SEX PISTOLS & THE POLIS:
THE WEAPON OF THE FEMININE IN ARISTOPHANES’ LYSISTRATA (411 BC)
by Mishana Hosseinioun
The seductive powers of speech are exhausted quite literally by Aristophanes in his Sex Farce, Lysistrata. When it comes to introducing a politically controversial play such as Lysistrata into an otherwise stern, patriarchal society of Athens in 411 BC, Aristophanes understands the essential role that sex and humor play in theater, above and beyond mere rationality of discourse. Ironically, absurdity is not only integral to Aristophanes’ conscious effort to garner popular acceptance for his play, it is that which the fictional female characters in his play deploy in an equally unexpected, logical manner in order to bring the belligerent men to their senses and knees—the former, by way of rousing laughter in the bellies of his audience, not in a way dissimilar to the latter’s technique of rousing that which lies slightly below the belt. In demonstrating the ways in which irrationality can work hand in hand with reason, Lysistrata accesses the untapped potential that permeates traditional stereotypes once aimed at stripping women of their agency and any claims to rationality. The women in this play who are shown to cleverly excavate power from the roles that are assigned to them by men, namely those of caretakers and sexual objects, in the end take it into their own hands to act as the true productive members of their society.
Throughout the length of his play, Aristophanes calls into question traditional views of females as the inferior, irrational sex, as Aristotle would put it, by carefully and comically reappropriating certain female stereotypes. The labels that might have previously worked to the disadvantage of women, Lysistrata redeploys as tools of agency. For instance, in the very first scenes, all the while reinforcing stereotypes that depict women as unintelligent and vain, Kalonike sarcastically asks Lysistrata what “mere women can do that is intelligent or noble when all they do is sit around the house looking pretty, wearing saffron dresses and makeup and Kimberic gowns and canoe-sized slippers”(45). In response, Lysistrata unflinchingly remarks that these very female attributes which she then goes on to relist and embellish for emphasis as “fancy little dresses, perfumes and slippers, rouge and see-through underwear,” are in fact, “exactly what she thinks will rescue Greece;” still, while Lysistrata cannot expect to convince Kalonike or the others on the spot of an argument that still does not hold water, she will spend the remainder of the play building valid defense, both figuratively and literally. After all, only Lysistrata has the audacity and the vision to imagine these frivolous female qualities as serving towards strategic ends. Thus begins an entire revolutionary movement hiding under the wing of one big sexual joke, on its way to disprove the trivial status of the female voice in matters of the Athenian state. As weak or marginalized as the female gender may be, Lysistrata seems to say, it is still capable of making up for the occasional lapses in male rationality, with what little it has at its disposal, even see-through underwear.
“So shouldn’t the women have gotten here by now?” Lysistrata proceeds to point out in an indignant tone, referring to the women whom she anticipates to round up and brief on her strategy for policing the men of Athens. “My friend, you’ll see that they’re typically Athenian: everything they do, they do too late. There isn’t even a single woman here from the Paralia, nor from Salamis,” she later adds. When Lysistrata here complains to Kalonike of the perpetual tardiness of the Athenian women, she confronts the first of the many obstacles that come in the way of mobilizing the women for her peace campaign. Kalonike confirms Lysistrata’s complaint by stating, “oh, them: I just know they’ve been up since dawn, straddling their mounts,” alluding to the women of Athens engaged in risqué sexual positions, and simultaneously substantiating the societal view of women as reckless, sex-starved creatures. Nevertheless, Kalonike’s statement ironically contains a window of promise as it almost innocently foreshadows Lysistrata’s preceding prophecy that women will rise to the top, using their sexuality as a method to harness the men and control their irrational drive for war. In this moment, Aristophanes demonstrates a willingness to capitalize on the many diverse utilizations and benefits of the so-called missionary position as a way of perhaps extending the influence of women to spheres beyond the domicile.
Alike a lieutenant recruiting members into an army, or more specifically, a revolutionary, initiating a chant, Lysistrata requires the women to take, what appears at first glance, a most foolish sounding oath: “No man of any kind, lover or husband—shall approach me with a hard-on. I can’t hear you!”(50). In obliging all women to repeat the promise to deny men of sex until they agree to depose of their arms, and then to seal in their oath with a drink of boar’s blood from a consecration bowl, Lysistrata exhibits an almost cultic, methodical, approach to galvanizing support—a technique traditionally reserved for men. In other words, Lysistrata’s organizational efforts are not lacking in calculation and reason, though they may still be abundant with elements of absurdity (e.g. “hard-on”…). The oath continues, “at home in celibacy shall I pass my life—wearing a party-dress and makeup—so that my husband will get as hot as a volcano for me—but never willingly shall I surrender to my husband”(51). While one utterance is more ludicrous than the next, each still seems to follow fairly logically from the last. Even Kalonike agrees to take this oath by repeating these very lines, when only moments earlier she had dismissed the notion of party-dresses and makeup as amounting to anything constructive or beneficial in Athenian state affairs. It can be said, therefore, that Lysistrata has satisfactorily completed the task of persuading her fellow female comrades to join in on the effort, and is left but with the charge of collectively persuading the men to submit to more peaceful alternatives; but first, she will need to build an Ethos on behalf of the female movement.
In an onstage debate between the women and the Magistrate, Aristophanes constructs the female Ethos and substantially weakens that of its counterpart by staging a literal transferal of one sex’s characteristics onto the other. “If the veil’s an obstacle, here, take mine, it’s yours, put it on your face [she removes her veil and puts it on the Magistrate’s head], and then shut up!”(61), Lysistrata assertively retorts after the Magistrate explains patronizingly that he would “rather die than shut up for her, a damned woman, with a veil on her face too.” Aristophanes cleverly uses this combination of absurd and almost juvenile actions, words and props as a rhetorical device for constructing meaningful and persuasive characters—just one more example of the compatibility of the rational and irrational. The gesture of placing the veil on the Magistrate’s head alone is not only telling of Lysistrata’s disavowal of negative female stereotypes, it symbolizes the act of mapping femininity and thus weakness onto the male body, while in turn reinforcing masculinity on her own side. “And take this sewing-basket too,” the first old woman adds, to which Lysistrata tacks-on, “now hitch up your clothes and start sewing; chew some beans while you work. War shall be the business of womenfolk!” The transmission of responsibilities between the sexes, beyond that of sewing and housework, is at its most dramatic when it calls for the ceding of control to women on issues of war. In this utter reversal and exchange of gender roles, Lysistrata can be said to be manually weaving a masculine Ethos for women—one that necessarily demands more respect from her audience, and which thus renders the women all the more persuasive. For feats such as these, she is fittingly dubbed the “manliest of all women” (80) by the male Chorus-leader, towards the conclusion of the play.
As any rhetorician well knows, Ethos is not entirely effective without mixing in a dash of Pathos here and a pinch of Logos there. In an almost chain-reaction resulting from the foregoing minor victory of Lysistrata and the first old woman, the rest of the women speak out passionately in chorus, affirming, “oh yes! I’ll dance with unflagging energy; the effort won’t weary my knees. I’m ready to face anything with women courageous as these: they’ve got character, charm and guts. They’ve got intelligence and heart that’s both patriotic and smart”(61). After the debasing of the Magistrate only just before, this collective declaration seems somehow justified even in its taboo interchange of feminine and male attributes to designate their female compatriots. The women, having accumulated more authority and legitimacy by snowball-effect along the path of this debate, are now situated in a more prime, and possibly more persuasive position than before. What is more, as the women here remark as much on the intelligence as on the charm and heart of the Athenian dames, they perhaps seek to counterbalance traditional misrepresentations of women as mere emotional beings, and in doing so, effectively help to rewrite the female legacy in its as-yet, unsung form; moments such as these which invite laughter and disbelief via their bending of sacred gender lines, are exemplary of the kind of Aristophenesian rhetoric that is aware of itself—and thus rational—in its use of absurdity.
Whether acting out of revenge, out of mere chauvinistic habit, out of envy for her ability to craftily build an argument for the women’s side, or all of the above, the Magistrate continues to mock Lysistrata as the debate continues. Even after asking her to justify how she “really thinks her way with wool and yarnballs and spindles can stop a terrible crisis”(62) adding that it is “brainless,” Lysistrata does not for a moment back down from her own defense; rather, she calmly resumes her visual demonstration with a ball of yarn in her hand to represent the polis, and as such, clearly lays out an intelligent, step-by-step approach to managing the polis’ business. Lysistrata, alike Homer’s wise Penelope, wife of Odysseus, weaving a persuasive story on one level and a figurative cloak on another to achieve similar ends, is anything but thoughtless in her analogy-making before the Magistrate. As one example, when Lysistrata advises “[…] card the wool into a basket of unity and goodwill, mixing in everyone,” she displays an unapologetic and shameless attitude about her use of a old ball of yarn to make what is an otherwise valid and thoughtful interpretation of state needs. Such can be seen as yet another instance where Aristophanes seizes the opportunity to display the female Logos as capable of spinning something substantial out of something ostensibly futile.
As becomes evident in the choral debate that follows, Lysistrata’s wool analogy is not expressed in vain and shows evidence of having perhaps haunted the men for quite some time; in fact, it has apparently managed to take a significant toll on the men’s collective psyche after all, despite having being originally rejected and scoffed at. The “wooly” residue of Lysistrata’s words show up almost as the equivalent of a Freudian-slip by today’s standards in a comment made by the men’s leader, when he carps, “it’s shocking, you know, that they’re lecturing the citizens now, and running their mouths—mere women!—about brazen shields […] Actually the plot they weave against us, gentlemen, aims at tyranny” (64). The use of the verb, weave, is noteworthy, especially as it here departs from its previous association with the trivial act of knitting (i.e. ball of yarn) and treads into a more charged epistemological domain where it links up with consequential words such as tyranny and plot, which necessarily imply rational thought on the part of the women. For what appears to be the first time in the play, the men openly recognize the women’s use of Logos or logic (i.e. in giving counsel, weaving a plot etc.)—which is also presumably the source of the perceptible fear in the leader’s voice.
In the words of Lysistrata, reflecting upon the successful completion of the female campaign to bring back good sense into the Athenian polis, “it’s an easy thing to do if you get them [men] when they’re hot for it”(81). The marriage of Pathos and Logos, the inherent interconnectivity of the irrational and rational, the important role that even marginalized groups such as women can play in a society, could not be more accurately expressed all at once in these lines. Where any unpatriotic voice, regardless of sex, is unwelcome and deemed a threat to ancient Greek society, Lysistrata becomes a safe locale where Aristophanes can push his feminist and anti-war agendas. The only thing that can save both the bold, dissident women in Lysistrata from beheading, and the audacious Aristophanes from being labeled a rebel, is their ability to disassociate the taboo of political dissent from frowns and associate it instead with the chuckles inspired by the crossing of sexual taboo lines. Seeing that Aristophanes is well in tune with the Ethos of his society, sensitive to the political climate of the times and equally adept of seizing the supreme moment to deploy particular discursive practices (i.e. Kairos), it can be said that he is also a self-conscious rhetorician in his own right, cleverly articulating his message through the fictional characters of his drama. Still, where women practically have no direct say in actual society, the stage of Lysistrata becomes a realm in which the female voice can exist without posing a real threat to male power, as it is uttered through the rouged lips of male actors, and kept under check by the quill of a male playwright who promises to safely return the men and women to the shelves where he first found them—but not before he is done playing.
–Mishana Hosseinioun is a Drafter with the 2048 Project: Humanity’s Agreement to Live Together at the UC Berkeley Law School and a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford, England.
All page references are to Three Plays by Aristophanes: Staging Women. Translated by Jeffrey Henderson. London: Routledge, 1996.
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