Female Protagonists and Masculine Traits: Destructive Tendencies in Antigone and Salome
Author Shannon Alder once said, “Often those that criticise others reveal what he himself lacks.” Essentially what Alder is saying is that the things we find fault with in other people are really the things that we do not have and therefore desire. In their works, Salome and Antigone, authors Oscar Wilde and Sophocles, respectively, use this theory to show how women wield power over men. Both female protagonists in their stories are criticized for their masculine characteristics – forceful lust, strength, and independent thought, among other things. It is these criticisms that result in the men unknowingly giving their power up to the women, as the women embodying certain masculine characteristics threatens the power of their male opponents. However, by attacking their male rivals with the same qualities the males use to attack others, these women become victim to the same fatal flaws that their opponents are victim to, leading to their demise.
In both stories, Antigone and Salome both gain power by exhibiting traditionally masculine characteristics, and wield this power over the men who are threatened by women breaking the gender binary. Antigone has the power of free thought, which is something that is traditionally not a feminine characteristic. At a time where women are supposed to be submissive to men and base their behavior and decisions on what a man tells her, Antigone defies the gender binary and therefore gains power because of her ability to think independently. When Antigone is talking to her sister Ismene about burying her brother even if it means she has to disobey the law, she says “Creon is not strong enough to stand in my way” (Sophocles, 191). The simplicity of her language as well as her blatant tone are very uncharacteristic of a stereotypical woman during that time period. She speaks with such conviction and confidence, which is much more typical of a man. This proclamation by Antigone shows that even from the second page of the play, she is defying gender norms and intends to be as powerful if not more powerful than the King himself. Antigone does exhibit traditionally masculine characteristics, but it is the consequence of her behavior that is the most noteworthy. By challenging gender stereotypes and calling into question the stability of Creon’s empire as well as his authority, she is able to wield power over him and even take it away from him. This is shown when Antigone exercises her power over Creon by demoting him to less than a man due to his questionable morals: “And yet, as men’s hearts know, I have done no / wrong” (226). As explained in my previous essay on Antigone, the juxtaposition between “men” who would know that she did not sin, and Creon, who believes she has sinned, shows Antigone’s defiance of Creon’s power. A big part of his power comes from his belief that he is a man and is therefore inherently superior to women, but Antigone invalidating his claim to manhood gives her power and takes away his.
Similarly, Salome behaves in certain ways that are traditionally masculine. In romantic situations, women are supposed to be meek and flirty, while men are supposed to be ravenous and act upon their desires. Salome embodies the masculine characteristic of forceful lust in her interactions with the prophet Iokanaan. She says to him, “I am amorous of thy body, Iokanaan… I will kiss thy mouth, Iokanaan. I will kiss thy mouth” (Oscar Wilde, 16-17). The erotic and assertive tone of this quote reveal Salome’s expression of traditionally masculine stereotypes regarding lust and eroticism. This inappropriate and impulsive exclamation by Salome to the prophet shows her defying gender norms and taking away power from Iokanaan by figuratively disrobing him, and stripping him of his dignity, like men might stereotypically do to women. Like in Antigone, it is the implications of Salome’s masculine behavior that is the most important. King Herod is used to getting what he wants as King, and what he wants is Salome. However, by being unchaste and sensual rather than compliant, she takes away Herod’s power and does not allow him to get what he desires. She takes away a key component of his manliness by taking it for herself. When Herod commands Salome to drink wine with him, eat fruits with him, and sit with him, she responds consistently, “I am not thirsty, Tetrarch…. I am not hungry, Tetrarch…. I am not tired, Tetrarch….” (Wilde, 22-23). Her unwavering disobedience of Herod’s request to spend time with him hints at her rejection of his desire for her, and the power that she is able to wield over him by embodying a traditionally masculine characteristic and using it against him. Overall, both Salome and Antigone are able to use masculine characteristics against the men in their lives, but are different in which characteristics they embody and what specific threat they pose to masculine authority.
Antigone and Salome are both hypocrites, however, because they embody the very masculine characteristics that they are fighting against and criticizing, which in the end, results in them losing power. Antigone aims to challenge Creon’s power and not let him control her just because he is a man and she is a woman. However, in speaking out against the state and politics, she embodies the very language of the state that she is rebelling against, as my partner, Johnny Armenta, pointed out to me. When asked if she will confess to the crime, she says “I deny nothing” (Sophocles, 208). By not denying her crime nor explicitly admitting to it, she is practicing traditional laws, such as not incriminating herself. Johnny pointed out that by using the rhetoric of written state law, Antigone defies Creon using his rules of the game and his playbook, and in doing so, is hypocritical. While fighting against Creon, she literally uses the same diction and style of speaking that he would in governing Thebes. Similar to Antigone, Salome also exhibits hypocrisy. Salome gets mad when Iokanaan doesn’t desire her, but then doesn’t want to be desired by Herod. Salome looks at Iokanaan, but gets mad when Herod looks at her. In this sense, she adopts the same body language as Herod, and is hypocritical for objectifying Iokanaan like Herod objectifies her. As demonstrated in the previous paragraph, Salome rejects all of Herod’s invitations to spend time with him, which shows her disapproval and dislike of Herod’s desire for her. However, she is hypocritical because she does to Iokanaan exactly what Herod does to her. At the end of the play, Salome complains: “Thou wouldst / have none of me, Iokanaan. Though rejectedst me” (Wilde, 43). Her somber tone shows Salome’s dissatisfaction with her relationship with Iokanaan because he did not want her like she wanted him. However, this is ironic because she refused to satisfy Herod in the same way that Iokanaan refused to satisfy her. Overall, both Salome and Antigone are hypocrites in the ways that they embody the language – whether literal language or body language – of the authority figures they are fighting against.
Though they are both similar in their masculine traits and their hypocrisy, they are different in that Antigone has personal power and the strength to rebel but Salome only gains power from Herod. This is shown through the nature of each woman’s death, suggesting that though using other people’s weaknesses to bring them down is a way to gain power, the only true way to be powerful is through personal power. Antigone dies through suicide, as demonstrated in the quote: “She had made a noose of her fine linen veil / And hanged herself” (Sophocles, 240). Although she ends up dead, she died with her power intact and with the power of personal choice, which Creon didn’t have. He chose to have her killed, but she took the power away from him by killing herself. Unlike Antigone, Salome never had personal power. She only had power because of Herod’s desire for her, and the only time she exercised her power was when Herod gave her one wish if she would dance for him. This shows that Salome’s only exercise of real power came from denying Herod. Her death represents this, as well. Unlike Antigone who took control over her own destiny and maintained her power, Salome gets killed by Herod and loses control over her fate when Herod yells “Kill that woman!” and Salome is crushed beneath Herod’s soldiers’ shields (Wilde, 25). Salome’s loss of power over herself and her future in her dying moment suggests that not having personal power really means not having much power at all. All throughout her story, Antigone’s power and decisions are made independent of what other people think, but Salome’s actions and wielding of power are based on other people’s actions and reactions.
In the end, both Salome and Antigone use traditionally masculine characterics to gain and wield power over their male rivals. By defying gender stereotypes, they subdue their male rivals by using the same techniques that the males would generally use to subdue other people. In doing so, they do gain power, but at the same time, become hypocritical. In using masculine traits to invalidate the masculinity of their opponents and to gain power, they bring negative punishment to each of their male rivals, but ultimately, bring the worst punishment upon themselves: death. Antigone dying with her power intact and Salome dying powerless suggests that though schadenfreude as a method of gaining power can be temporarily efficient, it is power from within that brings about the strongest and most permanent power. Though this is a satisfying and sensible conclusion, the death of both women who attempt to defy gender norms and wield power over men calls into question the consequences of women wielding power. While it is admirable that both women are able to wield power over men and cause the men to question their authority, death should not be an ideal outcome for women who want to prove themselves against men. Their deaths, though meaningful and symbolic, are still horrible and tragic, which makes one wonder if their deaths are really a victory, or if women should be allowed to express power without dying as a consequence.
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