Put Women Back In The Story and Power: The Lioness’ Funeral

Emily Burns

I’m at University of Illinois this week, working with their theatre department on a play I wrote, in collaboration with some other wonderful women artists (Barbara Pitts McAdams, Lisa Chess and Jacqui Dugal). The play is a bit of an absurd fantasia featuring six historical-literary queens rewriting their stories in a spa located on a fold of time in a dark matter universe engineered by their physicist spa attendants.

With women’s stories on my mind, this fable filtered to the surface of my consciousness again, but from a new angle. The moral has always seemed to be about sucking up to power, a theme that resonates in these amoral Roger Stonian times. What strikes me at this moment is the fate of the females.

The lion’s wife died. Everyone came running ASAP to acquit themselves toward his highness. They offered all the words of consolation, which only increased the affliction. The lion alerted his domain that the funeral ceremony would be on such and such a day, at such and such location. His provosts would direct the ceremony and arrange the attendees. They would take note of who had come. 

The royal abandoned himself to his wailing. His den reverberated. Lions have no other temple. Hearing his example, his entourage roared in their manner.

I define a court as this: a country where the people, be they sad, happy, ready for anything or indifferent, are whatever pleases the king. Or, if they can’t actually be so, they try to seem so; chameleon people, monkeys for their master. You could say that one spirit animates a thousand bodies. That’s where you see that people are nothing but marionettes.  

To get back to the business at hand … the stag did not shed a tear. How could he do that? This death avenged him. The queen had, some time ago, strangled his wife and son. In short, he wasn’t crying. A flatterer tattled to the king, and even said he’d seen the stag laugh.  

As Solomon said, the rage of a king is terrible, especially that of the lion. But the stag wasn’t familiar with that old story.

The monarch said: You puny forest creature. You laugh! You don’t follow the example of the keening voices. We will not touch your profane limbs with our sacred claws. Come, wolves. Avenge the queen. Destroy him. Send this traitor to join his august ancestors.

The stag replied just so: Sire, the time for tears has passed. Grief is excessive here. Your royal other-half, sleeping among the flowers, appeared to me quite nearby. I recognized her right away. Friend, she said to me, see that the procession when I am rendered to the gods does not oblige you to tears. Here in the Elysian Fields I have tasted a thousand charms. Conversed with other saints like myself. Let the king’s despair flow for a bit more time. It’s a small pleasure.

No sooner had those near heard the stag’s words, that they began to cry out: Miracle. Apotheosis!

Far from being punished, the stag was given gifts.

Amuse kings with fairy tales. Flatter them. Tell them pleasant lies. Whatever resentments fill their heart; they’ll take the bait. You will be their friend.

The moral? –Powerful men bury themselves beneath loads of rotting garbage and the women die. The king’s wife dies, but instead of genuine grief, he’s more concerned with who is flattering him with the loudest keening. The stag’s wife dies and he trafficks in pleasant lies to stay in the lion’s favour.

We may think we can save our skins from the wolves when we shade the truth to be agreeable, to get along, to advance even, but who is left out in our expedience?

There’s no doubt that women’s lives and access to opportunity is getting better. Witness this past mid-term election in the U.S. and the diversity of new women representatives. How excellent! Let that be an incentive to keep our foot on the gas.

Now is not the time to slack off. The million ubiquitous, casual, offhand ways in which women are sidelined and softened into submission, while men secure their power, cannot be shrugged off. In addition to the obvious issues like pay gaps, there are the tiny things. From the language on shampoo bottles, sweetness and grace for women and warrior strength for men, to calling a male writers’ book of daily observations “journals” and women’s “diaries.” Many of the women so recently elected have already been labeled “shrill.” Cordelia Fine’s books on the invisible and unconscious ways we socialize girls and boys differently are eye openers.

Every time we accept the manifestation or perpetuation of a gender stereotype, we tell ourselves the pleasant lie that our actions are not big enough to make a difference. Or as Stanislaw Jerzy Lec puts it, “Each snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty.”

If the cost of power’s favor is that we must leave women dead, and in the background, the price is too high.

Let’s celebrate the strides that have been made toward social equity. Let’s grieve our losses. Women—let’s write the new story of collaborative power.


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