The Monstrous Feminine

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


Have you ever gone back to a book or movie or other story you first encountered years ago, and been blown away by the obviousness of something you completely missed the first time through?

It happened to a lot of people with the Christian allegory of Narnia, but today I’d like to discuss a (very) different instance, which is the movie Alien. When I first saw it, I was maybe fourteen or fifteen, and I had no critical brain. It was a movie about an alien killing people, and that was all. But when I saw it again in college, someone pointed out how the alien ship had those two leg-like limbs . . . with a hole between them . . . into which the little white-suited people climbed . . . and then the inside was described as being warm and damp . . . with those ribbed, organic-looking walls . . . and then a big space inside, with alien eggs waiting . . .

Man, it isn’t even subtle. (H. R. Giger rarely is.) But that was the first time I became aware of a concept Barbara Creed dubbed “the monstrous feminine,” which is our topic for this month.

Taken in a broad sense, this is about women’s bodies being rendered as horrific. Julia Kristeva and other critical theorists talk about “the abject,” which describes things that the social order has expelled; since I don’t want to drag you too far down the rabbit-hole of high-level theory, let me just ask you to accept that the female body and its functions (especially in a reproductive sense) are often abjected from our society’s symbolic order. Menstruation, pregnancy, birth — all of these are “icky” topics, best left alone unless you’re a woman, and even then swept halfway under the rug. And because encountering the abject is a psychologically traumatic experience, this is a frequently-exploited source of horror.

It takes a lot of forms. In the case of Alien, it’s the explicitly feminine ship environment, which then violates the boundaries of the symbolic order by turning the tables on the humans: the egg Kane encounters expels a creature both phallic and enveloping, which impregnates him with an alien larva that finally emerges by bursting from his chest, in a horrific and unnatural parody of birth. Phallic features on otherwise feminine bodies are a pretty common horror trope, actually; I could point to Medusa and her snakes, but let me appall some of you by instead bringing up Ursula in the film of The Little Mermaid. By Disney’s standards, she’s grossly sexual (“don’t underestimate the importance of body language!“), and then she’s got those octopus tentacles . . . .

As with Alien, it doesn’t even stop there. After various femme-fatale hijinks, Ursula claims King Triton’s trident (symbolic castration, another expression of the monstrous feminine) and creates an enormous whirlpool (vagina dentata; it doesn’t have teeth, but it’s certainly out to devour everyone). And how is the threat resolved? Eric, the prince, stabs her through the stomach with the prow of his ship. It may be more subtle than Giger, but not by a lot.

Where am I going with this? As with many of the things I’ve posted about, it’s a question of patterns: how widespread and dominant they are, and then whether the author chooses to replicate the pattern uncritically, or to do something more interesting with it. If a particular writer is always writing about monstrous females, and their horrific nature is always bound up in sexual imagery, then that bothers me more than a writer who also has stories about monstrous men, or women whose evil is non-sexual. Also, are there any positive examples to contrast against it, or is the only female body in the story coded as horrific?

And it matters a lot to me, where the story goes with its monstrous feminine threat. A great deal of ink has been spilled on the topic of Ripley versus the aliens — the ways in which she’s feminine, versus an honorary male (which will probably be next month’s topic), but I like to point at the second film in that franchise, which pits her against the alien queen. It is very clearly a battle of the Good Mother versus the Bad Mother, and ends again with birth imagery, the queen being blown out an airlock. That’s a far cry from the symbolism of Ariel’s prince saving the day by penetrating the monstrous female with his proxy phallus. One shows women being the cure as well as the cause; the other does not.

The point is not to avoid ever touching this concept. I myself have a set of horror-tinged fairy tale retellings that all feature the monstrous feminine; in fact, when I wrote one where the monster was instead masculine, I knew immediately that I’d gone astray from my own theme. The point is to be conscious of it, and to think about its implications, whether you’re a writer or a reader.