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.
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