Revisiting gender: the monstrous feminine

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After last month’s trip to Chicago for the annual PCA/ACA conference, several ideas have jumped into my head that I want to explore in this blog.

The first, and the subject of this blog, is the idea of the monstrous feminine and how gender divisions are prominent across monster fiction and the reception of it. There was a lot of discussion about the portrayals of women in franchises such as The Walking Dead but that looked at the living, non-monstrous characters.

Instead, I’m talking about the female monsters of these series and their ability to be seen as equally violent and monstrous – does their femininity detract or enhance the effect of monstrosity? This came up in a talk about female serial killers. There just aren’t that many onscreen, and when they make an appearance, they’re often softened or ‘fixed’ by traditional feminine aspects such as motherhood (think Hannah McKay for example in Dexter – the series ended with her taking care of Dexter’s son and we’re lead to believe she renounces her ways). Obviously loves flowers

Why is it so hard to conceive of a female monster that enacts violence, rather than just functioning as a sexual deviant and morality tale? The primary focus of many monster narratives these days are the male leads, and they often act as ‘saviours’ or protectors for a female human.

At the centre of monstrosity is the need to control, destroy and enact primitive behaviours. Yet when it comes to women, they are seen as creators due to the maternal side and often are the nurturers of the stories, taking care of the wounded or often, helping the monster renounce his ways and redeem himself through a connection to his opposite (destruction/creation). Again, Hannah McKay enacts this despite her apparent monstrosity, growing flowers and creating new life.

In vampire films where there are female monsters, such as vampires, they are often given a tragic backstory that involves abuse, so as to temper their monstrosity, or give a ‘motive’ for it. Yet, monstrosity isn’t always created, it’s just there. Giving a reason for it absolves the perpetrator, and this is primarily the case with the female monsters, who for some reason, we struggle with. It is probably known by anyone reading this that female vampires are usually seen as sexually deviant or as lesbians. For some reason, monstrosity in women also subverts their sexuality – perhaps because it goes against their ‘supposed roles’ (my tongue is very firmly in my cheek).

Why can’t there just be evil females without the need to explain, or excuse, or subvert? Whilst I can see for shows involving serial killers that women are rarely the perpetrators of such crimesTheron and Ricci (and if they are, their aspects of deviant sexuality and tragic backstory are played on, such as Aileen Wurnos in the 2003 Monster), with supernatural and sci-fi narratives, there are no rules. Can’t we imagine a woman acting on deadly impulse?

In my mind, it goes back to the need to uphold certain schemas, to maintain balance. By investing the female aggressors with a subversive sexuality or tragic backstory, they are acting out their anger at not fitting into the world, which, paradoxically, is their role. This is part of a bigger issue in narratives or explanations for monstrosity that occur across genders. Particularly the tragic backstory, or as I will discuss in the next post, mental illness. For now, try and imagine what the story would be if Hannibal were female…