This week there have been two high-profile public ‘debates’ (that’s a polite term for a lot of shouting and online outrage) relating to the ancient world – both historical and mythical.
One was set off by the announcement that Gal Gadot (star of Wonder Woman) has been cast to play Cleopatra in a new movie. Lots of people have attacked this decision (links below as usual), arguing that an Egyptian, Arab or even African actor would be more appropriate, and that the casting of an Israeli actor is offensive. Others have defended it (quite often on the grounds that she would be better than Angelina Jolie – but also people have been pointing out that the movie appears to have been Gadot’s idea in the first place).
Some of the backlash is political and ideological, as a response to Gadot’s publicly stated support for the Israeli army. But a lot of the wider debate on social media centres on the ethnicity and appearance of Cleopatra. It’s fascinating to me that the appearance of Cleopatra (does Gadot look ‘ethnic’ enough? is she too beautiful?) is still being debated in the media, with all the old sources (particularly coins) being dusted off and redeployed yet again. For more than a decade, the portrayal of Cleopatra has been the very first topic that most Open University Arts students encounter (on AA100 and now A111) – and it’s a topic that never seems to stop being relevant! It will be interesting to watch how this develops.
Another interesting debate has been triggered by the unveiling, in Lower Manhattan this week, of a statue reimagining Cellini’s famous ‘Perseus with the head of Medusa’ (and here’s a link to a useful comparison thread by Liz Gloyn, who literally wrote the book on modern representations of classical monsters). In this ‘new’ work by artist Luciano Garbati, Medusa is holding the head of Perseus.
The problem here is perhaps not so much the statue itself, but what it’s being claimed to represent. The statue was originally created back in 2008; but it’s been repackaged as a commentary on the #MeToo movement, and placed in a prominent and symbolic spot to do just that.
There are a lot of issues here. The most significant from a classical point of view, perhaps, is that this wasn’t created as a response to the #MeToo movement, and it doesn’t map across very well. According to various versions of the myth, Medusa was raped, but by Poseidon, not by Perseus – so as a #MeToo commentary the role reversal only works on a superficial level. There are other issues too, of course, and I’ve provided links below so that you can follow the debate. But from my point of view it’s been interesting to watch the public response to an inversion of myth – because the debate has been driven in large part not by concerns about the reinterpretation of classical myth, but by concerns over the importance of physical and cultural context. By and large, many people seem quite approving of the statue itself: they just don’t necessarily want it in this place and with this message attached.
Both debates have in common the question of who the ancient world belongs to, and who should be allowed to represent it. Some people have objected to Garbati representing Medusa (and by extension victims of sexual assault more widely) in a #MeToo context because he is a man, and because he seems to be using the myth to represent female bodies as the focus of the male gaze. Similarly, people are arguing over who can claim Cleopatra (a very difficult question, given the problem of her parentage and background) and who should be allowed to represent her; and the way the debate shifts from the views of the actor, to the ethnicity of the actor, to the appearance of the actor, shows just how tricky this is to negotiate.
What a great time to be teaching Myth in the Greek and Roman Worlds! I feel some tutorial slides coming on…
Finally this week I did promise to update you on my new shop. I’m hoping that eventually this shop might generate enough profit to pay the fees for this website, so that I won’t have to worry about that – but we’ll see!
For now, there are just a few designs up, based on my original sketches, with lots more to come over the next month or so (I’m still figuring out the technical side of things!). Those designs are available on all kinds of goodies – not produced by me, I’m glad to say! – including notebooks, cards, masks, mugs, cushions and coasters. So far I’ve set up a ‘Roman poetry’ collection, and another collection based on a little dragon that I’ve been drawing every day this month for Twitter’s #Inktober. I’ve called my little shop TheCobra (because when your name has an anagram that good, you ought to use it!), and you can find it on RedBubble here: https://www.redbubble.com/people/TheCobra/shop?asc=u.
So if you feel inclined to buy yourself a treat, please do: I’ll be glad of the support! I’d also be grateful if you’d spread the word: I’m not at all good at self-promotion, and can never bring myself to do it! Feel free, too, to send me requests or ideas for designs – some day I’ll run out of ideas of my own!
This week from around the Classical Internet
‘Whitewashing’ Cleopatra – BBC
Cleopatra backlash – Middle East Eye
What we don’t know about Cleopatra – A Don’s Life
Medusa and #MeToo Art – NYT Metro
Why the Medusa statue is controversial – Smithsonian Magazine
The Medusa debate – Hyperallergic
This week I talked to some wonderful people about lots of texts I haven’t read in ages – so now I have a long reading list for my next day off! I also had the chance to interview one of my heroes, Professor Michael Wood, which was very exciting!
Comment and opinion
Percy Jackson’s Lotus Hotel – Classical Inquiries
Roman voting lines – Liv Mariah Yarrow
Unexpected derivations – Bellaria
Paestum – Roamin’ The Empire
Latin stems – Danny Bate
Drunk war elephants – Bad Ancient
Influencer in exile – Eidolon
Tales of terror – In Medias Res
Democritus and Plato – Ostraka
Podcasts, video and other media
The sound of music – Peopling the Past
Polychromy Lecture – The Walters Art Museum
The rise of Vespasian – The Ancients
Codification – The Partial Historians
Nero – Dan Snow’s History Hit
In honour of Virgil’s birthday this week, why not try the Sortes Virgilianae, a traditional way of seeking wisdom by opening Virgil randomly and reading a verse that would tell your fortune. Here it is in handy online form: http://sortesvirgilianae.com/