Gilded Serpent presents...

Inverting the Gaze

Medusa by Caravaggio

Medusa Dualities in Female Bellydance Performance
and How the Gaze Continues to be Relevant Today

by Shema
posted July 16, 2010
Part 1 of a 3 part series of excerpts from an original lecture by EmmaLucy Cole (Shema)
to be given at the International Bellydance Conference of Canada 2010


“The Gorgon was made out of the terror, not the terror out of the Gorgon."

Medusa was a Gorgon and, unlike her 2 sisters, was both mortal and incredibly beautiful. She was so beautiful, in fact, that Poseidon became enraptured with her and was determined to have her. When she rejected him, she fled to the Temple of Athena, seeking protection from the Goddess. Instead, Athena became enraged at Medusa and allowed Poseidon to rape her on the temple floor. When finished, as punishment to Medusa for defiling the temple of Athena, Athena cursed her, turning her from the beautiful woman she was into the monster she became.

In most versions of the story, while Medusa was pregnant by Poseidon, she was beheaded by the hero Perseus who was sent to fetch her head by King Polydectes of Seriphus as a gift.

With help from Athena and Hermes who supplied him with winged sandals, Hades’ cap of invisibility, a sword, and a mirrored shield, he accomplished his quest. The hero slew Medusa by looking at her harmless reflection in the mirror instead of directly at her to prevent being turned into stone1.


Introduction and ‘The Medusa’ myth

The idea of a perfect myth or fantasy is central to my discussion; fantasy and beauty have always been inextricably linked, especially within the performance. Many artists have attempted to alter our perceptions of the female body and the expectations we place onto ourselves and onto others by shifting our presumptions about how strong successful women should be perceived. Sandra Bernhard2 in her performances speaks about how we are no longer able to “be” ladies – we have no time, no real interest and probably no ability.

This is not so hard to understand when we consider that the representation of female sexuality has been so over-developed as to become almost a parody of itself.

Within belly dance specifically, the image of the cabaret performer is now so well known that one cannot perform the art without making reference to this façade, as Wendy Bounaventura comments:

‘The cabaret version of this women’s dance isolates its erotic power and serves it up to suit the expectations and tastes of consumers. And in the process it becomes an unconscious form of female impersonation. The belly-dance uniform- a sequinned two-piece outfit- the bare, vibrating flesh and bold pelvic movements scream ‘woman’ and ‘sex’ as loudly as any drag act.’3

Helene Cixous
Helene Cixous
professor, French feminist writer, poet, philosopher
Alison Oddey
Alison Oddey
theatre arts professor
Jo Brand
Jo Brand
English stand-up comedienne
Imelda Staunton
Imelda Staunton
English actress
("Professor Umbridge"!)

Part of the problem of how we view the body must be related to our experience of seeing; our world is one of glances, although it is based on the knowledge of ‘the gaze’. By this I mean that we are all too aware of the power of the (male) gaze in art and society but as performers we rarely take the time to question and deconstruct that gaze. Consequently, a dancer in a restaurant may well be seen by the audience as a glorified lap-dancer, performing for the attention of the men in a provocative way.

However, if we do make the time to really look, we may see the true skill in the dance, the subtle nuances which suggest that the dancer is fully aware of the gaze upon her, but that she is in fact often inverting the gaze and channelling it back upon the audience.


When Perseus uses his shield to protect himself from the Medusa’s gaze, perhaps he is really protecting himself from seeing the violence and inequality in his own character – for who can easily deal with the reflection of their own weaknesses in someone else’s eyes? If Medusa is no longer able to show the ‘hero’ his faults, she is rendered powerless and he is able to ‘kill’ her, or reduce her to the level of victim, of whore. Avoidance of the gaze enables us to avoid seeing ourselves played out through another person’s eyes, and within performance, it is the most powerful weapon that women have, since our performing bodies are no longer totally our property. This inversion is the personification of all that is negative about the female gaze. The fear of the female gaze is the fear of being ‘turned to stone’, the return of the look which may just contain all the anger and emotion which should not be found in a fantastical performance and which threatens to undermine the manipulation of the female body.

‘For what is most compelling in the long history of the myth and its retellings is Medusa’s intrinsic doubleness: at once monster and beauty, disease and cure, threat and protection, poison and remedy, the woman with snaky locks who could turn the unwary onlooker to stone has come to stand for all that is obdurate and irresistible.’4

Having repeatedly come across the myth of Medusa as referenced by other writers and artists, I was struck by how close the myth lies to my own investigations and experiences as a performer and a woman. Through reading various texts, I have identified two very different versions. The first suggests that Medusa was a priestess in Athena’s temple, where she seduced Poseidon and was transformed into a hideous creature by the goddess as punishment. The second version is that Medusa did not seduce Poseidon, but was raped and that it was her anger and bitterness that reduced her to a ‘monster’ whose fury would freeze men who chose to gaze on her. In our society it is rarely acceptable for women to make sexual decisions without repercussions – the idea of the male god raping the beautiful female mortal supports the idea that feminine beauty and sexuality must be suppressed and controlled. The fact that the rape/seduction takes place in the temple of Athena [who is the virgin goddess of wisdom] provides yet another duality – whore vs. virgin / mortal vs. goddess.

Medusa is at once representative of woman as strong and yet terrible – a true example of the ‘good girl/bad girl’ polarity; ‘She is both the sign of the possibility of phallic womanhood and an emblem of the punishment that power wielded by women, always attracts’.5 Helene Cixous states that; ‘…either woman is passive or she does not exist, what is left of her is unthinkable, unthought.’.6 This suggests that there is a part of woman which cannot be named and should not be acknowledged. It stands to reason that in order for women to learn the correct message about how to behave (i.e. to be the ‘good’ girl), Medusa must be destroyed and degraded by a male symbol. This is a direct contrast to a variation of the myth in which she did not have the traditional multitude of snakes for hair, but only two snakes which were wrapped around her waist like a belt- the analogy between the snakes and phalluses is more obvious here – she has not 1, but 2 – this overrides masculinity and makes her more than man; hyper-masculine and also sexually virile.

Within a cultural context we are often brought up with certain ideas about historical events or myths which have shaped our understanding of the world around us. What happens then, when those myths are challenged and seen from a different perspective?

In the case of Medusa, we might see a damaged and abused woman whom history chose to cast as a whore since she certainly couldn’t ever be a wife. If we take the time to explore the many myths surrounding belly dance, we find that we can choose to present ourselves in a multitude of ways – as artist, as performer, as woman or even as whore. We have the facility and responsibility of choosing how we would like to be perceived. This freedom of choice can be freedom from the expectations and restrictions of society but it can also be an opportunity for dancers to misrepresent both themselves and the cultures from which our dance has developed.

Power in Performance

Women are not supposed to express their true emotions; still repressed by the need to act like the ‘good girls’, we are prevented from showing our own personal ‘Medusa’ side, by the fear of being socially unacceptable. When Alison Oddey asked Jo Brand whether performing was a way of expressing anger, her reply was; ‘Very much so. I think that it’s a very definite outlet for saying that there are lots of things that piss me off, and I know that piss other women off. Women are not taught to be articulate in that way.’.7 Imelda Staunton’s view is that female performers are still seen as ‘strumpets’ but that this can be a source of power for women on stage. Iit is now synonymous with strength and a powerful sexuality in women who set out to achieve their goals and succeed by using their femininity to their advantage. This is not such a far cry from the Medusa myth, except that on stage it is now acceptable for women to act out ‘an anger’, although, it can only be an act – not a true expression of the person beneath. Medusa

Contrasts in gender, class, and race have played a significant role in enabling most western countries to develop. In an age where man was conquering ‘savage’ lands and peoples and taming the world around him, society found the perfect excuse for the domination of women, by expanding on the mistaken belief that they were ruled by nature. Women found themselves in a position where their only choices were to bend to the ‘superior’ man’s will, or scrape together an existence outside the bounds of society; deemed ‘mad’, ‘lesbians’, ‘whores’ or even all three. A ‘body marked female’ has all the associations of the past two thousand years engendered upon it and this is a hard history to escape especially in terms of dance and performance, where the presentation of the female body has for so long been linked to sexual display.

Indeed, the female body is so rarely seen naked without a sexual element that we are fighting against these connotations even before we step up onto a stage.

When Alison Oddey interviewed a selection of well-known female actresses about being women in a performative context, she found that many of these seasoned professionals had felt exploited as a ‘gendered body’ at some point in their career. They also acknowledged that in our current era of increased freedom of expression and acceptance, the use of sexuality within a performance can now be both empowering, and a compelling way of communicating.

Nevertheless, as Imogen Stubbs points out to Oddey, ‘it [performing] can be a degrading of the self… You have to believe you are interesting (both emotionally and spiritually)….’ Self-confidence and belief in the self- beyond the physical is all important to surviving the process of being a performer, but how are we to convey our feelings about our spiritual and emotional balance to those who are witnessing our show? And if we want to avoid the gender associations which affect the reading of any performance, then is removing the gender a reasonable and effective response? Simply reversing the gender is not really an option, since, as Jill Dolan says, ‘A nude male in an objectified position remains an individual man, not necessarily a representative of the male gender class’.8

So the implications can never be the same as when a woman is nude, since we will read the woman as an icon characterising her genders’ position; and the man as an individual acting out a personal reaction.

Gender ‘identities’ do not allow for personal expression, desire or preferences; through trying to comprehend the bodies’ role in this dilemma, feminist actions put the body in a position where it must vanish in order to resolve the issue (albeit temporarily).

‘The body, recalcitrant and obstructive to incorporation within this paradigmatic enterprise, vanished. In the urgency of rescuing material bodies from oppressions engendered by social and cultural constructions, the body itself became a text.’9

There is a very real need to bring the body back into view in order to continue the search for our own identities, but, outside of the gender roles assigned us.

Coming soon!
Next installment: Part 2-The Female Gaze
Final installment: Part 3-Transformation of Beauty

  1.   1st April 2010
  2. “Sandra Bernhard-Confessions of a Pretty Lady”  Arena, BBC1/2, 20/05/95
  3. Buonaventura, Wendy (2003)   “I Put a Spell on You” Saqi books
  4. Garber, Marjorie and Vickers, Nancy J.(2003)   “The Medusa Reader” Routledge/Taylor
  5. Sellers, Susan (1994)  “The Helene Cixous Reader” Routledge
  6. “Helene Cixous- in conversation with Nicole Ward-Jouve”  ICA Video
  7. Oddey, Alison (1999)   “Performing Women: Stand-ups, Strumpets and Itinerants” MacMillan Press Ltd
  8. Hart, Linda and Phelan Peggy (1993)  “Acting Out-Feminist Performances” University of Michegan Press
  9. Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1962)   “Phenomenology of Perception” Routledge

UK title “I put a spell…”
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