Discussion Topic

Aristophanes' exploration and subversion of gender roles and stereotypes in Lysistrata

Summary:

In Lysistrata, Aristophanes explores and subverts gender roles and stereotypes by portraying women as the driving force behind the peace movement. The women, led by Lysistrata, withhold sexual privileges from their husbands to end the Peloponnesian War, challenging traditional notions of female passivity and male dominance. The play humorously yet pointedly critiques societal norms and promotes the idea of female agency and power.

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How did Aristophanes exploit gender stereotypes in Lysistrata?

There are several definitions of "exploit," most of them having good denotations and good connotations. I'm assuming though that you mean "exploit" in its negative meaning since you couple it with "gender stereotypes."

  • exploit: to use selfishly for one's own ends. To make use of selfishly or unethically. [T]o take advantage of, esp unethically or unjustly for one's own ends. (Random House, American Heritage, and Collins Dictionaries)
  • stereotype: A conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image. Sociology--a simplified and standardized conception or image (American Heritage and Random House Dictionaries)

"Stereotype" has negative denotation and connotation. It was originated, therefore unknown until, between 1790 and 1800. 

Consequently, to suggest that Aristophanes exploited gender stereotypes in any way is without foundation. In ancient Greece, people were seen as having specific functions to perform. To elaborate, Robin Lane Fox, in Pagans and Christians, makes it clear that gender roles in ancient Greece were far greater than stereotypically believed. He presents clear evidence that women had significant power as benefactresses and city planners.

It is a universal fallacy that because works like the comedies of Aristophanes discuss certain social or ethical problems, they are inspired by them. (Jack Lindsay, Forward, Lysistrata)

The question you are really asking is: What gender stereotypes can we recognize from our own cultural orientation as being present in Aristophanes Lysistrata, recognizing that Aristophanes' perspective would not have concurred with ours and that we don't even yet have an adequate picture of ancient Greek society?

In the opening of the drama, we might perceive a gender stereotype in the very premise of the play: the men have been at war for twenty years and the women at home keeping the home fires burning (and the city running). The conflict of the play, which is embedded in a plot devised by Lysistrata, the main character, may also be perceived as a stereotype: the women choose not to do what the men demand of them to do causing a social battle divided along gender lines of he against she. Lysistrata's plan itself might be seen as representing gender stereotypes although the plan is meant to sabotage and reverse the gender stereotype: women intend to withhold sexual favors. This anti-gender stereotype plan has a specific cultural objective: sexual activity will be withheld until the ongoing twenty year war is brought to a permanent end.

Another example of what might be perceived as gender stereotypes is the occupations the women protest a need to return to with some urgency. One must go home to tend her "Melisian wool" to save it from moths; another, her unstripped flax, and she must "flay it properly"; another has an urgent pregnancy that she is on the verge of delivering (it is miraculous in that it sprang up in one day and turns out to be a helmet in disguise).

1ST WOMAN
I must get home. I've some Milesian wool
Packed wasting away, and moths are pushing through it.

LYSISTRATA
Fine moths indeed, I know. Get back within.

1ST WOMAN
By the Goddesses, I'll return instantly.
I only want to stretch it on my bed.

LYSISTRATA
You shall stretch nothing and go nowhere either.

1ST WOMAN
Must I never use my wool then?

LYSISTRATA
If needs be.

2ND WOMAN
How unfortunate I am! O my poor flax!
It's left at home unstript.

LYSISTRATA
So here's another
That wishes to go home and strip her flax.
Inside again!
...
3RD WOMAN
I'll drop it any minute.

LYSISTRATA
Yesterday you weren't with child.

3RD WOMAN
But I am today.
O let me find a midwife, Lysistrata.
O quickly!

LYSISTRATA
it's Athene's sacred helm,
And you said you were with child.

3RD WOMAN
And so I am.

LYSISTRATA
Then why the helm?

3rd WOMAN
[As] a laying-nest in which to drop the child.

LYSISTRATA
More pretexts! You can't hide your clear intent

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How is female sexuality exploited in Aristophanes' "Lysistrata?"

Concerning your question about Lysistrata, there is plenty of female sexuality in the play, but I'm not sure "exploited" is the best word to explain how it is used.

Exploited has a connotation that suggests someone or something is being used.  The women in the play use their sexuality to protest the war themselves.  They are not really being used by anyone.

The enotes Study Guide on the play says the following:

It is sex that permits the women to seize control. The men are held captive to their carnal desires and are unable to deal with the women as they had previously. Sex is both the women’s weapon and their prize to withhold. Sex gives the women a power they would not ordinarily hold; and with the simple banding together of the women, the desire for sex leads the men to capitulate. One of the women, Myrrhine, uses her sexuality to tease her husband, and to assert her power over him. Near the end of the play, as Lysistrata tries to negotiate a peace, she uses sex to motivate the men, by parading a nude representation of reconciliation in front of the sex-deprived males. When this maneuver fails to work, Lysistrata plies the men with wine, in a ironic reversal of the traditional male effort to seduce a woman. When the men begin drinking they become even more desperate for sex, and finally agree to a truce.

If you could establish with evidence that the other women do not really feel about the issue as Lysistrata does, you could make an argument that they are exploited by her.  Otherwise, the only other possibility of exploitation is that the writer, Aristophanes, exploits female sexuality to write his play.  But that seems like a weak argument. 

As the passage from the Study Guide above mentions, sex is the women's weapon.  They may be doing some exploiting, but they are not exploited. 

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How is female sexuality exploited in Aristophanes' "Lysistrata?"

There are a couple of ways to interpret this question -- I am not sure which you intended to ask.

First, the women in this play are exploiting their sexuality to try to accomplish their goal.  They want to stop the war.  Because of this, they are going to refuse to sleep with their men until the men promise to end the war.  So in this way, they are exploiting their sexuality.

Second, you could argue that Aristophanes is exploiting female sexuality (or at least men's interest in female sexuality) by writing this play.  He is hoping to use men's interest in sex to draw people to watch the play.  In that way, it is like having sex scenes in movies today.

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How did Aristophanes exploit gender stereotypes in Lysistrata?

It's been awhile since I've read this play, but I don't know if I would use the word "exploitation" when discussing the women in this play.  The women are not exploited in my opinion, since they come up with the plan themselves.  The men's war was never-ending, so the women on both sides of the conflict get together to decide to hold their own war by withholding sexual intimacy with their husbands until the war is concluded for good.  The result?  It worked.  The men quit fighting, and the women were successful in their own battle.  They used the only weapon they had...their sexuality. 

The word "exploitation" gives the impression that the women are made to do something against their will-- it has a negative connotation.  In this case, however, the women were in complete control.  They held all the cards, and their gender-driven war plan or siege if you will, succeeded.  If anything, they exploited the men's inability to live without physical pleasure while on leave from their war.

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Why and how does Aristophanes make women the heroes in Lysistrata?

Remember that Aristophanes is a comedic author. This being said, to have women as the main characters--as heroes and as soldiers taking the acropolis--is indeed most ridiculous. Examine this quote from Lauren Taffe, "Whenever any element of femininity is present in an Aristophanic production, an opportunity arises for humor based on theatricality, costume play, or language play". Women are the most comic in this sense. Beyond just giving the major roles to women, you must keep in mind that in that day and age, men would have had to play the roles of the women, which makes it all the more hilarious.

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How does Aristophanes' Lysistrata challenge earlier Greek authors' definitions of masculinity, femininity, and heroism?

Aristophanes Lysistrata, like many of his other plays, exists in the realm of the fantastic. Just like his farmer flying to Olympus on a dung beetle or talking birds, the women in the play are not meant as realistic characters, nor is this meant as a feminist drama. It is not intended as a challenge to female gender roles, but rather a suggestion that the males of the Greek city are failing so badly in their civic duties by pursuing senseless wars, that even mere women need to intervene. It also suggests that heroism does not consist of pursuing war at all costs, but can consist of refraining from them. Thus gender roles are not really being undermined in the play except in so far as Aristophanes is suggesting that war is not a necessary attribute of masculinity.

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