I am berating myself for not writing anything for a while, but life’s been busy and messy, so I’ll cut myself some slack.
My topic today today was inspired by a twitter debate between the fantastic Mary Beard and ‘@stavvers’, a user who was protesting for trigger warnings in Classics. Whilst I am clearly biased towards the former (any feminist classicists are automatically among my favourite people), I am well versed in so-called ‘SJW’ arguments, and generally agree with trigger warnings. My basic feeling is that it’s easy to tag something with ‘tw’, it makes very little difference to my life, and it prevents unnecessary harm for other internet users. Why wouldn’t you take ten seconds out of your day to do it?
The problem is, Classics is utterly laden with potentially triggering stories. You can’t study any part of the classical world without encountering sexual violence, gore, incest, torture, and countless other features which may cause mental harm for the reader. In the twitter discussion, one user suggested that these matters should be mentioned in the prospectus for the course, perhaps some small print suggesting that those who are likely to be triggered may not apply. But, realistically, no university is going to print anything that makes their courses seem less than perfect.
Ideally, a potential classics student should know that they should not take courses such as ‘sexuality and gender in the ancient world’ if they know they will be triggered by discussions of rape, nor ‘women in antiquity’, nor even ‘Greek drama’. The reality is that the ancient world was not a very nice place for a woman to be: the Athenian girl was under the power of her father until she was married off at around fifteen to a man twice her age, potentially without being consulted on her marriage. And that’s if she was born a free woman – slaves got it so much worse. The Roman woman could inherit property and own some personal wealth, yet were still considered a much less important part of society than men. Classical literature is choc-a-bloc with rape narratives, from rape constituting the plot of Menandrian comedy, to an entire group of Sabine women being taken by soldiers to sire the Roman race.
However, potential Classics students don’t, in fact, always know about these potential triggers. They study Cicero and Homer and architecture, and may never even think of the position of women in such a patriarchal society. This is why we need feminist scholarship, for Classicists to challenge the misogynistic ideas of the ancient societies, as well as knowing the etymology of the word. We need theses and books on why women were absent from the study of Classics for so long, and why we should consider them now. The erasure of women is not an option.
The lack of trigger warnings in Classics is a feminist issue, in that no student should go into the field without being fully aware of the literary misogyny that they must tackle in their degree. To be a Classicist who ignores any discussion on women is not sufficient. So hats off to Mary Beard for sticking by her guns and arguing for the lack of trigger warnings (pun intended). And for any potential Classics student: know what you’re getting into, and know what you are comfortable with. But more importantly, have fun. Classics is the most rewarding and interesting field of study there is.
EDIT: P.S. I apologise for the binary language – the concept of gender fluidity in the ancient world is a whole different issue…