Essay On The Portrayal Of Women In Ovid’s Metamorphosis
Ovid’s Metamorphosis presents a litany of characters that retain a fluid identity, as they morph from human, to plants or animals and then back to being humans in a very short period of time. This fluidity is a key component in how Ovid engages issues related to gender and how Ovd articulates a narrative about power and hegemony within an unequivocally and stringently patriarchal. Interestingly, however, the men in the tale do not always represent the hegemonic patriarchs. Nonetheless, Ovid portrays femininity and masculinity in distinctly disparate manners, as the male role is intrinsically linked with violence, ruggedness, hunting, and brutality that evinces masculine strength while femininity connotes the traditional appreciation of beauty and motherhood as well as physicality and prowess. By attributing this specific gender roles to the men and women depicted in the narrative, Ovid complicates any linearity in the narrative by render gender roles fluid, as the hard-line division in traditional gender codes are rendered porous by Ovid. He thus deploys gender discourses and gender roles in order to communicate ideas about power relations and hegemony over characters by feminizing the subordinate characters while attributing manly characteristics to the more domineering characters that are constantly morphing and are underscored by the act of metamorphosis itself.
The fluidity of the gender roles in this work complicates traditional narratives about how western societies have historically been guided by a separate spheres ideology. Fluid gender roles are seen in the story of Atlanta, who exhibits manly traits such as her affinity and lack of compunction for killing those rendered physically inferior as well as her proclivity towards hunting even though she simultaneously also is limned as unequivocally female. She nonetheless embraces masculine roles to underscore her omnipotence and hegemony despite eschewing the constraints of her gender. Interestingly, Ovid articulates a multi-layered narrative by having the characters constantly morphing from their human corporeality to other form of life such as a plant, or animal. Such transformation take place before the characters are attributed more feminine characteristics as a way of stressing identity changes that befell characters while also convey the characters’ subordination.
Te Death of Cygnus begins by introducing two hypermasculine characters that valorize violence, warfare and blood, which pits them against each other as they struggle for hegemony. However, when Cygnus extirpate, Ovid stresses the notion that Cygnus’ transformation signaled his defeat, as he devolves from being a strong and powerful hero to a swan. In Greek mythology, swans are intrinsically tied to femininity, so Ovid signifies Cygnus’ loss of virility by morphing him into a feminized animal. Indeed, Ovid describes Cygnus as having a “long, undulating neck and a bruised beak,” which discursively portrays a new Cygnus as defeated because he was now in a perpetual state of effeminacy (Ovid 173). Gazers would laud his elegance and his aesthetics. As such, the reversal of gender roles suggests that femininity signifies a loss of power and identity because he is stripped of his ability to speak and communicate. As such, Ovid seemingly views women as objects that spectators are meant to gaze at, thereby insinuating that beauty rather than intelligence and public agency was valued in women within this society.
Another case of role reversal with regards to gender is in the example of Acteon who initially appears as a hypermasculine character who enjoys hunting. Ovid discursively underscores Acteon’s masculinity by deploying coded language that connotes graphic violence in hyperbolic overtones. Acteon is limned as a powerful leader who exercises complete control and power over his men—whose “nets are stiff with blood” and their “spears are caked” with remains—as they follow all of his commands. Ovid deploys such discursive tactics in order to proffer a depiction of men as antithetical corollaries to their female counterparts as embodied by Diana. Indeed, Diana, like Cygnus when he morphs into a beautiful swan, becomes the object of Acteon’s gaze, who assumes the role of an enraptured spectator. This fact underscores how women became objectified as beautiful objects to be gazed at in silence, stripped of their voices and their autonomy as a result of male hegemony. Diana cannot hide from the gaze Acteon, as she appears powerless, dainty, and meek. Acteon marvels at Diana’s beauty, describing her as divine, ethereal, and a “dawn cloud” amidst an environment in which her beauty if reflected (Ovid 107). As such, Ovid locates the value of women in this society in their aesthetics, their passivity, their impotence and powerlessness which are enhanced and amplified by their outer beauty. Acteon’s voyeurism incites anger in Diana, who asserts that she “raged for a weapon—for her arrows to drive through his body,” an unapologetic articulation of masculine impulses. Such a star change in Diana’s tone from passivity, daintiness, and glorified beauty to one demarked by a valorization of anger and violence insinuates that her character has transitioned from a passive, aesthetically pleasing, vulnerable nymph to an incensed and powerful figure. Conversely, a true role reversal takes place when Acteon morphs into a hart, and Ovid ascribes onto him unequivocally female traits. Ovid lauds his aesthetically-pleasing exterior and elegance, as his legs are described as slender and elongated (108). Because the spectator gazes at and appreciates his aesthetic exterior, it is unequivocal that his metamorphosis emasculated him by transforming him into an impotent character stripped of his ability to speak. As such, he, like Cygnis, lost his identity when he was feminized. Power, thus, was only fitting for men to have, while women are portrayed as mere objects that complemented men and empowered them yet themselves lacked agency. The reversal of gender roles underscores how metamorphoses strips the characters of their identity and place in society. As such, it is clear that Ovid is critiquing the role of women in western society, as their identity is lost and becomes subsumed by their men in their lives and society at-large.