She-Hulk smash! And tear, and eat raw meat…

April 27, 2009

Gender roles in Euripides’ Bacchae are manipulated, even reversed, over the course of the play. The self-proclaimed champion of good behavior is Pentheus, who opposes the worship of Bacchus not only on the grounds that he is not truly a god, but also that the allegedly false god incites his female followers to act outside the acceptable boundaries established for their gender. He is both right and wrong; the women, having left their homes and engaged in acts of violence, are violating standards that would have the women stay inside and avoid bloodshed. However, he accuses them of promiscuity and carnal sins that they do not appear to be enacting, and thus that particular charge falls flat, perhaps even reflecting his own disturbed mind more than that of the typical worshiper.

This shift in behavior is entirely controlled by Dionysus, who whips his followers into a frenzy in which they are capable not only of wild dancing but also of extreme carnage, tearing apart animals with their bare hands and eating the raw flesh. Their hair is unbound, their clothing primitive, and they are even described as nursing wild animals with their own breast milk. When they believe they are being attacked by the local men, they take their wands and use them like weapons, becoming stronger soldiers than the men of the village that they fall upon. When Pentheus is cornered in the tree, they literally tear it from the ground to get at him, exhibiting inhuman–and unwomanly–strength. Finally, the murder of Pentheus by his own mother is as far from the traditional role of a woman as can be imagined. It is difficult to picture a woman of the time doing such a thing without extreme provocation, and Euripides almost certainly presents these images for their shock value while being careful to ascribe them to spiritual fervor rather than any normal, natural emotions or behaviors. Indeed, the efficacy of their bare hands and wands in fighting the men can only be described as supernatural, and in no way characteristic of typical female potency.

On the other hand, Pentheus himself is coaxed into reversing his own gender in order to infiltrate the ranks of the maenads. Having been the stalwart male figure concerned with the piety of his city and the chastity of its women, arresting offenders and lording it over Dionysus in his guise as the stranger, Pentheus eventually becomes submissive and eager to follow the stranger’s instructions. This is manifested physically by his cross-dressing as a worshipper of Dionysus, with feminine robes and head coverings. There is even a humorous moment in which he worries that the clothes are not properly adjusted and Dionysus helps him. His ultimate fate, of course, is to have his transgressions punished by being torn to pieces by women, who are themselves asserting their strength and superiority over him, a man and ruler of the city. His eulogy as delivered by his grandfather Cadmus focuses, not on his civic deeds as a man’s should, but on his private household deeds as a woman’s might. In the end, the god’s presence retreats and Agave is returned to her normal self, left to come to terms, as a mere woman, with the manly murder she perpetrated while in the mad frenzy inspired by the god.

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