GOP vs. Women = Pentheus vs. Bacchae

Agave and Bacchae tear apart Pentheus

Agave and Bacchae tear apart Pentheus

I continue to be appalled at the constant attacks on women’s reproductive rights in today’s America. Republican legislatures that claim that they want “big government” out of our lives nevertheless continue to call for medically unnecessary sonograms and scripted doctor instructions in Planned Parenthood offices. Abortion clinics are being closed left and right in such states as Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia, and many people want to prevent women from receiving free birth control in their insurance plans.

Euripides’ play The Bacchae gives us some insight into what is motivating the attacks: a fear of women’s sexual autonomy. Sometimes this fear reveals itself explicitly, such as when Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” for her campaign to get the university to provide birth control in their student health plans. More often it reveals itself in the way that politicians, while claiming that they are primarily concerned with the economy, spend far more time on reproductive issues. They have a lot in common with the King of Thebes.

Pentheus returns to his kingdom and discovers that all the women have abandoned their looms and, as he sees it, are out committing lascivious acts in the mountains. It is not the women who are out of control, however. As Teiresias, the priest of Thebes, points out,

It is not Dionysus who will force virtue on women
in matters of sex. You must look for this in their natures.
Even in a Bacchic revel, a woman who is really virtuous
will not be corrupted.

In other words, worshipping Dionysus is a controlled ritual—which, after all, is not unlike the way that American women wish to control their sexual lives (or plan their parenthoods). Dionysus is a nature god and to sing his praises is to acknowledge those dimensions of ourselves that we share with nature. It is those who fear their natural selves that want to lock Dionysus up. As Pentheus discovers when he tries to imprison the god, however, no enclosure can hold him.

Dionysus comes to Thebes originally because of how the society is treating his own unwed mother. Semele has been impregnated by Zeus, and although she doesn’t survive the birth, her sisters are ashamed of her. In revenge for their disrespect, Dionysus reveals to them that they too have sexual natures, striking them with Bacchic madness so that they go dancing in the woods. He will do the same with Pentheus, persuading him to dress as a woman and go leer at the Bacchae.

Pentheus is like those “family values” politicians who rail against immorality and then indulge in illicit sex themselves. (Louisiana Representative David Vitter sleeping with prostitutes and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford committing adultery while claiming to be hiking the Appalachian Trail come to mind.) It is not the women who are obsessed with sex. It is our so-called social guardians. What Teiresias says to Pentheus could be said to any number of right wing legislators and conservative church leaders:

I am sorry to say it, but you are mad. Totally mad.
And no drug could help you, even though you’re as sick
as if you had been drugged.

Ultimately, Pentheus’ attempts to corral Dionysus lead to the Bacchae, including his own mother, tearing him apart. Will America’s women rise up and perform the electoral equivalent?

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