As a professor of English, I teach a humanities course on female icons in pop culture, and one of the first examples my students learn about is Medusa. A Gorgon from classical mythology, Medusa is widely known as a monstrous creature with snakes in her hair whose gaze turns men to stone. Through the lens of theology, film, art, and feminist literature, my students and I map how her meaning has shifted over time and across cultures. In so doing, we unravel a familiar narrative thread: In Western culture, strong women have historically been imagined as threats requiring male conquest and control, and Medusa herself has long been the go-to figure for those seeking to demonize female authority.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Medusa has cropped up repeatedly during this heated election cycle, one that may end with the United States electing its first woman president. One image in particular keeps recurring—that of the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton as the mythological snake-haired monster. Clinton has been compared to Medusa by conservative writers like Joel B. Pollak at Breitbart News and bloggers like Ron Russell at Right Wing Humor, and in political merchandise sold online. Meanwhile, her opponent Donald Trump has been portrayed as her conqueror, the Greek demigod Perseus. On Zazzle, people can buy products emblazoned with an image of a stoic Trump raising the severed head of a bug-eyed Clinton, her mouth agape in silent protest—an allusion to a sculpture by the Italian Renaissance artist Benvenuto Cellini. Today, the political references to Medusa only underscore the pervasive misogyny that drives many attacks against Clinton and other so-called “nasty women.”
Medusa remains a potent icon at a time when women leaders continue to be viewed skeptically or, at worst, as inhuman. Indeed, almost every influential female figure has been photoshopped with snaky hair: Martha Stewart, Condoleezza Rice, Madonna, Nancy Pelosi, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Merkel. (Have a few minutes? Do a Google Image search: Type in a famous woman’s name and the word Medusa.) These businesswomen, politicians, activists, and artists made the same “mistake” that Susan B. Anthony identified when she commented on the lack of women’s voices in 19th-century newspapers: “Women … must echo the sentiment of these men. And if they do not do that, their heads are cut off.” These women infringed upon the domain of men. The only response, as suggested by their Medusa-fied images? To cut their heads off; to silence them.