Settling down in that stygian corner
Her eyes light up
Should she be feared? Is that hope?
She gleams. She knows something.
She dreams a lot, does she not?Who knows. Who knows
This is going to be pretentious. And it’s going to be long. It’s going to be an art analysis and a socio-political analysis and we’ll discuss sexualization, the male gaze, misogyny, patriarchy and rape culture, so buckle up, I guess. Trigger warnings for rape, assault and gender-based violence.
PART I: THE INTRODUCTION
Flee!! For if you wanna live and not turn into a rock. And mind you, not that sexy one.
The Greeks were obsessed with her. She was on their cups, on bracelets, on vases, on mosaic floors, as paintings, on a sculpture? That’s her. What’s on the helmets of those soldiers? Medusa. Metalwork? What’s the design? Medusa. Medusa. Medusa.
A quick intro-
She has snakes for hair. And she turns people into stone.
She was one of three gorgons (another kind of Greek mythical creatures) sisters. She was a mortal, the other two- Stheno and Euryale were immortal.
A bad king demands that this nice guy, Perseus bring him an impossible gift–the head of Medusa. Perseus with the help of all these gods, does that. While the Gorgons slept, he attacked Medusa using Athena’s polished shield to view her reflection and avoid her petrifying gaze while he beheaded her. A shitty person if you ask me. The two immortal sisters tried to catch Perseus, but he escaped using Hermes’ winged boots and Hades’ helmet of invisibility. Yup, shitty.
Now, there are various versions of even this original tale. This is mythology we are talking about, so please don’t come at me.
In this version of the myth, written by Homer, Hesiod and Pindar (a bunch of writer dudes), Perseus is glorified. He’s the hero who fights a monster. Though some version of Odyssey mentions her being raped, it’s not a settled fact yet. Nobody is crushing after medusa here. It’s an ordinary tale– hero kills villain, boom!
Then this guy named Ovid comes around 8 AD and providing clarity on the entire thing in his Metamorphoses describes the mortal medusa as a beautiful maiden who was raped by Poseidon in the temple of Athena. Now the goddess is angry and she punishes Medusa. I know.
She turns her hair into snakes and gives her fangs and beards and this ‘curse’ to turn everyone who looks at her straight, into stone (there are various feminist takes on why Athena does this). It is this background story that becomes even more popular when added to the original tale written by Homer and the other guys. Homer and the homies if you will.
CHAPTER II: THE TRANSFORMATION
Behold!! The hairy gorgon? She a femme fatal now and she is sexy. And dangerous.
The obsession of Greeks with medusa I talked about earlier? It was this originally: –
She’s kinda funny, isn’t she? Her tongue is always out, a full beard, tusks, bulging eyes. A comically hideous figure.
During the 5th and 4th centuries BC, representations of medusa began to change. Snakes for hair were now a sort of accessory, no tusks, smooth feminine features with large pair of feathered wings instead of the dragon scales. After Ovid’s hit spinoff, sympathetic artists started to represent a more human form of medusa.
She’s peacefully sleeping here when Perseus comes to kill her. Notice the wings, and the almost angel like resemblance.
But you see, whether she is this pretty woman with snake hair or that comically hideous figure, her monstrosity doesn’t shift. Her fate remains the same…, it’s not like the sympathy of being a rape victim altered the way ancient peeps saw her. It’s the same—raped by Poseidon, beheaded by Perseus. A monster.
In this classical phase of Greek art where they were doing a lot of makeovers is also the time when they feminised a lot of monsters. Sirens, Sphinxes, Scylla all were beautified, and in a male-centric society, all these monsters served to demonize women. She pretty, she hot, she the best and she’ll suck your soul out. They represented a very conflicting view of femininity—they are made attractive, you wanna look at them but the red signs are blaring all over. You’ll be dead if you do.
Think of it, isn’t this how female sexuality has been controlled over centuries? Representation, being explicit, being bold, being upfront, telling our own stories, is a sin. You are a woman with no morals, no self-respect. Be the ‘modest’ one, the obedient one.
While we are at it, if you see classical western female portraits before The Vinci’s Mona Lisa…, most of the females are looking everywhere but at you. There are sideways glances, shy shy, look at the right, now the left. Even when looking at you, it’s very submissive. No authority, no power. Women were not meant to be direct, to challenge the viewer to see them. They are showpieces to look at, placing the power in the viewer’s hand because these paintings aren’t telling you to look at these women in a certain way. You have male portraits of authority, power, kindness, glory, murder, revenge, and all that bullshit but for the female, the canvas is just pretty.
And then look at my Medusa…, she’s direct in every representation. Her glare is her prominent feature. She challenges you to look at her, to look at what she beholds and what she can do to you. And she is a monster. Join the dots shawty!
CHAPTER III: THE APPLICATION
CLAUSE 1: Hail and cry and wail— My Badgirl RiRi! Here here!
Medusa lived on an island, away from people, away from men. In complete isolation. She’s not dependent on anyone. Her sexuality, her idea of being has nothing to do with men at times when a woman’s worth, her being, her status was chained to the guy’s feet. And by times, I may mean ancient Greek, the 1700s, or the 21st century and you won’t know. Lol.
In 2013, this magazine—British GQ, modelled my Lord Rihanna as Medusa. The person who modelled her, Damien Hirst had this to say in an interview: –
“Rihanna is bad”
“Bad in what sense? Badly behaved?”
“Yeah, bad bad…, If you’re a mother, she’s a proper terror, isn’t she?”
And I mean—–
Look at her. Just like—look at her. But then, my Lord RiRi was always hot.
But the point—this sex appeal is a monstrosity. When Hirst talked about her being a terror, he was, I think, talking about a corruption. The effect she’ll have on your son, the effect she’ll have on your daughter! The effect she’ll have on you.
To be frank she can walk on me. I’m ready to be a rock.
Back to medusa—as I already stated, she hot and she kills. She got raped by a GOD, beheaded by the NICE guy.
Do you see the implications here? Don’t be hot (as in express your sexuality way) or else you a dead meat and there is legitimate sanctioning for this. This was the inference for the females. For the superior sex?
I don’t know…, rape women without consequences and kill them for your glory and rejoice in this entitlement that you are born with and we will keep worshiping you, I guess. #WeStan!
CLAUSE 2: Hail and cry and wail—My Madame Medusa! Here here!
Let’s come to the socio-political part.
The sexually independent woman is scary. The one who speaks upfront, has views, refuses to fall into the traditional patriarchal roles also makes patriarchy shit its pants. Allow me, folks—Marie Antoinette: can we leave her hair out of this for once? So, in 1791, Marie Antoinette appeared as a beastly Medusa in Les deux ne font qu’un. A year later the English artist Thomas Rowlandson created a print depicting the vision of liberty espoused by the rebels of the French Revolution as Medusa-like.
There she issss…., my gurrrl!! A comically hideous figure? The contrast dear lord!
- Clash of the Titans, 2010 (Film): “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.” —-the NICE guy Perseus. He knows she’s been raped, still approaches with indifference because his father told him to take a stand. WOOT! WOOT! If this is not legitimizing male privilege by muting female authority…I don’t what is.
Also, don’t be the person who will come in the comments to say in the movie, medusa killed too, it was only right. That’s not the point here.
- Machiavelli and Cellini: A statue was sculpted by Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini depicting Perseus holding medusa decapitated head as a sign of victory. Art Historian Christine Corretti explains in her book how Cellini believed Medusa symbolized both the threat of women’s burgeoning political power and a feminized Italy. Corretti notes that these sentiments were popularized during the Renaissance by Machiavelli who, in The Prince, alluded to the Medusa icon when he described the state as a woman “without head, without order, beaten, despoiled, torn,” desperate for a manly rescuer.
- Hillary Clinton, 2016 U.S Presidential Elections:
This was up during the 2016 elections on Twitter. The images were produced on t-shirts, cups and bags. The normalization of gender-based violence!! Am I right folks? The extent to which there is hatred among people when they see a woman in power. The policies that she wanted to bring were maybe shit, criticization and jokes on that would have been so cool right…, since unlike our state, the U.S. at least doesn’t go around prisoning whoever they like (or hate). But what you see here is bullshit in its purest form.
This is the western context we are talking about…, Google Nancy Pelosi or Oprah Winfrey or Angela Merkel or Madonna or any famous woman’s with the word Medusa and you’ll find photoshopped pictures and cartoons.
Oh, here a woman! There a woman! Medusa, Medusa, Medusa, Run! Run! Run!
These instances I talk about here are not some isolated events. It’s a process. It is a way of living. Not exclusive to a particular era, neither to some particular continent. These depictions are just a way to highlight the shitty believes you uphold. Take offense, please. Reflect on what is that you are cherishing and vomiting day in and day out.
CHAPTER IV: THE RECLAIMING
Head of Perseus sculpted by Luciano Garbati in 2008 was placed outside in New York County Criminal Court, where Harvey Weinstein, once a god in Hollywood, was convicted for rape. This is the statue: –
And I mean—what bullshit.
So much for fighting the patriarchy and then installing a sculpture depicting my Medusa through the male gaze as a symbol of the MeToo movement. It was not even meant for MeToo, sculpted a decade before the movement. A movement started by black women, depicted by what another European guy considers appropriate.
Why is she carrying Perseus’s head and not her rapist’s? Tamed hair, the same stupid Eurocentric beauty standards with regret on her face. Why would she need a sword, when she can kill with her mere gaze?
A statue depicting female solidarity would have made more sense if a black female artist were given the opportunity. In the words of Jerry Saltz, “She’s still the total object of the male gaze here, not of thought, fear, admiration, pathos, power, agency, or anything other than male idiocy.” This is by no means, the reclaiming I’m talking about.
With the coming of second-wave feminism, many writers and artists began to re-examine and reclaim this myth. Hélène Cixous, Sylvia Plath, and others searched for the lost heritage and found all that in Medusa. In the 1970s and 1980s, as discussion around rape culture began, Medusa was depicted as the rape and assault victims remaining silent.
Many feminist scholars re-read the myth as beheading of the early matriarchal societies by Greco-Roman culture. Helene Cixous in 1976, with The Laugh of Medusa, made a major impact on how we see Medusa and the complexities behind the myth.Elizabeth Johnson, an associate professor of English at Monroe Community College teaches her students about these symbols and various interpretations, she says,
“…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”.
To quote Helene Cixous,
“Wouldn’t the worst be, isn’t the worst, in truth, that women aren’t castrated, that they have only to stop listening to the Sirens for history to change its meaning? You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.”
Medusa haunts the patriarchal imaginations. Whenever male authority is threatened by female agency, a Medusa comes alive. I see her in every woman. I feel that laugh vibrating within me, around me. And it makes me feel beautiful. It makes me feel deadly.
Here she comes
If I go to war, well she shows me the way
She’d never ever, ever leave me lonely
The only thing I need,
Here she comes
—She’s My Sunshine, Celeste
This article has been written by Manvi, Ist year