Analysis of the Misrepresentation of Cleopatra and Wu Zetian

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To a great extent, the achievements of historical women are represented through a distorted lens of the overtly masculine and misogynistic values of ancient society. Throughout history, the life and accomplishments of female leaders are written by men, thus being portrayed in a negative light. Historians criticise their triumphs due to their unrealistic views of women as the less superior gender and should consequently submit to male authority.

Cleopatra and Empress Wu Zetian were both female rulers who have come into reign through deceitful methods, but nonetheless, they developed a great nation. When historians only focus on their gender and their detrimental actions, they create a biased depiction of a once brilliant and powerful leader, that throughout history, continuously develops an inaccurate representation.

Cleopatra VII (c. 69-30 BCE, reigned 51-30 BCE) has been misrepresented by ancient historians as an immoral temptress who rose to power only through her seduction of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. A figure whose story has become an enduring narrative throughout history, she ruled over ancient Egypt and ended influence over Roman politics to her advantage, an expansion of Egypt’s economy, and the development of Egypt’s independence. The Romans in her time demonised and stereotyped Cleopatra as a power-hungry and, most importantly, foreign woman. This can be shown through Roman poet Propertius’ Book III. 11:1-72, Woman’s power:

In this excerpt, using a range of allusions, Cleopatra is seen as loathsome who was corrupted the honourable Roman leaders by using her inconceivable sexual allure. The primary source indicates how they were focused on their sexualities, describing her method to power as unprincipled. The derogatory language of “whore… incestuous” highlights their view of Cleopatra was constantly objectified. Additionally, Propertius alludes to “the Tarpeian Rock”, referring to the Roman girl Tarpeia who betrayed the Romans and was killed under the weight of their weapons thrown.

This draws to the idea of the treacherous acts of Cleopatra, which can be augmented through the metaphor of “her foul mosquito nets” meaning her trap over Julius Caesar’s bed. The contrasts between the Roman and Egyptian cultures further demonstrates the distinct foreign and unwanted civilisation being introduced to Rome. Thus, Cleopatra’s over-sexualised descriptions of her improper acts of manipulation are greatly present in Cleopatra’s time period.

Empress Wu Zetian (624-705 CE, reigned 690-704 CE) has also been discussed and expressed with prejudice of her gender throughout her historical era. In the highly patriarchal-focused structure of China’s society, a woman rising to power was an extremely unusual occurrence, as women were the subordinate, physically ill-treated and socially segregated. Despite being constantly under pressure from Confucian and political norms, she rose to power and her achievements were substantially helpful to China, including the movement from an aristocratic and military ruling to scholarly bureaucracy chosen through tests, a peaceful unified empire, the introduction of Buddhism to China and equal rights for women. When Wu rose to the throne, an earthquake occurred and the mountain was built; one of her ministers wrote:

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The Chinese, trusting greatly in superstitions, interpreted these natural disasters as even nature revolting against the reign of Wu. In this minister’s commentary, the concept of the inversion of nature and “hard and soft”, displays the following of the ying (female) and yang (male) theory, showing the yang as having the predominant qualities superior to ying. Empress Wu claimed that the mountain was an auspicious omen of Sumeru, the Buddhist mountain of paradise, demonstrating her strong perseverance. While Wu exiled the minister, the rest of the government was not suppressed.

Historians presented her as a ruthless bloodthirsty villain and highlighted her manipulative methods to rise to power, even though other emperors have done worse things than her. Their antagonism towards a female empress is a part of the historians who recorded her reign and now can only become the “truth” that has been accepted as fact. Therefore, Empress Wu, during her empire, was heavily biased due to the unacceptance and sexism against a female ruler which threatened the traditional patriarchy.

Furthermore, during the media of the Hollywood era, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1963 movie of Cleopatra creates a sexualised exaggeration, but the movie somewhat accurately depicts her power, wealth and intelligence. The movie focuses mainly on her seduction and relationship with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and her journey through these events. The sexualisation of Cleopatra, acted by Elizabeth Taylor, can be seen prominently through the costumes chosen and the overemphasis of her body.

This can be augmented through the massage scene and her rug entrance into Caesar’s room. Although she was depicted in such an erotic way, the movie doesn’t insult Cleopatra in the way that ancient historians have, as a movie usually stays objective. Cleopatra’s power and wealth were also relatively portrayed, despite slightly exaggerated, through her military and her majestic, extravagant arrival into Rome. Thus, even though the 1963 Cleopatra movie portrays Cleopatra in a more impartial way, the characterisation of her still hyperbolises her sensual appearance.

Comparably, in the modern media, the 2014 Chinese television show ‘The Empress of China’ provided an objective point of view but again, sexualised her appearances and immensely romanticised her sexual relationships during her concubine period. The main plot is the story of Wu Zetian and her life as a concubine rising to power. This rendition of Empress Wu, directed by Chen Jialin, portrays the sexualisation of Wu to show the concubine phase, wherein her role was to mainly provide sexual pleasure and sons. It didn’t demonstrate Wu’s achievements as a ruler, but instead, the central point was based on her romantic relationships with the emperor. Also, the show did not defame Wu or frame her to seem malicious, staying objective, which could suggest that China was more willing to accept a female ruler as part of their history.

Although it remained unbiased in the plot, the wardrobe design and production draws attention to their body with revealing costumes. This can be evident when the censorship board in China caused the broadcast to be halted to allow them to remove some footage revealing excessive cleavage. Thus, ‘The Empress of China’ greatly displayed a clear sexualisation of Empress Wu’s body, with an unrealistic focus on her romantic relations.

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