fragment: Iphis and Ianthe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, book 9

23 March, 2009

The ideological position of the reader determines which narrative is read from the text, and it is not a natural or fixed component of the text itself. The symbolic structure of the text, the relationships between the words (female, male, feminine, masculine) as signifiers of human attributes can be separated from the ideological framework of that symbolic structure and reconfigured and reread to “mean” the precise opposite of the initial, ostensibly natural reading. It is this potentiality that demonstrates the ideological nature of reading which is distinguishable from the ideological nature of the text.

The “first” reading offers us the following: that it is necessary for the coupled Iphis and Ianthe to have opposite (according to the model used) sex characteristics in order to form a natural union of bodies and this union of bodies is the primary purpose of the story. That this union is primary to the text is confirmed to the reader when the story ends with the successful marriage of Ianthe, the girl, to Iphis, the boy. It is this primacy of coupling that naturalizes the notion that Sex is the first, primary, natural identity of the human subject. If the primary relationship is between sexed bodies then the primary identity of those bodies is to be based on their sexual characteristics. From this reading we, quite naturally, suppose that Sex is primary and that Gender is performed to match Sex.

In his article on the importance of names in the Iphis story Stephen M. Wheeler observes two changes that Ovid made to this story when adapting it from his source material, the story of Leucippus as told by Antoninus Liberalis, which are useful for opening up the possibility of our rereading of Iphis and Ianthe. First, Ovid changes the cause, or complicating factor, of the story from the Liberalis version.

In Liberalis story the character Leucippus threatens to reveal her true sex by blossoming in to a beautiful young woman. It is the natural progression of age which forces the need for an intervention of the gods (Wheeler, Changing Names: The Miracle of Iphis in Ovid Metamorphoses 9). Ovid changes this complicating factor to the imminent marriage of Iphis to Ianthe placing the emphasis not on the body of Iphis alone, but on the “matching” of bodies between the couple, Iphis and Ianthe. This new emphasis indicates a rearrangement of priorities. In the Liberalis version the sex of Leucippus is only an issue insofar as it threatens to reveal a non-match between sex and gender. Leucippus’ identity is masculine until it is threatened by the revelation of Leucippus’ female sex. This narrative gives primacy to sex as indisputable and gender as following sex. In Ovid’s version, the transformation is necessary in order to make possible the sex act. Were it not for this necessity Iphis’ performance of the masculine identity would, we can suppose, continue indefinitely and, in the social-ideological context of the story remain unproblematic. Within this narrative, we can read gender as primary to identity and sex as a secondary performance of identity. It is worth noting, that Iphis’s sex, with the intervention of Isis, is mutable. Further evidence for this reading can be found in a second change between the Liberalis and Ovid versions of the story. Ovid changes the name of Leucippus to Iphis, “a name of common gender to reflect the ambiguous sex of its bearer” (Wheeler).

How do we account for the fact that two opposite conclusions can be made about the relationship between gender and sex in the text without changing the meaning of either the signifiers of gender (feminine, masculine), or the signifiers of sex (female, male)? The meaning of these symbols remains constant, but the meaning of the text is unstable. The two readings can be differentiated by identifying the ideological position of the reader. In the first reading, the reader must naturalize the gender-follows-sex narrative in order to avoid the ambiguity which arises from the second reading. It is precisely this naturalization of the associations of signifiers that points us to the workings of ideology. In the second reading, then, we are not reading in the absence of ideology, but replacing our initial ideological position with a new one in which the relationship between gender and sex is not presupposed.

The second reading does not offer some kind of proof that an opposite narrative is at work, that sex actually follows gender. Instead, it removes the irrefutable character of the assumed gender-sex narrative and offers an ideological repositioning of the reader in relation to the text. In short, it offers ambiguity. It is precisely this ambiguity that, in turn, opens up the possibility of challenging the dominant ideological formation that Monique Wittig suggests “reinterprets physical features (in themselves as neutral as any others but marked by the social system) through a network of relationships in which they are perceived” (Wittig, One is Not Born a Woman). By de-naturalizing the gender-sex narrative and understanding the role of ideology in shaping our interpretation of symbolic structures we not only read a new Iphis and Ianthe, we create a space for reading all texts as new and un-tethered from their prior ideologically rendered meanings. Additionally, as creators of texts, we can the see the possibility for uses of the symbolic (language, image, etc.) which do not assume a particular ideological position of readers and instead offer new formulations which can be put to use in the political project of moving us even further toward a productive ambiguity. This productive ambiguity de-centers normative formations of sex, gender, and sexuality, and creates space for more numerous identity possibilities.


One Response to “fragment: Iphis and Ianthe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, book 9”

  1. Andrea Says:

    I was wondering if this was actually a fragment of Wheeler’s discourse, or a piece of your own? If the first, could you reference me to a page please?

    Many thanks,


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