Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Snakes on a Dame

(Discussed herein: Batgirl, the female genitalia, Greek mythology, movie monsters, the “pretty” Medusa problem, priapism (metaphorically), Sigmund Freud, Uma Thurman, video games.)

Think about monsters — the stock spooks, the scary movie types. If pressed to name the boogeymen from those old, black-and-white-and-thereabouts horror films, who lurks to mind? Dracula? The Wolfman? The Creature from the Black Lagoon? Some unnamable mummy? Maybe Frankenstein’s monster, which you might actually call Frankenstein and I’ll let it slide because it’s not the point? But think about this: They’re all dudes. Sure, you might have mentioned the Bride of Frankenstein, but she’s less of a monster in her own right. She is like Batgirl — a thing, sure, but a thing that was only brought into existence as female counterpart to a more central male character. And that holds true for the actual plot of Bride of Frankenstein as well as this frank, smartypants discussion of monsterology.

So then, I’ll pose a second question: Name a famous female monster — a specific one. You have your options, I’d imagine. La Llorona or Lady Snow, depending on your worldview, but they’re not A-list by American pop culture standards. Maybe a whole bunch of black, pointy hat-types. The Wicked Witch of the West? The evil queen from Snow White — Disney version, of course. Maybe other witches, even though they’re not exactly monsters? Maybe a succubus? Maybe Morrigan from DarkStalkers in particular? But I’d wager that any culturally literate person should eventually arrive at Medusa. (Yes, I’m still on this one, a full week later, though it’s far from a new fixation for me.)

medusa, per clash of the titans — the “good” one
She’s not on the level of Dracula or the Wolfman, but she is more a monster than some green-skinned hag on a broom. And she’s iconic in the way of the major big bads are — she’s got the snaky locks, she’s scowling, she’s often depicted wearing a toga. I put Medusa in the big leagues, honestly, because I grew up playing video games, and she happens to show up in them fairly often, I suspect because game designers wanted to throw in a female monster and have gamers not feel so bad about wailing on her. She is loathsome, after all. That’s the point of her: Athena transformed Medusa into an ugly beast to punish her. But thinking about her and the relative lack of widely recognized monstresses in Western culture, I realize that a lot of what she’s about is overtly feminine and metaphorically sexual.

Freud said so, anyway. And I know, Freud thought everything was sexual, but in his essay Medusa’s Head, he astutely asserted that Medusa’s story is all about fear of castration. Her head, which, in the story of Perseus gets lopped off and then toted around Greece like some sort of steampunk petrification ray, is both a symbol of a man’s fear of castration — his “head” getting lopped off in a similar manner — as well as the supposedly treacherous female genitalia. In her book Pandora: Women in Classical Greece, Ellen Reeder takes the idea a little farther: Those writhing snakes? Pubic hair. Her face, basically is a snarling vagina dentata, hungrily threatening worldwide manhood in a more literal way than Freud perhaps meant.

So here’s where I take this train of thought — and all apologies if this is something that academically minded mythology wonks realized when they added two and two together eons ago — but if everything about her physicality seems to suggest sex, and the effect of seeing Medusa is that it turns people to stone, isn’t their a link to be made between her “bad” sexuality and the world’s worst boner? I mean seriously: She gets guys so erect they’ll never be able to be with another woman… because she literally petrifies them.

But that leads me to my final big point: If Medusa’s whole thing is aggressive female sexuality combined with weapon-grade ugly, what’s with the trend of depicting her as a rather beautiful creature?

I bring this up because of my namesake, in a sense. Way, way, way back in the day, when I started this blog and decided, “What the hell? My AIM screen name would make a great URL!”, I kind of tied myself to that beloved video game of my youth, Kid Icarus, a Greek mythology-themed Nintendo platformer that is notable for being one of the few old-school Nintendo games to have a female big bad. Yep, it’s Medusa, and she’s even set up as the antagonist to the game’s damsel, an Athena stand-in named Palutena. When you fight Medusa, she’s a snarly, reptilian thing until you fire the final killshot, at which point she transforms into something smaller and recognizably feminine and not unlike how I described her earlier: snaky locks and wearing a toga. Nintendo has since revived Kid Icarus as a franchise and will soon be releasing a new title, Kid Icarus: Uprising, that once again pits the title character as a pawn in the fight between Palutena and Medusa. Only this is how Medusa looks now:

Clearly, the years have been kind to her. It’s hardly the only time she’s been depicted as sexy or at least cute. Even a simple Google image search for her name turns up about as many sexy Gorgons as hideous ones. Hell, in that Harry Potter rip-off movie that dressed up folksy British magicks in Greek mythology drag, Medusa was played by Uma Thurman.

I’m not sure how to feel about this.

Does the idea of a pretty Medusa totally miss the point? Is it wrong to make her aesthetically pleasing (at best), vampy and sexed up (at worst) just to make her more acceptable when the whole point of her is that her repugnance makes her dangerous?

Or is a madeover, de-uggified Medusa is actually quite progressive, because the fact that she’s female and uses her looks as a weapon only makes her dangerous but not necessarily ugly? Isn’t she all the more dangerous — and subversive — if her outsides actually don’t match her evil intentions? Isn’t the pretty Medusa flying in the face of that fairy tale trope of pure, beautiful princess-versus-withered, embittered hag? And was she ever ugly, necessarily, or was it that “fatally unattractive” was the simplest shorthand ancient Greek storytellers would have had for a woman around whom you had to be careful?

I’m positive that there have to be fewer Google hits for “sexy Wicked Witch of the West.”

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