She's the Man

In the movie The Devil Wears Prada, Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) says something very interesting about her sadistic boss, fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep). If you haven't seen this movie, let me tell you, Miranda is a piece of work. She's a workaholic, she's dictatorial, she's condescending, etc.

"If she were a man," Andy says, "the only thing people would talk about is how good she is at her job."

She's right. That was a real eye-opener for me, and one of the main reasons I love that movie.

Imagine this: a woman takes on a high-pressure job. Most people think a man should do this job. In order to do her job right, she acts like a man. In fact, she becomes a man.

Say what?

That's right. Hatshepsut, Egypt's second female pharaoh (reigned 1479-1458 BC), had herself portrayed as a man, even writing her inscriptions so that they included the words "he" and "his." This sometimes confused the scribes, who knew she was really a woman, so they left some funny inscriptions that say things like "His majesty herself."

Hatshepsut was the daughter of the pharaoh Thutmose I. Like many other women in her dynasty, she married her half-brother Thutmose II and became queen when he became pharaoh.

When Thutmose II died, he left behind an heir, a little boy named Thutmose III who was the son of a minor wife. Like many queens before and after her, Hatshepsut became her stepson's co-regent. She was supposed to rule in his name until he was old enough to take control himself.

Except that's not what happened.

Hatshepsut as a man
After seven years, Hatshepsut became pharaoh herself. Although early on in her reign she portrayed herself as a woman wearing a king's clothing, she eventually switched to picturing herself as a man and referring to herself as "he." She even went so far as to "marry" her daughter Neferura. A pharaoh and his chief wife helped maintain balance and order in the universe. Because Hatshepsut took the role of a male king, she needed a queen to act as her female counterpart. Her daughter was a logical choice and the marriage was purely for the ritual purpose of maintaining divine order.

What did Thutmose III think of all this? Once upon a time scholars believed that he was resentful, and that once Hatshepsut died he destroyed her images and her memory. We now know that he seems to have actually been okay with the arrangement. If he was the one who destroyed her memory, he did so late in his reign, probably for political rather than personal reasons.

There is also no evidence that Thutmose had his stepmother assassinated. Several years ago her mummy was positively identified. The female pharaoh reigned for almost twenty-two years and lived into her fifties, a venerable old age for an ancient Egyptian. Her mummy shows her to have been a rather obese woman at her death, with arthritis and bad teeth. She suffered from diabetes and died of bone cancer.

Hatshepsut was an incredibly successful pharaoh who held power for over two decades. During that time, she reigned peacefully and brought great prosperity to Egypt, particularly through trade. Yet today we almost always fixate on her gender. In her book Hatchepsut: The Female Pharaoh, Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley puts it well:

"Had Hatchepsut [sic] been born a man, her lengthy rule would almost certainly be remembered for its achievements: its stable government, successful trade missions and the impressive architectural advances which include the construction of the Deir el-Bahri temple on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor, a building which is still widely regarded as one of the most beautiful in the world. Instead, Hatchepsut's gender has become her most important characteristic and almost all references to her reign have concentrated not on her policies but on the personal relationships and power struggles which many historians have felt able to detect within the claustrophobic early 18th Dynasty Theban royal family." (pp. 1-2)

Like Andy Sachs said, "If she were a man, the only thing people would talk about is how good she is at her job."

1 comment: