For a course, I’ve been revisiting the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, which most of us will remember as a heroic tale of adventure and courage in which the charmingly handsome Jason undertakes a dangerous quest with his fellows to recover the Golden Fleece.
Most of us may also remember that however heroic and courageous Jason might be, he could never have succeeded without the help of the princess, Medea, who lucky for him is a powerful witch. In gratitude, Jason takes Medea home and marries her but then, tiring of this part of his adventure, seeks a new one in marrying a different princess. In a fit of anger and revenge, Medea turns against him and for all involved, things go terribly wrong.
There are many ways to look at this story and what it might mean for us today. Just for fun, I’ve chosen to take a feminist approach – let’s see how that might go, shall we?
One of the primary concerns of feminist literary critique is how socially constructed gender roles contribute to ‘self-making (i.e., what makes someone who he or she is). In this respect, it is important to remember every text brings to itself some form of sexual politics – i.e., an assumed relationship between male and female because however portrayed, ‘otherness’ is always implicit.
The goal of feminist literary critique is not to destroy thousands of years of western literary tradition but instead, to reinterpret and rethink it especially in regarding stereotyping and the collusion between audiences in maintaining covert stereo-typed assumptions about gender roles.
As Natalie Haynes points out in her recent book, Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths, if Clytemnestra is the worst wife in Greek myth, Medea lays claim to being the worst mother. From the start, Haynes reminds us, Medea, who is a barbarian, is dangerous; she’s clever, foreign, female, and magical. Haynes also reminds us that there were few things that alarmed Greek men more than a clever woman and arguably, Medea is cleverest of all.
This lays the groundwork for Medea to be portrayed as a scheming menace to society. Arguably, she is more much more dangerous than the warrior race of women, the Amazons. At least put all their cards on the table along with their (male-inspired) weapons. As the result, doubtless hundreds of generations of readers have taken on board that women are dangerous – especially witches. For confirmation of this, you don’t need to look much further than the witch trials (and laws against witchcraft) both in Britain and New England to understand exactly how that has played out.
Imagine the negative self-image foisted upon women as the result – especially when, as did Medea, she might be considering using her ‘special gifts’ to help herself out. Talk about stereotyping; Jason says it all when he proclaims that ‘women are so unreasonable: they cannot tell what is good for them’. The ‘otherness’ implied here is that, as a man, Jason is reasonable and knows what’s good for him but, as it turns out, he doesn’t. Nonetheless, in most versions of the story, Medea absorbs a larger share of the blame than Jason, right?
But today, we are able to ‘rethink’ the message inherent in Medea’s story. For example, as self-proclaimed witch, Laurie Cabot, made clear in her bestseller – The Witch in Every Woman – all women possess the primal courage and strength of the Witch and so can use these special talents (she provides pages of spells and recipes and rituals) not only to improve their own self-image but also get what they want – the name of the game as Cabot puts it is the Reawakening the Magical Nature of the Feminine to Heal, Protect, Create, and Empower. But did Haynes mention that? No, she didn’t, and I challenge you to name more than a handful of authors who choose to put (Medea’s) witchcraft in equally as positive a framework as has Ms Cabot.
Yet the reality of that story is that in the end, Jason lost, and Medea won. In all the gender politics in play, we tend to lose sight of that. One way or another, he ended up dead or clinically depressed or on skid-row as she rode off in her grandfather’s solar chariot toward a new future. Was this because she was of divine birth, and he was not? It is my view that is not made entirely clear. Most portrayals of her are as a barbarian princess, not a goddess. Let us not forget the damage that language like that does without us even realising it. Although the word ‘barbarian’ today is defined as a ‘rude’ and ‘uncivilised’ person, to the Greeks it meant only that she was not Greek.
The covert message here is clearly that whilst men can use everything in their power to get what they want, women cannot. If you think that has changed much over the centuries, consider the antics of former American president Donald Trump regarding his treatment of ‘threatening’ women. Like Jason, in Trump’s eyes Trump should be revered as a hero and Hilary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi dismissed as ‘nasty’ (rude and uncivilised) women. He even goes so far as to suggest the American legal system is engaged in a ‘witch hunt’ when they make rulings intended to shed light on some otherwise very potentially dark shadows regarding him. If we think that people are not colluding in stereo-typed gender messages centre stage in that ancient story of Jason and Medea, consider how close Trump came to being re-elected as president.