The Stench of Gendered Power Structures in Lysistrata
On the surface, the play Lysistrata could appear to be a light-hearted comedy about a group of women who decide to refuse sex to the Greek men in order to end the Peloponnesian war. However, inside of this humor there exists a dangerous, hidden transcript: by refusing sex to the men and demanding the end of the war, the women are challenging the pre-existing patriarchal power structures in ways that were unheard of in Ancient Greece. In order to maintain their hegemony, the men try to assert their dominance by any means they can, including, in a very animalistic manner, demonstrating that they smell much worse than women and by taking off their clothes to show off their masculinity. Throughout the play, the men and women of Greece fight for power, and Aristophanes conveys this power struggle by using the sense of smell, by demonstrating that the differences between genders are entirely fictional, and by use of the image of the “woman on top.”
The men want to show off the way that they smell bad in order to assert their dominance over women in the Choral Debate on pages 66-68. However, the women reveal that they smell just as bad so that they can maintain the power they have already seized by refusing to have sex. The men’s leader says, “a man’s gotta smell like a man from the word go,” (67). The men wish to separate themselves from the women because they feel threatened by the power that Lysistrata and the other women have seized by refusing to have sex. However, the difference in smell between genders does not exist. On page 48 when the women from Sparta arrive, Lysistrata and Kalonike comment on how badly they smell, saying that they are “From Dungstown.” In addition, after the men take off their clothes to reveal their smell, the women respond by saying, “a woman’s got to smell like a woman” (67) and they take off their clothes to reveal their smell as well. In a very animalistic manner the two genders try to grapple for power and dominance by demonstrating the way that they smell. So, it becomes clear that men and women are not differentiated from each other by their stench, because they both attempt to use this smell to establish their dominance. Despite the fact that the men wish for their gender to give them the right to rule over women, they are unable to accomplish this because there are no gendered differences in the way men and women smell in Lysistrata.
The way that men and women do not smell different, and the way that they take off their clothes to reveal comical bodysuits instead of nudity, demonstrates the way Aristophanes portrays gender and gendered power structures as fictional. The men’s leader says, “Let’s doff our shirts, ‘cause a man’s gotta smell like a man from the word go and shouldn’t be all wrapped up like souvlaki” (67). The way the he says that they must smell “from the word go,” means that the men feel they must always be ready to assert their patriarchal dominance. However, this dominance and the gender binary is fictitious and is created by culture, a fact that Aristophanes draws attention to by having the women wear very similar bodysuits. The women’s leader says, “Let’s also take off our tunics; a woman’s gotta smell like a woman, mad enough to bite!” (67). Here the women use very similar language as the men did when they took off there clothes, and they use very aggressive language in order to maintain the power that they have gained by refusing to have sex with the men. The humorous aspect of this is that they are both trying to establish their dominance by displaying their naked bodies and their stenches. This exemplifies the safe, releasing nature of humor. However, there is also a dangerous, hidden transcript: both genders are revealing the same thing to each other—the exact same odors and bodies, which threatens the gender binary. In this way Aristophanes challenges the patriarchal power structures of Greece by suggesting that the two genders are more similar to each other than cultural and gender roles want them to be.
The men in the chorus feel threatened by the idea of women literally and figuratively “on top,” and they are so hyperaware of this threat to their power that they can “smell” (66) this “tyranny” from a distance. At the beginning of the choral debate, the men announce that, “I think I smell much bigger trouble in this, a definite whiff of Hippias’ tyranny” (66). Jeffrey Henderson states, “there is an allusion here to the ‘equestrian’ position in sexual intercourse (woman on top)” (221). The image of the woman on top comes up throughout the work, and was a more taboo sex position during this time. This image has multiple implications in the context of this work. First, the allusion to a taboo sex position suggests that what the women are doing—seizing power by refusing to have sex at all—is in itself a taboo act. Second, the image of the woman on top conjures up the idea of women figuratively on top of the power structures of Ancient Greece. So, this predominant image suggests that not only are women trying to seize power, but that they may actually be trying to flip the power structures upside down and dismantle the patriarchy completely. The men are so suspicious of these actions and the threat of the woman on top to their beloved patriarchy that they can smell these power-hungry women from far away. Thus, we see that the characters’ senses of smell and the image of the woman on top are profoundly connected to the power structures.
When Lysistrata and the Greek women refused to have sex with the Greek men until they end the Peloponnesian war, they ignite a power struggle that is portrayed in the play through the sense of smell, the examination of the fallacy of the gender binary, and the image of the woman on top. The men wish to show off their masculine, smelly bodies in order to assert their dominance. However, the women contend that their bodies are just as smelly and aren’t very different from those of the men. This, of course, reveals that gender and gendered power structures are fictional and imposed by society. In addition to the examination of gender, there are also multiple references to the image of “the woman on top.” The men in the play feel threatened by this sex position because they are wary of women being on top of the power structure of Greece, and they want to maintain their hegemony. Though it is unclear in the end whether men or women come out on top in the end, Aristophanes effectively portrays the way that both genders vie for power despite the fact that gender is fictional.
 The idea that the bodysuits show that gender is fictional was discussed in class and is not my original idea.  The idea that this was a taboo sex act was discussed in class.
The Harm of Stories
Throughout time, storytelling has evolved and changed with society. While oral storytelling is not as prevalent as it once was, the stories that were once passed down orally have now been written and passed through generations and cultures in this manner. However, the form that the story takes has not had an effect on storytelling as a whole. Storytelling has provided a way for tellers to pass along ideas on culture, ways of life, and traditions that may otherwise have died out. Oftentimes, stories can become convoluted after being passed on via word of mouth, yet, others keep their integrity. No matter the truthfulness of the story, storytelling has consistently proved to be harmful due to its ability to influence the listeners’ or readers’ thinking. In this paper, I will prove that stories are inherently harmful due to the ability the teller has to influence the listener through relatable or believable stories, whether they be fact or fiction, to solidify the gender hierarchy as shown in literary stories such as Sunjata, Lysistrata, and the Tale of Genji.
The solidification of the gender hierarchy through stories cemented women into a position below men, of which women were and still are unable to escape or to improve on. The gender hierarchy is commonly manifested through the objectification of women. This is exemplified through these stories, which have kept women from advancing in society, due to both society’s disapproval and the views that these ideas give women of themselves. Even though they are more than capable of playing a part in society, they believe that they are not able to or are shown that they are not welcome to. With the help of cultural norms, stories have promoted the view that women are less than men. All throughout time, stories have prevented women from being able to break out of these ideas and improve their status in society.
The societal ideas regarding women are demonstrated through Sunjata, the West African Epic of the Mande People. Within this poem, the societal norms of the Mande people are passed along through the words and actions of different characters when speaking of or to women. In this poem, after the hunters killed the buffalo, the Condé stated:
We said any hunter who kills this one,
We will bring out three age sets of girls,
And any girl they choose from among them will become his wife. (Sunjata, 28)
By offering these women, the Condé people demonstrate the societal objectification of women. This form of objectification portrays women as if they are not even truly people, but simply a gift or object that can be given to men as a reward. This is extremely harmful to women because it traps them into this societal idea and makes it close to impossible to escape or even want to escape. If society portrays women as only objects, then it is difficult for them to see themselves as anything else. This makes it impossible for women to improve their societal status or even to demonstrate that they are living, thinking, breathing humans.
Aristophanes’s Lysistrata helps to uphold the gender hierarchy by solidifying the idea that the main purpose of women is to serve and satisfy men. Throughout this play, the women of Greece use their sexuality in order to have a say in political affairs. In Athenian society, women do not have much of a say in political matters, even though they are both interested and capable. However, because the women cannot have a say in society, the supposed role of women comes into play. Due to the societal sexual objectification of women, the only way that women can affect the political world is through manipulation of their sex lives. When explaining this plan to the women, Lysistrata declares:
Sit in our quarters, powdered daintily
The men will swell right up and want to boink,
But we won’t let them near us, we’ll refuse-
Trust me, they’ll make a treaty at a dash” (Lysistrata, 830).
By using a lack of sex to manipulate the men, Lysistrata and the other women of Greece demonstrate their want to have a say in society. However, because the only way that they get a say is by manipulating their sex lives, they reinforce the idea of women as sexual objects and the idea that the main job of women is to satisfy men. The sexual objectification of women is excessively harmful due to the way that such ideas affect both society and women themselves. The objectification of women in any way is dehumanizing. It is hard for women to gain respect from men, each other, or even themselves if it is hard for them to even see themselves as a part of society. This struggle kept women from moving beyond these roles or improving on their societal status.
The ideas involving the gender hierarchy and the objectification of women by society are solidified through the storytelling of Murasaki Shikibu in The Tale of Genji. This Japanese tale puts forth many ideas revolving around the place that women were to have in society, despite being the work of a female author. One example of this is the conversation between Genji, Tō no Chūjō, and the Warden in which they discuss women and their qualities. Within this section, the Warden declares, “we men should really consider picking a completely childlike, compliant woman… a woman we can mold into an acceptable and flawless wife” (Genji, 1175). With this, while acknowledging that women are, in fact, humans, the Warden suggests that they are not all good enough to be worth the time and effort of men. He suggests that instead, women should be molded and changed in order to fit the physical and emotional wants of men. This objectifies women in that it suggests that their worth is determined by men, which is extremely harmful to women due to the dehumanizing nature of such ideas. By displaying and passing along these ideas, stories such as this can cause women to feel as though society is right about their roles and values, which can prevent women from even wanting to break free from these constraints. These stories help to reaffirm societal ideas, such as the objectification of women, to men. This helps to support the continuation of the gender hierarchy and prevents women from making any progress to stop objectification.
Storytelling has been important throughout time in many cultures. Throughout these stories, from Greek plays to West African epics, the gender hierarchy and the objectification of women has played a large role. The West African Epic: Sunjata has supported this by putting forth the dehumanizing idea that women are no more than objects that men are to take care of. Through Aristophanes’s play Lysistrata, the gender hierarchy is shown through the sexual objectification of women and the only means through which they are able to have a say in society: the manipulation of their sex lives. In Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, the gender hierarchy is demonstrated through the constant objectification of women through the idea that women are meant to satisfy their male counterparts, not only in a physical sense, but also in an emotional sense. Stories such as these demonstrate the harm that stories can do by reinforcing the ideas concerning the gender hierarchy and the objectification of women. Through the constant telling and retelling of tales that center around the societal norms regarding the role of women, it is impossible for women to escape such roles. These stories were especially harmful during their respective time periods due to their ability to constantly reinforce the gender hierarchy and ideas regarding societal norms of objectifying women. By having a constant reminder of these expectations, women were unable to break free from these ideas. This kept women from changing their place in society and instead forced them to fit into the mold that society created. Overall, storytelling is intrinsically harmful to women due to the teller’s ability to influence the listener and the society through stories that cement the place of women in society.
While these stories are all from past civilizations, they have lived on through modern times. As they are told again and again throughout different parts of the world, they help to pass along the gender ideas of older civilizations. This is harming to any progress being made on getting rid of the gender hierarchy. By constantly reinforcing the status of women as below that of men and the idea of women as objects whose purpose it is to satisfy men, it is much harder for women of the modern day to break out of these molds
For What It’s Worth: Peace and Love In Lysistrata
For What It’s Worth: Peace and Love In Lysistrata
Did you ever wonder why Marilyn Monroe was painted on the side a fighter jet? It always seems a vulgar juxtaposition that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima were, from a visual perspective, dropped from between a pin-up girl’s legs. Incidentally, this tendency to make warefare sexy is not indicative of twentieth century America. In fact, the trend seems to have continued from the days when Helen’s faced launched one thousand ships through the modern era. It appears undebatable that a connection exists between sex and war. The task now is to find the genesis of this unlikely relationship and then to explain its longevity. History and literature contain countless examples of the sex- war dichotomy but when searching for a model, Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata proves particularly effective.
In this comedy, a matriarch named Lysistrata, and the other women of Athens, organize a sex embargo in an effort to force their husbands to end a long war. Surprisingly enough, they actually succeed. Much of the literary criticism surrounding this play has focused on this success, elaborating on the role of women as peacekeepers. Critic Mary Jane Fox claims that Aristophanes “unapologetically posits woman as humanity’s champion, and in no uncertain terms sets about elevating her to a status and capability well beyond ancient Greek (and perhaps even twenty-first century) expectations” (Fox 12). Likewise Christopher A. Farone focuses on the “rather positive images in this play of women as the bringers of salvation and civic order,” looking particularly to myths with similar thematic elements as sources of comparison (Farone 42). Moreover, journalist Katha Pollit has highlighted the contemporary relevance of this text, especially in regards to the “Lysistrata Project,” and anti-war effort of the new millennium that attempted to use this ancient play to influence American foreign policy.
None of these critics are incorrect in their analysis, but aside from Pollit’s slight implication that women are innately better peacekeepers than men, these critics have neglected to explore the possible reasons for the success of the women in Lysistrata and their sex embargo. Thankfully, scholars are beginning to study the relationship between sex and war found in this text and society at large. Hong Kong-based researchers led by psychologist Lei Chang of Chinese University collected quantitative data on this phenomenon and elaborated on their findings in the article “The Face That Launched a Thousand Ships: The Mating-Warring Association in Men”.
Furthermore, in their book Sex And War: How Biology Explains Warfare and Terrorism, Malcom Potts and Thomas Hayden tackle this conundrum from a historical perspective. Through combining the wisdom of these critics and contemporary research, I plan to demonstrate that Lysistrata, though an ancient text, evinces the merit of modern theories surrounding the relationship between sex and war, helping to both illuminate the problems inherent in this association, and to posit the potential for a solution.Initially, the use of language in this play highlights the close relationship between sex and war from the very first scene. For example, Lysistrata welcomes a Spartan girl named Lampito, complimenting her “delightful face” and “sleek slenderness” (Aristophanes 44). However, Lysistrata does not simply value these features because they are attractive, she instead recognizes the aesthetic appeal of Lampito as a source of strength, equating the girl’s “fresh” appearance with the ability to “strangle a bull” (46). This compliment may seem ridiculous because Lampito’s “sleek slenderness” would probably not enable her to “strangle a bull”, but the irony here is purposeful, suggesting that Lysistrata understands the political capital of sex appeal. Lampito’s strength is intangible, yet powerful. Furthermore, Lysistrata’s organization of a sex embargo emphasises her understanding. This is demonstrated when the women take Lysistrata’s pledge, acknowledging that in order to “bow to Peace” they “must refrain from every depth of love (120). Although, the women struggle comically with the terms of this pact, under the leadership of Lysistrata they succeed, ultimately bringing their husbands home from war and peace to Athens.
Even though this text originated in antiquity, its portrayal of sex and war contains universal relevance. In her book Homeward Bound: America In the Cold War Era, Elaine Tyler May focuses on the role of female sexuality during WWII. May explains that though women experienced “increasing sexual and economic emancipation” during wartime, like Lysistrata and her female cohort, their sexuality had a dangerous connotation (May 95). The historian cites a pamphlet from 1972 in which radioactive rays were personified as sexy women as well as the use of the slang term “bombshell” used to describe a “sexy woman outside of the home” as examples of the parallels between danger and female sexuality (May 97). This portrayal of women as volatile sexual entities is echoed in Lysistrata in which the title character quotes men who refer to women as “slippery rogues”, though they “stay at home” and are, by their own admission “naturally coy”(Aristophanes 467). Katha Pollit believes that the “positive aspect” of this vision is that it “gives ordinary women a platform-as mothers and homemakers-from which to demand attention as significant social actors” (Pollit 1). Her optimism is warranted, especially from an ancient Grecian perspective. The women of this play are not diplomats or even royalty, instead they are weavers. Aristophanes is progressive by ancient Greek standards when he implies that conventional and domestic women can use their sexuality to end a war. Nevertheless, why does sexuality have this type of power?
Both Aristophanes and modern scientists suggest that, for men, sex and aggression are biologically linked. Lysistrata herself states that “war is Man’s sole affair” and Hong Kong scientist Lei Cheng seems to agree (Aristophanes 486). The scientist conducted a study of 111 students (60 men) who viewed twenty pictures of members of the opposite sex. Half of the men and women surveyed viewed images of people who were considered attractive while the other half looked at pictures of those considered unattractive (Cheng 670). Afterward, “participants responded to 39 questions about having wars (Cheng 673). The survey found that male participants “showed more militant attitudes” if they had seen the pictures of attractive women. This same effect was not found in the female participants. Chang and his colleagues explained these results, suggesting that there is a “mating-warring association” that propels men to “to engage in organized lethal aggression” (Cheng 674). The role biology plays in male aggression can also be observed in Lysistrata, in which the sexual stimulus of female bodies without the prospect of release makes men more aggressive. In fact, at the beginning of the sex strike the attitudes of the men are positively militant. These attitudes are best evinced through the catalogue of military diction employed by Aristophanes in this speech given by the male chorus:
Let each one wag
As youthfully as he can,
And if he has the cause at heart
Rise at least a span.
We must take a stand and keep to it,
For if we yield the smallest bit
To their importunity.
Then nowhere from their inroads will be left to us immunity
The use of the phrase “take a stand” and the term “yield” imply that the men plan to face the sex embargo as they would a military offensive. Furthermore Farone cites these “angry torch-bearing” men and their use of fire as a threat as a common trope of ancient literature that adds to the interpretation of men as “rash, angry characters” (Farone 41). In contrast, the women of this play are typically portrayed in an opposite light, as evinced through Lysistrata’s tendency for diplomatic negotiation. Critic Mary Jane Fox believes that Lysistrata demonstrates the “more positive attributes with which women have been stereotyped” such as the tendency for discussion, avoidance of more aggressive alternatives and an overriding compassion about the injustices of war” (Fox 13). This disparity between the sexes is affirmed in the discourse of Potts and Hayden who searched history to find instances of female “team aggression” but found such instances “starkly absent” (Potts 136). When one examines the evidence it seems as though male aggression is a biological imperative that is enhanced in the presence of sexual stimulus, which essentially connotes that men are responsible for the existence of war.
Naturally, the explanation should not and cannot be reduced to this syllogistic form. In other words men do not shoulder all of the blame in this scenario. The biological imperative men have for aggression is a socialized adaptation that has been perpetuated by women. Potts and Hayden explain that, for most of history, “men who were prepared to attack their neighbors…and who could seduce or coerce women for sex, ended up having more offspring” (Potts 2).
Women, meanwhile, were more likely to “improve their reproductive success…by aligning themselves with successfully violent men rather than by joining raids and risking death themselves”(2). Therefore, it is not necessarily true that women are inherently less aggressive. Lysistrata acknowledges aggressive tendencies within women when she tells the magistrate that he “didn’t guess the thirst for glory ardent in our blood” (Aristophanes 443). Nevertheless, women have learned to satisfy their “thirst passively” because the type of behavior that enables war- making is not considered an asset to the female sex. This explains why Lysistrata’s offensive tactics are examples of resistance rather than aggression, at one point labeling “disregard” as her weapon of choice (103).
The opposite is true for men, who are historically rewarded by women for displays of aggression, particularly with sexual attention. Men need sex with women for reproduction and evolution has conditioned them to believe that aggressive behavior will help them to fulfill this need. Meanwhile women are biologically conditioned to find aggression attractive, in order to enable successful procreation. This logic makes it seem as though the aggression that creates war is a necessary evil that is responsible for the perpetuation of the human race however Potts and Hayden suggest that while evolution has “linked sex and violence over millions of years, civilization has given us the tools to separate the two again”. It is through Lysistrata that we can see a realistic and ancient application of this contemporary suggestion. When the women of this play abstain from having sex with their soldier husbands, the men end the war and peace is established.
Of course, this play is a comedy and therefore its solution to the sex and war problem is a bit ridiculous. Primarily, it is too simple of an equation; (if sex causes aggression than abstinence will eliminate it). In reality, the soldiers would have satisfied their sexual desires with women of rival nations or prostitutes. Moreover, it is questionable whether or not the embargo was really a long-term solution. During wartime, women have historically enjoyed heightened social mobility and power that is then diluted when their husbands return home (May 95). This is demonstrated in the ending of the play in which society reverts to the “natural” domestic order in which men are dominant and aggressive and women submissive and docile. It is entirely possible that a return to the natural order would also entail a regression back to the established relationship between sex and aggression. This possibility is acknowledged by both Mary Jane Fox and Christopher Farone who feel as though Aristophanes is not as entirely progressive as we would like to believe. Moreover, it would be an oversight to not acknowledge the existence of motivations behind war that do not entail sex.
Nevertheless, Lysistrata is an important text because it illuminates problems surrounding sex and war that we are just now beginning to understand. Moreover, it shows us that we have the power to change this negative dichotomy, and perhaps make a more peaceful world a reality. We do not live in a society in which women need men for protection from the caveman next door and therefore men should not feel the need to be aggressive and warlike for the sake of their female counterparts. Thus, it is time to progress beyond the social climate of ancient Greece and to stop sexualizing aggression and glorifying war. Lysistrata is not the “Miss America” of texts, it does not soliloquize the hope for “world peace,” in fact it satirizes it. Still, it makes this idealism seem a bit more realistic, providing us not with a solution but with a step in the right direction.
The Heroics of Antigone and Lysistrata
Through the many tales of heroic deeds that have been told over the centuries, a picture has been painted as to the appearance and interpretation of the archetypical character of the hero. This character has been portrayed as a masculine figure who conquers all monsters and challenges in his path through strength, will, and determination, usually having to call upon a super-human ability, be it physical or intellectual, to defeat an oppressor. However, this typical view of the hero does not suit all characters who still can be classified under this archetype. In fact, through many ancient Greek plays, women have taken on the roles of the hero, having a much different quality and approach to their problem-solving than their male counterparts. Two such women who show great heroic qualities through their respective plays are Antigone and Lysistrata, who serve as the heroines of their tales. Through an analysis and comparison of the actions of the characters of Antigone and Lysistrata in the plays Antigone by Sophocles and Lysistrata by Aristophanes, respectively, clear conclusions can be drawn as to the stature of these female protagonists as heroic female characters.
Antigone follows the Oedipus trilogy, wherein Oedipus has already found out the seeds of his sins, and has put out his eyes and renounced his rule of Thebes. Jocasta, Oedipus’ mother and wife, is dead, and her brother Creon claims the throne as his own. After the bloody mess that Oedipus left in his wake, his daughter Antigone is left to weigh the horrific aftermath, including preparing for the burial of her brother Polynices. However, in light of the conflict that emerges even after the death of Oedipus, Antigone by law is not allowed to bury her family member, thus starting her heroic quest for a proper humane burial for her brother: “I will As for me, I’ will bury him; and if I die for that, I am content. I shall rest like; a loved one with him whom I have loved, innocent in my guilt” (Sophocles 160-162). This statement by Antigone is truly what gives the heroic nature to her quest, for she wishes only to complete that which is right by humanitarian law, not by rule of the king, even if doing so means self-sacrifice.
Lysistrata has a much more straightforward battle to fight than Antigone did. Rather than having to battle against injustice emanating from her own family, Lysistrata is faced with injustice against her entire gender, wherein the women of Athens have become nothing more than meat-sacks for their men as they return from battle and leave and leave again as they please. Lysistrata sees this for what it is, the abuse of women through the patriarchal society in which she lives, and she addresses this with the other woman in Athens. Lysistrata is convinced that should she and the other women band together in a strike against sex, then they can gain control over the males in society, in an essential reversal of power. To accomplish her heroic goal, of improving the lives of women across Athens, she has them take Oath to her purpose, “I have nothing to do with husband or lover; Even when he approaches me upright and ready” (Aristophanes). Through this mantra, Lysistrata is able to rally the women of Athens to her cause as she pursues a better societal status for her gender.
Although the burial of a family member, or the beginning of a civil movement, may not seem like a heroic deed, the characters of Antigone and Lysistrata further their status through their inherent devotion to their cause. The mark of a truly devoted person, or a hero, is a willingness to sacrifice personal comfort to accomplish greater goals. This quality is shared by both of these female characters, and indeed perhaps is their most heroic quality. In Antigone this is seen in in two simple lines, after being lectured by the King as to the illegality of her actions, “I am ready; for there is no better way I could prepare for death than by giving burial to my brother” (Sophocles 402-403). These lines and indeed the entire speech from Antigone truly show her devotion to her brother, and thereby solidify her position as a hero; she is doing no wrong, but instead seeking to accomplish a moral and just act, to which ends she is willing to die to complete. Similarly Lysistrata is forced to take this same aggressive stance in front of the rule of Athens: “LYSISTRATA You would kill me here in Athens—birthplace of discourse and reason? MAGISTRATE Athens is a city of laws. LYSISTRATA –The laws of a barbarian. MAGISTRATE Submit to me now or I use this. LYSISTRATA kneels” (Aristophanes). In the same way that Antigone is willing to sacrifice her life to be allowed to bury her brother, Lysistrata is willing to sacrifice her status to show that women should no longer be used as objects of sex. Although death for a cause such as Antigone’s classifies as textbook martyrdom, in these cases the possibility is much more.
To be a martyr is to die willingly for your cause; however, the cause which is being fought over becomes the defining principle. Martyrs can be of any faith, religion, or purpose; however, a hero will always fight for and advocate that which is just, moral, and right. In this way, a hero is more noble than a martyr, as a hero is both a leader and an example of how others should act, and how others should aspire to respond to social and civil injustices. Although Antigone was not successful in completing her goal, and Lysistrata more so was, their results do not change their classification or level of heroics; it is not the result that matters, but the purposes and means through which goals are accomplished that create and classify heroes.
Medea v. Lysistrata: Matriarchs in Patriarchal Greece
The plays Medea and Lysistrata both portray title characters that are women in Ancient Greece. In each of these plays the title characters feel they must confront the patriarchal society in which they live. The men of Ancient Greece see the women as the lesser gender. The women’s place is at home taking care of her husband or father; there are no places of influence for women in Ancient Greece, outside the home. This impotence is a major factor of Medea’s slip into mindless revenge, and also on Lysistrata’s grand idea for achieving peace in Greece. Both of these women use the weaknesses of the men around them to work against the patriarchal society in different ways and for different goals. These two plays can be used together to gather a sense of how women were considered in Ancient Greece.
In Medea, gender inequality is immediately exposed by Jason’s betrayal of Medea. When Jason discards Medea, out of hand, for no reason other than to further his own name, by marring a rich princess, it is shown how little attention is paid to the needs of the woman. Medea tells Jason that if he “were honest, [he] ought first to have won [her] over, not got married behind [her] back” (ℓℓ 533-534). Jason feels that Medea should just go along with the divorce so that he can make himself rich and share his wealth with her and their children. He tells Medea, “[A]s for your scurrilous taunts against my marriage with the royal family, I shall show you that my action was wise, not swayed by passion, and directed towards your interests and my children’s” (ℓℓ 495-499). Jason insults Medea’s intelligence, showing that not only does Jason not consider Medea’s feelings for him, but he also thinks her simple and tries to convince her that it was in her best interest to be divorced from him. What is a woman to do? In Ancient Greece there is little recourse for Medea. She comes up with a plan to rob Jason of everything that his position affords him.
At first Medea decides to kill Jason, his new wife, and his new father-in-law. Medea eventually realizes, after killing the king and princess, the only way for Jason to pay is for him to lose everything but his life. Although she could have taken her children with her and not killed them, Medea realizes that as long as women have no power she will have no true sway over her sons. The sons of Jason will never forgive their mother for killing him. Medea decides that Jason must live and the boys must die. This way she will eliminate Jason’s name and his future supporters all at once. After Medea kills her sons, she tells Jason, “[Y]ou were mistaken if you thought you could dishonor my bed and live a pleasant life and laugh at me” (ℓℓ 1227-1229). Medea feels this is a great insult to her and her only recourse to get even with Jason is to kill their sons. Jason just illustrates the Greek man’s opinion of women by saying, “[N]ow, out of mere sexual jealousy, you murder them” (ℓℓ 1213-1214). Jason’s statement just shows his opinion of women: they are more affected by sex than by the betrayal of love. If women were allowed to bring grievances to the courts in Ancient Greece, these tragic events may have never occurred.
Lysistrata finds herself in a completely different situation, but with the same controlling factors, as Medea has to face. In Lysistrata’s case it is not an unfeeling husband that is her problem, but all the uncaring men of Athens. Lysistrata’s response is much different than Medea’s, because she is not discouraged by her lowly status but inspired instead. The reason for Lysistrata’s distress is that all of Athens’ men are being sent of to war and killed. This is causing problems for the women of Athens, because “as for lovers there’s not even a ghost of one left” (Lysistrata, 1052). Lysistrata realizes that the men of Athens will never listen to her, because the men feel “women must never defeat us” (Lysistrata, p.1060). She decides a better way to stop the war and bring the men back to Athens.
The women are told to withhold sex from their lovers and husbands until a peace treaty has been signed. Lysistrata is successful in getting all the women of Greece to participate in her protest. She has realized that even though women have no political power they do have one undeniable power to wield, the male libido. Since they have no way to lobby the lawmakers and military leaders of Athens, the women must find another way to affect the men. The lack of power of the women, has given them no recourse but to “torture” their men into the peace Lysistrata feels is necessary. The women swear that even if they are forced to have sex they “shall do it badly and keep from moving” (Lysistrata, p.1054).
When they can take it no longer, leaders from all over Greece gather to strike a peace treaty. With unusable erections and plenty of sexual frustrations, the men are now ready to hear the logic of Lysistrata’s pleas. She shows them the wisdom of all Greece joining forces, so that they will not be overpowered by invasion. After some time of the men of Greece not having sex, they all decide that it is time to listen to this woman and make peace with each other. Even though the men of Greece are in power Lysistrata has figured out how to make them do as she pleases. This shows both that the men of Ancient Greece see women as sex symbols and that the women know how to exploit this fact.
Medea and Lysistrata combine to give a picture of a woman’s place in Ancient Greece. Both of these women went against this patriarchal structure, but they were not the average Greek woman – they were exceptions to the rule. It is clear that the Greeks cared little for their women’s views, desires, or feelings, and cared more for the things that a woman can give the man. Living under these oppressive conditions, it is no wonder that Medea and Lysistrata had to do something to improve their situation. These powerful women should still be seen as role models, if not for their actions then for their desire to take action at all.
In What Way Is Lysistrata an Attempt to Laugh at Women?
Without a doubt, Aristophanes deserves being considered as one of the most remarkable comic playwrights in the history of literature. His numerous plays still draw attention of many readers worldwide, which makes their content relevant these days. At this point, it does not come as a surprise that Aristophanes’ works are being reconsidered from various perspectives, among which a feminist one could be mentioned. Specifically, in the context of the feminist criticism, it is widely assumed that the play Lysistrata should be regarded as an attempt to laugh at women. However, to a greater extent this suggestion cannot be viewed as the valid one due to the specificity of Aristophanes’ oeuvre that is exactly aimed at exposing drawbacks of the human character and laughing at them, so it is more than expected that women are laughed at similarly as men are. What is more, Aristophanes manages to praise and celebrate female qualities compared to male ones that cover greed, lust, and proneness to conflict. Nevertheless, it should be still alleged that the playwright pays specific attention to the female side in Lysistrata while creating irony around the following fact: even though women do have a potential to change and improve the actual societal conditions, they still use ‘female’ approaches to perform it.
To begin with, it is important to understand the position of women in Athens in order to trace how Aristophanes addresses the need to reconsider or even condemn it. Apart from entertainment, they were not respected in the predominantly male society. The reason for that is that the female nature was seen as inferior. For example, Aristotle believed women were not just useless, but the very source of evil (O’Pry 8). As the result, they were not allowed to take part in political life. Not only that, men were trying to minimize the contacts with women and reject them in other rights. This led to almost complete exclusion of female citizens from any social life. The only function they were expected and often allowed to do is to bring up children and oversee the household. Owning land, engaging in trade activities, represent herself in court, even getting a divorce was not allowed without an approval from a male member of her family (O’Pry 9). The majority of women had limited access to education, just enough for them to do primitive finances.
Under such circumstances, the character of Lysistrata is introduced in the play to criticize them, and it is problematic to claim that the playwright presents her as an object of laugh. In fact, she emphasizes the dominant perception that women receive not only from the side of males but also themselves. For instance, when she tells her friend Calonice that saving Greece from the war is in hands of women, Calonice ironically replies the following: “In our hands? Then Greece hasn’t much hope!” (Aristophanes 5). The same irony is revealed by the Magistrate, who rejects Lysistrata’s ideas and proposals from the start. After getting acquainted with the them at first, he claims that it is nothing more but “the unbridled licentiousness of the female sex displaying itself” (Aristophanes 52). In such a context, it becomes difficult to recognize that Aristophanes laughs at women; on the contrary, he makes an attempt to criticize the actual conditions of women that Lysistrata fights against.
At the same time, Aristophanes reveals that women’s initial failure to engage into the social and political life of Athens is predisposed by numerous responsibilities they preserve as wives and mothers, which cannot be considered as another reason to laugh at women. In particular, when Lysistrata tries to gather all the women to persuade them in the importance of sabotaging their intimate life with husbands, she faces the fact that the women are overloaded with various tasks. Here, Calonice explains that a regular woman finds it difficult to leave her house: they all will be preoccupied either with pleasing their husbands or “putting the baby to sleep or washing and feeding it” (Aristophanes 3). Although this fact appears to be an obstacle for Lysistrata at first, she then turns it as an advantage for women to enter the political life. When Magistrate ironically asks how women can manage to be in charge of the treasury, Lysistrata replies to him that the women are used to being “in charge of all your housekeeping finances” (Aristophanes 59). At this point, it seems that the playwright laughs at the men’s failure to estimate the wit of women fairly.
Nevertheless, it could be suggested that the women headed by Lysistrata in the play use specifically a female tool to make men constitute peace between Athens and Sparta, namely the sex ban. However, it should be recognized that in the Greek mythology such an approach is not criticized but celebrated. For instance, it is a sex ban from the side of Alcmena that forces Heracles to avenge her brothers (Hall 29). Even though the outcomes differ in two cases, still it becomes evident that Greek males were easily subjected to such a measure. It also becomes possible to find a range of similarities while comparing Lysistrata not only with Alcmena but also with Melanippe the Wise and Hypsipyle (Hall 31). Still, the very execution of the female sex ban could be laughed at eventually while taking a closer look at the interaction between Myrrhine and her husband Cinesias. When he comes home and makes an attempt to engage her in the intercourse with him, Myrrhine addresses the main demand of the female ban from the start: to end the war. However, later one it becomes evident that this woman (possibly, similarly to others in the play) lacks diplomatic abilities to convince her husband. As a result, she has to deceit him while making Cinesias believe that she is to comply with his desire, but she eventually runs away (Aristophanes 119). In this light, it becomes possible to allege that the playwright laughs at the female cowardice to pursue their aim unconditionally; instead of it, they refer to certain tools that are widely considered and even condemned as female ones.
All things considered, it appears to be problematic to state that Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata is an attempt to laugh at women specifically, taking into account the very genre of this literary work. In fact, the author manages to reveal that women can execute much more roles than the Athenian society attributes to them. To a greater extent, the playwright seems to laugh at men and their underestimation of female qualities and methods, Here, it should be also reminded that the sex ban is quite a traditional approach to the persuasion in the context of the Greek mythology, so the introduction of this method in the play cannot be an attempt to laugh at women. Still, Aristophanes scarcely laughs at weakness of the women in the play who execute this ban poorly and nearly fail to resist their husbands, although they reach the initial goal.
Aristophanes. Lysistrata. Translated by Alan H. Sommerstein. Edexcel, 2003
Hall, Edith. The Many Faces of Lysistrata. From Looking at Lysistrata. London, Bristol Classical Press, 2011, pp. 29-37
O’Pry, Kay . “Social and Political Roles of Women in Athens and Sparta.” Saber and Scroll, vol. 1, no. 2, June 2012, pp. 7–14. : http://digitalcommons.apus.edu/saberandscroll/vol1/iss2/3.