Penny Lane as the Empress: Almost an Earth Mother

Welcome to the fourth in an ongoing series of entries studying the trumps of the Tarot deck and how characters and situations in fiction relate to those trumps. My first entry regarded Agent Dana Scully as the Fool, the second entry looked at Agent Dale Cooper as the Magician, and the third studied Galadiel’s role as the High Priestess. Today we step entirely outside of the fantasy/sci fi genres and look at the film Almost Famous and its take on the manic pixie dream girl, Penny Lane.

I know, this one might seem like an odd choice at first, but bear with me. According to traditional interpretation, the third card of the tarot, the Empress, represents an inversion of the Garden of Eden and the virgin mother – rather than being a pure, virginal figurehead, she’s more of a fully-realized, sexual being in her own right. She’s a creator and nurturer and represents the creation of life, of romance, of art or business, often associated with Demeter, the blonde-haired goddess of the harvest who “separates the wheat from the chaff”. She also oversees birth and life.

Now maybe you see where I’m going with this. In some ways, Penny represents an earthly incarnation of the muse for the artists Stillwater, as well as the protagonist, William. Early in the story, she’s the one who’s there as William is trying to break through to the new world of rock and roll, offering a gentle hand as his guide and muse. Much of Penny’s time with the band is spent as both muse to the band and trying to work out just what she means to both the group and the time in which she lives. Much like an empress, she turns out to be the actual ruler of what’s going on around her, though this is not readily apparent at first.

The relationship between her and the married rocker Russell shows us the influence that she actually wields over the group; while the members of Stillwater, and even Russell, see her as little more than a groupie, disposable when they’re tired of her, she sees herself as an independent woman who is interested in more than the just sex: “We are not Groupies. Groupies sleep with rockstars because they want to be near someone famous. We are here because of the music, we inspire the music. We are Band Aids.” Here we see the true role of the Empress at play – her (and the women like her) wield enormous control over the fates of these bands, not just from the inside, as inspiration to the songs that the band writes, but as arbiters of the bands’ commercial success. In this way, Penny (and, again, the women like her) represent the hand behind the band’s “harvest”.

I don’t think this is a coincidence. Even the title itself could be seen as a nod to her as the hidden influence behind the band. Yes, in one sense, the movie is about the band’s rise to stardom from being pseudo-famous, but more implicitly, the title Almost Famous refers to Penny, who lives her own life of pseudo-fame vicariously through the band. I think this double meaning is probably something of a tribute to the form of female empowerment that comes through this relationship, though I may not approve of how that empowerment comes about (i.e., in relation to a man providing some sort of fulfillment). But we’re not here to talk about that particular issue today.

Of course, so too, as the Empress gives, can she take away – as Demeter did when Persephone was kidnapped, refusing to allow a harvest until her child was returned to her. This seems like a direct parallel to when the band “sells” Penny to the band Humble Pie for 50 dollars and a case of beer. She handles what could be a devastating separation from that life with aplomb (though it clearly upsets her), asking what kind of beer. As she is separated from the group via this callous move and her own suicide attempt, so too do things begin to go downhill for the band, as their plane is caught in a bad storm and loses altitude, having a brush with death itself – funny how that parallels both Persphone’s descent and the death that Demeter unleashed upon the crops, isn’t it?

Wikipedia tells the rest of the story: “With death apparently imminent, the group confesses their secrets. During a quarrel, Penny is referred to as “that groupie”. William defends Penny, reminding the band that they declared they were “in this for the fans”, but Penny was their most adoring fan. The plane emerges from the storm unharmed, leaving the band to ponder the changed atmosphere.”

Even from beyond her physical reach, the Empress holds sway.

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One Comment

  1. This is one of my all time favorite movies. It’s so good to see that someone else had an interest and enough intelligence to see deeper meaning into the movie as I did. Most people laugh and tell me I tend to over analyze things.. but i don’t think seeing things in a different light is over analyzing. I really enjoyed reading your perception of the movie and your comparisons. I felt almost the same way.

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