An explosion of online discussion of classics might seem a good thing for those who value the study of ancient Greece and Rome. But a dominant theme in much of that discussion (by people who are not scholars) is misogyny.
Donna Zuckerberg, editor-in-chief of Eidolon, a classics magazine, explores this phenomenon in her new book, Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age (Harvard University Press). She responded via email to questions about the book.
Q: When did the current trend of using classics to promote misogyny start? What prompted this?
A: If we're talking about misogyny as Kate Manne defines it -- as "the system that operates within a patriarchal social order to police and enforce women’s subordination and to uphold male dominance" -- then the use of classics to support misogyny is as old as classics itself. In far-right online spaces, classical content began to proliferate in late 2014 and 2015, but really picked up steam in 2016, in part because the Red Pill community expanded so much during the presidential election.
Q: What are some of the trends you see in how classical thought is being used in this way?
A: The trends I talk about in my book are the larger and subtler ones -- the Red Pill interest in Stoicism and how it's used to support a culture of white male self-improvement as the highest good, and how ancient ideas about women and sex are used in the manosphere more generally to provide an intellectual underpinning for ideas about consent and female autonomy.
But recently scholars have also been working to unpack how ancient symbols are being appropriated. Pharos and Sarah Bond both published pieces about the far-right use of the Roman slogan SPQR (senatus populusque Romanus, the Senate and people of Rome), and Professor Bond also wrote an article on Eidolon about the far-right romance with Sparta and the phrase “molon labe.” One of my favorite examples, though, is an article we published about "fashwave" music and classical art. But the biggest and most insidious trend, and the most important, is the use of "Western civilization" as a dog whistle for white supremacy.
Q: How does this trend affect those who do legitimate work in the classics?
A: I wouldn't frame the issue as one of legitimate versus illegitimate work in the classics. Although some Red Pill readings of classical literature and history are highly tendentious or just inaccurate, often they're responding to or picking up on themes and tropes that are absolutely present in the ancient material. In fact, much of the time the ancient material is a lot more congenial to misogynist readings than feminist ones. That's why I try not to use the word "misappropriation" to describe this kind of reception -- why is Red Pill classics "misappropriation" whereas a feminist adaptation of Euripides' Trojan Women is creative adaptation?
The problem is that, going back to the German origins of the study of classics as a discipline and how classical learning was adopted in elite British schools, classics has traditionally been tied very closely to conservatism, elitism and nationalism (and, later, fascism). So doing classics in a progressive, inclusive way can be an uphill battle, because many people feel intuitively (although completely wrongly) that the cultural capital of the classical world belongs to white men, and anything else is swimming against the tide. I don't think that's true at all, but the rise of far-right classical content online perpetuates this harmful idea and makes the work of progressive classicists more difficult.
Q: Are there good examples from the classics that promote the idea of equity for women?
A: No and yes. If you want to find examples, you can cherry-pick them from various sources -- for example, some female characters in Greek tragedy and comedy express ideas that seem proto-feminist, and some schools of ancient philosophy argue for radical gender equality. But if you zoom out just a little bit and look at the broader context, it almost never supports a truly feminist interpretation. Euripides' Medea says that she'd rather fight in a battle three times than give birth once, but I don't think anyone would claim that Medea is a feminist text. It's absolutely possible to adapt or use Medea in a feminist way, but doing so usually requires some resistant reading.
Q: Classicists of course want people to read and engage with the classics. How can they combat the trends you discuss in your book without closing off classics to nonscholars?
A: I don't think there's any conflict at all between combating white supremacist/misogynist classical appropriation and making classics accessible to nonspecialists. Red Pill types claim that people like me are closing off classics, or being gatekeepers, or making a claim that classics "belong" to us, but that's a projection. Really the opposite is true -- they're the ones claiming ownership on the grounds of a shared identity and claiming that “feminist classics” is a contradiction in terms. Scholars who are critiquing those appropriations are the ones making classics more open -- by going out and engaging with broad audiences, analyzing popular culture and showing how ancient literature and history can be meaningful to people from a broad range of backgrounds.