I remember talking about Lysistrata in another class and coming away from that class with the feeling that the play was a very feminist production. I suppose the plot by itself might be—women taking it upon themselves to end a war fought by men in a time where women did not have much power outside of the home. Getting ready to read this play got me thinking about other times I have heard of sex strikes being used to stop a war. There was an example of this idea being proposed in South Sudan last fall. Since the women and children were the ones most affected by the civil war in their country, there was talk of their taking matters into their own hands. I don’t remember exactly how that worked out—I lost touch of the issue over time. Other strikes like this have worked in the past, and have proven to be very empowering for the women involved. I suppose that is why my hopes were so high when I started reading Lysistrata.
That being said, while actually reading the work I didn’t get a strong feminist feel from it. It seemed patronizing toward women and unnecessarily explicit. I know this play is a comedy, I couldn’t find myself to enjoy yet another man making fun of women who are trying to make life better for themselves given their limited social influence and mobility in that time in history. After my first reading I did not think there would be any way to connect this back to the successful sex strikes, led by empowered women, that are at work in our world today. However, I was able to uncover a deeper meaning after my second time through the play and with the help of some outside research.
While the women in this play take it upon themselves to withhold sex from their husbands in an effort to get them to make peace and end the war, Aristophanes portrays them as profane and sex crazed. All these women wanted was to have sex with their husbands. Having sex at the end of a long day was the only thing that made their day worth living and they spoke as if it would be torture to go without it. I found this to be incredibly patronizing toward women. There was an opportunity for this sex strike to be an opportunity for empowerment, but the play never seemed to progress beyond the string of dirty jokes.
Lysistrata seemed to be trying to work beyond the dirty jokes which held off the main issue of the play. She tried to get the women in line and keep them on task, but even she played into the stereotype by writing off the other women as being sex crazed. When the men agreed to peace talks I thought the play was finally getting somewhere, but then she brought out “Reconciliation” in the form of a naked girl. The only way to get the men to sit down and work out the logistics of making peace was to distract them with a beautiful naked girl. Not only does this scene (and play in general) objectify women, but it holds men to no standard of behavior whatsoever.
It wasn’t until I did some research into Greek comedy that I understood that sex jokes and using enormous phalluses as props was the norm. In re-reading the play without focusing so much on its sexually explicit aspects I was able to find another commentary on Greek life, and maybe life in general. Maybe having the women end the war the way they did was a way to give the men a way out. From what I know of the wars that took place in ancient Greece, there was no good way to end them and make peace in a way that would have been seen as honorable by any of the warring groups. Letting the women handle things in the way they did gave the men an excuse to stop fighting.
If one reads the play in this way, it becomes much more than just a dirty joke. It speaks to the broader social issues of the time. Through making fun of both genders Aristophanes is able to comment carefully on the behavior of each. While I don’t necessarily share his sense of humor, I can appreciate that he is making a more profound comment on society through it. Maybe there is no good way to end a war once it gets started.