For literally thousands of years, humans have told stories about Medusa. Beginning as a monster of ancient Greece, modern feminist readings have seen her being re-evaluated, and characterised as the victim of her narrative. But this hasn’t been the only modern re-imagining of Medusa – far from it. A quieter, yet far more insidious, trend can equally be witnessed online, where the faces of powerful women, often politicians, are superimposed onto Medusa’s body, presumably to suggest that they are monsters. But how did we get here? How do these varying interpretations of Medusa line up? And why do misogynists just love Medusa so much?
Well the tradition of using Medusa in order to shame powerful women goes right back to ancient history. See around 300 BC, there’s suddenly a change in the way that artists were depicting Medusa, from depictions of her as a gargoyle-ish monster, to a beautiful woman. But don’t worry!! She was still supposed to be just as evil, she was just pretty now. Some scholars have written about her changing portrayal, and there’s different opinions on why it happened. Some people think that the Greeks just really liked beautiful things, so got tired with Medusa always looking super gross. And there’s probably truth in that!! But I want to throw a different theory at you, a theory which stretches all the way to the incel Medusa art of this century.
See while the ancient Medusa may have looked beautiful, that didn’t mean that the Greeks had to like her any more – in fact it was pretty much the opposite. There was a philosopher back in their day called Prodicus, who told a story about Hercules* (*except he was Greek so he would’ve said Heracles!), and how he one day got the chance to choose between these two goddesses, one of which was basically the good and moral one, and one was the bad, nasty one. That bad gal? Way way hotter. See, when the ancient folks were talking about women, super intense beauty was something to be suspicious of – they’d probably end up being evil. So this beautiful Medusa is actually supposed to tell us “watch out!! she’s a bad one!!”.
You can also tell how suspicious the ancient Greeks were of Medusa through her famous snakey hair. If you check out any ancient statue of Medusa, a key feature is that they all have this wild crazy hair, spiralling away from their faces. The wild hair becomes like a staple of artistic depictions of her, even more so than snakes! What’s the motivation for this?? Well maybe snakes are too hard to carve, I’m not a sculptor, who am I to criticise? But another reason might be that women in ancient Greece were supposed to have fully tamed hair – usually under a veil, but at least tied back. By having her hair all out and uncontrollable, the Greeks were suggesting she was a baddy, someone who wouldn’t obey the normal social order. Even her eyes and mouth are abnormal – she makes direct eye contact with her viewer, (which respectful women weren’t supposed to do!!), and has her mouth open like she’s about to say something (a woman, speaking?! what the heck?!). In fact, everything about Medusa shouts out the fact that she’s a nasty woman, who goes against the natural order, and doesn’t stay in her place.
And wow if that doesn’t nicely tie into her use in incel culture!! Every time a woman appears powerful, particularly in the world of politics, people flood online to create images of her as Medusa, with the writhing snakes and all. Sometimes you even get the lovely touch of Medusa’s murderer, Perseus, holding her head aloft (as we see in the images of Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump).
But why Medusa? There are plenty of other monsters in Greek mythology, and plenty women who were a lot more morally questionable! Why have misogynists, both ancient and modern, stayed so obsessed with Medusa? It’s a good question. One theory is that it might have to do with who Medusa turned to stone – literally only men. In all of the many many stories about Medusa, from a whole bunch of different authors, she is only ever reported to have killed men, which is a pretty funky and unique feature. As a feminist scholar, I’d say “hey! maybe it’s because she only turned people to stone if they deliberately searched for her and then attacked her! and surprise, only creepy male ‘heroes’ did that!”, but that’s open to discussion. Regardless of Medusa’s motivation, the fact that she was said to have only killed men makes her seem to some select people on the internet like a ‘feminist monster attacking male rights in a big old war on men’ (sound familiar? I bet).
Another part of this Medusa loving meninist puzzle comes from the reason why Medusa got snakey hair in the first place. See a feminist reading of the myth suggests Athena gave Medusa her stone cold gaze as protection after Poseidon assaulted her – so she’d never have to endure a similar situation. But in the traditional myth (written in a patriarchal context), Medusa is punished for the assault by her beauty being taken away. That’s right folks, she, the victim, is punished for being the victim of an assault, and the big punishment is… she becomes…. unattractive !!!!! cue gasps and screams of horror!!
See that’s a big part of misogynist rhetoric, just shouting out how “yeah that women may be powerful, but I think she’s ugly hahahahahahahahahahahaha yeah take that!!”. It’s pretty much perfectly summed up by Donald Trump’s reaction to criticism from Carly Fiorina (a super powerful and talented politician and ex-CEO of HP), to which he replied (and I’m quoting here) “Look at that face. Would anybody vote for that?”.
Don’t even really have the words for that one folks. But yes, to certain men’s rights activists and misogynists worldwide, the absolute biggest insult they can think to give a woman is that she isn’t attractive. But not only is Medusa not an object of desire to these men, she actually actively makes them the object for once – creating a pretty intense change in the power dynamic.
It’s this idea of the powerful woman, unafraid and unapologetic, and, essentially, unwilling to obey the age old characterisation of women as meek, quiet, and subordinate to men, that Medusa embodies. She's effectively represented this for thousands of years - the original ‘nasty woman’ that misogynists such as Trump have always been afraid of. It’s unsurprising then that meninists around the world use the image of powerful women as Medusa – it’s their way of showing that this is a woman who speaks out, and speaks up, believes in the power of women, and refuses to sit back and obey men. She refuses the ‘traditional place of women’, and so she is monstrous, going against nature.
Well fuck that ey? To feminists across the world, Medusa has been reclaimed, she is the representation of the powerful woman who takes no shit, is loud and angry, and speaks up. She knows her place, and it’s at the head of the table. To be portrayed as Medusa is to be recognised as a threat by the very misogyny we are hoping to challenge.
Paint me as Medusa? I’ll thank you.