In 2011, Harry’s Law appeared on NBC with a strong female lead, Kathy Bates in the character of Harriet “Harry” Korn, a defense attorney running her own firm. The show attracted millions of viewers, mostly over 50. Korn was a mature woman with strong “male” and “female” traits: smart, self-confident, independent, unconventional, purposeful and clear-sighted, but also caring and compassionate. She saw the good in people, even when they were guilty of wrongdoing. She could be abrasive in getting others to admit the truth, but her sharp tongue was often tempered by dry wit.
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Bates was the closest thing to a “crone” to appear on national television since Bea Arthur’s character Dorothy Zbornak in Golden Girls.
When Harry’s Law was cancelled in 2012, a network official explained that, even though it averaged 8.8 million viewers and was the second most-watched television drama, “its audience skewed very old, and it is hard to monetize that.”
The Kathy Bates crone character was not profitable.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CRONE
A crone is a wise, post-menopausal woman who wields power. Psychoanalyst Jean Shinoda Bolen, author of Crones Don’t Whine, describes her as “a woman who has wisdom, compassion, humor, courage, and vitality… She has learned to trust herself to know what she knows.” Bolen has written many books on ancient female archetypes, including the crone, with the intention of “reactivating” these images to improve modern life. In Goddesses in Older Women: Archetypes in Women over Fifty, Bolen looks to Greek, Roman, Hindu, Egyptian, Chinese and Japanese mythologies for these restorative images. She and other feminist scholars believe that, in an era of rapid global aging, the crone archetype can teach us how to embrace old age as a positive, even generative, stage of life.
In Greek mythology, the crone was the third figure in a three-headed, or triple goddess named Hecate, who represented the cycle of all living things in the form of the maiden, matron and old woman. The crone is probably much older than the Greek myths, however. Some spiritual feminist sources, such as D. J. Conway’s Maiden, Mother, Crone, claim that she comes from matriarchal, goddess-worshipping cultures from the Paleolithic era. These matriarchal cultures modeled peace, harmony with nature and egalitarian relationships between the sexes.
Somewhere around 3000 BCE, according to these sources, a shift occurred toward patriarchal rule, and the social and sacred power of women gradually declined. Although archeologists have unearthed artifacts that point to women-centered cultures — a Minoan tribe on the Island of Crete, for example — there is little anthropological evidence to support the matriarchal utopia theory. Religious scholar Cynthia Eller, in The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, argues that the story of “a matriarchal utopia and a patriarchal takeover” is a myth made popular by feminists in the United States, England and Germany to give credence to women’s history (and pre-history). Still, since the 1970s, the myth has been passed along to the general public through the women’s spirituality movement.
THE POWER OF MYTH
Although the figure of the crone may not be a historical fact, says Donna Wilshire in Virgin Mother Crone, the goddess figure holds “metaphoric truth” that resonates on conscious and subconscious levels. Feminist historian Barbara Walker agrees. “To a larger extent than we realize,” she writes in The Crone: Woman of Age, Wisdom, and Power, “culture is symbolism. Most of the contents of our minds come to us through words and images that words project.” These images and symbols help us understand ourselves, individually and collectively. They show us “our own motives, impulses, faults, fears and guilts,” Walker continues.
For Wilshire and Walker, the crone can teach us to accept aging and death as natural aspects of the life cycle. She looks death in the eye, including the kind we are all afraid of — death in old age, from a long disease, after the slow degeneration of mind and body. When we avoid looking at death in old age, we do an injustice to ourselves and to our fellow beings, says Walker: “Care of deteriorating bodies may be turned over to impersonal professionals who work for pay, not for love. The dying person’s desperate emotional needs may go unanswered because others cannot face his weakness.”
Psychoanalyst Bolen uses C. G. Jung’s concept of the “collective unconscious” to explain the connection between ancient myths and real people’s thoughts and behaviors. Jung theorized that a reservoir of ideas, experiences, images and symbols related to the human condition, which he called archetypes, exist at the unconscious level in all human beings. This reservoir is probably genetically encoded and inherited, but for Jung it was also spiritually meaningful; it is our link to the “one mind” that connects us all to a realm beyond the physical world.
For Bolen, the triple goddess is one such archetype. The crone can be “activated” in the individual through hormones, inherited predispositions, family and community encouragement, life circumstances and stages of life. It can be activated collectively through education, the media and social movements.
Activating the crone image at this time in history, as Golden Girls and Harry’s Law did in a Hollywood manner, would benefit society, says Bolen. When the crone archetype is activated, the old woman is valued, her image is widely circulated and actual women of crone age become more visible and influential. When the crone archetype is feared and suppressed, as it has been in Western culture for centuries, the image of the old woman becomes ugly; she is a witch or hag. Actual old women are trivialized, ignored, and made fun of; they hold little social value, and they are regarded as “burdens” on society.
WHAT ABOUT MEN?
Although the crone archetype is feminine, she exists in the collective unconscious of all human beings and can be activated in anyone, including men. Bolen believes that “exceptional” men can be crones if they have given up their attachment to achievement and social recognition, use past experience wisely to assist others, and show compassion and commitment to caring. These men may be retired, or they may have visible roles in the world, but they are not motivated by success. In Crones Don’t Whine, Bolen describes the male crone in terms of his relationships with others and himself rather than his worldly achievements: he has “mentored younger people, looked after others and has formed deep and lasting relationships. He has grown psychologically and spiritually through a combination of suffering and whatever he used to grow through the experience.” Most importantly, “he is motivated and sustained by love rather than power…”
All over the world, women — and some men — have been working to recover the image of the crone. Besides a growing body of scholarship and literature, websites and chat rooms support crone culture. Crone Chronicles, published from 1989-2001 with the stated purpose of activating the crone archetype within the collective conscious, has been succeeded by Crone Magazine, which proceeds on the belief that the archetype has been successfully activated. Many women now call themselves crones, and they now need ideas and inspiration for social action. The magazine reports on the lives of real women in their elder years who live consciously and make a difference in their communities. It also reviews books, films and other media that promote positive images of aging and old age.
In Boise, Idaho, Jeanine and Jon Lesniak sell “all things sacred and wise” at the Crone’s Cupboard. They have been in business for 19 years providing self-help books and products of a psychological and spiritual nature, including items by local craft people, and offering classes, workshops and a place for women to congregate. Jeanine, who calls herself a crone, believes that older women have “magick” — the ability to use objects such as candles, stones and herbs to call forth different energies. Jeanine explains that, in pagan and earth-based spiritual practices, the crone and her male counterpart, the “sage,” provide important roles in communities by “holding the history.” They tell stories with moral lessons and look out for future generations. The Lesniaks say that there is an active crone culture in Boise, with many women identifying themselves as crones. The Red Hat Society, which has chapters in the Treasure Valley, is one modern version of a crone circle that celebrates the lives of women over 50.
It takes courage to grow old in an ageist culture that diminishes old people. Lacking media images that promote the value of old men and women, Americans will need to activate the crone archetype by other means. We could start with our own lives, challenging negative stereotypes and refusing to buy into a consumer culture that tells us we need anti-aging products and expensive procedures when our bodies show signs of aging. We could focus more on the potential advantages (to ourselves and others) of growing old — competence in many areas, greater self-knowledge and acceptance, emotional maturity, coping skills and resilience. We would do well to cultivate a good sense of humor about the losses and limitations of old age. Golden Girls can help us here. The character Rose Nylund, played by Betty White, learned a valuable lesson from a crone in her own life: “My mother always used to say, ‘The older you get the better you get — unless you’re a banana.’”
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.