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The Significance of Skin Color in Aristophanes (Ecclesiazousae, Thesmophoriazousae)

Velvet L. Yates

            One might expect the stereotypical skin color of Greek women, whiteness, to play a key role in the gender disguises of Aristophanic comedy.  I argue that another function of white skin color is to link women to male professional craftsmen.  While much has been written about the plays' transvestism and the gender-blending character of Agathon, little attention has been paid to the role of skin color or to the significant ties between women and craftsmen made on this basis. 

            White skin was so strongly associated with women that Aristotle felt compelled to offer a biological explanation: women lose so much blood during menstruation, that it makes them pale.  Additionally, a Hippocratic treatise gives the normal amount of blood lost during menstruation as about a pint.  Such evidence indicates that white skin was part of an essentialist definition of women, not just a desirable cosmetic effect.  The fact that Greek women were not literally white does not make it any less of an essentialist sexual characteristic.

            Of course, a value so strongly associated with women would carry negative connotations when applied to men.  The examples given in LSJ indicate that leukos, meaning "white-skinned" (entries II.b and c), is "a sign of youth and beauty" (II.b) when applied to women, but means "weakly, womanish" (II.c) when applied to men.  Austin and Olson (119) support this gender-based force of leukos, as praise for women but invective for men, in their commentary on Thesmophoriazousae 191.  Irwin also observes that "a fair complexion ... signified effeminacy in men" (129).

            Aristophanes straightforwardly equates white skin with woman, which is expected for female characters, but indicates effeminacy in male characters.  In painted theater-masks, the symbolism can be even more straightforward than what the Greeks (thought they) saw in nature. Aristophanes’s schema is simple and essentialist: white skin = woman, tan skin = man, and suggesting the opposite = comedy.  In the Ecclesiazousae, women disguise themselves as men in order to infiltrate the Assembly.  In preparation, the women attempt to darken their skin.  These 'tanning sessions' contrast starkly with later mentions of white lead makeup (psumithios, lines 878, 929, 1072).  In spite of these tanning sessions, the male Assembly-goers are struck by the whiteness of the disguised women. The assumption behind this joke is that male indoor laborers do not develop the tanned skin strongly associated with men. 

            In the Thesmophoriazousae, the poet Agathon personifies this close sympathy between women and craftsmen, when he is described at work. The crafting metaphors are crudely interrupted by a remark stressing Agathon's sexual passivity (cf. katapugôn, 200).  Furthermore, Agathon's effeminate good looks feature white skin (leukos, 191).  Stehle notes that "His mask was probably white, the standard type for an effete male in Aristophanes" (378).  Agathon identifies with women through clever creativity, sex, and skin color.

            By contrast, the Inlaw's elaborate preparations for his female disguise include depilation, but not skin-whitening, perhaps portending the eventual failure of his disguise.  In performance, the joke could play out on a purely visual level, through the use of a darker mask for the Inlaw (among the white-skinned women at the Thesmophoria). 

            Aristophanes' free-wheeling associations of women and craftsmen, through cleverness, creativity, skin color, and sexual passivity, are all played for laughs, and confined to the fantasy-worlds built in his comedies.  Some continuity of this knot of associations can be seen in Xenophon; but the historian transforms Aristophanes' playfulness into a damning indictment. In Xenophon pale skin comes to signify 'physical debilitation,' and clever craftiness becomes a 'weakening of the mind.'  Xenophon dourly presents the feminized craftsman as a warped and wretched creature, instead of Aristophanes' wildly inventive and effeminate poet-craftsman Agathon.  For Xenophon, the close sympathy of mind and skin color between women and craftsmen becomes a justification for political exclusion, rather than the rich source of jokes it had been in Aristophanes' comedy of gender confusion.

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Color in Ancient Drama in Performance

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