Mary Magdalene – FKA Twigs’ Exposition of the Biblical Patriarchy

Meiran Carlson, Staff Writer

Surface Magazine

When the leaves start to turn every year, I feel myself getting nostalgic for the kind of music I typically listen to as the weather gets colder. Sometimes that means I’m listening to The Cure. Sometimes it means Fiona Apple. Today, I felt the urge to listen to FKA Twigs’ MAGDALENE. As I was listening, despite having heard her music hundreds of times, one song in particular struck me with a new weight. 

 As I listened to Mary Magdalene, the fifth track on the album, I felt inclined to understand the true meaning of the words Twigs was singing/speaking. I had always thought of the song as having a deeper feminist implication, and I had a vague idea of what it could mean, but I hadn’t done the actual research until today. 

 FKA Twigs defines herself as spiritual rather than religious. I also do not identify with a particular faith, but rather dabble my beliefs in what feels right to me. That being said, I have very little Christian/Catholic biblical knowledge, and felt that to properly understand this song, I had to first do research on who exactly Mary Magdalene was. The story I heard most often was that she was a prostitute, or in the way I have heard many refer to her, a “whore.” However, a deeper look at her background tells us that her narrative has changed throughout history. 

Mary Magdalene was quite close with Jesus, according to historical retellings. She acted as a disciple of Jesus and was essentially his right-hand woman. There are biblical notes that they were secretly married and had a secret child together. While no one really knows if this is true, these inklings of a romance between Jesus, someone who was lauded and commended as a pure, male, savior of the people, and one of his female followers, were taken and turned against Mary Magdalene, with no regard to her role as an important biblical figure. She was a healer, she aided Jesus, and remained by his side through his crucifixion, and was very famously the first person he saw after rising from the dead. But because of the notion that there may have been something more between the two, the all-male leaders of the Catholic church felt the need to discredit her and take control of her narrative – a narrative which was not theirs to take. They created the myth that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute and began this biblical and religious cycle of patriarchal control over women. It was easier for them to believe that she was a “whore,” than to really take into consideration her influence over Jesus and over the religion they hold so dearly. Of course, biblical patriarchy most likely existed in ways before Mary Magdalene’s narrative shift, but this is a prime example of this happening within the Catholic and Christian communities. 

So where does FKA Twigs come into this? During the making of her album, Twigs went through a procedure to remove fibroid tumors on her ovaries. The procedure disconnected her from her body and her sexuality, and she credits Mary Magdalene as an inspiration she looked to as she regained her confidence as a woman. Mary Magdalene also served as the push to help Twigs finish her album, and she titled it in her name. 

The song, Mary Magdalene, serves, like the actual Mary Magdalene, as a testament to how any woman can be subject to this sort of criticism. Any woman can face this lack of control over their own narrative, because we live in a society where men feel they have the ability to decide what belongs to them and then take it. While we have certainly progressed from biblical times and from the initial waves of feminism, there is still this patriarchal grip on women. FKA Twigs speaks to it in this song. She uses her lyrics to play to the idea of Mary Magdalene as a figure of female empowerment, and discusses women’s happiness as it pertains to them – how it makes them feel connected to themselves, their bodies, and their minds. 

The first set of lyrics goes: “A woman’s work/A woman’s prerogative/A woman’s time to embrace/She must put herself first.” I interpret this as literally meaning that it is our time, as women, to embrace ourselves – all of ourselves – truly and fully. We must put ourselves first because for generations upon generations, we’ve been denied the right to do so, due to the systems of oppression that men held (and in a way, still do, hold) over us. This specific set of lines reminded me of Elizabeth Cady-Stanton’s, Declaration of Sentiments. One resolution in particular states that, “such laws as conflict, in any way, with the true and substantial happiness of woman, are contrary to the great precept of nature and of no validity, for this is ‘superior in obligation to any other.” This speaks to the idea that women would no longer have to please themselves by settling, and that they, like their male counterparts, could pursue the inalienable right to happiness – true happiness. Twigs speaks to that here with her embrace of herself and her call for other women to do the same.  

Twigs continues with: “A woman’s touch/A sacred geometry/I know where you start, where you end/How to please, how to curse.” Here, she speaks to women’s true power that oftentimes remains kept away. Women are powerful beings, but when their voices, their autonomy, and their rights are stolen, they often shrink. This is Twigs’ reminder to her audience that women are powerful and have every right to keep and use their power. 

Lastly, I want to point out the lines in the chorus: “I can lift you higher/I do it like Mary Magdalene/I’m what you desire.” This is Twigs’ biggest testament to the dichotomy of Mary Magdalene’s created narrative, which is why this specific set of lines is so interesting to me. It sounds reminiscent of the “virgin and the whore dichotomy” – this unattainable standard that women are held to where they have to be both the pure innocent woman, who dotes on her husband and family, but also the temptress who must fulfill her man’s sexual desires (with no care given to her own). The first line, “I can lift you higher,” refers to the expectation that women are to serve men. Women have always been expected to be the homemakers, the caretakers, and to bear the brunt of home and family-related responsibilities without any thank you. Barbara Welter’s, The Cult of True Womanhood, serves as a testament to that ideology, with its four key virtues that women maintain (piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity). The last line, “I’m what you desire,” reflects the objectification and sexualization of women in every area of our society. Women are expected to be pure and caring, but with the ability to be corrupted sexually at the hands of men, who typically care more about their own sexual desires than those of the women they are endeavoring with. Men want the temptress, but women are then forced to bear the brunt of the degradation that comes with their decision to part-take in sexual activity. Words such as “whore” and “slut” are used to describe the women whose fault it then becomes for engaging in sex. The middle line, “I do it like Mary Magdalene,” places emphasis on Mary Magdalene as a symbol of this dichotomy. Regardless of her hard work for Jesus, she was shunned the moment there was suspicion of romance and/or sexual relations. A man would never face the reputation Mary Magdalene still faces to this day, but would instead be commended for his sexual conquests. After all, no one is chastising Jesus for this supposed secret child…  

Women have been forced into these confines for centuries, and FKA Twigs’ song, Mary Magdalene, serves as a testament for us to reclaim our power. We don’t have to be the “virgin” or the “whore.” We can both. Or neither. It is about what feels right to each individual woman, and it is up to her how she wants to find her place within herself and within a society that constantly attempts to box her in and take control of her narrative.