The Female Aner in Antiquity and Contemporary Representations

Aner is a term that can be equated with manliness, great physical strength and great heart. In the era of The Iliad and The Odyssey, an aner is what a real man is; today, I would equate the aner to our modern notions of what makes a superhero. However, the Greeks were very modern in their sense of the aner because this term, in special cases, could be used to describe a woman. What, then, makes a female aner? Using Sophocles’ Antigone and Cameron Stewart’s Batgirl: Batgirl of Burnside, I argue that a female aner is an exceptional woman in the pursuit of justice, and thus has a strong personal code of conduct and sense of morality. These women are unafraid of going outside of the law in order to achieve said justice, making them vigilantes or anti-heroes, as both Antigone and Barbara Gordon (a.k.a. Batgirl) are. While her impeccable qualities and actions make her worthy of the name, men must acknowledge the fact that she is an aner, which seemingly legitimizes our women heroes.

It is important to note that, like her male counterpart, the female aner is, first and foremost exceptional. In Antigone, we are introduced to a young woman in an exceedingly tragic situation. She is an orphan, and at the start of the play, the only blood family that she has left is her sister, Ismene. She lives in world that is not warm to her, due to the legacy of patricide and incest left to her by her father. Her brothers, one traitorous, have killed each other in a duel, and despite the great personal tragedy that Antigone faces throughout the course of the play, she never loses sight of her own code of conduct and righteously fights for justice. Batgirl is similarly extraordinary; young Barbara Gordon is chosen to protect the city of Gotham by the Dark Knight due to her mental prowess and her impressive combat skills. She overcomes a personal tragedy by pushing herself to learn to walk again after being shot and paralyzed by the Joker. In Index D, Barbara’s narration says, “I think I’ve always been different. Maybe a little weird. Too smart. Too driven. Even before the costume, I’ve always been Batgirl.” It goes without saying that there is a level of personal excellence and uniqueness mixed with a strong sense of integrity that goes is associated with the aner, male or female. These people are by no means ordinary folk; they are more than the average person—they are superhuman, superheroes.

In terms of what special circumstances make a female aner different from a male aner, one must remember that often women do not have the same set of opportunities of men to prove their aner qualities. A man of antiquity is made an aner on the battlefield, an experience that women are not afforded; thus, if they are to be aner, they must do so in a different way, which is precisely what Antigone does. It is her disinterest in staying within the gender roles of the time that shows Creon that she is a force to be reckon with. When Creon asks, “And still you had the gall to break this law?”  (Sophocles, p. 81, line 498), the heroine proves that she is not in fact going against law of man, she is following the law of a higher power, those, one could argue create the laws mortals must follow. She argues, “It wasn’t Zeus, not in the least, who made this proclamation—not me. Nor did that Justice…ordain such laws for men. Nor did I think your edict had such force that you, a mere mortal, could override the gods.” (Sophocles, p. 82, lines 499-504) Antigone is breaking the tradition of what was expected for women of the time but also is being exemplary of what one would have wanted for a woman at the time. Her extreme piety is admirable, but also expected of women at the time. The difference is that for others, piety would not led her to step beyond the bounds of her supposed “role.” We see this when her sister, Ismene tells Antigone, “Remember we are women, we’re not born to contend with men.” (Sophocles, p. 62, line 74) It is acceptable to be pious, but not when it troubles the dichotomy between men and women. Antigone’s defiance of this idea is what gives her power. Antigone becomes an aner by being exceptional, by being defiant, by being different, and by having characteristics that men of the age would admire in themselves. Similarly, Barbara has her own code of ethics that she follows. Because she was hurt by criminals, she obsessively makes it her mission to “ensure that no one ever has to suffer from crime again.” (Stewart, Index E) Her goal is to “save this city from itself.” (Stewart, Index F)

In the aforementioned quote when Creon asks Antigone how she dares break his laws, it is important to note another qualification for what makes a female aner. She is willing to be defiant; she is defiant to her gender roles but also to the law of the land. However, she is defiant because she is serving her own personal code of conduct. Antigone has a strong sense of right and wrong; she has a strong sense of piety. This piety comes into direct conflict with the laws that Creon has created. She says, “These laws—I was not about to break them, not out of fear of some man’s wounded pride, and face the retribution of the gods.” (Sophocles, p. 82, line 509-511)

Vigilantism as a way of identifying a strong woman is still present in our modern narrative of superheroes. One of the defining features of Batgirl’s character is that she often works outside of the law to achieve her ends, in much the same way that her mentor, Batman does. Though most superheroes work outside of the law, vigilantism usually involves a degree of moral ambiguity that is often present in Batgirl’s character. In Index A.1, Batgirl chases down a criminal, but in the process destroys a restaurant. In Index A.2, she and Officer Powell have an exchange similar to what Antigone and Creon share. Powell says, “You could have killed someone!” to which Batgirl quickly replies, “But I didn’t! Officer, I saved lives tonight. Every action I took was to serve the city and protect—” The situation is comparable, both feel they are upholding the personal values that they hold dear, but it comes into conflict with the law of the land. Though the reader never sees a greater result of Antigone’s disobedience to the laws of the land, Creon makes us recognize that freeing Antigone undermines his authority. If this were to happen, others in the city would break the law as well, and chaos might ensue. In Batgirl, we are given a direct example of the price of “doing the right thing.” Officer Powell says to Barbara Gordon about Batgirl: “Do you see now? You see what kind of trouble Batgirl causes? Cuppa Joes. That place has been open since 1942. And now they’re done. That building was rent controlled. Joe’s can’t afford to re-open in Burnside in this climate.” By the look on Barbara’s face in the last panel, it is clear that though she does still feel she is right, she has not truly thought about the cost her actions would cause the other side. Their ultimate goals are the same, protecting the city, as shown by Barbara’s quote in the previous paragraph, but it is unclear as to who is in the right.

This leads us to the troubling notion that a female aner is based on male acknowledgement of the principle in her. In Antigone, it is Creon who uses the term for her. Despite Antigone’s personal integrity when she turns to her sister to tell her, “You chose to live, I chose to die,” (Sophocles, p. 88, line 626), it is a man that qualifies her excellence. It seems that Creon believes that he is in control of any power that Antigone may have when he says, “Now she is the man if this victory goes to her and she goes free.” (Sophocles, p. 83, lines 541-542) Though at several points throughout the play, Creon notes and seems reverent of Antigone’s strength of character, he ultimately believes that if he stops Antigone from burying her brother, and thus, making her obey his laws, she will equal him in status. Her insolence emasculates him as proven by the line. In this world, female aner can exist—but at the expense of their male counterpart. This can also be seen in the example of Clytemnestra, another Greek heroine who could be classified as aner, but it is her callousness and ability to murder her husband that makes her this way.

Though the Ancient Greeks were extraordinarily progressive, this inability for male and female aner to exist in the same space without it being at the expense of the male limits the feminist depth of the text. Fortunately, modern America has seen substantial improvements, though the idea of the man acknowledging the aner in a woman still exists today. In Batgirl of Burnside (or in any other portrayal of the character, Batgirl), it is Batman who qualifies Barbara. It is his choice to take her on as a protegee that makes her a female aner. He decides that she has the gut, the strength for it. Index C is a poignant panel where Barbara and Batman face off after Barbara saves herself and her brother from attackers, before the Dark Knight can arrive. Though he says only three words, “You did this?” Batman implies that what Barbara has accomplished there that night was impressive, but it was also astounding that a woman had done it. Above this panel, it is by taking on his image that she gathers the strength to fight.

This paper is not to say that there is a formula that one must follow to be considered aner. It is not to say that all female aner take the form of vigilantes to pursue their own personal code of conduct, rather than the structure of the given law, and that their greatness is always qualified by or against a male standard. Saying that would also imply that there is only one way to be aner for a man, when it is unfair to say so when Achilles and Odysseus, one man characterized by great physical and military strength and the other by wit, are both considered aner. It is, however, saying that the female aner is created by a different set of circumstances and by a different type of exceptionality than is her male counterpart. For women, it is the ability to step outside of oneself, outside of the expectations of society and to stand up for something in the same way that a man would, for both man and woman can be heroes.

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