Monday, September 21, 2009

Lysistrata as the Punch-Line

Aristophanes’ risqué play showed to the world, perhaps, a side of the proper ancient Greek women that was most often kept quiet—the free-spirited, lusty, wine-loving kind of ladies. His play’s namesake protagonist, Lysistrata, whose very name means “destroyer of armies,” is more concerned with overthrowing the brutish, war-mongering male politicians than with tending the house or serving a husband. And there’s really only one problem for the modern reader—Aristophanes isn’t trying to empower women, and neither is Lysistrata.

Lysistrata is a fairly independent woman. She never mentions her own lover, husband, or kid, nor her own lusty desires, as the other women tend to. She has the gumption to gather up a group of powerless women and initiate a coup d’état. And on top of this, she’s successful. But once peace has been attained for Greece, Aristophanes swiftly removes Lysistrata from the play—the whole closing scenes, she’s mute. It left me missing the strong-willed woman I had come to root for throughout the play.

This sudden removal of the empowered woman protagonist reminded me that—as silly as it might sound—Lysistrata isn’t calling the shots here. Aristophanes is using her female attributes against her; he’s staging a comedy to expose the ridiculousness of petty Greek wars by having the most ridiculous scenario he can construct: women solving the political crisis at hand. Even Lysistrata highlights how absurd other women act: “…it’s the female heart and female weakness that so discourage me.”

Aristophanes lived in a world in which war was constant. Different cities within Greece were always picking fights with other cities. Complicated alliances and rivalries existed so that there was no peace; many citizens didn’t even know what wars were for anymore. So, looking at “Lysistrata,” it’s easy to see why and how he constructs his artful anti-war commentary using sex, something every man and woman wants, and women, whom no one would suspect of doing anything mildly “masculine,” like involving themselves in politics. Lysistrata is little more than a kid playing dress-up--cute for a while, but in the end, she's got to put back on her own clothes and take up her former role.

Aristophanes makes war out to be ridiculous by utilizing women and sex. Even our strong female protagonist thinks women are valuable only when manipulating their husbands. He does it so swiftly and fills it with such entertainment that I almost took my eye off of what was happening--women having power was the punchline to the whole joke. Yes, it’s a comedy, and yes, it shouldn’t be taken as some kind of manifesto. But, there is that old saying: every joke is half of the truth.

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