Modern Medusas: Rethinking “Monsters,” Silence, and Cinema
By Aimee Hinds ScottApril 19, 2022
FEW MONSTERS HAVE had as many revamps as Medusa. For many, our first encounter with the gorgon was the fiery stare of Ray Harryhausen’s snake-bodied stop-motion creature, as Harry Hamlin’s Perseus took her head in 1981’s Clash of the Titans. Despite becoming a cultural touchstone for representations of Medusa, Harryhausen’s creation was innovative, a far cry from ancient depictions of Perseus’ prey in presenting a predatory gorgon who attacked back. But Medusa continues to be resurrected in new and varied forms, and the contemporary pop-culture Medusa has herself moved on from her depiction in Clash of the Titans. Shucking her monstrous form, she has been the subject of considerable feminist revision. This feminist vision recasts her as a quite human victim of patriarchy and rape culture. In the most well-known ancient versions of the myth, the mortal Medusa is raped by Poseidon in Athena’s temple, resulting in her punishment by monstrous transformation. This first injustice is then compounded by Perseus’ quest for her head. Following these tales from antiquity, many of which are deeply steeped in misogyny, feminist retellings have rehabilitated the gorgon by bestowing upon her agency expressed through anger.
The invocation of Medusa to comment on women’s responses to sexual assault has a long history. The feminist turn for the gorgon is roughly contemporary with the release of Clash of the Titans. Arguably catalyzed by Hélène Cixous’s germinal 1976 essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” a new crop of feminist poets, novelists, and academics began to explore Medusa’s transformation from woman to monster as a metaphor for women’s sexual repression. And so, over the last half-century, Medusa has been steadily developing in the feminist imagination, emerging in modern reception as beautiful — and furious.
It’s no surprise that the figure of Medusa has been reread and reworked to think through rape culture. This is how myth functions. It is fluid enough to shape itself around what we need it to mean, and this is why it has lasted for thousands of years. But in the case for the feminist Medusa, the myth has become somewhat snagged on meaning that is exclusive and limited. Appropriations of Medusa as a symbol for women’s anger in the face of male violence assume that she is able to express rage on behalf of all women; the truth is that she cannot. In many of these feminist analyses, the previously silenced Medusa’s newfound fury revives the agency stripped by her brutal rape at the hands of Poseidon, and her monstrousness becomes a lie told by men to vilify sexually liberated or disobedient women. In the feminist revision, Medusa has finally found her voice — but in the retelling, the voice has become almost exclusively the voice of White, middle-class women.
What does it mean to “restore” Medusa’s voice? What influences this reconstruction? In most ancient versions of the myth in which Perseus kills Medusa, she sleeps through her own death. Since antiquity, Medusa has never had a voice. Instead, her story is defined by her silence. This is only underscored by the victim-blaming punishment bestowed by Athena, the version recorded in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, that causes her gaze to petrify. The rage ascribed to her as anger at her treatment is in ancient narratives deployed instead by her two sisters, Stheno and Euryale, who are themselves often marginalized in modern reception.
While modern receptions as wide ranging as Jessie Burton’s YA novel Medusa (2021) and Azealia Banks’s 2015 music video for “Ice Princess” are beginning to question now-traditional feminist narratives, this year has seen the release of two films that challenge and subvert the idea of Medusa’s rage. These films reinstate her silence and rethink what it means to be a “monster.” Netflix’s Indonesian drama Photocopier (2021, Penyalin Cahaya, dir. Wregas Bhanuteja), and the Tunisian revenge thriller Black Medusa (2021, Ma tasmaa ken errih, dir. Youssef Chebbi and Ismaël) both engage with Medusa as a victim of patriarchy, and the specific geographical and political contexts of their production give variant meanings to her silence, while also questioning the act of silencing.
Opening with a university theater group performing a play about Perseus and Medusa, Photocopier is the story of Sur, a university student who loses her scholarship after her drunken selfies circulate online following a party. With no recollection of the night’s events, Sur resolves to find out what happened. Sur’s dogged attempts to uncover the truth lead repeatedly to dead ends, and she is almost thwarted at every turn. And yet she refuses to be silenced. Along the way, Sur reveals much more than she bargained for, including her own sexual assault along with that of others, as well as the use of photographs of the victims’ bodies being used in the theater production. Just when it appears that the investigations of Sur and her fellow accusers Farah and Tariq have produced a watertight case, their evidence is destroyed.
In a surreal sequence, their abuser Rama appears under the cover of mosquito fumigation, dressed as Perseus. He then sings a song where he threateningly compares the trio to gorgons. In his song, Rama also ponders whether he himself might be a gorgon, equating the frozen bodies created by Medusa’s glare with the photographs he has himself produced of the bodies of his own victims. Rama’s phantasmic performance as he attempts to extinguish Sur’s last hopes of justice bookends the theatrical show from the beginning of the film, which ends with Medusa holding Perseus’ winged cap aloft in a reversal of her own death.
The eponymous photocopier serves as the mechanical answer to the human silencing. Their stories having been repeatedly ignored by disclosure to their university, Sur and Farah flyer their campus with photocopied images of their written testimony, prompting other students to tell their own stories using the same method. Sur, Farah, and the other people who come forward are angry, but they resist the suppressing potential of silence and turn it on its head to become a strategy for protest. One of the final scenes shows Rama motionless, immobilized not by Medusa’s stare but by the power of this silent testimony. Medusa and her sisters have their revenge after all.
The Tunisian film Black Medusa is a very different cinematic experience, although it too constantly renegotiates the utility of silence and silencing. The film follows Nada, a young woman who takes men home from bars in order to enact violence upon them in a subversion of the trope of gratuitous rape in cinema. Taking place over just nine nights, Nada’s attacks rapidly escalate to murder, culminating in a killing spree. Apart from the title, the film is tied into the story of Medusa through Nada’s identification with her after being confronted by her visage on a Roman mosaic floor as she wanders through a museum.
Initially inspired by the 1981 thriller Ms .45 (dir. Abel Ferrara) featuring the mute revenge murderer Thana, Black Medusa’s protagonist is similarly silent. She communicates using a voice app on her phone because she is deaf and mute. But as her colleague Noura soon discovers, Nada is not mute at all. The silences that she creates and commands — her violence is carried out in an eerie hush as we listen from her perspective — are lent a specific meaning by their context. Nada’s actions comment on traditional gender roles within Tunisian society as ones in which women are often subject to violence and meant to take it without a word. Such violent acts are also intensely personal. Nada’s motives remain ambiguous. The audience is not invited to judge, merely to spectate.
Repression is a common and important theme in film. Although Moufida Tlatli has treated a similar theme more explicitly in 1994’s The Silences of the Palace (albeit in a very different genre), Black Medusa is thoroughly modern, illustrating that the issues and cultural traditions of the past persist into the present. Chebbi and Ismaël skirt deftly round the sociopolitical and religious background of Nada’s trauma, perhaps surprisingly to a Western audience who may expect a more explicit statement on the nature of the patriarchy that causes Nada to silence herself. Unlike films such as the 2016 Persian-language film Under the Shadow (Zeer-e sāye, dir. Babak Anvari), in which the protagonist Shideh is haunted by a literal manifestation of her own oppression, Black Medusa is careful to show us the root of Nada’s repression through her own eyes: the men around her. Photocopier too is able to destabilize Western expectations in this regard. Although the strict religious environment of Sur’s university and homelife (both directed by men) makes much of her modesty, the willingness of Rama’s accusers to show their faces and parts of their bodies appropriated in his photographs reasserts agency for them all, without being drawn into generalized critiques of wider structures of control without nuance.
Silence can also be a form of anticolonialism. Nada’s voluntary speechlessness not only calls upon Medusa’s silence as a strategy for expressing vengeful rage in itself, but also undermines the colonial language she is expected to use if she talks. When Noura questions why Nada does not speak, they both use sign language before Nada falls back on her voice app. Although she uses French throughout the film both when texting and when communicating via her app, Nada’s refusal to speak out loud circumvents the violence of linguistic imperialism. Toward the end of the film, Nada leaves a letter for Noura which we hear read out in Nada’s voice, this time in Arabic.
A rejection of misogyny is central to Black Medusa, inviting immediate comparison with films such as 2020’s powerful Promising Young Woman (dir. Emerald Fennell) in terms or revenge exacted upon men who have committed acts of sexual violence. And so it should — Black Medusa similarly deals with justice, revenge, and the wrongs done by men against women. However, the geographical and political gaps between both Western feminist revenge thrillers and Anglophone appropriations of Medusa should give us pause. Where the Anglophone tradition focuses on women’s rage and the quest for vengeance as justice, these modern Medusas find new strategies for retaliation, catharsis, or healing. Promising Young Woman’s Cassandra is named so because she is never listened to, like her Trojan namesake; the gorgons of Black Medusa and Photocopier already know that nobody is listening.
How do we translate silence into meaning? The absence of Medusa’s voice in both Black Medusa and Photocopier can help us to rethink the feminist Medusa we think we know. Both films are directed by men, adding another layer to the issue of voice and expression in these films centered largely around women’s experiences. But this in itself is a challenge to the exclusivity of Medusa’s anger, not to her usefulness as a metaphor for the experience of victims of assault. One of the directors of Black Medusa, Ismaël, has spoken about the patriarchal undertones of many so-called feminist films, noting that the film resists “[p]sychologising the female experience.”
By rejecting patriarchal and colonial modes of communication and declining to examine Nada’s motives, Ismaël and his co-director Youssef Chebbi lean into silence in order to express Nada’s experience as more general — the experience of a person who has been through some kind of trauma. Although Nada is a woman who attacks men, the ambiguity around her purpose resists essentialization or reduction. Although the film is clear that Nada’s trauma — depicted hazily and briefly in the film — is not necessarily sexual, their approach highlights the muting power of trauma including sexual assault, as noted by Miriam Zoila Pérez in her essay “Not That Loud: Quiet Encounters with Rape Culture,” in which she lays out the contrast between the noisy political talk about sexual assault and its insidiously stifling effect on its victims.
In Photocopier, the film similarly generalizes the experience of sexual trauma, emphatically including men as victims and exploring the social ramifications of such accusations on the accuser. Whereas Sur and Farah are concerned with being ignored, Tariq worries about videos of their abuse going viral online. In stark contrast to the enraged Anglophone Medusa, who is emphatically a woman and whose dangerous gaze is reserved for men, Photocopier de-genders both Medusa — who is at once Sur and the villainous Rama — and the petrified subjects of her scrutiny.
What are we to take from these newest iterations of Medusa? How can these modern gorgons renew Medusa for our current times? In her work on the politics of silence, Mónica Brito Vieira asserts that reading silence as absence can ironically lead to further silencing. She instead calls for a reconceptualization of silence from absence to signal, asserting that silence can itself be practice. Can we then read the silence of the modern Medusa as purposeful and political?
I think the answer to this is yes. Certainly the deliberate and voluntary silence of Black Medusa’s Nada and the determined and refocused anger of Sur and Farah in Photocopier as they push the titular machine to the roof of their university are silences of practice and of persistence. Unlike similar films like Ms .45 or Promising Young Woman, these characters are not silenced by men or unable to break past the suppression of the patriarchy. These modern Medusas are ultimately not disenfranchised or voiceless; Nada illustrates this very literally through her ability to speak, despite what she lets others believe.
This silence of practice is the crux of Medusa, whether we talk of her ancient representations or her modern receptions. Ovid’s Medusa — a victim of rape, twice traumatized by Athena’s additional punishment — is not silenced, but merely silent. In contrast with Philomela, another woman whose metamorphosis comes courtesy of a sexual assault and whose tongue is removed by the rapist Tereus to smother her testimony, Medusa’s transformation does not necessitate her lack of speech. In Philomela’s story, she and her sister Procne regain their voices when they are transformed into birds, escaping the rage of Tereus. Medusa need not regain her voice if she never lost it.
Should we then revise the feminist Medusa — the silenced victim whose voice is restored to express her rage at the patriarchy? What lessons does this reading and her silence teach us? Firstly, that we need not read silence as commensurate with lack. The meaningful silence of speechlessness is not the same as the empty silence of a snub to solidarity, of course demonstrating the intersection of power and proclamation. When victims of assault or other injustices are silent, this does not mean absence or a lack of emotion or pain; when governments and lawmakers are silent, this can be translated as a refusal to effect positive change.
A second idea to challenge is the notion that silence is inclusive. As Brito Vieira notes, political prioritizing of voice results in the precedence of well-organized groups being heard. The loudest voice is often listened to but is not always representative of or for all. Using Medusa as a method for rethinking silence allows us to see disenfranchisement as the responsibility of broader political systems, rather than of individuals who go unheard. The silent Medusa can be a mirror for all victims of violence, of patriarchy, of systemic injustice. But make no mistake: Medusa is not silenced. She just lets her eyes do the talking.
Aimee Hinds Scott is a PhD student from the University of Roehampton, UK, researching intersectional possibilities in receptions of Greek and Roman mythology. She has written about bad feminism in classical reception, issues with fashion’s engagement with the ancient Mediterranean, and polychromy in Neoclassical and modern art.
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