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22 June 2023

The ancient Greeks will never be feminists

Publishing is obsessed with bending old male stories into womanly shapes.

By Finn McRedmond

A Greek encampment on the outskirts of Troy, relayed to us through the eyes of Achilles’ enslaved courtesan; Odysseus reappraised through the domestic lens of his betrayed wife, Penelope; wily and vindictive Circe – except this time she faces the challenges of single motherhood. The publishing world is obsessed with so-called feminist retellings of the classics. The past, if we are to embrace the trend, is a scurrilous place urgently in need of a redraft. 

An entire subgenre has emerged to recast ancient stories of male heroism as tales of female adversity. Medusa, Electra and Ariadne have all been subject to this zeitgeist, which is freighted with all our contemporary political anxieties. In A Thousand Ships (2019) Natalie Haynes wants to remind us that women endure the hardship of war just as much as men. Ariadne by Jennifer Saint from 2021 explores female suffering at the hands of nasty patriarchal gods. What if Circe were a girlboss? The genre only ever plays one trick: old story, new vantage point.

Margaret Atwood and Ursula Le Guin published their versions in the mid-Noughties. But the current surge has transformed a niche fad into a mainstream movement. A quick browse of any bookseller’s shelves will reveal how there are dozens of novels purporting to radically reimagine timeless stories, all with the same jaunty and bright neo-classical covers. So why now?

The social ramifications of the #MeToo movement are yet to fully reveal themselves. But we can be sure of a few things: it introduced a shared vocabulary to describe and chastise the wrongdoing of men. And with that, a whole host of social pressures for writers and readers. Some fiction has thrived. The New Yorker short story Cat Person reached true (and rare for fiction) virality in 2017, for its interrogation of ambiguous sexual dynamics.

Not everything has been so successful – commercially or artistically. It is increasingly incumbent on authors to depict a hawk-eyed awareness of all the ways sex engenders unfairness, no matter how relevant it is to the story. Uncritical depiction of patriarchy falls short of a new moral code. How foolish to embrace the Iliad without comment on Homer’s callous dismissal of the female voice? Without the course correction mentality that pervades most publishing houses, it seems the moral failings of the past have become our own.

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There may be little wrong with each individual instance of the contemporary revisionist myth. The Silence of the Girls (2018) by Pat Barker, for example, is well written. But the shores of Troy or the banks of the Styx are not good places to seek modern morality plays. It is difficult to extract honest feminist parable from stories written in a world that wouldn’t recognise the concept. Admonishing the Iliad for being un-feminist is rather like criticising a horse for not being able to juggle. It just isn’t applicable. And the trend has no reverence for the principles of the original story.

It can’t even claim to be a new endeavour. We already have a story about the Trojan War from the perspective of women. It is called Troades and was written by Euripides around 415 BC. Ovid ventriloquised the betrodden women of myth in Heroides some time around anno domini. Granted, neither were written by women. But hardly anything was.

[See also: The uncomfortable truths of Hag feminism]

The feminist redux may just be a phase. It comes in lockstep with another very 21st-century idea: decolonising the curriculum. The university-led movement seeks to broaden the traditional canon (too many old white men, so the argument goes) to incorporate a wider array of voices and perspectives. It seems reasonable to adapt curriculums to reflect modern concerns when it comes to English literature and history. Cast the net wider, expand the roster of sources, texts and topics, and hope to arrive at a more holistic syllabus.

But it is a ludicrous proposition in the classics. If broadening the curriculum is the goal, we might ask: broaden to what exactly? Where should we look for these feminist treatises? The limits of classics, as the Cambridge academic David Butterfield recently explained, “are bound by the obstinacy of the past” – by a finite number of sources, a finite amount of ideas. As authors like Saint and Barker attempt to re-litigate this past to accommodate modern anxieties, they cannot help but insert present-day politics into their stories.

More than any of this, it is the total dearth of imagination at the heart of the phenomenon that is most troubling. Culture has become fixated on the reboot. There have been live-action remakes of The Lion King and The Little Mermaid, and established stories such as Little Women and Death on the Nile are re-litigated. You would be shocked to learn how many films there are in the Ice Age franchise.

Ancient history revisionism is a part of this obsession. It’s not hard to understand why. A societal pressure to adapt old stories to fit contemporary mores? Yes, almost certainly. But there is a deep lack of inspiration too: information fatigue caused by the internet; artistic overproduction which favours marketable feminism over challenges to the economic status quo; a consumer laziness that prefers repackaged familiarity to something new. All of this has driven us towards the culture today: a desolate, memetic place.

Worst of all, it is completely safe. Writers, publishers, readers are all insulated from criticisms of tone deafness or insouciance or cruelty by demonstrating their oh-so-sophisticated awareness that the misogyny of the past was Not OK.

The tragic irony of the trend is that there are plenty of women’s stories to be told – real ones – that subvert our expectations about the past. Take Aspasia, Pericles’ lover, vaunted for her intellect and condemned for lasciviousness. Or the Spartan women who had, unusually, property inheritance rights and the autonomy to amass wealth. There should be no shortage of inspiration.

The liveliness of ancient myth – as it pinballs between masculine rage and tender friendship and divine treachery – is being eroded thanks to modern political sensibilities. The classics are becoming another data point in the slow, slouching descent into monoculture.

[See also: “Feminism Against Progress” by Mary Harrington review]

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