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How Percy Jackson Transforms Medusa from the Books to Tackle the Rape Myth

SPOILER ALERT: This story contains spoilers for “We Visit the Garden Gnome Emporium,” episode 3 of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.”

For fans of Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” books, Medusa represents one of Percy’s first big victories: after being tricked into spending time with “Aunty Em,” he decapitates the snake-haired woman , and his cursed, dead eyeballs are later used to turn another enemy to stone.

But for those with a deeper knowledge of Greek mythology and for many women, Medusa is a symbol of something darker.

In the original myth, Medusa is a human woman who takes a vow of celibacy out of devotion to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. However, Medusa eventually enters into a relationship with the sea god Poseidon which becomes sexual one night. Many interpretations posit that the encounter, which took place in the temple of Athena, was not consensual and that Poseidon raped Medusa. Athena decides to punish Medusa, stripping her of her beauty by transforming her into a gorgon who petrifies anyone she makes eye contact with. The story ends with the demigod Perseus – for whom Percy Jackson is named – decapitating Medusa and offering her head to Athena.

The 2005 novel was written for a middle school audience and understandably did not delve into this story. But Percy is the son of Poseidon, and Annabeth, who joins him on his quest, is the daughter of Athena, so both have charged bloodlines in Medusa’s presence. Thus, in the television adaptation of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” now broadcast on Disney+, the Gorgon’s relationships with the children’s parents are revealed in greater depth.

Rebecca Riordan, married to Rick and executive producer of the television series, states that “the only reason Medusa isn’t given more detail in the books is because it’s Percy’s story and we don’t have his point of view”, as are books. written in the first person. “As a 12-year-old boy in 2005, I don’t think he had the capacity to deconstruct the patriarchy,” adds Rick. “He looked at it as, ‘This is a scary woman trying to turn me to stone.'”

But that changed upon entering a TV writers’ room, where other perspectives become essential. “That was one of the first things we talked about, how to not have a patriarchal view,” Rebecca says.

Medusa is first mentioned in the pilot episode, when Percy’s (Walker Scobell) mother, Sally (Virginia Kull), takes her young son (played in a flashback by Azriel Dalman) to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and shows him Antonio Canova’s statue from the early 1800s of Perseus holding the severed head of Medusa. “Not everyone who looks like a hero is a hero, and not everyone who looks like a monster is a monster,” she tells Percy.

Percy Jackson jellyfish statue

Young Percy (Azriel Dalman) sees Antonio Canova’s “Perseus with the Head of Medusa” at the Met Museum
Disney

Then, in episode 3, Percy and his quest companions, Annabeth (Leah Sava Jeffries) and Grover (Aryan Simhadri), end up having lunch with Medusa (Jessica Parker Kennedy). Unlike the book “Lightning Thief”, the children immediately realize who the gorgon is, but Percy decides to take a chance with her as she is the only option of refuge for the children as they are hunted by the Alecto (Megan Mullaly ), one of the Furies sent by Hades to capture Percy. Annabeth and Grover reluctantly follow. Then Medusa, sensing Annabeth’s anger towards her and her allegiance to Athena, tells her side of the story.

“Athena was everything to me. I adored him; I prayed to her; I made offerings. She never responded, not even a hint that she appreciated my love,” Medusa said. Then, correctly assuming that Annabeth isn’t as close to her mother as she would like, she adds, “I wasn’t as you, darling. I was You. I would have worshiped her this way all my life: in silence.

“But one day another god came and broke the silence. Your father,” she continues, now addressing Percy. “The sea god told me he loved me. I felt like he saw me in a way that I had never felt seen before. But then Athena declared that I had embarrassed her and that I should be punished. Not him. Me. She decided that I would never be seen again by anyone who lived to tell the tale this story.

“Percy Jackson” co-creator and co-showrunner Jon Steinberg — who credits writer Daphne Olive with directing much of that storyline — explains how the episode references the original myth while keeping it age-appropriate: “If you know what she’s talking about, you know what she’s talking about.” If you’re too young to participate in this conversation, you won’t mind. You’re just in a scene about this woman who seems complicated. And everyone has an opinion on what happened. There is no version THE version. If Athena and Poseidon were in this room, you would get three different versions of this story.

And even though her character never uses the language of sexual assault, Kennedy felt resolute in her portrayal: “Jon wrote a story in which (Medusa) thought that (Poseidon) was someone she could trust, and he broke that trust. She felt safe, then the situation became dangerous,” she says. “So I chose to play that she was the victim of rape and total abandonment, without understanding why Athena would turn against her.”

Likewise, Rick’s explanation is simple: “There are many versions from ancient times about what happened in this temple with Medusa, Poseidon and Athena. Whose fault is it ? Who is the attacker? What is the real story? It’s fiction, but it’s certainly important to recognize that there is abuse here. Abuse of power.”

Given that Medusa is traditionally seen as a villain – and that she tries to turn the children to stone at the end of the episode – introducing a nuanced narrative of abuse required some consideration in the design of the character. She wears a flowing beige dress with a matching hat that barely covers her dangerous eyes, along with high heels, red lipstick, and a gold necklace. In short, she is not monstrous. She is beautiful.

“One of the most interesting changes that influenced her appearance is that, from Medusa’s perspective, the actual curse didn’t make her ugly. It made her invisible,” Rick says. “She chose, in this version, to own that. Being seen. Be elegant. She turns people into stone and uses it as art.

Petrifying her enemies, as Rebecca points out, is Medusa’s way of emotionally dealing with Athena’s curse: “She was physically transformed. She accepted herself as she is and the power she possesses, but she was also traumatized,” she says.

Kennedy says she began to fully connect with that Medusa expression once she received her costume. “She’s so elegant and so grounded and so calm, and it’s a huge facade of the trauma that she’s trying to hide,” she says. “She does all these really horrible things and becomes a terrible person, but I wanted her to feel almost frighteningly calm and kind. I didn’t want her to have a scary voice. I wanted it to be sweet, but I also wanted to leave a layer of how we know shit is going to go wrong.

“Another thing we did was show everyone the statue of Medusa holding the head of Perseus – reverse history,” says Rick of Luciano Garbati’s 2008 statue that reimagines and reverses death of Medusa. The piece has become a symbol of the #MeToo movement. “It’s a powerful piece of art to start a conversation about who is telling the story.” Kennedy also credits this statue with helping her create her version of Medusa.

“Medusa with the head of Perseus” by Luciano Garbati
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

This nuanced, kinder version of Medusa begins with some version of good intentions when she meets Percy. She recognizes that, like her, he has difficulty feeling that Poseidon has abandoned him.

“The studio executives were like, ‘Oh, is this going to be a story about Percy gaining his father’s love and respect?’ And it’s like, “No, that’s not the story!” He has to go through: “What did my father do? Has he changed? How do I see myself in relation to this?’ “, said Rebecca. “Percy can only judge his father by the ruins he left behind,” Rick explains.

Once she has some alone time with him, Medusa offers to help Percy save his mother from Hades, which is his true goal in the quest, even though he has been tasked with prioritizing recovery of Zeus’s stolen lightning. But to save Sally, Medusa implies, they would have to petrify Annabeth and Grover – a punishment for their loyalty to the gods. “There’s a part of Medusa that really thinks she can transform Percy,” Kennedy says. “She’s looking for allies, knowing, ‘I’m going to have to kill these kids.’ But maybe I can convince them: I’m the good guy. Your mother is not a good person. Your father is not a good person. I was there for them. They weren’t there for me.

Of course, Percy refuses to fall into her trap. He ends up following in the footsteps of his namesake and decapitates Medusa. But he does this to protect his friends, not Poseidon and Athena. Despite her disappearance, Medusa causes real damage to Percy and Annabeth’s perception of their parents.

“Where (Percy and Annabeth) are the most different is in terms of their upbringing,” Steinberg says, as Annabeth had been at Camp Halfblood for years, while Percy only knows he’s a demigod. for a week. “Annabeth is fully steeped in the Olympian culture, the family culture of what one owes (to the gods) in homage and obligation.”

So, for the first time, Annabeth sees this culture challenged. “She has a calcified view of her mother that needs to change to get through this season and develop as a person,” Becky explains. “This is the episode where you see this start. “Maybe my mother isn’t who I think she is. Maybe I don’t need to worship her.’

And Percy, who was already angry at his father’s absence in his life, is shaken by Medusa’s suggestion that perhaps his mother’s relationship with Poseidon wasn’t as sunny as she claimed.

“There’s a third act to this Medusa, Poseidon, and Sally subplot that you haven’t seen yet. It happens in episode 7, a very powerful flashback scene where you see Sally and Poseidon together,” Rick says.

“What’s most interesting to me (about episode 3) is Medusa’s position in relation to Sally, and the awareness that they both dated the same man and experienced very different experiences,” says Steinberg. “I like that the story views this relationship from Percy’s point of view. It’s not entirely clear: did they love each other? It seems so, but what went wrong? Something went wrong ? Is it possible that Medusa had a horrible experience with Poseidon and not Sally?

“It was important to keep this a secret, but not to leave it unanswered,” he concludes. “As we move forward in the season, yes, this is Percy’s adventure, but being a parent to this child is an adventure in itself. A scary one. We also wanted to tell this story, and I don’t think you can tell this story without understanding what Poseidon and Sally were to each other. Long story short: they had a complicated relationship.

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