. She brilliantly opens up feminine connection beyond blood as an important, valuable resource. At first, she is excited for Elodie, and attempts to help her be ready to fit in and be accepted. She quickly learns through her own experience with the queen that things are not as they seem. She trusts herself and warns Elodie. Even when her warnings are ignored, she still trusts, influences her husband’s decision to go back for her, and even though she is injured, journeys on her own to find her stepdaughter. Elodie’s mother had died. The step mother trusted she was there for a reason, and rose to the occasion, standing strong with her step daughters through it all. She is the character who has the outside perspective. She is in the situation, but also is a bit removed, so she can touch and listen to her intuition when it speaks. She is the truth which cannot be harmed by the dominating forces. She is there after the patriarch finds humility and falls. She can't save Elodie, but she can believe in her, stand in the truth they both need to survive.

 

Elodie’s relationship with the dragon is every woman’s relationship with the untamed feminine energies that have been blatantly disrespected for centuries in our world, in our families, and in ourselves. On a larger scale, the earth itself lives this conflict due to the constant and voracious appetite of systems of domination. The disconnection and struggle to reconnect to feminine energies applies to the whole; all of us alive at this time of great upheaval and potential are in dire need of finding and harnessing the power of the dragon. The people who gathered to watch Elodie be sacrificed were wearing masks. This signifies what Jung called “participation mystique” – or group think. The individual disappears into the cultural complex and the power of the person is dissolved, even in the face of treachery. They pretend the threat is the dragon, but the dragon only does what she does because they murdered her young daughters – her legacy was not allowed to move forward in time. She was frozen as the villain in a story she did not write. In actuality, she is the ingredient needed to burn away the false version of living “royally” in privilege and entitlement.



 

For every lie I unlearn

I learn something new

I sing sometimes for the war that I fight

'cause every tool is a weapon -

If you hold it right


~Ani Difranco, My I.Q.

 

 

Because it is required, encouraged, demanded by the culture in which we live, we go through the rituals that unknowingly or knowingly hand us over to “men” (meaning actual people functioning in the mindset of domination in many cases, but also institutions, government, health care businesses, the fashion industry, the diet industry, etc.) who either purposefully or unconsciously serve the systems of oppression. We are steeped in these unconscious downloads that push a value system based on domination, competition, disrespect, and dehumanization. Maidenhood, instead of being the archetypally informed period of initiation into self-love and joyful embodiment, becomes a time when young women are seen as a commodity to be possessed and used for whatever the systems of domination see fit. Just as Elodie felt her new husband release her body and fling her into the chasm, women have been ushered and initiated into the self-harming ways of life, perspectives, beliefs, and expectations that go along with the systems of oppression. The ultimate trick comes when awakening women cry out in pain from the way these things hurt them and are blamed for making everyone uncomfortable by speaking the truth.    

 

One of my favorite aspects of Ani Difranco’s music is her truth-speaking in vulnerability. She shows her messiness in her lyrics and vocal intonations. She invites listeners to hear the whole of her – the power, boldness, courageousness right alongside the confusion, fear, mistakes, and struggle to trust. She tells us to keep striving, grow and pay attention to what is happening in the world, and also remember we are human and we are here to awaken, and that isn’t easy in the face of oppression and domination as cultural norms in current society. The feminine energies are wild and seem dangerous because they have been repressed. Finding balance with them is a process. It has taken years for me to embrace the feminine energies and make them a part of my everyday life. Singing along to Ani and other artists, writing my own songs and chants, daily practices, working through resistance, intentional replacement of conditioning…all are helpful in transforming my relationship with my body and the Earth itself, as well as with others. The journey continues.


 

I have got something to prove,

as long as I need improvement

and you know that every time I move,

I make a woman’s movement

First you decide what you gotta do

then you go out and do it

and maybe the most that we can do

is just to see each other through it

 

~Ani Difranco, Hour Follows Hour

 

Elodie gets burned. She is exhausted. She doesn’t know the outcome. Yet, women who came before her left clues, much like music artists leave us lyrics. Victoria, one of the women who fell into the same trap as Elodie, whispered to her in her sleep, “It’s a lie!” So, Elodie knew that the parallel journey to finding her way out of captivity was finding the truth. Victoria means victorious. Even though Victoria didn’t make it out of the cave – she had discovered the truth, which is perhaps most important. Elodie can take the truth and live it forward. This is what gives her the strength to return to the cave even after she escapes. Why? Two reasons: to get her sister and to tell the dragon the truth.

 

Feminine energies are about connection, relationship, community. We can’t have these things without being willing to hear and speak the truth in reality. After a period of rest protected by the earth,  Elodie goes back in to face the dragon. She is going back in on purpose after escaping, this time armed with confidence and the intention to speak the truth and connect, without being engulfed by the rage. She is stripped of the adornments of the lie. Elodie now understands that rage, so she does not fear it as much. She has experienced her version of it, and she has seen the bones of all the women who have been in her exact position. She can explain to the dragon because now she sees the rage of the fire as the feminine wrath from being wronged by oppression and domination. She can say to the dragon, “I’m angry too. We’ve both been lied to.”

 

It isn’t easy for Elodie to get the dragon to listen. She has to fight her for a while, defensively, while trying to get the dragon to hear her. This piece of the story is important. When we are conditioned by the systems of oppression, we are separated from our ability to trust our instincts. We see differently, hear differently – things are distorted. It takes time, effort, and reminders of the truth to begin to hear and see clearly again. At one point in the fight, Elodie injures the dragon’s eye, which interferes with the dragon’s accuracy. Elodie invites the dragon’s fire to her, but dives out of the way, and the fire ricochets and burns the dragon. The dragon falls and believes Elodie will do what all the humans she has encountered have done – take victory with murder. She goads Elodie, saying, “Finish it.” Elodie reaches deeper than the momentary anger and fear she is feeling and remembers the truth amidst the wreckage of the lies. She simply states, “No. I’m done doing what I’m told.”


This profound moment asks the question we are all living in today: How do we stop fighting each other and come together to fight the true enemy?  Elodie gathers the healing forces and instead brings the dragon back to health. In this act she sends a message: We were both lied to and hurt beyond comprehension. We both need to heal. And we need each other to truly break free from this cycle.

 

This scene could be seen as a metaphor for a woman healing her relationship with her body, learning again to trust her instinctive signals as well as her body learning to trust her to feed it, care for it, and love it. It can also be seen as humanity healing our relationship with the feminine energies; embracing connection, relationship and community to finally stand in the face of divisive systems of domination and oppression. Just as Elodie’s younger sister watches the battle, which breaks her naivete and allows her to be reoriented to the truth, younger generations are watching our battle to reclaim the feminine energies. The dragon is protective, nurturing to its young, connected to the earth. She is also a fire-breather, burning away false privilege, entitlement, and hierarchical ranking systems. When Elodie reconnects to her, they are both free; Elodie to walk as a woman and leader on earth, and the dragon to fly as a natural, majestic archetypal force of feminine wisdom and power. Their connection bypasses the lies of culture and solidifies the truth in them both.

 


 

 I did not design this game; I did not name the stakes.

I just happen to like apples;

and I am not afraid of snakes

― Ani DiFranco, Adam and Eve


 

By Kyrai Antares, Ph.D.

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