For my capstone project, I intend to look at the literary/rhetorical/cultural tradition of how women with agency are treated by society. The specific examples that I’d like to look at are from a popular video game series (Starcraft, for those interested), but I thought that my audience for talking about video games might be slightly limited in this class. And, since I’ve already done a post on that, I thought I’d talk about a trend of powerful anti-women/women with agency that are treated as outcasts.
An tributary in Greek myth of the story of Jason and the Argonauts, the Medea myth is about a barbarian princess who, in many versions of the story, has some gift of magic. In the most common telling, Euripides’ Medea, Medea feels spurned by Jason when he decides to forgo his marriage with Medea for a marriage with a princess of Corinth. To get revenge on Jason, Medea plots to kill both Jason’s future wife and father-in-law. As part of this plot, she also kills her own children. What’s somewhat unique about Medea’s situation compared to other monstrous women in myth is the fact that she is human and is therefore expected to live by certain sets of rules. What’s even more unique about Medea is that, unlike other anti-women in Greek mythology (Clytemnestra, for example), Medea is allowed to live after committing her travesties. She is, however, ostracized from the communities that she had come to know.
My argument is that it isn’t necessarily the content of Medea’s crimes but the fact that she is able to attain agency that turns her into a cancer that needs to be excised. Euripides is warning his audience that women with ideas and power are dangerous to society.
We see the same treatment of women in stories and tales about witches. These women are often outcasts. They have power. They often have purposefully turned from society in order to make deals with evil beings. In short, they don’t follow societal norms and they have power. Because of this, they aren’t allowed to participate within society.
This subtle rhetoric is also in play in contemporary culture. Consider the rhetoric surrounding Hillary Clinton in the past election:
While these may not be fully representative of all or even the majority of the claims leveled against Clinton, they’re obviously attempting to position Clinton as an outsider. While I wouldn’t want to assume that the severity of her ostracism was ONLY because she was a woman. The fact that she was woman reaching for power made her an easy target to be singled out as someone who not only didn’t belong as a part of society but also should be vilified as specifically anti-woman. In contrast, her competitor said many things that positioned him as an outsider, but was not vilified in the same way that she was. Trump’s detractors obviously positioned him as bad in several ways, but it was rare for him to be talked about as a bad example of man.
This sort of rhetorical positioning is dangerous for us as a culture because narrows even further the forms of gender performance that we’re willing to accept as good or normal. Being able to recognize these practices and call them out for what they are–unfair–is an important step for discontinuing the practice.