Thursday, 26 March 2009

land as woman

i came across this link to the personification of countries in my roam around the blogosphere today. i'm going to be naughty and not say where i got to it from, cos i found a lot of comments in that particular thread objectionable.

but anyway, what really surprised me was the number of countries who used a woman for their personification thing. for new zealand, we have zealandia, daughter of britannia, which i find more than a little problematic because of the clear colonial symbolism. i'd much prefer the use of papatuanuku as a more representative and evocative personfication.

apparently this personification of country thing is a western construct that was then taken up by eastern countries, so that in india they developed the figure of bharat mata (mother india). i found an interesting excerpt here about the use of the feminine to symbolise nations here:

Where territory is conceived of in its "natural state", that is as dirt, soil, earth, and so on from which its fertility arises, by and large the gender assignment is feminine.... Where land is conceptualised as a political entity under the jurisdiction of a nation state, the nouns referring to it are generally masculine.... Masculine personifications of countries, such as Uncle Sam for the United States and John Bull for Britain, represent primarily the country as state, government, and bureaucracy. Here land has been colonised and brought under male control. Yet other symbolic associations of these male-governed nations and countries as abstractions are still feminine, as one can see in the use of female figures to represent them, such as the Statue of Liberty, Britannia, her daughter Zealandia, and Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic, to name just a few....

These feminine abstractions serve as symbollic rallying points of affection and patriotism. As countries usually have founding fathers rather than mothers, the country itself as "one's native land" in which we are born, is linked with the fertility of the land itself...

hmm, not sure that i like the feminine being used as a symbol of patriotism, particularly when the context of rallying is often linked to violence and war. but i do like the symbolism of fertility and the land being linked to the feminine, as we do with the notion of "mother earth".

5 comments:

Giovanni said...

I don't know about other countries, but for the Italian female personification ("Italia turrita") a very strong metaphor was that she had to be defended from physical harm - often, but not always, with the undertones of rape. I can't locate it now, but the most stunning political poster I've ever seen was from the 1948 election, and it pictured a Soviet soldier hurling a sickle at Italia turrita, and the shield of the Christian Democrats deflecting the blow.

I wonder if the US and the UK are personified by men because they did a lot more attacking than being attacked.

(Oh, Anjum, I saw the Ans Westra exhibition at Pataka over the weekend - brilliant!)

stargazer said...

thanx giovanni, yes ans did a wonderful job & the black & white photos really look stunning.

re US & UK, both also have feminine personifications as well, in terms of britannia & columbia. but it was always uncle sam on the army posters so they didn't have the italian protection from harm thing happening when it came to war. i agree with you that there's an underlying notion of protecting the women (& children) when the femnine personfication is used, and i don't think it's particularly healthy.

Giovanni said...

Silly me - of course lady liberty! In the indispensable Onion book Our Dumb Century, the iconography of her rape gets mercilessly lampooned.

Giovanni said...

Also, from Seamus Heaney's essay Feeling into Words, collected in Finders Keepers, and concerning the conflict in Northern Ireland:

"To some extent the enmity can be viewed as a struggle between cults and devotees of a god and a goddess. There is an indigenous territorial numen, a tutelar of the whole island, call her Mother Ireland, Kathleen Ni Houlihan, the poor old woman, the Shan Van Vocht, whatever; and her sovereignity has been temporarily usurped or infringed by a new male cult whose founding waters were Cromwell, William of Orange and Edward Carson, and whose godhead is incarnate in a rex or caesar resident in a palace in London. What we have is the tail-end of a struggle in a province between territorial piety and imperial power."

Anna said...

I seem to remember reading somewhere about rape as a metaphor for colonisation - but, of course, there were racist undertones as well. Sea captains' journals talking about enigmatic, dark lands to be penetrated and conquered ... yick.