Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome

By Amy Richlin | Go to book overview
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Tragedy and the Politics of Containment

Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz

If I tell my friends and colleagues that I am writing on pornography in Greek tragedy, the response is often "What pornography?" or "Where is it?" Obviously, by contemporary standards, there is none. But while it would be a mistake to conflate the theater of Dionysus and the 42nd Street movie houses, the agora and the bathhouses of New York City, the continuity between the two periods nonetheless bears analysis--there is a clear connection between the ideology and beliefs about sexuality then and now ( Sedgwick 1985; duBois 1988). And part of this continuity derives from the status of the tragic myths and the status of tragedy itself. For tragedy is one of the founding texts of Western humanism, and simultaneously the place par excellence where the masculine has been read as universal.

We do well to remind ourselves that tragedy was a popular art form, more like film or TV in its accessibility, and that it developed at a particular time, in a particular place: fifth-century Athens after the Persian Wars. Let us also remember that although issues of gender are central themes, the genre was predominantly male--male actors, male poets, and possibly an all-male audience. Middle- and upper-class women lived a sequestered existence. As Pericles' famous statement puts it: "Your greatest glory is not to be inferior to what god has made you, and the greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men, whether they are praising you or criticizing you" (2.45.2). In short, the transcendent "human" heroes of tragedy are gendered male and must be understood in that way. Such an emphasis on masculinity may underplay signs of female agency and may consequently reinscribe tragedy's elimination of the female subject. But to focus instead on gaps, contradictions, and female resistance ( de Lauretis 1984: 29) is overly


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