After looking at the trailer for the new Netflix series The Santa Clarita Diet, one thing immediately popped into mind: Kali.
It was an energy that I had been feeling since last Summer, slowly simmering to a boil. It was an ancient, female energy. The Dark Goddess. The anima writ large, over the entire planet. Honestly, I don’t relate to about 85% of what I’m “supposed” to relate to as a person born female…but I’ve always intuitively “got” Kali and the idea of the Dark Goddess.
It’s something that goes beyond matriarchy vs. patriarchy and all that jazz. We are talking about a primal force here, deeply keyed-in with nature and the planet. And we’re talking about a primal force that gives very little shits about the ideological arguments and hair-splitting we have over the Internet. We’re talking a force that will smash a mountain into an iceberg.
I also connected it to the fabled Kali Yuga: the last cycle, or “yuga,” of the four stages of the world. To be clear, the Kali Yuga does not refer to the goddess Kali, but a male demon with the same name…and yet, I always related the bloody dance of Kali the goddess with a sort of “turning” of the ages, a force that “comes out” during eras of strife.
And the The Santa Clarita Diet, I feel, embodies a lot of that “strifey” energy.
The show focuses on Sheila Hammond—a woman with a husband, teenage daughter, and successful career who suddenly becomes sick and turns into something approximating a zombie. She goes on, with the help of her devoted husband, to deal with her new savage condition and forage for human flesh. It gets quite gory, though it’s also theoretically a comedy.
The fact that Sheila is played by Drew Barrymore, an actress who resonates both childlike innocence (E.T. was like over 30 years ago, but it’s still one of her most well-known roles) and more of an iconic femininity, immediately resonates with the viewer.
Scenes of Sheila graphically eating flesh (I think almost always male flesh, which is a bit “on the nose” but more on that later) bring to mind the mythic story of the goddess Kali— who severs heads, catches the spraying blood in a cup, and drinks it.
In a “normal” read of Santa Clarita Diet, the show is a feminist story about a middle-aged woman’s reclaiming of her passion and power. Sheila (get it: She-la?) finds being a zombie—”dead,” as she puts it—to be personally empowering. Her libido and self-confidence soars in this new state.
And though it is not explicitly stated as such, she seems to only eat males—almost always very stereotypically awful men. These men die, but they “deserve” it. Clear lines are drawn as to who is an “acceptable” man and who deserves to be chopped up in pieces in a freezer.
This is, to me, the typically feminist, New Agey “reading” of the Kali myth. It is the fantasy that Kali—the original Kali of Indian mythology—is a specifically feminist goddess. And while it is certainly appealing to think that way—and I’ve done it myself when I was younger—that’s not really Kali. That’s not quite the Dark Goddess.
As Rachel Fell McDermott, Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures at Columbia University, wrote in 2003:
If some Kali enthusiasts, therefore, careen ahead, reveling in a goddess of power and sex, many others, particularly since the early 1990s, have decided to reconsider their theological trajectories. These, whether of South Asian descent or not, are endeavoring to rein in what they perceive as excesses of feminist and New Age interpretations of the Goddess by choosing to be informed by, moved by, an Indian view of her character.
It is not Sheila struggling to give herself an identity outside of her husband and child that is the crux of her connection to the Kali of myth; but rather, it is exactly Sheila’s devotion to both that is at the heart of it. Like Sheila, Kali starts out as an “ideal” wife, Parvati, for her husband Shiva. She only turns “dark” to help defeat a demon—not as an impetus to sexual exploration, liberation, an Eat Pray Love walkabout, or whatever.
You see, Kali is not only considered a goddess of death & destruction, but of motherhood. The character of Sheila Hammond encapsulates this seeming paradox. Her rage is ultimately a rage of protectiveness for her loved ones, and of understanding her deeper role within the pulse of Nature…the cycle of life and death, and the inexorable march of time, one of the meanings of the name Kali itself being “time.”
For Terror is thy name,
Death is in Thy breath.
And every shaking step
Destroys a world for e’er.
Thou “Time” the All-Destroyer
Then come, O Mother, Come!