Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly


On her book Beauty or Beast? The Woman Warrior in the German Imagination from the Renaissance to the Present

Cover Interview of December 21, 2010

In a nutshell

This book examines the huge number of artistic representations of women warriors that exist in German from the Renaissance to the present—on the stage, in the opera house, on the page, and in paintings and prints.  Some of these depict historical figures, but in most cases they are re-imaginings of women warriors to be found in mythology, ancient and medieval history, and the Bible.

These ancient sources of western culture tell stories about the woman warrior because she is, by definition, a transgressive and therefore frightening figure.  She leaves her proper female sphere, takes up a weapon, goes to war and, in some cases, even kills.  She may be doing this from the best of motives, she may be mandated by God, the gods, or her own people.  But the idea of a woman with the potential to kill causes deep unease.

The woman with the sword, whether Amazon, Judith, Valkyrie, or heroic maiden, plays a central role in German cultural consciousness from at least the 15th up to the first half of the 20th century.  It would be possible to show that many of those imaginings are just as numerous in the Middle Ages.

These representations of the woman warrior are of women by men and so convey male desires and male fears.

The male fear of a woman who is as strong as a man, who cannot be tamed because she is holding a weapon, who has the power to kill and who perhaps has already killed is very deep-seated.  At the same time, she is deeply fascinating—provided the man can tame her.  She is both the embodiment of beauty and an object of desire.  And she is beastly, the personification of temptation, of duplicity, and of crazed violence, the object of fear and loathing.