Written by Sierra Penberthy

Historians hold immense power over the writing and creation of history and historical works, as well as the portrayal of historical figures. It is suggested that women throughout historical works suffer restrictive representation. This notion is demonstrated by Anne Summers in her 1975 novel Damned Whores and God’s Police, and Margaret Atwood, in her 1994 speech Spotty-Handed Villainesses.

Both authors effectively outline the limited portrayal of women throughout historical texts, however, both Atwood and Summers fail to recognise the possibility of a combination of portrayals surrounding a single figure. This essay argues that the complexity of women throughout history ultimately transcends these restrictive notions, as encouraged by patriarchal ideals, by examining the figure of Malinalli Tenepal.

Malinalli Tenepal has frequently been both romanticised and exaggerated in historiography, art, and other mediums to reflect the differing perspectives and historical debate surrounding her representation. Cordelia Candelaria, an American author of Hispanic descent, describes this controversial character as a ‘feminist prototype,’ while American historian T. R. Fehrenbach declares, ‘if there is one villainess in Mexican history, she is Malintzin’ (alternative name for Tenepal). She was to become the ethnic traitress supreme.’ This essay thus grapples with the narrative history and historiography of Malinalli Tenepal, and further, the representation of women throughout history.

This essay argues that a relaxation is required by Summers of her strict recognition of women throughout history by aligning her against Atwood’s similar argument. Yet Atwood too lacks the identification of a blurring of the strict societal pigeon-holing of women. Summers, Eva Figes, and Atwood have not recognised that there exists the possibility of a simultaneous duality of both identities, or that women in history aren’t able to be simply categorised, due to the multitude of perspectives from different cultural backgrounds.

The lack of appreciation for the complexity of women’s representation perpetuates the stereotypical simplicity of women in history, i.e. the cunning mistress, or the virtuous damsel. In order to ensure that a historian is discovering the closest historical truth surrounding a figure, they must ensure they utilise a wide range of perspectives from different communities, as many figures across cultures are received in different lights. A clear example of such a figure is Malinalli Tenepal.

Section I – Restricted Representations

Anne Summers, in her 1975 book ‘Damned Whores and God’s Police’ describes the two most prominent representations of women throughout history and concludes that these two depictions are the only two ways in which woman are represented.  The first portrayal, the ‘God’s Police,’ she demonstrates as positive, in which a woman fulfils the familial roles she is expected to perform.

The second, the ‘Damned Whore,’ is negative, and describes women who do not fulfil these expectations, and is in turn a punishing identity. Summers argues that historians throughout all societies are guilty of an inability to compose a historical text of a woman, in which such a woman does not fall into either category. She declares that a duality of both identities is impossible, as whilst one role is the fulfilment of the traditional feminine duties of the household, the other is the lack of such achievement. Her argument is further explained by Eva Figes, an English author and feminist, who reinforces Summers’ perception of a clear dichotomy in women’s historical composition, as she states that “Since the standard of womanhood is set by men for men and not by women, no relaxation of standards is allowable.”

Hence, the male images of women in history tend to split into either a positive or negative light. When considered in conjunction with prominent female figures of history, for example Joan of Arc, Boudicca, Cleopatra, and Madame de Pompadour, the argument of both Summers and Figes becomes of sound basis. However, through further research into the whole historiography of many female historical figures, it becomes apparent that Summers’ argument requires further analysis when considering the insights provided by the historiography of Malinalli Tenepal. Tenepal is a specific example of a woman whose representation simultaneously fulfils and fails to fulfil the expectations of womanhood, as she is concurrently depicted as a cultural figure in both a positive and negative light within different communities.

The idea of a problematic representation of women is reworked within the argument of Canadian author Margaret Atwood, in her 1994 speech, ‘Spotty-Handed Villainess: Problems of Female Bad Behaviour in the Creation of Literature’. Atwood proposes that the representation of women in all literature is restrictive and difficult, as she states she:

Tried to sort them [women] into categories… bad women who do bad things for bad reasons, good women who do good things for good reasons, good women who do bad things for good reasons, bad women who do bad things for good reasons, and so forth.

Atwood’s argument that the simple dichotomy of good woman and bad woman is too restrictive aligns well to a certain extent when exploring Tenepal’s representation, however, does not recognise the possibility of a mixture of categories. For example, Tenepal’s role within the Cholula massacre fits Atwood’s argument of a woman who does a bad thing for a good reason. However, the conclusion of whether Tenepal is a good or bad woman depends upon perspective.

Whilst the natives of Mexico cite Tenepal as the ‘ethnic traitress supreme’, Spanish chroniclers portrayed Tenepal as ‘the triumph of Christianity.’ Atwood’s argument is further outlined through her examples of famous women in literature, as she pushes the notion that the dichotomy of roles for women is too simple for a modern interpretation, as there are

Figures like Hawthorne’s adulterous Hester Prynne… who becomes a kind of sex-saint through suffering — we assume she did what she did through love, and thus she becomes a good woman who did a bad thing for a good reason.

Hence, Atwood’s argument is more appropriate than Summers’ argument when investigating how women are represented in history, though does not include space for multiple simultaneous perspectives.

Section II – The Life of Malinalli Tenepal

The historiography of Malinalli Tenepal, also known as La Malinche, reveals the inadequacies behind the claims of Summers and Atwood surrounding the binary depiction of women throughout history. Tenepal was a Nahua woman who lived between 1496 and 1529 on the Mexican Gulf Coast. Born a princess of her tribe, her father, Cacique of Paynala, died when she was young. Subsequently, her mother remarried and bore a son; an heir to her father’s throne.

Her immediate family, seeing no use for a female child, sold her to a Tabascan tribe as a slave, which in 1519 gave her and 19 other slave girls as a gift to the Spanish Conquistadors. Her linguistic talents were soon recognised, as she spoke both her native tribal tongue, the Nahuatl language, and the Chontal Maya language of the region. Later, Malinalli learnt Spanish, and became the sole interpreter for the Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés. She acted as an advisor, interpreter, and mistress, and played a critical role in the conquest of the Aztec Empire. 

Her relationship with Cortés strengthened romantically, as artwork and surviving records from the era indicate her attachment to him, often illustrating the pair together. Tenepal, in October of 1519, learnt of a plan by the Cholula natives to combine with the Aztecs and resist the Spanish army through a secret ambush. She falsely displayed support for the native community, yet warned Cortés of the attack.

This led to the infamous Cholula Massacre. She thus became known as ‘La Malinche’, a traitor to her own people. In 1522, she bore a son with Hernán Cortés, named Martin Cortés, who was predominately raised by his father’s family. Within this account of her past rests an ongoing historical debate and discourse on the portrayals and contributions of women in history, one where the historical truth becomes consumed by these representations.

Section III – Historiography, An Evaluation

The duality of representations of Malinalli Tenepal, when contrasted against Summers’ book, reveals prominent discrepancies within her argument surrounding the portrayal of women in history. As identified earlier, the first prominent representation of women in history, according to Summers, is that of ‘God’s Police.’ Popular examples throughout history of such women include the Virgin Mary and Joan of Arc; both are women who believed they were doing the work of God. Author Shep Lenchek argues

We must remember that the Spanish mission was not only to find gold and jewels, but also to convert the natives to Christianity…there can be no doubt that she [Tenepal] accepted Christianity wholeheartedly and preached it sincerely

Lenchek subsequently argues that she was a ‘true heroine,’ and a ‘remarkable woman.’ Further, historian and author Frances Karttunen in her essay ‘Rethinking Malinche’, states that throughout the early colonial period, Spanish chroniclers portrayed both Cortés and Tenepal as ‘the triumph of Christianity.’ Both contemporary and ancient historians alike agree that Tenepal played a significant role in the introduction of Christianity into South America. Through Lenchek and Karttunen’s evidence, she perfectly fits the category of pious ‘God’s Police.’

However, Tenepal also matches Summers’ ‘Damned Whore’ category, through the failure of her traditional household duties of motherhood. After giving birth to an illegitimate son, Martin Cortés el Mestizo, Tenepal left the baby in the care of Cortés’ cousin Juan Jaramillo. He never saw his mother again. Mexican novelist and politician Laura Esquivel writes;

Se culpó a sí misma por ir en contra de sus deseos con tal de permanecer al lado de ese hombre que despertaba en ella la más grande de las lujurias: el anhelo del poder, el deseo de ser diferente, única y especial. Sintió vergüenza y un dolor profundo que le recorría toda la columna vertebral. El frío del sufrimiento se interioriza en sus huesos, haciéndolo insufrible.

She blamed herself for going against his wishes in order to remain next to that man who awoke in her the greatest of the lusts: the yearning for power, the desire to be different, unique and special. She felt shame and a deep pain that ran through her entire spine. The cold of suffering is internalized in her bones, making him unbearable.

Esquivel identifies Tenepal’s regret for leaving her son with Jaramillo in her pursuit of power and describes her reasoning as being a ‘lust’ and ‘yearning for power.’ Thus, it can be argued that Tenepal did not fulfil her responsibility as a mother, and that by Summers’ standards, she becomes a ‘damned whore.’.

If one argues that women are simply always represented as one or another of two possible identities, a recognition of the exceptions – a grey area – is of necessity. Summers, in her book, does argue that women are complex beings, and require wider representation, though at no point argues that women have been and are depicted through a multitude of lenses. Tenepal’s representation challenges this, through her varied representation across different cultural communities.

The argument presented now shifts from a close analysis of the restricted duality of representation by Summers, into the more flexible and contemporary argument of Atwood. Atwood is an author, and never claims to be an historian, but her speech ‘Spotty-Handed Villainesses’ retains its relevance when exploring the restricted representation of women throughout history.

Atwood presents the concept that women are complex yet fit into a grid-like structure when analysed. She clearly identifies Summers’ perception of the black and white, good and evil interpretations, yet transforms it into a more inclusive perspective. Atwood thus recognises women in a more complex light than Summers, which aligns with the case study of Malinalli Tenepal.

Atwood claims that once a woman is placed at the centre of a story, an author is confronted with numerous questions:

Will the conflict be supplied by the natural world? Is our female protagonist lost in the jungle, caught in a hurricane, pursued by sharks? If so, the story will be an adventure story and her job is to run away, or else to combat the sharks, displaying courage and fortitude, or else cowardice and stupidity.

Atwood’s simplification of the representation of women when compared against the representation of Tenepal, and the artwork of which she is the subject, allows one to discern the limitations in Atwood’s argument. Numerous artworks and paintings of Tenepal illustrate her as either the heroic rescuer and sexual mistress, or the weak rescuee, a slave. An example of such notion is evident through a comparison of José Orozco’s 1926 painting, ‘Cortés y La Malinche,’ and Jesús de la Helguera’s 1941 artwork ‘La Malinche.’ Krisztina Zimányi, a linguist, analyses the representation of Tenepal in Orozco’s artwork:

Here the power relations are evident not only from the way Cortés’s extended left arm blocks (or protects?) the figure of a more enervated Malinche, but also from the gesture with which his left foot tramples on a young man, an allegory of the indigenous population whose face is invisible to the viewer…Judging by the positioning of the three persons and their size, La Malinche somehow appears an accomplice in the oppression, albeit in tacit agreement.

She argues that this painting illustrates Tenepal as the accomplice and power-hungry mistress who desired the fall of the Aztec Empire. This representation fits Atwood’s argument perfectly, as she ‘displays courage and fortitude.’ However, Zimányi later discusses Helguera’s 1941 work, which displays Tenepal on a horse with Cortés, leaning against him as he gazes towards the audience. She analyses that Tenepal has become ‘the image of a seductress…innocent.’

Thus, the innocence and dependency presented by Helguera is also of similarity to Atwood’s argument, as Tenepal now becomes the woman of cowardice. The possibility of a woman being presented as both the dependent and the accomplice has been overlooked by Atwood in the formulation of her argument. Atwood’s perception of the representation of women is of a more contemporary nature than that of Summers and Figes, though recognition is required that a grey area, a blurring of the binary representation, does indeed exist for women in history, literature, and art, and always has existed.

The concrete grid-like restriction of women in historiography is challenged by the figure of Tenepal. However, not only have historians dictated Tenepal’s representation throughout history, but so too have cultural communities. Through the creation of folklore, Tenepal becomes a traitor to South Americans, and a story utilised to scare children into behaving.

Section IV – La Llorona and Cultural Perspective

This essay now explores how restrictive representations are perpetuated within cultural communities through the creation of folklore. A clear example of this is the life of Malinalli Tenepal being transformed into the story of La Llorona.

La Llorona, which translates into English as ‘The Weeping Woman’, is a Latin American folktale that describes the ghost of a woman who drowned her two young children as a result of jealousy, and forever weeps whilst searching for them by rivers and bodies of water. It is said that anybody who hears or sees her suffers immense misfortune, and even death. The story is primarily used by South American parents to scare their children into coming home before dark. 

There are numerous other regional versions of this folktale which reflect the story of Tenepal. One version is from a rural Mexican village, and describes a rich nobleman riding a horse through the village, who stops upon sighting a beautiful woman named María. He had travelled all over the world but had never seen anybody as beautiful as her. The couple married, and had two sons, though eventually the nobleman began to ignore María, and had an affair. In anger, María, similar to the original story, drowned her two sons and then herself. 

Overall, there are two central representations of La Llorona; ‘La Llorona crying for her children and La Llorona as a seducer of men’. Many parallels are evident between the story of Tenepal and the story of La Llorona. It can be argued that both lost their children, Tenepal’s metaphorical children being her fellow South Americans, and La Llorona’s literal children, due to their hamartia; Tenepal’s hunger for power at the cost of the Aztec Empire, and La Llorona’s jealousy towards the focus of her husband’s attention.

The representation of Tenepal as a sexual traitress is also very similar to La Llorona’s ‘seducer of men’ representation. Further, the story of the worldly nobleman upon a horse is strikingly similar to Hernán Cortés, especially as the first domesticated horses to arrive in South America were with Cortés in 1519. Dr Julee Tate, a historian who specialises in Latin American literature, supports this argument, though further identifies that the creation of La Llorona was a direct result of the perception of Tenepal among the Mexican community as a traitor. She states that

This condemnation of Malinche lives on in present-day Mexican folklore and reinforces the negative views that most Mexicans hold of their symbolic mother…It is a period during which Mexico rejects Spain and, with it, their symbolic mother who is seen as an accomplice of the Spaniards and therefore a traitor to her own people.

Thus, as a community perceives a historical figure in a certain way, in this case, Tenepal as the ‘Damned Whore’ who betrayed her own children, the story is generated and retold for generations. The folklore, however, is limited, as it fails to portray María, or Tenepal, through the representation of ‘God’s Police’. For this reason, any historian who studies Tenepal must consider different representations of her, including artworks and poetry, in order to truly formulate a holistic account of her life.

In conclusion, as historians compose texts about historical figures, it is of upmost importance that all perspectives are considered. Women throughout history, in particular, have fallen victim to simplistic representations, which fail to demonstrate the complexity of their lives and personalities.

As this essay has demonstrated through a close analysis of the representation of Malinalli Tenepal, different cultural communities have differing perspectives of historical figures, ultimately determined by which side of history they were on. To only consider one perspective and attempt to compose a holistic view of a complex figure, will not have enough proximity to historical truth. 

Malinalli Tenepal is a clear example of this concept. Authors including Summers, Atwood, and Figes, all identify the limited portrayal in history of women, though they do not recognise that a multitude of portrayals surrounding a single woman is possible. The categories and restrictions identified by these authors can be utilised to describe the representation of women within different communities and can be found within sources like folktales. However, these restricted sources can never be effectively utilised to compose a comprehensive account of a woman’s life.


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