“Normative Society and the Monstrous Female Transgressor”
By Chelsea Picken
Monsters are the pith of all that is abject. That which is depicted as monstrous simply cannot inhabit the tangible, real-life societies in which it is produced, but instead, in order to be deemed monstrous in the first place, it must be cast off in disgust from all that is viewed by society as “normal.” This results in an extreme “othering” of anything regarded as monstrous into an entirely separate representational space where it is essentially incapable of coexisting with the way in which society makes sense of itself. Monsters therefore embody abjection because they temporarily disrupt the established norms of any given society. Julia Kristeva reminds us that abjection is “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules” (4). What violates societal boundaries poses a threat to the entire system and the selves existing within the limits of that system, so society must, in response, abject these beings and behaviors from existing in the same domain in order to continue living with their previous notions of self. In the brief state of disruption before monsters actually become monsters, though, there exists a small window of opportunity where norms actually have the potential to be reimagined. If society accepts a new, potentially disruptive idea or behavior into the realm of normative thought, then it cannot simultaneously become monstrous. This being said, once monsters become monsters, they also have the power to reinforce and define the same social norms they are abjected from by specifying what society is inherently not.
Furthermore, women have long been portrayed as monstrous in literature and film, often due to their stepping out of the roles society has placed them into and transgressing into the boundaries of the male sphere. When this happens, these women start to show up as monsters, expressing the anxieties of the ordered society that they are attempting to disorder. In order to counteract this seemingly disastrous boundary crossing, these transgressors (women) must be metaphorically put back into their expected roles through monstrous fiction. One early example of this is the 1872 vampire novella Carmilla, but even over a hundred years later, society still cannot allow women to successfully operate in male dominated roles, as reflected in modern monster fiction like the popular television series The Walking Dead.
Identifying what is feminine with what is monstrous is nothing new when it comes to literature. Even the biblical story of Adam and Eve, according to one influential interpretation, portrays Eve as the weaker sex who deceives Adam into sin, resulting in the fall of humankind, and it seems male writers throughout history have taken that idea and run with it in their literary representation of women. Women appear to be destined for failure from the very beginning, because even when they are not the ones committing the monstrous acts themselves, they can always be held responsible for the initial downfall of the human race. Alletta Brenner agrees that “this tendency for badness is given to be a result of woman’s weaker mind and morals, consequence of an inferior degree of development inherited all the way back from her ‘grandmother Eve’” (173). This inheritance of a seemingly natural inadequacy of all women has then played into the various ways in which different periods throughout history have attempted to make sense of the world around them, specifically with the issue of gender. Brenner notes that, specifically in early modern England, there was a shift from taking everything that occurred as a result of divine providence to trying to categorize everything into its distinct and separate group in order to determine the essential qualities of all existence (174).
As one would imagine, this caused some difficulty when it came to determine the essential qualities of gender because it only allowed for certain attributes to define what it meant to be a woman. Therefore, any woman breaking these rigid boundaries of their category of existence was transgressing into areas that did not constitute what a woman was thought to be in early modern England and disrupted the way society was ordered. This led them to be viewed as monstrous and “unnatural.” Brenner adds to this idea saying “for only when ‘natural’ is confined to strict limit, can something become monstrously ‘unnatural’” (174). If women act outside their limited category of existence, or that which is seen as “natural” behavior, they not only disrupt what society thinks they know about women, but they also begin to disrupt what society claims to know about life in general. If women are not what they are supposed to be, then it is possible that nothing is what it seems, and suddenly everything becomes a complete and utter uncertainty. In order to avoid such widespread chaos, monsters have to come into play to remind society what it is fundamentally not.
In J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, it becomes extremely apparent how the possibility of a woman transgressing her gender roles has the initial potential to break down the current female gender code and restructure what it meant to be a woman existing in the 19th century. In fact, LeFanu all but spells out the perfect recipe for women to redefine themselves and exist outside of the male chain of power. That being said, Carmilla also exemplifies the attempt to resist these alterations to traditional societal norms in order to retain a sense of order in the way people made sense of the world at that time period. In her article “Repossessing the Body: Transgressive Desire in Carmilla and Dracula,” Elizabeth Signorotti discusses how “Laura and Carmilla’s lesbian relationship defies the traditional structures of kinship by which men regulate the exchange of women to promote male bonding,” allowing “Laura and Carmilla to usurp male authority and to bestow themselves on whom they please, completely excluding male participation in the exchange of women” (607). For the majority of the novella, as Signorotti suggests, the women appear to have significantly more power over the male characters, which absolutely defies the established gender codes of the time. As much as the men try to exert their power over the women in the story, they fail to have any real influence on the events that make up most of the plot, and the women take every chance they get to discredit any form of male authority. One of the first things revealed about Carmilla is that she cannot tell anyone anything about her past, including her family name, where she is from, or what the nature of her mother’s journey is (LeFanu). This is not just in place to conceal herself as a vampire, but it also undermines a very distinct male concern of gaining power through a patriarchal set of values. Signorotti agrees that “Carmilla’s refusal to bear her ancestral name is just one example of her refusal to be subsumed by male authority. She is less interested in sharing with Laura her lineage – a primary concern in male systems of exchange – than her sexuality” (614). Without knowing Carmilla’s ancestry, it becomes nearly impossible for her to be constrained by a system of patriarchy, decreasing the overall power men have over women.
Another area where women seem to undermine the masculine in Carmilla is the multiple failed attempts by men to utilize medicine’s power to protect the female characters around them. It seems that nearly every time Laura’s father comes into play in the story, he calls a doctor to the house for one reason or another, but the doctor’s powers are ultimately useless against Carmilla’s very different and much stronger kind of power (LeFanu). Discussing the way women are often aligned with monstrosity, Valerie Wee recognizes that the Western portrayal of women often “codes the female as a malign force that is closely associated with the unnatural, the mysterious and the irrational, while equaling the male with the benign, the rational and the logical” (158). This perfectly applies to the way Carmilla is set up. Even though Laura’s father’s attempts to save his daughter by incessantly bringing in doctors, who prove completely ineffectual, his consulting science in this setting aligns him with the rational and logical thing to do, as Valerie Wee suggests. Therefore, whether or not his actions have any real authority over the events of story, he is still associated with the good and sensible, while Carmilla, who in actuality holds all the power, is seen as an unnatural, evil force corrupting the established laws of society. This theme of the women in the text controlling nearly every situation while also undermining any aspects of male power persists throughout nearly all of Carmilla and only deviates from this when Carmilla is finally killed at the end, creating a peculiar contradiction. If Carmilla can possess all the control up to this final endpoint and leave the men virtually powerless, how do they manage to muster up the power to find and destroy her? Logically, it makes no sense. Yet, thinking back to why female monsters appear in the first place, Carmilla never really had a chance of survival. As an independent powerful woman existing in 19th century England and defying all forms of male authority around her, she simply had to be exterminated in order to define the limits of what was and what was not acceptable for a woman living at this time in society.
Shifting forward about seventy years, another era that most definitely addresses female monstrosity is the period between the mid 1940s and mid 1950s, when noir became a very prominent style of film in America. This period is particularly relevant to female monstrosity because it was also a time where the way society was ordered, especially in relation to gender, was being gradually reimagined. Women were acting outside of their previously accepted gender code, and society’s reaction to their new behavior can be seen in various pieces of art and literature of the time, one being film noir. In previous years, while men were off fighting in World War II, women were expected to step out of their roles as housewives and homemakers, fill the jobs the men left vacant, and do their duty supporting the war effort. This gave them a sense of purpose and autonomy, so that by the time men returned home from war, people were beginning to see the emergence of a “new woman,” one that existed outside of the home. That being said, after the war most women were expected to return to their roles as housewives, and those who remained working were forced into lower paying positions as men reclaimed their’s. Nevertheless, this idea of the new independent working woman was one that left much of the male population with a great deal of anxiety. Because this woman did not correlate with society’s conception of the world once the war was over, film noir displays an attempt to cast them off as evil and dangerously seductive monstrous women in order to redefine womanhood and preserve a former notion of the way society was previously constructed in relation to gender. Often portrayed as the infamous femme fatale, these “women in film noir are presented in a narrow range. Either they are masked malevolence or desperately conventional housewives” (Hirsch 155). In other words, if women did not conform to the “little Suzy Homemaker” ideal, they were verging on transgressing into territory that had not been previously designated to them, attempting to break the very foundation of the structured society they were a part of. As a result of this failure to conform, these transgressors could not be allowed to freely operate in society simply as self-assertive, positive feminine figures, but rather, they were portrayed as unnatural and fiendish forces working against the good of humanity.
Some scholars disagree on the emergence of the femme fatale as a reflection of the independent working woman. Mark Jancovich instead argues:
The monstrous female is often closely associated with domesticity and directly opposed to the independent woman of the war years. As a result, rather than a demonization of the independent woman of wartime, the female monster is actually associated with the figure of the slacker, a figure that wartime propaganda presented as an arrogant, self-absorbed woman. (134)
He goes on to give multiple examples of films that portray monstrous women as housewives instead of independent women. In one particular film the woman becomes “a monster of ‘possessive love’, a woman who is destructively dependent on her husband, and on her role as his wife,” (141) and in another “a kept woman, a gold digger who has married into wealth and power and manipulates others in order to protect her position” (141). Jancovich argues that because these women are operating in the domestic sphere and being portrayed as monstrous, the idea of the femme fatale representing the anxieties over the emerging “new woman” is inaccurate. Instead he claims that the independent woman of wartime was in actuality a respected figure in society, while the traditional housewife was looked down upon as lazy and self-absorbed.
Although Jancovich makes a valid argument, he fails to recognize that these monstrous housewives are not being portrayed as monstrous because they embody the idea of the exemplary domestic woman. They are also transgressing their prescribed gender roles in society, just as the new woman was. Each of his examples shows this; he just fails to address it. Neither the destructively dependent housewife nor the gold digging housewife mentioned previously represent the ideal woman operating in the domestic sphere. Both present a threat to society by abusing their traditional role of housewife and undermining the men around them. Therefore, the idea that women essentially become monstrous for transgressing their established societal roles still applies here. Because American noir “had no use for a straightforward presentation of the newly enfranchised woman” (154), the femme fatale is, in fact, a reflection of this woman. That reflection has just been distorted. Thus, Jancovich’s monstrous domestic housewives are just another breed of monstrous women, not because the independent woman of the time was the ideal, but because these women also do not remain within the confines of what a domestic woman was supposed to be in the 40s and 50s.
Fast-forward to modern society, and many would likely claim that this monstrous women business has become rather irrelevant. After both first and second wave feminism, it appears that women have progressed leaps and bounds when it comes to the understanding of gender in today’s world. However, after an in-depth analysis of the depiction of women in modern literature and film, this becomes a much more debatable claim. This is precisely why modern society’s numerous depictions of zombie-ridden apocalyptic worlds in literature and film serve as the perfect means for understanding how the way gender functions in modern society may not be all that different from how it did in the 19th century one that Carmilla was produced from. An apocalyptic setting has no use for many of the social norms that exist today, yet gender is one of the few that persists throughout the majority of zombie fiction, making the consequences of stepping out of one’s gender roles that much more apparent. Zombie fiction is a relatively contemporary venture, and one that seems to have spurred somewhat of an obsession over the last decade or so. The Walking Dead, the widely popular television series following a group of survivors through a zombie apocalypse, has a lot to say about the role of gender dynamics when society has become virtually nonexistent. Whereas Carmilla and the classic femme fatale woman have displayed a resistance to change preconceived notions of how society is supposed to be structured, in zombie fiction these preconceived notions have not only changed, but they have been violently and permanently destroyed. So what does this mean for women existing in such a world that appears to no longer be preoccupied with trivial matters such as social norms? Surprisingly enough, they still cannot seem to catch a break.
Jessica Murray addresses this very issue of how living in a zombie apocalypse contributes to the understanding of gender. She claims that this zombie-filled world is a completely “generic space in which human characters, male and female, behave monstrously and transgress the social rules and roles that usually confine them” (4). This understanding is therefore completely foreign to any society in the past. Whereas before, when women were doing the transgressing on their own, thus leading to their being cast off as monstrous from what was “normal’ in society, in a zombie apocalyptic society, monstrosity itself is the norm. Not only do the literal monsters (the zombies) outnumber humanity, but for the humans themselves, it becomes normative to behave in a manner that is also monstrous in order to survive. For example, in the 4th season of The Walking Dead, Carol, in order to protect herself and those around her, makes the unfathomable decision of killing a child, Lizzie (“The Grove”). In any other societal setting, regardless of time period, this would be seen as murder and, therefore, not in any way acceptable behavior. Pre-zombie apocalypse, Carol would have undoubtedly been portrayed as a monster, yet in this setting, viewers are actually inclined to rationalize why Carol, in fact, had to kill Lizzie because that is the kind of action such a society calls for in order to survive. Because all humankind is forced to transgress the social boundaries of their previous world, gender boundaries are broken down along with them. This allows for a drastic reconstruction of what it means to be a man or woman living in a zombie apocalypse.
Although women are more freely allowed into the realm of the male sphere in this fictional society, they still remain the lesser, weaker sex of the two. Take the character of Andrea from The Walking Dead. In season two of the series, she is seen beginning to operate more so in the masculine realm by being trained to shoot with the men and choosing to protect the group by keeping watch, rather than take part in the traditional women’s duties like cooking, cleaning, and watching the children. Yet instead of being allowed to excel in this role as an equal to her male counterparts, the show takes a disappointing turn when she accidentally mistakes Daryl for a walker and makes the irrational and unnecessary decision to shoot him. But not to worry, she cannot even be allowed to succeed in that because her inferior shooting skills only result in the shot grazing the side of Daryl’s head. If this were not enough, Andrea also gets a good scolding from Lori for burdening the other women with her share of the “women’s chores” because she prefers to “work on her tan,” keeping watch with her gun on top of the RV instead (“Chupacabra”). So even as women have more freedom, in that what is acceptable behavior for them in a zombie apocalyptic society has expanded to include a much broader range of activities in the reimagined gender boundaries, they still are not permitted to exist on equal grounds with the men in such a society. Although maybe not seen as monstrous, they definitely are not viewed in an overly positive light. It seems then that, while existing in a zombie apocalyptic society allows for drastic alterations to societal norms, the impact of old world norms can still be seen to have a significant effect on how gender is reimagined in this new world.
Female monsters ultimately have one thing in common: no matter what time period they originate from, they usually attempt to transgress the boundaries of a social norm put into place by their respective societies. As a result of playing this role of transgressor, we see these monsters forced into abjection with the intention to preserve the accepted normative expectations of a society that can only exist within the constraints of these boundaries. All monsters, regardless of gender, disrupt the established order of the world, but when these monsters happen to be female, they are almost exclusively portrayed in that manner because of their unwillingness to conform to a standard, and not because they are committing any heinous, unforgivable acts. As one would expect, this feminine monstrosity clearly manifests itself in literature of the past, as women have long been understood as inferior in patriarchal systems. Yet, as modern society would like to think it has overcome these injustices, they are still being reflected in contemporary literature and film. Furthermore, even as gender binaries are broken down in extreme cases such as the zombie apocalyptic society, a distinct representational space where men and women can exist on an equal ground has yet to be conceived.
Chelsea Picken is an English literature major and a member of Sigma Tau Delta. In 2014, Chelsea presented a paper on the alienation of women in Gothic literature at the Midwest Undergraduate Conference in the Humanities and a paper entitled “Victorian Sexuality and the Myth of Virginity in Tess of the d’Urbervilles” at the National Undergraduate Literature Conference in Ogden, Utah. Chelsea hopes to earn a Ph.D. and become an English professor.