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Medusa: Unpacking the Misogyny in Our Mythology

Medusa: Unpacking the Misogyny in Our Mythology

Medusa: Unpacking the
Misogyny in Our Mythology ©
Image by James Holko
Essay by Cara Sergio

This painting might just be my favorite rendering of Medusa.  Everybody knows the story of Medusa, right?  Well, for those of you who don’t remember your Greek mythology, Medusa was a devotee of the goddess Athena, & vowed to live in chastity...a plan that went sideways when Poseidon raped her in the temple.  The story claims that Athena, angry Medusa broke her vow of chastity and desecrated the temple by having sex in there, condemned her former acolyte to a lifetime with snakes for hair and a gaze that turned all who looked upon her to stone.  So essentially, Medusa was a rape victim who was...vilified for having been raped.

It’s a great story, but for the fact that it’s misogynist propaganda.  And I can prove it.  For starters, the goddess Athena wouldn’t punish another woman for having been raped.  But the goddess Athena isn’t the one who told the story, is she?  No, some guy somewhere in a village most likely made up the story to caution young women against “enticing” men.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the tale of Medusa is no more than the ancient beginning of purity culture.  You’ll notice that in the myth, Poseidon faced absolutely NO consequence for the heinous act of raping a devotee of the goddess.  Why?  Because the story was told by a man.

And then there’s that bit about “snakes for hair and a gaze that turned men to stone”.  It’s mythology, a glorified fable.  And in a fable/a myth, everything is symbolic of something else.  I mean, come on, a human woman with hair of snakes, with a stare that could turn men to stone?  That absolutely reeks of symbolism.  But what could “hair of snakes” and a “gaze that ruined men to stone” possibly be symbolic of?

I think we cal all agree that a woman with snakes atop her head (that could possibly bite anyone who came too close for comfort) and a glare that turned men to stone, if she were to exist, would be absolutely terrifying.  Whatever guy in whichever village first came up with this little morality tale that is the myth of Medusa needed a way to convey to whoever was listening that the character of Medusa, once she’d been stripped of her purity, was hideous, ugly...he needed the un-chaste woman to be a hideous, terrifying monster, so as to make all the little girls in the village terrified to be stripped of their own chastity.

If the character of Medusa is based on a real person, it’s more likely she developed PTSD and a laundry list of unhealthy coping mechanisms as the result of having been raped than that she grew snakes atop her head & developed a glare that turned men to stone, isn’t it?  That’s right, people.  Behind the myth of the monstrous Medusa was most likely a broken woman who may have wielded sarcasm as a weapon to keep everyone at bay because she was terrified of getting hurt again, and then vilified for having been the victim of a sex crime.

The man who did rape faced no consequences, while the woman who got raped was vilified, was painted as a some ugly monster terrorizing the villagers.  But how and why is any of this relevant now?

Well, if we fast-forward from the days of the ancient Greeks to modern Western society, we’ll see the morality play we know as the myth of Medusa still plays out today, in new and exciting ways.

Consider the “romance” between then-President Bill Clinton & White House intern Monica Lewinsky.  It’s really a “beautiful” romance, in which he was mathematically old enough to be her father, married to someone else, AND THE LEADER OF THE FREE WORLD, and she was...well, an intern with a crush on the boss.  They weren’t exactly on equal footing, is all I’m saying.  And how’d that romance play out?  Well, when it was all over, he was still very much married to someone other than Monica.  He was still very much the president.  And she...she was the dirty girl in the stained blue dress, she was the bigmouth who blabbed to Linda Tripp (who was recording all their conversations) and got the coolest president ever impeached.  Oh, and not only was she fired from her White House internship, but she didn’t exactly land another job right away.  He was “the man” for what he did with her, while she was untouchable for what was done to her.

I know, I know, that’s just one example.  But it’s by no means the ONLY example.

If we fast forward a bit more, we come to the now-infamous Kobe Bryant sexual assault case.  The late Mr. Bryant allegedly forced himself on someone, and she then pressed charges.  The court case played out in a state that has a “rape shield law”, which means the victim’s name was NOT to be published, nor her address/phone number.  Except that the name and address of Kobe Bryant’s victim WAS made public, and she went on to receive death threats.

Fast forward some more.  The European financier & diplomat Dominique Strauss-Khan (or DSK, as he was dubbed by the American press) was accused of forcing himself on a hotel maid, and proceeded to smear her in the press and slander her in the court, claiming everything from that she was in this country illegally to that she had been a prostitute in her home country, all in an attempt to convince himself and everyone else that she threw herself at him.

And I’m not done yet.

Hit the fast forward button again and we come to the “Stanford swimmer,” young master Brock Allen Turner.  This one is the most beautiful love story of all, a “romantic” tale of a young man who came upon an unconscious woman lying behind a dumpster and just had to have her right then and there.  The judge, someone elected to sit on a bench, agreed that young master Turner did that which he was accused of having done, but insisted that he was a “good boy, an athlete...” and that a lengthy prison sentence would harm him irrevocably.  Y’know who knows a thing or two about irrevocable harm?  The woman he violated, that’s who.

And I’m still not done here.

Right now, somewhere in America, some female child of junior high school age is in a department store with mom, picking out a princess dress to wear to a purity ball.  D’you know what purity balls are?  They’re formal events with dinner and dancing, at which flabby middle-aged men give their tween daughters purity rings, and by wearing these ridiculous rings, the little girls are making a promise to their fathers to remain chaste until marriage.  For those of you who are wondering, there are no formal dinner/dance events at which young men promise to not violate the little girls who’ve promised to wait for marriage.

But wait, there’s more.

Right now, somewhere in America, some pastor in sitting down in his office, and he’s writing a sermon, as pastors do.  And this particular sermon is about “wives, submit yourselves to your husbands”.

Poseidon rapes Medusa and she’s the monster, while he’s...still a god.  Bill Clinton breaks his marriage vows for Monica and she’s out of a job and untouchable to all prospective employers, while he’s...still the leader of the free world.  Kobe Bryant forces himself on some woman in a hotel room, and she receives death threats, while he...gets to continue his life as a sports star.  DSK rapes a hotel chambermaid and she’s raked over the coals in the press, while he’s...hiding behind his diplomatic immunity.  Brock Allen Turner forces himself on an unconscious woman, and she’s scarred for life, while he’s...allowed to graduate college and go on to become a captain of industry.

Religion, which is just our culture’s version of mythology, teaches little girls that the only value they have is tied to their purity, and once they lose that purity, they’re monsters like Medusa, Monica, the woman Kobe raped, the maid DSK raped, the woman Brock Allen Turner raped.

But let’s take another look at that painting of Medusa.  The purity culture of mythology/religion/misogyny painted her as a monster, something subhuman.  But I don’t see a monster when I look at that painting.  I see a fierce creature.  Strong.  Defiant.  I see a woman who will not keep quiet about it, who refuses to “submit” herself to a man.

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