'Pop Culture Killed the Classical Star': Cleopatra VII's Transformation from Queen to... Monster?
By: Rebecca Ford
Close your eyes and picture Cleopatra for a moment. What did you see? I’d bet you any money it was Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra (1963) or some sort of generic “Egyptian” Queen with banged black hair and excessive eyeliner. I’m guessing, unless you’re someone like me who has been a little obsessed with Cleopatra VII for as long as you can remember, you didn’t picture this clever, strong-jawed Macedonian Greek. And that’s okay, it’s not your fault – popular culture has trained us over the last century to think about Cleopatra in a very specific and stylized way. Building off my work in the course INF 2141: Children’s Cultural Texts and Artifacts, I have prepared this articulate rant for you to enjoy – regarding the oversimplification, tokenization, and vilification of Cleopatra in modern children’s culture.
Coin with Cleopatra VII in profile; most accurate representation available as it would have been approved by her. Source.
Marble bust of Cleopatra VII (probably). Source.
Graphic illustrating Cleopatra VII’s place on the timeline of the last 4500 years. Canva design by the Author.
Somehow, Cleopatra VII, a ruler of a single period of ancient Egypt for just 22 years, became the unwilling representative of all of ancient Egypt. Recalling the ever-famous mind-boggling comparison: Cleopatra VII technically lived closer to the moon landing than she did to the building of the Sphinx. I’ll let that sink in for a moment – that means that the Sphinx was ancient to HER already, though we often see the two equated in popular culture. Children’s culture in particular gives us some great examples of this essentialization of ancient Egypt found in representations of Cleopatra, or in what I call quasi-Cleopatras: stylized Cleopatra-ish characters that invoke Cleopatra VII rather than literally represent her.
An example of this can be found with the iconic “Egyptian Queen” Barbie, that was released in 1994 as part of the Great Eras collection. As you can see in the description on the fan page, this doll is described as “capturing the essence of Egypt’s Golden Age.” For you non-Egyptologists in the room, Egypt’s “golden age” would be the Old Kingdom (2613 to 2494 BCE) or the New Kingdom (1520 to 1075 BCE), depending on who you ask. Either way, it was nowhere near Cleopatra VII’s time (69 – 30 BCE), yet clearly the designers intended to make use of her familiar image, and, in fact, “Cleopatra” can be seen here as one of the keywords used for this doll. This “Cleopatra look” can be dangerous as it reinforces the idea of excess and indulgence associated with Orientalist visual tropes and stereotypes of ancient Egypt, which melds into ideas about modern Egypt as well. While I’m not claiming these character designers are doing much conscious Othering (in terms of ancient Egypt), these iconic Cleopatra characters are nonetheless direct derivatives of older media in which these tropes and stereotypes were more directly present.
Egyptian Queen Barbie. Screenshot of Barbie fan site. Source.
“Cleopatra” has even become synonymous with “Egypt,” and in fact often serves as a representative of all of ancient Egypt, arguably even more than the famous King Tutankhamen. Besides the fact that she was essentially as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor, what is most interesting about Cleopatra’s role as the most recognizable name from ancient Egypt (and arguably one of the most recognizable names of all time) is that she didn’t even get a good rep out of it. Clearly infamy works just as well as fame. Cleopatra VII (well, those writing about her) left a legacy that portrayed her as a villainous seductress, or femme fatale figure – one that has completely morphed out of proportion and into fantastical realms in the modern day, resulting in “one of the busiest afterlives in history” (Schiff, 2010a). This legacy lives on fairly strongly in children’s media, like television, toys, and more. I want to add, as well, that the commercialization of Egypt (Egyptomania, Tutmania, etc.) is not new. But this new use of Cleopatra as a character, in addition to products depicting historical Cleopatra VII, is something that sets her apart from other characters from ancient Egypt (like, Tutankhamen and Akhenaten are pretty big names, but I haven’t seen them star in anything lately).
So, let’s look at four recent-ish representations of Cleopatra (or quasi-Cleopatras) in popular children’s culture:
Scooby Doo! In Where’s My Mummy? (2005)
In addition to “Cleopatra” becoming a synonym for “Egypt,” she has also somehow become a synonym for “mummy,” as well. In this Scooby Doo flick, the “villain” is the “Ghost of Cleopatra” along with her “undead army.” While she does get slightly redeemed in other ways in this film (as well as being unmasked as – spoiler alert – Velma in the end), she nonetheless is a monster. This is one of the earlier examples of Cleopatra VII being “herself” (left) and also mummified (right), whereas in most later representations, she is not necessarily Cleopatra VII anymore, but instead just Cleopatra-ish.
“Ghost of Cleopatra” depicted in Scooby Doo! In Where’s My Mummy? (2005). Source.
Historical Cleopatra VII depicted in Scooby Doo! In Where’s My Mummy? (2005). Source.
Monster High (2010)
From now on we get the more common type of quasi-Cleopatra in recent media, the youth with supernatural powers or characteristics. This switch to a youth version of the character is notable as Cleopatra VII died when she was 39, with most significant events taking place well into her adulthood, so this switch serves to make her character more identifiable for a primary audience of children.
The stylized Cleopatra that appears in the 2010 Monster High doll line and television series is called (quite hilariously) Cleo De Nile, and is clearly supposed to invoke Cleopatra VII, but not necessarily be literally her. You can see from the character’s bio on the fan website that there are “Cleopatra narrative” themes (i.e., royalty, sibling problems, loyal supporters) that remain pervasive in the character, and she even has a pet snake (not kidding, it’s named Hissette). Again, she is made into a type of “mummy” or “monster,” reinforcing this understanding of Cleopatra as a villainous character (though in the case of Monster High, not technically a villain). We can also see from this website bio that she was written with a birth date of 5,842 years ago (or in 3832 BCE, if counting from 2010), and while this choice was not likely a conscious one by the creators, it nonetheless continues this trend of the oversimplification of all ancient Egypt, with our Cleopatra as the token Egyptian.
While I try not to get riled up at all this, I think it is important to remember that in most cases such as this, “Cleopatra” is almost no longer even referenced as a character, but essentially as a symbol. Using the household name of “Cleopatra” as a “shorthand,” “visual code,” or “signifier” for a character makes it immediately familiar to an audience. People tend to have a certain background knowledge about Cleopatra (whether historically accurate or not) that allows media producers to create an instantly recognizable and likable character. The use of “Cleopatra” in Monster High has almost become a name drop. For example, “her father, Ramses, and older sister Nefera” (obviously a simplified version of Nefertiti/Nefertari) are clearly just meant to be a smattering of somewhat recognizable ancient Egyptian names, so we must try not to look too much into these things.
Cleo de Nile Monster High Doll (2010), Original Collection. Source.
Cleo de Nile, screenshot of Monster High Wiki. Source.
Super Monsters (2017)
This example for younger children takes youth quasi-Cleopatra to a whole knew extreme – now she is in preschool with her other classmates, who are all children of other iconic monsters. Since when did Cleopatra become an “iconic monster”?! In Super Monsters, the main character, Cleo Graves (again, eye roll), is described on the Wiki page as a 4-year-old mummy with the power to create sandstorms and tornadoes. So, not only has this quasi-Cleopatra remained a dehumanized monster, but now she has powers, as well. We are obviously drifting further and further from historical Cleopatra VII here, to the point where she is but a distant memory in the writing of this adorable 4-year-old (top left in the image below – if you couldn’t tell from the never-going-away stylistic bangs and headdress).
Super Monsters (2017) Poster. Source.
Cleopatra in Space (2020)
I couldn’t imagine a better thing to end off with than this gem that I came across during my research. Cleopatra in Space, a 2014 graphic novel and now apparently quite a popular television show, is a comedic adventure in which the “real” teenage Cleopatra (Cleo) gets transported 30,000 years into the future to an Egypt-themed planet ruled by talking cats. Yes, you read that right. Though Cleopatra is the savior of the galaxy and does possess some powers (pink “energy waves and beams,” if you were wondering), she has curiously retained her historical lineage and familiar traits. So, we seem to have come full circle, or more accurately, we seem to have actually combined all the different versions of Cleopatra into a single character who is simultaneously historical, young, fantastical, and powerful.
Cleopatra in Space (2020) Title Card. Source.
Modern children’s culture echoes the fact that people have used Cleopatra as a way of showing their opinion about “what authority looks like when it is lodged in a woman's body” and how that would inevitably turn out (Bernstein & Studlar, 1997). This colourful reputation of Cleopatra over the last two thousand years or so has blown out of proportion: Cleopatra’s character went from being a clever but dangerous Queen, to “the wickedest woman in history,” to becoming a literal mummy and iconic monster. Now, with Cleo being the hero in Cleopatra in Space (2020), the name of Cleopatra begins to be somewhat redeemed. While we can’t really take any of these quasi-Cleopatra representations as anyone’s active attempts at bad-mouthing historical Cleopatra VII, it nonetheless illustrates the power of storytelling and the lasting impacts of popular culture. Unfortunately, the character of Cleopatra may never completely leave behind Cleopatra VII’s (and Elizabeth Taylor’s) infamous legacy. However, maybe through an acknowledgement of popular culture’s effects on our perception of Cleopatra, it can aid in separating historical Cleopatra VII from character/symbol Cleopatra. This conscious analysis of our own popular culture can help us realize the direct and inevitable impact our representations have on the perceptions of historical characters in the future, particularly when these representations are fed to children at formative ages.
For more info:
Bernstein M., & Studlar, G. (1997). Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film. Rutgers University Press.
Miles, M. M. (2011). Cleopatra: A Sphinx Revisited. University of California Press.
Osmond, S. (2012). ‘Her Infinite Variety’: Representations of
Shakespeare’s Cleopatra in Fashion, Film and Theatre. Film, Fashion & Consumption, 1(1), 55–79.
Schiff, S. (2010a). Cleopatra: A Life. United States, Little, Brown.
Schiff, S. (2010b). Rehabilitating Cleopatra. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/rehabilitating-cleopatra-70613486/
About the Author | Rebecca Ford
Rebecca is a second year MMSt student at the iSchool, with a BA in History and Classics from Memorial University of Newfoundland. She is the Vice President of MUSSA and is currently working on an Exhibition Project with the Toronto Railway Museum. Rebecca’s museum passions include education, public programming, and exhibit design, with her overall goal of making museums a more welcoming, fun, and accessible place for children and children’s informal learning.