Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Female Sexuality
This series explores the dark and grotesque side of Western mythology by focusing on its monsters. In particular, it will analyze the origins of female monsters and the influence they had and continue to have on Western culture through the lense of Posthumanism. The aim of the series is to expose the connection between women’s bodies and sexuality and their monsterization, which can present itself in different forms, often corresponding to a woman’s main biological life stages — adolescence, adulthood, and menopause. Understanding how female monsters are created unveils the misogynistic constructs at the base of our patriarchal social structure and allows us to dismantle them. Finally, to reveal the skeletons—and other monsters—in our society’s closet is only the first step, as feminist movements have found new possible uses of female monstrous figures by reclaiming them and using them as symbols for their fight.
The series consists of the following six chapters:
1. Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Monsters on the Threshold of Becoming
2. Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: The Psychology of the Monstrous Feminine
3. Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Female Sexuality
4. Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Abjection and the Body as a Liminal Space
5. Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Early Modern Perceptions of the Body
6. Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Monsters as Posthuman Feminist Symbols
In Mothers, Monsters, and Machines, feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti draws a connection between mothers, monsters and machines based on the shared experience as Other. She traces back the association between femininity and monstrosity to Aristotle's The Generation of Animals, according to whom “in reproduction, when everything goes according to the norm, a boy is produced” (Braidotti, 1997, p. 63) thus implying that the female only happens as a result of an abnormality during the reproduction process. Sexuality and reproduction are thus the grounding elements of every notion of affinity between women and monsters, from the moment women are born and throughout every life stage related to sexual and reproductive development. The parallel with sexuality is expressed through a variety of manifestations of the woman-monster, from mythological creatures like Medusa to futuristic ones like female cyborgs, but no other figure better encapsulates the central role of female sexuality than the witch. In fact, the construction of the canonical sorceress is strictly related to women’s reproductive abilities: “women were the first witches and associated with the powers of magic long before men because of their mysterious ability to create new life. During her periods of pregnancy, woman was seen as the source of a particularly powerful form of magic” (Doyle, 2019, p. 85). In their book Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers, feminist author Jude Doyle breaks down two horror film tropes centered around female monsters: they argue that the monstrous feminine is always represented either through a teenager entering puberty, or through a mother who does not respect society’s standards around her mothering role. Together with representations of female old age—their most common depiction is, after all, that of the “old hag”—deconstructing the mythological by differentiating women’s biological life stages uncovers the centrality of female sexuality and reproduction in women’s monsterization.
Rebellious teenagers The power of witches has always resided in their sexuality: they "were accused, among other things, of copulating with the devil, causing male impotence, causing the penis to disappear and of stealing men's penises” (Creed, 2015, p. 75), as well as seducing men to control them or harm them. The sorceress in the form of the young, seductive temptress represents the parallel with women’s early biological stages, their teenage years. Doyle explores the link between teenagers and their role as monsters in slasher movies through the analysis of the final girl: a boyish figure, often a virgin, innocent and chaste, and the only character who will eventually survive the monster or threat, unlike the rest of the female characters, often portrayed as more promiscuous or sexually active, who never make it to the end of the film. In this role, young women’s sexual activity is clearly punished, while chastity is rewarded with life, creating a parallel between female sexuality and death. Still, in this narrative a woman’s sexual life is mostly a threat to herself. Sexual appetite, especially in younger girls, is also central in horror movies where the woman is the monster: in this case, her sexuality means death for other people as well, and eventually herself if the characters manage to defeat her.
Figure 1. Regan in The Exorcist, (1973)
To analyze the role of teenage girls in horror movies, Doyle examines The Exorcist’s main character Regan, the pubescent girl who undergoes various exorcisms. In one of the most horrifying scenes, she masturbates with a crucifix and a close up shows her genitalia covered in blood, either because she has hurt herself or she is on her period. Masturbation and bloody genitals, together with her disruptive temper and behavior are common traits of puberty, but here they become a demonic presence that needs to be exorcised from her, in order to protect Regan herself, as well as the people around her. It is not coincidental that the demonic fits happen while she is experiencing puberty—the demon she needs to be liberated from is puberty.
Puberty marks not only a girl's first steps toward adult sexuality, but the beginning of her reproductive capacity—the life-giving potency signaled by menstrual blood. […] Thus, puberty, as a place where daughters begin to turn into mothers, becomes a supernatural event in which a person turns into a monster. (Doyle, 2019, p. 51)
Blood is the symbol of a girl’s transformation into a woman, a reminder of the power of her fertility, something the patriarchy must keep under control by demonizing it in order to keep itself alive, figuratively and literally, by imposing itself in the process of reproduction. Demonic genitals are also a typical representation of male anxieties over female bodies, the most common one being the vagina dentata, which cinema studies professor Barbara Creed identifies as the symbol of men’s anxieties over female genitalia and as imagery relevant to Freud’s theorization of the woman as castrator (Creed, 2015, p. 105).
Terrible mothers What is threatening about teenage girls is the fact that they are becoming women, and more specifically, that they gain reproductive abilities and can now become mothers. As the most material and concrete manifestation of women’s sexuality and human reproduction, mothers represent the biggest threat. “Sex is a valuable resource that men can never entirely alienate her from because it resides within her body” (Doyle, 2019, p. 81); all efforts are therefore directed towards its control. In Christian mythology, the only female figure that comes close to the Holy Trinity is a mother, but a virgin at the same time. Sexuality and reproduction are stripped apart, no longer interdependent, no longer in the woman’s hands. Women become a vessel for men to use, and lose agency over their bodies. Cultural norms around motherhood contribute to building restrictive environments and fixed roles: mothers are expected to be loving, nurturing, to dedicate their lives to childcare and to be confined in the realm of the domestic. Moreover, mothers tend to stop being perceived as sexual beings, just like older women. Once they have fulfilled their assigned procreative role, they have the Virgin Mary to look up to, the holy and purified version of motherhood—where purity stands for detachment from the bodily dimension, like the sexual one, and longing for a spiritual, not corporeal world.
Figure 2. The Witches in 'Macbeth' by Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, depicted with broomsticks and caldrons
According to modern social history professor Louise Jackson, the gender-specificity of witch trials is revealed by the traditionally feminine characteristics of the crimes and spells women were accused of, which were often tied to the domestic space, like the use of caldrons, broomsticks and herbs or foods to use in witchcraft, as well as “culturally defined female tasks or occupations and their direct opposites—feeding (poisoning), child-rearing (infanticide), healing (harming), birth (death)” (Jackson, 1995, p. 71). The deeply rooted association between witchcraft and motherhood and the assigned monstrosity to both in a way acknowledges “agency and potency of the pregnant subject” (Betterton, 2006, p. 80). Like Jackson suggests, witch hunts were not just a way for men to control women, but it also constituted a self-imposed behavioral control that led women to either confess to witchcraft or to accuse other women. The domestic sphere is where both women and witches have the most authority. The two figures mirror each other: the witch is everything a mother is supposed not to be, and the shared environment makes the contrast even starker. The mother gives life and is dedicated to her child, the witch is unmaternal and selfish, like the infanticidal crone in Hansel and Gretel; the clothed mother is an example of Christian modesty, the naked enchantress is outrageously promiscuous; the mother lives obediently under the rule of the husband, head of the family, while the witch is independent, harsh-tempered, and her existence is not defined by her marital status. Even their environment is mirrored; the canonical old hag is portrayed flying on a broom (cleaning tool) and making potions in caldrons (kitchenware). Overall, such contrasting representation is the result of the dualistic way patriarchal societies conceptualize women, either through processes of idealization—based on women’s compliance with the patriarchal norm—or demonization—the manifestation of anything that challenges the established order.
Old hags Lastly, the most common representation of witches, evil ones at least, is that of old hags. Their (often naked) body represents proximity to death, decay, and senility (Patterson, 2017, p. 7), it arouses disgust and terror, and contributes to their perceived immorality and depravation. Elderly women undergo the opposite stereotyping process of older men, whose dignity and wisdom grow with age. The characterization of female crones as having an elderly appearance is due to the “concepts of inefficiency, destruction, wickedness and death imbued older women” and to their representation as “corrupted social agents that harm both the individual body and the body politic with their distorted knowledge and evil powers” (Juárez-Almendros, 2017, p.83). They are often portrayed as ugly, with physical impairments, which, together with old age itself, are transformed into a social problem, a source of shame and a reason for subordination. In The Disabling of Aging Female Bodies: Midwives, Processes, Witches and the Monstrous Mother, professor of Spanish Encarnación Juárez-Almendros mentions that negative conceptions around older women in the West started with the devaluation of the once revered Old Woman of classical mythology and ancient matriarchal societies in favor of the Christian paradigm of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The loss of their social, sexual, and reproductive roles consolidated society’s disdain for older women in modern times, together with the fact that their physical and mental decline caused them to be a burden to their families. Like any other stage of women’s lives, as previously discussed here, key elements of women’s physiology were at the center of women’s monsterization. For instance, post-menopausal bodies were thought to be poisonous: since the “purgative effects of menstruation” (Juárez-Almendros, 2017, p. 85) are interrupted during old age, the poison accumulates and causes horrible effects on women's minds and bodies.
Figure 3. The Evil Queen from Snow White (1937), portrayed as an old hag
Aging female bodies have become cultural monsters because they represent a reminder of humans’ fragility and vulnerability. Monsters, like women, are cast as Others in an attempt to create distance between humans and their anxieties over the mystery of life and death, but a monster is feared precisely because it is already and always inside of us. Older bodies, especially when female, “defy the boundaries of sameness and difference and spread impurity through the normative categories” (Shildrick in Juárez-Almendros, p. 101): monstrous bodies are defined by being foreign to society’s expectations, but they also represent a reminder of the unavoidable process of aging. In other words, creating a monster has proved to be a failed attempt at eradicating people’s fears about themselves by projecting them onto a scapegoat, but the men-made monsters always find their way back to us, and like a mirror they force us to recognize the monster that lurks within.
In conclusion, when discussing female monsters both posthumanist philosophers like Braidotti and feminist authors like Creed or Doyle seem to reach similar conclusions: female sexuality and reproduction represent the grounds on which women’s monsterization is constructed. Teenage girls represent the first stages of a woman’s sexuality and they are characterized by rebellion. In slasher movies, this rebellion is represented in the form of sexual promiscuity and is punished, whereas if the female character represses and ignores her sexual nature she is spared. Mothers are the manifestation of women’s role in reproduction, and therefore impose the greatest threat. Witches serve as a reminder of what type of woman not to be: disobedient, childless, unmarried. Lastly, their most common portrayal is that of the old hag. Older women represent the end of a woman’s sexual life, and their bodies are a reminder of human fragility and limited youth. Dissecting mythological figures as well as contemporary slasher movies’ characters offers an analysis of the particular aspects of female sexuality, in its physiological elements, like menstrual blood or genitals, and in its inherent and inextricable role in human reproduction, that western cultural has demonized and turned into monstrous features.
Betterton, R. (2006). Promising Monsters: Pregnant Bodies, Artistic Subjectivity, and Maternal Imagination. Hypatia, 21(1), 80–100. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3811079
Braidotti, R. (1997). "Mothers, monsters, and machines". In Conboy, K., Medina, N., Stanbury, S. Writing on the Body. Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory, Columbia University Press, New York. pp. 59-79.
Creed, B. (2015). The monstrous-feminine: Film, feminism, psychoanalysis. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Doyle, J. (2019). Dead blondes and bad mothers: Monstrosity, patriarchy, and the fear of female power. Melville House.
Jackson, L. (1995). Witches, Wives and Mothers: Witchcraft Persecution and Women's Confessions in Seventeenth-Century England. Women's History Review, 4(1), 63-83. https://doi.org/10.1080/09612029500200075
Juárez-Almendros, E. (2017). The Disabling of Aging Female Bodies: Midwives, Procuresses, Witches and the Monstrous Mother. In Disabled Bodies in Early Modern Spanish Literature: Prostitutes, Aging Women and Saints (pp. 83–115). Liverpool University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctt1ps32vm.7
Patterson, N. (2017). Monstrous Women: Exploring Historical Witchcraft and It’s Presence in The Witch. Digital Literature Review, 4, 139–152. https://doi.org/10.33043/DLR.4.0.139-152
Cover image. Goya, F. (c. 1797-1798). Witches' Flight. [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/witches-flight/5e44d19d-7cda-472b-b6d8-8868c599d252
Figure 1. Friedkin, W. (1973). The Exorcist. [Still]. Retrieved from: https://the811.net/2020/07/06/the-exorcist-the-crucifix-scene/
Figure 2. Decamps, A. (c. 1841-1842). The Witches in 'Macbeth'. [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://artuk.org/discover/stories/art-matters-podcast-the-art-history-of-witches
Figure 3. Hand, D. (1937). Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Walt Disney Productions. [Still]. Retrieved from: http://thecriticalreel.com/great-film-snow-white-and-the-seven-dwarfs-1937/