By now, you’ve likely heard Girl on Fire, Alicia Key’s new single. It’s all over the radio and was even recently featured in the Fox television series Glee.
“She’s just a girl and she’s on fire,” Keys sings in her raspy trademark voice. “Hotter than a fantasy, lonely like a highway. She’s living in a world, and it’s on fire. Feeling the catastrophe, but she knows she can fly away.” And then in a thick, emotionally charged and power-filled tone, she belts, “This girl is on fire, this girl is on fire. She’s walking on fire, this girl is on fire.”
The concept of passion-filled “girl on fire” is an interesting and alluring one, and it resonates deeply with me every time I hear the song. So deeply in fact, that the melody and lyrics continue to reverberate in my head, long after the song has finished playing.
Keys says not only the song but the entire album is about her stepping into her “complete womanhood,” and her journey to “becoming fearless.” During an interview with Billboard magazine in November 2012, and referring to recent events in her life – marriage, motherhood, co-managing her own career, producing and directing a Broadway plan and a short film, and designing a line of trainers for Reebok – she said, “These last three years have been the most in every way. The most newest, the most difficult, the most loving, the most dream-filled, the most breaking free…an entire crazy dynamic of lessons and emotions to grow into and claim. This whirlwind has definitely forced me to be who I am, to be free enough and brave enough to just not accept anything else, nor try to be anything else."
Keys was inspired by Katniss Everdeen, the “girl on fire” and main character in Suzanne Collins’ adventure novel series The Hunger Games. Katniss, a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol's oppression, is beautiful and well educated, loyal and kind hearted, and a survivor who will endure any hardship to safeguard her own life and the lives of her family. She protects those she loves, no matter the cost, and she is willing to die for her cause. Fiercely independent and fearless, she has no plans to marry or have children of her own. (In a 2008 interview with the School Library Journal, Collins says that her heroine is a futuristic Theseus. In Greek mythology, Theseus battled and overcame foes and eventually killed the Minotaur.)
Why is the concept of “girl on fire” so appealing? Is it because she’s unlike the traditional female in some ways? Is it because she’s like the traditional female in recognizable ways? I suspect it’s both. “Girl on fire” resembles a paradoxical mixture of the traditional female – the woman who cares for and nurtures her family – and the passionate and rebellious feline – the woman who rebels, battles the establishment, and burns her bra, so to speak.
We’ve witnessed this ardent, fiery and disobedient female at multiple points in our human history. We watched her in action during the rise of Christianity and again in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries with the resurgence of mysticism. We watched her during the Reformation and the Renaissance, and again in the nineteenth century when she spoke out against slavery, fought against her second class status, and claimed the right to vote.
Just as history has demonstrated, we know that women have it in them to rise up in fiery passion to fight for the greater good. Why then does the concept of “girl on fire” seem so new in the twenty-first century?
In an article called The Fire of Freedom: A Brief History Of Women’s Spiritual Uprisings published in EnlightenNext Magazine in 2007, Dr. Elizabeth Debold, developmental psychologist and founding member of the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development, writes: “From time to time in the course of Western history, by the necessity of larger survival needs or an unknown imperative from Spirit itself, women have taken off their aprons, handed over the sleeping child, stepped outside the snug harbor of the home, and abandoned themselves to a spiritual vision and consciousness that threw the accepted roles and strictures for women into the air.” And, she says, “Virtually every time this happens, a leap in culture, a move toward greater social freedom, erupts, often with revolutionary force. But then it seems, over and over again, women return to the protected circle of home and hearth.”
Debold calls women “mothers of both the status quo and of revolution” because women have played a contradictory and sometimes puzzling role in the evolution of culture. Traditionally, the role of women has been to ensure the propagation of the species, but at other times, “women [have] made conscious choices toward the new.” And it might just be these conscious choices by women to create something new, Debold argues, that brings about giant shifts in our culture. “When the keepers of culture step outside their prescribed roles, something has got to give,” she writes.
If we look back in time, about ten thousand years ago, it’s likely that women played an important role in the development of agriculture. We see this attitude reflected in early religions. During the agricultural age, early humans honoured and revered the Goddess of Fertility. She was more powerful than the God of the Sky, her male partner. She was the dominant form in the myths of ancient Mesopotamia, the Egyptian Nile, and in earlier planting-culture systems. The Goddess of Fertility was a “girl on fire”.
During the Archaic period (from 3100 BC to 2600 BC in Egypt) right through to the end of Antiquity (approximately 300 AD in Europe), the female continued as a dominant form. In Greek mythology, Gaia, the Earth-goddess, was the great mother of all. She was the daughter of Chaos and born along with creation herself. She was the mother of other gods, she bore the Titans and the hundred-armed men, and she gave birth to all humans. Gaia was also a “girl on fire”.
Debold says that the dawn of the agricultural age led to trade, writing, and the establishment of the first large-scale societies and empires. In order to keep society growing, women had children and spent much of their time raising them. And when warrior cultures were established between 1150 and 250 BCE, women needed to be protected by men in order to survive and to raise their children. The “girl on fire” returned home.
Christianity emerged from warrior cultures and during the rise of Christianity, women were “willing to step outside the enclave of male protection.” Once again, the “girl on fire” returned to support Christ’s radical message: “Every human being is equal in god and every human being can find freedom through a direct relationship with God.” The response of women to Christ’s message was extraordinary. For several decades after Jesus’ death, women were “on fire.” They held leadership positions in local Christian groups and they became prophets and teachers. Debold argues that Christianity may have emerged forcefully due to the numbers of women who were inspired during this time. At the very least, she says, it is believed that Constantine, the emperor who transformed the pagan empire into a Christian one, converted as an act of love and respect for his Christian mother. Constantine’s mother, in all likelihood, was a “girl on fire.”
During the height of the Roman Empire, pagan religions – the belief in male and female gods – were suppressed and women were reduced to an inferior position. The role of the female eventually became restricted. Masculine rulers usurped feminine power in the societies they conquered and ruled, absorbing and distorting the feminine into their own beliefs. Over time, goddesses became saints and were reinvented as nuns. The Goddess/Mother figure began to disappear from view, and eventually the female principle was silenced. The Christian trinity, which had previously been represented by Maiden, Mother, and Crone, each symbolizing a stage in the female life cycle, was replaced by a male deity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Once again, women resumed their traditional roles as wives and mothers. Women were no longer on fire.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Debold writes, there was an “outburst of spiritual passion that led to a resurgence of mysticism.” Women, far more than men, gave themselves “fully to God”. Some entered convents and many occupied themselves in intense ascetic practices designed to honour God. At the same time, courtly love was expressed through the songs and poetry of the male troubadours, and women were once again celebrated. However, Black Death came along and many of the convents were wiped out along with much of the population of Europe. It was at this time that the Cult of the Virgin Mary blossomed in Europe. Debold suggests this may all be one movement in consciousness: female mystics, the idea of courtly love, and the cult of the Virgin, all “girls on fire.”
Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation began in 1517 and, even though thousands of women were accused of witchcraft and killed during the Witch Trials of the early modern period, women stepped forward again. During the Reformation, women became rebels. They protested, fought and martyred themselves. And during the Age of Enlightenment, feminism began to gain some momentum. Urban women were allowed to own land and businesses, and they began to open their homes and businesses to writers. Some women themselves began to write and publish their own works, while others sponsored the writing of men by running the “salons” in which men would gather. Women were once again “on fire.”
However, they continued to face many obstacles. It was frowned upon for women to speak their opinion in public or in the company of men, and while women were allowed to run the salons and other popular places in which men congregated and debated each other, they were not allowed to attend these sessions. While some men supported equality for women, most men held traditional beliefs regarding a man’s dominance in marriage and family. Rousseau, one of the scholars of the time, wrote that men and women occupied separate “spheres”—the Worldly Sphere was for men while the Domestic Sphere was for women—and that women should be educated only to best subordinate themselves to men. Society continued to be patriarchal and hierarchical, with women occupying an inferior position. “Girl on fire” fizzled out.
In the early nineteenth century, women spoke out again, to fight against slavery and their own second-class status. They were ridiculed and questioned but, Debold writes, they were “tireless and fearless, and their words prophetic.” And the leaders of the suffrage movement worked hard to be given the right to vote. “Millions of women petitioned and marched. But after 1920, once the vote was won, women rushed back home again.” The girl was no longer on fire.
After the Great Depression and WWII, along came the baby boom generation and prosperity for many. Young educated women fought for civil rights and against the Vietnam War and they began to fight for their own rights, “creating a tidal wave of consciousness change that wreaked havoc with tradition and then swept across the Atlantic to Europe.” Sexuality, work, marriage, children and religion were questioned and changed. “Under this scrutiny,” Debold writes, “the authority of the established order that divided the world by gender began to crumble.” These women did not return home. Perhaps they wanted to but they couldn’t. “Now women have choices that would have boggled the minds of our fore sisters. Marriage, children, and all that has been the core of women’s lives have become optional, not just for a few courageous souls but for all of us postmodern women. The house has fallen down.”
Debold reminds us that with each of these spiritual uprisings of women, a leap in culture erupted. But then, every single time, women returned home and back to the traditional role of nurturing wife and mother. “Following the trail of these culture shifts – traveling from the savannah to the Roman provinces, moving through Europe, stopping in France and crossing to America – at each cataclysmic confrontation between the old and the new, we find women. Inspired women defied the authority of the Roman Empire, the early church, the medieval church, the custom of the courts, the ideals of perfect womanhood, and the demand to marry and bear children…At each of the brief moments when women rose to reach beyond the known, there has been a sudden illumination like the flash of a camera, revealing the potential for women and men to be social and spiritual equals. And after each glimpse, women abandoned their hard-won freedom and autonomy, got caught in the undertow of tradition, and sided with the powerful forces that custom can rally to its defense. Until now.”
Debold writes that the entire course of human history, up until now, has been based on the need to protect the mother-child pairing. “Women’s relationship to children, and to the men who have protected us, has always been the ground of our existence.” Even though this “dyad” no longer acts as the fulcrum of our lives, women continue to believe and act as if they are dependent on men. She writes: “Millennia of carefully catalogued reasons for our subordination, both biologically and culturally imposed and self-enforced, have fallen away, and with them, surprisingly, our sense of security in relationship, our knowing who we are and what we are here for. Our freedom has cost us our core, rending the web of relatedness that has defined us – daughter of, sister of, wife of, mother of…This relatedness is a force – a program etched into the female brain to enforce the mandate to give birth, to do evolution’s bidding…”
We are at an interesting time in our culture. What will happen to the “girl on fire” now that she can’t return home? This might just be the question of the millennium.
Some are calling for the “girl on fire” to lead the way to a new and better world. Upon visiting India for the first time in 2010, at a banquet held in his honour, U.S. President Barack Obama told India Pratibha Patil, the nation’s president, that her country was doing well because it has many strong women leaders. And in a commencement speech at Barnard College, a school for women, he acknowledged that Congress would get a lot more done if more women were there, adding that women are now “poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny, but the destiny of this nation and the world.”
Others say the “girl on fire” will be in control of leading humankind out of our current state of darkness and back into the Light, and that we’ll be forced to reconsider things we’ve taken for granted. In his book Serpent of Light: Beyond 2012, Drunvalo Melchizedek writes that we will “awaken” into a new world of light, love, and ease, one where the “old male ways of controlling human life will be in disarray” and where “the female will be in control of leading humankind back into the Light.” He says the next few years will be the most important years in our human history because we have big changes ahead. These changes will come about as we find our way out of our minds and into our hearts. It will be our children who understand this, and women will follow their example into their own hearts. And then, Melchizedek believes, men will make the same shift, although with some fear and a great deal of trepidation. Without this shift, humanity will be lost to the “mental constraints that men have built to protect us over the last 13,000 years. This protection was needed in the past, but now it is our greatest hindrance to survival.”
Others say the “girl on fire” will become a liberating force for the evolving man. Barbara Marx Hubbard, co-founder and chairperson of the Foundation for Conscious Evolution (and whose name was put in nomination at the Democratic National Convention in 1984 for Vice President of the U.S.), believes we are a “species trying to rebirth” and the planet is going through “a crisis of birth.” In an interview with Web TV’s Lilou Mace called Understanding the Importance of Conscious Evolution, Marx Hubbard says that our planet can no longer grow in the way we’ve been growing. Something new is being born and everybody is part of the process. She believes that when women realize they want to be more than wives, mothers, sisters and daughters, they will liberate men from their old role of protecting and dominating to wanting the same for themselves. She says that women are beginning to feel the call for an emerging “motherhood” in which they will communicate with others about their ideas and be pioneers for a better future.
Even the Dalai Lama has weighed in. He believes the “girl on fire” will save the world. At the final session of the Mind and Life XX Conference in Zurich, Switzerland in 2010, he said that we all must develop toward a “mother-centered being,” and that women should take “more of the active leadership roles.” And he proclaimed during the Vancouver Peace Summit of 2009 that “the world will be saved by the Western woman.”
These are empowering, inspiring, and galvanizing messages, and as women, we have a huge responsibility ahead. This will no doubt be our finest hour. If we wish to tackle the enormous challenges our world currently faces, and lead the world toward another huge cultural shift, we’ll need to be fearless enough and fired up enough to embrace our fullest potential.
This time, the stakes are high. If we get this right, we will once and for all achieve true freedom. We’ll free ourselves from the old and familiar habits that are deeply engrained in our consciousness – deference, caretaking, and seeing ourselves through the eyes of men. (And we’ll free men from their deeply engrained habits to provide and protect, too.) Who would we be, Debold wonders, if we were free of these structures and the impulse to be caring? History has taught us, she writes, that “the deep changes that have moved consciousness and culture forward have not come from women who are primarily identified with our biologically based role as caretakers. Change has emerged from women who dared to defy tradition to wholeheartedly heed Spirit’s call to be free.”
“Dare we risk liberating ourselves,” she wonders, “from these habits that are so ingrained in our cells and psyches?” It’s a different kind of freedom of consciousness,” she explains, “that challenges each of us to confront and transcend the psychic habits of the past in and as ourselves. In this, women may indeed hold the keys to cultural change. Standing together as women, holding the spirit of our courageous fore sisters in our hearts, we can shift the core dynamics of dependence on men and separation from women that have held our culture in place. Then we can join with men in new way to take equal responsibility for the planetary crises we face and, together, give birth to a radically different future.”
Perhaps when Collins wrote The Hunger Games, and when Keys wrote Girl on Fire, just like the generations of women who have come before them, they were feeling the unknown imperative from Spirit itself to be free. And maybe that’s why millions of us so easily and readily identify with the book, the movie and the song.
Perhaps whenever I hear the song, I’m feeling the same urgency of Spirit that flowed through our fore sisters, that flowed through Collins and Keys and is also flowing through each of us. It’s an urgency that compels all women to defy tradition and to wholeheartedly, once and for all and without a backward glance, heed the call to be free.
“This girl is on fire, this girl is on fire. She’s walking on fire, this girl is on fire. Looks like a girl, but she’s a flame, so bright, she can burn your eyes…..burn, baby, burn, baby.”
Debbie L. Kasman
Author, Lotus of the Heart: Reshaping the Human and Collective Soul