One of the pleasures of working on classical reception in popular culture is that every so often, an absolute gem of a case study falls into your lap. Earlier this week on Twitter, Natalie Collins shared this video from the Naked Truth Project, and as you’ll see it’s extremely relevant to my current monstrous interests:
The video uses the myth of the sirens to offer handy tips on how to deal with your porn addiction. Learning from Odysseus putting beeswax in his men’s ears and having himself tied to his ship’s mast, and from Jason getting Orpheus to sing a sweeter, louder song to drown the sirens out, the men (and the target audience is very clearly men) watching this video should avoid what they can; ask others for help; and pursue the better song.
Where to begin.
Let’s start with the underlying premise that the ancient and the modern world have no distance between them. In a line that would generate floods of red ink in any undergraduate essay, the voiceover informs us that “throughout history and the arts, sirens became the personification of sexual temptation” and that “a few thousand years later, and pornography is more accessible than ever, with the same deadly pull of the sirens’ song.” Notice the grand generalisation, the chopping of several millennia of culture, the flattening of the cultural register. Sirens = porn, and from the Greek heroes we can learn how to deal with them. We being we men, and heterosexual men at that – the sirens of the start of the video are echoed by the women on the representative screen, as if they have moved from their rock to the internet, erasing the existence of gay porn. The shallowness of the cultural comparison speaks to a real modern problem in dealing with the classical world – the idea that the Greeks and the Romans were ‘just like us’. If the Argonauts had had to handle pornography, this is what they’d have done. The strangeness and difference and peculiarity of the ancient world disappears.
Yet there is also a strange desire to be authentic in this video, to give an accurate tale about the myths. The fact that the video uses not only the well-known story from Homer’s Odyssey but also the less well-known story from Apollonius’ Argonautica speaks to a wish to engage with the classical sources – or, quite possibly, some intelligent and careful perusal of the Sirens’ Wikipedia page. Either way, the desire to make sirens look ‘real’ gives us the visual representation of the monsters as having the form of women with bird wings – we’ve returned to a ‘classical’ model of what sirens look like rather than the mermaid-like figures who have, in some ways, replaced the sirens in the popular imagination of the last century or so. Again, this could be down to someone on the design team with a bit of classical education under their belt, or some judicious Wikipediaing – but, either way, this desire to be ‘authentic’, tell the real tale, get a bit of legitimising classical reference in there, is in operation. I’d say the same about the video’s observation that the sirens want either to get sailors to drown in shipwrecks or to eat them when they get to the island – including the lesser known fate of the victims adds to the sense of aiming for authenticity and authority, which of course is then used to give the advice in the second half of the video more moral weight.