Lucian’s Dial. meret. 5 describes a hetaira’s (Leaina’s) sexual encounter with two women, Demonassa and Megilla. During the encounter Megilla removes a wig and declares himself a man by the name of Megillos. Leaina and Megillos then discuss what it means to be a man. Recent readings of Dial meret. 5 have interpreted the text two ways: 1) as evidence of real historical sexual practices between women (e.g., Haley’s “pomosexuality”; Davidson’s “‘modern style’ lesbians”; Bissa’s claim that the text is “about female same sex desire”; and Carla-Uhink’s “two butch women”); or 2) they push back against reading these characters’ practices as reflections of reality (Boehringer 2014; cf. 2010, 2015; Gilhuly). Both sets of readings focus on female homosexuality and the dialogue’s destabilization of masculinity (Ash), but I contend that these arguments only represent half of the dialogue.
When Megillos takes off the wig, he performs a moment of re-embodiment. Drawing on transgender literary theory, I define re-embodiment as an intentional change of outward appearance that forces viewers to reevaluate their understanding of the re-embodied person’s symbolic place (Prosser; Mascia-Lees; Mowat). Viewing this re-embodiment opens a semiotic gap, which is only closed after a reevaluation of its significance. Semiotic gaps always cause ruptures, and in dialogue 5, the semiotic gap caused by Megillos’s re-embodiment breaks the narrative into two parts. The first focuses on female homosexuality and destabilizes masculinity, while the second reinscribes masculinity by transforming a scene which defies male expectations—as the three women are outside of the active/passive dichotomy (Beohringer 2014; Bissa; Gilhuly)—into one between a ‘male’ and female acting within prescribed norms.
Lucian emphasizes this semiotic gap by using multiple narrative tools: first, after Megillos’ re-embodiment, Demonassa disappears from the dialogue, which recasts the threesome into a normative heterosexual encounter; second, as a male client Megillos must re-initiate his pursuit of Leaina; and finally, re-embodiment transforms the sex-scene into a mock philosophical dialogue (Gilhuly). At first, Megillos and Leaina’s conversation does destabilize masculinity: Megillos claims that he does not need a penis to be a man, and instead possesses something else. (ἔχω γάρ τι ἀντὶ τοῦ ἀνδρείου [5.4]). In the end, however, Megillos’s attempt to perform masculinity fails.
Within Dial. meret., competition between the hetairai and their clients abounds (Shreve-Price), but Leaina’s complete control over Megillos still stands out. Throughout the economic negotiation and the subsequent sexual encounter (5.4), the re-embodied Megillos fails to even live up to the standards expected of a νεανίσκος (a young man): Lucian uniquely employs several verbs with emasculating connotations (ἱκετεύω, ἀσθμαίνω [5.4]) implying that Megillos’s masculine performance has failed. And Lucian also draws attention to Leaina’s clear economic victory over Megillos, pointing out the exorbitant gifts she receives from him (5.4). By demonstrating Megillos’s shortcomings, Lucian emphasizes the penis’s essential role in properly enacting masculinity and confirms the impossibility of Megillos’s re-embodiment. While Leaina treats Megillos like a man, in the end he just doesn’t measure up.