March 13 - Today's post provided by Vicky Alvear Shecter
Ancient Queens and Modern “Sluts”
When a popular talk-radio host recently called a female law student a “slut” for disagreeing with his politics, my first thought was, “Here we go again.”
There is a long history of people in power using sexually demeaning labels to undermine or silence strong women. Why? Because, often, it works. In fact, I discovered—in researching my mid-grade biography, Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen—that Romans used that very tactic to whip up fear and loathing against the queen of Egypt.
Most modern scholars believe that Cleopatra VII only had two relationships her whole life—first with Julius Caesar then, years later, with Mark Antony. The queen allied herself with these powerful Romans in a bid to protect her kingdom’s independence. And she fought to maintain and protect those alliances to the bitter end.
In, Cleopatra’s Moon, my YA novel about the queen’s daughter Selene (the only one of the queen’s four children to survive to adulthood), the teen princess is taken aback by the vitriol aimed at her mother. How could they call her a whore, she wonders, when her mother was so clearly loyal to Selene’s father, Mark Antony? So loyal, in fact, that when their enemy offered the queen continued rule of her kingdom if only she turned over or killed Antony for him, the queen refused. Multiple times.
The real Cleopatra, modern scholars are learning, is very different from the one Hollywood has tried to jam down our throats. She was not, for example, beautiful; she may well have been quite ordinary-looking. (Meanwhile, Hollywood has cast the gorgeous Angelina Jolie to play her in an upcoming production!)
The real Cleopatra was a powerful woman known for her intelligence, political acumen and ability to speak more than seven languages. She wrote books, sponsored mathematical salons at the Library of Alexandra, and encouraged scientific innovations.
So how did this brilliant ruler end up smeared as “man-eating, whore-queen?” Her enemy, Octavian (later called Augustus), waged a propaganda war against the queen so effective, we still feel the echoes of it today.
He created a frenzy of fear and hatred for her in Rome by claiming that Cleopatra sexually enslaved Mark Antony, “drugged” him, and so “bewitched” and “unmanned” him, that he could no longer be held responsible for his actions. In other words, any problem he himself had with Mark Antony had to be her fault.
And so he declared war on her.
When I speak to teens today about how Cleopatra’s image was manipulated by her enemies, I often ask them what they call girls they don’t like or who intimidate them in some way. They usually end up smiling sheepishly. Because, if they are honest, they admit that they have also used the insults. Or have been hurt by them.
History gives us neutral territory to discuss touchy issues that affect us today. It allows us to pause and ask, “Wait. Why are we still doing this?”
And, hopefully, start changing things once and for all.
Vicky Alvear Shecter is the author of the young adult novel, Cleopatra’s Moon (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic) and the author of two mid-grade biographies: Alexander the Great Rocks the World and Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen.