Feminist Monster Theory: The Vilification of the Violation of Gender Roles
*The following is a paper that I wrote for my Women in Social Media class during my first semester at college, in Fall 2014*
Currently, American culture is obsessed with monsters; with the popularization of everything from werewolves and vampires to fairy tale villains and reanimated corpses, Halloween seems to be nearly year round. But this fascination is nothing new, horror has been thrilling and chilling audiences as long as there have been bumps in the night to inquire about. In fact, horror is so deeply ingrained in western culture that some literary analysts have created the idea of monster theory. Essentially, monster theory states that the characters viewed as villains or monsters reflect cultural unease or prejudices. Often, this leads to the vilification of those who defy gender roles, and perpetuates this vilification in the media. This is reflected in the ideas that the transformative properties of werewolves closely parallel LGBTQ narratives, that vampirism can be seen as a metaphor for HIV, a disease which is deeply ingrained in homosexual history, or that witches are often featured as either young seductresses or bitter, masculine hags. Monster theory from a feminist perspective reveals how the violation of gender roles has always been vilified in the media, from old myths to modern movies.
Werewolves, for example, are often used as a metaphor for queerness, and vilified for it. Their ability to transcend species boundaries and societal norms is reminiscent of the LGBTQ community’s ability to transcend sexual boundaries and gender norms. Phillip A. Bernhardt-House explains this idea well in his essay “The Werewolf as Queer, the Queer as Werewolf, and Queer Werewolves” published in the book Queering the Non/Human. He writes, “The werewolf is generally seen as a ‘hybrid’ figure of sorts — part human and part wolf — and its hybridity and transgression of species boundaries in a unified figure is, at the very least, unusual, thus the werewolf might be seen as a natural signifier for queerness in its myriad forms.” (Bernhardt-House 159). Essentially, werewolves are hybrids, embodying two species within one persona, similarly to how some queer folk embody two genders, or some fluid form of sexuality. Werewolves defy societal norms, in much the same ways as the LGBTQ community defies gender roles.
Moreover, this hybridity is fluid. In most mythos, the transition from man to wolf is not permanent. The werewolf will only be a wolf for a few days, during the full moon, or they can switch back at will. Therefore, nothing about the werewolf’s identity is entirely stable. In The Werewolf Pride Movement: A Step Back from Queer Medieval Tradition, Caitlin Giacopasi poses an interesting question: “When an individual’s species is in constant flux, how can it’s representations of gender or sexuality remain static?” (Giacopasi 5). Essentially, werewolves are not confined to one species, and thus, they are not confined to one form of gender expression or sexuality either.
Furthermore, most werewolves often do not want to be confined, either. Giacopasi also states, “Beyond the restrictions of humanity, the werewolf could publically act and desire in ways which the average man could only dream” (Giacopasi 5). Werewolves are the manifestation of humanity’s more animalistic side. They act on instinct, giving into emotions and drives easily. They are not limited by society’s standards, because they are the other. They exist outside of mainstream society, in much the same way that the LGBTQ community did when it first arose.
Also, Giacopasi goes on to write that “The refusal to accept a gender role and the inability to embrace a sexuality mark the monster.” (Giacopasi 6). Werewolves, in some stories, particularly the medieval myths, are not particularly fearsome. But, they exist outside of society, and though docile, they are very different from what was expected of people in that time period. This difference, this rejection of societal norms, is viewed as being inherently monstrous. Thus, the existence of these monsters, and the vilification of these werewolves, served to further reinforce societal standards, by bonding over some othered danger.
Similarly, vampires in most works come to represent an othered danger as well. Usually, this danger involves crossing over societal boundaries, in an inherently sexual way. The vampire would seduce the victim, hypnotizing them or wooing them over time. This seduction would ultimately culminate in the vampire biting the victim, and the subsequent exchange of bodily fluids. This bite is often seen as something inherently sexual. For example, in her essay “Deadly Kisses: Vampirism, Colonialism, and the Gendering of Horror”, published in The Fantastic Vampire, Teri Ann Doerkson compares Dracula and “Carmilla”. She writes:
Both, of course, explore in some depth a series of illicit sexual encounters, thinly disguised by metaphor, which are ultimately resolved through the utter destruction of the sexual initiator (and the more willing of his or her prey) and the re-establishment of a properly controlled sexual structure for those who remain behind (Doerkson 140).
Essentially, vampirism is seen to be a form of sexual deviance, and this sexual deviance is viewed as being self-destructive and an upset for the community at large. In most stories, however, this deviance is eliminated and the leaves the readers feeling that society’s morals are still intact, and ought to stay that way.
Moreover, it should be noted that these stories place a heavy emphasis on female sexuality as a particularly awful form of deviance. Doerkson elucidates, “In both ‘Carmilla,’ which features a female vampire, and Dracula, which principally describes a male vampire, those susceptible to contamination with vampiric sexuality are almost exclusively female” (Doerkson 140). In most cases, the women in these stories are viewed as victims, weak and preyed upon. Then when they actually submit to their predator’s will, they face consequences for their sexual deviance, usually resulting in their death.
Since the 1980s, vampirism has also been seen as a metaphor for HIV and AIDS. In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic began in the US, and was particularly concentrated among gay men. Because they had no fear of pregnancy, they did not always use protection, and when they did, it was not always effective. So HIV has long been associated with the LGBTQ community, to the extent that in “A Girl Like That Will Give You AIDS!”, an essay published in The Fantastic Vampire, Jeane Rose noted that “As late as 1988, Cosmopolitan reported that for heterosexuals “there is almost no danger of contracting AIDS through ordinary sexual intercourse,” with ordinary sex excluding homosexual sex or sex with a prostitute” (Rose 146). Thus, HIV and AIDS are deeply ingrained in LGBTQ history. Many LGBTQ people, especially gay males, are often incorrectly assumed to have the virus, and many people who have the virus are incorrectly assumed to be homosexual.
Eventually, AIDS came to be associated with vampirism. This association was forged out of certain similarities between the two blood-borne infections. Rose explains that “The AIDS virus enters the body through the bloodstream or through sexual contact. Both modes of transmission resemble the vampire’s bite, which is simultaneously an exchange of blood and a symbolic sex act” (Rose 145). This is especially emphasized in certain movie adaptations of Dracula, one of which notably featured gratuitous up close shots of blood and in depth shots of red blood cells.
Unfortunately, this association was not formed without negative consequences for the LGBTQ community. Associating HIV with vampirism has lead to associating HIV carriers with vampires. It led to a lot of blame being placed on people with the HIV and AIDS, and a sharp decline in sympathy. It also led to some harsh stereotypes, founded entirely in ignorance. Rose writes, “Like the tales in which the vampire poisons his victims with the taint of vampirism, appalling stereotypes about people with AIDS continue to circulate — particularly media images of prostitutes and homosexuals who intentionally infect their partners” (Rose 146). This stereotype is obviously quite harmful, because it dehumanizes and others people who happened to be unfortunate enough to contract this disease. It makes people without the disease much less sympathetic and much less likely to invest in a cure. Furthermore, the stereotype creates a negative stigma for people with HIV and AIDS, that they are being malicious and spreading it intentionally, or that they somehow deserved to contract the disease, because they are sexually deviant.
Another monster that is often seen as embodying sexual deviance is the witch. They are often portrayed as young, seductive women, or hideous creatures that have transformed themselves. In “The Contemporary Witch, the Historic Witch and the Witch Myth,” several authors discuss witches and society’s changing perceptions of them throughout time. The authors write:
Central to almost all theoretical sexual treatises since the Witches Hammer — both those which coerce women into the bourgeois code of behavior and those which see women as barely controlled sensuality per se — is the implicit assumption — often an emphatic one — that the danger which woman exudes and the sole power which she can in fact exert are rooted in her destructive sensuality (Bovenschen et. all 90–91).
Essentially, throughout history, women’s sexuality has been seen as somehow more deviant than men’s. Moreover, once they take charge of their own sexuality, they become somehow othered, separate from acceptable society. This scares the general population, and thus these women are labeled witches, compared to monsters, feared and excluded.
Thus, witches in popular literature and media began to reflect these ideas. They became sexual entities, conniving and disgraceful. The authors write, “witches are accused of crimes similar to those which made the femme fatale of 19th-century novels and dramas such a menacing literary persona” (Bovenschen et. all 90). Through their magic and their sensual nature, they would tempt people, and trick them into doing inherently evil things, or make them vulnerable. Thus, the witch was seen as a villain, and sexual women were seen as menacing as well. Through this process of othering, this characterization of sexually deviant women as witches, “the witch became the incarnation of the sins of the flesh, of female sexual function” (Bovenschen et. all 103).
However, witches are not always represented as being overly feminine and sexual in nature. Sometimes, they sit on the other end of the spectrum, as masculine, hideous creatures; still outliers from society’s usual expectations for women. These witches, with green skin and crooked noses, match our typical descriptions of the Halloween monsters, cursing maidens and keeping black cats or crows as company. But there’s more to it than just their physical appearance.
In “Alto on a Broomstick: Voicing the Witch in the Musical Wicked,” Michelle Boyd discusses the characterizations of Elphaba in Wicked and other witches from different stories. In one passage, she discusses the Disney franchise’s take on witches, referencing the movies Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Boyd explains, “These characterizations equate ugliness with evil and beauty with good. They also associate wickedness with ambitious, determined go-getters (i.e., women who embrace traditionally ‘masculine’ traits) and goodness with pretty but passive heroines” (Boyd 103). Essentially, these women were powerful. They had magic and they weren’t afraid to use it. But, because they weren’t shy or timid about their power, or passively waiting for princes to save them, they were seen as inherently masculine. Obviously, they were the villains of their stories. But this villainy is amplified by their stereotypically male behavior; while in contrast, the passive femininity of their corresponding princesses was seen as a virtuous achievement.
Moreover, this idea of condemning the assertive female as a witch has spilled over from fiction to reality, and particularly into the political sphere. Boyd writes:
Gibson notes several recent cases of anti-liberal media coverage in which women who questioned or challenged conservative government practices were labeled “witches”; for example, during the 2000 election campaign for the U.S. Senate, right-wing media repeatedly portrayed Hilary Clinton as a witch, drawing upon imagery from the popular horror film The Blair Witch Project (1999) to make their point (Boyd 103).
While at first glance, the witches in books and movies may just appear to be magical villains, they have real world connotations, and often enforce harmful messages, and the word is used as an insult, to condemn women who exercise their autonomy from society. If women are too feminine and sensual, they are witches, and evil temptresses. If women are too masculine or assertive, they are witches, and prudish shrews.
These standards can seem almost inescapable for modern women, who are expected to perform numerous other balancing acts throughout their lives. Being called a witch is generally not a complement. Boyd states, “The witch has long been a symbol of misogyny and female oppression. But in more recent years, the witch icon has experienced a feminist rebirth” (Boyd 101). At one time, the witch was used to oppress women, who were told by society and the media that they shouldn’t act in certain ways, for fear of being called a witch. Though they likely would not be burned at the stake or hung, they could be belittled or ostracized.
Now, however, “witch” is a label that some wear proudly. Recently, there has been a large boom in religions like Neopaganism and Wicca, the practitioners of which often call themselves witches. The title has been reclaimed, particularly among young women. In Witchcraft Goes Mainstream, Brooks Alexander describes this sudden emergence of Neopaganism, writing, “it is among the Internet-savvy younger generation that modern Witchcraft is seeing its most explosive growth — and its most thoroughgoing image-makeover.” (Alexander).
This shift in religious demographics comes alongside a change in how society views witches. Since the 90s, witches had been reinvented by Hollywood, often as the protagonist. Shows like Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and films like The Craft and The Worst Witch feature kids and teens, usually female, as young witches, often re-imagined as lovable, happy enchantresses. Movies such as Practical Magic and Bewitched and shows like Charmed feature happy witch families, and relatively empowered women.
However, these witches have been toned down, with rules and restrictions placed on their magic. For example, in many films and shows, the witches cannot use their power for personal gain, or else it backfires in hilarious or catastrophic ways. Also, these witches are often much prettier than their historic counterparts, and watered down into more socially acceptable characters. Their ambitions often include protecting the innocent, helping their families, fighting against evil, and fixing things they’ve messed up by misusing their magic. (Alexander).
Even Maleficent, from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty has been reformed in the new movie, Maleficent. A witch, who used to be evil for evil’s sake, was given a tragic, heartbroken back-story, and a chance to redeem herself. Thus, she becomes the heroine, rather than the villain. It’s worth noting that Angelina Jolie, the actress who plays the witch, is significantly prettier than her cartoon counterpart, and with much less intimidating mannerisms.
Another witch whose image was recently remade is Elphaba, from Wicked, who is also the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz”. In Wicked, the witch retains her original appearance, “with her green skin, black clothes, and flying broom Elphaba matches our physical conception of a witch” (Boyd 99). Her personality, on the other hand, is completely different. She remains a bit rough around the edges, but this is more defensiveness and a lack of social skills than an actual evil. She is given a sympathetic back-story, and the best intentions. Overall, Elphaba is a good person, and remains that way throughout both the novel and the play, thus becoming a relatable protagonist, rather than a villain.
A similar phenomenon has occurred with other monsters, as well. Werewolves have become much more acceptable in popular media in recent years. Notable werewolf protagonists include Oz, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jacob, in Twilight, and characters from The Vampire Diaries and Teen Wolf. There are also several books with werewolf protagonists, such as Blood and Chocolate and The Mortal Instruments. While most of these werewolves are presented as heterosexuals, their inherent transitive identity is still representative of LGBTQ narratives.
Similarly, vampires have recently experienced a pop culture boom. Popularized by Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, vampires have expanded to several different mediums. There are notable shows with vampire protagonists, such as True Blood and The Vampire Diaries. There are also many popular book series, such as Interview with a Vampire, Vladimir Todd, Cirque Du Freak, and House of Night. With the exception of Interview with a Vampire, most of the vampires presented in these stories are heterosexual, and HIV-free. However, their stories still closely parallel LGBTQ narratives, and the nature of vampirism still closely resembles HIV and AIDS.
Overall, monsters have evolved into lovable, relatable protagonists. Though they are still outcasts in their fictional societies, they are accepted by audiences, despite their monstrosity. Everyone has felt excluded, at some point in their lives, so they can relate to the modern monster’s struggle for society’s approval. In the past, society bonded over its fear of monsters; now, it seems to bond over its love for them.
However, this raises an interesting question: If monsters represent certain alienated groups in modern society, and people as a whole are becoming more accepting of these monsters, does that mean that they will become more accepting of the concepts these monsters embody and the groups they represent? As a whole, society does seem to be progressing that way. People have become more accepting of the LGBTQ community; even cisgender heterosexual people have begun to advocate for equal rights. Feminism has become a widespread movement, and though still opposed by some, it has been embraced by many women; even some men proudly wear the label. While this may not necessarily prove any causation, the fact that these two cultural shifts coincide suggests a correlation. Society, as a whole, is becoming more accepting, both of medieval and modern monsters, and of the concepts which they represent.
Alexander, Brooks. Witchcraft Goes Mainstream. Eugene, Or.: Harvest House, 2004. Print.
Bernhardt-House, Phillip A. “The Werewolf as Queer, Queer as Werewolf, and Queer Werewolves.” Queering the Non/Human. By Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird. Aldershot, Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2008. 159–94. Print.
Bovenschen, Silvia, Jeannine Blackwell, Johanna Moore, and Beth Weckmueller. “The Contemporary Witch, the Historical Witch and the Witch Myth: The Witch, Subject of the Appropriation of Nature and Object of the Domination of Nature.” New German Critique 15 (1978): 82–119. JSTOR. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.
Boyd, Michelle. “Alto on a Broomstick: Voicing the Witch in the Musical Wicked.” American Music 28 (2010): 97–118. JSTOR. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.
Doerksen, Teri Ann. “Deadly Kisses: Vampirism, Colonialism, and the Gendering of Horror.” The Fantastic Vampire: Studies in the Children of the Night: Selected Essays from the Eighteenth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. By James Craig. Holte. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002. 137–44. Print.
Giacopasi, Caitlin B. “The Werewolf Pride Movement: A Step Back from Queer Medieval Tradition.” Thesis. Seton Hall University, 2011. The Werewolf Pride Movement: A Step Back from Queer Medieval Tradition. 10 May 2011. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.
Rose, Jeane. “”A Girl Like That Will Give You AIDS!” Vampirism as AIDS Metaphor in Killing Zoe.” The Fantastic Vampire: Studies in the Children of the Night: Selected Essays from the Eighteenth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. By James Craig. Holte. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2002. 145–50. Print.