Saturday, May 20, 2023

Review: Pandora's Jar by Natalie Haynes

Pandora’s Jar examines some of the women of Greek mythology – from Pandora to Penelope, highlighting the agency (or lack thereof) women have in the narrative, how they are objectified by the narrative voice, or how their failures or successes are rewarded or punished by the narrative compared to that of similar male characters. This kind of critique is the mainstay of feminist media critique, and Pandora’s Jar does it compellingly and with humour. 

This kind of critique of older media sometimes elicits angry retorts (always from men) about how it was a different time, and we cannot apply the standards of our present to the great works of masterful (male) writers from back then. Where I think Pandora’s Jar is particularly interesting is that the author points out over and over again how contemporary versions of these mythological women were often far more egalitarian in their depictions than some of the more modern versions we have come to know. As an example, ancient Greek depictions of Pandora emphasized not the “unleashing of evil/chaos” that we know her for now, but instead portray her role as the first woman, showered with gifts from the gods — an Eve without the apple scene. The play that underpins most of our conceptions of Oedipus, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, gives barely 150 lines to Jocasta and very little space to her emotional journey, despite being by all accounts an innocent victim in a tragic story. Just a few years after this play’s first performance, Euripides gives us The Phoenician Women, where Oedipus barely features while Jocasta flexes her political muscles brokering a peace between her warring sons and braves a battlefield. Euripedes is hardly an outlier; the poets Stesichorus and Statius also produced works that centered Jocasta more. 

Why is it that these more feminist angles didn’t survive the millennia to occupy the same role in our pop culture? Haynes offers a few suggestions, emphasizing mostly taste or cultural currents: “As we change, so these characters have also changed as if to match us.” For example, Greek plays were often performed at nightclubs, where men might bring their mistresses, and these same men might not have been too fond of versions of Clytemnestra’s story that paint her murdering her cheating (and filicidal) husband as anything too sympathetic. During the twentieth century, changes in religious attitudes may have been why Anouilh’s 1944 adaptation of Oedipus switched the birth order of two siblings: what was first “appropriate if excessive religious fervor in an older sibling” became the “behavior of a rebellious younger sibling.” Under-emphasized is the explanation highlighted by Parenti in The Assassination of Julius Caesar: classic history is mostly written and interpreted by wealthy white men. I would have liked to see Haynes engage with this lens more.

The bias in these stories — and all stories we pass on — matters. The first versions we encounter become what is seen as “standard”, even when they’ve been toned down or distorted from some “authentic” version. Other versions we encounter become “re-tellings”, and their deviations from the expected script can take on a political, status quo-questioning quality.

But because we read them as children, we don’t always consider them critically: we tend to see them as a neutral, authoritative version from which other versions deviate. And – like all books – they reflect the values of their time. So while I don’t want to dissuade you from reading these stories to children, I would urge you to counterbalance the quiet prejudice which lurks within them.

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