The #MeToo movement has brought cultures of sexual abuse and exploitation into the limelight. Historically, victims of abuse have been encouraged, if not forced, to remain quiet. Those who dared to speak up have been challenged, their stories twisted, often changing who the victim is. Though #MeToo is a 21st-century movement, sexual assault and harassment are ancient. Empowered by a new sense of solidarity following generations of women who were never given the chance to correct their stories or share them at all, brave women have been taking on some of the most powerful men across many industries and unveiling systemic and widespread patterns of abuse. We speak out not just for ourselves, but for all victims, from all of history. #MeToo is not only about bringing to light the stories of individuals who speak up today, but about correcting the stories of women in history that have been edited or untold.
Medusa is one of the most infamous villains in history and a subject in countless works of art, but her whole story is often untold. The traditional myth tells that Athena cursed Medusa for seducing Poseidon by turning her hair into snakes and making it so anyone who locked eyes with her turned into stone. My favorite likeness of Medusa at the MFA—where she appears the most human to me—is Arnold Böcklin’s Head of Medusa (about 1894). Rather than depicting Medusa with snakes for hair, Böcklin created a striking, in-your-face portrait of Medusa with a bronze-tinted crown of snakes that sits on her hair, as though her curse was a glorious gift.
The traditional story continues that after she was cursed, Medusa fled to a mountain hideout and hunted men like prey, turning them to stone, seeking her revenge. As one of the most feared monsters, she became a desired trophy, and the hero Perseus eventually killed her. Böcklin’s sculpture tells a much different story than one of a vengeful monster whose only intent was to destroy men. Her wide, staring eyes convey a deep sense of betrayal, horror, and, most of all, fear. Her eyes convey the true story of Medusa’s demise: how the curse that originated from the attention of a powerful man marked her as the prey of another.
Medusa’s story is also relevant to our understanding of power dynamics. Before her curse, Medusa was a simple girl in many ways—a priestess, a mortal. Poseidon was the sea god: How is that an equal relationship? Böcklin’s work evokes empathy for Medusa because her face conveys such pain, and it forces me to stop and think about the story. Who was Medusa, really? Predator or prey?
So much of culture is passed down through storytelling, like the story of Medusa. But if history is retold only from the side of the patriarchy, then the stories of women will always be edited or omitted. The captivating eyes of Böcklin’s Head of Medusa demand attention and prompt me to think about what her full, true story is. What is causing her anguish and pain?