Euripides + Britney Spears = Feminist Manifesto in Rachel Cusk’s “Medea”

“Why are you watching me? Do you enjoy watching me suffer?… I am all the parts of you that you disown. I take on all of the punishment you abdicate. That’s why you’re here.”

Rachel Cusk’s modern interpretation of Euripides’s classic tragedy is a lot of things—consistently compelling, politically engaged, extremely loud—but subtle it is not. While I am nothing if not a fan of tendentiously feminist literature, sociopolitical themes are much more effective when they are a little more subliminal. In Medea, characters break the fourth wall to explicitly implicate the audience in Medea’s taboo desire to murder her children not once, but twice, and the lack of delicacy dilutes the play’s worthy message.

But while the above monologue (written from memory, so please excuse any errors) and others like it were hamfisted to the point of inefficacy, other bold choices paid off in spades. The opening scene, for example, saw a group of dissatisfied housewives enter one by one, performing an eerily synchronized dance that aptly evoked the prosaic tedium of childcare and housework. The movements were repetitive and convulsive, reminiscent of a primal dance, performed while each woman held an uncanny-valley baby doll and occasionally interjected with an item from the Desperate Housewives repertoire: slut-shaming, compartmentalization, smiling martyrdom. And, best of all, this is all accompanied by a stripped down, incantatory, nightmarish version of Britney Spears’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time”—sung by a man.

Medea

This scene could easily have crossed the line into facepalm territory, and probably should have. But inexplicably, it worked, and it gave me chills. While Medea’s actions are never excused or even justified, they are elucidated by this visceral display of the loss of individual identity and resultant abject despair of patriarchal motherhood. And the usage of an openly grotesque version of “Hit Me Baby One More Time”—that anthem of sweetly disempowered femininity, antiquated coquetry, and Lolita-esque infantilization—is just icing on the cake.

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