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Slaying the Mermaid: Women and the Culture of Sacrifice

Slaying the Mermaid: Women and the Culture of Sacrifice

by Stephanie Golden

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Why do so many women feel obliged to put other people's needs first, even when they don't want to? The self-sacrificing impulse comes from women's history, not their nature, says Stephanie Golden.
Drawing on interviews with experts and a diverse group of women, plus extensive scholarship, Golden traces the historical, cultural, and mythic factors that gave women


Why do so many women feel obliged to put other people's needs first, even when they don't want to? The self-sacrificing impulse comes from women's history, not their nature, says Stephanie Golden.
Drawing on interviews with experts and a diverse group of women, plus extensive scholarship, Golden traces the historical, cultural, and mythic factors that gave women the responsibility to sacrifice and suffer for the benefit of our entire society. "Slaying the Mermaid" (a title inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid, the ultimate self-sacrificing woman) illuminates common female experiences: the belief that being a "good mother" means endless self-sacrifice; romance, the surrender of a woman's very being to an ideal embodied in a powerful man; on-the-job "enabling" that makes the boss look good while undermining a woman's own career; the obsession with weight, which makes a virtue of self-denial.
Golden analyzes the psychological effects of the self-sacrifice mandate, then expands this theme beyond individual experience to its broader social meanings.
She helps women distinguish self-destructive from positive, constructive forms of sacrifice, so they can reclaim the original meaning of sacrifice as an act that both transforms and empowers.

Editorial Reviews

Rickie Solinger
...Analyzes women's special relationship to sacrifice and suffering, pain and self-denial....and advocates sacrifice whose qualities are much closer to the ancient, pre-Christian concept, which...indicated "an expansive, empowering, collective action."
Women's Review of Books
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
According to Golden, women are often driven to put the needs of others before their own, a behavior exemplified by the "Little Mermaid," who, in the Hans Christian Andersen tale, gave up her life to save the prince she loved. Drawing on scholarly and contemporary research sources as well as interviews with a variety of women, the author presents an informed analysis of the religious, sociological and psychological forces that combine to motivate women to give to others at the cost of denying their own desires. In her empowering self-help guide, Golden argues that this unnatural self-denial has been expected of women historically, culminating in a 19th-century society that idealized "suffering" females. She posits that women can avoid destructive self-sacrifice and still satisfy their urge to give to others and perform altruistic acts by redefining the self not in the Western tradition of opposition to others but from the Buddhist perspective of the interconnectedness of the self to society.
Library Journal
This work by independent writer Golden may upset as many people as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique did in the early 1960s. In this case the author analyzes the destructive effects of compulsive self-sacrifice on the lives of women and its role in shaping society's definition and expectation of feminine behavior. Whether it is the wife and mother who lives through the accomplishments of her husband and children or the company employee who accepts low wages, no promotions, and sexual harassment out of gratitude for being hired, the results are the same limited expectations and a lifetime of dependency. Projection of this attitude onto society leads to labeling women who are not self-effacing as selfish and unfeminine and to rationalizing domestic violence. Golden attributes the self-sacrificing culture to Western paternalism, Judeo-Christian philosophy, and Freudian psychology. Her premise is well formulated and deserves consideration. Unfortunately, the book runs out of steam near the end, and the author's promotion of Buddhist concepts as a response to the problem is naive at best.-- Rose M. Cichy, Osterhout Free Library, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania
Kirkus Reviews
Another illustration of how women diminish their potential by, in this case, cutting off their tails to spite their psyches. Golden (The Women Outside: Meanings and Myths of Homelesness) takes as her theme the tale of the Little Mermaid—not the Disney version, but Hans Christian Andersen's original tale, in which the Little Mermaid, after sacrificing her seductive tail, walks in bloody agony as she serves the prince. Despite her fealty, she loses the hero to another woman. This, says Golden, has been a model for women since at least the days of the early Christians, when self-mortification—sometimes to extinction—was a moral imperative and supposedly led to spiritual transcendence. Golden brings the tale of sacrifice up to date with stories of contemporary nuns lured into renouncing such simple pleasures as dried fruit; she also recalls the television show "Queen for a Day," where the winner was the contestant judged to have sacrificed the most. Catholicism takes a big hit, with its encouragement of sacrifice as "reparation" for Christ's agony. The evolution of women's devotion to self-sacrifice is tracked from Saint Catherine of Siena (who starved herself to death) through Freud (woman as masochist), and Simone Weil (living with God's nail in her heart) to fictional private investigator V.I. Warshawski, who identifies with the victimized. Golden tries to examine the consequences of sacrifice from all sides, reflecting on the rewards of pain (a "rush" and a source of creativity), of being a victim ("suffering ennobles," certain kinds of victims are "fashionable"), and on its relationship to power. Ultimately, she says, self-sacrifice as it usually presentsitself is a practice of the powerless in search of control. However, with a nod to Buddhist philosophy, Golden goes on to assert that sacrifice can be redefined as "constructive" and "transformative." There's definitely an "aha" experience here; many women will recognize and bemoan their own sacrificial behavior. Next question: Where does self-abnegation end and true compassion begin?

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Stephanie Golden
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Meet the Author

Got the Girl Scouts' Writer badge (the only one that interested me) when I was 12: that signaled the future. I began writing fiction, but discovered that what really compelled me was literary nonfiction--especially once I developed a way to use a central image as a method of analysis. An image constrains and focuses thoughts while allowing you to come at your material from many different directions without losing coherence, since the analysis acquires its form from the structure of the image. I used this method for both my literary nonfiction books: For *The Women Outside,* a study of homeless and marginal women, it was the figure of the witch. For *Slaying the Mermaid,* about women and self-sacrifice, it was Hans Christian Anderson's Little Mermaid. Literary nonfiction didn't pay the rent, but I like writing books, so I became a book collaborator and wrote five other books with experts. (For a series of articles on how book collaboration works, see my website: http://www.stephaniegolden.net.) And since for a freelancer diversifying = security, I started writing all sorts of other things: magazine articles, newsletters, reports for nonprofits, grant proposals, training manuals, and lately websites.

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