The Fragility of Gender

Gender Essentialism in Sophocles’ Antigone

The annual Dean James E. McLeod Freshman Writing Prize recognizes original research papers that explore some aspect of race, gender and/or identity. The following essay by Luka Cai Minglu received an honorable mention in 2017 .


In his play Antigone, Sophocles presents a skewed power dynamic between men and women in Thebes as the conflict between Antigone and Creon unfolds. Ismene’s advice to Antigone, “we two are women, / so not to fight with men” (61-62) points to the inferior power position that women hold in Theban society and the gendered assumptions that inform civil obedience. Creon’s insistence that “I won’t be called weaker than womankind” (680) reveals a male superiority complex that aligns masculinity with strength and dominance and femininity with weakness and subordination. Even the Chorus of Theban elders, assumed to hold a neutral perspective so as to advise Creon on matters of society, consists entirely of old Theban men, excluding female perspectives from the political arena. The starkly separate realms into which Antigone relegates men and women prompt a reading of the play through the lens of gender essentialism. In feminist theory and gender studies, gender essentialism refers to the attribution of a fixed essence to women. As feminist theorist Elizabeth Grosz explains, essentialism "entails the belief that those characteristics defined as women's essence are shared in common by all women at all times. It implies a limit on the variations and possibilities of change – it is not possible for a subject to act in a manner contrary to her nature" (84). In this paper, I suggest that while characters in Antigone – Creon, the Chorus, and Ismene – appear to reinforce gender essentialism by playing out stereotypes entrenched in an essentialist gender binary, the moments where they most aggressively regulate essentialist gender norms actually reveal the contingency, fragility and encultured nature of these norms, thus challenging contemporary gender ideologies in ancient Greece.

In ancient Greece where Antigone was written in or before 441 BC, gender norms systematically oppressed women and enforced an essentialist gender binary. According to Helene Foley, ancient Greek culture “reinforced symbolic links between female, ‘nature,’ domestic/private, emotion/the irrational, and passivity and male, culture, public, rational/the self-controlled, and activity” (232). Such a systematic dichotomization of gendered characteristics, while seemingly arbitrary, has systemic political consequences – the political structure “identifies itself with a limited group of free men… that has definitively expelled women from its androcentric sphere” (Cavarero 48). Such an expulsion seems inevitable given that the political realm has been, by the gender essentialist’s definition, deemed out-of-bounds for women, with no place for so-called feminine emotionality. Thus, in ancient Greece, gender essentialism operated to box men and women into gendered roles.

Written against the backdrop of such a political context, Antigone appears to reinforce the gender essentialism pervasive in ancient Greece at the time. Gender essentialist distinctions, while seemingly neutral, skew the power dynamic away from the feminine and towards the masculine, so much so that “the culture does not normally permit adult moral autonomy to the female agent” (Foley 126). Such restrictions on female independence can be seen in Antigone: while Antigone and, to some extent, Ismene, struggle to assert their will in the political sphere, they are overwhelmed by various male actors including Creon and the Chorus, who chastise the women for acting out of line. As Antigone’s defense of her familial right to bury her brother clashes against Creon’s defense of Theban law, it seems like “the female becomes the locus of oppositions between ‘nature’ and ‘culture,’ household and state” (Foley 14), especially as Antigone appeals to divine law while Creon appeals to man-made law. Foley argues that despite Antigone’s valiant fight, it is telling that Antigone closes “with the punishment of the female intruder that implicitly reasserts the cultural norm” (14), excluding the female presence from the political realm – through the punishment of death, no less – with a note of finality. While the plot of the play seems to explicitly reaffirm the gender essentialism prevalent in ancient Greece, do the characters themselves endorse the same gender ideology? In particular, does Creon – the most explicitly misogynistic character in the play – base his political decisions upon essentialist assumptions? 

At first sight, Creon’s defense of his edict reveals an essentialist gender ideology that strictly aligns biological sex, gendered characteristics and political identity, and divides them into categorical binaries. Creon’s declaration that, “[no] woman rules me while I live” (525) reveals his belief in a gender hierarchy where the prospect of submitting to a woman is experienced as cognitive dissonance, the mental discomfort one experiences when confronted with new information that contradicts one’s entrenched beliefs (Festinger 93). As such, for Creon, the mere notion of abstaining Antigone from criminality is experienced as a loss of personal dignity. Creon’s use of the wider category “[women]” instead of pinpointing Antigone as a specific individual suggests that Creon regards his conflict with Antigone not as one between the state and the individual, but as one between men and women. Creon’s hoarding of the power to “[rule]” suggests that Creon designates the political sphere as masculine and deems women as apolitical or unworthy of political participation. When Creon immediately reacts to the Guard’s news of Polyneices’ burial with, “What man has dared to do it?” (248), he assumes that transgression – a political act – is possible only by a man. In other words, Creon – at least initially – assumes acts of civil disobedience to be inherently masculine.

As Creon’s political rhetoric unravels, his gender ideology further emerges as a dominant reason for insisting on Antigone’s punishment. In a passionate outburst, he insists that he “not let [himself] be beaten by a woman. / Better, if it must happen, that a man / should overset me. / I won’t be called weaker than womankind” (677-680). The collective noun “womankind” emphasizes Creon’s gender essentialism, where women – in Creon’s worldview – are identified with intrinsically and universally feminine characteristics such as “[weakness].” Creon’s stark admission that he would be willing to concede if Antigone were a man reveals his fear of turning power over to a woman, which would upset his belief in masculine superiority. When Creon defends his edict with “there are other furrows for [Haemon’s] plough,” his agricultural analogy strips Antigone of individuality and attributes to her the feminine function of being an object of marriage as her sole function, reflecting the gendered segregation of labor typical in ancient Greece. Creon’s sexual analogy also implies that Antigone’s function as Haemon’s wife is merely procreative, a passive recipient of Haemon’s sexual advances rather than an agent of free will. Furthermore, the image of Haemon working the land portrays the masculine figure as an exploiter of nature, while the image of Antigone as soil to be tilled aligns femininity with nature and portrays the feminine figure as an inevitable object of exploitation. Creon’s views thus seem to exemplify the gender essentialism in ancient Greece that aligns masculinity with dominance and femininity with subservience.

Creon enforces his gender ideology so rigidly that he forcibly interprets Haemon’s, Antigone’s and Ismene’s actions within an essentialist gendered lens. In Peter Miller’s claim that Creon’s “tyranny has undermined the ability of Haemon to claim a social and gendered identity outside the bounds of his regime” (164), Creon’s “regime” encompasses not only political actions but also gendered ones. As such, Creon’s “tyranny” consists not merely of despotically enforcing his political decrees to the exclusion of citizens’ voices, but also of coercively imposing his gender ideology – in which sex and gender are forcibly entwined – upon his subjects. It is because sex and gender are so tightly coupled in Creon’s mental framework that his imposition of gendered interpretations on Haemon’s acts of defiance is described by Miller as “tyranny.” For example, Creon uses gender-based insults to progressively relegate Haemon to feminine inferiority: first, Creon criticizes Haemon for being “on the woman’s side” (740), then for being “[weaker] than a woman” (746), then finally for being a “woman’s slave” (756), with each subsequent insult further associating Haemon with subordination and weakness. This seems ironic, given that Haemon is acting courageously in standing up to his father and refusing Creon’s subjection, thus suggesting that Creon persists in viewing events through a gender essentialist lens despite contradictory evidence. Furthermore, Creon evokes the gendered nature of gossip to accuse Haemon’s mind of having been “poisoned” (746) by Antigone, whom he accuses of being “sick with… disease” (732). Underlying Creon’s accusation lurks the traditional association of femininity with verbal persuasion and trickery, as when Creon accuses Ismene of “lurking like a viper… who sucked me dry” (531-532), which associates femininity with secrecy, toxicity and even immorality. Such animalistic imagery also aligns femininity with nature and even barbarity or the absence of civilization. Thus, Creon’s treatment of Haemon, Antigone and Ismene further reveals the essentialist gender notions that inform his value judgments.

Moving from Creon, an individual character, to the Chorus, a repeated structure in many Greek tragedies, we see that the Chorus subtly reinforces gender essentialism by using gendered imagery that aligns femininity with nature and passivity, and masculinity with conquest and aggression. The Chorus’ first appearance in the play begins with a narration of “Sun’s own radiance” (99) shining on “the man who had come from Argos with all his armor / running now in headlong fear as you shook his bridle free” (106-107). Here, the animalistic imagery comparing the warrior to a horse shaking his “bridle” free associates masculinity with forceful energy and untamed movement, while the image of sunlight associates masculinity with light and goodness. The man’s “armor,” “many weapons” and “horse-hair crested helms” (115-116) align masculinity with battle and warfare, enforcing ancient Greece’s gendered segregation of roles. Furthermore, the Chorus’ use of natural imagery emphasizes femininity as gentle and nurturing and masculinity as aggressive and hostile. For instance, the Chorus describes the masculine warrior as “screaming shrill, / like an eagle over the land he flew” (111-112). The Chorus thus uses simile to liken men to birds of prey, holding dominion over vast stretches of land. In contrast, the Chorus aligns Ismene with traditionally feminine characteristics of emotional excess and passivity, in an image of quiet grief: “She loves her sister and mourns, / with clouded brow and bloodied cheeks, / tears on her lovely face” (40). That the Chorus describes Ismene’s face as “lovely” even when frozen in sorrow – a jarring adjective that seems out of context – suggests that the male perspective objectifies female fragility in ways that negate the female subject’s agency.

The Chorus entrenches this essentialist gender binary in its description of mankind’s relation to nature: “nothing is stranger than man. / This thing crosses the sea in the winter’s storm, / making his path through the roaring waves. / And she, the greatest of gods, the Earth - / ageless she is, and unwearied – he wears her away / as the ploughs go up and down from year to year / and his mules turn up the soil” (334-341). Here, the Chorus personifies nature and aligns it with gentle femininity, while describing mankind as a conqueror of nature who not only forcefully carves his own “path” through nature’s obstacles, but “wears her away” through agricultural exploitation of the earth’s resources. Here, the Chorus depicts the masculine as adroitly mining the life-sustaining, nurturing resources of the feminine, hinting at the exploitative aspect of gendered interactions. In this way, the Chorus not only reveals an androcentric perspective that places male human beings at the center of its narrative of human history, but skews the power dynamic toward the masculine, creating a gender hierarchy. The Chorus then further aligns mankind with masculinity through descriptions of brutal, dramatic violence: “Lighthearted nations of birds he snares and leads, / wild beast tribes and the salty brood of the sea, / with the twisted mesh of his nets, this clever man. / He controls with craft the beasts of the open air, / walkers on hills. The horse with his shaggy mane / he holds and harnesses, yoked about the neck” (344-351). The Chorus portrays man as the harbinger of civilization, justified in his virile harnessing of nature’s forces and elements to pursue his own ends. The dynamic, animated language used in this imagery aligns mankind’s default perspective with the activeness, aggression and dominance typically associated with the masculine within ancient Greek gender norms. Thus, using a strategy of naturalization – a free-association of certain concepts with certain genders such that they seem naturally aligned – the Chorus, as a representation of wider Theban society, narrates and describes within the framework of an essentialist gender binary similar to that of Creon’s.

Even women in the play, such as Ismene, reinforce the norms of gender essentialism that oppress women in Thebes. Ismene makes the gendered nature of the citizen-state power dynamic clear when she reminds Antigone, “We must remember that we two are women, / so not to fight with men; and that since we are subject to stronger power / we must hear these orders, or any that may be worse” (61-64). Ismene’s warning implies that “power” lies in the hands of “men,” who are aligned with the roles of command and order; in contrast, “women” are relegated to the role of “[subjects],” obliged to listen and obey even the “[worst]” demands of their male rulers. Here, Ismene’s submissive position likely reflects Theban expectations of female subordination in the play. Ismene makes this gender dynamic appear material when she concedes that “in these things I am forced, / and shall obey the men in power. I know / that wild and futile action makes no sense” (66-68). As political theorist Iris Marion Young explains, as a symptom of structural injustice, “[individuals] experience social structures as constraining, objectified, thing-like” (56), whereby “the constraint occurs through the joint action of individuals within institutions and given physical conditions as they affect our possibilities” (55). Ismene’s resigned conclusion thus manifests as a symptom of structural sexism in Theban society, where the state of feeling “forced” shows that Ismene’s options for agency are limited by institutions and norms that place “men,” as a collective, “in power.” Such limitations are experienced by Ismene as tangible social facts, so much so that challenging such gendered restrictions “makes no sense” to her, presenting itself as an illogical non-option. Ismene’s lens also appears implicitly aligned with Creon’s essentialist gender ideology, as the adjectives “wild” and “futile” align female action with irrationality, emotionality and excess. The adjective “wild” itself adopts the language of the naturalist, further aligning femininity with nature. Thus, Ismene’s explicit submission to male authority seems to operate within the gender essentialist framework constructed by Creon and the Chorus.

At the same time, Ismene’s language challenges the gender essentialism that it purports to reaffirm. For example, Ismene’s use of the word “forced” suggests that gendered roles are external constraints rather than biologically determined facts. Such moments of tension destabilize the distinction between nature and culture, between biological gender characteristics and acquired ones. In fact, this distinction is reminiscent of modern views that separate sex from gender: “while sex (a person’s identification as male or female) is determined by anatomy, gender (masculinity or femininity in personality traits and behavior) can be largely independent of anatomy, and is a social construction that is diverse, variable, and dependent on historical circumstances” (Abrams 113). In a similar vein, digging deeper into the language employed by Creon and the Chorus reveals challenges to the gender essentialism that seems, at first glance, so pervasive in the play.

While Creon’s gender ideology appears to align with conventional ancient Greek views, his gender essentialism deviates significantly from the norm. For one, instead of seeing gender as biologically determined, Creon seems to regard gendered characteristics as learnt or acquired over time. Initially, Creon seems to associate femininity with captivity when he orders his slaves to take Antigone and Ismene inside: “[they] must be women now. / No more free running” (578-579), suggesting that freedom, movement and agency are absent from his categorical definition of women. However, Creon seems to suggest that femininity can be enforced upon individuals, where gender exists in a contingent state (“[they] must be women now” (emphasis added)) rather than as inherent in the person. Creon’s analytic distinction between sex and gender suggests that his gender ideology may be less essentialist than expected. Furthermore, Creon proclaims, “I am no man and [Antigone] the man instead / if she can have this conquest without pain” (484-485). Creon seems to perceive gender as separate from sex in these lines, where masculinity is conferred upon whichever agent (whether biologically male or female) dominates or emerges victorious from the power tussle, and where femininity is associated with acquiescence and submission. Thus, Creon’s notion of gender as encultured and contingent suggests that his gender ideology is pragmatic instead of principled, shifting fluidly from time to time to justify his political decisions.

Creon himself (at least subconsciously) acknowledges the possibly of movement between masculinity and femininity even within the strict gender binary that he constructs. From Creon’s speeches concerning sexual difference, we see glimpses of a gender ideology in which “the roles are as rigidly opposed as they are prone to frightening reversals” (Cavarero 56). As Creon warns Haemon of the dishonor of being “beaten by a woman” (677) or being “called weaker than womankind” (680), the back-and-forth between Creon and Haemon contains underlying reciprocal accusations of feminization. For example, when Creon insists to the Chorus that Haemon is “firmly on the woman’s side” (740), Haemon counters with the ironic counterfactual, “If you’re a woman” (741), thus returning Creon’s gendered insult. Haemon’s gendered invective continues as he claims that, “[if] you weren’t father, I should call you mad” (755), where madness connotes feminine emotionality that undermines Creon’s distinctly masculine role as a father. What makes both men’s mutual allegations potent is the underlying male fear of being female, or what Adriana Cavarero calls “the anguish of doubtful virility” (56). For example, Creon declares that Creon will “never see [him] yield to shame” (747), suggesting indignant resistance against the shame of emasculation that Creon attempts to thrust upon him. As a result, both men reassert themselves obsessively against the threat of emasculation. For example, Haemon’s refusal to “yield to shame” (747) suggests a denial of the social and gender roles imposed upon him by Creon, and an attempt to redefine his gender identity on his own terms. When Creon demands “respect” for “[his] office” (744), he safeguards the political realm as a masculine one, and brandishes his role as ruler as proof of his masculinity. Ironically, Creon’s dogmatism hints at the volatility of gender, suggesting that essentialist roles need to be relentlessly enforced to avoid disintegration. From the possibility of Creon and Haemon becoming feminized and their fear of feminization, we see that these men, despite arguing against each other, both subconsciously acknowledge the possibility of movement across the gender binary, with their most hyper-masculine moments revealing the fragility of gender.

Tracing this crack in the conventional gender essentialism espoused in ancient Greece, we see that Creon himself eventually inverts the male-female dichotomy of activity-passivity, whereby femininity becomes newly associated with disobedience and masculinity with subservience. In Creon’s first long speech to Haemon, Creon’s advice to Haemon hinges on “the contrast between womankind as representing disorder through individualism and man as representing order through collectivism and obedience” (Bernstein 124). As Creon describes the ideal son as “dutiful” and “obedient” (642), he extends the boundaries of this judgment from the household to the polis, whereby he describes ideal citizens as “men who yield to order” (676), thus associating normative masculinity with deference to authority. In contrast, Creon describes condoning Antigone’s presence in the state as “[allowing] disorder in [his] house” (659), and portrays Antigone’s act of civil disobedience as having the potential to “[ruin] cities,” “[tear] down our homes,” and “[break] the battlefront in panic-rout” (673-674), associating femininity with an image of complete anarchy. This contrasts Creon’s initial assumption that only a man could have defied his orders and attempted to bury Polyneices’ body, suggesting that Creon’s gender ideology is driven largely by political instead of principled reasons.

Creon further associates masculinity with subservience and femininity with rebellion when he posits only two alternatives for Haemon’s identity: as an effeminized citizen (a member of the polis), or as a son (a member of his family). When Creon wonders if Haemon will arrive “maddened” (633) by or loyal to his father, the potential alternatives that Creon poses disrupt his initial essentialist gender binary. While passion and madness are affiliated with women, as emotionality conventionally is in ancient Greece, servitude and obedience surface as masculine characteristics in Creon’s eyes. This suggests that Creon tailors his gender ideology as a means to pursue political ends. As Haemon struggles to prove his loyalty to his father while expressing support for Antigone’s actions, Creon’s gender ideology shifts to condemn Haemon’s resistance, emasculating Haemon as the feminine “other” in order to justify and hyper-masculinize his own political position. As such, Creon’s gender ideology ends up looking rather different, leading Miller to regard Creon’s new gender dichotomy as one where “loyalty / son / subservient / masculine contrasts with disloyalty / citizen / independent / feminine” (Miller 167). The ideological basis for this discordant scheme is political: honorable masculinity is only available to those who are loyal to Creon and accept his autocracy, while shameful femininity is ascribed to those who rebel against Creon and defy his edict. Thus, Creon not only acknowledges the possibility of a fluid gender binary, but inverts it himself by typecasting gender roles in ways that deviate from ancient Greek norms.

While Creon represents a deviation from gender essentialism in the political sphere, and Ismene resists gender essentialism as an individual actor excluded from political recognition, the Chorus, as a transcendental organization, serves as a departure from gender essentialism in the spiritual realm. While working within an essentialist gender binary framework, the Chorus, too, transgresses the boundaries that restrict men and women to their essentialist traits. For one, the Chorus seems to permit demonstrations of female power limited to the realm of love and marriage: “Love unconquered in fight… You rest at night in the soft bloom of a girl’s face. / You cross the sea, you are known in the wildest lairs. / Not the immortal gods can escape you, / nor men of a day. Who has you within him is mad” (783-790). By situating love in “the soft bloom of a girl’s face,” the Chorus aligns romantic love with both the female body and essentialist feminine traits of gentleness and tenderness. By aligning love with “[madness]” and “[wildness],” the Chorus also reinforces the gender binary that aligns femininity with emotional excess. But at the same time, by describing love as “unconquered in fight,” the Chorus places erotic power beyond the physical realm, portraying it as a form of feminine power that is fully capable of holding its own, from whom neither men nor gods can “escape” from. Further, the Chorus describes love, thus far feminized, as capable of athletic feats such as “[crossing] the sea,” reminiscent of the Chorus’ previous androcentric description of mankind as conqueror of nature. In addition, the natural imagery that the Chorus had previously evoked to describe the brutality of masculine power disrupts the strict alignment of masculinity with culture and femininity with nature, and perhaps even reminds us of the ferocity of Antigone herself. This description of love thus blurs the boundaries of gender essentialism that the Chorus had initially set up, and exposes the socially constructed, arbitrary nature of essentialist gender associations.

In the end, Antigone exemplifies the way in which Greek tragedy reaffirms the cultural status quo while simultaneously allowing for challenges to the reductive notion of gender essentialism in ancient Greece. I conclude that while Creon, the Chorus and Ismene appear to reinforce essentialist stereotypes, their most aggressive attempts to regulate gender essentialism actually expose the fragility of that gender dynamic, and their subtle deviations from essentialist assumptions – including Creon’s pragmatic ideology and the Chorus’ ambiguous use of imagery – reveal gender roles to be contingent and socially constructed rather than natural and inevitable. Ultimately, Creon’s moments of hyper-masculinity and Ismene’s moments of hyper-femininity challenge the essentialist qualities assigned to each gender, and expose the tenuous nature of gender essentialism. In subtle ways, then, Antigone challenges the ideology of gender essentialism pervasive in ancient Greece, in both the political and spiritual realm, in both particularistic and structural ways. 



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