I was recently the writer in a devising project for a stage play. Devised writing is something completely alien to my usual writing style, and I very much enjoyed the process and experience. I was often given homework by the director, prompted by lines and concepts from the actors on the floor. This is one such piece, and I think it is quite evident why it was not suitable for the stage. It was, however, an interesting exercise for me to write a piece in my usual style, but prompted by something than my own observations.
For thousands of years swans have been associated with beautiful women in myths, legends and stories that survive to this day. From Leda conceiving Helen of Troy with Zeus in the form of a swan, to The Ugly Duckling and Swan Lake, the powerful association of women and swans is well worth an examination.
The pace of modern life is often likened to a bird gliding across the water, calm and beauty visible to all, frantic paddling hidden below the waterline. Watching a bright-eyed swan float elegantly by, all serene plumage and sinuous neck, you cannot see the tiny legs working hard underneath to keep everything afloat and moving in the right direction. How often does the morning ritual of the hair and makeup, skirts and high heels armour a woman for a day spent trying to make having it all seem effortless? We manage to make all the physical discomfort of our beauty regimes and absurd fashions seem natural and essential to our success.
Yet despite all this work, the rewards for being judged by beauty alone are few and unfulfilling, as men are so acquisitive and protective of their beautiful possessions. In medieval England the swans were designated as Royal animals, to be hunted and devoured by Royalty and aristocracy only. Concurrently across Europe was the custom of ‘The Lord’s Right’, the supposed right of the feudal Lord to the virginity of the women marrying on his estate the night before their wedding. Beauty in the eyes of man produces a wish to own and consume, until the next beautiful object is discovered. Whether our beauty fades with age, changes with the fashion or bores the once proud owner, there is no lasting happiness in being an item of desire.
But there is hope and levity to be found in the parallels with women and swans across the ages. The philosopher Juvenal in 200AD made a sarcastic reference that a good woman was a ‘rare bird, as rare on earth as a black swan.’ Of course we know now that black swans glide across the waters of the southern hemisphere and the start of equal rights for women shows there are good women the world over. How we revel in our chance to take our rare and gorgeous feathers into the workplace to dazzle the eyes of men while working equally as hard. How we are still judged by those feathers, not the work we actually do.
Swans by nature are fiercely protective of their family, prefer to mate for a lifetime and share the incubation of their eggs between male and female. Perhaps we can hope for the continued association of women and swans to encourage some new ideas for our society. To acknowledge the importance of the natural strengths of women, beyond just their beauty; strength in raising the next generation, adding planning for the next generation to the workplace and the primacy of commitment and equality everywhere. Perhaps inequality towards women will be a myth for future generations, leaving women judged only on beauty to ancient stories and medieval legend.