Penelope the Passive Pretty Object

(NB: In case you are coming across this post randomly, PLEASE read the quick introductory material here, because this is part of a longer series aiming at a particular end. Thank you.)

A second “Alt-Penelope” one finds radical cynical scholars (female and male) sometimes presenting is the one who, over the course of the whole Odyssey, supposedly serves merely as a Passive Pretty Object, a patriarchally-stereotypical woman whose entire identity comes only from her association with her husband and who never does a thing of any real consequence, being animated only in an auxiliary manner by external forces. In short, this is the Alt-Penelope who, in the language of the radical cynics “has no agency.”

On this reading, Penelope the Circumspect, whose fame used to be held to reach to the stars in an equal, though different way from that of her husband, might as well not even be a person, for, as it was once actually said directly to me someone in the grip of this sort of bitter feminism, “even Odysseus’ bow has more personality than Penelope.”

Ridiculous, you say? Quite right, and in this post I want to at least begin showing why.

The first issue behind the Penelope as Passive Pretty Object slur grounds itself in the quite proper (and I would even say, for Christians, biblical) concern to recognize the real agency, that is the real personhood, of women. Women are not mere auxiliaries to men, as should be clear from the Genesis creation account itself. There, although woman is created second, and from the rib of the man, the stated reason for God doing this focuses on the incompleteness of man without woman.

Whatever we may or may not want to say about gender roles at various points in history, and even about whether Christianity teaches a universally normative set of gender roles,1 we all must surely be quick to acknowledge that women are not sub-human and ought not to be thought of as identifiable only in relation to men who more or less literally possess them in some sort of power relationship.

Patriarchy is one of the last few terms that late Modernity is willing to acknowledge as a real Dirty Word Which Ought Not Be Said, but quite aside from secular intemperance about the term, it is true that there has often been in history – and still is today – an unhealthy and abusive type of patriarchy which really does demean women as mere auxiliaries of men rather than exalt them as fellow image-bearers and fully equal to men in all the ways that matter to the God, who looks not on outward appearances, but on the heart. This is the type of patriarchy that today’s radical cynical scholars have made the focus of their bitterness, and just as in the saying about people who only have hammers, here too those whose minds can only contain one idea necessarily see that idea everywhere they look.

It is this sort of scholar, utterly obsessed with the idea that Rapacious Gender Conflict Is the Universal Key to All Human Experience, who may be found vomiting the most foul of calumnies against what was, until quite recently, the commonly accepted portrait of Penelope as the very model of the virtuous wife who anchors her husband and children by ordering and preserving that which is truly the seedbed of politics, the family. Penelope, say these scholars (and the impressionable young women they infect with their poison), pretty much does nothing but get manipulated by men and cry over the whole course of the Odyssey, revealing that she isn’t even really a person, but just a Pretty Object that could be replaced by, say, a pile of gold or a painting without any actual detriment to the story.

Again, ridiculous, you say? Again, quite right, but I’ve belabored the point in order to highlight how actually crucial this portrayal of Penelope is to the gender fanaticism that presently rules our culture. In some quarters of academia, the need to portray Penelope as a mere prop in a story that is only and solely about toxic masculinity is so overpowering that you can tell, reading the book or article, that advanced degrees notwithstanding, critical thought has been simply overcome by emotional intemperance and intellectual incontinence. Strong words, true enough. But if you ever descend into the cesspool that is this type of scholarship (or even into its popular representations, such as Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad), you’ll find out just how tame my language actually is.

(At this point, I want to state my apology to readers: below is just a copy / paste of my notes on this subject; I’ve had no time to rewrite it all into a more enjoyable prose format. Hopefully it will still be of some use.)

  1. “agency” – ability to act in order to achieve a result
    1. Penelope does act, and quite significantly, for the entire course of her husband’s 20 year absence:
      1. She’s the supreme royal on Ithaca
        1. Telemachus is a child all the way up to the beginning of the story (“child” here meaning unable to take responsibility for one’s own domain).
        2. Telemachus is an inept and irresponsible male, and so he is not really in authority at all despite his occasional bold words.
        3. The only other royal male, Laertes (Odysseus’ father) has deliberately withdrawn from the household, laying down any claim to authority and power he had. (He’s another irresponsible male!)
      2. Although the physical labor of the house is done by maids and servants, Penelope is the directing force behind the whole thing: the servants serve her because she’s in charge: a positive word from her will make their day; a negative word from her will result in punishment. What is all this but agency?
        1. Her direction of the house, without any male overseeing or directing her, also means that she is the political authority in the household, since for the Greeks politics means directing a community towards its purpose.
          1. It is merely an idea of our own time period that politics means voting and making laws and so on. But these things are not the root and basis of politics for the Greeks; they are only some of its normal external effects.
          2. Politics for the Greeks begins in the oikos (the household), and flows “upward” to the rest of the society in the public sphere.
            1. The central problem of the Odyssey is, thus, that the royal oikos of Ithaca is in severe disorder, meaning that the public sphere beyond it is also in disorder. Penelope can’t fix all that by herself, but that is no proof that she “doesn’t have agency.” Agency only means ability to act; it doesn’t necessarily imply actual opportunities to act, let alone successful actions. Politics requires prudence, and Penelope has that quality in abundance.
            2. It is often pointed out that women and children were generally confined to a special upstairs area of the house, the gunaikon. What of it? Within this area, the wife had the power and responsibility – which is all that is required to refute the notion that Penelope did not have “agency.” Again, the problem with this sweeping claim is that it is a petitio: “agency” can only mean political / physical power and authority.
  1. Thus, it is anachronistic interpretation to say in an unqualified way that Penelope “has no political power”, let alone “has no agency.”
    1.  Why should standards from our time get to pass judgement on a past culture – especially if everything is “relative” and “there is no truth”?
  2. Two crucial actions Penelope makes that demonstrate her agency:
    1. Planning and executing for three years the deception of Laertes’ burial shroud required significant planning and willpower on her part, especially since she, a lone woman with no male backup, is setting herself against 108 young, strong, aggressive men. What is this courage, determination, and sustained course of action but agency of the highest degree?
    2. Setting up the contest of the bow: Athena “inspires” her to do this, but the Greek term “inspire” here refers to only emotional desire: Penelope herself had to decide to do what her emotions were telling her to do. And what is this but agency?
    3. These two actions “bracket” the return of Odysseus to restore the needed order to the household: the shroud deception prevents Penelope from being “claimed” by another man, and the bow contest enables her husband to symbolically and publicly reclaim the kingship and restore order both to the house and to the kingdom. Penelope’s agency drives the whole story.

Thus, in a way it might be said with all sobriety that the real hero of the Odyssey is Penelope, without whose significant and persistent courage, determination, and outright craftiness (prudence, wisdom) the supposed hero, Odysseus, would be just another boring, chest-thumping male veteran of the Trojan War, arriving at last at home only to be killed by malefactors bent on destroying his family and his kingdom. Far from being a merely Passive Pretty Object who could be replaced by a pile of gold or a painting, she is the very life of the story, the master thread which, if pulled out, would cause the whole epic and all its associated glories, to unravel just like Laertes’ burial shroud.

But that, of course, is precisely why this awful slur against Penelope has been invented in the first place.

Infamous “Alt-Penelopes” Index

Main Series Index

  1. I am referring here to the persistent debate, even among conservative Christians, between complementarians and egalitarians. []

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