Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Monsters as Posthuman Feminist Symbols
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.
This 101 series is divided into six articles, including:
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
Monsters as Posthuman Feminist Symbols
Monsters and mythological creatures have populated western culture, often representing both the results of oppressive systems and the tools to uphold their domination by demonizing the Other and turning it into a monster. Women have been turned into witches, and in turn witches have been used to instill fear and keep women under control. Present anxieties around technology have produced new monsters, which can appear as fully artificial technological creatures like robots, or in the form of cyborgs, part human and part machine. Robots and cyborgs scare contemporary society with the threat of a technological and digital revolt to dominate over their human creators. Both cyborgs and witches are born from patriarchal violent and oppressive tendencies and attest to women’s and other minorities’ history of oppression. Witches are clearly a testimony of women’s persecution during the Late Middle Ages and early modern times, and technology has partly been developed for violence-related purposes, most importantly in war settings, and since its early stages of development has therefore been characterized as a violent tool for oppression. For this reason, feminist movements have taken up the task of reclaiming these monsters, in order to deconstruct their patriarchal origins and reframe them as tools of resistance and empowerment. Creating a counter-mythology from already existing cultural icons is an essential step to reimagine a world outside of patriarchal norms and systems of oppression, where women-nature connections are cherished as part of the human experience, the physical body accepted and embraced in its flesh and machine components, and the material and earthly is not subordinated to the transcendent. Multiple mythological narratives are possible at once, if anything, the coexistence of various imagery, from witches to cyborgs, is fundamental to reflect and inspire a posthuman world (better described in Monsters at the threshold of becoming) defined by fluidity, change and multiplicity.
Often associated with the ecofeminist movement, Witchcraft is known as a “nature religion” for its focus on the natural world and human-nature interconnections. Witches are notoriously healers, holders of precious knowledge about nature and the earth; even in their evil portrayal, witches share a deeper connection with nature than the average person and they live outside of “civilized” society, immersed in the woods. The popularization of these practices reached its peak, although I started earlier in the 20th century, with the publication of The Spiral Dance (1979), written by feminist author Miriam Simos, also known as Starhawk. Starhawk’s book is considered one of the pillars and guides into the Reclaiming movement, a wicca-like organization cofounded by the author herself, and a reconstruction of the origins of witchcraft. The founding values of the Reclaiming are that the earth is alive and that every life form is interconnected: “we see the Goddess as immanent in the earth's cycles of birth, growth, death, decay, and regeneration. Our practice arises from a deep, spiritual commitment to the earth, to healing, and to the linking of magic with political action” (Starhawk, 1979, 12). Starhawk’s effort at combining witchcraft practices and feminist activism is the result of a long tradition of reappropriation of the witch imaginary by western feminism which can be traced back to the very first wave of the movement. During the tumultuous times when —white— women gained the right to vote in most European countries and in North America, suffragists of the early 20s like Matilda Joselyn Gage started comparing historical witch trials to patriarchy’s violence of the time that wanted to keep women from participating in public life. The political repression was portrayed as a parallel of the physical violence imparted on witches.The first ever association of witches and feminists was therefore based on their shared victimization by the patriarchy. During the 60s and 70s, however, when women were fighting against the cultural oppression that continued despite obtaining voting rights, the comparison between witches and feminists turned into identification, bringing the idea of the feminist-witch to life.
Whereas suffragists argued that women had been unjustly accused of being witches, and therefore that they simply weren’t such creatures, second wave feminists started question whether women of the early modern period were actually doing something different that was perceived as threatening by men and patriarchal institutions. The feminist interpretation of witches shifted from seeing them as objects of ritualized violence to ritualizing subjects themselves. “If powerful men have hated both witches and now feminists, maybe feminists have been witches all along, and vice versa. Hence: feminist Witch.” (Zwissler, 2018, p. 12). This second interpretation of witches sparked interest in the alternative lifestyles they were believed to practice. The rising interest in historical occult tradition and the surge of paganism in feminist and other civil rights movements lead to the formation of Wicca, publicized by author and amateur anthropologist Gerald Gardner in the 50s and gaining popularity in the 60s as the true religion of the witches. Gardner offered what is nowadays considered a mythical narrative that saw the origins of Witchcraft in pre- Christian European traditions. Gardner’s intent was to bring back Wicca —after it had barely survived through secrecy from the violent repression enacted by the Church—, to offer to the world an earth-based and egalitarian alternative to patriarchal religions.
Today, witches remain important feminist symbols and are often associated with ecofeminist thinking and practices, which center around deconstructing hierarchies between humans and nature and advocating for environmental protection. Magic —found in nature and in oneself— represents an unconventional source of empowerment, especially for younger demographics and minorities who look for an alternative to unreliable, oppressive systems and an increasingly hard to decipher world. Witchcraft is one of the ways people are reimagining reality and popularizing —partly embellished— practices involving astrology, tarots, and crystals. Besides having originated such fairytale, cottage-core aesthetic currently trending on social media (the hashtags “witchtok” on TikTok and “WitchesOfInstagram” on Instagram count millions of views), witchcraft has inspired a feminist agenda that aims at reappropriating a symbol of women’s oppression so central to modern western history. Signs reciting the phrase “We are the granddaughters of all the witches you could not burn” are raised proudly during feminist marches and protests, reclaiming the very characteristics that have caused women to be demonized: sexual freedom, self-determination, nonconformity, assertiveness, curiosity. Witches become then symbols of defiance, their mere existence representing a threat to the social order that has caused their persecution.
Ecofeminist goddesses and witches, however, have not been the only faces of feminist movements during the last decades. While this type of imagery refers to monsters of the early modern past and are deeply rooted in western patriarchal culture, “cyborg feminism” instead is reclaiming a monster that is still being constructed by a newly developed fear of technology which has only increased during the digital age. Cyborgs, hybrid organisms part human and part machine (or part animal and part machine), have been made into popular book and movie villains, like Ava in Alex Galand's Ex Machina, which reflect humans’ so-called technophobia, the fear of human-made machines acquiring conscience and turning against their creators and eventually destroying humanity. Such extreme and apocalyptic scenarios, however, prevent contemporary society to notice that humans are, in fact, already cyborgs: any degree of artificial intervention on the human body turns it into somewhat of a cyborg, from birth control, which regulates menstrual cycles and reproduction, to prosthetics, which visibly show the coexistence of flesh and machine parts in contemporary posthuman bodies. The general distrust towards machines was also present —if not amplified— amongst feminist movements: teacher and gender studies professor Jane Caputi in her Seeing Elephants: Discussing the Myths of Phallotechnology argues that technology is embedded with phallic imagery, especially in its destructive components, like missiles for example. On top of being visually phallic-coded, technology is also deeply ingrained with an ideology of “masculinist force and domination, an erotics of power particularly terrifying in a nuclear age” (Alaimo, 1994, p. 148). Feminist movements have therefore been characterized by an even more acute anxiety towards technology because they recognized the patriarchal tendency to violence and oppression in its uses and in its very conception.
However, technology is not just a tool for domination, but it also carries an undoubtedly great positive potential, in terms of general welfare, medical advancement and environmental safeguard. American zoologist and philosopher Donna Haraway has studied the relationship between technology and gender studies and ultimately develops a “cyborg theory” in her A Cyborg Manifesto (1985), where she proposes the figure of the cyborg as a possible reimagination of the posthuman outside of any binary structure. Haraway recognizes that cyborgs are not just new age mythological monsters, but are already part of reality, since the use of technology has already contributed to the blurring of boundaries between flesh and machine, natural and artificial. Cyborgs are the manifestation of the posthuman body, which does not end at the skin and is does not respond to traditional binarism: to embrace them is just to accept an already existing reality. As monsters, cyborgs “cause confusion, disruption and displacement” (Likke, 1997, p. 11) and they deconstruct dichotomies like human/machine, man/woman, organic/mechanical. Cyborgs are in fact genderless and raceless beings, which defy any attempt at categorization.
Although cyborg feminism seems less focused on environmental matters, the cyborg metaphor also disrupts the representation of nature as a separate and transcendent entity, as “an essence to be saved or violated” (Haraway, 1992, p. 296). Nature is understood as a production or co-construction “created by many actors, human and non-human, organic and non-organic, technological and non-technological” (Likke, 1997, p. 10). Such approach breaks down any hierarchies created by the western nature/culture divide and instead highlights the way living agents intermesh with each other, and exist in a state of becoming and co-dependency. Haraway uses the image of the coyote as a metaphor for nature: like cyborgs or witches, coyotes represent the desire to create dialogues between human and non-human actors and give equal agency to both. Differently from witches and other ecofeminist imagery which still carry on the sexual differences that define them, coyotes reflect Haraway’s distinctive vision of a genderless world and thus allow cyborg feminism to surpass the gender binarism that still characterizes the often-criticized ecofeminist imagery. However, when Haraway explicitly pits cyborgs against goddesses —the most popular ecofeminist figure— she “constructs a seemingly non-transcendable dichotomy between cyborg and goddesses” (Likke, 1997, p. 18) and therefore is not free of all binaries.
In conclusion, ecofeminist witch and cyborg feminist imagery seem to be the two main faces of the movement today, the former being part of feminist discourse for some time now and the latter being relatively recent. The relevance of a counter-mythology of Witchcraft lies in the fact that it envisions a different future, but the same time commemorates the past as a reminder of why efforts for change are needed,paying tribute to the ones who could not see the fruitsof it. Cyborg feminism, on the other hand, is able to embrace the present and future possibilities inherent in technology without fear, and instead using it to its advantage. Although the two approaches seem to clash with each other, both choose to reclaim monsters by deconstructing their patriarchal foundations and characteristics, and therefore offer new mythologies that can inspire cultural and material change. In a posthuman, constantly changing and interconnected world, there is no need for them to be mutually exclusive; instead, a multiplicity of subjectivities within feminism is essential for the movement’s vitality and accessibility, as it leaves the door open for more monsters to be embraced, reimagined, and reclaimed.
Alaimo, S. (1994). Cyborg and Ecofeminist Interventions: Challenges for an Environmental Feminism. Feminist Studies, 20(1), 133–152. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178438
Lykke, N. (1997). To be a Cyborg or a Goddess? Gender, Technology and Development, 1(1), 5-22. https://doi.org/10.1080/09718524.1997.11909841
Miller, C. (2022). How Modern Witches Enchant TikTok: Intersections of Digital, Consumer, and Material Culture(s) on #WitchTok. Religions 13(118). https://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/13/2/118
Schueller, M. J. (2005). Analogy and (White) Feminist Theory: Thinking Race and the Color of the Cyborg Body. Signs, 31(1), 63–92. https://doi.org/10.1086/431372
Starhawk. (1979). The spiral dance. Harper & Row.
Zwissler, L. (2018). ‘I am That Very Witch’: On The Witch, Feminism, and Not Surviving Patriarchy, Journal of Religion & Film: 22(3). https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/jrf/vol22/iss3/6
Cover Image. Randolph, L. (1989). Cyborg. [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.galleriesnow.net/shows/lynn-randolph-catastrophic-change/
Figure 1. Cook, A. (2019). The Glastonbury Goddess Temple organization. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://goddesstemple.co.uk/our-story/
Figure 2. Unknown, (2018). Colectiva de Observadoras de Aves Feminist. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.perfil.com/noticias/ecologia/colectiva-de-observadoras-de-aves-feminista-una-propuesta-que-viene-a-romper-con-lo-establecido.phtml
Figure 3. Garland, A. (2015). Ex Machina. [Still]. Retrieved from: https://eu.azcentral.com/story/entertainment/movies/2015/04/23/review-ex-machina-passes-test/26189825/