The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The epic tragedy of the #MeToo Medusa

The recently installed statue "Medusa with the Head of Perseus" by Argentine-Italian artist Luciano Garbati in New York. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

The question of women and our ability to reclaim power is the stuff of Greek myth — and real-time controversy, thanks to a new statue in New York marking the #MeToo movement’s third anniversary.

Last week, a recasting of a statue by Argentine-Italian sculptor Luciano Garbati was unveiled by New York’s public art commission. Garbati’s original work, created in 2008, was intended to be a straight reversal of Benvenuto Cellini’s bronze “Perseus with the Head of Medusa,” a Renaissance masterpiece depicting a valiant, wing-footed Perseus standing over the decapitated corpse of Medusa. Cellini’s Perseus holds Medusa’s gory head in one hand, a sword in the other. Garbati flips the script: He gives us a slender, chill-looking Medusa casually holding Perseus’s head.

As a piece of mythic art, Garbati’s Medusa figure is banal. She is easy on the eyes — there is nothing visually challenging about her. But as a commentary about women and power, Garbati’s sword-wielding Medusa misses many points.

Garbati’s Medusa was placed outside the Manhattan courthouse where serial sex offender Harvey Weinstein was convicted. But the statue’s new status as a symbol for #MeToo and female power has met with controversy. While plenty of women have responded positively, several lines of criticism have emerged: Should a pretty, naked woman killing a man really serve as a symbol for women who have survived male abuse? #MeToo founder Tarana Burke blasted the statue’s elevation. On Instagram, she said that the “movement is not about retribution or revenge and it’s certainly not about violence. It is about HEALING and ACTION.”

Follow Karen Attiah's opinionsFollow

To be fair to Garbati, he created his original work more than a decade ago, long before #MeToo. But given that #MeToo was founded by a Black woman, and that the movement has been accused of marginalizing non-White victims, the fact that Garbati’s Medusa is a White-featured woman reinforces the notion that beautiful, rich and powerful female accusers have been given the lion’s share of attention in the movement. Also, men, nonbinary people and children are victims of sexual violence, too.

But if we are to center the conversation around women, the problem with Garbati’s statue is that it strips Medusa, and thus women, of our true power.

Garbati’s work is an invitation to peel back layers of classical mythology, so let’s do that: As one strain of the story goes, Medusa was a beautiful handmaiden to Athena, goddess of justice and wisdom. Medusa’s beauty ensnared her in the lustful and entitled gaze of the sea god Poseidon, who raped her. Poseidon is also the brother of Zeus, and Athena’s uncle, and instead of punishing Poseidon for his crime, Athena turns Medusa into a snake-haired Gorgon with the power to transform men who look at her into stone.

You can understand why many interpretations hold that Athena punished the once-beautiful Medusa by turning her into a monster. But is this really true? Did Athena punish Medusa, or did she empower her?

And Medusa was empowered. She gained the ability to protect herself from ever being raped again, through an ability to use the male gaze against men. This, of course, is not a charitable read on men’s ability to practice self-control: What makes Medusa so dangerous is the notion that men just can’t help themselves but to look. Remember, Athena was born out of Zeus’s skull — she knows intimately how men with power think.

Feminist writer Audre Lorde once said: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Garbati’s Medusa nonsensically employs a male tool for bloodshed — Perseus’s sword — as a symbol of female empowerment, sending the message that women need to copy men’s tactics to wield power. But Medusa was already a symbol of female power in her ability to use the male gaze against would-be predators. Why couldn’t that power have been preserved and represented?

Too often, we imagine that women have to adopt male notions of power, aggression and violence to be strong. Don’t believe it.

There’s nothing scary — and something strange — about a sword-wielding Medusa. A Medusa in the spirit of #MeToo would have engaged her powers of self-protection against male harm. A truer reimagining of the tale should have had Medusa, perhaps with Athena’s help, confronting and defeating Poseidon with her stony gaze, making her a heroine, a fierce protectress of women who have been brutalized by men.

Garbati’s Medusa is an example of the fact that we still — still — live in a world in which men fear or misunderstand the depth of women’s power. Our power, even our mythical powers, remain misrepresented and minimized. Perhaps that’s the real Greek tragedy of this all.

Read more:

#MeToo is at a crossroads in America. Around the world, it’s just beginning.

Suzanne B. Goldberg: #MeToo is just beginning

Alyssa Rosenberg: ‘I May Destroy You’ and ‘The Vow’ can help us through the next stage of #MeToo

Laurie Penny: The real history of women wouldn’t look quite so nice on a tote bag

Christine Emba: ‘Fearless Girl’ and ‘Charging Bull’ are more alike than you’d think