How dangerous women of the ancient world keep their reputation: looking at Medusa

Political Autonomy and Medusa

Sarah Panek
Feb 10 · 5 min read

The usage of Medusa as a symbolic tool to belittle female political candidates is not a new one. There have been many instances of such comparisons. The most famous of these have come in the last few decades, with clear illustrations being drawn to extremely powerful and confident women, such as Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Theresa May and most notably and recognisably, Hillary Clinton. This comparison is vital when acknowledging what tools are used to oppose women in power, and the demonisation of their gender seems to prove to be the most effective. May has been called the “‘Medusa of Maidenhead’”, with a comment from the Daily Star being that the comparison is too strong since “we all know Mrs May has beautifully coiffed hair”. This not only draws the connection between powerful women and monsters but also highlights how, to many, the only important feature of Medusa is her terrifying hair, diminishing her context into insignificance. This vilification of female politicians by comparing them to such a monster, challenging their audacity to vye for the same positions as men, and thus becoming dangerous, is what this section of the essay will discuss.

During the 2016 election cycle in the United States, Hillary Clinton was frequently referred to as Medusa by those supporting Donald Trump. This was clearly used to undermine any authority she would have on the campaign trail as it immediately related her to a dead monster, whilst Trump as Perseus stood victorious over her. This can be seen most vividly in the most famous image to come out of that election cycle: a recreation of Cellini’s infamous statue of Perseus holding the decapitated head of Medusa. In the recreated image, Trump is pictured as Perseus, while the face of Medusa takes on Clinton’s visage, with the word ‘TRUMP’ emblazoned across the bottom, instead of the traditional ‘TRIUMPH’. This makes Trump visually Clinton’s “conqueror”, depicting Clinton as visibly weaker and the loser of a battle that has yet to be decided, whilst also making Trump synonymous with triumph, once more acting as a means to undermine Clinton.

Much like the Perseus from Ovid’s Metamorphoses who is telling the story of the “force and craft” he used to subdue Medusa and overcome her strength, this clever imagery links Clinton with the dead Medusa, whilst Trump is the cunning, alive and eternal, Perseus. The adulation in the tone of the listeners to Perseus’ tale when he is recounting it as light entertainment over dinner only goes to highlight the power men have over women as even the stories about them are controlled by the victors, here Perseus. This shows the pride that the men had in Perseus defeating Medusa, not just because she was a monster, but because she was a woman who dared to challenge men by having a defence mechanism they could not overcome. Thus Perseus is seen as ingenious for overcoming a defiant monster, but it can also be seen more sinisterly as a man brutally removing a woman’s ability to protect herself, only to recount the story for sport and applause at a later date. In the context of the visual imagery of Clinton as Medusa and Trump as Perseus, this doubles the impact on the subconscious of the viewer. By having Clinton’s manic countenance presented as the belittled and bloodied Medusa it allows viewers to consider Clinton as the defeated candidate, even before voting began.

The decision to link Clinton, a successful female politician, with Medusa, a heinous monster, is not an altogether new phenomenon. As Johnston so eloquently puts it: “Hillary is monstrous, too, but in a slightly different way: she’s a woman who … altogether refuses to conform to traditional gender roles”. It is the fear of a politically successful woman that has been exacerbated in this most recent election cycle, leading to such stark comparisons between a monster who can control men through her gaze, and one who can control the population through her words and position. Clinton is a woman who is daring to be in a male-dominated field, and it is that defying of expectations that leads to her being so publicly villainized. Not only are these images relating Clinton to Medusa undermining her as a political candidate, but throughout the election cycle, the taglines surrounding the imagery make it clear that she was also being undermined as a woman. Slogans such as ‘Life’s a bitch, don’t vote for one’ which was featured on a t-shirt with a beheaded ‘Medusa Clinton’ above it, emphasise the way that Clinton was undermined, after becoming unpopular based on her previous actions.

The dislike for Clinton may have had some foundation in disagreements with her policies from the right-wing of the political spectrum. However, when I researched ‘why do people hate Hillary Clinton’ the results were all about her personality and how outspoken she is, as opposed to the policies she would implement if she were elected. Her arrival in the White House as First Lady supporting her husband was heralded with reports of her as a “militant feminist”. While there were concerns over “her links to Wall Street, her missing emails and her supposed responsibility for the security failures that contributed to the attack on the Benghazi consulate” during the 2016 elections, this was more a propaganda appeal from the Republican party to “demonize” her. In fact, it was her personality that caused the most uproar among the voting populace. Reports of her “intelligence, articulateness, politeness, a wealth of knowledge — [qualities] that once might have been required of a U.S. president but had come to be seen as elitist and vaguely phoney to voters” resulted in the people turning against her more obviously than they had done in the past, and thus the development of the imagery of Clinton as Medusa.


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Ostraka

Welcome to Ostraka: a place to be creative, show off your talent, and collect the shards of knowledge Classics and Ancient History students at Durham have to offer. For submissions please e-mail: classics.society@durham.ac.uk or send us a message on either Facebook or Twitter.

Sarah Panek

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Ostraka

Ostraka

Welcome to Ostraka: a place to be creative, show off your talent, and collect the shards of knowledge Classics and Ancient History students at Durham have to offer. For submissions please e-mail: classics.society@durham.ac.uk or send us a message on either Facebook or Twitter.

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