The ‘Oscar curse’ or the price of women’s development

Denise G. Ramos (SBrPA) São Paulo, Brazil

Some time ago, the media drew my attention to the news that several young and beautiful actresses, soon after winning the Academy Award’s ‘Best Actress’ Oscar or ‘Best Supporting Actress’ Oscar, were betrayed by their husbands or partners – a fact known as the ‘Oscar curse’. The betrayals were public and appeared in the news humiliating the winners (Jirak, 2017). In the history of the Oscars up to 2020, 41 ‘Best Actress’ and 23 ‘Best Supporting Actress’ winners have experienced the break-up of a long-term relationship shortly after their victory. It is important to note that this fact is present only when it is a woman who wins the Oscar (Pewsey, 2021).

A statistical analysis of the marriages of all Best Actor and Best Actress Academy Award nominees from 1936 to 2010 found that Oscar winners were associated with a greater risk of divorce for Best Actresses, but not for Best Actors (Stuart et al., 2011).

I immediately recalled several cases in the office where successful women at work were also betrayed or had to interrupt their promotions to avoid marital conflicts. The survey was surprising – a pattern was observed and did not refer to the Hollywood world alone.

The husband’s complaint was that the wife was not ‘loving’ or did not pay attention to him. Travelling for business increased resentment and consequent risk of aggression and break-up. Many patients hid their business success from their partners, particularly in cases where they earned more than their partners. Frequent news of women abused and killed by their intimate partners was added to the clinical cases. The data is shocking and numbers keep on growing.

Prevalence of violence against the woman by her intimate partner.

Globally, one in three women, or 35%, have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, mostly at the hands of an intimate partner, with up to 38% of all murders of women committed by their partners. Violence against women and girls is still so deeply embedded in cultures around the world that it is almost invisible, according to the UN, which describes such violence as a construct of power and a means of maintaining the status-quo. Between one-fifth

and nearly a half of all women globally suffer physical or sexual abuse by their male partners. In North America the rate is 32%; in Latin America 27%, Western Europe 22%, Eastern Europe and Central Asia 19%. A recent feminicide census in the UK showed that a man kills a woman every three days in the country, a statistic unchanged across the 10 years studied (WHO, 2021; Broom, 2020).

It is clear that a global pandemic of feminicide is going on, yet, with very little publicity: six women are killed every hour around the world by men, most by men in their own family or by their partners. This amounts to a total of 50,000 women a year, most of them murdered by current or previous partners: of these, 75% of victims had an affective bond with their aggressor through marriage or dating (Crowell & Burgess, 1996; Friedrich, 2013; WHO, 2020). But this violence has many aspects such as professional and political boycott and can negatively affect women’s physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health (WHO, 2021).

What may happen in love relationships when the woman assumes a position of power?

Studies have confirmed the destabilizing effect of the wife’s professional success when it is superior to that of the husband. This effect is present even in countries considered more developed economically, like Finland, where it has been demonstrated that the wife’s high salary increases the risk of divorce, mainly where this salary is higher than that of the husband (Jalovaara, 2003). This asymmetry is consistent with the gender dynamics as documented in marriages in the population in general. Studies in the USA (Hansen & Hall, 1997; Macmillan & Gartner, 1999; Ratliff & Oishi, 2013) have shown that: – self-esteem of men is lower when the partner is more successful professionally – the woman’s risk of suffering marital violence increases when her professional status is higher than that of the husband – successful women in power have 1.68 times more chance of being betrayed by their husbands/boyfriends.

A study conducted in Brazil (Ramos, 2020) with professional women from 20 to 72 years old, revealed that 47% believe that the fact of being single is due to their professional success; among those that earned more than their partners, 51.8% perceived that their partners became resentful and were not interested in their professional success; 22.3% did not share compliments or promotions for fear of

partner resentment, and 87.5% heard a man derogatorily refer to a professionally successful woman.

Extramarital affairs were justified by the lack of the wife’s attention, driven by excessive work. Having autonomy, financial independence, power and success reduces the possibility of finding a partner of the same status. The apparent incompatibility makes many women diminish their success, hiding it or avoiding talking about it. This issue, the main theme of this paper, is primordial for the development of the collective consciousness of a civilization in transition:

Is the Oscar curse an emerging pattern? Is it the price of women’s evolution?

Is it the dark side of their evolution, out of step with the development of their intimate partnerships?

If, formerly, a woman would remain in a violent relationship for lack of economic resources, today her financial independence gives her the opportunity to reject abusive situations. However, the desire to break out of an abusive relationship may be very dangerous. A study of the 1,700 cases of death of women in Brazil reported that 70% of the cases occurred when the women wanted to separate (Bandeira, 2015).

This violence, present throughout the history of mankind, persists in the 21st century relatively immune to social and educational programmes. It is also a type of complex and subtle violence: a form of professional and political boycott as well as emotional and sexual rejection by the man when he feels inferior.

What are the causes of this hatred and rejection?

What is so disturbing in the success of a partner that leads a man to abuse, attack and kill his intimate partner?

What is so terrible and frightening that must be violently (or subtly) attacked and eliminated?

The origin of violence against women

The establishment of man-power through physical force and patriarchal myths starts the cycle of repression of women and the feminine by means of a traumatic situation.

Brief observation of the historical fear Men in most cultures have reacted with a mix of admiration and fear of the feminine, forming a common pattern, seemingly with its roots in antiquity (Blazina, 1997). In primitive cultures, there was no consciousness of the relation between sex and pregnancy and, therefore, the power of creation was assigned only to women – and so matriarchal cultures were created with women in positions of power.

This power was also feared and expressed in images and myths of goddesses and dangerous women present in literature and religion. Over time, the woman, as mother, was deprived of her mythic creative power.

Matriarchal systems gave up the command in society to kings. This development provided room for fear and resentment against women, fear that sometimes led to very pernicious developments. New legends and myths arose, among them the idea that the man’s sperm contained homunculi whereas the woman was just the carrier of seed (Campbell, 1968).

An illustration of this transformation from admiration to fear is the emergence of the patrifocal mythology that substituted the power of the goddesses. Campbell (ibid.) call it ‘the great reversal’ of 500 B.C. when a pervasive negative attitude toward nature develops (Blazina, 1997). In the Jewish Christian tradition, the image of the first woman appears as Lilith given to Adam as wife and created, like him, from dust. But Lilith descended from the goddess Lilitu, who had a warrior- like, rebellious and aggressive spirit. Lilith rebelled, ran away and was substituted by Eve, created from Adam’s rib to keep him company but in a subordinate position. This myth that marks the patriarchal cultural development of the West is based on the universal image of a submissive female, however diabolical, mortal and seductive. Eve becomes guilty of everything evil, as illustrated in countless passages of the Old Testament (Lederer, 1968).

Thus, the association between women and evil pervades and dominates Western history for centuries, women being seen as dangerous and also as having magical powers – through embodying the reproduction mystery. While assuming power, men wanted to control or eliminate women in order to be free from their ‘magic’ and build powerful male societies. Killing them was a counter-attack, a process that occurred several times throughout history. Thus, in

patriarchy, gods emerged, competing with women in their creative power (Lederer, 1968).

Christianity, at first, denied the existence of a female deity. Woman was seen as a temptation against spirituality. The exaltation of the spirit had its apex in virginity and a woman’s sexuality was something to be feared. The negative side of the feminine gained prominence and the feared figure of the big, negative mother – the witch – appeared (Lederer, 1968).

At first, this figure was a crucial fact in all societies, in the role of healer with magical and spiritual powers. However, during the Middle Ages, she appeared as opposed to Christian dogma and became associated with Satan. And so, legends and fears about witchcraft – women that dominated men, leading them to evil – were spread, chiefly in Europe (Russell & Alexander, 1991).

The official age of witchcraft and inquisition started with the papal bull in 1258 and is described in the Malleus Maleficarum Manual, a work by two inquisitors seen today as a manual of pornography and psychopathology, that stated that all witchcraft is a consequence of the carnal desire of ‘insatiable’ women (Institoris and Sprenger, 1486/2006; Russell & Alexander, 1991).

In this period, genocide occurred: it is estimated that around 200,000 women were burnt alive. Many of them were denounced for being attractive, seductive, independent, or for having knowledge of medicinal herbs and medicine. The fantasy that these powers could make a man impotent (fear of castration) was frequent. The last woman burnt was in the 18th century (Castelow, 2021). Powerful women ended up at the stake.

The formation of an intergenerational trauma

These traumatic events echoed in the repression of female sexuality and in resulting hysterical symptoms, creating an intergenerational trauma. The hysterical patients of the 19th century held in their unconscious the history of their ancestors and, in a way, contributed to the development of the Freudian theory of sexuality. After all, the inquisitors claimed that women’s lust was the basis of all witchcraft, thus making accusations of witchcraft also accusations of sexual desire. In this manner, psychiatry and psychoanalysis developed

along the same theme – the object of the ‘hysterical woman’ being a remnant of so-called medieval ‘witches’.

Alexander and Selesnick (1966/1980), in their study of the history of psychiatry, showed that witch-hunts started in Europe as an anti- erotic movement promoted by the Catholic Church, with the aim of casting suspicion on women who provoked erotic desire in priests. Considered transmitters of the devil, the belief was they should be eliminated in the purifying fire. According to the authors, these traumatic events reverberated as repression of female sexuality and in resulting hysterical symptoms.

The witch-hunt lasted for centuries as explicit persecution but has taken other more or less implicit forms, which are present today in social, cultural, and political life in most cultures. Hysterical patients in the 19th century held intergenerational trauma in their unconscious which somehow connected to the development of Freud’s sexuality theory: couldn’t the repression of female sexuality be an echo of fear of the fire? With regard to culture, we have seen that behind this millenary misogyny is the fear of the Feminine and the creative powers of the Great Mother.

The mystery and the fear of maternity has a fundamental role in feelings, beliefs and social patterns since the Paleolithic to the present day. And what about the personal development level?

The psychology of the fear of the feminine

According to Sigmund Freud (1925/1974), the fear of a man towards a woman occurs because she is different – eternally incomprehensible and mysterious, strange, and, therefore, apparently hostile. A man is afraid of being weakened by a woman or being infected by her femininity. The feminine genitalia is the entrance of the old abode from where we leave. But there is danger in this entrance – images of the vagina dentata (toothed vagina) create the fear of castration.

For Melanie Klein (1945/1996) the narcissistic value the boy gives to his penis is a super compensation for his feeling of inferiority due to his incapacity to conceive children: man has the need to affirm superiority over women, discharging in them his aggressiveness. For Karen Horney (1932/1991) the source of male anxiety is the fear of penis inadequacy compared to the mother’s genitalia – which creates

fantasies that any attempt at penetration leads to disaster – the penis being submersed, devoured – and the vagina having teeth.

Man’s fear of the vagina refers back to the mystery of motherhood, from which man is excluded. The incest taboo, present in most cultures, is a defence system against the desire to return to the great mother, to the cave from which he emerged. Horney states that childish attitudes present in the adult man result from the unconscious thought that his penis is small and can be lost inside the big maternal uterus. The psychological anatomic nucleus of the fear of castration lies in the fact that during sexual intercourse the man entrusts his genitalia to the woman’s body; the phallus enters alive and leaves in a state of exhaustion that suggests death.

Erich Neumann (1955), in his studies on the evolution of consciousness, while demonstrating parallelism between phylogenetic and ontogenetic development, proves that fear of the feminine is cultural and a part of the child’s ego growth.

In the child’s development, the baby’s original impotence and full dependence on the mother gives her an archetypical transpersonal position. She is objectively the world around which the child lives and on which he/she depends.

For the child’s ego, the primal, normal situation of safety is ensured by the mother – that is, by the feminine quality – characterized by the primal relation with the feminine. With too much or too little love, nutrition, warmth and protection that transgresses the specific limits of the species, this will have a negative effect on the child (Neumann, 1994).

The loss of anything that we symbolically consider basic produces fear. Regardless of the way the mother behaves, even if correctly, over time she needs to become a ‘witch’, because the initial bond with the child is restrictive. In order to grow, the child needs to overcome his dependence on the mother in favour of his development and progress: it is a ‘matricide’ that belongs to a hero’s task (ibid.). The feminine here is mixed with mythic, legendary aspects that emerge as powerful and terrifying figures: the mermaid woman, evil queens, monsters and witches, among other things.

One of the tasks of the hero’s battle is to free the feminine from the mother domain in the primal relation (ibid.). It is part of the normal development of the male ego that the hero frees his feminine aspect

from the mother domain – and so enjoys the transforming feminine side and is altered into a man capable of being a partner of a woman, without fear.

Whenever male ego development is disturbed and cannot reach full independence, for example, when a boy remains childish due to a mother fixation and the absence of a provider father, he is unable to develop the required combativeness of the heroic ego (ibid.).

The woman introjected as ‘powerful mother’ is projected in the man’s affective relationship – which must be placed under ‘control’ because he finds her very threatening. This fear can be so big that the man splits the woman in two: a superior portion and an inferior portion – and thus he relates to one aspect at a time: he adores the woman and nurtures a valuable friendship with her, but, on the other hand, a sexual relationship is only possible with a prostitute or woman of lower social level.

So, he projects on to the more economically successful partner a terrifying archetypical power – the great castrator mother generates impotence, aggression or rejection, a fact well illustrated in statistics and psychological offices. This phenomenon always involves fear of the feminine, fear of the woman.

The experience is so strong that the man, unconscious of his fear, violently repels the woman or even attacks her due to the ambiguity of his feelings. He blames the woman for what he feels and hates her for not being able to be free of her.

Feminicide today as a form of a modern stake

Why do some men kill their intimate female partners today?

When the man carries a negative maternal complex, he fears the woman and tries to exclude her from professional and political life. He may even marry a ‘mother’ type, but if she starts to grow outside the home, his unconscious fear emerges. Projection of fear of the feminine on to the woman, particularly if she is part of the emotional life of a man, causes her to be perceived as a suffocating power from which he must be free – by means of psychological and physical attacks, subtle boycotts or killing, as we have seen.

The consequence of patriarchal male arrogance against the woman is an inability to make genuine contact with the feminine, not only with the real woman but with the internal feminine as well – which is the man’s unconscious source of creativity and freedom. We live in a transitional phase – which is always paved by conflicts and toughening of the past phase – and so the increase in violence against women may be explained by the conflict between defensive forces of millenary cultural values and the pressure exerted by unconscious forces that lead to new developments of consciousness.

The forces that emerge as symbols of alterity, racial and gender equality, among others, demand an inconvenience – a rupture with family patterns – a great inevitable discomfort in face of the feared unknown that knocks at our door. The fear of transformation almost always increases anxiety, chiefly in persons that are constrained by the old traditions. Fear and anxiety do not result only from the new, but from old habits that imprison us and hinder our evolution.

They are part of a cultural complex composed in its core of the trauma of the archetypical feminine, devourer and castrator. As we have seen, the symptoms of this cultural complex are expressed in the countless forms of repression and violence against women. To stop feminicide, we need to enter a new phase of development – neither matriarchal nor patriarchal, but one of alterity. And hope that the evolution of our consciousness will contradict the prediction of 99.5 years for gender parity made by the Global Gender Gap Report 2020 (World Economic Forum, 2021).

Esse artigo está baseado no próximo livro a ser lançado pela autora: “A maldição do Oscar” e foi publicado no Anais do 22 Congresso da IAAP realizado em Buenos Aires em Agosto de 2022. Copyright © 2023 by Daimon Verlag and the authors, Am Klosterplatz, CH-8840 Einsiedeln, Switzerland.


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