When I was first assigned the task of doing research into “particular actions and behaviors that are commonly associated with masculine, feminine, and non-binary gender performance/presentation,” I found that my immediate reaction was a gut feeling somewhere between nervous and confused. The nervous part stemmed from discussions I had had in high school with “progressive” friends and what the general consensus on gender was over the internet at the time: that gender wasn’t “real,” and that bringing light to specific gender roles and expectations perpetuates oppressive stereotypes. Basically, it was a “down with the binary,” “masculinity and femininity don’t exist” mentality that I had been drawn into. The confused part stemmed from me not totally understanding how looking at these divisions between presentations would affect an adaptation: an adaptation is a retelling of a story that already exists, is it not? If Herakles is meant to be portrayed as an “alpha male” caricature, is that not the way he would be presented in any iteration of his myths, regardless of who is writing it?
Wrong. For one, gender does, has, and will continue to exist, until we miraculously come to exist in a post-gender society in the future. Regardless of whether or not we want it to exist, it has shaped the world we live in now, especially due to the influence of Western patriarchy throughout history. To say that gender doesn’t exist is like saying race doesn’t exist – it dismisses and ignores the experiences of those that are disadvantaged by the sociopolitical hierarchy that is in place. Many people struggle to have their gender presentations validated. For many, gender is important. Gender is identity. Gender is community. Gender is culture. To ignore it and the role it plays in our world is an offense to those who purposefully try to fit into the binary and for those that purposefully try to stay outside or in-between it.
However, while gender may unavoidably be “in place,” that does not mean we are unable to alter or even rewrite the narratives that put them there. This realization is where my ideas on what an adaptation is or could be were wrong: by rewriting a story, we have the power to rewrite history. Herakles was created as an amalgamation of masculine ideals. But what if these same ideals were used to create a hero who was feminine? Or nonbinary? Genderqueer? It could change the nature of the story; it could not. Of course, there are also some dangers that come to mind when I think about the limitations of an adaptation and the unavoidable parts of a story. Perhaps I am narrow-mindedly imagining how to adapt a story in terms of gender representation by only thinking about it as, say, changing the pronouns of a character. But look at Herakles’ weaknesses as a heroic figure – the rape mentioned in this story, or, of course, how he kills his entire family in an impassioned, unadulterated rage. Perhaps these parts of the story exist as criticisms of masculinity. Would changing the presentation of the character reflect poorly on that gender, shifting the attention to stereotypes of other communities?
Perhaps I am presenting more questions than answers. I definitely haven’t even attempted to concretely answer the question I was given. But I think that’s the point of this first blog post – to explore my own thoughts, my own realizations. For secondary sources, my mind immediately wandered to Judith Butler. Butler describes gender as a performance, and she actually uses theatre jargon to explain her ideas. I believe there have to be some connections I could make between gender, theatre, and culture there, especially considering the importance of theatre in Greco-Roman history. Some other texts I am looking at include Altered States: Gender and the Theater of Civic Identity in Euripides’ Political Plays by Daniel Mendelsohn, which examines Euripides’ portrayal of women and feminine characters as props for the dramatic whole (think Megara or Hera/Juno). I am also looking at Myths of Masculinity by William Doty, which looks at how Greek/Roman myths have contributed to how we view masculinity today.
My question to my playwright is: When an adaptation of a story is written, whose story does it really become? I think this is important to consider, especially in conjunction with the question presented to me and my own ponderings that have stemmed from it. Consider how both Euripides and Seneca wrote two versions of the same story. Though much of the original story stayed intact, their own personal backgrounds affected aspects of the myth they chose to highlight – the affect of Stoic philosophy on the morals of Hercules Furens, or the prominence of the chorus and their portrayal as old men in Herakles. Whose story are they really telling?