Exploitation of Ancient Comedy Tropes in Lysistrata and in Modern Media

by Kane Prestenback | return to list of publications

Much of the comedy in Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata comes from the audience’s recognition of potentially offensive gender stereotypes. Modern television comedy follows a similar format as ancient comedic stereotypes have evolved into established modern comedy tropes. In Lysistrata, Aristophanes exploits sexist stereotypes while advancing ideas about equality and comedy that would evolve and continue to resonate into the present day.

Aristophanes’ play employs female stereotypes through rapid-fire humorous dialogue that both perpetuates the acceptance of these stereotypes and subverts the audience’s stereotypical expectations. One of the first jokes in the play asserts and validates an acknowledged female trope:

LYSISTRATA. Men say we’re slippery rogues—
CALONICE. And aren’t they right? (Lysistrata, 1.1)

While underlining the stereotypical qualities of the Athenian women for comedic effect, Aristophanes adds another layer to the comedy by having these women participate in things that the ancient audience would find patently absurd. Calonice points out the incongruity by saying, “How could we do / Such a big wise deed? We women who dwell / Quietly adorning ourselves in a back-room…” (1.1). The characters indicate that women in Ancient Greece were not involved in political decisions and were instead relegated largely to matters of the household. The comedy comes from the “upside-down and wrong-way-round” juxtaposition of expected roles and societal norms seen in the absurdity of women behaving as only men could (1.1). Aristophanes’ characters have subverted the natural order with earnest conviction, and other characters acknowledge the subversion with surprise or equivalent earnestness for comedic effect.

Ancient and modern audiences see themselves reflected in the characters in these comedies as they expose aspects of human nature ripe for ridicule.

Modern television continues the ancient practice of exploiting stereotypes and subverting expectations through rapid fire dialogue for comedic effect. For instance, the first episode of the Marvel Studios television series She-Hulk: Attorney at Law acknowledges ever-present female stereotypes as it sets up its own subversive reality where a female lawyer reckons with gaining superhuman abilities regularly associated with her male cousin:

BRUCE BANNER. Our top priority is to control when you turn.
JENNIFER WALTERS. I thought the point was to prevent me from turning into a Hulk…
BRUCE BANNER. The triggers are anger and fear.
JENNIFER WALTERS. Those are, like, the baseline of any woman just existing. (“A Normal Amount of Rage” 13:23)

A later episode subverts the stereotypical expectations of the strait-laced lawyer and the square superhero by showing Jennifer Walters in She-Hulk form twerking alongside Meghan Thee Stallion. Comedy continues to be found by placing people in situations which they don’t normally appear and through the juxtaposition of expected roles and societal norms.

In addition to Lysistrata’s rapid-fire dialogue, Aristophanes employs monologues and choral song which subsequently echo through modern comedy. Importantly, Aristophanes does not solely depict the stereotypical foibles of women for comedic effect; he is similarly eviscerating of the Athenian male. Aristophanes mocks the male tendency toward longwinded speech by having the first non-chorus male character, the Magistrate, speak for over forty lines when he enters the scene. Lysistrata pokes at this masculine flaw and comments on the Magistrate’s frequent interruption by telling the Magistrate to “Be calm and I’ll go ahead” (Lysistrata, 1.1). Ironically, Lysistrata takes on the masculine stereotype of monologuing to further subvert expectations as she says, “Now in turn you’re to hold tongue, as we did, and listen while we show the way to recover the nation” (1.1). These monologues enhance the comedy by letting a joke grow in absurdity while also giving space to share important dramatic information. Later, Lysistrata’s earnest monologue seeks to “reproach… both sides equally” to bring an end to the tension between the Spartans and the Athenians (1.1). Aristophanes also subverts the expectations of the traditional Greek chorus by splitting the chorus in two and having each group embody stereotypical traits of the elderly men and women of Athens:

MEN. Be quiet, or I'll bash you out of any years to come.
WOMEN. Now you just touch Stratyllis with the top-joint of your thumb. (1.1)

The choruses comment on the action in the play and humorously exchange barbs in rhymed couplets as characters within the play, further subverting the traditional narrator role of the Greek chorus.

The modern television series She-Hulk: Attorney at Law also utilizes monologue and a variation on the Greek chorus for similar comedic effect. As the series begins, Jennifer Walters is practicing her closing arguments, but she appears to be addressing the audience and commenting on the story, much like a Greek chorus:

JENNIFER WALTERS. What is the responsibility of those with power? Do they merely have an obligation to refrain from the misuse of that power? Or do they have a duty to protect those without it?
DENNIS. Two rhetorical questions. (“A Normal Amount of Rage” 0:43)

Her monologue is cut off by an antagonizing male lawyer, further highlighting the persistence of stereotypical gender dynamics.

Eventually, as the character Lysistrata evolves from an absurd lampoon toward an exalted voice of reason, the play gives the audience a glimpse of a more fully democratized ideal. The choruses combine to become one unified voice, proclaiming “So let’s join ranks and seal our bargain with a choric song” (Lysistrata, 1.1). This leads to Lysistrata’s reasoned monologue arguing for the common ground which the Athenians and Spartans share, followed by the separate factions agreeing to end the war by “[rising] as one man to this conclusion” (1.1). In doing so, Aristophanes demonstrates a utopian democracy predicated on principled debate and majority rule.

However, the play still relegates women to a status subservient to men. Ultimately, the women do not argue for an end to all war, merely an end to this specific war with a “pledge [to] good behaviour and uprightness” which restores the status quo that “each man’s wife is his to hustle home” (1.1). Nevertheless, by exposing comedic stereotypes, Aristophanes opens the potential for further societal evolution toward a more democratized ideal.

Ancient and modern audiences see themselves reflected in the characters in these comedies as they expose aspects of human nature ripe for ridicule. In many cases, these are truths which would remain unspoken in daily life; observing the unabashed audacity of a character saying things which should not be said provides comedic relief for an eager audience titillated by the subversive lampooning. Comedy’s inherently offensive nature calls attention to ancient and modern inequities while reinforcing established generalities. The comedy in Lysistrata sets the tone for a type of humor derived from females subverting masculine expectations while exploiting and perpetuating often offensive gender stereotypes that persist to this day.

Works Cited

“A Normal Amount of Rage.” She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, season 1, episode 1, Marvel Studios, 18 August 2022. Disney Plus, www.disneyplus.com/series/she-hulk-attorney-at-law/.

Aristophanes. Lysistrata. Translated by Jack Lindsay, Project Gutenberg, Mar 1, 2005, https://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/7700/pg7700-images.html.