Slut-shaming Helen of Troy

“She was a whore.”

He was referring to Helen of Troy. We had been reading Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “To Helen,” which may or may not be about the woman whose face launched a thousand ships–of course, the subject of poems rarely are that clear cut. Here’s the text:

To Helen
BY EDGAR ALLAN POE
Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicéan barks of yore,
That gently, o’er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.

On desperate seas long wont to roam,
Thy hyacinth hair, thy classic face,
Thy Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome.

Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche
How statue-like I see thee stand,
The agate lamp within thy hand!
Ah, Psyche, from the regions which
Are Holy-Land!

I was using the Helen of Troy reference in class to contrast his putting her, the “most beautiful woman in the world,” on a pedestal, with the woman described in Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun …”), who, well, like Bill said, when she walks treads on the ground. We read the poem, talked about what the narrator thinks of his subject, and then I brought up Helen and asked if the class knew the story of Helen of Troy. They knew the gist of it–mainly, that she was taken to Troy and the Trojan War started as a result–but when I asked, “Do you know how or why she wound up there?”

“She was a whore,” said one student.

A week later, with my advanced class, we read the same poem and I asked the same question. “She was a slut,” said a student.

Both times this happened, I stopped the class and did my best to explain the circumstances surrounding Helen’s abduction and the beginning of the Trojan War; considering I hadn’t read or studied it in a decade and a half, I was a little rusty and may have gotten my facts a little wrong, but I thought I did a decent job. I ran through the whole “goddess beauty contest” story, and then a couple more of the “real world” theories: that she was kidnapped, that perhaps she did go willingly, and that perhaps that she was raped. I concluded by saying that even if she did go willingly, I didn’t think you had the right to call her a slut or a whore, and that you not call women those words, then went on to the sonnet and talked about how more “real” Shakespeare’s woman is than Helen.

Then we talked about the concluding conversation of A Doll’s House where Nora tells Torvald about how because she was his “doll,” he never knew her; heck, she never knew herself. The rest of the class went pretty smoothly, which I guess is nice, but I haven’t stopped thinking about how easily the words “slut” and “whore” came out of my students’ mouth with regard to a mythological figure whose story isn’t entirely known; moreover, while in one class a girl was immediately offended–both by the word “slut” and that student’s historical inaccuracy–in the other, there wasn’t much of a response from the girls and chuckles from the boys. I’m still bothered by this.

I rationalized it a little at first–after all, sophomores are the very definition of immature (no, really … look it up), so the fact that a classmates used the word “slut” or “whore” in class is about as Beavis-and-Butthead-funny as when they chuckle because they see a sentence that uses the word “gay.” It was enough to get me through a few more class periods, and when I had the chance to think about it some more, I found myself getting even more annoyed. Annoyed at how childish the guys were and annoyed at how with the exception of the one who eagerly joined in on my shutting that one guy down, the girls just seemed to demurely sit and take it. While I will admit that I probably used them quite a bit when I was a teenager, which is why I was probably able to rationalize the whole thing at first, “slut” and “whore” are really harsh and I think that if I walked up to any of my female friends and called them that I’d be greeted with a slap to the face or a kick to the groin.

Both imply that you’re damning that woman’s appearance or behavior, insinuating that she’s “unclean.” Whore is even worse, at least in my mind–a step above the c-word. In either case, they turn a woman into someTHING, that something is definitely less than the person saying it, and the liberal use of those words leads to a whole set of thoughts and actions that … well, one minute you’re calling her a slut and the next minute you’re telling me, “Well, look at the way she was dressed. She obviously wanted it …”

When I was in class, I tried not to get rage-y. Part of that was, at least in one of the classes, a student was getting rage-y for me. I’m trying not to get rage-y here, even though this still bothers me. I mean, I’ve spent the better part of this year watching politicians try to demean women by demonizing their actions, taking away their rights, and basically trying to shunt them to some sort of lower class. And I’ve seen how that trickles down to the students I teach, where I hear girls say, “Well I’m not sure I believe in feminism,” (I actually heard that), and guys think it’s funny to hear someone called a slut (albeit a mythological someone, but a someone nonetheless).

There’s something inherently wrong with that and there’s something inherently wrong with the thought that I have in moments like this, which is in making sure that I don’t go “too far” in setting the student straight. You know, because that student has a voice and I don’t want to completely silence his voice (and in the process violate his rights or something). Maybe I should have turned it into a teachable moment or held a Socratic seminar or created a class blog entry or flipped instruction instead of simply shutting it down and not letting misogyny have its day in the the sun. I do know one thing: there are plenty of women I know (and am grateful for knowing) who wouldn’t put up with that shit, and I really hope that all my students join their ranks.

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