The story of Saint Agatha.
It is the story of the violence inflicted upon women, the story of how a woman's autonomy is less important than that of a man's want, the story of how women are made to suffer at the hands of vengeful men. It is a physical/sexual violence, a mental/emotional violence, a systematic violence. When composing this photo, I wanted to convey the sense of despair and helplessness I feel when reading the stories of men and society violating and abusing women. I read stories of men feeling entitled to a woman’s body or space in her life and these men committing horrendous acts when they are denied. I read stories of women losing access to safe abortion by the forced birth factions and yet being refused emotional or financial support. I read stories of trans women murdered because of cis men's wounded pride. I read stories of black women, who have done no harm, handled more violently than armed white murders. I read stories of Native women being raped and violated at a higher rate despite being a minority of the population; stories of Asian women fetishized for just existing; stories of girls told their bodies are distracting boys from learning; stories of how all these women should have done things differently in order to avoid the actions and reactions of men. I read these stories and I cannot help but feel emotional turmoil and utter disgust that as far as we are in the human timeline, we have become accustom to these everyday atrocities. We have normalized that women should feel unsafe, and that despite being the victim, the blame lies on her for not being smart or careful enough.
I have had the concept of this portrait in my mind’s eye for a few years now ever since I viewed Lorenzo Lippi's Saint Agatha in the Blanton Museum of Art. I think the resurgence of Tarana Burke’s Me Too Movement, misogynistic terrorists trying to rebrand themselves as “involuntary celibates”, and the current political climate have compelled me to create my interpretation of Agatha. I cannot imagine a scenario where Agatha would be proud of the world we’ve created, where her suffering and martyrdom made little to no impact on how men treat women. When I read Agatha’s story, the telling is clearly from the vantage point of a man. It tells of her great resolve to offer herself only to God in keeping with the Catholic tradition during the time of Catholic persecution, and how through it all she kept her virtue in tact. And though that is to be commended, her suffering was used as a tool of conversion, not as a tale of how those men's transgressions should have lead to their castration, laceration, and dipping into a vat of lemon juice and salt (or whatever the worst punishment of the time would have been). The traditional telling applauds her suffering, it paints God and his angels as these merciful beings that bring Agatha comfort, but I have to ask why the God that would punish all generations of women for the transgression of Eve would not see it fit to smite the men at whose hands one of his devout servants is brutalized. Why make a woman to suffer when the man can be stopped?
I see the story of a woman who made a choice, who told told a man a clear and fervent 'no', and who suffered because she rejected his sexual advances. I see the Church venerate her because of her choice to endure torture rather than renounce Catholicism instead of celebrating her steadfast resolution to ward herself against the monstrosity of man. I feel uncomfortable with her story being used by a system that would see that women have no choice but to follow or rely on men for their safety and salvation. Her trials have been warped into a story of religious obedience instead of the truth at the heart of it: that the ideology that man is entitled to take what he wants from a woman is the most dangerous threat to women because it emboldens men to violent action.
For all the discomfort I feel in the telling and in Lippi's visual interpretation, I’m still glad of the preservation of Agatha’s story because stories are open to retelling and reinterpretation, and I choose to see Agatha as one stick in the fire to continue calling out misogyny, rape culture, harassment, and systems that would uphold the acceptability of those depravities. I see her mythos as a call for women to tell the truth, to cry and wail and gnash our teeth, to let go of stoicism and be the emotional tidal waves that society already views us as. It is a call to reevaluate how we raise our sons - how to avoid the traps of the toxic masculinity that brutalizes and takes, and to nurture the masculinity that protects and serves; and not just how we raise our sons, but our daughters as well - that femininity does not equate weakness, that we are as strong, smart, and worthy of praise as men are, that no one has the right to our bodies, that we are our own and we have autonomy to run our lives and bodies as we see fit. I want to see to it that no woman has to endure what Agatha did, physically or metaphorically. I want to see that men who treat women in such a manner suffer punishment to the fullest extent of the law. I want to see myself being the change, braving the backlash, and believing, protecting, and uplifting my fellow women. I want freedom from patriarchy, and I'm ready to fight in whatever capacity I am able.