Ah, Greek mythology, how I love you. Greek mythology has always been incredibly captivating to me, probably because the gods act so human. They have their strengths and flaws, they squabble among themselves, they fight for power, and they can even be tricked or deceived. It’s incredibly interesting. However, I can’t stand the watered down version of the Greek gods that we get in our pop culture. My biggest issues are with how our pop culture portrays Zeus and Hera. While the other gods may also occasionally be portrayed poorly, I feel like the portrayal of these two ends up being the most problematic.
Trigger warning for discussion of rape.
Zeus, depending on who’s portraying him, will either come off as a sex addicted frat boy or as just a really nice guy. Disney’s Hercules, for example, simply played Zeus off as an overall nice and goofy sort of person. Now, that’s great for a Disney movie that can’t exactly delve into Zeus’s real personality without having the rating go up to NC-17, but I really take issue with Zeus just being a nice guy. Certainly Zeus isn’t completely bad; he has done nice things on occasion and even legitimately cared for some of his mistresses, like in the case of Semele, the priestess in Zeus’s temple with whom he fell in love. But Semele was tragically tricked by Hera to ask Zeus to revel his godly form to her, which caused her death. Their relationship seemed very sweet and tragic, but that is a rarity when it comes to Zeus’s relationships. Zeus is a rapist and many people rewriting the Greek myths seem to forget that. For example, Zeus also falls in lust with Callisto, a virgin follower of Artemis. Zeus disguised himself as Artemis, lured her into the woods, and then raped her. And that is much more along the lines of Zeus’s usual romantic conquests.
In Xena: Warrior Princess, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, and even Percy Jackson and the Olympians, however, Zeus may not be a good person, but his sexual exploitations seems to almost be portrayed as simply a lover of humanity or a restless soul. In both the Xena and Hercules live action TV shows, as well as the made for TV movies, Zeus is portrayed as aloof and almost omnipotent, but he is also shown to truly love and admire humanity. In the shows it seems as if Zeus’s love for mortal women illustrate how he cares about humanity. And despite the fact that Zeus does rape women in both Xena and Hercules, it’s never portrayed as “real rape”. For example, Alcmene, Hercules’s mother, is tricked into sleeping with Zeus when he disguises himself as her husband. While it’s acknowledged that Zeus “tricked” Alcmene, the fact that what he actually did was rape her is extremely downplayed. Other than his relationship with women, Zeus is shown as caring about Hercules to some extent, which is the only other way he is really shown as caring about humanity. In Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Zeus’s portrayal as a rapist is eradicated entirely. In the original mythology, Zeus transforms into a wounded bird to appeal to Hera. When she clutches the bird to her chest he transformed back into himself and raped her. The myth goes on to say that to hide her “shame”, Hera married Zeus. In the Percy Jackson and the Olympians mythos Zeus and Hera both like each other but she is reluctant to be with him as just another lover. Zeus, determined to win Hera’s affections, still turns himself into a wounded bird that Hera nurses back to health, but in this version when he transforms back into himself Hera is impressed by his cleverness and the two get married. They are even portrayed as being happily married for a while before Zeus starts having affairs with other women. As for his affairs, many are women he either simply lusted after and slept with or actually loved. Zeus’s sexual violence is completely erased.
Pop culture makes it seem as though Zeus’s great flaw is simply his inability to keep it in his pants, which gets him in trouble with Hera. But the thing is, Zeus isn’t some Bruce Wayne-esque playboy seducing women. He is a rapist. Hera, Callisto, Alcmene, Europa, Leda, and Danae were just a few of the women who were tricked and raped by Zeus. Erasing Zeus’s sexual violence is done with a very specific purpose—it makes Zeus into a modern male power fantasy. Zeus becomes the man who tricked everyone into gaining power, becoming the ruler of the gods, and on top of that, he can have any woman he wants. The problem with this is most people in the Western world know a decent amount of Greek mythology and know Zeus is a rapist, so this knowledge combined with his current portrayal makes sexual violence seem like a commendable act.
At the same time, pop culture portrays Hera simply as the nagging jealous wife. Hera is not a nice person, and while she is one of Zeus’s victims, I’m not trying to use that as an excuse for all the horrible shit Hera does in the Greek myths. Hera, in my mind, is the perfect example of internalized misogyny. She herself was raped by her brother Zeus and then forced to marry him, but later when she sees Zeus do almost the same thing to other women she becomes jealous and kills them or turns them into some sort of animal. Hera has no sympathy for these women, despite living the same experience as them.
However, where Zeus is granted some depth to his character in our pop culture, Hera is just written off as the possessive wife who is devoid of any complexity. While Zeus is shown as occasionally falling in love with human women and even caring about his children to some extent, Hera is simply shown as being jealous and spiteful. So while both Hera and Zeus may be portrayed as bad people, Zeus always comes off as the lesser of the two evils. In Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (and the made for TV movies) and even in some versions of the Wonder Woman comics, Hera is always shown as less complex and more evil than Zeus.
Greek mythology, like many religions, often demonize women, and Zeus has almost always been portrayed as being better than Hera in the myths simply because he’s male. But these modern interpretations of the myths take it one step further. Zeus is portrayed as a male power fantasy, much like he was in the original mythology, but the modern favorable portrayal of him makes him seem sympathetic. Therefore, his actions seem somehow less disgusting, or at least excusable, even when it is something as awful as rape. Hera, meanwhile, is shown with no complexity because her background of being raped by Zeus is almost always left out; thus, the audience feels no sympathy for her and views her only as the suspicious tormenting wife of the complex and sympathetic Zeus. And that really sucks.