Gender roles are those characteristics, actions or behaviours, for which acceptance and approval within a particular community, and at a specified time, is determined on a gender-specific basis. A very traditional idea of these roles is that men are overt, the protectors, the providers and aggressive: “men must fight…” and women are covert, the victims, passive and emotional “…women must weep”. Traditional gender roles are found in many texts. For example, in the play, Medea by Euripides, the main character, Medea, challenges and endorses traditional gender roles through her actions, words, and reactions.
Medea betrays her father, the king, by helping Jason, a foreigner and therefore disliked. The king plans to kill Jason, but Medea, knowing of these plans, intervenes and helps him escape. This action challenges traditional concepts of the female gender role, as women, in the patriarchal society of ancient Greece were supposed to have deep respect for their fathers who provided for them and kept them safe from harm. By betraying her father, she is going against her traditional role as a daughter, which was to be obedient, passive and grateful. Despite this betrayal, she still shows some female essence: “She sat alone in her room, weeping and telling herself she was shamed forever because she cared so much for a stranger that she wanted to yield to a mad passion and go against her father.” (Edith Hamilton, Mythology) She cries, showing a weak, typically womanly emotion, as “…women must weep” because she feels guilt and remorse.
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She also contemplates what she will do, unlike ‘irrational’ men, who more often act before they think. After thinking it through and yielding to her mad passion, Medea’s actions are carried out. She saves Jason’s life, which is brave and heroic but usually falls under a male characteristic. This imminently challenges traditional understandings of gender because it was a woman who saved man, and if it weren’t for Medea, Jason would be dead: (Medea to Jason:) “First things first. I saved your life- they know it, every Greek who sailed with you…when you came to yoke fiery bulls in the field of death and sow those dragon’s teeth. The serpent, unsleeping guardian, coiled around the fleece I killed.
I made your reputation…” therefore, he is seen like a victim, which is usually the fragile, defenceless role a woman plays. Thus, hurting her father even more and strongly challenging traditional gender roles in the murder of Medea’s brother Apsyrtus. This action does not challenge typical gender roles just because Medea, a female, committed murder, a physical activity much more commonly associated with men, but rather because of Greek brothers and sisters’ type of relationship. It was said that, in ancient Greece, brother-sister relationships were always very close, with minimal quarrelling and with the brother being there for his sister to guard her honour.
In ancient Greece, “(T)he brother was responsible for the sister, and she was dependent upon him.” (Jan Bremmer, http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/1997/97.07.19.html) The murder of Medea’s brother breaks all bonds between her and her family and, symbolically, is like a declaration of her independence. In the Hellenic period, Independence was much more the province of a man’s as women did not have much power or personal wealth and were heavily reliant on men to survive. Medea is therefore seen to challenge traditional gender roles through her newfound independence.
Medea’s independence does not last long, and even though she saved Jason’s life, Medea is the one who very soon becomes dependent on him, this time making her like a victim or “a refugee, buying safety”(pg1), thus endorsing the illustrated female role once more. Medea is later again made to appear the victim through Jason telling her he will provide for her and look after her, making her seem helpless and needy: (Jason:)”I won’t see you penniless; I won’t see the children starve…If you or the children need anything, cash for the journey, ask. I’ll be generous- letters to people who’ll take you in.” Medea replies: “I need no friends of yours to take me in. I’ll take none of your favours…I spit on them.” Her response to Jason’s offer of help ‘loosens’ the typical characteristic of the victim bestowed upon her as she conveys a sense of new independence once more, this time from Jason.
Medea might need that help from Jason, but she strongly communicates that she definitely doesn’t want it to show strength in her character, which challenges conventional feminine roles. For Medea, even less feminine and certainly more unacceptable than killing her own brother was killing her own children. She makes plans for this: “…I must. I’ll kill the children. My children. Mine!…I’ll kill my darling sons, and run.”(pg27). This action is an ultimate betrayal of the typical role of ‘mother.’ Mothers are traditionally the carers and nurturers of their children: affectionate and loving- never brutal. Brutality is an action for men to perform, just like the quote says: “men must fight…”. Therefore it is men who draw blood and cause death, not women. Women are meant to be the bearers and sustainers of life, and Medea knows this: “I gave them life, and now I’ll give them death…”(pg42)
Usually, a mother’s children are her weakness, but in Medea’s case, her feelings of pride prevailed over her maternal instincts. Medea displays extreme pride, which is stereotyped more as a ‘male’ attribute. After all, she sacrificed for Jason: “I turned my back on my own country, my father, my own brother cut to bits- for this?”(pg 06), and now he has left her for a younger woman! She would not permit Jason to make a fool out of her: “I should bear their mockery? I won’t.” and this is why she was willing to sacrifice her children: to save her reputation! (Chorus to Medea:) “Medea, mother, murderess. Is this the price you claim for a marriage mocked, a husband, guilty, wallowing in another’s the bed?”(pg34)
Another prominent emotion Medea displayed was jealousy. Unlike pride, jealousy is a more female-based emotion. Medea is underwriting traditional gender roles by feeling jealous of Jason’s new lover. She is severely upset and emotional about losing her love to a younger woman, and she wails, quite dramatically, over this: “Yoh! Weep. Grief. Pain. Yoh, mo-ee, mo-ee. Die. Let me die.”(pg04). Like jealousy, the open outpouring of emotions is much more commonly associated with women, and Medea displays a very excessive version of this, representing a traditional gender role. The emotional anguish Medea appears to be going through off-stage is an immense contrast to when she comes on-stage and “Against expectation, she is calm and self-possessed: no sign of hysteria or grief.”(pg07). Medea is now challenging her role as a typical emotional woman and exhibits the male quality of containing emotions and appearing emotionally detached.
Medea’s feelings of jealousy were so strong that she wanted to take revenge. Women seeking revenge is quite normal, where gender roles were concerned, especially in ancient Greek mythology. Many stories recount the tales of jealous wives wanting revenge on their husband and/or their lover. Hera, the Queen of the Gods, provides a good example of this when she causes a young woman named Semele, whom Zeus was in love with, to die through Hera’s trickery, another traditional trait women perform. Medea’s revenge on Jason through his wife Glauke was very similar to Hera’s method of deception.
Taking revenge on Jason, she gives Glauke a silken robe and golden crown as a gift, but it is laced with poison, and Glauke soon dies. (Medea to Jason:) “You thought you’d kick me from your bed and laugh at me unpunished. Wrong!”(pg46). Covertly, using deceit, Medea endorses typical gender roles through her revenge on Jason. The “fighter” and the “weeper,” the aggressive and the passive, the independent and the dependent: Medea, in Euripides’s play Medea is an example of both traditional male and female gender roles accepted in the ancient Greek society. This is shown, just as all gender roles are shown, through her actions or behaviours and her words and reactions.
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