Overexposed, like an X-ray.
Who do you think you are?
Medusa by Sylvia Plath
When I say the name Medusa a vibrant image will come into your head. A fanged creature with snakes on her head. If you look at her, you turn to stone. That’s all I really knew about her for a long time. I remember seeing the Medusa creature being adapted into modern day media, particularly an alien creature to be defeated in the Sarah Jane Adventures on CBBC. She was just another mythical monster.
I started to question that idea when I realised in English lessons that quite a few female poets would use imagery surrounding Medusa in their writing. That’s when I first started to think that maybe she could mean more. Afterall living your life with snakes on your head and turning everyone you see to stone had to be a sad and lonely life.
It wasn’t until recently that I discovered Medusa’s true story. It’s not easy to find. If you Google the myth of Medusa websites will quickly cover the gorgon situation before going on to brag about Perseus beheading Medusa. Already you’ve probably noticed that Medusa isn’t given much female agency at all. The betrayal of Medusa only gets worse.
Medusa was raped. It is hardly ever mentioned apart from a couple of articles discussing how bad it is that Medusa is only portrayed as a monster, not a survivor. This is her real story.
It was the poet Ovid who recorded the tragic story of Medusa. She was born a beautiful human. The gods were always creeping on the attractive humans. A lot of sex happened in mythology. Unfortunately, it was not all consensual. The sea god Poseidon raped Medusa in Athena’s sacred temple. After experiencing this horrific ordeal Medusa had to deal with Athena’s anger. She was disgusted at Medusa for what happened in her temple despite the fact that it was not her fault. As punishment Medusa was turned into the deadly gorgon we know today. And Poseidon? The rapist was left unscathed.
This is a terrible story of rape, abuse of power, victim blaming and a terrible case of women not supporting women. I understand this is just a myth, not real people. But our traditions and folklore tell us something about our society. It is not a stretch to see how this story relates to real life back in ancient times and today.
Men in power take what they want and get away with it. Women contribute to misogyny and rape culture. Victims are punished for being assaulted. In many ways, rape victims are depicted as monsters who destroy men’s lives instead of innocent survivors of crime. This image really resonates with me because of the number of men who are more concerned with men losing their jobs and opportunities due to being accused of rape than the fact that so many people are being raped. Survivors don’t turn men to stone. Rapists do that to themselves.
It often feels like people are more scared of rape victims than they are of rapists. They are mocked and hunted down. When survivors don’t succeed in getting justice, some people see it as a triumph. Just like Perseus proudly holding Medusa’s decapitated head.
Medusa’s authentic experience has been hidden behind the brutality of a man. No wonder female writers refer to Medusa in their work. I understand now what I didn’t have the capability to comprehend years ago. In fact, Medusa has been turned into a feminist icon by the French activist Helene Cixous. She wrote the manifesto ‘The Laugh of Medusa’ which explores the themes of the hidden myth and its implications in the modern day. Despite this Medusa continues to be used as a derogatory term for strong women who don’t fit into men’s quiet ideals. You see it in politics all the time.
I think many women can relate to Medusa. If not a survivor of sexual violence, having experienced the dominance of men and the history they want to tell. As feminists, we are portrayed as man killing monsters when all we are doing is asking for our rights to safety, equality and to write our own story. I like Sylvia Plath’s poem Medusa the best out of all of the Medusa related writing I have read so far. Many rape survivors feel overexposed by a society that values them little when their strength is so overpowering.