A Trojan priestess lies sleeping in a temple dedicated to Apollo. Apollo sees her lying there, desires her, and assaults her. She awakens and cries out, pushing him off of her. He grants her the gift of prophecy, hoping she’ll accept his advances in return. She resists him still, and he rapes her. Afterwards he curses her: she will keep her gift, and she will prophesy only the truth, but no one will believe her. She will be dismissed as crazy and a liar, even as she’s trying to save her family and her country.
Her prophecies are indeed all true. She foretells the abduction of Helen. The Trojan War. The threat of the Trojan Horse. The fall of Troy. The deaths of her father and brothers. No one believes her. After the fall of Troy, the Greek soldiers rape her and enslave her. She’s sent to Greece as a concubine, and eventually Queen Clytemnestra murders her.
There have been so many Cassandras. The woman asleep or unconscious, taken as an object by a man. The woman trying to tell the truth, in a system built to silence her.
In Susanna Clarke‘s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a young and wealthy woman lies dead in her room before her wedding day. She is of no importance to an ambitious magician, but her fiancé, a high-ranking but penniless politician, is. The magician enters her room and shuts out her family and loved ones. He summons a fairy and strikes a magical bargain: half the young woman’s life given to the fairy, in exchange for her resurrection. The young woman revives, the penniless politician marries her and becomes rich, and the magician becomes one of the most important men in Europe. The young woman spends her waking days in England, and her nights under enchantment at an endless ball in Faerie, unable to rest. When she tries to speak of her suffering, and to reveal how the magician used her life and unconscious body for his own gain, those around her hear only babbling, odd fables, or madness, and she is shut away in the countryside. It is only when another magician visits her, and sees the image of a rose obscuring her mouth when she tries to tell her story, that someone finally recognizes the magical symbol of silence.
You know this one. A princess lies in an enchanted sleep in a tower, surrounded by roses. Knights and princes attempt to penetrate her fortress and kiss her unconscious lips to win power and a throne.
You know this one. A princess, with lips as red as blood, lies in a glass coffin. A prince sees her and desires her. He steals her body and kisses her while she lies as though dead.
You know this one. A woman stands before a Senate committee and testifies to save her country from a catastrophic injustice. People insist she’s wrong, and call her a liar, and confirm her attacker anyway. Her safety, security, and peace are ripped away.
Cassandra is a horrifyingly familiar archetype. You want to get really mad with me? Cassandra is a priestess of Apollo, the very god who attacks her and who dooms her, and she had taken a vow of chastity to serve him. The scale of that betrayal and violation makes my heart clench in my chest. Some (male, obviously) writers record that, oh, well, perhaps she really consents to sex with Apollo so she can win her prophetic gift, and then only protests afterwards so that she can still claim her priestess’s vow. Way to blame the victim, guys, great job. Because of her attacker, her own family condemn and shun her, yet when she shares her prophecies with her brother Helenus, people believe her words from his mouth.
Two years ago I wrote the Persephone post from a place of anger, sorrow, and fear. I can’t believe it’s been two years— my feelings are as fresh, and as sharp, and as sickened now as they were then. It’s maybe worse now? I’ve watched in disgust and horror as somehow we careen along what looks as near the road to hell as I can imagine. Every day I’m struck by a sense of disbelief so strong it sends me reeling: “Oh my god this is really happening. This can’t be happening. This is really happening.” I’m both shocked by the profound evil and not shocked at all. Two years ago it seemed SO clear, SO abundantly obvious what a threat stood before us, and so manifestly clear how to avoid it, that I couldn’t fathom the threat being realized. And 2016 happened, and here is the evil and the cruelty and the wanton stupidity I knew would come, and yet I’m shocked and rattled every day.
There isn’t a happy-ever-after ending to Cassandra’s story the way there are in her fairytale counterparts’. Well, happy-ish? Sleeping Beauty and Snow White awaken and…I guess just marry these strangers who kissed them while they were unconscious? But now that I think about it, they never speak another word in their stories, so who really knows how happy their ever afters are. Jonathan Strange’s Lady Pole is freed from her enchantment and immediately saves those who were enchanted with her. She wants to rush to London to topple the government, but the magician who betrayed her disappears forever from England before she can confront him. After a decade of no true bodily autonomy, a voice deliberately silenced, and an adult life that’s felt like a waking nightmare, how will she be able to return to the world without more pain and grief?
These stories don’t feel like they have happy endings, and, rightly, they trouble me more as an adult than they did when I was a child. Maybe a lingerie blog isn’t the place to talk about such serious things; I had several moments while I was writing where I wondered if it wasn’t disrespectful somehow to pair underwear with stories of trauma and injustice and then be all “look! an editorial!”. But with women’s bodies being policed ever more strictly, with SESTA/FOSTA threatening the safety and lives of sex workers, and with images of lingerie and “female-presenting” nipples being banned from social media platforms for being “explicit”, maybe stories about men treating our bodies as consumables, as bargaining chips, as objects for pleasure, to be seized and afterwards dismissed, are in fact the stories we need to revisit.
I want so, so badly right now for swift and crushing justice for these fictional and real-life women. Not even retribution; I want acknowledgment, a soul-deep reckoning: this is wrong. You were wrong to touch her. You were wrong to disparage her. You were wrong to attack, dismiss, slander, erase, kill. You were wrong to discount her, and you doom yourself when you silence her.
Troy fell, Cassandra was right, and no one believed her.
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Bra and brief: Abbie by Katherine Hamilton Intimates, 26-38 D-HH/6-16 (UK)
Waspie corset: Antoinette by Angela Friedman
Robe: Andromeda by Harlow & Fox, S, M, L
Photography: Sylvie Rosokoff