The Angel’s Dead, but We’re Still in the House: How rejecting a gender archetype is just as limiting as conforming to it 

by Kathryn Kaiser

Before I comment on the nature of archetypes in our society, two things have to be made clear. First, an archetype is defined as a “perfect example” according to Merriam Webster. An archetype is unique from a stereotype since it is the pinnacle of what a good woman, man, student, child, etc. should be. It is not meant to be disparaging in nature or limiting in nature, as a stereotype is. It’s a chosen outlook by the group defined within it. The second thing that must be addressed is that in order to discuss archetypes, I must make generalizations. To evaluate our archetypes of gender, I must trudge deep within the boxes that we are so constantly trying to break free from. That is, to evaluate an archetype we must first accept their existence in our own lives. 

While it can be easy to see male archetypes as mostly beneficial to male professional success and the female archetype as detrimental to female professional success (as well as independence), the rigid expectations placed on all genders by society ultimately constrain everyone involved. Rebecca Reilly-Cooper, while problematic in her argument, described the idea that no one person fits into a gendered archetype perfectly. In the case of women, the archetype of an “Angel in the House” must be killed, as Viriginia Woolf posits in “Professions for Women”, in order to free the creativity of the soul and allow women to succeed as writers. To gain independence, they must reject their archetype.  

Men, on the other hand, face their limitations not when they reach for power or independence, but instead when they reach for community and support. This leads them to be independent but also in a less stable state of ultra-independence. Men in the United States die by suicide at rates 3-4 times higher than women do, but women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression (bbc.com). Men are barred by the idea that a “good man” doesn’t need help, is strong, and can handle his emotions. Because these emotions are bottled up, they can reach a breaking point before ever getting treated or discussed as they might be within women.

While Taylor Mali’s poems make a pertinent case that there are benefits to archetypes, in the form of community, shared experiences, bonding and providing role models such as the “viking warrior” in his poem “Brave Seventh Grade Viking Warriorthey also hint at the limitations those bonds create. In “The Penis Warriors” girls are something “other” to the boys (“a real live girl”) and it’s bad to be seen as gay (“look away…it will make you gay”) or associated with femininity. In recent years (since the 2010s) these limitations have been tested more often as people feel empowered by breaking their assigned archetype just as much as they are empowered by fitting within it. 

Progressive society creates strong messaging for young girls to be independent, to be a woman in STEM, and to show the boys that girls are just as smart and worthy of success. This can create a new pressure to break expectations just as much as there is pressure to follow them. Everyone knows someone (or is someone) who has gone through a stage of hating everything pink, proving they’re not a “girly girl.” Essentially, archetypes present a difficulty in that entirely following them results in ridicule while entirely breaking them puts you outside of your community as well. 

The only way to truly be free of an archetype and the constraints it places upon a person is to attempt to disregard it entirely and act in the way that you see fit for yourself regardless of expectations. This is difficult as the subconscious must be addressed in order to be disregarded. In the path towards self-expression it’s important to see your function within and without society. So while associating with an archetype, or against one, can be empowering we must consider the ramifications when that association becomes the most important facet of our self, when we become a man or a woman more than a person. It leads to the question: Are the gendered limitations we feel a product of society or a product of our own subconscious? Are they created in equal amounts from society and the subconscious?

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