Lessons from Lysistrata: Passivity in Modern Heroines


What matters that I was born a woman, if I can cure your misfortunes? I pay my share of tolls and taxes, by giving men to the State. But you, you miserable greybeards, you contribute nothing to the public charges; on the contrary, you have wasted the treasure of our forefathers, as it was called, the treasure amassed in the days of the Persian Wars. You pay nothing at all in return; and into the bargain you endanger our lives and liberties by your mistakes. Have you one word to say for yourselves?   ~ Lysistrata, Aristophanes

You might be forgiven for assuming that, as gender equality has progressed, so too has the strength and dominant behaviour of our literary heroines. This ties a little into what I was talking about last week and, since then, I’ve done a bit of thinking on the subject. I’ve concluded that such an assumption is very frequently false, and Joss Whedon is awesome.

Classical Heroines

We think of the ancient civilisations as entirely male-dominated, with Cleopatra and Hatshepsut as blips on the general radar. From the literary perspective (this is not a history blog), that’s not the case. Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata; Sophocles wrote Antigone; Euripides wrote Medea – all three are incredibly strong female leads who take a stand against the patriarchal system and dominance of men in order to do what they believe is right.

In the mid-400s BC there were dominant women being portrayed in a public forum, and largely in a positive light. (Yes, Medea killed her children but until that point in the play she comes across as the wronged party.) The system was a patriarchy but these literary heroines were neither passive nor submissive within it. More importantly, it was the patriarchy which created these characters and enabled them to be publicized. It publicly informed society of the possibility of such a gender role, and an argument can be made to suggest it endorsed that behaviour.

Modern Heroines

Whilst gender equality has come a long way since then, we still live in a patriarchy and it naturally informs much of our unconscious thought. When I was discussing this subject with the raptor and a friend, we tried to come up with some modern equivalents for Lysistrata et al. I’m sorry to say that we weren’t able to come up with a very long list.

Bear in mind that what I’m looking for in these heroines is not just agency – it’s dominance. Katniss Everdeen is a strong character but she submits to the system. The revolution largely happens around her, in fact, and she is a symbol of it because she’s manipulated to be. Storm from X-Men is a strong character but she goes where she’s ordered and, frankly, isn’t that interesting when compared to the rest of the team. Phoenix has her powers repressed by Professor X and then manipulated by Magneto. Hermione Granger, whilst an excellent contender, is not a protagonist – she’s a foil for Harry. In the end we were only able to think of three names: Buffy Summers, Zoe Washburn and River Tam.


Now, I really REALLY hope that we’re just having a mind-blank and missing out reams of names. But it worries me that three relatively well-read people can’t come up with better than this. Have we really not improved our popular literary portrayal of heroines in the last 2400 years, despite massive social reform and the evolution of storytelling? What does this say about what we, as a society, subconsciously expect of a woman’s role?

Commentators, tell me it ain’t so!



3 responses »

  1. Princess Leia.

    Definitely a contender. It is through her actions of attempting to run the blockade under her guise as an ambassdor to get the plans to the rebels that the entire first trilogy is set in motion.

    She is dynamic, taking part in fight scenes and even when in a full length dress shoots baddies (and has ace lines like “Get this walking carpet out of my way”.)

    Also she is an ambassador and Imperial Senate member and she is a Princess.

    1.) She resists torture at the hands of the most evil man in the galaxy. She is definant even to the point her entire planet is destroyed. Though she is at this point resigned that she has got the plans away to the safest place.

    2.) She controls the romance dynamic by kissing Luke to annoy Han.

    3.) She rescues her lover Han Solo, risking her life and generally being a bit bass ass about it.

    4.) She is the person with the plan to find Obi Wan Kenobi and hiding the plans

    5.) She takes charge saving her rescuers by going into the garbage compactor.

    6.) She is well aware that they were let go by the death star.

    7.) When imprisoned as a slave girl by Jabba the hutt she throttles him to death before helping save once again her male friends with a huge laser.

    She is never portrayed as weak willed, or lacking direction. Her only weakness is her love for han, that even she fights and to be fair so does he. In fact if Obi wan had a choice he would have trained Leia instead (so much less whiney).

    I remember Lucas saying that she was modelled on the women of the french resistance, taking charge where the lack of principled men existed. This is quite contrasted that her influence alters Han Solo’s course and Luke’s of course.

  2. I tried to post this earlier but I think I stupidly forgot to actually press post. Which is fortunate because the OP was considerably longer and I can’t be arsed to type it all in again. I thought of 5

    In at 5, Samantha Carter from Stargate.
    She’s one of 4 main characters, none of which can truly claim to be the sole lead. She’s the smartest member of the group and scientifically minded but not afraid to get stuck into the thick of the action. The only thing that possibly counts against her (although not in my book) is when Richard Dean Anderson left the show (in an acting capacity), they didn’t promote her character to leader of SG1. On the same note, Amanda Tapping played a female protagonist Dr Helen Magnus, in the lesser known, steampunk-esque series Sanctuary in which she IS the most definitely the lead.

    At 4 Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica.
    In a show with so many characters there are so many leads. There are definitely characters who are paired throughout the story such as Admiral Adama and PResident Roslyn and Starbuck and Apollo. Where one might argue Admiral Adama is the lead in his pairing Starbuck is definitely the lead in hers. THE Figher Ace, leader (kind of), little respect for authority she’s definitely the most bad ass character in the colonial fleet.

    Lara Croft places 3rd. She’s a strong character doing her own thing, I’m just not really a fan of Tomb Raider – never have been (although I did inexplicably watch the first film); I can’t help but feel it’s like Indiana Jones’ poor relation; all the action but none of the style.

    This weeks number 2 is Captain Kathryn Janeway of Star Trek Voager fame.
    Captain of a Starship, responsible for a starship lost thousands of light years away from home she’s both a political and military leader keeping the ship safe, the crew alive and morale high. She faced tough competition for the number one spot.

    And this weeks number one, possibly controvertially, is Daenerys Targaryan from Game of Thrones
    Starts off as a naive girl, married off to suit her brother’s ambition – hardly strong protagonist. At the end of season 4 is now arguably the most powerful character in the story, militarily and politically and let’s be honest, you wouldn’t bet against her being the ultimate winner when the books/tv shows conclude would you?

    I could probably think of more but I struggle to remember stuff that I’ve read/watched let alone remember characters in them.

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