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Mary Beard’s Medusas

The historian’s new pamphlet succumbs to deterministic explanations of gender.

Wikimedia Commons.

Adapting a lecture into a book is difficult. A good lecture, even one that lasts an hour, should only cycle through a single full idea. The lecturer should introduce some supporting concepts, and present to her audience a range of evidence that sustains the arc of her argument. But a lecture is inherently confined, since nobody’s attention span can visit multiple ideas properly in one sitting. A book, in contrast, should take its reader on a journey with an itinerary.

Liveright, 128 pp., $15.95

Even harder than adapting a lecture is condensing a theory about Western civilization into a volume of about a hundred pages. Mary Beard’s new book Women & Power: A Manifesto is a one-stop-shop of an argument and, indeed, it has its roots in a couple of lectures Beard gave in 2016. In it, Beard presents a partial and anachronistic account of the way that misogyny operates in the world. There are valuable lessons here about stereotyping, and it is interesting to see a sanguine, resilient, and highly intelligent mind seek to historicize its own experience of victimization. In its very spareness Women and Power gains some wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am appeal. It is not, however, a book.

Beard is a professor at Cambridge, and her major books (including SPQR and Confronting the Classics) are landmark achievements in the public humanities. She has also lately had a rough time of it online. When she remarked that black people existed in Britain in the Roman period, the usual hordes of death-threatening trolls showed up on Twitter. They wanted her to shut up, and she wondered why. Beard turned to her own field of expertise, and produced an answer rooted in analysis of Classical literature. She has built an argument in a bitesize way, perhaps because it would be short and accessible enough to make an impact on the very people who abused her.

Her focus is primarily on leadership and the type of attacks that have been levied against women in the public eye. She analyzes the kinds of voices that are elevated in our public fora and finds them to be male. At the core of Beard’s theory is a “long view” of gender that connects the discourse of Ancient Greece and Rome to contemporary Britain. See how things were then, she writes; see how they remain so. Our definition of a leader—what he sounds like, in particular—was defined in the Classical period, Beard has it, and it hasn’t changed much. Her “basic premise is that our mental, cultural template for a powerful person remains resolutely male.”

Most of her analysis is on the arts, rather than on rhetoric. Although she mentions in passing how Ciceronian Barack Obama’s public speeches often became, and notes how Renaissance scholars based the rules of modern rhetoric upon Classical sources, she is much more interested in Classical writing about the voice. As most reviews of this book have repeated, Beard describes how Aristotle thought that women’s voices were offensively chattersome and not fit for public speech. Philomela had her tongue ripped out to prevent her from speaking publicly. Clytemnestra exercised power, but look where that got her. Io and Echo were robbed of their speech, one cursed to be a cow tormented by a gadfly, and the other cursed to repeat the speech of others.

By contrast, Telemachus in the Odyssey speaks with muthos, a kind of gravitas that makes his voice suitable for public speech. The word is first used, Beard notes, when Telemachus tells his mother to shut up and go weave upstairs. The prejudice that keeps muthos out of the mouths of women is “hardwired into us,” Beard writes, not biologically but by Classical narrative precedent. The sections where she explores the popular Classical stories that feature gendered speech are the book’s best. According to one origin story, Poseidon raped Medusa in Athena’s temple. Offended, Athena turned Medusa into the snake-haired monster we know and love.

Medusa killed with her gaze, not with speech. Unlike a woman but perhaps like a woman enraged, her face itself became a weapon. A woman you cannot look directly at is a monster indeed, and Perseus’s defeat of her is a symbolic defeat of women’s nonverbal power over men. Beard then records each time a contemporary woman politician has had her face superimposed over Caravaggio’s Medusa: Merkel, May, Clinton, Rousseff. Yet more specifically, she points out a cartoon in which Donald Trump has become Perseus and Clinton Medusa, riffing off Cellini’s bronze of the pair. Beard writes directly to her reader:

[If] you were ever doubtful about the extent to which the exclusion of women from power is culturally embedded or unsure of the continued strength of classical ways of formulating and justifying it—well, I give you Trump and Clinton, Perseus and Medusa, and rest my case.

However, pointing out that a trope has been used here, and then there, does not prove that here and there are composed of the same thing. It’s not clear that Beard is even arguing that they are. The aim of the book is to show how prejudice against women speaking in the public forum is built into the oldest and most influential stories we have.

But in making that argument, Beard veers into a strangely deterministic place. She is a Classicist, and so it makes sense that she looked to her own field for material. But where is the acknowledgment that Ancient Greece and Rome are not the only contributors to gender politics? What about the Victorian stranglehold over British sexuality? The godawful state of racial politics in the U.K.? The history of empire?

Beard’s lack of experience writing about contemporary gender politics is fairly clear at points. The trouser suit, she claims, is a ploy by political convention to “make the female appear more male.” This is not true. The trouser suit is an outfit consisting of two items of clothing, a jacket and a pair of pants, and it can be worn by any person. There is nothing “male” about cloth, nor is “the female” really a palatable term for women-identifying politicians. It reduces the person to a hunk of flesh categorized by biology, then limits the hunk’s option for clothing itself.

The point is not that she ought to write a book about the history of the world, nor that she ought to become Judith Butler when really she is Mary Beard. But when a lecturer adapts her material into a book, no matter how original and interesting, it needs to be much more thoroughly foregrounded than this.