Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Ancient Queens and Modern "Sluts"

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.

Editor's Note:
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.


  1. So true, Vicky! Fear of powerful women has so often been expressed by attacks on their sexuality.

  2. Excellent post.

    I think female sexuality scares a lot of men, and as we tend to fear that which we do not understand, working that particular fear can be quite effective as a political weapon. More than 2000 years later, the tactics have not changed that much, be it infantry on the battlefield or pundits in the political arena.

    With regards to Cleopatra herself, I think the propaganda war against her started before Augustus. As I remember it, Cicero was rather biting in his commentary on her, but this may have been due in large part to his feeling slighted by her during the Queen's visit to Rome. Certainly the Roman people were fascinated by her, but the elites, being the snobs there were, remained both suspicious and disdainful of anyone one Roman.

    It also seems to me, though we can never know with absolute certainty, that although Cleopatra may have initially allied herself with Caesar and Antony out of political calculation, she did in fact have real and deep affection for them both. Love even? Perhaps, but if female sexuality is a mystery then the concept of love is a mystery wrapped in a riddle confounded by emotions.

    Now Vicky, about your next book starring Hannibal and Scipio ...

  3. It was through your YA novel and research that I find so fascinating at how men were so intimidated by Cleopatra's power. I've noticed that this trend happens even today.

    A strong woman is somehow "manipulative" or even worse called degrading names. They degrade her by maligning her sexually instead of giving her intellectual credit for her success and/or power. It's like "She didn't get there on her own -- she just used her feminine wiles to steal the power from the man."

    I see this in young teen girls as well -- playing down their power --- afraid of what their peers will think if they show their intellectual side or ask for what they want.

    Great post Vicky. :)

  4. Wow. Some men still using the same disgusting methods to intimidate women-seems we could be going backwards. As women it is important to share our experiences and continue to make giant steps forward. Your books sound fascinating and a great way to spread positive information!

  5. @Tracy--so true, but so sad.

    @Narukami--thanks for your comments. Always so insightful!

    @Karen--I agree, it's tough to see young teens still playing these games.

    @Peaceful Reader--thanks for commenting. It may feel like we're going backward but the fact that we can talk about it honestly--in print!--is a positive thing.

  6. To paraphrase George Santanaya, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We still have much to learn. Thanks for your post, Vicky.

  7. It does seem like we are going backwards - especially when you watch tv. The objectification of women is still rampant (think GoDaddy or shaving ads). I think mean fear our sexuality because they don't want to be held responsible when they 'fall victim' to it. Hm.

  8. Oh, your book looks great. I love this kind of historical fiction and am looking forward to reading your book!!

  9. @shelf-employed--thanks! And thanks for hosting me.

    @Elizabeth--I know, it makes me crazy. I think of how my daughter struggles with these issues and it's just so frustrating!

    @Mia--thanks. I hope you enjoy it!

  10. Cleopatra's story has always interested me. I think YA is an interesting format to present her life. I am sure a lot of young women can understand her trials.

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