Toppling the Patriarchy: An Artistic Exploration

herstory pilgrimage Apr 15, 2024

As I write this, I have just finished watching Origin, a brilliant film documenting the story behind the story of Isabel Wilkerson's book Caste, a manifesto of the origins of what we call racism, illuminating the connective tissue between caste creation across time and cultures that makes it so much deeper, more calculated and endemic than the label “racism” provides.


I am on a flight home from Barcelona after almost three weeks exploring the Catalan region of Spain and France. While there, I immersed myself in explorations ranging from art to history, with my primary focus on the story beneath the story of what we call sacred or holy, especially as it relates to women and other groups who were purposefully left out of holy lore or manipulated within to fit the dominate narration supporting whiteness, Christianity and maleness. 


I did this by viewing art at museums, by looking for the hidden symbols and meaning in medieval churches, sitting quietly in one of the oldest Jewish synagogues in Europe, by visiting pre-Christian megalithic structures used for ritual and ceremony, and by studying the clues within the local lore and exploring the landscape for proof of the story that has always flowed beneath the story. 


I believe that what I choose to watch or read creates the lens through which I see the world, so I choose carefully. On this trip I watched Dear White People and Origin. I read a novel by Victoria Mas called The Mad Women’s Ball. Each of these are creative expressions exploring real events—the early 2000s trend of university parties celebrating blackface; the caste system as the genesis of oppression; and the institutionalization of women in 19th century Paris for breaking the rules of the caste system Wilkerson describes so well simply by claiming their humanity. 


So what does all of that have to do with the erasure of our sacred herstory? Everything.


I believe that systems are revealed through the details, not through sweeping generalizations, so I am going to give you specific examples in this series of posts illuminating how dominator culture creates a narrative that shapes and maintains the systems that support it.


In each of these examples, you can see how a system based on hierarchy (caste) controlled the expressions allowed and the way those expressions were (or weren’t) recorded.


Let’s start with one of my early explorations, the exhibit Revered & Feared: Feminine Power in Art & Belief. I saw it at La Caixa Forum in Barcelona, though it was curated jointly by La Caixa and the British Museum. With such a title, I fully expected to feel inspired, empowered, validated and seen by the exhibit. 


Instead—with a few exceptions (the ancient Queen of the Night relief & Sekhmet sculpture plus the cathartic modern video performance art Speak by Cristina Lucas at the top of this post)—I felt as if women’s power had just been mansplained to me by the same male-authored histories we have been fed for millennia. The artistic statements next to each piece were regurgitations of men’s interpretations of women, not a resurrection of long lost feminine voices. 


This, despite the fact that the exhibit was curated by women. Internalized patriarchy is real.


This is what I journaled post-exhibit:


I wanted to feel the sovereign power of women—goddesses, priestesses, warriors and scholars. Instead, I felt centuries of the male gaze following me from room to room. I heard male voices rising from ancient graves to proclaim, “This is who you were. This is how we saw you. That is all that matters.”

I wanted to weep. 

I wanted to scream.

I wanted HER story.


How could such despair arise from art meant to celebration feminine power? 


Because stories about us are only empowering if they are told in our voices, based on our experiences rather than the way they dominant culture viewed us. 


Let that sink in. It is not our story if it is not told from our perspective. When someone outside of our lived experience conjectures about our inner life, it is their story. It tells us more about them than about us. 


Let’s look at one example. The most blatantly infuriating one from the exhibit. Cue a 2500-year-old pottery cup emblazoned with a an image of a hetaera (Greek courtesan) pleasuring herself with, not one but two, artificial penises. 

 Greek Pottery Cup, c. 520-500 BCE

Now that I have your attention, remember that this is in an exhibit on female empowerment. The cup was sculpted by a man. The image painted by a man. The whole ridiculous farce of an image was clearly dreamed up as a male fantasy of how a woman actually relates to her own body. Note to men: never, ever has a woman sucked on a dildo to pleasure herself. It is not a thing. 


For context, Greek courtesans during this period were not your run-of-the-mill prostitutes. These women were among the most highly educated and cultured women in Greece at the time. They were primarily foreigners, yet they enjoyed a sovereignty over their lives that was greater than that of “respectable” Greek women who were confined to strict roles and relegated to the sphere of domesticity. 


The hetaeras, in contrast, lived alone or with a few other women and, outside of their courtesan duties, did what they pleased. And contrary to the art on display, “what they pleased” was not faux phallic playtime. These were intellectual women who were gifted conversationalists, readers, writers, musicians and artists.


Where is the hetaeras' art? That is what I wanted from this exhibit—her story told by HER.


Since returning home, I have searched for the real story of these women, the hataeras, that is buried beneath the one men told about them through their projection-filled art. 


The image in the center of the cup was positioned so that a man drinking from the cup would have the sexualized image of a woman literally shoved in his face, lest he forget while conversing with one of the interesting and philosophical hetaeras what her real purpose was.


My pre-research hypothesis was that women who could not be constrained by the limited roles of Athenian wives, chose this lifestyle, not because they were infatuated with penises, but because they wanted the freedom and self-sovereignty. They chose the lesser of the two evils offered them in this particular patriarchal society. Rather analogous to the freedom experienced by the prostitutes in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale who, ironically, lived lives more on their terms that women in the coveted role of “wife.”


Imagine my delight when I discovered that there could be another explanation, an even more revelatory one that postulates the hetaeras were not prostitutes at all because, in fact, the term hetaera did not become associated with any type of prostitution until after the fifth century, a thousand years after the cup we’re analyzing was created.


Scholar Rebecca Futo Kennedy argues in her book Immigrant Women in Athens: Gender, Ethnicity & Citizenship in the Classical City that the hetaera is “a companion, equal to men in her circle, and welcome at symposia and other activities inappropriate for citizen wives, but is not a prostitute.”


This directly challenges all the previous understandings of the role of the hetaera, one of which was based upon Sian Lewis’s contention that the iconography of reading and playing instruments marked the women as prostitutes. Yes, the "proof" that they were prostitutes were the books they read and the instruments they played. 


I am not an anthropologist, but this seems like more male conjecturing and projecting to me. From the dawn of time women—starting with Lilith and Eve—have been vilified by the men writing their stories for daring to claim their autonomy and their knowing. 


It is not surprising that the men interpreting women’s lives would choose to encode women’s pursuit of intellectual and cultural activities as deviant, mislabeling them as prostitutes once the etymological connection appeared a thousand years later. 


The best way I know to resurrect lost stories is to take the theory presented and put yourself into the world it would create, fleshing out the scenes, the context and the feelings of the women who lived them. 


So let’s put ourselves into a world in which Kennedy’s theory is playing out. Let’s step into the roles of female counterparts to the learned men who frequented symposiums. We are educated, well-read and have opinions which we freely share at these public gatherings. We are othered in several ways at these events—in addition to being women, we are immigrants who were educated in another country and have found ourselves here, somehow escaping the roles foisted upon the female citizens of Athens. We are respected and live life with much the same freedoms as men.


Imagine a group of insecure men at the symposium feeling somehow cheated when we set off the liveliest debate of the evening. Feeling we are stealing their birthright, red rises into their faces and anger flashes in their eyes. They wish to diminish those of us who have somehow subverted the roles they would prescribe for us, as women and as foreigners.


They resort to the same tactics that insecure men have always resorted to. They objectify, they make inappropriate jokes. In this instance, they go so far as to hire their friend the potter and their other friend the painter to make a cup with a woman pleasuring herself with two fake penises and pass it around the next symposium. They know how that will make the women feel, and that is exactly their goal. They hope it makes the other men forget our wit and our banter and begin to undress us with their eyes. 


Does this role playing seem all too familiar? It is still playing out on stages big and small, its grandest gestures now unfurling in policy and politics that are conspiring to control women’s bodies and choices because some insecure men still think they should be able to grab us by the pussies, force themselves on us and tell us we must pay the price.


I’ll circle back to a follow-up post on strategies and processes for uncovering the stories that have been repressed or twisted in ways that will continue to impact us as long as they go unexamined. 


But first, we will spend the next several posts together unpacking the stories I excavated in Catalunya. Thank you for joining me on this journey. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the stories beneath the stories.


Queen of the Night relief, c. 1750 BCE

Statue of Sekhmet, c. 1539-1292 BCE

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