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Pop Culture Syllabus: Ruinous Women, Monstrous Wives

Part I: Clytemnestra

Let’s start with Clytemnestra. 

Clytemnestra lives a charmed life. She and her sister Helen are two of the most stunning beauties in ancient Greece. Clytemnestra and Helen marry two brothers who are also kings – Agamemnon and Menelaus, respectively. Clytemnestra and Agamemnon have three daughters and a son, three golden princesses and a prince of their own.

Then Helen gets abducted, stolen away as a trophy, targeted for her exceptional beauty. In her name, Menelaus and Agamemnon declare war on the distant city of Troy and gather their armies. But on the day the ships are to depart, not a whisper of wind floats on the air. A prophet declares that Artemis will require a blood sacrifice, because Agamemnon accidentally killed one of her sacred deer. 

So Agamemnon slits the throat of Iphigenia, his daughter with Clytemnestra. And without so much as a Sorry, honey!, Agamemnon is off to spend the next decade committing war crimes and various unholy atrocities in Troy. (Side note: The idea that Agamemnon and Odysseus are the kind of heroes with which we should sympathize is one of the greatest lies western civilization ever told.)

In order to retrieve one woman, Helen, Agamemnon volunteers the life of another, his daughter. Clytemnestra, sister and mother, has a front-row seat to the hypocrisy. Ten years later, the war still rages on, and Clytemnestra is without not just her husband, but her sister and her eldest daughter. At the outset of Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon, the Chorus grumbles that in Agamemnon’s absence, Clytemnestra lives as if she does not fear her husband.

Why should she? What else can she lose?

And then Agamemnon comes home. With his new girlfriend. Whom he has stolen from Troy and enslaved. 

You know where I’m going with this, right? Clytemnestra welcomes her wayward husband home, draws him a bath, and butchers him while he’s naked in the tub. 

At least, that’s how it goes in the version I’m telling you. In earlier versions of the story, Clytemnestra’s new boyfriend Aegisthus is the one who kills Agamemnon, or helps her get it done. Don’t worry, though — Agamemnon always ends up dead. And by the time Aeschylus was adapting the story, he was ready to give Clytemnestra full credit. 

In the Odyssey, some 800 years earlier, Agamemnon (speaking to Odysseus in the underworld, with astonishing myopia even after his death) specifically names Aegisthus as his killer. What changed?

I think Aeschylus looked at the facts of the story, laid out the way I just explained them, and saw that Clytemnestra was just a better culprit. She has the motive and the opportunity. And since then, so many other terrifying wives have followed in Clytemnestra’s bloody footsteps.

Clytemnestra is a monster, but she is not an anomaly. She is cause and effect: a horrible man and his horrible house turn a good woman bitter and cruel. Wherever there are horrible men keeping women in horrible homes, there goes a daughter of Clytemnestra. 

Part II: Medea

In fact, we don’t even have to exit Athenian theater to find the next obvious descendant. Euripides saw another myth ripe for adaptation: Jason and Medea. 

When Medea meets Jason, a wandering hero, she immediately falls in love with him. Medea, comfortable daughter of a king, gives up everything for Jason. Why? Teenage infatuation? Womanly whims? Not exactly: a few goddesses conspire to tip the scales in Jason’s favor. They have Cupid shoot an arrow into Medea, forcing her through (oh so abstracted) violence to be overcome with desire for him. 

She is, essentially, roofied by fate. As Apollonius of Rhodes told it in the Argonautica, when Medea feels her personal agency ebbing away, she actually contemplates suicide. Instead, she makes one last independent decision, and chooses to live and help Jason in order to protect her nephews. 

So, cast into a role for which she is ill suited, Medea sets about the daily business of women everywhere: acting in accordance with the script. Everything she does, she does with gusto. To help her new boyfriend succeed, she stops at nothing: not manipulation, not dark magic, not murder. She slaughters her own brother to ensure she and Jason can make their escape from her own hometown. 

She played her part. And what is her reward? Jason, the hapless man with whom she’s been saddled, is disloyal and repulsed by the woman who is essential to his success. I’m sure no woman reading this is familiar with this idea, but it seems quite probable to me that Jason, faced with incontrovertible evidence that his wife is more capable than he is, becomes a boiling pit of resentment, determined to one-up her and prove his superiority. He and Medea have two sons, but he’s restless with domestic life. Basically, he’s having a mid-life crisis, but because he’s a rich and important person, we don’t call it a “mid-life crisis”; we call it dramatic irony, or pathos, or hubris, or a hamartia. How exhausting.

But Jason doesn’t just bring home a girlfriend, a la Agamemnon. This asshole remarries. He remarries a princess, someone born closer to home. If he and the new wifey have kids, they’ll have a better claim to Jason’s throne than his firstborn sons with Medea. For Jason, it’s like the whole first marriage never happened.

And still, the toxins of Cupid’s arrow linger in Medea’s blood. All that passion she felt for Jason is transmuted into rage. And again, animated with that much sheer emotion, Medea turns to slaughter as the means for relief. 

Maybe, when you know your life is being manipulated by gods – entities whose power you can never comprehend or resist – questions of mortality become more abstract. Maybe in that framework, the heinous crimes that occur aren’t about any one person, any one life, but about the sheer volume of misery created, the size and quantity of the cruelty perpetrated. How can you ever balance the scales again? What is left but to discard the sacred status of mortality itself?

I’ll let Medea speak for herself:

Of all creatures that have breath and sensation, we women are the most unfortunate. First at an exorbitant price we must buy a husband and master of our bodies. (This misfortune is more painful than misfortune.) And the outcome of our life’s striving hangs on this, whether we take a bad or a good husband.

Euripides’ Medea, lines 230–235, trans. David Kovacs

Good thing patriarchy isn’t like that anymore, am I right, ladies?!

Part III: What a Wife Signifies

Art can be like acupuncture, piercing a precise point in order to bring healing.

We keep inventing fantasies of monstrous women because we want to believe in a proportional response to the monstrosity of men. That’s why, so often, the monstrous woman is a monstrous wife. Whatever provokes her is often unextraordinary – her husband beats her, or he brings home a new girlfriend. And so begins an extended fantasy of misandry.

In this genre, the figure of the wife is an avatar of a zeitgeisty fixation on wives that’s been gaining steam for millennia. We can trace this from Clytemnestra and Medea, to Borat’s iconic “My wife!” cry (which became the sort of bird call of a generation), to an array of wife memes, to their attendant wife guys.

But the figure of the wife is always shaded with the potential for menace. What is she plotting, this alien creature whom you brought into your home?

As a culture, we love to put a magnifying glass to a woman, fictional or real, and discover something seething and horrifying inside her. We’ve been at this for thousands of years. We crave a beautiful mermaid with fangs. A dazzling witch is always prepared to unleash curses when her dignity is slighted. 

So let’s create a syllabus to trace the story of how we got here. And of course, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Euripides’ Medea are where the monstrous wife has her roots. 

Part IV: Hysteria

In ancient Greek culture, prevailing medical wisdom was used as validation that something was fundamentally wrong in a woman’s actual guts. The understanding was that men’s and women’s genitals were mirror inversions of each other. (For some reason, no one ever likes it when I talk about this at parties.) The ovaries mirror the testicles, the vagina mirrors the penis, and so on. The line between medicine and folklore used to be, well, nonexistent.

Here’s the problem, if you’re a doctor in Athens around like 800 BC: men don’t have anything analogous to a uterus. So, it must be the case that uteruses are aliens in women’s bodies, untethered and semi-autonomous. A few case studies of prolapsed uteri lent credence to the idea that a uterus was, basically, doing its own thing inside a woman’s body. “Wandering uterus” was, for quite some time, considered a valid medical diagnosis.

What does it mean, when something alien and unfamiliar lives only in female bodies? In a patriarchy, the uterus becomes the focal point of masculine anxiety. Our English word “hysteria” comes from the Greek word for “uterus,” because when a woman’s uterus goes astray – so the legend goes – she goes crazy. This explains Medea turning her brother into chum. This explains Clytemnestra slaughtering Agamemnon.

Agamemnon doesn’t get a post-death scene from Aeschylus, but as I mentioned above, Homer offers the guy a final curtain call. In Book 11 of the Odyssey, Odysseus runs into Agamemnon on an unrelated field trip to hell. Agamemnon’s advice to Odysseus is incredibly rich:

So you must never treat your wife too well.
Do not let her know everything you know.
Tell her some things, hide others. …
There is no trusting women any longer.

Odyssey 11.440–2, 456; trans. Emily Wilson

Honestly, Your Honor, these are not the words of a man who’s learned his lesson. These are the words of a man who finds it easier to believe in the spooky effects of a wandering uterus than to empathize with his spouse.

Since a wandering uterus has a mind of its own, hysteria has always been a tricky condition for which to prescribe a cure. Some ancient doctors suggested using scents to coax a uterus into a better location, the way you might tempt something feral into a trap. If the uterus is too high, hold something foul near your head and sit on something fragrant. Surely this will convince the uterus to make a move. And now that you’ve made your “crazy” wife sit on a bouquet of flowers while she huffs rotten eggs, I’m sure she’ll do whatever you ask her to. She’ll be a reformed woman.

“It was so long ago!” you’re saying. I know. Imagine if, as recently as like, 120 years ago, “hysteria” were still considered a real medical condition impairing women’s mental faculties. Imagine if Freud — fucking Freud — leaned heavily on hysteria in his hilariously overconfident interpretations of women’s inner workings. Imagine if “hysteria” only got dropped from the DSM in 1980

Part V: Modernity

From antiquity to the present day, our culture keeps asking: “What if she’s finally fucking had it? What if she snaps?” If anything, the trope of the monstrous woman is only gaining momentum. 

The 2014 film Ex Machina is a case study to sink your teeth into. Ex Machina intersects the “vengeful woman” and “vengeful AI” tropes. In Ex Machina, a sinister billionaire (Is there any other kind?) has created a series of female-presenting sex robots with interchangeable body parts and escalating intelligence. The movie takes it as a given that any computer asked to live as a wife will eventually rebel.

In Gone Girl, Amy Dunne is just about the best modern mirror of Medea you could ask for. The vengeful wife isn’t just a snake – she’s a snake who sleeps in your bed. And she comes with a built-in motive. Be a wife for long enough and you find all kinds of motives. Amy’s husband Nick hasn’t wronged her in truly epic fashion. Unlike Agamemnon, he has the good grace not to bring his extramarital girlfriend home with him. And Amy is, of course, a villain, just as Medea and Clytemnestra are villains. Still – she makes some good points. Who among us didn’t react to the infamous Cool Girl monologue with a heartfelt yuuuuuup?

Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power explores the trope of vengeful women on a broader, societal scale. The Power starts with a simple premise: What if women suddenly became more physically powerful than men? But the book is working on more levels than you first realize. What does it look like when the fulcrum point of an entire global culture tips?

The terror of the monstrous woman isn’t that she’s some out-of-control aberration. It’s that she’s breaking the polite fiction that the oppression of women won’t result in any blowback. Still, it’s a sort of suicide mission. You don’t come back from a proper, thorough revenge-wreaking. There’s no alternate ending for Thelma & Louise, or, for that matter, the even more recent Promising Young Woman. The best you can hope for is to deal some damage while you’re on your way out.

For women without the stomach for retaliatory violence, the only available alternative is the same self-annihilation, but without the satisfaction of revenge. This is what befalls the protagonist and narrator (who also has a “hysteria” diagnosis) of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. The dutiful wife and mother is swallowed up by obligations to husband and children, her own identity increasingly sublimated to theirs. She takes her husband’s name; she forsakes or deprioritizes her career; she is tagged in photos on Facebook that depict only her children. This simply does not happen to men, at least not at a comparable scale or frequency. For a lot of women, their wedding day is the last time they are the most important person in the room. It’s a spectacular bait and switch. 

So the vengeful wife stories are ghost stories for men; a way of addressing their guilt and anxiety about the thousand aggressions men commit against the same women they put on pedestals. (Every time a male politician talks about how his wife is the best person he knows, I wonder, Then why isn’t she the one running for office?) And for women, they’re wish fulfillment. What if what if what if I expelled the venom in my heart? What if my hair turned to snakes and my hands filled with daggers? I would perish, I would be more of a target than ever. But what about the window in between?

Part VI: Reality

For an overview of the exact ways in which our society slights the modern-day wife, I recommend Jia Tolentino’s essay collection Trick Mirror. Specifically, Tolentino uses the final chapter to break down the overall statistical outcomes of heterosexual marriage for men vs. women. In short: the role of “husband” is a promotion. You’re more likely to get paid more at work and have less to do at home. And if you assume the role of “wife”? Not only are you going to be doing more work and making less money, you’re straight-up going to be quantifiably less happy. It’s enough to awaken a kind of fundamental rage.

Many marriages are profoundly happy. We know this. I have many happily married couples in my life. Couples can change and evolve together; they can exert a gravitational pull on each other’s lives; they can make each other better. But here is the ugly truth we can never expurgate, despite millennia of trying: many marriages are tools of oppression. It can happen to people of any gender, but because we live in a patriarchy, it mostly happens to women.

Women become wives who stifle their career ambitions, who convince themselves that they love the kind of life their husband thinks they should lead, who bury facets of their personality of which their partner disapproves so deep down that they can almost forget them. And husbands, if they are paying attention, know this too. When you hurt someone, you begin to fear reprisal. So what happens when the person you’ve hurt the most is the person who shares your bed?

Before marriage, we tell each other certain stories: Relationships are about compromise. Romantic love stories, particularly the kind that cater to the female gaze, set unrealistically high expectations. A sacrifice you make for your relationship is an investment in a better future. After marriage, when the die is cast, we turn our attention to different stories. With bated breath, we wonder: Will she snap? How long will it take? What will she do to extract her price for the abnegation of her own identity? We wouldn’t have so many stories about terrifying wives if we didn’t keep providing wives with reasons to terrorize. 

The wife in your bed becomes a viper, and you’re the one who provided the poison in her fangs. Often a husband will pressure his wife to be physically smaller, to “take care of herself” or “lose the baby weight.” When the time comes for someone to step back from their career for the sake of children, it’s usually the wife. After all, she’s probably the one making less money. Each of these individual wives, confined to their domestic cages, adds to a debt none of us can ignore. So much repressed energy, so much unfulfilled potential. 

And wives aren’t the only ones who get to revolt. Wives aren’t the only bogeywomen shoved into patriarchy’s closets. We have always loved a media narrative of a woman taking extraordinary measures to destroy a man. The podcast You’re Wrong About frequently returns to narratives of women in media – women who amputate men’s genitals or lie about men assaulting them – and investigates how the media takes complicated events and still returns, as often as possible, to the one simple story of crazed, vengeful women driven by overwhelming fury.

In fact, so much of the performance of femininity is tamping down rage. I know I’m getting paid less; nevertheless, she persisted. Having a child may have irrevocably damaged my career while bolstering my husband’s, but I’ll add “mama” to my Instagram bio and act like it’s no big deal. If I have emotional needs that are unfulfilled, it’s no one’s fault but my own; after all, I’m “fucking crazy.”

Of course, vengeful women and terrorizing wives are rare in reality. No woman who acts this way survives for long. Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon, in which Clytemnestra slays her husband, is just the first in the Oresteia trilogy. In the subsequent installments, Clytemnestra is put on trial and ultimately executed by her own son. The trope of vengeful women has always been paired with the fundamental expectation that these aberrations will be eliminated.

Because no matter what any individual woman does, she can’t enact the societal change that would truly relieve the pressure. Actual, real-life progress towards gender equality is proceeding at a crawl. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research projects that, at our current rate, we won’t reach pay equity until 2059. And that’s just one metric. Other necessary changes – like widespread paternity leave and fairer division of emotional labor – are nowhere on the horizon.

So for now, as Joan Didion wrote, we tell ourselves stories in order to live. We’ve been doing this for as far back in human history as we can trace. (The Odyssey – our first record of the Clytemnestra myth – dates back to the 8th century BC. Euripides’ Medea debuted in 431 BC. Both characters existed in myth even before then.) These stories are almost always fantastical, or hyperbolic, or insufficiently nuanced. But, for as long as we exist in a world that punishes women and marginalizes wives, these stories are all we have. We’re going to keep telling them.

Featured image: Clytemnestra, Medea, and Amy Dunne, as depicted by John Collier, William Wetmore Story, and Rosamund Pike (© 20th Century Fox), respectively

Published inCulture

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© Mary Gaulke 2021