Lessons from a Goddess on the Power of Ugliness
A former partner used to tell me that my anger—or more specifically, my bitch face—frightened him. It was thanks to him, thanks to the pyrotechnics of our conflictive dynamic, that I came to know my capacity for rage.
Do you know what it feels like to embody the word “fuming” as your anger walks you down the street? To play metal music (which you hate) at maximum volume so you won’t have to scream alone? To become mute with rage, any words at all lost in the blizzard blanketing your mind?
I didn’t. But I do now.
Recently, I have been delving deep into wide-ranging interpretations and re-storyings of the Medusa myth. Market research, if you will, for a new project I am co-creating, Medusa Media Collective.
Feminist retellings of her story abound. Survivor, Rebel, Victim, Witch—Medusa can also be a symbol of subversion, of resilience, and of the life-giving cycle of destruction and creation.
Perhaps best known for the serpents in her hair, Medusa’s gaze, as referenced in Homer’s Illiad, is just as fascinating.
“Medusa’s eye petrifies. Her “evil” eye brings death.”—Miriam Robbins Dexter, Ph.D.
What kind of expression, when encountered on a woman’s face, is so terrifying it can turn people to stone? My guess: her “bitch face” (a term, incidentally, which I am choosing to embrace).
You know, the one that comes with blinding rage and metal music. It is so chilling that men the world over must beg women to smile in the street. From the ancients to the moderns, no one likes an angry woman; that’s why we learn young to keep that stuff under control.
However, while this gaze may bring death, I do not believe it is “evil.” Rather, I think it has been vilified, demonized along with women’s rage.
Anger is not evil, but it is transformative. And change is very scary. Wicked, even.
That partner of mine told me that my rage was ugly—and frightening. He couldn’t bear to look upon it.
Far more upsetting, for a moment I believed him. I turned away from the ugliness of my own anger, for fear it might turn me to stone.
Embracing Anger as an Agent of Change
Of course, this was not the case. Perhaps Medusa’s gaze causes another kind of death: creative destruction, the necessary death of the old to create space for the new. Death-as-transformation. My anger petrified both of us, but it eventually allowed me to burn down old cycles and create anew, far from people who would dismember my less “attractive” emotions. And therein lies the other interpretation of the “evil eye,” rage that protects us, wards off ill intent and turns it back on those who would do us harm.
Challenging relationships typically compensate with certain gifts, and this one granted me an intimate familiarity with my rage, which I had scarcely touched before. It took me a long time to set aside that anger when it had overstayed its welcome. I think that’s because it felt good…
My anger set me on fire, and I forged so much in those flames: creative projects, businesses, strength, sisterhood. Seeds burst open in that destructive heat and birthed new life. And when it had carried me through, I set it down on an out-of-reach shelf, there if I ever needed it. Only now am I remembering to turn around and say “thank you” to the bitch face, the “ugliness” that gave me so much power, protection, and life—just as effigies of Medusa were said to do for sacred sites and cities.
Up until now, I still couldn’t decide whether to repent of my ugliness, my anger, my bitch face—or to revel in it. Yet the deeper I penetrate into the snaky caves of Medusa’s lore, the more certain I become that I should embrace this power, precisely disregarding the patriarchy’s instructions to decapitate it, to look away in shame, disgust, and fear.
Medusa hisses at me from the shadows, “Don’t listen to them, sweetie. Your bitch face is beautiful!” And you know what? Today I believe her.
Toby Israel is Medusa’s Chief Brainstormer. She is a vagabondess and a storyteller who has a metaphorical closet full of hats, including: Author, Editor, Marketing Consultant, Movement Artist, and Empowerment Self-Defense Instructor. Toby holds a BA in Anthropology from Middlebury College and an MA in Peace and Media Studies from the University for Peace. She speaks four languages, but only edits in English.