Aristophanes’ Lysistrata presents an apparent contradiction to a modern day, post-women’s-liberation-movements female reader. Lysistrata and her posse assert feminine power by arguably antifeminist means, luring the troops home with the promise of sex. Aside from a few male respects paid to females, like the Laconian Envoy’s concession—he claims he has “never seen a woman of more gracious dignity” than Lysistrata (43)—it may be argued that the womens’ tactics ultimately served to exacerbate the male instinct to objectify the ‘weaker’ sex. Throughout her rousing speech to the aroused throngs, Lysistrata ignores lewd commentary about the ‘fine body’ and ‘lovely bottom’ of the goddess Peace. The ladies’ strategic plan was an effective gain for the pacifist cause, but can the modern self-actualized woman comfortably concede, “mission accomplished”?
Some comfort may be taken in the blatant fun poked at the male ‘one track mind’ throughout the work. The comedic seduction scene between Myrrhine and her charming husband Cinesias (31-38) portrays Cinesias in a less-than-flattering, somewhat ridiculous light. He is dramatic to the extreme, descrying each minor delay in his sexual release as torturing or killing him: “This woman will kill me with her blankets!” (37). In his desperate pleas to Myrrhine, Cinesias invokes Apollo, the Greek god believed to drive the sun-chariot, an invocation that has a twofold significance—not only does it reinforce his own firmly rooted beliefs in male power and entitlement, it also counters the invocations to the virgin huntress Artemis made by the women throughout the play (Artemis is Apollo’s twin sister in ancient Greek myth). The subtle invocations of brother and sister figures create an undercurrent of equality and desexualized male/female relations. Naturally Cinesias remains wholly oblivious to this, and pitiably, wrongly self-assured, even without encouragement. Myrrhine explicitly tells him that she cares about him against her better judgment enough to get him a bed, a move the reader knows to be yet another passive aggressive delay-tactic; he interprets this as blind devotion on her part (35). These moments may expose Aristophanes’ awareness of the ridiculousness of the play’s self-contradictory feminist-and-antifeminist central mission, or it may simply be indicative of him writing in the context of patriarchal ancient Greece.
The shocking events of the play are supported by blatant sexual imagery and explicit diction. It may just be me having my mind in the gutter, but innuendo seemed to pervade nearly every page of this play. Even the most innocent tangential story about an incident in the market conjures images of sex, and even rape: Cleonice describes a Thracian warrior “brandishing his lance” panicking a fig-selling woman and “gobbling up all her ripest fruit” (23). Lysistrata’s speech that follows is rendered all the more strikingly asexual by comparison: she deploys a conceit of yarn to illuminate her politics. It is notable that even this more objective, less objectifying image is often associated with diminutive females—is there anything more dainty than knitting? Perhaps her choice of imagery was one of the reasons her strong point about weeding out the disingenuous was wholly lost on the Magistrate (24). But this is giving him too much credit—his line makes it plain that he didn’t hear a single word, since it came from a woman’s lips. Ultimately, it seems that in his own way, Aristophanes champions Lysistrata for employing the one realistic means of bringing males to—ahem—attention in the context of female-dehumanizing ancient Greece.