“Flee, for if your eyes are petrified in amazement, she will turn you to stone.” – Gaspare Murtola
The face of Medusa, surrounded by a halo of venomous snakes–with eyes that turn those who gaze upon her into stone– is a recognizable figure we can all call to mind. We have seen it in forms of art and heard about it in greek myths, representations that predominantly paint a picture of monstrosity; one of a decapitated, abhorrent head.
But Medusa wasn’t always a monster, her face wasn’t always a site of horror and–unfortunately for her– she wasn’t always able to petrify the owners of the eyes that fixated on her. Medusa’s true narrative is often lost within the patriarchal archives but Ovid’s Metamorphoses reveals the realmyth of Medusa. Before Medusa became the figure we know today she was a captivating, young woman, known for a beauty which rivaled the goddess Athena. This beauty did not go unnoticed by Poseidon, who–ignoring Medusa’s rejection– took her body by force in Athena’s sacred temple. Out of jealousy, Athena cursed Medusa, punishing her to a miserable and monstrous existence, to be hunted for her head. There is something to learn from this tragic myth: Like so many women throughout history, Medusa was not born a monster but made into one.
What if, just like in the myth of Medusa, those gazing at female tragedy really did turn to stone? Millions would be petrified, sitting in the position I am in right now: in front of their laptops, or perhaps with a tabloid in hand. The world would be an enormous statue garden. And what if, just like with Medusa’s story, so many female narratives have been manipulated, tricking us into believing these women are indeed like monsters? Contemporary media has created their very own 21st century Medusas, finding their victims in female celebrities. Have you ever thought about why people ‘just don’t like’– or even hate certain female celebrities without any real plausible reason? Or why so many female celebrities go through an intense state of adoration by the public only to be completely destroyed later?
I have connected the similarities between Medusa and the treatment of female celebrities many times: from the way Britney Spears was portrayed in the media as a deranged monster to the current media storm surrounding Meghan Markle, leaving a trail of tears behind with her ‘monstrous behavior’. But how monstrous are these women really? Are they not, just like Medusa, victims of narrative, victims of vengeance and misogyny? The witch hunts never really stopped, nowadays we just throw the ‘witches’ on a cindering pyre of magazines to let them burn away with ‘juicy’ stories. Because of the persistence of these witch hunts–the manipulation of female characters into monsters– I will illuminate the patterns through which modern media attempts to turn female celebrities into modern day Medusas.
The witch hunts never really stopped, nowadays we just throw the ‘witches’ on a cindering pyre of magazines to let them burn away with ‘juicy’ stories.
“Are You Sure You Want a Piece of Me?”: Britney Spears
Britney Spears and her music have always been one of my guilty pleasures but whenever I confess to this I am met with similar replies. “Didn’t she go bald? Didn’t she attack a car with an umbrella out of nowhere? She’s crazy!” But like Medusa, Britney is a character with a story that is often misunderstood. At the start of Britney’s career, she was perceived as the beautiful, innocent girl next door. Years later she was hunted like an animal by swarms of self-proclaimed warriors armed with their cameras, tracking down her every move, trying to bring in Medusa’s head– Britney’s head. Everyone knew there was a big bounty on a Britney meltdown caught on camera. In 2007 the media succeeded to capture their carefully manufactured Medusa on camera in a– now famous–moment of vulnerability, after which they mockingly labeled her “Britney Shears” (Daily News), “a Buzzkill” (New York Post) and “A Timebomb” (US Weekly).
The attack on her persona targeted her mental state, hoping to tear her apart from the inside out through headlines like: “INSIDE BRITNEY’S BREAKDOWN” (People), “BRITNEY OUT OF CONTROL” (US Weekly) and even going as far as attacking her motherhood with headlines like “Mommy’s Crying”, coupled with a photo of her children (US Weekly). Britney’s mental struggles became an ‘exclusive’ issue– instead of them raising alarm and sympathy, she became the subject of merciless attacks. Her agony turned into a front cover of a cheap magazine: the “Britney Spears Suicide Drama” (Weekly Life & Style).
These headlines served as metaphorical swords in this modern Medusa’s story– desperately being flung around, hoping to meet the tissue of Britney’s neck and draw some blood. And they did, in the hateful responses of many Americans, such as Kendall Ehrich who literally claimed: “Really, if I had an opportunity to shoot Britney Spears I would”. These reactions were not the outcome of Britney’s mental breakdown alone. Her character murder began way earlier than that, with headlines like “Britney the Bridezilla” (US Weekly), “Pop Princess, Too Sexy Too Soon?” (People). The gradual shift from the hyperbolic overexposure of Britney in the media, which praised her as the embodiment of the ‘American Dream’, to the nearly fatal and sexist attacks on an ‘American Tragedy’ is only one example of the many Medusa patterns targeting female celebrities.
“No One Likes a Mad Woman, You Made Her Like That”: Taylor Swift
Perhaps one of the most well known cases of media manipulation is Taylor Swift’s treatment by the media, which makes it seem as if Medusa’s snake hair was custom made for Taylor to wear. Taylor is another female celebrity people just seem to dislike for ‘no particular reason’ with some magazines even insisting she has a “Talent to annoy” (Montreal Gazette). But in reality there is a clear pattern which leads up to the unfair treatment of Taylor Swift by the public, and it doesn’t actually have anything to do with Taylor as a person. When the world was introduced to Taylor Swift she was portrayed as a sweet and innocent country girl but throughout the years the media has branded her as a “LIAR” (In Touch), “Tinker Taylor” (The Sun), an “Ultimate Player” (NY Post), and on multiple occasions even a man-eater.
Throughout her entire career– by use of a myriad of sexist approaches– Taylor has been framed as the monstrous feminine. As a result of this, her character has been defined through her romantic life instead of her achievements and whenever she spoke up about this she was accused of “playing a victim” (Buzzfeed). After Taylor expressed dislike for a line in a Kanye West song which said: “Me and Taylor might still have sex. Why? I made that bitch famous” the media and public were quick to jump on the bandwagon headed for drama town. When Kim Kardashian subsequently leaked an out of context taken phone call, ‘exposing’ Taylor’s ‘approval’ of the line, Taylor’s social media were flooded with snake emojis, branding her as a treacherous monster. The media was happy to add fire to this fuel, having been guilty of taking Taylor’s words and actions out of context for years. Despite the continuous media inflammation Taylor has managed to turn the Medusa snake hair the media imposed on her, into a crown by reclaiming the snake brand into her album ‘Reputation’.
Unfortunately this was not the end of the hunt for this Medusa’s head. Only recently, a new Netflix show betrayed their complicity in this framing of narrative with a scriptline saying: “You go through men faster than Taylor Swift” (Ginny & Georgia). When Taylor herself reacted to this, calling it a “lazy and deeply sexist joke”, belonging in the past, she was again attacked. Instead of listening to this raise of concern, the Medusa narrative was again employed as a weapon, just like Medusa’s killer did in the myth when he put her head on a shield to petrify his enemies. Somehow the situation’s narrative had again turned to: Taylor Swift, the monstrous, predatory and even the racist (because the actress in the show is black)– “that bitch”. Even after all the times Taylor has spoken out against media manipulation, she is still being hunted for her head.
“At Least It Gives The Papers Something They Can Write About”: Miley Cyrus
Miley Cyrus’ Disney character Hannah Montana is known for living “the best of both worlds”, but we probably should have seen it coming that the media and public very much disagreed with the real Miley living her best of both worlds. As soon as Miley passed adulthood, the media seized the opportunity to attempt to curse yet another Medusa. She has been called a mother in law’s “Worst Nightmare” (US Weekly), “Trainwreck Miley”, and “Wild Miley” (New Weekly). Every relationship she ever had that ended, prompted the question of “What is wrong with Miley?” (US Weekly), and never “What is wrong with her ex?”. Articles discussing “the real reason men are turned off by Miley” (Life & Style) surfaced, painting her as an impossibly difficult and wild woman. The media was pushing for another Britney Spears kind of meltdown, targeting her in everything she did and emphasizing “bizarre behaviour and violent outbursts” (Star), as well as her drug use (which as most of us know she was never very secretive about).
Yet, everytime the media tried to paint her in a more monstrous picture, Miley went against the grain, embodying the Medusa personality they had enforced on her by contradicting the very image Disney constructed so carefully. To this day she speaks out on the issues of sexism and misogyny she has faced and she uses the Medusa image that has been imposed on her in her marketing strategies and music–not allowing the media the satisfaction of another Medusa beheading. Yet, the media’s treatment hasn’t become any kinder and many people still choose to see her as a monster on a wrecking ball, incapable of being loved by any man.
“Monster Meghan Exposed!”: Meghan Markle
It has become almost impossible to go online or open a tabloid without finding at least one piece trying to tear down Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex. In fact, it has become a popular sport for the media to hunt Meghan down and attempt to put her in the stocks. What’s worse is that a big part of the public is more than happy to throw their tomatoes at the pillory, which has so kindly been offered as a home to Meghan by the tabloids. From “Welcome to the family!” (The Times) to racist comments and microaggressions, to “Meghan’s Lying to You!!” and “Meghan’s Reign of Terror!”(The Sun): the carefully planned execution of this modern day Medusa seems to have been quite effective. But recently, Meghan’s unjust treatment by the media has been receiving more attention in the media as well, signifying a shift in the awareness of the construction of such monstrous ‘Medusa narratives’.
After Harry and Meghan stepped down from their roles as senior royals and moved to the States–in order to flee the sharpened hatchets which were wildly swinging at the Duchess– the media geared up to retrieve their fugitive monster, with all the weapons they could find. But another media outlet offered Meghan to explain her own true narrative: Oprah. Whereas before this interview all efforts went into tormenting their Medusa, Meghan is finally harnessed with a reverse power, perhaps with a potential to stone the British media and royal family by looking back. By meeting the media’s gaze with one just as fierce– and inviting us along to shift our eyes elsewhere and recognize the tactics employed to turn these women into monsters. The interview hints towards a possible optimistic change in media landscapes, making treatments such as Britney in the 2000’s harder to justify with the increasing awareness of the public and the looming threat of ‘cancel culture’.
How Do We Break Medusa’s Curse?
You may think to yourself why should we care about these privileged celebrities, aren’t there bigger issues in the world? Headlines like “Rich Royalty Actress Becomes Society’s Victim” (Fox News) signify this response but even though Meghan may be all of these things, they still shouldn’t function as a free ride to mistreat someone. More important, the treatment of female celebrities in the media reflects the deeper issue at hand: that all women are in constant danger of turning into Medusas, of being transformed and manipulated into monsters. Perhaps on a smaller scale than for those living in the public eye, yet just as destructive on an individual level. The monstrous headlines about female celebrities makes the public think this is an acceptable way to treat all women.
It is important to remember that not only men are guilty of the assassinations of female characters, as Taylor sings in her song ‘Mad Woman’:“women like hunting witches too”. In fact, we are all complicit in this looking, of gazing at ‘falling stars’. We’re just lucky we don’t turn into stone when we do. Without Medusa’s cursed powers, modern day Medusas don’t have much to fight off their attackers. So how can we as an audience help avoid the decapitation of these Medusa women by the media and public? How do we resist these patterns of making women into monsters? Stop clicking, reading, and spreading gossip media. Stop believing everything you read. If the information isn’t coming directly from the person in question, or those surrounding them (the ambiguous mention of ‘sources’ doesn’t count), question it. If we stop buying and engaging with the media that perpetuate these women we can take away the bounty placed on Medusa’s head, and by doing so: the hunters won’t have anything left to hunt for.