A Reel Catastrophe!

Representations of the Feminine in the Greek Crossover Films of Michael Cacoyannis and Jules Dassin

By April Kallas Householder

April Kallas Householder
If I go strolling with my dead girl friends 
    the city will be flooded with mute girls
    the wind with an acrid aroma of death
    the forts will unfurl white flags
    vehicles will halt                                
If I go strolling with my dead girl friends

-- Rita Boumi Pappa

If, as postcolonial theorists assert, a country's national identity is articulated as a narrative,1 the characters of that story are significant texts to study. In the case of Greece, the national story centers around the repeating theme of the feminine. The character "Ellas" (Hellas), is the name given to modern Greece, and the name "Eleni" (Helen) is the most popular name for Greek women. It represents the embodiment of the beauty that is Greece, and serves as a symbol of national identity. In the literature of some of Greece's most beloved national poets, Rigas, Solomos, and Elytis depict modern Greece as a free and liberated nation. In these poems, the personification of liberty is in the Romantic image of a woman. The image is consistent in the writings of European philhellenes like Byron, and in paintings depicting the Greek, American, and French revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

    In the dominant narrative of modern Greece, there is no doubt that Greece is a woman. This role of women has been handed down through the classics, and can be studied in all forms of Greek literary and visual arts, including the cinema. My goal in this essay is to explore why these deep-seated myths about Greek nationhood seem to be tied to the feminine, and to examine how they have been articulated in the medium of film. In particular, what is the link between images of women and the Greek "crossover" films of the 1950s and early 60s, by Michael Cacoyannis and Jules Dassin? How do these films influence perceptions of Greek culture and history, from an international perspective?

See also:
My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a review by April Kallas Householder
     Feminist scholars have been quick to point out some of the negative effects of classical female characters like Homer's Penelope and Euripides' Medea and Phaedra, and the lasting stereotypes associated with these foundational texts. Sarah Pomeroy, in her study, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity states that "Myths are not lies, but rather men's attempt to impose a symbolic order upon their universe. Some myths are so primordial as to be undatable, and we are haunted by the question of whether women could have participated in their creation." (Pomeroy, 1) She cites the following inconsistencies in the image of the tragic female character, from Euripides: "Women are the best devisers of evil." "Women are a source of sorrow." Others point out that if their sex life is satisfactory, women are completely happy; clever women are dangerous; stepmothers are always malicious; upper-class women were the first to practice adultery; and women use magical charms and potions with evil intentions. (Pomeroy, 106)

    To some extent, we can attribute some of these attitudes to the social climate of the times, and to legal and religious norms concerning the status of women as (non) citizens. The whole structure of social life in fifth-century Athens was arranged to suit men and exclude women. For example, fifth-century practices concerning adultery served the interest of men, even if the sexual encounter was not precipitated by the woman: "The husband of a raped or adulterous woman was legally compelled to divorce her. A woman thus condemned was not allowed to participate in public ceremonies, nor to wear jewelry, and the most severe deprivation was probably that she would be a social outcast and never find another husband." (Pomeroy, 86)    As this example shows, in literature and reality alike, perhaps the most transgressive, and thereby most punishable act that a woman could be involved in was seduction. For a woman to choose her sexual partner, rather than being chosen by a man, represented the biggest threat to the established order, and was thereby considered a more heinous crime than even rape. It almost makes sense then, that the tragedies of classical Greece included female characters who were involved in violent circumstances revolving around their sexuality.

    The problem is not that these images of women merely exist, but that they have been turned into canonical works with a fixed and unquestioned worth. The "classics" are returned to again and again by modern authors, collected in libraries and museums, and taught on the dominant global (European and American literary) curricula. The question is, after 2,500 years of scripting the lives of women in literature, have these images changed, or remained the same? In the shift from written language to visual media as the dominant form of representation in the twentieth century, does the influence of classical Greek mythology still persist, and if so, how does it function to culturally construct the modern day assumptions we hold about gender?

    Mary Lefkowitz, for one, argues that classical mythology is still with us: "Whether we are aware of it or not, our perception of reality continues to be defined by the 'Greek experience'. The plots of myths recur even in contemporary writing, only with names, dates and places changed." (Lefkowitz, 41) Greece just doesn't seem to go away. It persists throughout the European Renaissance, in the archeology of the eighteenth century, in neo-classical painting, and in the Romantic literature of the nineteenth century. But even beyond literature, the ideology of the classics seeps in to every aspect of our popular and intellectual cultures. The plots of many modern day soap operas have their roots in the classics; romance novels, talks shows, psychoanalytic discourse, even the popular film melodramas of Hollywood have links to the literature of ancient Greece. Indeed, the "anxiety of influence" has ramifications not only for modern Greek literature, but for an entire literary and visual tradition of representation.

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