Hypatia in Agora the Movie –A Goddess of Liberty or a Ballad of Internalized Sexism?

Introduction: Hypatia was a female mathematician, philosopher and astronomer in 4th century AD Roman Egypt. Due to religious objections against heliocentrism, the Christians have now forbidden Hypatia from teaching at the school. Cyril, the leader of the Christians, views Hypatia as having too much influence over her pupils, he convinces a mob of Christians that Hypatia is a witch and they vow to kill her. Before killing her, the mob stripped Hypatia naked and beats her until Davus, Hypatia’s slave, arrives and tells the mob that he will guard her. When everyone is busy collecting stones, Davus suffocates Hypatia to death.

  The most vivid images of the early Christians to me are around Jesus time, as subjects being colonized, oppressed by the Roman Empire, but resisting only in peace. This image built a strong part of my identity. The Crusaders’ brutalities in history, the burning of “witches” and the Christian churches violence against the First Nation people of the Americas in recent time have always been barred out from self-construct due to my projected racial and geographical distances. Most importantly, I perceived these as organized state crimes on the underclass which I believed I would never have a part.  The plot of Agora challenges this pseudo security and the challenge took me to the movie. It tells a story of how a group of oppressed people flipped over to become oppressors, just like that. It asked its audience to have a deep self critical examination of their relationship to acts of violence in the environment. The carnage of the woman scientist, Hypatia, by the mob was also the attraction of this film. She became the martyr of her own faith – science and critical thinking, and was stoned and/or flayed by a Christian mob. Some references also said she was being burnt alive. Tragic stories of women with critical perspectives perpetuated through history. The woman in the moon remembered in the Mid Autumn Festival is one of those. However, the story of how Hypatia attained a great name in ancient time as scientist is another attractive novelty.

The Christian mob: Revolting Commoners or Commoner Oppressors?

  As images of Agora rolled on, the film clearly illustrated how hegemony works to shape people’s emotionality and rationality to justify their acts in support of brutal regimes. I spotted that the movie is drawing parallels between the Roman Christian Empire and the incorporation of the Christian Right and state power in the United States of America in the ways these incorporated state-religious power co-opted people into engaging/supporting acts of violence. The most apparent parallel is the mobbing of the Library of Serapeum in Alexandria in the movie and the looting of the National Museum of Iraq when US invaded the country. Both buildings were highly charged symbols of the two cultures; both devastated by state-Christianity incorporated bodies with a heavy expansionist mandate. Yet, what is too obvious often will loose its appeal. Even when I share the dislike of discriminative narratives deciphered by the power brokers with the director, my attention soon turned to the subtle internalized systemic subordination of women.

  In the film, Hypatia was able to be a scholar not because she was brilliant and thus had the liberty to do so. It was because her father was a professor on high position in the university and she was never married. All her privileges would disappear once she got married. Hypatia, a woman being portrayed with a critical mind, interestingly never challenged this systematic discrimination against women. To turn down the quest of love from one of her pupils, she asked him to pursue something higher and spiritual, i.e. music. In a later scene, she returned the quest with a handkerchief with a blot of her menstrual blood, and used it to reprimand her suitor-student that what he was pursuing was nothing beautiful. She was passionate about the cycles of the planetary bodies; but not the equally miraculous cycle within her own body and the carnal desire it commanded. These are indicators that she had the discrimination internalized. So there is no surprise that she questioned not the absence of female students in her class as her male students rose to power.

The fate when others are not free

  Only her liberal stand could not safeguard her from ill-fates, as there is no real independent individual in any place. The religious leader of the dominant faith labeled her a woman despite her dissociation with the gender. He used literal interpretations of the Scriptures to signify that she was not a virtuous woman as she had not been covering her head and had voiced her opinions opening. Consequentially, the aroused Christian mob ceased her, exposed her female body and stoned her as if she had committed adultery.

  Nobody came to her defense. No man was on her side. Her once faithful follower and suitor, the Major of Alexandria, was subdued by the projected power of the canonized Bible. No woman was there. She had not helped any woman into public spaces or power.

  Hypatic was steadfast in her inquiring spirit, but her inquiries directed only outward. The movie showed that she had no critical self-reflections about her own stances.

  If the movie were true to the history of her martyrdom, Hypatia’s death could at least be a strong protest of a woman against religious power, even she embraced sexism. But no, the director did not allow her to speak up. He invented a male slave-servant serving Hypatia, whom spoiled the Christian mob’s plan of torturing her to death by suffocating her before stoning. The director considered Hypatia too fragile for the penalty and should be protected even if she had to be silenced and stuffed out.

  Too often a protector and the oppressor are just the two sides of the same coin which considers a subject lesser. In this film: her father, her slave and the director. Hypatia’s voice was robbed in the movie’s last chapter. The director made the male servant the ultimate solo hero whom was once lost in the virtuous cycle of violence as he revolted with the Christian underclass, but the violence he engaged in also later rallied in him huge dissonance. He finally awakened to that violence was no means for bringing the equity he envisioned or the world Jesus advocated. By criticizing his own acts and assumptions, he shook off the narrative affecting him and left the Christian mob with a new realization and identity.

The New Master in the Sky

  The handling of story of Agora is consistent with the director’s male gaze throughout the movie which can be typified by the image of the Earth viewed from Space repeatedly appeared as the camera work zoomed out from the scenes. That series of images is the view of science dominated by the male ways of knowing. The movie concluded by hoisting Galileo to signify that science had finally saved the world from the Church and the Dark Age. The movie also has a strong tint of Descartes who values emotions, nature, chaos, collectivity and women under rationality, culture, order, individual and men correspondingly. This dichotomist worldview contested and weakening the power of the Church. It however, also at the same time, lends power to science as the new master and let it torn the world into disconnected objects and discarded communities. The director was trying to show the importance of independent thinking and thus the importance of an individual, through Hypatia and the fictional slave-servant hero, however, on close examination, these individuals all have their blind spots which only reinforced the discriminations of the society. Sadly, as long as subordination prevails, there will be no peace.

  Hypatia’s story shows that subordinations are interconnected. Her internalization of sexism disposed her to be obliviate towards other forms of discriminations. In the story, she did not question the slavery system and why she had the power to their confinement or freedom. She did not question where the poor were from. She simply did not challenge any systemic hierarchies. Finally, the patriarchal colonial power dragged her into her tragic fate with her Greekness and her female body.

  Hypatia can be compared to many women leaders whom also gained leadership because of their martyred fathers or husbands, including the then president of the Philippines, Aqino Corazon. Many of them did little to strive for equity for women while they were in power. They might share Hypatia’s blindness or they would not risk toppling the power which put them in the position. As a result, as they left their seats, the situation women faced remained largely the same, as well as other social sectors.

  The movie does have a good part to tell: the slave of Hypatia, Davus, even though he possessed the male gaze of the director, he was able to free himself from some of the narratives/images which had been holding him to violence. Quite different from other characters in the movie, he never really called anywhere home. He only had ambivalent relationships with the different groups he was with. He engaged and dis-engaged as he was in a third space, which gave him a hypersensitive that a person staying comfortably at home has not. This special space gave him different experiences which allowed him to critically evaluate himself from different perspectives and prevented him from indulging or internalizing many vectors of power. Unfortunately, Davus was a solitary hero with no one to remind him of his gender-biased location.

Leaving Home for a New Sensuality

  Re-imagining exercises are always fun to help us see with different eyes and help sensitize us to stimuli. I could think of two re-imagining tracks for this movie which might help prevent us from repeating the footsteps of Hypatia and Davus, whom unknowingly became oppressors of oneself and/or others. The first track: Davis had left home further and had met up with other groups of people other than the Christians and the Greeks. It would be interesting to see who Davis would bring back to Hypatia and what challenges this would bring. The second track is replacing Davus with a female slave who was equally smart and in love with Hypatia.  Afterall, it is quite un-imaginable that a woman to be closely served by a young male servant then. So let’s see whether Hypatia would be challenged/sensitized to sexism, racism and classism, or even sexual tendencies, by the female slaves. Also, we can imagine how she could survive if she was also disowned by Hypatia, and whether she would do it differently in responding to Hypatia’s ill fate. How about we do these exercises together and keep each other energized and sensitized.