This Tuesday (13/10/2020) a bronze statue of Medusa by the artist Luciano Garbati was revealed in place opposite a courthouse in Manhattan as a tribute to the #MeToo movement. It’s not a new statue, nor was it created with the #MeToo movement in mind, since Garbati created it in 2008 as a response to Benvenuto Cellini's 16th-century statue, ‘Perseus With the Head of Medusa’. You can visit his website to view more photos of his work here. The Medusa statue's feminist roots are well-established, but the connection to #MeToo is a conscious new choice. Personally, I adore this statue, but I’m aware that there are many people who either dislike it or think it’s inappropriate to connect it to #MeToo. So here’s my take on why – whether it appeals to your personal taste or not – it’s actually a rather apt symbol for being vocal against misogyny and abuse.
Criticism #1: It’s objectifying
I don’t hold with the view that a woman’s naked body is inherently sexual or an object. For it to be objectifying, the statue would need to strip her of her agency, not of her clothes. The very fact that she is holding the evidence of her agency and free will – the severed head – I believe demonstrates an active consideration of her agency by the artist. It makes her a participant in her own narrative, not an object or a bystander.
I think it's actually significant that she is depicted naked here partly for the historical and artistic context that frequently depicts Grecian statues nude. Would it make sense to clothe her, in contrast to the male statues who are freely depicted naked without moralising? Would refusing to treat her in the same way instead send the message that her body is a shameful thing that must be covered? The same can be said for her lack of pubic hair. It is a convention of classical sculpture for both men and women to lack body hair. Besides, is concentrating on her nudity and lack of hair to the exclusion of all her other features really the most empowering way to view this statue?
Personally, I think this statue could have been remarkable with or without clothing. But there is something raw and primal about Medusa here. Whereas Perseus has celestial approval, Medusa just has herself, a fact that is emphasised by her lack of adornment in contrast to Perseus’s magical gear (which I will mention again later on). Her nudity can also be interpreted as a vulnerability, given that she doesn’t wear armour. Her only weapon is her gaze. Although she carries a sword here, I wondered if it was even hers. Had she decapitated Perseus with his own blade, the one he was given by Hephaestus to kill her? Her nakedness here is both vulnerability and strength. In order to defeat him, her own might is all she needs.
Criticism 2#: It portrays abused women as the aggressors when women are the victims/ It promotes misandry and violence towards men
These are both really interesting comments that I’ve heard from a number of different people. I’m fascinated by the idea that the people who come to either of these conclusions decided that the story told is one that centres Medusa’s monstrosity and violence. They seem to see a remorseless killer. I see something quite different. When I was small, I had a book of myths and legends which included one about Medusa. Or rather, about Perseus, because he was the hero. The pictures of Medusa in that book were horrifying. They showed a fanged, scaled, evil-looking creature. Of course, my version never mentioned her rape by Poseidon. Or her subsequent curse and exile by Athena for defiling her temple by having the audacity to have been raped inside it. No, my childhood version was far simpler than that. Here was a monster. The hero killed it. But Garbati restores her humanity. We don’t see a demon here. The only thing that identifies her as non-human is the head of snakes, the symbol of her curse. Other than that, she looks like she could be almost anyone.
Those who feel this statue is a depiction of an aggressor are creating a story to explain how the statue came about. It’s a story that assumes that Medusa went out looking for a fight. She picked on Perseus and killed him. Now, look at her! She’s holding his head. What more proof of her monstrosity do you need? By the same logic, Perseus is as much the monster of the original myth. He goes hunting for Medusa – who is the only mortal gorgon so makes for good prey – and kills her. He uses her petrifying gaze as a weapon by keeping her decapitated head then, when he’s done, gives it to Athena to display on her shield.
As in the image below, Perseus takes pride in his conquest. He holds up her up the way a modern Olympian holds a medal or a trophy. Her body is his podium.
Our statue of Medusa isn’t holding Perseus’s head aloft. She isn’t displaying it to the viewer. She doesn’t even look happy or pleased or proud of her kill. Could there be a different story here? One where a woman was raped and blamed for her own abuse. Athena, an incarnation of justice, not only fails to hold Medusa’s abuser accountable, but punishes the victim through her own pride. Her temple has been desecrated, never mind Medusa’s own violation. Medusa is cursed and exiled. She is branded a monster and silenced. Something that happens to many victims of abuse and rape to this day. The same silence that #MeToo broke.
Medusa lives her exiled life. But then Perseus comes along. He doesn’t care much about her either way, but he has to kill her for his own purposes. His main purpose is in fact to prevent Polydectes from marrying his mother. Once again, a woman is a commodity to be argued over, either defended or destroyed depending on whether an arbitrary ruling deems them virtuous or monstrous. Perseus’s own mother, Danaë, herself was non-consensually impregnated by Zeus when he took the form of a golden rain in order to gain access to her prison and her body. This is not a pantheon that cares for women or their autonomy. It isn’t enough for a monstrous woman like Medusa to just be silenced, the establishment wants her dead and gone. Athena gives Perseus a shield, Hades gives him a helmet of invisibility, Hermes gives him winged sandals, and Hephaestus (or Zeus in some versions) gives him a sword. Perseus must succeed in his quest. What better way to cement her history as a monster than to have Zeus’s own son kill her? A display of the establishment’s patriarchal power.
In this new story, Perseus comes to kill Medusa. But he fails. She has been abused, vilified, literally cursed, but she manages to defend herself against him. This man who, with the blessing of the gods, is trying to take her head. The odds have been stacked against her, justice denied, her very existence made abhorrent in the eyes of the world, but she survives. Perseus is not her rapist, no, but he is part of the system that has abused her. He is someone come to take advantage of her, prepared to violate her for his own gain. And she defends herself.
She now stands outside a Manhattan courthouse where abusers and rapists have been brought to justice. She stands as a symbol of survival despite everything. She hasn’t come out unharmed, to claim she has would be to erase her trauma and suffering, but she has come out on the other side. If the head she held was that of Poseidon, that would tell a different story. It would be a story of revenge, rather than survival. She would be closer to becoming the monster the world was told about. Instead, she didn’t seek revenge, but also didn’t balk at using the curse that was designed to crush her in her own defence. Personally, I find that inspiring.
When I see her face, I don’t see someone that delights in the violence she was forced to commit. I see determination, ferocity, maybe even sorrow. Not hatred. Most of all, I see strength. This is the Medusa I wish I had been able to see when I was little. This is the story I wish I had been told.
For more on women vilified and made monstrous under patriarchal structures, I highly recommend reading Maria Dhavana Headley’s novel The Mere Wife, which is a feminist retelling of the story of Beowulf. Her new translation of Beowulf has also recently been published. It’s truly a remarkable, vivid, and fresh translation. Her Twitter feed is also great fun.
What do you think about the statue of Medusa?