Thinking Like Lysistrata: Women’s March 2018

On the first anniversary of the Women’s March on Washington that took the United States – and the world – by storm on January 20, 2017 in the wake of the deeply unsettling inauguration of 45, women everywhere came together once again to protest The Man No One (sane) Wanted in Office.

From Stanford to right here in Ann Arbor, women united to remind everyone that our fight is still not over. Our rights, and the rights of so many other marginalized groups, are still in jeopardy, and we must continue to fight for those rights as we weather this storm of a presidency for the next three years.

Although I personally could not attend the Ann Arbor march today (I did make it out to Lansing last year, which was honestly such a feeling of empowerment, being surrounded by so many other empowered women), I kept an eye on social media and felt almost as inspired as I did a year ago when I saw how many women and allies showed up. I particularly enjoyed an image shared by a friend on Instagram, who was depicted holding a sign saying ‘Public CERVIX announcement, this pussy grabs BACK’ in front of a man defiantly holding up a sign saying ‘Make me a sammich!’

It is so appalling to know that, after everything we have been through in the last year, and all of the headlines that have come out of not just the things that our President has said but also current events – like the systematic disenfranchisement of several prominent celebrity men who have sexually assaulted other members of the community – there are still people out there who think this way.

In the midst of seeing these posts throughout the day from the various Women’s Marches all over the country and spending much of the morning hashing out the inherent problems in Classics as a discipline and with classical reception in media in general, I remembered the days in undergrad, where I was exposed to Spike Lee’s masterpiece, Chi-Raq. A modern adaptation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, what film could have been more appropriate on a day like today?

By the two Goddesses, now can’t you see
All we have to do is idly sit indoors
With smooth roses powdered on our cheeks,
Our bodies burning naked through the folds
Of shining Amorgos‘ silk, and meet the men
With our dear Venus-plats plucked trim and neat.
Their stirring love will rise up furiously,
They’ll beg our arms to open. That’s our time!
We’ll disregard their knocking, beat them off—
And they will soon be rabid for a Peace.
I’m sure of it.

-Lysistrata, Lysistrata 140-154 (trans. Perseus Online)

Released three years ago, Chi-Raq tells the story of a young woman named Lysistrata who, seeing her city plagued by gang violence and wanting to put an end to it, organizes a sex strike in order to bring peace to Chicago. It’s both heart-wrenching and hilarious, poking fun at a serious situation in much the same way that Aristophanes does in his fifth century comedy. It’s a whopping 2 hours long but it doesn’t feel like it – it’ll keep you engaged the whole way through, thanks to stunning cinematography, witty dialogue (in verse!), the periodic appearances by Samuel L. Jackson (he’s a hoot and he doesn’t even talk to anyone other than the audience), and the ingenious adaptation of such a timeless plot line.

But those aren’t the only reasons I love the film. On the one hand, it’s the representation.


If you had never heard of this film before today, would you have ever thought anyone would adapt Aristophanes in such a poignant way? I certainly never did, and yet years after I watched for the first time, a little shocked and a little intrigued, in a dark classroom in the middle of Virginia, singing its praises.

The film might not be set in fifth century Athens, but it still puts people of color in the roles we as classicists are so familiar with. And that’s something. (It is not, for instance, like the ill-fated Gods of Egypt that disappointed so many by casting white men in the lead roles of Egyptian gods. But that’s a totally different issue.)

Whether you’re a classicist or not, I think that so many people would get something out of this film. If you are a classicist, I think you can see why a film like this is so important. Think of all of the other film adaptations of ancient literature you’ve seen – Cleopatra, Troy, 300 – all attempt to stay true to the story for the most part, taking some creative liberties here and there. But what Spike Lee does here is take Aristophanes’ work and effectively transplant it into a new community, with new personalities and new problems.

But is it really new?

My answer would be a firm no.

Instead of perpetuating the white-washed Classics we have all grown so accustomed to (don’t tell me you don’t imagine the characters in your favorite Athenian comedies as white actors parading around in masks), this forces us to recast the characters, to not ignore just how timely the issues that the Athenians were faced with in the fifth century actually are.

The characters in Chi-Raq are fighting for the same things – peace in their city at a time wracked with violence and conflict – using the same tactics – withholding sex, to the utter, albeit comical, dismay of the men – and are faced with the same challenges – not being taken seriously because of their gender. This is the second reason why I love this film so much, and why I think that it is particularly important on today of all days.

It is – both the film and the fifth century play – such a strong display of the power of women to bring about change. It also, of course, highlights the problems inherent in our society – the fact that women would have to resort to something as ridiculous as withholding sex in order to get what we want because we wouldn’t be taken seriously otherwise. In a similar vein, just short of withholding sex from our male counterparts, the fact that we have to organize and wield signs in the cold for hours to get the men (not people, the men) in power to pay attention to us (not actually change anything, though; just to recognize that we are here and that we do, in fact, care about our lives) is pretty ridiculous, too.

Of course, I know that Lysistrata is a work of fiction. It’s a caricature at best – a play written by a man in a society where he knew pretty well that women would never actually revolt and take over the Acropolis for peace. But so many aspects of that play, whether Aristophanes wanted them to or not, resonate in today’s society.

Whether you apply it to gang violence in Chicago or the sexual misconduct of men in Hollywood or the blatant mistreatment of women all over America by our political system, it’s relevant. So, I implore you all to watch this film, and continue to do the good work that you have been doing. Think like Lysistrata. One of these days – I hope – they’ll finally take us seriously.


Classics in Color: A View From the Minority

“Do we make it easy for people of color who want to study the ancient world? Do they see themselves in the ancient landscape that we present to them?” -Sarah E. Bond, Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color

When, almost a week ago, I came across this article, I will admit that I didn’t actually read it. I thought that it was an interesting interpretation of art history, shared it on Facebook, and left it at that. But after a more recent article, entitled “Classicist Receives Death Threats from Alt-Right over Art Historical Essay,” I thought maybe it was time I gave it a look.

Although I agree with many of her sentiments and don’t deny the harsh reality of the racist investigations of early classicists and more recent alt-right groups, I think that the questions that Professor Bond asks (quoted above) all but scream for the perspective of the people she mentions – people of color who want to study the ancient world. People of color who are studying the ancient world. People like me.

Although I agree with her, when the white majority (91%, according to a 2014 survey of undergraduate Classics majors) of the field is the only one speaking and publishing and making their voices heard, it’s hard to fully understand the experiences of the minority and it’s easy for us to be overlooked save for the occasional statistic.

But despite all of that, she certainly does not deserve the response that she got. No one deserves to be attacked with death threats solely because their views do not align with your own.

In her article, Bond focuses on the origins of the white supremacist view that emerged among early classicists that color in sculpture meant barbarism and that the Greeks were far too sophisticated to color their white marble sculptures. It is no secret, at least to art historians and archaeologists, that pigments do sometimes survive on sculpture even today, leading to articles like Bond’s which point out the fact that the Greeks did, in fact, color their sculpture on many occasions, if not all the time. But she misses two important points.

First, the fact that the vibrant colors of sculpture sometimes served utilitarian as well as decorative purposes. Imagine looking at the pediment or frieze sculptures on a monumental temple from the ground – would it be easier to make out those scenes if they were in the same white marble as the rest of the building or if they were in color? Those vibrant colors, though sometimes gaudy and unbelievable, made it easier for the visitors of sanctuaries and public areas to see the magnificent handiwork of the artists who carved and decorated them.

The Archer from the western pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on Aigina, reconstruction, color variant A from the Gods of Color exhibit (photo by Marsyas/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.5)

Second, in almost every reconstruction of the colors of marble sculpture, it seems to be the case that, although Bond and others champion the idea of diversity in the ancient world, many of those reconstructions feature people of just one race – white. That is not to say that there weren’t other races of people living in Greece and in Rome and their territories, but the fact remains that those who create these reconstructions of marble sculpture more often than not have an idea in their mind of what a ‘Greek’ or ‘Roman’ looked like.

Painted terra cotta cinerary urn (150–100 BCE), originally from Chiusi, now at the British Museum (photo by Bond for Hyperallergic)

Returning to my original quote, I have to return to a point that I made in a post I made earlier in the year. My sentiment remains the same: I do not think that it’s representation in the classics (that is, the literature, the art, the archaeology) that is the problem. I don’t think that simply knowing or seeing that there were people of color in Greece and Rome would make me more likely to have become a Classics major in undergrad.

I know now that there was, in fact, a lot of diversity throughout the Greek and Roman worlds – take, for example, Egypt and Asia Minor – but that does not necessarily mean that everyone was equal. On the contrary, there was a great deal of disparity between classes almost all of the time, and it was more often than not that the people who were wealthiest were Greeks and Romans in the strictest sense of the word. Even during the Hellenistic period, the first Ptolemy was just a Macedonian Greek who was assigned the kingdom of Egypt while actual Egyptians were more usually of lower status.

Slavery is, of course, another aspect of the disparity that existed. Sure, especially in the Roman period, slaves could be freed, take up trades, and become wealthy in their own right. But it is important not to think of slavery during the Greek and Roman worlds as equivalent to the slavery that occurred, for example, in North America. Slaves were not necessarily of a different race or ethnicity than those who owned them – they were mostly war captives or debtors during the earlier periods. Chattel slavery and slave trade came into play in later periods, but people were not enslaved because of the color of their skin. Difference or inferiority was most often determined based on the way someone spoke (i.e. if they didn’t speak Greek) or for cultural reasons (i.e. barbarians were people who wore pants and hats, rather than the traditional toga).

My point is that diversity existed in the Greek and Roman worlds, but we cannot let that automatically mean that everyone was living in harmony all of the time. We also cannot begin thinking that because there were people of color that they were always living good lives as opposed to the persecution minorities often face today, because ancient POCs were persecuted too, if for different reasons.

This is why I don’t think that representation in the materials we study will bring more students of color to the classics. I don’t think that seeing a statue painted with darker skin in a reconstruction based on some scholar’s interpretation or reading something about the lives of slaves or freedmen will make people of color interested. I stand by what I said when I said that it has to be more about getting more representation in the faculty and, maybe even if we have more people of color in the field speaking out about issues that we only ever see the white majority speaking about.

As someone who is actively experiencing the discrepancy between the majority and the minority, more often than not being the only person of color in a classroom or an excavation team, I think it would be a lot more encouraging to see people who look like me doing the things that I want to be doing. But I know that, with such small numbers, it is a difficult task to accomplish. However, I keep hoping and I will keep making blog posts as I see fit because people of color in the classics need to start speaking up.