8 Donna Zuckerberg’s editorial “Welcome to the New Eidolon” and LKM Maisal’s “Women are Made, But from What?”
1. Welcome to the New Eidolon!
Today, as the moon temporarily blots out the sun, marks the beginning of Eidolon’s second chapter. On the surface, things may look pretty much the same: we’re still on Medium, although we’ve updated our logos and branding. The editorial team is the same, and we’re going to have roughly the same publishing schedule. But we’ve made a few subtle changes that we hope will have significant ramifications, and I’m excited to tell you about them.
First, we’ve completely rewritten our mission statement to reflect how we feel Eidolon’s mission has changed since we first launched. When I drafted Eidolon’s first mission statement, my goal was to create a space for informal, personal essays about the intersections of the ancient and modern world, aimed at a general audience. That vision is still at the core of Eidolon. But when we thought back on our most successful and impactful articles, we realized that the pieces we’re proudest of have tended to be those where the writers try to define the complicated and problematic role of the classicist in twenty-first century society. Where does Classics (and the professional study of Classics) fit into contemporary culture? How can we, as a discipline, do better? Be better? What is our ethical place in this world?
These are thorny, difficult questions, and we look forward to providing a platform where writers and readers can continue to tangle with them. As the editorial team discussed how to facilitate those discussions, however, it became increasingly clear to us that “a modern way to write about the ancient world” no longer suffices as a description for what Eidolon does and can do. And I couldn’t be happier about that.
Part of our revamped mission is an open confirmation of something that will already have been obvious to regular readers: Eidolon is now a space for unapologetic progressive and inclusive approaches to Classics. Our goal is to model a Classics that is ethical, diverse, intersectional, and especially feminist. Before I explain what that means, I want to confront what it absolutely does not mean: rebranding as an explicitly feminist publication does not mean that Eidolon will now only publish content about gender, abortion, and lipstick in the ancient world. Not everything we publish will be, specifically, about feminism.
Several people have expressed concerns to me that being explicit about Eidolon’s feminist politics will lead to a narrowing of our content. I don’t believe that it will, unless potential writers and readers choose to understand what “feminism” means in extremely bad faith. Progressive feminism is a capacious enough category that it can include content about reproductive rights and fashion but also philology and military history and textual criticism and many, many other topics.
What does it mean to me that Eidolon is a progressive, feminist publication with a commitment to social justice? If you’re thinking, “Is Eidolon still for me even though I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a feminist because [insert reason here],” I believe that it is. You may not like some of our articles, but that was probably true already. All that this change means is that this is not the place for you to elaborate on whatever goes inside those [insert reason here] square brackets. There are plenty of venues where it might be appropriate to explain why you don’t personally feel that feminism is for you, but Eidolon’s articles and comment sections aren’t those venues. This is not a forum to debate the merits of feminism (although we welcome feminist critique of contemporary feminism!), anti-racism, or diversity in Classics. If you feel the need to expound on your opinion that progressivism is politically correct virtue-signaling SJW bullshit, then maybe the journal isn’t for you after all.
Will this shift lead to a less diverse Eidolon? Our writers always have been, and will continue to be, a diverse group. Our writer pool has excellent diversity of race, age, gender, professional status, and sexuality. We work hard to keep it that way. But we’ve been accused of not being “ideologically diverse.” This charge is a common one, but I think it is misguided, in addition to being morally bankrupt. Making ideological diversity a primary objective is fundamentally incompatible with fighting against racism, sexism, and other forms of structural oppression, and we choose to prioritize the latter.
Everyone may deserve a platform, but not everyone deserves a place on this platform. If a group of conservative classicists would like to start their own online journal championing the merits of a traditionalist approach to Classics, then I salute them. I’d even be interested in collaborating with them.
But Eidolon isn’t going to publish articles arguing that identity politics are ruining Classics. I don’t feel any obligation to represent that view here. I don’t believe that political neutrality is either achievable or desirable. Classics as a discipline has deep roots in fascism and reactionary politics and white supremacy, and those ideologies exert a powerful gravitational pull on the discipline’s practitioners. If we want to fight those forces, we need to actively work against them.
We hope that Eidolon will be a platform for energetic, thoughtful discussion about how best to achieve these goals, both in our articles and in the comments sections on Medium and Facebook. But we’ve come to realize that, if we want that kind of discussion, we’re going to need a new commenting policy. Unfortunately, when you allow open comment sections on the internet, truly lively and respectful discourse becomes impossible. A few condescending, trolling comments can have a profoundly chilling effect on the conversation.
In the past we only deleted comments that were openly bigoted or hateful. But from now on, we’ll be monitoring and moderating comments on Medium and Facebook much more heavily. You can read our new guidelines here. We hope that they will lead to a comment section where academics and interested non-specialists can add thoughtful contributions that build on our articles and address important topics with sensitivity and nuance — a comment section that could really form the basis of a community of people who care about making Classics better.
If you appreciate Eidolon, we hope that you’ll continue to support us by reading our articles, commenting, and sending pitches — and maybe also by supporting us in a more concrete manner. Now that Eidolon is independent, we will rely on reader support to pay our writers and hardworking editors. We’ll be launching a Patreon account soon to provide extra content to patrons, and before the holidays we plan to open an online store selling merchandise featuring our beautiful original art.
I’m so excited for this next chapter, and I think the changes we’re making around here will help Eidolon continue to push the discipline forward. I hope you’ll come with us for the journey!
Donna Zuckerberg is the Editor-in-Chief of Eidolon. She received her PhD in Classics from Princeton, and her writing has appeared in Jezebel, The Establishment, and Avidly. Her book Not All Dead White Men, a study of the reception of Classics in Red Pill communities, is under contract with Harvard University Press.
2. Women Are Made, But From What?
Long before people on the internet began making bad jokes about “identifying as an attack helicopter,” people were already poking fun at arbitrary genders — but that word did not quite have the same meaning as it does today:
A grammarian’s daughter had sex and gave birth
To a child that was masculine, feminine, neuter.
—Anth. Gr. 9.489
This epigram by the Alexandrian Palladas (c. 400), himself a disgruntled grammarian, isn’t one of the highlights of ancient humor. But unlike many other equally contrived scenarios and gimmicky jokes in the books of the Greek Anthology, this poem is as relatable to its readers today as ever. Anyone who can read it in the original Greek, at least, will have learned the language by repeating the same words in all three grammatical genders over and over:
agathos, agathê, agathon
kakos, kakê, kakon …
Although the distinction was not maintained in everyday English, strictly speaking, people used to have a sex, and words had a gender. So in Ancient Greek, thugateres, “daughters,” were feminine in both sex and gender, while “children” of any sex were, by the rules of Ancient Greek grammar, paidia of neuter gender.
Only in the 1960s was the word adopted in a new sense by feminists in order to do justice to a similar mismatch in society — namely, that not all who are female in sex are naturally inclined to act in a “feminine” manner. Instead, it was argued, many are forced into such a role through societal pressure, under the threat of drastic consequences. In Feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s phrasing (roughly), women are made, not born. In patriarchal society, women’s social gender is not an expression of their natural inclinations, but an imposition based on their biological sex.
The sex/gender distinction has since become commonplace in the Humanities, and so Classical texts are now regularly analyzed in terms of how they construct gender, and to what purpose. Where 19th-century philologists had been bitterly opposed, for example, to the discovery of Sappho as a woman-loving woman (a stain upon her honor!), studies like Michel Foucault’s monumental History of Sexuality have made it fashionable to investigate the malleability of sexual norms. Few collected volumes can scrape by without a chapter or section on gender nowadays, and the question of how ancient categorization schemes deviate from modern heteronormative expectations in particular has continuously generated new scholarship.
Yet even in a recent anthology called TransAntiquity: Cross-Dressing and Transgender Dynamics in the Ancient World, almost all the contributions in fact concern cross-dressing: they overwhelmingly frame the materials they discuss in terms of someone with a stable sex performing — often only temporarily — as the other gender. “The concept ‘transgender’ is a modern category,” explains Filippo Carlà-Uhink. No wonder that, being trans myself, I feel alienated from the whole endeavor of “Classics and Gender.” Surely nobody has ever suggested that there were no men in antiquity because modern conceptions of “man” differ from ancient ones? For all the talk of queering and subversion of binary gender, I am nevertheless left to wonder why Classicists on the whole find transgender people like me literally unimaginable.
If you’re agnostic about whether it makes sense to bring transgender issues into antiquity, you need look no further than Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans. One of the dialogues, ostensibly about a masculine-looking woman-loving (hetairistria) woman, encapsulates the topic almost perfectly. In it, Leaina tells her friend about a sexual encounter with Demonassa and “Megilla.” The latter, once they are in private, takes off a wig to reveal a masculine haircut and explains: “You must understand my name is Megillos. Demonassa is my wife.”
Here we see a person who performs and is seen as a woman in public, but privately prefers a less feminine look, calls himself a man, and uses a man’s name as well as masculine grammatical gender. In A.L.H.’s translation (lightly adapted):
‘Can it be, Megillos, that you are a man and lived among us under the disguise of a woman, just like Achilles, who stayed among the girls hidden by his purple robe? And is it true that you possess that male organ, and that you do to Demonassa what any husband does to his wife?’
‘That Leaina,’ she replied, ‘I do not have. […] Yet I am all man. […] I was born the same as all the rest of you women, but I have the tastes and desires of a man.’
It’s really all there: Megillos was Assigned Female At Birth (AFAB) but occupies a male social role in his relationships, emphatically claiming to be “all man” and unwilling to be “effeminated”— misgendered, as we might say today. By any modern definition, this fictional character is a trans man.
Now, of course there are problems with using a modern definition to talk about the distant past in the first place. But as Gabrielle Bychowski argues, not all definitions “require a significant degree of penetration into a person’s internal life.” If all we mean by “trans” is that Megillos does not identify as his assigned sex, what harm is there in describing him as trans? It certainly seems more true to the character than to privilege Leaina’s (equally fictional) interpretation over his own and treat him as a same-sex attracted woman, as multiple books about homosexuality in antiquity do as a matter of course.
If Classicists cannot even imagine a fictional character being transgender, what chance do I have? This character has no existence outside of a text that makes it clear he uses a female name and pronouns only when he has to, and yet the best scholars seem to be able to do is to treat both of his names — his deadname and the one he chose himself — as equally valid, if they use the masculine at all. Carlà-Uhink typifies this attitude even while arguing that this is “the one case of people adopting a gender different from their sex at birth in their private lives”:
Megilla removes what happens to be a wig, shows her shaved head, and explains to a baffled Leaena that she is not a man, since she does not have male genitals. —TransAntiquity, p. 14
I don’t think this is a willful misreading, but a misreading it certainly is: while it’s true that he uses the feminine form of “the same” (homoia) to describe what he was born as, he insists he is a man regardless of his body being like a woman’s. And that is ultimately all there is to the way bodies are gendered: they are alike, they share certain similarities, but there is no one set of criteria that makes them definitely one thing or the other. Not all modern-day trans people, even if they take hormones or undergo other operations, seek out Genital Reconstruction Surgery (GRS) or even desire it.
‘Let me have my own way with you, Leaina, if you don’t believe me,’ [Megillos] answered, ‘and you will soon see that I have nothing to envy men for. I have something else to serve like a man’s organ. Come on, let me do what I want to do and you will soon understand.’
The reason for this inability to see a trans man as a man, rather than a butch woman, seems to lie in the overwhelming rhetorical power of the sex/gender distinction. Whereas sex is supposed to be fixed, gender is not even skin deep, being only a “performance.” But this really seems to be a projection onto ancient texts of a Beauvoirian view of how women are made. It is rather reminiscent of the case of Count Sándor Vay, a 19th-century Hungarian writer who lived as a heterosexual man throughout his life, but became the basis of much later thinking about lesbianism — including in Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.
In a certain kind of feminist thinking, it seems that if women are made, they are made out of babies that, struggle as they might, can only ever be made into women. In its origin, this inflexible view might be no more than an unintended glitch of an early feminist theory of gender. But Trans-Exclusionary “Radical Feminists” (TERFs) still use it today to spread a false sense that gender transition threatens to undermine gay rights — and are happy to ally with far-right conservatives when it comes to attacking trans people. That is why a passage like the following is not innocent:
Male authors from the Hellenistic […] through the Roman periods […] for the most part take an extremely hostile view of female homoeroticism as the worst perversion of natural order. Ovid’s story of Iphis and Ianthe […] treats sympathetically a girl’s attraction to another girl, but denies the possibility of a true lesbian relationship by transforming one of the girls into a boy at the end.
— Thomas K. Hubbard, Homosexuality in Greece and Rome, p. 17
In Ovid’s telling, Iphis again is a girl only in the sense of sex. His mother Telethusa, warned by her husband that they cannot afford raising a girl, decides to give him the gender-neutral name “Iphis” and raises him as a boy. It is as a boy that he meets and falls in love with Ianthe, and their relatives arrange for them to marry as a man and a woman. His despondency in anticipation of the wedding is not, I would argue, about the incompatibility of “her” same-sex desire and Ianthe’s expectation of a male spouse, but instead (or at least with equal plausibility) comes out of his dysphoria about having a body sexed or gendered as female: “what I want, … she wants,” Iphis laments, “but nature does not.”
However distasteful the ancient heteronormative order may be, it is not just for Ovid’s narratorial voice, but also for the fictional character himself that the problem is solved satisfactorily when the goddess Isis transforms Iphis into a “real” man. It feels to me like you have to see transition as at least a little bit of a “perversion of natural order” to insist that the proper ending of the story would have had Iphis socially de-transition and begin to live as a woman for the first time in his life.
I should stress that I’m not accusing any of the scholars I’ve cited or referred to of being deliberately trans-exclusionary. But whoever are the worst offenders, there are too many who believe that gender transition is pointless, because gender is purely performative, and ought ideally to be abolished entirely. This kind of gender abolitionism obviously demands a lot more self-denial from trans people than it does from cis people (those who are happy with their assigned sex), since we are urged — even by other queers — to live as if we inhabited a post-gender world that simply does not exist.
But where the contemporary sex/gender dichotomy posits “biological” sex as unchangeable (unless an Ovidian deity’s help can be procured), Catullus’s famous Attis epyllion shows quite a different view. In this poem, the eponymous Attis, who shares the name of the goddess Cybele’s mortal lover and first gallus priest, becomes a gallus himself when, in a religious fury, he castrates himself. From this point on, Catullus uses feminine gender for him — and for his fellow “gallae,” who have all undertaken the same procedure at some point.
When Attis (whose name, like that of Iphis, is effectively gender neutral) awakes the next day, and his previous fervor has left him, he laments that he has become a woman, a Maenad, a sterile man; and the poet has already called him a notha mulier: an illegitimate woman — but still a kind of woman. I nevertheless use masculine pronouns advisedly, since the epyllion hardly suggests that Attis will come to terms with what has happened. No doubt Catullus has presented the fascinating ancient subculture of galli in a demeaning light, but the fact he gets right is that any sort of castration will change someone’s sexual characteristics.
In a society that had unique social roles for eunuchs, this was obvious to anyone who discussed human anatomy. The Hippocratic writers, Aristotle, and Pliny the Elder, for example, all talk about how eunuchs to some extent “change into the female condition”, especially when it comes to the problem of male hair loss. Since modern surgeries and Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) can accomplish far more, it is ironic that so much of contemporary trans antagonism or transmisia consists of telling trans people that we will never be more than women who destroy their beautiful bodies or mutilated men in dresses. For an ancient chauvinist like Dio of Prusa, by contrast, even shaving “the hair which is distinctive of the full-grown male” was an unnatural modification of the body and a moral danger.
I’m not arguing that a cis man — i.e. someone who was Assigned Male At Birth (AMAB) and is happy with it — can be turned into a woman purely through medical interventions, or that a trans man who doesn’t take hormones is still “biologically female” just because his body doesn’t look a certain way. Rather, the mutability of sex goes hand in hand with the fact that gender is more than just a performance: because all gendered and sexed categories are so entangled in cultural assumptions and social structures, nothing is ever just biology or gender. Gender identity and expression intersect and inform each other. That’s why what is unconventional masculinity for one person is nonbinary transidentity for another. That’s why some genders are culturally specific and a Lakȟóta who is wíŋkte is neither cis nor trans. That’s why what is regarded as natural has more to do with the oppressive ways society is organized than with what is conducive to someone’s bodily well-being:
“Question: with whom is a hermaphrodite comparable? I rather think each one should be ascribed to that sex which is prevalent in his or her make-up.”
—Justinian, Digest 1.16.10–11
In a post-colonial legal order that, with some important exceptions, requires every person on the globe to be either male or female, there is more askew than cis people being forced into stereotypes; more than the medical gatekeeping faced by trans people. There are also the “reparative” operations routinely performed on intersex infants to make them fit into one of these two categories — rather than fitting the categories to the people. And there is also the unique marginalization experienced by people who are both intersex and trans.
All these oppressive structures form part of a long and violent history of Western cis-, binary and dyadic normativity. As long as Classicists regard all outside that normative space, whether living or dead, as mere curios to be regarded with the same interest as the Priapea, the erotic graffiti at Pompeii, or Pliny’s dog-headed people, they are also complicit in that violence. That is a shame, because I feel like Classics can contribute unique insights to Intersex and Transgender Studies. But not until you admit that we actually exist.
L.K.M. Maisel is a B.A. in Classics and a Master’s student at the Humboldt University of Berlin.