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Fantasies of Flight$

Daniel M. Ogilvie

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780195157468

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195157468.001.0001

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(p.222) Appendix Women in Flight

(p.222) Appendix Women in Flight

Fantasies of Flight
Oxford University Press

When I decided to make fantasies of flight my point of entry into case studies, Peter Pan, Marc Chagall, and all of the others came knocking on my door. Larry Walters leapt from the pages of a story written about him by George Plimpton, and the other Larry, the long distance runner, wandered into my office looking for advice about colleges. Marshall Herff Applewhite glared at me from the front pages of newspapers, and Dumbo drifted to mind on a rainy afternoon when few rented videos presented a welcome break from a card game called war. All of these individuals and characters are men, of course, and that became a source of concern. Initially, the problem of a potential gender bias did not concern me because I believed it would only be a matter of time and patience before the gender gap would be filled. But no women (real-life1 or fictional) “found” me, so I took steps to find them.

My intention was to locate women candidates for case studies who showed promise of matching the pattern contained in the model created from case studies of male ascensionists. When my search began in earnest, two psychoanalysts informed me that they had treated numerous female patients whose dreams and fantasies of flight contained the sorts of regressive, “searching-for-Mom” elements that I have described. Although I trusted their words, I could not simply report that information and declare the case closed. I needed a good deal more than secondhand reports about the psychodynamics of some “very disturbed” women patients to draw the parallels I had in mind.

Determined to let no stone go unturned, I conducted surveys, asked women to write about their dreams of flying (one out of three women recall (p.223) such dreams), and interviewed women who agreed to speak with me about levitation fantasies as they pertain to their lives. I attended exhibitions devoted to women’s art in search of paintings containing flying figures. I read about the life of Amelia Earhart and rediscovered something I already knew—pilots are not particularly noted for having the sorts of fantasies of flying that have been targeted for analysis in this book. These and other activities have not been as productive as I had thought they would be, and I am currently inclined to believe that gender differences may be one of the sources of my difficulty. The following “progress report” addresses this possibility.

Two thematic patterns appear to be especially common in women’s fantasies of flight: the theme of freedom and the theme of rescue. Neither of these themes should be viewed as specific to women, because men generate them as well. But my informal scorekeeping gives an edge to women. The next two sections include a few (of many possible) examples of the kinds of evidence on which this claim is based.


“I often see myself as a butterfly in my dreams and, more recently, in my waking fantasies,” writes a thirty-two-year-old woman; in an interview with me, she said that a butterfly made its first appearance in the following dream. Making no distinction between herself and the butterfly, she told me that she was in a garden flitting from flower to flower. Suddenly some children appeared with butterfly nets and tried to capture her. She flew beyond the reach of the nets and, looking down, saw the faces of the children turn into the faces of her parents. The dream and variations of it occurred throughout her adolescence. She spoke about how strenuously she resisted the restrictions her parents placed on her activities, particularly as they contrasted with the lenient, “verging on no rules” treatment allowed her brothers. In addition, she believed that she was far more constrained than any of her peers. Her curfew was ten o’clock on her one weekend night, in comparison to the midnight curfews for her friends on their three weekend night releases.

This woman’s frustration continued beyond her adolescence. As a young middle-aged adult she continued to experience constraints of a different sort, particularly in her job, and edited her butterfly dreams and waking fantasies accordingly. “I work very hard. I am good at what I do. Sometimes I get a pat on the back. But come promotion time, I become invisible. When that happens, I arm my butterflies with things that would hurt if dropped onto the heads of managers who are holding me back.”

Along similar lines, another woman writes: “Flying for me is a statement of defiance. It symbolizes my desire to grow beyond the boundaries (p.224) society imposes on me, or should I say, on my gender.” That is close to one of the components of the plot line of Erica Jong’s novel Fear of Flying.2 The story’s heroine, Isadora, agonizes over her career, her marriages, her liaisons, her sexuality, her body, her life, as she struggles to find her voice. Fear of flying is a metaphoric reference to the fear that accompanies the heroine’s ambivalence about discovering who she “really” is and becoming that person. She variously fights against and surrenders to social forces that keep her grounded and feeling powerless.


Superman and other comic-book heroes are depicted as descending for the purpose of protecting the innocent and punishing the bad guys. More compassionate versions of that theme appear regularly in the private fantasies of some women. A former student of mine wrote:

Up to the point when my parents started to scream at each other, I could count on them to look after me. But my mother was a total wreck after my parents split up and I took on the job of taking care of my little sister. I guess you could say that I became my own mother. I mothered myself and I mothered my sister. Now I mother almost everyone in my life. I almost hate to admit it but there are times when I have fantasies of flying over my town and the surrounding countryside looking for people to help.

This woman’s fantasies parallel Mary Poppins’s adventures as described in several books written by the Australian author Pamela Travers.3

As the accompanying illustration from one of the books shows, Mary Poppins descended from on high and entered the Banks family as a nanny for the four, and later, five children. She was a magical woman with several magical friends. She liked the children, sweetened their medicine when they were feeling ill, and did all she could to make up for their parents’ negligence. At least that was Walt Disney’s film version of one of the books. Somehow the movie left out or glossed over some of Mary Poppins’s less attractive features in Travers’s characterization of her. I didn’t see Julie Andrews (who played Mary Poppins in the movie) “glare like a panther” at the children. Nor did I see Ms. Andrews take admiring glances at herself on nearly every reflective surface in her vicinity. She “never tells anybody anything,” the children complained (in the book, that is), but never mind, they love her despite her annoying secrecy. Then, of course, when her work is done, she flies away, presumably to find other children who might benefit from a dose of her magic. Despite Mary Poppins’s rough edges (again in the books), she exemplifies the theme of coming down from the skies to tend to the needs of others.


Appendix Women in Flight

From P. L. Travers, Mary Poppins Opens the Door (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1943). © Harcourt Trade Publishers. Used by permission.

The theme of Mary Poppins dropping in on the Banks family can be considered a specific instance of a more general phenomenon that Robert May4 has researched. In a study of TAT stories, May applied a scoring system for identifying two narrative patterns: ascension followed by descension, and descension followed by ascension. May refers to these patterns as “narrative cycles” and reports that the former cycle, a rise followed by a fall, is more common in men’s stories than it is in women’s stories. That is, male characters (constructed by males) are depicted as exaggerating their abilities or emphasizing positive emotions near the beginning of a story (scored as “enhancement” in May’s system). As the story progresses, they confront obstacles they cannot overcome and begin their descent (scored as “deprivation” in May’s system). By contrast, women tend to begin stories by describing central characters (heroines) who underestimate or devalue their worth (deprivation). Their victorious ascent arrives at the end of the story (enhancement). May argues that these mirror-image patterns are products of culturally conditioned gender-role differences. Briefly, here are a few details of that argument.

(p.226) May’s position is built on a distinction between “agency” and “communion,” originally made by David Bakan.5 Agency refers to an orientation toward separateness, independence, individuality, and personal achievement. Bakan observes that agency is the prevalent male orientation. Communion refers to an orientation toward developing and maintaining interpersonal relationships. It is aimed at fostering emotional closeness, intimacy, and sharing. Caring for (and taking care of) others is its hallmark, and Bakan proposes that it represents the feminine mode of existence. This distinction has gained widespread acceptance in social science literature.6

Taking care of others involves making self-sacrifices (May’s deprivation) for the good of the family. It requires paying attention to the needs of others, and sometimes ignoring one’s personal desires. Rewards for this sacrifice are feelings associated with a job well done (May’s enhancement). In this context, girls and boys are given different messages. Girls are conditioned to be “like” their mothers, while boys are conditioned to be “unlike” their mothers. Nancy Chodorow7 has written extensively about this pattern, observing that it can be the source of great consternation on the part of a male child who interprets the mother’s urgings for him to be unlike her to be tantamount to rejection. Chodorow argues that this is less of a problem for girls because their relationships with their mothers are more continuous, enhancing the chances of them identifying with the mother and preparing to assume her communal orientation.

Combining May’s theory with David Bakan’s distinction between agency and communion and using that mixture as a base for integrating Nancy Chodorow’s ideas about gender-related childrearing practices could provide a productive context for beginning a series of case studies for the purpose of working out some of the individual details of the general patterns these scholars propose.

Finally, certain that Mary Poppins is not the only figure that levitates in stories written by female authors, I compiled a list of other women based on the recommendations of others who were aware of the nature of my search. Taking advantage of Rutgers University’s multiple libraries and rich collections, I borrowed several dozen books written by these authors. I read them, returned them, and ordered dozens more. The majority of these books were written for children, and to my disappointment only a few featured individuals capable of flying. Some do, however, and the majority of the main characters are boys or men. Only a handful of the books mention girls who fly. One of them, Emma in Winter, is written by Penelope Farmer.8 It begins with the passage: “One night Emma dreamed she could fly again.” In fact, flying dreams are almost nightly occurrences for Emma. But it quickly becomes apparent that the author is using flight as a metaphor for coping with issues of adolescent maturation. Bobby Fumpkin, the local nerd, accompanies Emma in her dreams. Remarkably, Fumpkin dreams the same dreams (p.227) dreamt by Emma. Their mutual dreams appear to be shaped to reflect the status of their relationships both with each other and with their schoolmates. In sum, Emma in Winter was a less promising lead than I originally hoped it might be.9

I experienced another rush a few days later when I glanced at the illustrations of a book authored by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik.10 There she was, a girl with reddened lips, wearing a frilly dress, off on a levitated voyage (the picture reproduced here is very much like several others).

My enthusiasm plummeted when I discovered the girl was a boy, a fact I would have known if I had read the book’s title (The Little Lame Prince) before looking at the illustrations. Even so, the central theme of the book is “on topic” here, in the sense that the adventures of the prince, Prince Dolor, elaborate on a familiar script. The prince’s mother and father (the king and queen) die, and an evil uncle declares that their crippled infant son, Prince Dolor, also passed away. Prince Dolor, however, is not dead. His uncle had exiled him to the Hopeless Tower, in the middle of a desert, where, unaware of his heritage, he would have remained for the duration of this life had it not been for the magical intervention of a kindly old woman (often disguised as a bird) who, among many other things, provided him with a magic flying cloak. Upon the death of his evil (p.228) uncle, Prince Dolor returned to the castle and faithfully ruled his kingdom until he retired from the throne. His favorite room in the castle was a little upper room that had been his mother’s room, where she used to sit for hours watching the Beautiful Mountains. The thematic sequence of loss (abandonment), isolation, and return by flight to the mother’s chambers is reminiscent of Barrie’s little white bird.

Appendix Women in Flight

From The Little Lame Prince and Adventures of a Brownie: Illustrated Junior Library by Dinah Maria Mulock Craik, illustrated by Lucille Corcos, copyright 1948 by Grosset & Dunlap. Used by permission of Grosset & Dunlap, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 345 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014. All rights reserved.

This sequence is also found in some of the science fiction novels written by the award-winning author Ursula Le Guin. For example, the main character in City of Illusions11 is a man named Falk whose adventures take place in a forested land that once was the landmass of the United States. The year is 4370 A.D. Falk’s problem is that he has no memory. His only hope of discovering who he is and from whence he came is to travel to the city of Es Toch. Aided by a flying machine (called a “slider”) and accompanied by Estrel, a woman who would eventually betray him, he makes it to the city. In the illusory city of Es Toch, Falk discovers the coordinates of his birth planet. The novel ends with Falk in a spaceship. Earth falls away as it enters into unending sunlight. Just then, the ship breaks free of time and thrusts into darkness. “Was he going home, or leaving home?” asks the author.12

These two books, The Little Lame Prince and City of Illusions, are among several other books written by women about boys and men who fly. Women know the script. J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter13 series, knows the script. The voyage of the hero is not a mystery to women. Likewise, women enrolled in courses in which I have assigned this book in its prepublished form understand what it is about and are enthusiastic about its contents. They tend not to fret nearly as much as men do about the absence of case studies of women. Perhaps women have grown accustomed to males writing about males and, if so, I apologize for contributing to that tradition. But I am as convinced as I can be at this point that the process of working further on the “problem” of the scarcity of female exemplars of a model created to understand male fantasies of flying will transform the “problem” into an “opportunity” that, if taken, promises to deepen our understanding of gender-based needs and orientations for satisfying them.


(1) . One missed opportunity continues to haunt me. A woman, probably in her mid- to late twenties, worked out daily in the weight room of a gymnasium I frequented before I got lazy. This woman’s body featured shoulders that were objects of envy even among the male “regulars,” whose primary mission in life was to chisel eye-popping physiques. The most notable piece of this woman’s workout schedule was to grasp a chin-up bar with her hands and hang motionless for twenty minutes. Rumor had it that she had mentioned to the weight room supervisor that she was building up her shoulder strength in the hopes of being able to fly. Rumor also had it that she was not receptive to attempts to converse with her. I let the matter rest until an occasion to speak with her arose when I was entering the facility and she was leaving. An elderly man who regularly drove her back and forth from the gym accompanied her. I had been told that he was her father. I smiled and introduced myself to them. The hand I offered to be shaken was ignored, and they (p.244) walked out the door. I followed them into the parking lot and attempted to speak with them about my admiration of the remarkable feats of strength I had observed on the part of the daughter. Undaunted by their reluctance to respond and pretending not to be rattled by the awkwardness of the situation, I persisted by asking if it might not be possible for us to set up a time to talk about various ways to exercise. The father stopped and sternly took me aside. He told me his daughter “had problems” and, in no uncertain terms, informed me that I was to leave her alone. So much for that. Science is one thing. Stalking is quite another.

(2) . E. Jong, Fear of flying: A novel. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1973.

(3) . The following books are included in the Mary Poppins series by P. L. Travers: Mary Poppins opens the door. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1943; Mary Poppins in the park. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1952; and Mary Poppins. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1962.

(4) . R. May, Sex and fantasy: Patterns of male and female development. New York: Norton, 1980.

(5) . D. Bakan, The duality of human existence. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1966.

(6) . For instance, the psychologist Carol Gilligan has written extensively about gender differences in regard to the distinction between agency and communion. She argues that, in general, women are more oriented toward relationships (i.e., communion) than are men. See, for example, C. A. Gilligan, In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

(7) . N. Chodorow, The reproduction of mothering: Psychoanalysis and the sociology of gender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

(8) . P. Farmer, Emma in winter. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1966.

(9) . Mary Louisa Molesworth (better known as simply Mrs. Molesworth) was born in 1839 and died in 1921. She wrote over one hundred books for children. In one of these books, The cuckoo clock (1877; reprint, New York: MacMillan, 1893) Griselda, the heroine, develops a relationship with an imaginary friend, a cuckoo that lives in a clock. He visits her, mostly at night when she is asleep, and on various occasions carries her on his back as they travel to fantasy locations the cuckoo wants Griselda to visit. Griselda’s mother had died and she had been sent to live with two aunts. They were kind to her and also quite demanding. (They were also upper-class snobs, but that unquestioned virtue pervades many of Mrs. Molesworth’s books.) Some maternal qualities are attributed to the cuckoo, as he makes sure that Griselda’s head is comfortably positioned when they fly and he wraps one of his wings around her to keep her warm. But unlike Peter Pan, who did not want to grow up, Griselda looks forward to maturation, and the cuckoo provides assistance in that regard. In fact, he arranges for Griselda to meet a boy named Phil. The friendship between Griselda and Phil terminates the cuckoo’s visits, and he resumes permanent residence in the clock.

(10) . D. M. M. Craik, The little lame prince. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1948.

(11) . U. K. Le Guin, City of illusions. New York: Ace Books, 1967.

(12) . Le Guin, City of illusions, p. 160.

(13) . J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the sorcerer’s stone. New York: Scholastic, 1997.