Lysistrata offers readers several examples of different types of women through dialogue and actions. One the one hand, the main character, Lysistrata, is very powerful and an excellent, moving speaker. The other women that surround Lysistrata are rather the opposite; the don’t care to engage in politics once the possibility of sex is revoked and for the most part, many of them seem to fit to fit the mold of a stereotypical woman of the time—housebound and dutiful to her husband.
By presenting readers with a strong central female character, Aristophanes is showing both sides of women—the influential and the subservient. While Lysistrata is unquestionably the ring-leader of the political movement, there are elements of her character that are more masculine than the other females we encounter, which serves to lend this tale some degree of credibility since male (and likely female) audiences of the time would have found the plot to be completely unbelievable if the main character that affected such change was a “typical” woman. Lysistrata breaks from the traditional role of a female in many ways, but the disturbing part about this separation is that she seems almost too masculine and removed from the world of the other women she encounters.
Throughout the play, Lysistrata seems to be using women in much the same way that men do in her quest to bring about change. For instance, when the examination of the Spartan and other women occurs at the beginning of the play, all of the women are put under the same sexualized scrutiny that men give women (with Lysistrata leading the examination). Lysistrata gazes at the Spartan woman and remarks in one of the more important quotes from Lysistrata, “Why darling, you’re simply ravishing! Such a blemishless complexion—so clean, so out-of-doors! And look at that figure—the pink of perfection!” Lysistrata leads this examination of the breasts and buttocks and for a moment, she sounds much more like a male sizing up a future conquest.
Under the guidance of a very masculine Lysistrata, these women explore the sexual viability of each other, and although it is all for achieving the end of a “good cause”—ending the war and bringing the husbands back home, there is something about this process of selection that takes away from the possible message of gender and power. While they have a noble goal in mind, it is frustrating that the women can’t all be as strong as Lysistrata. Instead, they all have to turn to this “man-like woman” and must undergo a sexualized process.
Instead of Lysistrata focusing her efforts on organizing a more straightforward effort, she relies on her sex and that of the other women to bring about her desires. It would be more possible to read this as a feminist play in many ways if it weren’t for the fact that all the women are playing the same over-sexed roles, the only difference being that this time it is being manipulated. “One the one hand, the young and hyper-sexualized wives of Athens are to refrain from all physical relations with their husbands until reconciliation is achieved. In a complementary strike, the post-reproductive crones, whose bodies and sexuality have no value, “occupy” the Acropolis and, more importantly its treasuries.
Only when the Athenians and Spartans are reconciled—only when the city at war has been transformed into the city at peace—will the men regain sexual control over their wives and economic control over their polis” (Stroup 38). Although the balance of genders in temporarily uneven the reader can rest assured that women—even Lysistrata—will return to their subservient place. A modern feminist reading of Lysistratawould encourage one to think that the course of war-dominated history may change but by the end it is clear that this is no longer a possibility. As one scholar points out, “even in Lysistrata where female character take the lead, women’s social redefinition is short-lived. Their position I the polis is thus depicted positively; for women’s contributions as wives and mothers are represented as valuable” (Tzanetou 331). It almost does not seem like quite enough to have the position of motherhood glorified, the fact remains that women are changing affairs of state—even if it is only for a little while.
In a modern sense, this seems to have continued on the parts of both sexes. Men are always desiring and pursuing women and women are, for the most part, “guilty” in returning these affections by wearing clothing to accentuate the body (just as men are always eager to prove their masculinity). Perhaps this play, in the end, has no message aside from the fact that sexual desire, the most base and human drive in us all, is what makes the world turn—not decisions or complex military of peace actions. The fact that sex can be used to change the course of history is quite silly, no matter what time period this is viewed in, but it works in this play simply because the idea of women being involved politically was a preposterous enough idea (at the time) to warrant an equally preposterous conclusion.
One can’t help but notice that Lysistrata seems to be rather removed from the action. While she is the one that organizes the events, judges, coaxes, and convinces the women of their duty, she remains somehow outside of their stereotyped role. It may not have been possible for her to play to the conception of the typical woman of the time or else the plot may have seemed entirely too ludicrous for audiences of the day. While she obviously goes against societal female norms, she is also harshly critical of other women, especially at the beginning when she states, “Ah! if only they had been invited to a Bacchic revelling, or a feast of Pan or Aphrodite or Genetyllis, why! the streets would have been impassable for the thronging tambourines!” She seems to have no regard for other members of her gender, thinking them to be on the whole a bunch of sex-crazed partiers. Here she presents another dichotomy; on the one hand she seems surprised that none of the women came out to address her political summons, yet on the other hand, she doesn’t seem to be the least bit shocked since she holds this view. Lysistrata seems, for these reasons, to be a very conflicted character. While she puts her faith in these women’s’ diligence to their sworn duty to help her, she really doesn’t have any faith to begin with. In some ways, this leads the reader to question Aristophanes’ intentions in writing this play. Was his audience supposed to view the whole thing as a farce or was there any true political sentiment involved?