Cassandra, Hillary Clinton, and the modern myth of female credibility.
“Thou art compassed round with ruinous madness; therefore all men scorn thee.” — Quintus Smyrnaeus, The Fall of Troy
In ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, a play about the titular king returning from war to be murdered by his wife, the character of Cassandra makes a relatively brief but significant appearance. A princess of Troy, Cassandra has been taken by Agamemnon as a spoil of war. But she is not your average woman. Cassandra, mythology tells us in various versions, has the gift of prophecy, albeit with a cruel twist: although her predictions will be true, no one will ever believe her.
As a classicist, I am nearly always on the defensive about my coursework, often called upon to convince others of its value in a society thousands of years removed from what I study everyday. There are many defenses I can (and do) make for classics, but when it comes to the myth of Cassandra, it seems to me that its relevance to the modern world speaks for itself. Still, I will elaborate.
Hillary Clinton’s aggregate truth rating on PolitiFact is 72% (this includes True, Mostly True, and Half True ratings). In spite of this, her Republican opponent Donald Trump has coined the nickname “Crooked Hillary,” a reflexive attack on her honesty. And his campaign even launched the website Lying Crooked Hillary this year, which accuses her of, “Spinning lies and weaving a tapestry of deceit that she hopes will cover the truth.”
Donald Trump’s aggregate truth rating on PolitiFact is 30%. Thirty Percent.
So how can he get away with calling her a liar?
A comparison was made in Rebecca Solnit’s excellent book of essays Men Explain Things to Me, released late last year, between the myth of Cassandra and the fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf (also attributed to an ancient Greek, Aesop). Solnit used the comparison to highlight how infrequently women are given the benefit of assumed credibility when accusing men of sexual assault and impropriety, but the tropes of the Woman Who Told the Truth and Wasn’t Believed and The Man Who Was Believed In Spite of Himself are ones which run through many arenas of our culture, including our politics.
The relevance of The Boy Who Cried Wolf here is that, in the fable, the titular boy lies — and knows he is lying — several times before anyone ceases to believe him. And when the boy does get his due — when the wolf actually shows up and no one believes him — it’s worth noting that he survives, presumably having learned an important lesson about honesty. Cassandra, on the other hand, consistently tells the truth, is scorned and accused of madness and mental infirmity, and is eventually murdered.
When Trump supporters are asked why they are supporting him, more often than not they say things like, “He tells it like it is.” This praise of what they see as his plain-spokenness (read: blunt honesty) is offered in spite of the fact that, when what he says can be verified, he lies, wholly or partially, 70% of the time. Hillary Clinton tells the truth, wholly or partially, 2% more often than Donald Trump lies, and yet LyingCrookedTrump.com has little more than a splash page and is owned by one private citizen. LyingCrookedHillary has a clickable list of “Legendary Lies” told by Clinton, and was paid for by Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. Frankly, Trump’s website doesn’t even need to provide a list. “Hillary Clinton lies,” is a statement that rarely even needs to be qualified anymore.
In spite of a decades-long career in which multiple scandals have been tacked to her person as though she is a walking cork board for all of our fears and insecurities about ambitious women occupying traditionally male spaces, she’s maintained a professional record of being fundamentally honest and actually, factually, scandal-lite. Left well enough alone, we probably would have asked about her private email server no matter what, but her married name? Cookies? Whitewater? Kill lists? When you tally up the darts we’ve been throwing at Hillary Clinton — specifically at Hillary Clinton — for thirty years, it’s no wonder she went to such great lengths to set up a private email server. Right or wrong (and I think we can all agree at this point that it was wrong, or, giving her the benefit of the doubt, misguided), we all but forced her to think about privacy in such a way. Some have called it paranoid. I call it a given.
“Why doth a raving tongue of evil speech, daughter of Priam, make thy lips to cry words empty as wind?” — Quintus Smyrnaeus, The Fall of Troy
Back to Cassandra, the Woman Who Wasn’t Believed. Mythology has been defined by David Adams Leeming as “a generally accepted belief unsubstantiated by fact.” Robert Graves described one function of myth as justifying “an existing social system.” Sallust wrote that myths are “things [that] never happened but always are.”
We are not meant to read Greek mythology the same way some people read, for example, the Old Testament or the New Testament, as holy or divinely-inspired, certainly never as literal truth. Mythology creates narratives into which we can insert or take away an understanding of society, culture, custom, or tradition.
The culture in which Cassandra, having opposed a powerful man (a god, in fact), was accused of madness and of lying is not a culture far-removed from our own. Hillary Clinton, nicknamed not just “Crooked Hillary,” but also “Shillary,” “Shrillary,” “Killary,” and the awkward but telling, “HilLIARy,” was also recently accused of being “mentally impaired” and “special needs,” at the 2016 Value Voters Summit (a group which apparently doesn’t value a Wellesley and Yale Law education). Where Donald Trump yells it like it is (that’s not a typo), Hillary Clinton is “shrill” and “nagging.” Her volume, tone, and pitch seem to impair her ability to tell the truth and appear credible or serious in a way that Trump’s actual words do not.
“What you’ve just said fits well with what you’ve said earlier. […] Yet, to us your words seem to be true. […] But be certain, Cassandra: You can endure all this suffering because you have a bold heart.” — The Chorus, Agamemnon
Cassandra endures, as though when she was slain by Clytemnestra at the end of Agamemnon, her very being broke apart to be borne in no small amount by every woman who came after her. Like Eve in the Old Testament, women have carried the stain of Cassandra’s blood— tainted with the refusal of a man and the curse he laid upon her — and we have not yet had the blessing of an immaculate conception in the second half of the story, a woman like Mary who embodies a virtue to counter and erase the original sin.
We are all Cassandra — you, me, and Hillary Clinton — until we decide that the woman who tells the truth ought to be believed.
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