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The word “feminism” was first officially coined by French socialist Charles Fourier to be used to describe equal rights and social standing for women in the 1890’s. Throughout time, the meaning has changed, but the underlying principles have remained the same. Even before the coinage and common usage of the word, feminist movements and works have emerged in different societies all throughout the world.
There is no official “feminist” honor presented to any one thing to make it a legitimate feminist piece of work, but rather, various interpretations dissect these novels, movements, protests, pieces of art, and so on forth, to assert whether they can be considered feminist in nature or not, whether by precursory glance or by analysis of deeper meaning.
In Sophocles’ Antigone, the title character herself, though not quite a modern-day feminist by one’s standards now, is an example of such a rising feminist in early literature before feminist movements and writings became more common. Being the central character in this story gives Antigone more independence than previous women characters.
Her independence is one of the main features which makes her and her story early feminist examples; while Antigone does not pass the Bechdel Test, there are several other modern benchmarks which grant Antigone a right to being hailed as a feminist play through today’s standards. Additionally, Antigone has the unique detail—in the context of writing before female-centric stories were made common—of the backing support by a critical male character in the play, Haimon, her betrothed.
Antigone functions as a very early gate to opening up the literary world to stronger women characters, tying together a new breakthrough in the world of early feminism while also showing evidence of aspects of modern day feminist ideals and morals.
A strong character is oftentimes one who allows others to help them in order to grow. Antigone does exactly the opposite, and manages to make sure that, no matter what, she comes out on top in her own way. A focused and determined person who makes her values and goals known, both to herself and others, before acting on them, Antigone requests help at the start of the story from her sister Ismene, but continues with her pursuits despite not receiving it.
There is no secret to Antigone’s doings, as she requests that Ismene “tell everyone” about what she is going to do (193). Her priorities are straight and clear, and Antigone stops at nothing to get what she wants, no matter how wrong the task at hand might seem to others. Her drive is fueled by her loyalty and family values, which, while not a new motive for literary heroes, is handled differently in this context, as she uses her family values against her own family as well as in support of them at the same time.
Defying Creon if only to avenge her brother Polyneices, Antigone risks more than one might believe she is by “breaking the given laws and boasting of it”, both because she is going about her actions alone, and because she is a woman (209). Her apparent fearlessness of her punishment at the relentless hands of Creon is evident as she independently goes about her task and pettily dismisses Creon, the king and her uncle, by any means necessary makes her a formidable force on her own.
She understands that her punishment is her own and has been ready from the start to bear her burden alone throughout the entire journey. No matter if Ismene would have agreed to help her or not, these were Antigone’s personal grudges to resolve and wishes to fulfill. By acting solely on her own, Antigone managed to create a lesser-seen representation of women in this time period of writing.
While Antigone does accomplish her goal alone, this fact of the plot does not mean that she did not have people supporting her. Haimon, her fiancé, vocally supports her and defends her to his own father while simultaneously trying to preserve that own personal relationship between him and his father. Haimon’s support of Antigone, while still somewhat hesitant and not as wholehearted as Antigone was in the matter, shows Haimon’s character coming a long way from the rather standard male-dominated storyline—instead, Haimon acts as a supporter in Antigone’s story as opposed to the opposite.
Though “no marriage means more to [him] than [Creon’s] continuing wisdom”, Antigone’s objectives mean almost as much to him as they do to her (216). He tries his best to see both Creon and Antigone’s points of view, and wants to convince his father to “not be unchangeable” and have a more open mind as he does (219). One might argue that a prominent issue in feminism throughout the ages was not the lack of support from fellow women, but the lack of support from men who saw feminism as a threat to their power.
Haimon does not see anything wrong with there being “a woman stronger than [Creon and him]”, yet this is exactly what Creon fears (218). Haimon understands what Antigone is trying to say, without ever having talked to her on the subject matter itself, and automatically sees no fault in her logic. His support, while not completely blind and neither unbiased, demonstrates a rare understanding on Haimon’s part of Antigone and of what she wants. While he could have just as easily backed up his father, he risked his father’s wrath and being shunned from the family for taking what Creon believes to be the weak path—following a woman as she wins and Creon loses.
In strong association with literary feminism comes the popular device called the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel Test is a pass-or-fail based test which examines if media in literature or film has two women speaking to each other about something other than a man (Garcia). Arguably the most well known version of a measure of feminism in mass media, it is flawed in the sense that one short conversation between two women in a large piece of media does not necessarily mean that the entire film has now been awarded a medal for feminist themes.
The Mako Mori test furthers the Bechdel Test, analyzing media to see if the women in the story develop their own narrative arc which does not center around a man’s story or arc (Powers). Antigone and Ismene interact with each other once, yet Antigone’s motivation in almost its entirety builds off of the unjust burial of “the brother [she] love[s]” (192). Her drive building off of her feelings toward her brother, coupled with the fact that this was the topic of her exchange with Ismene, has Antigone fail both the modern feminism Bechdel and Mako Mori tests.
A more lesser known feminism test with similar criteria however, the Sphinx Theatre Test, specially designed for theater performances, does manage to label Antigone as a feminist piece of performance theater. The Sphinx Test, which tests “how prominently female characters feature in the action, whether they are proactive or reactive, whether the character avoids stereotype and how the character interacts with other women”, highlights how Antigone differs from older pieces of literature and their portrayal of women, while also linking it to today’s thoughts on what constitutes feminism (Snow).
She is certainly proactive, making sure she is in control of the situation at all times and at the forefront of what is happening. Antigone also stands out from other common stereotypes applied to women in literature, in which, while her story still does somewhat center around Polyneices, she makes it clear that what she is setting out to do is also in order to prove something to herself. By definition of the Sphinx Test, Antigone is indeed feminist prose.
Antigone ultimately clears a new path for women-centered and -oriented pieces of writing and media in its own time while simultaneously anticipating some of the many standards made for feminist literature in today’s time period. While the feminist value of many of today’s media is measured on scales using well known tests such as the Bechdel, Antigone meets some of these standards through means of similarly employed tests.
What makes Antigone stand out from other early literature is the support given to Antigone by Haimon, and the amount of independence exerted by Antigone throughout the entire play in order to make it well known to all how strong her beliefs are and what lengths she is willing to go to for them. She creates a connection between the feminist literature of today and yesterday, both by breaking literary barriers and meeting the common feminist benchmarks used today to gauge its portrayal of women.
In short, modern day feminism may not be as different from olden ideas of feminism as one might think. Though there are many clearly distinguishable differences between the portrayal and commonality of women in media, some strong values pull through in different places and times, upholding the morals and values of what one has come to recognize today as basic feminism.
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