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Medusa, the Original ‘Nasty Woman’

(Source: theatlantic.com)

However, with second-wave feminism, many writers and artists began to re-examine traditional myth. Hélène Cixous, Sylvia Plath, Colleen McElroy, and others searched the recesses of history for their lost matriarchal heritage and chose Medusa as their muse. “How to believe the stories I am told?” the poet May Sarton asked in 1971 when she looked on the Medusa and found herself not frozen but “clothed in thought.” Later, as discussions about rape culture evolved in the 1970s and 1980s, poets including Ann Stanford and Amy Clampitt channeled Medusa to engage in conversations about the silencing of sexual-assault victims.

Similarly, feminist scholars like Marija Gimbutas re-read the myth of Medusa as a beheading of early matriarchal societies by Greco-Roman culture. According to this interpretation, Neptune’s rape of Medusa and Perseus’s subsequent beheading of her represent the same effort to legitimize male privilege by muting female authority. Indeed, ancient mythology is rife with stories of gods who violate women. This devaluing of women was reflected in the norms and laws of a culture wherein women were traded as commodities between men and rape was permissible by law.

When Medusa pops up in pop culture today, her deeper significance is largely ignored. For example, in the 2010 film adaptation of Clash of the Titans, Perseus rallies his men before confronting Medusa: “I know we’re all afraid. But my father told me: Someday, someone was gonna have to take a stand. Someday, someone was gonna have to say enough! This could be that day. Trust your senses. And don’t look this bitch in the eye.” In the film, Perseus knows Medusa has been raped, but she’s nonetheless treated with indifference by the plot, and with hostility by the other characters.

With this context, my students look anew on art like Cellini’s sculpture. Now, they can see that Perseus is the aggressor, not a hero but a symbolic rapist standing astride the body of his victim, her bloodied head held high in victory. Medusa’s closed eyes and lips speak volumes about both the history of women’s oppression and the submersion of women’s histories. It’s a submersion poignantly symbolized by a story that Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney shared recently at a panel discussion in historic Seneca Falls, New York. For years Maloney tried to get a statue of the first-wave feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott moved from the basement of the Capitol Building to center stage in the Rotunda. Colleagues, however, argued that it was “too ugly.”

Women’s physical appearances are often particularly used as a way to demean them, as the Clinton-Medusa images show, and tying women’s value to their looks has also been a feature of this election thanks to Donald Trump. The misogyny of the election comes through in much of the anti-Clinton imagery that abounds, including a t-shirt featuring a beheaded Medusa Clinton that reads, “Life’s a bitch, so don’t vote for one.” The shirt echoes the campaign’s most popular slogan, “Trump that Bitch” (and even the “bitch” quote from Clash of the Titans.)  The fact that there’s even a market for such political paraphernalia testifies to the terror that powerful women continue to elicit even in the 21st century and to the related and troubling persistence of mythologies that endorse and perpetuate rape culture.

More Info: theatlantic.com

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