The Madness of Suppression

The Madness of Suppression


“Her mind is dangerous”—Euripides in Medea, line 38

The word feminism sparks controversy, inciting a threat to the status quo. A woman’s mind, or specifically her use of it, becomes “dangerous” because it can break down societal norms. Within a patriarchal context, associations of the feminine with a vulnerable and emotional state and with the lack of a logical mind obstruct female self-empowerment. Even when placed firmly in its gender role, the woman’s mind remains dangerous because of the stereotypical assumptions about the female body. The prevalent historical diagnosis of hysteria uses the female body to justify perceptions of women as fragile, overly emotional, and insane. The implication of insanity and irrationality can function as a tool to suppress women within the confines of their gender roles. Alternatively, when women do break free of patriarchal constraints, accusations of insanity restrict and condemn their power. I intend to investigate how the shroud of insanity that literature and film place upon female protagonists frames them as unstable, vengeful criminals acting against patriarchal forces. In Euripides’ play Medea and in Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of Death and the Maiden, the female protagonists are both victims whose personal suffering and betrayal triggers criminal acts, while in Sophocles’ Antigone, Antigone is a victim of injustice and acts against the government. Each of these women possess a sympathetic victim identity as well as an antagonistic criminal one, however, the element of insanity overshadows their sympathetic qualities. The authors and directors of these three texts, in portraying female vigilantes, use stereotyped depictions of insanity to distance the audience from each character’s reliability as a victim, and thus reveal how they overlook female logic in their texts and emphasize the reception and consequences of feminist acts within the patriarchy.

Euripides emphasizes the passionate nature of Medea throughout the play, focusing on her crime as sex driven and undermining the rationale behind her actions. The text provides background for Medea’s hyperbolically feminine character as the nurse tells the story of what Medea risked and gave up in order to marry Jason. She tells us that “Medea,/ would never have sailed to Iolkos towers, her spirit struck senseless with passion for Jason,” revealing the domination of love and passion over logic within the woman (7-8). Euripides describes the woman’s passion using the word “struck,” which implies power and force, and moreover, it strikes her “senseless,” revealing the vulnerability of a woman’s mind to her emotions, a stereotypical trait he upholds throughout the play. After Jason betrays Medea, her passion shifts from love into anger and suffering. Euripides uses physical language to further emphasize how Medea’s emotions have taken over. He describes her anger as “the heavy weight of wrath/on her heart”(176-177), and “her sorrow” as “surging greatly”(183). The toll her anger takes on her body is depicted visually and metaphorically as a “heavy weight,” and the use of the word “weight” contrasts and overpowers the classically portrayed frailty of a woman. Jason’s sexual betrayal sparks Medea’s overwhelming emotional state, and when she reveals her plot for revenge, Euripides has her state a generalization about her own sex. Medea informs us that “A woman is generally full of fear, a coward/ when it comes to self-defense or the sight of a sword;/ but when she’s been wronged in anything touching sex,/ no mind is more homicidal than hers”(261-5). Euripides’ portrayal of the irrational, scorned woman becomes more realistic when the woman herself accepts her stereotype. She addresses the perception of women as weak and vulnerable, saying they are “generally full of fear.” In addition, she implies that sexuality drives a woman, discussing how sexuality and passion drive her mind as opposed to logic. When a woman is betrayed sexually, “no mind is more homicidal than hers” (265). Her state of mind is altered, bringing forth the issue of sanity. Euripides portrays Medea solely as a sexually- and emotionally-driven being; she does not possess logic, and the presented cause for her criminal acts is her female body and mind.

Illan L. Arlene and Maria Mackay offer a more biological analysis of Medea in their article, “Filicide in Euripides’ Medea:  A Biopoetic Approach,” in which they employ a form of literary criticism, known as biopoetics, which stresses evolution and psychology. Medea’s character fills the role of a female, an ex-wife, and a mother. Arlene and Mackay focus on her status as a mate and mother to provide a rationale for her actions that Euripides overlooks in his text. Their analysis provides an alternative way of presenting Medea as logical and decisive rather than rash and insane. Although they recognize that Medea depicts “a woman unexpectedly beyond male control and the disruption of male bloodlines,” they focus on the evolutionary and psychological logic behind her decision to kill her children as opposed to her defiance of the patriarchy (61). Filicide is central to Medea’s character and how audiences have perceived her. Throughout the play, she is portrayed as acting on a “maddened heart,” driven insane by love and jealousy (Euripides 403). However, Arlene and Mackay argue that she is not simply a stereotypical scorned woman by bringing forth “the reproductive motivation for Medea’s filicide: Jason’s self-serving disinvestment in his children” (61). As a husband, Jason betrays his wife, and as a father, he disregards his children because of his hopes for “an improved mating opportunity through second marriage” (61). But, Jason is not portrayed as negatively as Medea is. Euripides allows Jason to present his decision in a more selfless light. Because he is marrying the princess, Jason claims he will be a better provider for his family, saying “uppermost in my mind was for us to live well-off” (Euripides 559). Yet, his new found marriage and resources will not benefit the “us” to which he refers, as the king forces Medea into exile. Additionally, his new marriage will not benefit the children. Arlene and Mackay point out the psychological issues with a stepparent as a “direct competition” between the father’s “natural children” and the new wife (68). They support this claim with reference to a moment in the play where “Jason’s new bride displays a spontaneous and wrathful reaction to the sons of her husband” (Euripides 1150). Using this logic, they justify Medea’s filicide as an act of both mercy and retaliation instead of a maddened act of insanity. In the play, Medea says that if Jason “were still childless” his “desire for this marriage would be understandable” (489-91). Arlene and Mackay use this line as “support for the evolutionary finding that marriage is part of an adaptive reproductive strategy designed to safeguard the production and nurture of offspring, and only secondarily the means to increase wealth” (63). In addition, they dispute the focus on sexual jealousy in the play, which Euripides places upon the female protagonist, by presenting “pragmatic reasons to find Jason at fault, beyond the mere fact of [Medea’s] replacement by another woman”(63). Their argument provides a logic behind Medea’s criminal acts that refutes the implication of insanity. While Euripides’ text emphasizes stereotypically negative feminine traits such as jealousy, rage, and madness, Arlene and Mackay maintain that Medea’s “present situation is entirely consistent with the driving principles of maternal disinvestment” because she is without her family, abandoned by her husband, and both young and fertile (68). Therefore, “her future opportunities are better optimized through disinvesting in—and eliminating—her ex-husband’s existing offspring” (68). She commits filicide because as a female within the Greek patriarchal society, her chance for a new life as an abandoned, unmarried woman relies on this act. She saves herself from a bleak future and her sons from neglect and a stepparent who does not want to be their mother. However, the text draws on the character’s emotional distress as opposed to logic to sustain the lack of understanding most audiences have for filicide.

In a similar manner, the director of Death and the Maiden, Roman Polanski, emphasizes the irrationality of the female victim, Paulina Escobar, and thus undermines the logic behind her vigilante actions. As a female torture and rape victim with no access to justice, Paulina decides to pursue her own course of action. Although she believes the doctor who raped her is in her home, her own husband, Gerardo, repeatedly doubts her ability to identify him because she was blindfolded when she was tortured, and the doctor persistently claims he is innocent. Patrícia Vieira, a professor in Comparative Literature and the Film and Media Studies program at Georgetown University, analyzes the role of the blindfold in generating the character’s portrayal as a tortured mad woman and her male counterparts’ association with logic. In her article “Twists of the Blindfolds,” she notes that “the blindfolded individual is seen but cannot see,” resulting in inequality between Paulina, on the one hand, and her husband and the doctor, on the other (126). Vieira identifies the blindfold, which leads her husband (and the audience, alike) to question her judgment and actions, as the source of “her inability to come to terms with the traumatic events she went through” (127). In the first scene, terror is visible in Paulina’s facial expression as she listens to the classical piece her rapist played each time he took advantage of her. Polanski further illustrates her fear when she hears Doctor Miranda’s voice. By introducing her fear before revealing to the audience why she is afraid, Polanski enhances her role as “someone who lives in anxiety” (Vieira 127). Repeatedly, the male characters call Paulina’s state of mind into question, and consequently, they break down the audience’s support behind the female protagonist’s decision to take justice into her own hands. When her husband comes out to see that she has tied Doctor Miranda to a chair, he is immediately confused and upset, asking, “What is this?” Paulina’s own response adds to the doubt surrounding her ability to recognize the doctor as she says, “It’s a miracle. He’s delivered himself like a surprise Christmas present.” The word “miracle” makes the situation less believable, and her reference to her rapist as “a surprise Christmas present,” portrays her as somewhat delusional and childlike. Her husband refutes her because she was blindfolded, immediately discrediting her as witness, as Vieira points out in her article. The darkness that is explicit in the analysis of the blindfold and implicit in the notion of Paulina’s insanity not only constructs a barrier between the female protagonist and her male counterparts, but also between her and the audience.

In addition, there is a contradiction between the insanity the male characters link with Paulina’s actions and her logical need for the trial she stages. Merry Morash, professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University, exposes the invisibility of women in the justice system. She describes the inadequacies of policies that intend to promote female needs and empowerment in her book, Understanding Gender, Crime, and Justice. With regard to rape, “it is not a simple matter for a prosecutor to make her or his case before the jury if there is little or no corroborative evidence or if, for some other reason, jurors do not believe the victim” (Morash 16). Paulina’s vivid testimony describing her torture and fourteen rapes does not provide a case against the offender in a court of law. Because of the blindfold, she did not see who raped her, and no military officials who may have been witnesses would come forward in Chile. While Morash recognizes the invisibility of women in general in the justice system, in the context of the Chilean torture trials, Paulina is completely invisible because she is not dead. She recognizes the hopelessness of her case, and, as a result of the justice system’s failure to protect her, she seeks her own trial. However, the dialogue is regarding her trauma, fragile state of mind, and impracticality, rather than discussion of her need for a trial: “You’re ill”; “You’re not a reliable witness”; Obviously she’s insane”; “She’s paranoid. She’s delusional. You said so yourself. She’s crazy.” Vieira indicates that “Paulina will have to decide between falling into the oblivion offered by madness or confronting her past by staging an impracticable trial,” but the male characters in the play associate the trial with madness (127). When her husband recognizes that it is something she needs, he does not speak about justice, he says, “She’s mad. She needs therapy. You are her therapy.” In the film, Polanski places a greater emphasis on Paulina’s need for mental help than her need for justice, and so she comes across more as an insane, rash, violent criminal than a torture and rape victim deserving of a trial.

In addition, Polanski and the original playwright, Ariel Dorfman, set up a gender dynamic and power struggle. Paulina recognizes her disadvantage within this struggle, saying, “The minute I give up the gun, all discussion will end.” As a female attempting to gain control over two males, Paulina knows that the gun, a masculine weapon, is the only power she possesses. The gun portrays both masculinity and dominance through its phallic imagery and capacity for destruction. In order to gain power as a woman, she must adopt masculine traits. She physically manhandles him to portray her power. As the scene is set up, Paulina stands, pacing around Doctor Miranda with a gun, while the doctor lays uncovered, vulnerable on the couch. This juxtaposition reverses their roles. Additionally, her actions are animalistic; as she paces and even smells the doctor, it appears as if she is stalking her prey. When he begins to wake up and mutter, she slaps him hard in the face and speaks to him with aggressive language, saying “Shut up bitch,” and later, the more sexually masculine, “You want some meat,” using the rapist’s own words against him, an action that shows her intentionally taking on his role. To increase her control over him, she gags him so he cannot speak. Standing before her rapist, Paulina takes her underwear off and shoves it into his mouth, using the sexuality that was formerly taken advantage of as a type of empowerment. In doing so, she takes on the more stereotypically masculine sexual dominance. Simultaneously, her husband attempts to restore her less threatening feminine status, calling her pet names like “Paulie” and “Baby.” However, she is aware of the condescension and tells him, “Stop saying my name as if I’m a child,” to reclaim her dominant status. She recognizes that she cannot have power “out there” within the corrupt government and the patriarchy where “the bastards are still running things,” but she is able to counter that “in here,” her home, by taking “charge.” She is commanding and builds her power upon the threat of murder, as she holds a gun and tells the doctor she will kill him if he does not confess. As a character, Paulina demonstrates how a female must adopt masculinity in order to break free of her patriarchal restraints.

Meanwhile, the focus on emotional distress and sexuality in both female characters, Medea and Paulina, relies on the implicit belief in female hysteria. For hundreds of years, hysteria was directly linked to the female body. Adam A. Dmytriw, a scholar studying biomedicine and neuroimaging, reveals the evolution of the associations of hysteria throughout history in his 2015 article “Gender and Sex Manifestations in Hysteria Across Medicine and the Arts.” He states that the ancient Greek root word “hysterikos” was a reference to the diseases of the womb. From the Renaissance to the Victorian Era, the public viewed female hysteria as “the outcome of excess pollution of the body and particularly the womb, with fluids that were labeled ‘female sperm’ as the probable cause as a the ‘wandering womb’ was thought to excite the nerves of any part of the body it reached” (Dmytriw 45). Consequently, there is a direct link between hysteria and female sexuality. In Medea, both Jason and Medea herself present Jason’s sexual betrayal as the trigger for her allegedly irrational actions. The suggestion of insanity combined with the emphasis on sexuality establish Medea as a hysterical character. While Dmytriw identifies hysteria as “a means of categorizing deviant female sexuality,” in Medea, it functions as a response to her husband’s deviant male sexuality. Her female anatomy and sexuality is addressed when “her sorrow” is described like the ocean, “surging greatly”(Euripides 183). As the waves and movement of the ocean are symbolic for the flow that occurs within a woman’s body, the “surging” diction relates to the medical cause of hysteria, the spreading of fluids throughout the female body. On the other hand, Paulina suffers from Dmytriw’s additional description of hysteria as “a psychological inability to express internal conflict verbally and at the same time to somatize this anxiety” (46). The justice system and the male characters silence Paulina, so she is unable to express her internal conflict regarding her own trauma. After Paulina lays out her accusations in the trial, her husband asks, “Why didn’t you tell me?” to which she replies “If I told you, he’d always be between us. We’d never be alone,” explaining her inability to share her internal struggles. That she holds the truth inside of her only leads her to develop anxiety, anger, and frustration. She is presented as a hysterical woman through the thoughts she eventually reveals, her vulnerability, and her actions. However, the history behind hysteria is founded in general assumptions about the female body and its reproductive cycles. Because there is now less anatomical basis for its validity, the notion of female hysteria has become a suppressive gender stereotype as opposed to an unfortunate illness.

For a counterexample regarding the implications of insanity, Sophocles’s Antigone is not as emotional as the other two female characters, nor is she the direct victim. However her character still suffers from the stereotype of the hysterical woman despite her implied masculinity. Early in the play, Antigone presents a logical argument to her sister for her decision to break the law and bury her brother when she says, “Hasn’t Creon graced one with all the rites,/ disgraced the other? Eteocles, they say,/ has been given full military honors has be But the body of Polynices, who died miserably—/why, a city-wide proclamation, rumor has it,/ forbids anyone to bury him, even mourn him.”( 27-29, 32-33). Unlike Medea and Paulina, Antigone directly states the law she intends to break, revealing her courage. Her explanation uses a logical parallelism, discussing one brother and what he will receive and contrasting that with the other brother’s fate. Additionally, she does not reference herself or her own emotions throughout the argument, making apparent that Antigone is more focused on the injustice of the law than her grief regarding her brother. On the other hand, Medea repeatedly remarks on how she “suffered—miserable—suffered things/deserving loud laments,” attempting to evoke sympathy rather than explain her reasoning (Euripides 111-112). Additionally, Paulina deludes herself that she is giving the doctor a fair trial, saying “I’ll give him a chance to defend himself,” despite the fact that she has a gun on him and he is tied to a chair with the threat of death over his head (Death and the Maiden). Even though Antigone is aware of her decision and act of defiance, she still suffers similar accusations of insanity from the other characters that distance the reader from her. Her sister says, “Why rush to extremes? It’s madness, madness” (Sophocles 62) and calls Antigone, “wild” and “irrational” (115). Additionally, the description of her crime illustrates insanity as the guard recounts that “she cried out a sharp, piercing cry,/ like a bird come back to an empty nest,/ peering into its bed, and all the babies gone/ Just so, when she sees the corpse bare/ she bursts into a long shattering wail/ and calls down withering curses on the heads/ of all who did the work” (471-77). The male guard portrays her act as rash and vengeful instead of well-planned and logical, as Antigone presents herself. Her “sharp, piercing cry” and “long shattering wail” evoke more emotion than she shows throughout the entire play, and the comparison between her and a bird emphasizes her feminine familial ties. Additionally, he presents her as vulnerable, describing her as “the kill” and the guards as “the hunters” (481). However, he reveals that “she stood up to it all, denied nothing” (484). Throughout the play, Antigone possesses the strength and courage associated with men in ancient Greece as opposed to the mental and physical fragility linked to women. The king, Creon, asks, “What man alive would dare” revealing his assumption that the rebellious, criminal acts are a man’s (286). Despite this, Antigone remains a female acting outside of the constraints society has placed upon her. Creon reveals how the strength of the female threatens him as he says, “I am not the man, not now: she is the man” (484-5) He feels the need to punish her and control her because she is a threat to his masculinity and her intelligent mind is a threat to the system. Because he cannot suppress her with implications of insanity, he must punish her to place her back in her gender role, saying “From now on they’ll [Antigone and her sister] act like women./ Tie them up, no more running loose” (652-3). Creon’s reaction to Antigone exemplifies the fear society has of women like Antigone, Medea, and Paulina Escobar.

John Braithwaite and Kathleen Daly provide an applicable analysis of how male dominance competition generates the female gender role, in the book Crime, Control, and Women: Feminist Implications of Criminal Justice and Policy. The two writers argue that male crime reflects “domination, control, humiliation, and degradation, [sometimes specifically] of women” (Chapter 9, Miller). Additionally, they present male responses to male crime as “rage rather than guilt or an amplification of non-caring identities such as ‘badass,’” revealing that “some women may exhibit these masculine qualities, but their behavior would likely be interpreted as pathology. They would derive little support for expressions of masculine violence from even the most marginal of subcultures” (Chapter 9, Miller). In Medea, Death and the Maiden, and Antigone, the female characters are not supported in their actions. The label of hysteria supported by the authors’ and director’s implications of insanity offers an example of how the female characters’ actions are “interpreted as pathology.” In addition to a lack of support, these females face the domination, rage, degradation, and non-caring attitudes of men. Jason, in Medea, is non-caring as he abandoned her and his family; he degrades her with his sexual betrayal; and he shows rage rather than guilt as they speak. He insults women, saying they think “if things go right in bed, you have everything;/ but if your sex-life is suffering, then you become/ vicious enemies of all your best and dearest” (570-2). Furthermore, he goes on to wish “the female race could vanish” rather than express remorse for his transgression (575). In Death and the Maiden, the male crime occurs in the background of the film, in Paulina’s past. As a torture and rape victim, she experienced “domination, control, humiliation, and degradation.” In the present, in her trial, she desires the doctor’s guilt. However he refuses to show remorse or admit he is guilty up until the very end of the film, and only then does he do it in order to escape death. In Antigone, the king wishes only to dominate, and when she breaks his law, she threatens his control over other men and women. The male characters in each of the texts follow the patterns that Braithwaite and Daly describe, revealing the desperation for male dominance, most especially in the patriarchal settings of each text.

Female characters who seek justice tend to be portrayed as vengeful and irrational women in literature and film. Medea, Paulina, and Antigone are portrayed as unstable, fragile, and vulnerable women, and, by the same token, reveal the patriarchal perception and rejection of strong, self-willed women. Insanity becomes the tool with which the texts chip away at the audiences’ perceptions of the characters’ strength. While each of these women is both victim and criminal, the implication of insanity muddles the distinction between the two. Victims suffering from insanity are not credible, and criminals suffering from insanity can receive help rather than punishment. However, the insanity plea is not central to any of the texts, as the only character caught and punished is Antigone, the one who is the most rational. A more pointed question that arises from this research is: what happens when a victim is perceived as insane? One might think there would be more sympathy towards a person now suffering from both their own trauma and their own mind; however, in these three texts, insanity distances audiences from Medea and Paulina. Medea overwhelms the viewer with her emotions and is portrayed as inhuman as characters refer to her as a “bull,” “wretched thing,” and a “lioness”(Euripides 92, 1057, 1342). As Death and the Maiden reverses the roles of the tortured and the torturer, Paulina appears as a vengeful criminal as opposed to a sympathetic victim. Paulina’s aggression towards Doctor Miranda endows her with animalistic qualities, such as biting, that further subdue her sympathetic side. Additionally, the film repeatedly highlights an irrationality and injustice behind her actions drawing upon the uncertainty of whether or not Doctor Miranda is indeed guilty. In Antigone, although insanity is a mode of suppression within the text, it fails to distance the reader because the female protagonist explicitly presents logic that contrasts the irrationality that her context and other characters thrust upon her. However, because the text focuses more on rationale, injustice, and vigilantism, Antigone’s emotions of grief and loss, to which the reader may feel sympathetic, are not at the forefront of the text. The characters in her society perceive her more as the rebel rather than a victim who has experienced loss and disrespect. She too possesses inhuman qualities as the guard portrays her “sharp, piercing cry, like a bird” (Sophocles 481).

In these three texts, the authors and director not only suppress women through their male characters, but they also separate female criminals from other women, using insanity to dehumanize them, further debasing them, and thus increasing their inferiority in order to reaffirm patriarchal standards. Additionally, each of these texts contains a female protagonist written from a male perspective. The actions and statements with which the authors endow male and female characters, and the similar employment of insanity in both Ancient Greek texts and a film from 1990, speak to the inherent inequality that has persisted in society. The question of whether art is more of a reflection or an aspect of society arises. Through the analysis of these texts, a role for art arises in either continuing to enforce gender roles and stereotypes or in criticizing them in order to break them down.


Works Cited

Braithwaite, J., & Daly, K. (1998). “Masculinities, violence and communitarian control.” In Susan L. Miller (Ed.), Crime, Control and Women: Feminist Implications of Criminal Justice Policy. (pp. 151-181). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. E-text.

Dmytriw, Adam A. “Gender and Sex Manifestations in Hysteria Across Medicine and the Arts.” European Neurology 73 (2015): 44-50. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.

Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. Trans., Ed. Fagles, Robert New York: Penguin Literature, 1984. 59-128. Print.

Euripides. “Medea.” Euripides Medea, Hippolytus, Heracles, Bacchae. Ed. Stephen Esposito. Newburyport: Focus/R. Pullins, 2004. 35-92. Print.

Death and the Maiden. Dir. Roman Polanski. By Ariel Dorfman. Screenplay by Rafael Yglesias. Perf. Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, and Stuart Wilson. Capital Films, 1994. Web.

Mackay M, Allan A. “Filicide in Euripides’ Medea: A Biopoetic Approach.” Helios [serial online]. Spring 2014;41(1):59-86. Available from: Humanities Source, Ipswich, MA. Accessed April 19, 2015.

Morash, Merry. Understanding Gender, Crime, and Justice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006. Print.

Vieira P. “Twists of the Blindfolds: Torture and Sociality in Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden.” Chasqui (01458973) [serial online]. November 2009;38(2):126-137. Available from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed April 20, 2015.

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