Troy was a story I thought I understood. A bunch of men in armor charge up on a beach, spend ten years parked at the base of a city trying to get in, and eventually breach the walls through Odysseus’ trick of a big wooden horse full of military men. Simple. Tragic. Devastating. A story that men tell and retell but that strikes women in a whole different way. The women on beaches like that get raped and sold into slavery. The women in conquered households end up worse than dead, or gang-raped and killed. Who wants to remember something like that?
The ‘90s renderings of Troy did nothing to change my mind. Brad Pitt plays Achilles in Troy! Rufus Sewell plays Agamemnon in that other one. Iphigenia’s father lures her to her death by promising to marry her to Achilles, then slicing her throat as a sacrifice to the gods. Her father, Clytemnestra, wails and grieves and vows revenge. Helen runs away with Paris, because she got married off at 15 to whichever man won a battle for her, or because she is lonely and unfulfilled, being merely a mother and wife. A series of beautiful women with cruel faces play Helen, who proves capricious and unloving to Paris and betrays his family. Helen is sad, beaten from the beginning. Often, Helen is strangely absent from her own story, which always seems to begin when Paris encounters three goddesses in a cave and falls in love with the image Aphrodite shows him of the most beautiful woman in the world.
The face that launched a thousand ships is just a human being. That’s the premise that Troy: Fall of a City argues. The miniseries is a bit of a mess, truth be told. The men who play Helen’s husband Menelaus and Helen’s lover Paris look discomfortingly similar. Helen is beautiful, but not blonde; smart, but not clever. She is a silly, overgrown girl who lets all her birds out of their cages before she runs away with Paris. Unlike previous versions, this Helen is not in control of their courtship from the get-go. She feels bad about leaving her daughter behind and deep regret when her departure to Troy throws the whole city into jeopardy. This Helen is relatable, a little tragic. She is as much a victim of the whims of the gods as everyone else in this tale.
This Helen throws previous incarnations into stark relief, and suddenly, I am no longer sure of anything. Maybe beautiful women are just like us. Maybe beauty really is simply a product of excellent marketing and fantastic clothes: Helen-the-demigod clad in flimsy translucent gauze is beautiful because of place and mystique, the woman inside merely a woman like any other. She is an object who Menelaus once claimed and now sees only as another thing under his dominion. She is a trophy for Troy, perhaps, a symbol of their own virility and masculine superiority despite, perhaps because of, the matriarchal nature of their society. Women hold real power here, though as ever, male domination interrupts it. Cassandra speaks here and survives her horrifying prophecies, though she is shut away out of sight. In the Greek culture, the women might as well not exist at all. Penelope’s power exists only in the absence of her husband, and disappears when he comes back from the dead to murder the maids who are like daughters to her, and install himself in her place as ruler.
Helen in Troy: Fall of a City is the center, but she is not by any means the only revelation here. In this rendition of the well-known story, the gods and goddesses are real people, actors and actresses walking around the set, making comments to one another and influencing the action directly. The story plays deliberately with power and oppressive assumptions, as both Zeus and Achilles get played by Black actors. It elevates the peaceable, matriarchal elements of Troy; its loss proves symbolic for the loss of many indigenous cultures. It retells the story of the Greek Empire from the perspective of the conquered, the ‘losers,’ the cultures who died so the Greek empire could over-bloat and expand and take over the world.
Within the story of the fall of Troy are many more stories. Helen is an abused wife married off without regard for her well-being or her wishes. Her own family holds Cassandra hostage, because she speaks the truth in a culture that is failing. They don’t wish to face that fact until the enemy has breached the gate, and all is lost. Paris is an overindulged party boy who probably should have been strangled in his infancy, like Cassandra said. Achilles is very, very gay. Odysseus throws Hector’s infant child off the Troy city walls in the symbolic victory of a patriarchal empire over a peaceful matriarchal culture.
This is the benefit of retelling old stories. When we do, the dead infant speaks. The crazy woman who speaks the truth. A beautiful woman who exists within her objectified body. A man who is the best soldier the world has ever known, the greatest symbol of patriarchal masculinity, was in love with his male childhood best friend.
What can we learn when we forget what we think we know about who is worth listening to?