Manhattan, Collect Pond Park, October 2020. A seven-foot-tall bronze statue is unveiled. It is Medusa with the Head of Perseus, by the Italian Argentinian artist Luciano Garbati. Medusa holds Perseus’s head in her right hand, and in her left, the sword by which she killed him. She has snakes for hair and a resolute gaze. She stands tall—and nude—in front of the New York Criminal Court, where Harvey Weinstein was convicted of rape. Cast by Garbati in 2008, the statue suddenly went viral on Instagram in 2020, when it was reposted by an Italian scholar and proclaimed a symbol of the #MeToo movement.
Greek mythology has long been a byword for elitism and social conservatism. Is it really a good idea—or even possible—to use its images for contemporary gender justice?
As a classicist, I am always skeptical about institutionalized enterprises that choose a classical example as a symbol for social inclusivity. But, then again, to see Medusa’s head still on her shoulders is itself unusual enough to pique my interest. In Greek mythology, she is a sweet young girl, raped by the sea god Poseidon in the temple of the goddess Athena. As if being raped was not enough, Medusa is punished by Athena for committing impure acts in her temple. The goddess transforms Medusa’s hair into snakes and invests her with the power to turn into stone whoever looks directly at her. And, as a consequence of not-exactly-her crime, she is finally exiled to a deserted island. Sometime thereafter, she is visited by Perseus, the son of Zeus, who has been ordered by King Polydectes to bring him Medusa’s head. The man then kills her with the help of the gods, and on his journey home even manages to secure a wife, and lives happily ever after.
It is not surprising that most depictions of Medusa have featured her severed head, usually held triumphantly aloft by the great hero Perseus. So it is in Benvenuto Cellini’s 16th-century Perseo, gloriously standing in the middle of the Loggia dei Lanzi in the famous Piazza della Signoria, in Florence. Cellini’s Perseus raises Medusa’s severed head while standing on her dismembered body.
Luciano Garbati grew up in a small town near Florence, where he would often see this humiliated Medusa. In an interview for Quartz, Garbati describes the famous Cellini statue as a kind of childhood obsession. He says that he wanted to make up for Medusa’s unjust characterization as the villain of the story. “What would it look like, her victory, not his?” he asked himself.
My short answer to this question is, unfortunately, “Medusa’s victory would look nothing like Garbati’s statue.” Garbati’s take on the myth has little to do with Medusa’s head; it does, however, seem to be quite concerned with the rest of her body. Medusa is sculpted as slender, athletic, and, of course, naked. Even her gaze, supposedly resolute, feels sexualized. Rather than a woman fighting for her life, Garbati’s Medusa looks like a femme fatale searching for her next victim.
My critique is hardly the only one. In the days immediately following the statue’s unveiling in New York, public reactions to the statue’s ambiguities heated up Twitter. Feminist activist Wagatwe Wanjuki tweeted: “#MeToo was started by a Black woman, but a sculpture of a European character by a dude is the commentary that gets centered? Sigh.” Though the product of one white man’s voyeurism, the statue could not even count on male support. “As it is, this is nothing more than yet another naked female figure made by yet another white male artist,” Jerry Saltz protested from Curbed.
What Garbati’s Medusa shows us is that to talk about social justice when appropriating someone else’s story, even when the story in question is a millennia-old myth, serves to perpetuate such injustice. By publicly choosing this statue as the symbol of #MeToo, the Art in the Parks program adopted a Pygmalion strategy: unhappy with the actual women around them, they crafted their own—both beautiful and unthreatening (even when brandishing a severed head).
In light of this recent uproar, when Natalie Haynes’s novel Stone Blind: Medusa’s Story came out in September of 2022, my expectations were high. Given Haynes’s long engagement with the classics (she hosted the stand-up series Natalie Haynes Stands Up for the Classics) and her overtly feminist views, I was hoping for a book that could finally offer a feminist spin on Greek mythology. I hoped hers would be a work that could sate my classicist’s skepticism.
Unfortunately, this did not happen. Despite the many instances in the novel of Medusa mocking Perseus, describing him as a “boastful little fool,” she is hardly the empowered #MeToo heroine I was hoping for. The story starts promisingly, when Medusa directly confronts Poseidon as he is about to rape her (“Medusa could not say why she suddenly felt less afraid, though her dislike of the god was in no way diminished. It was, perhaps, his tremendous self-regard, which meant that even though he was so much more powerful than her, and so intent on exploiting the disparity between them, she felt rather sorry for him”). However, right after Medusa is punished by Athena and her hair becomes snakes, the story turns into the myth of Medusa’s disempowerment. Unlike her mythological antecedents, this Medusa is scared of embracing her new power. In order to protect her sisters, she wears gauze over her eyes, and is tearful when she accidentally kills a lizard (“But she didn’t want anything to be her prey. Nor did she want to answer any more questions about how her new power worked”). This tamed, sweet Medusa is not exactly the “laughing” Medusa advocated by the classicist Hélène Cixous as the symbol of feminist rage. On the contrary, the book rests on the general premise that power is intrinsically evil and self-corrupting. Indeed, anyone who has power in this story is extremely annoying: King Polydectes, who sends Perseus on a mission to behead Medusa; the gods, who treat mortals as collateral damage; Queen Cassiopeia, who is so concerned about her own aging that she offers her daughter as a sacrifice to the gods—all are self-involved and whiny.
Haynes’s retelling pursues feminist aims, but, ultimately, it amounts to a tale of disempowerment.
Haynes toils for two-thirds of the book to give us a friendly and reassuring image of Medusa, until the moment at which she is killed by Perseus. Afterward, she becomes “the Gorgoneion,” the talking severed head that Perseus carries around as a weapon. Unlike her human counterpart, the Gorgoneion fully and shamelessly enjoys her power, and turns men into stone at Perseus’s convenience (“If you were waiting for me to feel guilt, you will be waiting a long time”). She is no longer human, as she reiterates many times toward the end of the novel—she is now the monster that Medusa had strove not to be (“I don’t feel like saving mortals any more. I don’t feel like saving anyone any more. I feel like opening my eyes and taking in everything I can see whenever I get the chance. I feel like using the power the goddess gave me”). The moral of the story is that to have power makes you a monster.
After Perseus’s quest is over and he lives happily ever after with his new bride, the Gorgoneion rests in the temple of Athena. There, she finally talks to the goddess. What emerges from the conversation is that it is impossible for a woman to be powerful and fulfilled, as both of them are lonely and unsatisfied. The logical consequence for Medusa, after a whole book spent criticizing Perseus, is to turn Athena into stone. Right after, the head gets lost in the sea, where she can do no harm (“The Gorgoneion is lost beneath the waves, and no one can reach it, not even the creatures of the sea. It has closed its eyes, one last time”). While the hero gets his happy ending despite the scorn heaped upon him along the way, the two more-powerful women of the story intentionally exit the stage.
Haynes’s retelling pursues feminist aims, but, ultimately, it amounts to a tale of disempowerment. Instead of a triumphant Medusa who sets the record straight with Perseus, Haynes lets him get away with it once again. As for Medusa, once her job is over, she prefers to hide in the depths of the sea.
In the original Greek version, Medusa embodies men’s anxiety about powerful women. She is neither human nor a friend. She is powerful and she enjoys it. It is for those reasons that Medusa is meted out a gruesome death by a male hero. Haynes’s retelling of the story does not, in the end, challenge that moral trajectory. Instead of celebrating Medusa’s power, Haynes chose to have her heroine actively despise it. Female power remains morally deplorable. After all, we all know that the Greeks were irredeemably sexist; how could a woman find her place in such a world? Better to let men deal with it, Haynes’s book tells us.
On the surface, Garbati’s and Haynes’s renditions of the myth could not be more different. In one case, a sensual, athletic heroine reverses the story; in the other, a severed head sleeps underneath the sea. But neither celebrates Medusa’s strength. Both indulge in a patronizing appropriation of the myth: Medusa is a victim once again, of the male gaze in Garbati’s case and of the power she will never use in Haynes’s book. Their use of the classics preserves the status quo: for Garbati, a woman is powerful only if a man makes her so, while for Haynes power cannot be held by a woman with no consequences.
In light of these two failed reworkings of classical myths, I will ask again: Could classics ever speak to contemporary gender justice? That depends on a second question: Can Medusa ever become a subject who uses her power for herself? In fact, this has been the goal of many feminist appropriations of Medusa over the years. In 2021, a Medusa tattoo trend went viral on TikTok. Thousands of sexual-assault survivors displayed their Medusa tattoos. Survivors gave Medusa a new life on their very skin. In these images, she—and they—are no longer scared of their own power. On their own bodies, their stories and Medusa’s merge. No longer alone, she is one survivor among many who will be victims no more. They are rewriting the myth. Together.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.