By the Book | ‘The Odyssey’ and Navigating Gender

By the Book is a blog about the real-life revelations that can come with class readings.

By Megan Williams, Digital Manager

Warning: This edition of By the Book contains graphic content relating to sexual assault which some readers may not feel comfortable with.

The first line of “The Odyssey,” as translated by Emily Wilson, is “Tell me about a complicated man.”

Prior to my Reading Poetry class this semester, I did not think of Greek heroes as particularly complex. I viewed them all as moving parts in the patriarchy, often gifted with godlike abilities, but spoiled for a modern audience because of the way they treat women.

Odysseus does mistreat women. But then, as I learned — it’s complicated. 

The first day of classes this semester, I agonized over pronouns. I mean pacing in my kitchen, tearing at my hair, texting my nonbinary friends — agonizing. Eventually, I settled on just having my name in the little black bar on Zoom. 

“Megan” is a traditionally female name. I am a feminine-looking person. Everyone’s always told me so. When I was 11, a man sat next to me in a park, rubbed his hand on my inner thigh and told me I looked like Alexis Texas. 

I thought she was some sort of Hannah Montanna knockoff. When I searched her name that night on my little iPod touch, gangbang videos on PornHub appeared. I clicked away and closed my eyes. I felt hot and nauseous. Across from my bed, I looked at myself in the mirror. My face was tiny, flushed and nothing like Alexis Texas’. But if I looked a little further down to my chest — things got complicated.

Odysseus spends 10 years away from home fighting Trojans. After he and the other Greeks win, things go sideways for the master strategist. He angers Poseidon, and so sailing home means almost certain death. Where to turn? 

Well, to women, of course. Odysseus relies on help from a goddess, a sea nymph, a sorceress and a teenage princess. He’s better after accepting the aid of female characters. He’s best, though, when embodying the stereotypical features of women himself — cleverness, patience, obedience. 

I have obscenely female features. Physically, that is. My body looks like it’s stuck perpetually in a funhouse mirror that promises to curve you to the extreme. I don’t mean that in a flattering way. Men frequently assume that how I look is an invitation — they thought that before I even knew what sex was, and my body has paid for it. 

For a long time, I thought it was normal to hate yourself. To fantasize about cutting off your breasts or being invisible, only a voice, detached completely from a body. Even my name, Megan, carries with it the weight of femininity. 

Odysseus is a man. He still functions under patriarchal values — the raping of women is mentioned in passing during a story he tells, not even worth expanding upon. That’s not to say that he doesn’t spark questions about gender roles in Greek society, though. He’s one of the first great heroes who is both bested by women — extraordinary women though they may be — and in touch with his womanly side. 

I have a womanly side, I guess. Somedays the sound of my name, the high tone of my voice, the swell of my chest, feels okay. I don’t cringe when cashiers call me “Ma’am” or when classmates say “Hey, girl” after we’re shuffled into a Zoom breakout room together.

Other days, staring at my face — so feminine — in the little Zoom square feels like torture. In those moments, I don’t just hate when people refer to me as a woman — I hate being referred to at all. Clever Odysseus tells a Cyclops that his name is “No man,” so that later when the Cyclops screams “No man is killing me!” help won’t come. 

Some days, I want to say “I am no man. But after that, it gets complicated.” 

One day in Reading Poetry, my professor talked about crossing gender thresholds. Odysseus sails through them easily, navigating the complex Greek patriarchy and his own survival well enough to eventually make it back home. 

I went, then, to the little button on Zoom and renamed myself as “Megan (she/they).” Just a few simple clicks, but doing so felt harder than killing a hundred Trojans. There were only about five minutes left in class. I peeled a piece of skin off my thumb anxiously, waiting for a classmate to say something. 

When time ended, my thumb was bloody. And no one said a word. 

On the cover of the Emily Wilson translation of “The Odyssey,” a woman lies in bed, brown hair splayed out beneath her, wrapped in a blanket. 

I flopped back on my bed in much the same way after class that day, laptop warm on my stomach. In poetry, a single small turn of phrase can change the entire meaning of a story.

“She/they,” just seven letters, is doing that for me. 

Megan writes primarily about mental illness, literature and queer culture. Write to them at [email protected].