Sunday, September 20, 2009

Modern Sexual Politics in Ancient Greece

The idea that Lysistrata was written in 410BC is a bit mind-boggling considering the modern thoughts of female independence and control as well as the fact that pacifist ideas are thrown about throughout the text. If I had not known that Aristophanes wrote the piece, I would assume that it was a modern comedic farce on the one-track mind of men.

Lysistrata is a thoroughly modern female protagonist who finds the key to possessing power over men and having them listen to a woman, an idea that I would have thought impossible in the setting and the time that the play was written. And now considering all of these elements it is apparent why this work would be a part of the banned books tradition considering how stifled female independence was for thousands of years after this play was written.

Perhaps the first and central point of contention was the gathering of the women of Greece and the pact to withhold sex from their husbands until peace was reached. Unfortunately for the time period this was really the only bargaining chip available to these women who were considered to be at the basest level of society or second-class citizens in the city and in their own home.

Aristophanes makes it clear that women are victims of their own desire and should only be listened to on occasion and yet Lysistrata gets the attention of all of the men of Greece who follow her will in the end. This aspect is a bit troubling in that it is not as easy to decipher whether or not this is a fully positive portrait of women. On the other side of the sexes though it is clear that men are not always painted in the most positive light either being that they are willing to bend to a woman’s word because of lack of sex, and that alone.

Perhaps the best scene to show the faults of both sexes is the standoff between the chorus of old men and old women who hurdle petty insults and obscenities whilst having a fire versus hot water standoff at the gate. Interestingly, again women are triumphant in this incident and yet they are also as obscene, if not more so than men. This story seems to suggest that one must play dirty in order to get what they want. And yet this is the way all mankind fight or is it just the way women fight? That is something I grappled with while reading this play; I wondered whether it was a more positive or more damning portrait of women.

In our modern society women hold positions of power without the use of sexuality and yet in the world of entertainment, in which most young girls get their portrait of what it is to be a woman, there are pervasive images of sexuality as a means of power. One would think of Madonna, who for years molded an image of both female sexuality and well as fierce and staunch independence. It would suggest to young girls that the key to having powerful positions in society is via sexual exploitation and that is a major factor in Madonna’s success and the success of those who followed her including Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera who put sexuality at the center of their public image. The entertainment industry would suggest that the ideas of Lysistrata still permeate our society and I am not sure if that is a good thing.

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