Notice how many mythological plots are named for women or blame women? But we don’t really know anything about these women. Who was Helen? Why did Clytemnestra murder her husband? How did Cassandra trick a god before getting cursed? Elektra has a psychiatric complex named after her. Who was she? I was intrigued by a woman whose entire story is about plotting the demise of her mother. Who better to help us think about internalised misogyny? It is a characteristically male thing to assume that women’s lives, even feminist ideology have to only do with masculinity. Some of us have fought hard for a seat at that table. And we are still fighting but the foe is different.
Elektra’s story is that she competes with her mother for her father’s affection. It aligns with the common male assumption that women’s relationships with each other are either as rivals or as interchangeable objects/ caregivers. I want to know more, need to know more. Because I find myself having to defend my hardwon seat at the respect/equality table not just from men – but from other women. Meet the ‘I-want-your-seat’ girls.
In the last decade, feminism has become a fashionable label to flash. Now popular feminism says that women are supposed to support each other. An ancient system of hierarchy says that the older or more experienced must coddle the next generation. This didn’t work in predominantly male hierarchies. Sparta (where Helen was from so let’s stop calling her ‘of Troy’) required its prized males to prove their mettle first. But women were relegated to caregiving and self-sacrifice for other people. It’s just that now those people are other women.
MeToo hit me with waves of other women making an unprecedented level of demands of me. Crusade my personal cause. Let me hijack your trauma. Be my dumping ground. Carry the blame for things a man did. Eventually, let me take credit for all of it. After decades of fighting glass ceilings, sexual harassment and misogyny, I found myself facing Friendly Fire Feminism. Women’s issues needed to be centred but at the cost of other women? That’s not feminist, it’s narcissistic. These women were not interested in joining the fight to equalise the table. I was easy prey – occupying a seat that had already been fought for and won over. All they had to do was push me off and slide in.
Oppression Olympics are more of the same. Tragedy queens have long enjoyed the social power they received by pandering to men’s saviour complexes. ‘Believe the victim‘ was hijacked by women for their own gains, at the cost of other women. More than once I was hit with a story of a Whatsapp threat or an unsolicited dickpic in the DM. “I’ve suffered so I am owed something from you.” was the implication. I had to bring up my own stories of abuse, violence, and rape just to draw a boundary against this entitlement. I never wanted any of these to define me but I had no choice when faced with the gun of weaponised trauma. The worst part about was their gatekeeping of other women’s outrage. Who decides what trauma is worse and who gets to speak up about it? That kind of brutal power-mongering is not feminist.
In my most recent war against patriarchy, I was bullied and my consent violated by a group of men. It was not sexual but does that make it any less of a violation? To assume my body is the only thing men violate is to reduce me to an object the way these men do. These men used my name in an official capacity despite my explicit NO. They silenced my protests and mansplained to me. They categorically told me they couldn’t be bothered with my concerns and would only care about the majority (all men). This was in a conversation around making a safe space and creating diversity. None of this surprises me. Wokebros trying to hijack my female identity for personal glory is nothing new.
What pained me was the woman coming at me with excuses for the men’s behaviour despite not having been present or holding any role as their mouthpiece. It pains me when women willingly throw themselves before men to use as body shields. When I told her I wasn’t asking for her support or even her opinion, she said she was trying to be more proactive. The irony of doing so at the cost of another woman’s harassment seemed lost on her. Clearly, my lack of response conveyed something uncomfortable to her since she decided my public posts were about her (another experience I’m not new to – Elektras like to make it all ABOUT THEMSELVES). To top it off, she began to ‘explain’ her behaviour by telling me about her personal traumas and suggesting that my complaint was not as serious. I sighed and told her about the physical traumas I’d experienced and that as a survivor of those, I still didn’t believe other forms of misogyny were less horrible.
How do I deal with this? I’m learning to step away from men who violate my boundaries and expect me to clean their messes. It’s harder when women do this under the protection of their gender – something that women like me fought to create. I’m a Strong Woman, that hate-slur conferred on me by men who lost their battles of patriarchy to me. And now that label saddles me with women simultaneously shutting me down and using me to amplify their own voices. I do not trust them. They all uniformly speak of admiration for me. But admiring someone means respecting their journey to being who they are now. It’s examining how you might work towards being that way. It’s not trying to steal the benefits of their hardwon labour for yourself. They are not admirers, they’re ‘I-want-your-seat’ girls with me and they’re pick-me girls around men. So no Elektra, you can’t have my seat. You’ll probably come back with the men you weaponise against me but that’s okay. I’d rather go down fighting than be you. I just wish my decimation wasn’t to be at the hands of another woman.
Elektra by Jennifer Saint
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I would have given this book 4 or even 5 stars had it ended with the slaying of Agamemnon. But that’s only around 2 sections of the book (halfway). The title has only one name but the cover depicts three faces. Three women’s points of view appear – Clytemnestra, Cassandra and Elektra. Prior to Agamemnon’s death, the story primarily focuses on the first two women.
Understandably Clytemnestra gets a bigger share of the story as she’s the key player in a famous plot. We see her from her early girlhood years and her closeness to Helen, her idyllic upbringing in Sparta to the naive choice to wed a brutish, newly reclaimed king Agamemnon. Thereafter, we watch as her wedded bliss cools off, we witness her deep trauma and sense of betrayal, the stages of grief she moves through and all the roads that lead her to where her story goes. She doesn’t appear as shrewd as Helen. Instead, she’s often impulsive, in the thrall of deep emotions. These emotions are not all self-serving. She’s deeply compassionate for the women of Troy where her husband wages war. She has a love/hate relationship with her more beautiful twin, Helen. She loves hard, hates passionately, grieves to the point of shattering but channels it all into a focused determination for justice. It’s even beautifully written, her sense of absolute emptiness after she has achieved it and her self-doubt about the cost that it took. I would have loved a book just based on her point of view alone.
Cassandra is much less impressive and her tale isn’t as nuanced but it still goes deep. Popular tellings would have it that Apollo cursed her for tricking him. In this tale, that ‘trick’ is her surprise that her boon of foresight is not bestowed because of her devotion but must be paid for with sex. Apollo is so enraged by her instinctive “No!” that he curses her viciously. She’s not just relegated to mind-bending premonitions but also shunned by everyone else. Because she’s the daughter of the king, she is treated a little less brutally but it’s clear nobody knows what to do with her. So she devotes herself to the temple of Apollo. Damningly, she spends her whole life in service of the god who cursed her because she dared say no. A modern viewpoint may let us see her otherworldy premonitions as an astute understanding of human nature. Her fits that make everyone else deem her unstable may very well be epileptic or trauma reactions from rape. Not very differently from today, she bears the punishment too for something that a man did to her. Her story really brings up the plight of hundreds of women who were relegated to domesticity while the men waged wars for glory and played with life and death without concern for those who depended on them. It is a nice counterpoint to a similar woman, Clytemnestra, on the other side of the same war.
Which brings us to the third character after whom the book is named. This book came out in the middle of the rage for feminist Greek myths and is named for a female character. I expected this to be a sympathetic writing of Elektra, best known for inciting her brother Orestes to murder their mother, Cytemnestra. Elektra should be rich with potential since very little is known of her other than theories that she was in love with her father, Agamemnon. After feminist retellings like Circe that turned an ‘evil sorceress’ into a sympathetic, powerful character, this book had the potential to truly explore the dynamics of internalised misogyny and the complexity of mother-daughter relationships.
Instead, Jennifer Saint serves up a one-dimensional Elektra who is spoilt, entitled, delusional, and cruel and has no compunctions hurting other people for what she wants. Her entire narrative is driven by inexplicable hostility towards her mother, condescension towards other people and blind hatred towards everyone but her father. Considering she’s very young when Agamemnon leaves for the Trojan War and she never meets him again, this is not so much a relationship as a stand-in for her narcissism.
In the same book that gives us nuance in a minor character and makes a sympathetic character of a husband-murderer, this depiction of Elektra really jars. It covers most of the second half of the book with no explanation for her loathing and rage. All we see is spite and a total lack of empathy for the man who helps her or her own brother whom she is dooming to a dismal fate. I struggled to get through her chapters and would have given up the book had it started with her story like this.
This odd flip-over in the writing makes me wonder if the book was originally written as only Elektra’s story and if Cassandra and Clytemnestra were added on later, perhaps by someone else. The difference in the voice is distinctive and doesn’t make for good reading. Still, because of Clytemnestra and Cassandra, I’ll give this book a middling rating and avoid any other books by the author in the future.
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