Athena and Medusa: Symbol of Internalized Sexism
Athena is everyone’s favorite goddess: the guide of heroes, witty, creative, logical. She combines the best of the feminine with the best of the masculine. I identified with her the most growing up. Except, until I read the myth about what she did to Medusa. From then it was clear Athena, although female, was really a female embodiment of patriarchy. A male in woman’s clothes (and if that, as she was born in full panoply.). As a creation that came fully armored out of Zeus’ head, the ultra-masculine principle and alpha male, she is a direct idealization of what women should be as conceived by the patriarchy. Her very existence is a symbol of internalized oppression, an embodiment of how Greek women (and all women for that matter) oppress themselves in an effort to keep it good with all the good ol’ boys.
In case you forgot, here is the story. Medusa, whose name meant “protrectress”, was a beautiful maiden. Her most gorgeous features was her hair. Even though highly attractive, she swore chastity as a priestess in Athena’s temple. Some versions of the tale say she was a sworn priestess to Athena who had therefore vowed chastity; others say she was escaping the seductions of Poseidon and turned to Athena in her temple for protection. Nevertheless, through no fault of her own unless you blame her ravishing beauty, Medusa was raped in the temple by Poseidon. Yet, when Athena found out, she was outraged! Athena blamed Medusa, the victim, for the rape. She punished Medusa by transforming her into a hideous monster, stripping the beauty of her hair and replacing it with venomous snakes. She was banished to a solitary island at the edge of the Western sea, away from the known world. There Medusa turned toxic reaping and lashing out at men for her fate by killing them at first sight. In an ironic reversal, she who once attracted male gaze repelled it. She who was favored of Athena, was now hated. Until, of course, a hero, Perseus, appeared, helped by a magic shield given to him by Athena again, that he used as a mirror to decapitate her. And what does he do then? Why—he gifts the Gorgon’s head to the goddess responsible for her ruin! And she, the mighty goddess of war, places this head on her shield that she uses from that time forward to petrify enemies in battle. Medusa then in her sad death fulfills the terms of her oath– to protect Athena.
Medusa is a fit symbol of internalized oppression, in this case specifically internalized sexism. What is internalized sexism: a short definition: Internalized sexism is the involuntary internalization by women of the sexist messages that are present in their societies and culture. It also the way in which women reinforce sexism by utilizing and relaying sexist messages that they’ve internalized.
Athena, the goddess who leverages the male power structure to further herself, blames the victim for a hideous act of rape. Women who have internalized sexism side with the male establishment and blame the victim for their fate. Women who have internalized sexism seem like they are supporting other women but in reality do not trust them. What they are trying to do is garner status, privilege and benefits for themselves by cozying up to the male power hierarchy. (This is what Athena is doing). She shows what happens when the rage women feel is displaced on other women as they cannot or will not focus it on the real source of their anger, the male establishment. (Athena cannot punish Poseidon a male god so she turns the anger on a hapless victim, another woman, someone she can.) They have internalized the message that in order to be “successful,” “wanted,” “happy” they have to please men, cater to men, listen to men. Any woman that threatens their advancement with the good ol’ boys is not to be trusted. So instead of siding with the woman victim, they side with the male version of events. What is more they turn their female “opponents” into toxic monsters spilling venom. (Medusa sounds like a male-hating feminist if you ask me.)
I am sorry to say the insidiousness of internalized sexism is the reason I am queasy about being Greek. Greek women, like Latinas, have been raised in an environment that overtly and covertly socializes them to be feminine, not to feel whole without a man or a family. They define themselves only in relationship to men. In other words, their existence is created only through their relationships to men and their children, not in who they are in themselves. Many of the Greek women I have as role models in my family have no other identities apart from their role as wives and mothers. And yes, they are happy (I think) with the arrangement. But I wonder if that’s because they have internalized the message of their traditional societies that rewards them and makes them feel “whole” because they have fulfilled their societal role? Who are they without those roles? They will never know, or else they will never want to know. It’s easier that way.
Another thing I have noticed, Greek women fall over themselves to cater to men. I have seen this in action again and again. There is some sort of unwritten script that if a male member of the family walks in, the women are supposed to get up, start serving food, pick up after them, etc. The men are not expected to do anything by the way of housework or domestic duties. Men in Greece walk around like they are the better sex because the women crowd around them and cater to their every whim. It is sad to see this pattern repeated in the way Greek mothers raise their boys over their girls.
The Medusa-Athena-Poseidon triangle is a fit analogy for what happens over and over: women throw other women under the bus because they have internalized hatred of their own sex. I believe the fact that Donald Trump got elected by 53% of white women is indicative of internalized sexism. (Rather than vote for a woman candidate that threatens the male establishment, side with the oppressor, blatantly sexist opponent). There might be some research to back my hunch up. A University of Utah survey found that the higher young women scored on the internalized sexism scale the more likely they were to vote Republican. https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1092&context=roch
What keeps the establishment going is that, like prisoners in a labor camp, the prisoners themselves seek favor with the guards instead of the victims like themselves and are rewarded for it. Women who fashion themselves to cater to men are rewarded by feeling “lovable, wanted, successful.” They are also taken care of (i.e. Melania Trump). Maybe the majority are even happy for it. It suits them as an arrangement.
But, there are those of us who have the capacity to do more, to think deeper, to aim higher than the adjuncts to male prerogative. Some of us will not be happy until we listen to the echo of our own souls; twist the strands out of our best potential. There are some of us who believe more deeply in our power, who wish to be on equal pairing with the other sex. Yes, some of us, might be different. Thanks to the benefit of living in another culture that gives us the ability to see the serpent and call it by its right name—internalized sexism (does such a phrase even exist in Greece?)
Athena is no longer my favorite Greek goddess. She is a symbol of internalized oppression and the patriarchy. She shows how loathing another woman, an innocent victim who called out to her for help, is an example of how much she must hate herself. Penny Rosenwasser, a researcher on internalized oppression, wrote: loathing women and blaming them for their oppression
“Internalized oppression is an involuntary reaction to oppression which originates outside one’s group and which results in group members loathing themselves, disliking others in their group, and blaming themselves for their oppression — rather than realizing that these beliefs are constructed in them by oppressive socio-economic political systems.
[Penny Rosenwasser (Proceedings of the 41st Annual Adult Education Research Conference, 2000): Tool for Transformation: Cooperative Inquiry as a Process for Healing from Internalized Oppression.]
I think Athena needs some therapy, or at least consciousness awakening. What do you think?