Sunday, October 15, 2017

To Stand Witness by Teri Uktena

Medusa by Caroline Alkonost


THE MEDUSA MYTH has always been a favorite of mine. I mean, it’s cool right? As a kid it’s a great story like Godzilla vs. Mothra. There is a horrible monster doing horrible monstery things which needs to be vanquished. And there is a hero who looks just like every other guy and he gets help from the pretty gods and he gets all these cool gadgets and he goes out, screws up his courage and defeats the monster. Hurray! Even better, Clash of the Titans with Harry Hamlin is a cult classic and the owl Bubo is a delight.

However, I also was bothered by the myth from the very beginning because it made no sense. Rarely was a monster called out as either male or female—it was just monstrous and somewhat assumed to be male (ish?). So why all the angst around this one baddie? Why was she female? Why was that a bad thing? Other monsters were ugly, but their ugliness didn’t kill, their actions did. And it really confused me that a girl monster would be powerful and deadly and need to be killed while pretty women were helpless damsels that needed to be saved. And why do they always just weep and allow themselves to be tied to things?

Unfortunately for us, the Medusa myth is alive and well, though not because of any CGI filled remakes. Medusa was a physically beautiful woman. In Ovid’s telling this is presented as uncomfortable, not in and of itself, but because she knew she was beautiful and this made everyone around her uncomfortable. There is a subtext to this implying negativity if you fully embody who you are as woman. (You know, be too attractive and you attract things you don’t want.) Don’t be powerful, don’t be uppity, don’t be who you are, don’t be… Poseidon, god of the seas, second most powerful god next to Zeus (his brother) sees her and is attracted to her. He approaches her, comments on her looks, and suggests they make love. She says no. He then forces her into the temple of Athena (who among other things is a staunch virgin with no mother) and rapes her. There are no repercussions for Poseidon. He just leaves afterwards. Athena is enraged, not at him, but at Medusa. Athena turns Medusa’s beauty into such horrid ugliness it cannot be looked on because it will turn anyone who sees it into stone. To look at such defilement, such grossness is to become forever its mute stone witness.

I say this myth is alive and well because you can hear it in each woman who comes forward to speak about their experiences with Bill Cosby (who hasn’t been charged with any crime). It is retold in each victim that comes forward to speak about Jimmy Savile from the BBC. In each case, a person who was beautiful because they lived, because they existed, because they were a portion of divinity, was taken advantage of in a way which was so destructive they were forever changed. This in itself is a horrible facet of humanity. What is worse, when it became known they had been taken advantage of there was no outrage toward the perpetrator, but outrage at them, the victim. They are turned into a hideous monster who is so dangerous they must be shunned because just looking upon them will destroy mortal man. They are other, they are evil, they are a warning to all who hear the tale, don’t be too much, don’t be too good, too beautiful, too powerful, too anything. Keep your head down and hopefully you won’t be destroyed.

When Anita Sarkeesian says, “One of the most radical things you can do is to actually believe women,” she’s speaking directly to this. That Medusa isn’t a monster. She’s us. She’s someone who has been radically changed by the despicable actions of other beings. Our inability to look at her, to see her, the myth that we will be turned to stone if we see her, is all about fear. It’s about what will happen to us if we actually see her for who she has become. This is in part the power of the New York Magazine cover



It’s nothing more than a black and white picture of seated women and one empty chair. But when I look at it I see Medusa in all of her amazing and heart breaking varieties. In this picture I see all of the women I have worked with over the years who have struggled because no one would believe them and people actively worked against their being able to seek help or even validation. I see myself telling my family what happened to me and hearing them respond that I was lying. And I remember one of the most amazing days of my life, when I told my story in the presence of men I had never met and they believed me.

Medusa isn’t a story in some book: she’s all around us. She’s not a monster too ugly to look upon, she’s the ugly truth. If we have to look at her through the shield of a magazine photo or stand with our backs to her and look at her through a mirror, then so be it. The time when sending Perseus to kill her would work is ending. It’s time to give over this turning to stone business and instead become the heroes that stand witness to what has been done.

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