It is to me among the greatest and most tragic of ironies that these very times which boast of elevating women from their historically oppressive and subservient existence continue to suppress femininity more than any imagined evil patriarchy could have dreamt of. Most expressions of women empowerment in popular culture are mere expressions of masculinity in a woman’s body, and a fetishized masculinity at that.
Still, there remain several examples of powerful feminine characters in pop culture (though I fear they are rapidly receding). But by her very nature a powerful feminine character will not jump out at you, at least not in the way Jason Bourne or James Bond would. By her very nature you will have to look closer to see the power of femininity. She does not conquer an empire the way a Ceasar does, but she can conquer the Ceasar’s heart. The feminine is the very space which can bring about the transformation of the hero, the salvation of the kingdom, the return of the king.
The 1993 film Groundhog Day illustrates the transformative power of the feminine. I’ll briefly go through the plot in order to show how this transformation takes place, and then discuss the necessity and inevitability of the feminine archytype. For Groundhog Day, on its surface, is the story of the breaking of a cycle via the transformation of the hero. But more subtly, it is the story of the beauty of the feminine bringing this new man to life.
When at first Phil–a narcissistic weather reporter who has little appreciation for anyone but himself–begins to wake up on Groundhog Day over and over again, he does what he pleases. He manipulates reality to get and do whatever he wants. Hook up with women. Bully the little guy. Take his selfish, uncooperative antics with his colleagues to other levels. But eventually, Phil’s self-indulgent nihilism gives way to a greater and deeper, though clearly not yet so pure goal of attaining a genuine connection with Rita, his producer, who clearly stands out in the movie, though subtle at first, as a woman of virtue. It’s unclear why at first Phil begins to seek this out–whether he suspects it will break the cycle or simply because, if he is going to be in a never ending loop of Groundhog Days, he would like to spend it with her, or at least hook up with her. But for our purposes it won’t matter how base or noble his motives in this matter began.
The problem Phil quickly runs into with Rita is that he can never get her to stay the night at his house. And to be clear this isn’t for purely fleshly reasons. He just wants her to stay. Even after what seems like months of gathering information and telling her everything she wants to hear, she still will not stay. Over and over again they get to the end of a nearly flawless day and Rita’s walls inevitably go up. She suspects Phil is just trying to manipulate her into giving him what he wants. And to some degree she is right. To give the devil his due, Phil has not been a bad man in this pursuit. But he has not been an honest one. He does not in fact love French poetry. Or have the same favorite drink as Rita. Or a myriad of other things he has memorized and put into practice for shallow purposes.
But slowly Phil starts to realize this will not work and so begins to try other routes. One such route is to convince Rita that he is living the same day over and over again. She believes him. Of course she does, because she sees the potential in Phil. And eventually, on one particular day Phil and Rita do develop some sort of connection and she stays with him into the evening, thinking it might help break the cycle. And although this night will not be the end of the cycle, it is the point upon which Phil’s transformation begins to truly take place. As Rita is falling asleep, he confesses his love for her, the genuine affection that has both long been in his heart and has grown for her within the cycle of repeating Groundhog Days. He exposes himself. He discovers himself. Something is awakened in him.
The next day Phil wakes up renewed. In the Groundhog Days that follow, he begins to learn crafts such as piano and ice sculpting. After Phil learns a homeless man inevitably dies each repeating Groundhog Day, he spends several days in a row trying to prevent this from happening. We learn later on, on Phil’s last day, that he also has learned every bad thing that is going to happen and prevents each one. In short: Phil now spends his days becoming someone who, whether he knows this or not, is worthy of the beauty that is Rita. Rather than manipulate reality, which he could have easily done by desiring to do the acts of kindness in order to impress Rita, he seeks to do good simply to do good. He becomes someone who does good rather than doing good in order to get what he wants.
And finally one day it all comes together and he wins the heart of Rita, not because he manipulated her into such a thing, but because he truly became someone worthy of it. He became selfless. He emptied himself out. To such a point that on the last Groundhog Day, when his transformed self catches Rita’s eye and she asks to take him to coffee, he asks for a rain check so he can do the good he needs to do. Do the good he wants to do. Not because if he does the cycle will break, but because he simply wants to.
While on the surface Groundhog Day is a story of a man’s transformation breaking the cycle of living the same day over and over again, a very brief overview of the story reveals that the avenue through which this transformative process began was the man’s desire for the woman, and not just any woman. In Phil’s early Hedonistic Groundhog days he was hooking up with women, but not with Rita. Rita had to be earned. Phil had to become something besides what he was–higher than what he was, to earn his prize. It was the beauty and the nobility of Rita that created the space wherein transformation would take place.
Fulton Sheen, a Roman Catholic bishop, framed this idea of the feminine creating the space or the standard for transformation perfectly when he said
“To a great extent the level of any civilization is the level of its womanhood. When a man loves a woman, he has to become worthy of her. The higher her virtue, the more noble her character, the more devoted she is to truth, justice, goodness, the more a man has to aspire to be worthy of her. The history of civilization could actually be written in terms of the level of its women.”
This fact is almost completely lost on the modern world. The narrative our world tells is that women have been repressed for basically all of time until now. But our world fails to understand it was feminine beauty and nobility that motivated men to build it. It is no wonder that in Groundhog Day Rita was a sort of virginal figure. She never did give in to Phil in the way a guy like Phil would have preferred, especially in his early days. It was her nobility that created the space wherein the new Phil could form, for without her restraint there is no heroine to the story, only a bunch of women who either give Phil what he wants or care nothing of him. And her beauty that gave him an aim to be worthy of.
It is simple enough to understand how such a reality plays out in matters of sexual selection, but this pattern plays itself out in larger, more collective, ways as well. A collective finding a feminine symbol as something to defend, protect, and to become worthy of was central to the birth (there’s that word) of my own country. Lady Liberty hovers above New York City, a symbol of “America the Beautiful” whose people ask God to “stand beside her and guide her.”
But the feminine as something which guides our aim and calls us to a higher nobility is quickly evaporating from our world. I explored here how Groundhog Day illustrates this pattern, but the stories we tell today are displaying a more and more corrupted form of the feminine seemingly by the minute. A feminine which is usually, as previously mentioned, mere expressions of masculinity in a very attractive female body.
But I have begun to wonder if, despite the debacle that is the postmodern version of feminism which seeks to eradicate masculinity, elevate it in female bodies, and promote sexual promiscuity, there exists in the emergence of feminism in the modern world an intuition that is right. They got the name right, after all. They didn’t call it women empowerment; they gave it a name that was inherently spiritual. But they got the meaning wrong.
I have begun to wonder if there is not buried deep in the collective consciousness of the West a thirst for beauty, not the “beauty” one finds on Pornhub or at Hooters, but the beauty that is real beauty. The beauty that gives men something to fight for; the beauty that transforms us. The beauty that draws people from all over the world to European cathedrals. The beauty that, like Rita or the women Bishop Sheen describes, believes the best in its men but is noble enough to require them to come higher than their base instincts. But even discussing it here feels like I am grasping at straws: like I am straining to remember a half remembered dream, for beauty has not been asked to play much a part in the stories we tell. For our world is growing devoid of beauty. And like Groundhog Day, our world is rather stuck in a cycle, always bound to repeat the mistakes of the previous age. But what was it which brought about Phil’s salvation from this cycle? It was beauty.