The Classics are aptly named because they’re… well… classic. After centuries, they keep us coming back, whether that be to refer to the psychological complex of someone with mommy issues, or to bring a poetic, eternal spin to some present-day drama. We’ve seen the latter recently on New Thinking’s pages: in his article on the Brittney Griner saga in Russia, Daniel Kelly II likened the basketball star’s ordeal to that of Homer’s Odysseus.
For this week’s Marginalia, I wanted to touch on another classic from the Classics that’s been making the rounds in light of the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade: Lysistrata.
If you’re unfamiliar, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is a comedy in which women unite to end the Peloponnesian War by going on sexual strike, basically withholding any marital joys until their husbands negotiate peace. It’s a huge favorite of horny, pacifist theater kids everywhere, who are sure to stage it whenever a war hawk pushes their country into another ill-fated invasion over oil.
Lately, the play has been making the rounds again as a template for how to push the conservative, predominantly male lawmakers in anti-abortion states to do the right thing. The logic seems to be: “They don’t want women to get abortions? Cool. Let’s withhold sex and see how much they enjoy that.”
As much as I would gleefully endorse a world in which no pro-abortion Republican would ever get laid ever again, I must point out there are more than a few flaws in the Modern Lysistrata As Feminist Protest.
First, the idea of a sex strike reinforces the harmful sexual stereotypes that helped justify the passage of misogynist laws in the first place. A sex strike deprives everyone of sex, but this view presupposes it’s something women don’t really need. It’s problematic to claim women don’t crave, deserve, or need pleasure, sex, and intimacy as much as men. By extension, this view could tie into the belief that responsible women don’t require abortions, and that these are somehow “their fault.” And that is bullshit. (For a more gender-balanced dramatic representation of sexual appetites, please see the Seinfeld episode, “The Contest” — Elaine had just as hard a time navigating her needs as the rest of the guys.)
Second, let’s remember that Aristophanes wrote the play at a time and place where women were massively disempowered: they did not have the right to vote, were not considered equal to men, and were pretty much seen as feeble-minded and lesser than in any number of ways. And he was no disruptive feminist, here. In the context of the time it was written, the play’s entire premise is inherently comedic, as it would be hilariously outlandish to imagine that women could actually exert any sort of political power. Is that really something we want to celebrate right now?
And lastly: Lysistrata was written by a man, for male actors, playing women. Choosing this show as a political response to the Supreme Court misses the entire Zeitgeist of the moment, in which we are sick and tired of non-womb-having men — alive and dead — telling us what to do with our bodies. Aren’t we sort of over dead white dudes’ documents getting amplified over the voices and stories of real life, real world, present-day possessors of ovaries? I know I am.
Before you start wringing your hands about “cancel culture” — don’t worry. The Classics aren’t going anywhere, and the dead white dudes will be just as quotable tomorrow as they are today. (And in a pinch, there’s always Sappho — boy, do I wish I could get her takes on the government.) I’m just saying: at this particular moment, for this particular issue, we can do better than Lysistrata. Ultimately that was a comedy, and there is absolutely nothing funny about what’s going on in America right now.