The Hidden Message In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata

From one view, the play Lysistrata can appear to be a comedy about a group of women who decide to refuse sex to the Greek men in order to end the Peloponnesian war. However, inside of this humor there exists a dangerous, hidden message. By refusing sex to the men and demanding the end of the war, the women are challenging the pre-existing patriarchal power structures in ways that were unheard of in Ancient Greece. In order to maintain their domination, the men try to assert their dominance by any means they can, including, in a very animal like manner. They demonstrate that they smell much worse than women and by taking off their clothes to show off their masculinity. Throughout the play, the men and women of Greece fought for power. Aristophanes explains this power struggle by using the sense of smell. They do this by demonstrating that the differences between genders are entirely fictional.

The men want to show off the way that they smell bad in order to assert their supremacy over women in the Choral Debate; however, the women reveal that they smell just as bad so that they can uphold the power they have already seized by declining to have sex. The men say, “a man’s gotta smell like a man from the word go”. The men wish to distinct themselves from the women because they feel endangered by the power that Lysistrata and the other women have held by refusing to have sex; although, the difference in smell amid genders does not exist. When the women from Sparta arrive, Lysistrata and Kalonike remark on how badly they smell by saying that they are from Dungstown. In addition, after the men take off their clothes to divulge their smell, the women respond by saying, “a woman’s got to smell like a woman”. After that, hey take off their clothes to reveal their smell as well. In a very disruptive manner, the two genders try to stand for power and dominance by representing the way they smell. It becomes clear that men and women are not distinguished from each other by their smell because they both attempt to use this smell to establish their ascendency. Despite the fact that the men wish for their gender to give them the right to rule over women, they are unable to achieve this because there are no gendered variances in the way men and women smell in Lysistrata.

The way that men and women do not smell different, and the way that they remove their clothes to show amusing bodysuits instead of bareness, demonstrates the way Aristophanes depicts gender and gendered power structures as fictional. They say, “Let’s doff our shirts, ‘cause a man’s gotta smell like a man from the word go and shouldn’t be all wrapped up like souvlaki”. The way this is being said, means that the men feel they must always be prepared to assert their patriarchal dominance; however, this dominance and the gender difference is continuous. This is created by culture, as shown by Aristophanes, this draws attention to having the women wear very similar bodysuits. The women say, “Let’s also take off our tunics; a woman’s gotta smell like a woman, mad enough to bite!”. This shows how the women use a very alike language, as the men did when they removed their clothes. They also use a very violent language in order to keep the power that has been gained. This was done by refusing to have sex with the men. They are both trying to establish their dominance by showing their bare bodies and their smells. This exemplifies the safe, releasing nature of humor, yet there is also an unsafe, meaning to this. Both genders are revealing the same thing to each other: the exact same odors and bodies, which lurks the gender binary. In this way, Aristophanes tests the patriarchal power structures of Greece, suggesting that the two genders are more alike to each other than cultural and gender roles want them to be.

At the beginning of the choral debate, the men proclaim that, “I think I smell much bigger trouble in this, a denote whiff of Hippias’ tyranny” (Page 66). This image has multiple insinuations in the context of this work. The allusion suggests that what the women are doing, gaining power by refusing to have sex at all, is in itself an act. Also, the view of the woman on top conjures up the idea of women figuratively on top of the power constructions of Ancient Greece. This predominant image proposes that not only are women trying to seize power, but that they may actually be trying to change the power structures to be upside down and dismantle the patriarchy completely. The men are so doubtful of these actions and the threat of the woman on top to their beloved patriarchy, that they can smell these power-enthusiastic women from far away. In this, we see that the characters’ sense of smell and image of the woman on top are profoundly connected to the power structures.

When Lysistrata and the Greek women declined to have sex with the Greek men until the end of the Peloponnesian war, they ignite a power fight that is portrayed in the play through the sense of smell, the inspection of the misconception of the gender binary, and the image of the woman on top. The men wish to show off their masculinity and body odor in order to assert their dominance; however, the women argue that their bodies are just as smelly and aren’t very different from those of the men. This reveals that gender and gendered power structures are imaginary and imposed by society. In addition to the role of gender, there are also multiple orientations to the image of women. The men in the play feel threatened because they are wary of women being on top of the power structure of Greece. They want to maintain their hegemony. Though it is indistinct in the end whether men or women come out on top in the end, Aristophanes efficiently depicts the way that both genders compete for power despite the fact that gender is fictional.  

16 December 2021
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