Powerful Women: Wu Zetian And Cleopatra

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Two significant women who have fallen victim to the distortion of history are Cleopatra VII, the last true pharaoh of Egypt, and Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in the history of China. These women have been heavily documented through a distorted lens, as they successfully broke through patriarchal barriers that lingered over the Egyptian and Chinese empires. Authoritative figures of the time were able to use their rule over the documentation of history, to place a lens on these women so that a modern-day audience observes their misrepresentation rather than their true character. While from different eras, these two women endured the obstacles of debilitating the patriarchal perception of power. This distorted lens is the prejudicial view that has been placed on the women due to patriarchal reasoning. This prejudice is still prominent today through their portrayal in the media and by modern historians, but also by people in their specific time period.

Cleopatra’s misrepresentation in the past led her to be portrayed as a manipulative temptress. But by others, she was shown as a powerful female leader. This ancient Roman coinage (Source A) depicting the profile of Cleopatra characterises her with witch-like features and an overall unconventional image of the beautiful woman whom she was said to be. This primary source provides the negative Roman perspective of Cleopatra, formed purposely to disrespect her sovereignty. Traditional Romans demonized Cleopatra as a loathsome manipulator. This Roman horror was rooted in Marc Antony’s decision to fight with Cleopatra against Rome. Cleopatra was seen as a foreign woman lacking morals who possessed a sexual allure so powerful that she was able to corrupt a Roman soldier as distinguished as Antony. The vast wealthiness of the Egyptian queen also frightened the Romans, who valued a humble living and military austerity. The Roman’s disdain of powerful women, created our image of Cleopatra today. Unlike the Roman depiction of Cleopatra, this Egyptian version (Source B) presents her as a beautiful and poised queen. In this way, Cleopatra was able to control the way she appeared in the public eye, presenting herself differently according to political need. She chose to be portrayed with her father’s strong jawline, emphasising her inherited right to rule. Cleopatra employed her irresistible appeal to gain powerful political influence, which was a methodical approach she used to become one of the most powerful women of her era.

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Hence, Cleopatra was a tenacious woman who used her sexuality to break through patriarchal power. Though ultimately, having contrasting depictions of Cleopatra distorts her overall image due to nationalistic favouritism.

Wu Zetian was the only female emperor of China, and consequently was the target of misogynistic judgment in the past.“In order to take over as empress, Empress Wu strangled her own infant daughter; her willingness to crush her own flesh and blood showed how great her viciousness and vile nature was, although this is nothing more than what evil individuals and jealous women might do” (Source C) Excerpt from Old Book of Tang (941-945)

Book of Tang was written by a distinguished chancellor and a duke in the Tang dynasty. This was an era when male aristocrats were the only respected voice in the Confucian society, and a woman’s greatest duty was to birth a son. While considered as China’s golden age, there was an apparent trend of women’s absence from historical study and documentation. This left historians without much information on life as a woman in the Tang dynasty and their status in society. Thus, primary sources from this era were especially limited. This excerpt describes the brutality that Wu Zetian was said to possess, from the perspective of subordinate male officials. She was described as a savage woman, willing to stop at nothing to seize power. Many men admired her for her abilities in governing the state but disparaged her for her actions in seizing imperial power. Empress Wu supposedly seduced the soon-to-be Emperor Gaozong, who was married. She gave birth to their 4 sons and daughters, and ostensibly killed her first-born daughter and blamed it on Emperor Gaozong’s wife, who was later exiled. Wu Zetian then became the new Empress of China. There is controversy surrounding her legacy because many believe that misogynistic Chinese historians unjustly diabolize her and aggrandize stories regarding her ruthlessness. Thus, due to this instability of ancient sources, her barbarism and power-hungry attitude become a debatable subject. The historians who documented the Tang dynasty controlled the information that was written into history, therefore placing Wu Zetian in an inescapable distorted lens.

Almost 2 millennia later, Cleopatra continues to be a prominent figure in society, through media. Cleopatra is presented as a salacious figure throughout the media realm. This can be seen through the release poster of the film, Cleopatra (Source D). Caesar and Marc Antony are seen fixated on Cleopatra, who is suggestively sprawled on a lounge. The over-sexualization of Cleopatra was prioritised over portraying her cunning. Throughout her lifetime, Cleopatra was able to expand Egypt and its economy, re-establish Egypt as an independent nation, and further develop education and healthcare. Rather than focusing on these significant feats, modern media finds her sexuality more favourable. They have built her as a sex symbol in Hollywood, disregarding her intelligence and notable accomplishments. Present-day depictions of her are more reflective of modern fascination than a true depiction of Cleopatra’s character. It draws on the ideas of promiscuity and the objectification of women by men, to appease the modern-day audience. This present-day misrepresentation of Cleopatra clouds the true historical significance of her character.

The misrepresentation of Wu Zetian in modern-day media has caused widespread misconception of her illustriousness. ‘China’s only woman ruler, Empress Wu was a remarkably skilled and able politician, but her murderous and illicit methods of maintaining power gave her a bad reputation among male bureaucrats.” -(Source E) Excerpt from China: A New History (1992) John King Fairbank

This modern historian’s outlook clearly outlines the reason for male bureaucrats’ intolerance towards Wu Zetian. There is no way to prove or disprove her alleged ruthlessness, due to the lack of documentation of women at that time. The fact that Wu Zetian was China’s only female ruler, might have posed a serious threat to male officials. Beyond her falsification charted by modern historians, Wu Zetian’s image continues to be distorted through present-day media. As seen in this Chinese film poster (Source F), the manner of her character is mimetic of Cleopatra’s pose in her 1963 film. The same conclusion can be drawn that the directors were purposely sexualising Wu Zetian in the way they did Cleopatra. As seen, society still seeks to objectify women in history by attributing their success to their ‘beguiling’ physical charm and sexuality. It fails to acknowledge her cleverness and intellect. She was able to build strong allies in the government and eliminate rivals, and brought about the fall of the unjust elder statesmen, who opposed her elevation to the position of Empress. Additionally, she expanded the borders of China by conquering new lands and helped improve the lives of peasants by lowering taxes. The constant need for an anachronistic sex symbol in modern media is used as a means to intrigue a modern-day audience. By objectifying historical women as to misrepresent their sheer brilliance, the distorted lens placed on them becomes apparent.

Both Cleopatra and Wu Zetian have been misrepresented through a distorted lens, constructed by the patriarchal perception of power at the time, and carried out by modern-day media. It is apparent that the documentation of these women was based on perspective rather than facts. Both were able to infiltrate the male-based hierarchy of power in their patriarchal empires. Through both past and modern-day misrepresentations of Cleopatra and Wu Zetian, it can be concluded that there is a permanent lens that favours sexualization over achievements. 


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