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Politics

Two Greek Girls and #MeToo

November 11, 2018
Dr Constantina Michalos

The story of Philomela and Procne is one that can be added to the list of #MeToo revelations centuries after the myth was first recounted.

After Procne marries Tereus and moves away, she asks her husband to bring her sister to Thrace for a visit. On their way, Tereus rapes his sister-in-law. When Philomela asserts that she will declare his depravity to the world, he punishes her presumption and silences her by ripping out her tongue.Thus, he renders her threat empty. If she cannot speak, as men do, she is powerless. Philomela, however, devises another means to communicate, a method that Tereus, in his personal and cultural superiority, never anticipates nor can even imagine. She weaves the story of her rape, mutilation and imprisonment on a tapestry, and Procne reads it as clearly as if she were reading a text.

Unsurprisingly, male mythographers ignore Tereus’ crime and focus, instead, on the horror of the sisters’ revenge: killing and cooking Itys, Tereus’ son with Procne, and feeding him to his father. The sisters are monsters, unnatural women to usurp such power, and Tereus is a poor father bereft of his son and heir. This reading inaugurates a literary, social, and historical tradition in which women are troped as silent, submissive and subjugated as punishment for their audacity. Women, on the other hand, read the myth as a testament to the strength of female bonding and a model of self-empowerment through an alternate, female, non-verbal mode of communication – a female lexicon outside of patriarchy (i.e., the tapestry). And women become texts themselves, reading each other’s gestures, facial expressions and eye movements as subliminal statements of intent ignored by men as female idiosyncrasies. Women read and speak between the lines, within the ellipses of their conversations and, through this coded indirection, shape an alternate reality disdained by men.

For centuries since, women writers have used the metaphors inaugurated in Philomela and Procne to tell their stories.But who knew they were writing?A survey of Norton Anthologies of Literature – any literature, any decade – reveals that, other than a nod to Sappho, Elizabeth I, a few American colonial women, and little Phillis Wheatley, women were just not writing.Actually, they were just not being published. Another survey of Norton Anthologies in the mid-1960s – during the Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement – reveals – WOW! – that women have been writing for centuries.And much of what they have been writing – even those colonial women – has been subversive. Beneath the veneer of the dutiful daughter, wife, and mother writes the woman who may not be able to reject these roles publically but who definitely criticizes the system that imposes them unilaterally and with impunity.

In 1898, Kate Chopin published The Awakening, in which a mother declares, “I would die for my children, but I would not give my life for them.” With that sentence, Chopin’s protagonist puts herself into the same league as Medea and Lady Macbeth, and Chopin’s career ends. Susan Glaspell helped found the Provincetown Players with Eugene O’Neill. Remember him? Have you ever heard of her?In 1916, she wrote Trifles, a one-act play that revolutionizes theater by setting its story in a kitchen – woman’s space – and moving men off-stage for most of the action.It is the story of a woman who kills her husband because he is emotionally abusive. The two women sent to fetch things she may need in jail find clues to the wife’s motives that the three male investigators discount as “trifles.” Whereas the men are looking for signs of violence, the women recognize that a counter that has not been wiped down, a quilt whose stitching is uneven, and a broken bird cage point to the wife’s oppressed existence. To the men, she is a terrible homemaker and, because she cannot fulfill that role satisfactorily, she is unnatural and, therefore, capable of murder. To the women, these female signs silently proclaim suffering. Like Philomela’s tapestry. The dead husband, on the other hand, though not terribly friendly, put food on the table (in a manner of speaking) a roof over her head, and clothes on her back. Well, at least one decent dress for church. What else did she expect from a marriage?

#MeToo has brought Philomela and Procne’s story into the 21st century.Women are no longer silent.They speak and write their outrage. Editorials, letters, picket signs, t-shirts, open palms, pink hats, testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. But they are still too often drowned out by the cacophony of men who have appropriated women’s outrage as their own. Louis CK, who admitted to masturbating in front of women, decided he had suffered enough, was remorseful enough, and so he made a surprise appearance in a comedy club after a nine-month absence. Six months after Charlie Rose was fired from CBS and PBS, stories circulated that he would host a show in which he would interview other men who had behaved badly and were now shunned for their efforts. What kind of world do we live in that would even entertain such a notion, let alone garner viewers to tune in?

The kind of world that, just a few hours after Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford told her story in measured tones, allows Brett Kavanaugh to rage about her testimony in a partisan rant that should have disqualified him from the Supreme Court on that basis alone; a rant that was echoed by Lindsey Graham in a performance that defies comprehension. The kind of world that listens to the president mock Dr. Ford’s testimony in that grating voice of his and later call it a hoax. We all know that had Dr. Ford raised her voice less than an octave, had she punctuated her story with a sob, she would have been dismissed as a hysterical woman. Indeed, for many, the fact that she controlled herself made her credible. This in 2018.In the United States of America.

So Brett Kavanaugh will sit on the Supreme Court for decades. If we’re lucky, he’ll follow Clarence Thomas’ example and keep his mouth shut. Probably not. What we do know is that he is no Anthony Kennedy.

I don’t blame Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford if she never speaks publically again. Then again, she doesn’t have to.She has inspired a new generation of Philomelas and Procnes.

At the end of the myth, when Tereus realizes that he’s eating his son, he chases the sisters, bent on killing them. The gods have other plans. They transform the three figures into birds:Tereus become a hoopoe, a kind of avian catfish – you know, a bottom feeder. Procne becomes a swallow and memorializes her son with her song. Philomela becomes a nightingale, destined to sing the name of her rapist, “Teru, Teru,” forever.

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