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Dramatizing the Gendered Subject: Examining the Pseudo-Stomach in Leucippe and Clitophon as a Prop of Performative Gender

Emily Waller

University of Pennsylvania

In her essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” Judith Butler describes womanhood as an enacted reality which requires one “to materialize oneself in obedience to an historically delimited possibility, and to do this as a sustained and repeated corporeal project” (Butler 1988). The description furnishes a compelling schema for understanding feminine self-conception in the ancient novels, which subject heroines to a litany of scarcely-evaded dangers or “stylized repetition of acts” through which to demonstrate their gender (Butler 1988). One of the most striking instances of ritualized gender enactment occurs in Achilles Tatius’ ​Leucippe and Clitophon,​ in which Leucippe playacts her own sacrifice wearing an animal stomach as a makeshift prop. Using as a lens Butler’s phenomenological approach to the gendered subject, my paper examines the “pseudo-stomach” used in Leucippe’s faux sacrifice as a prop of performative gender, symbolizing Leucippe’s self-subjugation and interpellation of a gendered identity.

Though the last two decades have seen new waves of scholarship on gender in the ancient novel, these studies have largely approached the texts within the framework of historical criticism and literary theory rather than phenomenology or feminist theory (Balot 1998; Egger 1999; Haynes 2002; Whitmarsh 2013). Much of this scholarship has considered the masculine self as expressed in the novels, but little attention has been given to feminine selfhood. The dearth of phenomenological examinations of feminine gender expression in ancient narrative can be tied in part to the notion implicit in the text that masculinity is experienced, while femininity is observed (see Morales 2004). This paper thus addresses a critical lacuna in the study of the ancient novel by foregrounding the accomplishment of feminine selfhood as a phenomenological act.

In braiding together phenomenological and feminist critical approaches, material culture emerges as a manifestation of gender topography in the ancient novels.​The use of objects as gendered symbols is particularly evident in Tatius’ novel. Punctuated with instances of gender ambiguities, the narrative playfully explores gender identity through characters’ interaction with material culture, whether the cross-dressing of the pirates or the ekphrastic votive painting at the novel’s start. In the wake of Leucippe’s grotesque and fetishized presumed slaughter, the animal’s belly assumes a deeper significance as a symbol of Leucippe’s agency, as she submits to her own feminine subjecthood through the mortification of her ‘feral’ sexual urges and embrace of παρθένος. In its function as a set piece on the stage of gender, the pseudo-stomach typifies three essential components of Butler’s theory—namely, that gender is performed as an embodied or materialized reality, repeated in a ritualized manner, and set on a socio-historical stage.

Session/Panel Title

The Ancient Novel and Material Culture

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