An Unlikely Hybrid: Medusa, Miley Cyrus, and the Politics of the Female Tongue

Homer, Iliad 11.36-37

“And set on the shield as a crown was a grim-faced Gorgon, glaring fiercely”

τῇ δ’ ἐπὶ μὲν Γοργὼ βλοσυρῶπις ἐστεφάνωτο / δεινὸν δερκομένη…

Gorgon 1
Images from Wikimedia Commons and the MET website, article by Madeleine Glennon 2017

The Gorgon’s face is one of the most recognizable symbols from antiquity, adorning everything from vases and cups to temple pediments and metopes to confront the viewer with her petrifying stare and snaky ropes of hair. While the apotropaic function of the Gorgon is usually attributed to the directness of her gaze (one that is highly unusual in Greek art), depictions of Gorgons–including their most famous representative, Medusa–in archaic art frequently include an additional provocation in the form of a tongue.

Long and lolling, often poised between vicious-looking canine teeth, this aspect of the Gorgons’ iconography has conventionally been interpreted as a way to enhance her grotesqueness. Over time, however, depictions of the Gorgon shifted dramatically to portray these figures with typically feminine, even beautiful, features while retaining her uncompromisingly confrontational gaze. You can see a great timeline visualizing this evolution on the MET website.

Gorgon 2

The ubiquity of the Gorgon’s tongue in archaic art has always intrigued me. That this feature of her iconography is unique to this period, and a feature unique to the Gorgon in particular, makes it all the more intriguing, as it suggests a fleeting but pervasive mode of representing female transgressiveness. The Gorgon’s tongue made me wonder about the significance of this gesture: why would a stuck-out tongue be characteristic of a female monster? After all, in contemporary iconography (I’m thinking here especially of emojis) a stuck-out tongue is correlated most often with silliness and disinhibition, a response to the goofy or outrageous.

Gorgon 3

Nonetheless, it’s not difficult to think of counterexamples. We, especially as children, might stick out our tongues in response to something offensive or unwelcome. And, of course, the gesture in the right context may appear sexually charged. A good illustration of the latter comes in the form of Miley Cyrus, a figure who, like the Gorgon, also exhibits a dramatic shift in her public image.

Google “Miley Cyrus’ VMA performance” and the prevailing image that will turn up is one that sees Cyrus bent over against co-performer Robin Thicke, clad in flesh-toned latex bustier and shorts, her tongue stuck out sharply, complementing the two spiky buns above her brow. The performance drew shock and condemnation, not least because of the transformation it evinced in the former Disney Channel darling.

Miley Cyrus VMA

Like Cyrus, the evolving image of Medusa calcified in ancient art is also a testament to transformation. As Ovid relates (Met. 4.793-803), Medusa was formerly a beautiful young woman who was raped by Poseidon in a temple of Athena and punished by the goddess with her snaky hair. While earlier accounts like that of Hesiod (Theog. 270-6) suggest that Medusa was born to her distinctive form, the Ovidian narrative connects Medusa’s sexuality and desirability–and Athena’s savage punishment of this–with the transformation in her appearance.

Likewise, Cyrus’ performance cast her in a sexually-charged role that drove home her evolution from Disney Channel PG fame. While Cyrus later said in an interview that her hairstyle was consciously infantilizing, it was hard for me not to see those spiky buns in conjunction with Medusa’s similarly unconventional and distinctive hairdo.

Why, then, would a stuck-out tongue define such a transformation? On the one hand, it is provocative, a function that seems at odds with the archaic Gorgon’s apotropaic power. But coupled with her fierce, frontal gaze, the Gorgon’s visage forces viewers into a confrontation. As some would characterize Cyrus’ performance, the Gorgon’s ferocious visage is similarly nothing if not transgressive.

And it is the tongue, I think, for both Cyrus and the Gorgon, that embodies this quality. A stuck-out tongue reaches out into the space between viewer and viewed. The tongue, after all, is the only part of the body that can easily be extended out of its natural confines. Thus, unlike the eyes, it is vividly visceral. In this sense, the petrifying effects associated with the Gorgon’s gaze gain clearer significance. While her face is safely rendered in paint or stone, her eyes and tongue can still serve to confront the viewer with a reminder of their fleshy corporeality. The tongue, in particular, serves as a gesture of defiance against the medium in which the Gorgon’s gaze has been fixed.

Cyrus’ performance, too, can be interpreted as an act of defiance against the public image she had accrued earlier in her career. More specifically, her exaggerated facial and bodily expressions make the viewer aware that they are viewing her like an object. This is a dynamic that meets active resistance in the display she created at the VMAs, one that works to displace the previous image of Cyrus that each viewer brings to their perspective on her performance.

 

Amy Lather is an Assistant Professor of Classics at Wake Forest University. Her research focuses on archaic and classical Greek aesthetics, hence her fascination with the Gorgon’s tongue. She can be reached at latherak@wfu.edu.

 

 

A Marriage of Pity then Pride

Pliny, Letters 18.7-10

“This final testament is more praiseworthy because duty, trust, and shame have dictated it and because in it [Tullus] articulates his gratitude to all his relatives for their duty to him and especially to his wife. His most enduring wife has received the most charming homes, a great deal of money and probably deserved as much if not more from a husband she was criticized for even marrying.

For a woman of a famous family with pristine character—no longer young and long widowed with two children—seemed too indecorous in seeking marriage to a rich old man so deformed by sickness that he would even seemed disgusting even to a woman he had married when he was healthy and young. Since he was twisted and broken in every limb, he used to enjoy his great wealth with only his eyes and could move in bed without others. And this is foul and pitiable to add, his teeth had to be cleaned and washed for him. It was often heard from him—when he was complaining about the insults of his condition—that he licked the fingers of his own slaves each day.

Still, he was alive and he wanted to live with his wife’s help mostly, someone whose perseverance turned the ‘mistake’ of her criticized marriage into an object of renown.”

Quo laudabilius testamentum est, quod pietas fides pudor scripsit, in quo denique omnibus adfinitatibus pro cuiusque officio gratia relata est, relata et uxori. Accepit amoenissimas villas, accepit magnam pecuniam uxor optima et patientissima ac tanto melius de viro merita, quanto magis est reprehensa quod nupsit.

Nam mulier natalibus clara, moribus proba, aetate declivis, diu vidua mater olim, parum decore secuta matrimonium videbatur divitis senis ita perditi morbo, ut esse taedio posset uxori, quam iuvenis sanusque duxisset. Quippe omnibus membris extortus et fractus, tantas opes solis oculis obibat, ac ne in lectulo quidem nisi ab aliis movebatur; quin etiam (foedum miserandumque dictu) dentes lavandos fricandosque praebebat. Auditum frequenter ex ipso, cum quereretur de contumeliis debilitatis suae, digitos se servorum suorum cotidie lingere. Vivebat tamen et vivere volebat, sustentante maxime uxore, quae culpam incohati mat/rimonii in gloriam perseverantia verterat.

 Codices vindobonenses 2759-2764 in the Osterreichischen Nationalbibliothek, in Vienna, Austria

Poisoned Husbands and Wives on Death Row

 Valerius Maximus, Memorable Words and Deeds 2.5.3

“The poisoning-court, once unknown to Roman customs and laws, was instituted after many Roman matrons had been implicated in the crime. After these women in question had poisoned their husbands in a secret plot, they were indicted based on the testimony of a single serving-girl. A number of one hundred and seventy were condemned to death by the court.”

Veneficii quaestio, et moribus et legibus Romanis ignota, complurium matronarum patefacto scelere orta est. quae, cum viros suos clandestinis insidiis veneno perimerent, unius ancillae indicio protractae, pars capitali iudicio damnatae centum et septuaginta numerum expleverunt.

 

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Heard And Seen: Disagreeing With Thucydides About Women

Plutarch, On the Virtues of Women 1

“Klea, I do not have the same opinion as Thucydides concerning the virtue of women. For he claims that the best woman is the one who has the slimmest reputation among those outside her home, critical or positive—since he believes that the name of a good woman ought to be locked up and kept indoors just like her body.  Gorgias, in fact, is more appealing to me, since he insists that the fame rather than the form of a woman should be known to many. Indeed, the Roman practice seems best: granting praise to women in public after their death just as for men.

So, when Leontis, one of the best women died, you and I had a rather long conversation which did not lack philosophical solace; and now, just as you have asked, I have written down for you the rest of the things one can say supporting the assertion that the virtue of a man and woman are the same thing. This [composition] is historical and is not arranged for pleasurable hearing. But if some pleasure is possible in a persuasive piece thanks to the nature of its example, then the argument itself does not avoid some charm—that aid to explanation—nor is it reluctant to “mix the Graces in with the Muses, a most noble pairing”, in the words of Euripides, basing its credibility on the love of beauty which is a special province of the soul.”

Περὶ ἀρετῆς, ὦ Κλέα, γυναικῶν οὐ τὴν αὐτὴν τῷ Θουκυδίδῃ γνώμην ἔχομεν. ὁ μὲν γάρ, ἧς ἂν ἐλάχιστος ᾖ παρὰ τοῖς ἐκτὸς ψόγου πέρι ἢ ἐπαίνου λόγος, ἀρίστην ἀποφαίνεται, καθάπερ τὸ σῶμα καὶ τοὔνομα τῆς ἀγαθῆς γυναικὸς οἰόμενος δεῖν κατάκλειστον εἶναι καὶ ἀνέξοδον. ἡμῖν δὲ κομψότερος μὲν ὁ Γοργίας φαίνεται, κελεύων μὴ τὸ εἶδος ἀλλὰ τὴν δόξαν εἶναι πολλοῖς γνώριμον τῆς γυναικός· ἄριστα δ᾿ ὁ Ῥωμαίων δοκεῖ νόμος ἔχειν, ὥσπερ ἀνδράσι καὶ γυναιξὶ δημοσίᾳ μετὰ τὴν τελευτὴν τοὺς προσήκοντας ἀποδιδοὺς ἐπαίνους. διὸ καὶ Λεοντίδος τῆς ἀρίστης ἀποθανούσης, εὐθύς τε μετὰ σοῦ τότε πολὺν λόγον εἴχομεν οὐκ ἀμοιροῦντα παραμυθίας φιλοσόφου, καὶ νῦν, ὡς ἐβουλήθης, τὰ ὑπόλοιπα τῶν λεγομένων εἰς τὸ μίαν εἶναι καὶ τὴν αὐτὴν ἀνδρὸς καὶ γυναικὸς ἀρετὴν προσανέγραψά σοι, τὸ ἱστορικὸν ἀποδεικτικὸν ἔχοντα καὶ πρὸς ἡδονὴν μὲν ἀκοῆς οὐ συντεταγμένα. εἰ δὲ τῷ πείθοντι καὶ τὸ τέρπον ἔνεστι φύσει τοῦ παραδείγματος, τὸ ἱστορικὸν ἀποδεικτικὸν ἔχοντα καὶ πρὸς ἡδονὴν μὲν ἀκοῆς οὐ συντεταγμένα· εἰ δὲ τῷ πείθοντι καὶ τὸ τέρπον ἔνεστι φύσει τοῦ παραδείγματος, οὐ φεύγει χάριν ἀποδείξεως συνεργὸν ὁ λόγος οὐδ᾿ αἰσχύνεται

ταῖς Μούσαις
τὰς Χάριτας συγκαταμιγνὺς
καλλίσταν συζυγίαν,

ὡς Εὐριπίδης φησίν, ἐκ τοῦ φιλοκάλου μάλιστα τῆς ψυχῆς ἀναδούμενος τὴν πίστιν.

 

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Penelope Addresses Odysseus

Homer, Odyssey 23. 205–230

“So he spoke, and her knees and dear heart grew weak there
As she recognized the signs which Odysseus pointed out as certain.
As she wept she went straight to him and threw her arms
Around Odysseus’ neck. She kissed him and spoke:

“Don’t be angry at me Odysseus, since in all other things
You knew the most of humans. The gods granted this grief
Who denied that we would remain with one another
To enjoy our youth and come together to old age.
Do not be angry with me or criticize me for this now,
Because I did not rejoice when I first saw you.
For the heart in my dear breast always was trembling,
Afraid that someone would arrive and deceive me with words.
For there are many men who devise evil plans.
Not even Argive Helen the offspring of Zeus
Would have joined in sex and bed with a foreign man
If she had understood that the warlike Achaeans
Would one day bring her home to her fatherland.
Truly, then, a god drove her to complete the shameful act—
And she did not conceive of this ruinous blindness in her mind,
Before this, the ruin from which grief also first came to us.
But now, since you have laid out the clear signs already
Of our bed, which no other mortal has spied,
Except for you and I and one single attendant alone,
Akrotis, whom my father gave to me when I was on my way here,
The girl who has guarded the doors of our strong bedroom,
You are persuading my heart, even though it is truly resistant.”

ὣς φάτο, τῆς δ’ αὐτοῦ λύτο γούνατα καὶ φίλον ἦτορ,
σήματ’ ἀναγνούσῃ, τά οἱ ἔμπεδα πέφραδ’ ᾿Οδυσσεύς·
δακρύσασα δ’ ἔπειτ’ ἰθὺς κίεν, ἀμφὶ δὲ χεῖρας
δειρῇ βάλλ’ ᾿Οδυσῆϊ, κάρη δ’ ἔκυσ’ ἠδὲ προσηύδα·

“μή μοι, ᾿Οδυσσεῦ, σκύζευ, ἐπεὶ τά περ ἄλλα μάλιστα
ἀνθρώπων πέπνυσο· θεοὶ δ’ ὤπαζον ὀϊζύν,
οἳ νῶϊν ἀγάσαντο παρ’ ἀλλήλοισι μένοντε
ἥβης ταρπῆναι καὶ γήραος οὐδὸν ἱκέσθαι.
αὐτὰρ μὴ νῦν μοι τόδε χώεο μηδὲ νεμέσσα,
οὕνεκά σ’ οὐ τὸ πρῶτον, ἐπεὶ ἴδον, ὧδ’ ἀγάπησα.
αἰεὶ γάρ μοι θυμὸς ἐνὶ στήθεσσι φίλοισιν
ἐρρίγει, μή τίς με βροτῶν ἀπάφοιτ’ ἐπέεσσιν
ἐλθών· πολλοὶ γὰρ κακὰ κέρδεα βουλεύουσιν.
οὐδέ κεν ᾿Αργείη ῾Ελένη, Διὸς ἐκγεγαυῖα,
ἀνδρὶ παρ’ ἀλλοδαπῷ ἐμίγη φιλότητι καὶ εὐνῇ,
εἰ ᾔδη, ὅ μιν αὖτις ἀρήϊοι υἷες ᾿Αχαιῶν
ἀξέμεναι οἶκόνδε φίλην ἐς πατρίδ’ ἔμελλον.
τὴν δ’ ἦ τοι ῥέξαι θεὸς ὤρορεν ἔργον ἀεικές·
τὴν δ’ ἄτην οὐ πρόσθεν ἑῷ ἐγκάτθετο θυμῷ
λυγρήν, ἐξ ἧς πρῶτα καὶ ἡμέας ἵκετο πένθος.
νῦν δ’, ἐπεὶ ἤδη σήματ’ ἀριφραδέα κατέλεξας
εὐνῆς ἡμετέρης, τὴν οὐ βροτὸς ἄλλος ὀπώπει,
ἀλλ’ οἶοι σύ τ’ ἐγώ τε καὶ ἀμφίπολος μία μούνη,
᾿Ακτορίς, ἥν μοι δῶκε πατὴρ ἔτι δεῦρο κιούσῃ,
ἣ νῶϊν εἴρυτο θύρας πυκινοῦ θαλάμοιο,
πείθεις δή μευ θυμόν, ἀπηνέα περ μάλ’ ἐόντα.”

Fracesco Primaticcio, Odysseus and Penelope (1563)

 

It Is Good For Women to Exercise Too! (But for Predictable, Instrumental Reasons)

Philostratus, Gymnasticus 27

“And there is also a notion older than this which seemed right to Lykourgos for Sparta. Because he meant to provide warrior-athletes for Sparta, he said, “Let the girls exercise and permit them to run in public. Certainly this strengthening of their bodies was for the sake of good childbearing and that they would have better offspring.

For one who comes from this training to her husband’s home will not hesitate to carry water or to mill grain because she has prepared from her youth. And if she is joined together with a youth who has joined her in rigorous exercise, she will provide better offspring—for they will be tall, strong and rarely sick. Sparta became so preeminent in war once her marriages were prepared in this way.”

Καίτοι καὶ πρεσβύτερον τούτου, ὃ καὶ Λυκούργῳ ἐδόκει τῷ Σπαρτιάτῃ· παριστάμενος γὰρ τῇ Λακεδαίμονι πολεμικοὺς ἀθλητὰς, “γυμναζέσθων,” φησὶν, “αἱ κόραι καὶ ἀνείσθων δημοσίᾳ τρέχειν.” ὑπὲρ εὐπαιδίας δήπου καὶ τοῦ τὰ ἔκγονα βελτίω τίκτειν ὑπὸ τοῦ ἐρρῶσθαι τὸ σῶμα· ἀφικομένη γὰρ ἐς ἀνδρὸς ὑδροφορεῖν οὐκ ὀκνήσει οὐδὲ ἀλεῖν διὰ τὸ ἠσκῆσθαι ἐκ νέας· εἰ δὲ καὶ νέῳ καὶ συγγυμναζομένῳ συζυγείη, βελτίω τὰ ἔκγονα ἀποδώσει, καὶ γὰρ εὐμήκη καὶ ἰσχυρὰ καὶ ἄνοσα. καὶ ἐγένετο ἡ Λακεδαίμων τοσαύτη κατὰ πόλεμον, ἐπειδὴ τὰ γαμικὰ αὐτοῖς ὧδε ἐπράττετο.

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Educating Daughters and Reading Plato

Diogenes Laertius Cleobulus, 1.6 91

“He used to say that daughters should be settled down when they are maidens in age but women in thought: by this he meant that it was right that girls be educated too.”

ἔφη δὲ δεῖν συνοικίζειν τὰς θυγατέρας, παρθένους μὲν τὴν ἡλικίαν, τὸ δὲ φρονεῖν γυναῖκας· ὑποδεικνὺς ὅτι δεῖ παιδεύεσθαι καὶ τὰς παρθένους.

 

From Stobaeus  III. 6, 58 (from the Memorabilia of Epictetus, fr. 15)

“In Rome, the women keep Plato’s Republic in their hands because he believes that women are worthy of sharing the state. In this, they pay attention to the words but not the man’s meaning: for he actually tells people not to marry or live together as one man and one woman and then plan for women in a community. No, he eliminates that kind of marriage and introduces some different kind in its place. As a general rule, people take pleasure providing excuses for their own faults. Truly, philosophy tells us that it is not right to stretch out even a finger at random!”

Ἐκ τῶν Ἐπικτήτου ἀπομνημονευμάτων.

Ἐν Ῥώμῃ αἱ γυναῖκες μετὰ χεῖρας ἔχουσι τὴν Πλάτωνος Πολιτείαν, ὅτι κοινὰς ἀξιοῖ εἶναι τὰς γυναῖκας. τοῖς γὰρ ῥήμασι προσέχουσι τὸν νοῦν, οὐ τῇ διανοίᾳ τἀνδρός, ὅτι οὐ γαμεῖν κελεύων καὶ συνοικεῖν ἕνα μιᾷ εἶτα κοινὰς εἶναι βούλεται τὰς γυναῖκας, ἀλλ᾿ ἐξαιρῶν τὸν τοιοῦτον γάμον καὶ ἄλλο τι εἶδος γάμου εἰσφέρων. καὶ τὸ ὅλον οἱ ἄνθρωποι χαίρουσιν ἀπολογίας τοῖς ἑαυτῶν ἁμαρτήμασι πορίζοντες· ἐπεί τοι φιλοσοφία φησίν, ὅτι οὐδὲ τὸν δάκτυλον ἐκτείνειν εἰκῆ προσήκει.

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Black Figure Hydria from the MET