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Ovid in the #MeToo Era

Daniel Libatique

Boston University

            Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed, coerced, and threatened over 80 women in the course of his decades-long career. Jupiter deceived and preyed upon countless nymphs and innocent girls in order to gain sexual satisfaction. Matt Lauer of NBC News installed a door-locking button at his desk to trap women in his office so that he could force himself upon them. Tereus locked Philomela away in a hut in the woods after raping her and cutting out her tongue so that she could not expose him. These stories of power abused, of victims brutalized and consequently left too afraid or even unable to speak, transcend temporal boundaries and resonate both in the context of Ovid’s Rome and today’s #MeToo movement, in which victims of sexual harassment and assault use social media to bring into general cultural discussion what had previously been taboo to discuss openly.

            In the #MeToo era, in which the exposures of figures like Weinstein and Lauer have become catalysts for a sea change in rape culture, Ovid’s corpus presents problems for an educator sensitive to issues of power and gender politics. His poems prominently depict rape, coercion, deception, and the punishment of innocent victims (most often women), from Jupiter’s profligacies in the first books of the Metamorphoses to the ubiquitous tales of rape or violence as etiology in the Fasti. Nor are these themes limited to those poems; Ovid’s praeceptor amoris of the Ars Amatoria claims to provide practical advice for courses of action for the everyday courter that would be cast today as sexual harassment, stalking, or assault. For all these issues, however, Ovid remains a necessary part of the Classical canon, an integral locus for reactions to the burgeoning Augustan principate, reception of Greek and Republican Roman literature, and mythological innovation and re-appropriation, an author who must be taught for students to gain a holistic appreciation of the ancient world. How, then, can we teach Ovid, including his depictions of violence and rape, in the #MeToo era?

            This consideration is timely given the contemporary rape crisis on college campuses and the ways in which students, especially female ones, react to Ovid’s stories. As of 2015, at least 23.1% of female undergraduates and 5.4% of male undergraduates reported experiencing rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation (https://www.rainn.org/statistics/campus-sexual-violence), and the number is most likely under-reported due to stigma and fear of reprisal or personal consequences. Ovid depicts the types of violence that, statistically-speaking, some students who read him have experienced. Their reactions range from intra-classroom resistance (Kahn 2004) to larger university-wide calls for either a ban or mandatory trigger warnings on Ovid’s poetry, as exemplified by students at Columbia University in 2015 (https://www.columbiaspectator.com/opinion/2015/04/30/our-identities-matter-core-classrooms/).

            In this paper, I offer a reading of the Philomela episode of Ovid’s Metamorphoses against the story of Matt Lauer’s profligacies and exposure, a comparison of microcosmic scope to highlight a common theme between at least some of the victims in Ovid’s poems and those in the #MeToo movement: the restoration of female agency in a male-dominated world that had stolen it away, whether through systemic privilege or deliberate targeting. I then consider the larger context of Ovid’s corpus and the value for students of the #MeToo era even in stories where the victim does not regain power. One aspect of Ovid’s stories of brutality that makes them important in the present-day context is the seemingly immanent nature of the power imbalances that he portrays, those generated by unfair criteria like gender or social power. Ovid’s poems offer us exercises in recognizing those structures of power and the ways in which they are constructed, an act of discernment necessary if we are to take steps towards dismantling those unjust structures, as the #MeToo movement is beginning to do.

Session/Panel Title

Ovid Studies: the Next Millennium

Session/Paper Number

68.5

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