Misogyny, Myth and Modern Classics
Lily Talbot is a third-year student in the School of Classics, taking our Classics for the Modern World module. In this blog, she discusses some of the ways in which ancient myths and literature have been harnessed by misogynist groups and individuals, and what ‘Applied Classics’ can do in response.
Over the course of history, fascination with and reverence for Classical antiquity has given it huge weight in Western culture. This in turn has led to the appropriation of Classical art, literature or the εἲδωλα of resurrected heroes for many different causes – including for sinister political or imperial purposes. Consider, for example, the use of Aristotle’s Πολιτικά to justify practices of slavery; or Mussolini’s attempts to rebuild a Rome ostensibly modelled on the burgeoning empire’s prosperity under the pax Augusta, with himself naturally styled as a new Augustus. As these examples show, Classical material has regularly been manipulated to support problematic movements or points of view. In some cases, ancient material or ideas could be said to have helped found and nurture these; in others, antiquity merely provides ammunition to be adapted. However, when it comes to such issues as systemic misogyny, as Mary Beard and Stephanie McCarter agree, it is to our detriment if we ignore the continuities between ancient attitudes towards women, and those of today’s society, or the persistent hydra’s heads of patriarchy.
Ancient literature is full of women – from goddesses to ordinary girls – who suffer at the hands of men who desire them; from Daphne, of Metamorphic fame, to Danae, pursued first by Zeus and then by Polydictes, to Persephone, known to the Romans as Proserpina, whose euphemistic ‘abduction’ is depicted in texts ranging from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter to Claudian’s late latin epic de raptu Proserpina. Frequently women are not only the object of unwanted male desires, they are also the site of their fears: see Metis, for instance, physically absorbed by Zeus in an attempt to prevent the son who would overthrow him being born; or Cassandra, cursed when she rejects Apollo.
Furthermore, myth frequently sets women against each other or undermines their characters in ways that reinforce pejorative stereotypes. Clytemnestra shows no solidarity with Cassandra when she kills her alongside Agamemnon in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. In the Aeneid, warrioress Camilla falls on the battlefield mid-aristea, distracted by the glamour of Chloreus’ impractical armour. Medusa, raped by Poseidon, is punished further by Athene, implacable in her commitment to the patriarchal status quo. It is virtually unthinkable that a woman should display any sort of merit on her own terms without being violently silenced, or removed from her femininity – as in Valerius Maximus, who describes how the admirable advocacy of one Hortensia sees her praised as possessing her father’s spirit; Valerius closes the anecdote with a snide comment on the dishonourable end to Q. Hortensius’ legacy, that it should have ended on a single speech by a woman. Lastly, you find even greater extremes of explicit dismissal and despisal of women in the invectives of Semonides, Catullus, or Juvenal (Satire 6).
Blunt and visceral as these accounts can be, what weighs heaviest is the familiarity of their contents. It is a naïve (though optimistic) belief that repressive attitudes to women have been dealt with, in our freer, more ‘enlightened’ times. The works of Donna Zuckerberg, not only in Not All Dead White Men but also in articles such as ‘Bang Rome: Ovid and the Original Sin of Pickup Artistry’, describe the communities of men – the ‘red-pill’ manosphere – who view the world through warped lenses of Ars Amatoria and skin-deep Stoic philosophy. Movements like this are just the rearing of ugly heads from a thriving body; and for those who belong, any progress towards equality, or calls for justice for women who have suffered abuse by men (so often protected by the innate prejudices of existing patriarchal systems and societal conceptions), are seen as attacks by an aggressive enemy, proof if proof were needed that their chauvinist rhetoric is right.
Tackling this Classically-supported bigotry is by definition difficult. People who think that there is no worth in what you say before you even open your mouth, regardless of their own qualification, will hold the hypocritical high ground with impunity owed to their own self-assurance. As has been heard too often in recent years: we’ve “… had enough of experts…”. Thus when respected (especially female) academics move to address some of that pervasive misinformation, the response can be vicious and derogatory. It’s a campaign of abuse designed to force that woman to hold her tongue, to assault her self-worth, assassinate her character, to inspire disgust, anger or derision in her audience and discredit her based on nothing but the words of a vitriolic troll. When Mary Beard and Hillary Clinton met in conversation following Trump’s successful bid for presidency, the experiences they describe are as disappointing as they are unexceptional. That women are expected ‘to look the part and … to be authentic…’ An impossible task, is the consensus, but nonetheless women are required to ‘grow a thick skin without losing (their) sense of humour, without becoming too grim and serious’, else they won’t be able to beat the gaffe-spinning male at his own game. Men have the ‘flair’; women prepare and work hard and even then they have no guarantee of success. Even this, coming from two educated, outspoken and eloquent women, sounds apologist. Women, in myth and in the public eye, are forced to metamorphose to match masculine toxicity.
Nonetheless, we should not despair. The problem does not come from encouraging ‘flair’, full stop; rather from the traditional gatekeeping and silencing in public fora by patriarchal authority figures. The solution is, in part, normalising women’s presence and validity in traditionally male spaces, detoxifying binary gender roles and breaking down stereotypes. Some of the solution though, is to fight. Reclaiming myths, which have been either twisted to suit particular ends, or which are preserved to us in a problematic form, is key. If you can take back charge of the narrative, you can change how people view the world. If you promote alternative readings or offer clarity on misreadings, you engage with people whom those stories previously rendered powerless.
When Hillary Clinton ran against Donald Trump, Republicans produced campaign merchandise featuring the two candidates styled as Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa (Donald, naturally, the vanquishing hero, Hillary as the decapitated monster). In 2022, Natalie Haynes published a retelling of the Medusa myth, drawing together a tapestry of narrative threads following female figures from Danae to Athene. The story is told with sympathy and humour, but also bitterness, irony and with a keen eye to the hypocrisies of these supposedly familiar episodes. Her composition makes us re-engage with the familiar transmission of a monster heroically defeated, much as Garbati’s 2008 recasting of Cellini’s original reversed the position of the characters. We do not lose our apprehension at the slaughter involved, but we reappraise the dynamics as they have been traditionally shown us.
Haynes’ myth is the myth of Medusa, no less than it was before. But the power of myth, of any story, comes in the telling, and this retelling is powerful, for the ways in which it makes the reader think critically on what they thought they knew. It certainly left an impression on me. What is more, when retellings come from such expert women as Donna Zuckerberg or Natalie Haynes, their example, however controversially received, is encouragement in itself; showing us the way for our aspirations and giving us inspiration to keep making progress.
Aitkenhead, D. (2017, December 2). Let’s talk: a conversation special: Hillary Clinton meets Mary Beard: ‘I would love to have told Trump: “Back off, you creep”’. Retrieved from The Guardian : https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/dec/02/hillary-clinton-mary-beard-donald-trump
Day, E. (2013, January 23rd). Interview: Mary Beard: I almost didn’t feel such generic, violent misogyny was about me. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jan/26/mary-beard-question-time-internet-trolls
Haynes, N. (2022). Stone Blind. Pan Macmillan.
Maximus, V. (Harvard University Press). Memorable Doings and Sayings. (R. D. Shackleton Bailey, Ed., & R. D. Shackleton Bailey, Trans.) Loeb Classical Library.
McCarter, S. (2018, April 9). The Bad Wives: Misogyny’s Age-Old Roots in the Home. Retrieved from Eidolon: https://eidolon.pub/the-bad-wives-fa0fb8a69aba
Morales, H. (2020). Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myths. London: Wildfire.
Zuckerberg, D. (2015, December 21). Bang Rome: Ovid and the Original Sin of Pickup Artistry. Retrieved from Eidolon: https://eidolon.pub/bang-rome-2214f4a3d5c5
Zuckerberg, D. (2019). Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age. Cambridge; Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
 (McCarter, 2018)
 (Maximus, Harvard University Press)
 (Zuckerberg, Bang Rome: Ovid and the Original Sin of Pickup Artistry, 2015)
 (Zuckerberg, Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age, 2019, pp. 21-36)
 Michael Gove (2016)
 (Day, 2013)
 (Haynes, 2022)