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7 - Que(e)r(y)ing Iphis’ Transformation in Ovid’s Metamorphoses

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 September 2020

Allison Surtees
Affiliation:
University of Winnipeg, Canada
Jennifer Dyer
Affiliation:
Memorial University of Newfoundland
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Summary

But with this story, well, he [Ovid] can't help being the Roman he is, he can't help fixating on what it is that girls don't have under their togas, and it's him who can't imagine what girls would ever do without one. (Smith 2007: 97)

The story of Iphis in Book 9 of Ovid's Metamorphoses is unique in Latin literature.Roman (male) writers make sense of female same-sex desire by casting one woman in the partnership in the active, penetrative role and characterising her as sex-mad (Hallett 1997). Ovid, by contrast, provides us with the singular tale of deep-felt desire felt by one woman or girl for another that is not reduced to this hierarchical, hyper-sexualised stereotype. That is, at least, at the story's beginning. In the end, Iphis’ miraculous sex-change from female to male enables Iphis and the beloved Ianthe to marry, seemingly shutting down any possibility of a lesbian reality and reasserting the Roman heteronormative marital paradigm. This ending has therefore disappointed prominent writers such as classicist Judith Hallett and novelist Ali Smith, who gives this ancient myth an innovative take in her acclaimed Boy Meets Girl (2007). This chapter contends, however, that Iphis’ transformation is in fact unresolved and that such disappointment is therefore misplaced. Iphis’ metamorphosis can be considered in terms of biological sex (Wheeler 1997: 196, 200; Pintabone 2002: 277; Oliensis 2009: 109; Lateiner 2009: 138) but I will show that the change is strictly speaking one of social gender: regarding Iphis’ biological sex the text is silent (Langlands 2002: 99–101; Ormand 2005: 99–100; Ormand 2009: 217–18; Boehringer 2007a: 254–5; Lindheim 2010: 186–8).

Moreover, the Metamorphosesis a poem about changing forms and Iphis’ change should be considered in the context of Ovid's other transformations. Scholarship on the passage overlooks this aspect as it has focused on the rich opportunities to explore ‘what the Iphis story itself can tell us about Ovidian/Roman concepts of gender and sexuality’ (Kamen 2012: 22). Ovidian transformations characteristically lack resolution: as scholars repeatedly remark, no metamorphosis in the poem is fully resolved since elements of a character's final form are always-already present, such as Lycaon's lupine ferocity or Anaxarete's heart of stone.

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2020

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