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Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Monsters on the Threshold of Becoming

Foreword


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 lenses 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



Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Monsters on the Threshold of Becoming


The female body is never just a body. It is a contested territory where multiple spheres of knowledge and research converge and that has often challenged our existing preconceptions around all bodies, especially in regard to their reproductive functions and female sexuality. However, it is still a body in the sense of its physical presence, and it is precisely its materiality that has often been disfigured and turned into an unrecognizable monster. The analysis of why and how throughout different ages Western societies have created monsters out of female bodies will be articulated on multiple intersecting fronts: posthumanism, monster studies, and feminist theory. The first article of this series will thus explore the theoretical framework of posthumanist and monster studies, as well as their points of intersection and their role in developing a fluid and all-encompassing understanding of female bodies.


Figure 1. Peruvian Harpy



The Cultural Relevance of Monsters


Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, author of Monster Theory, Reading Culture (1997), is one of the first scholars to show academic interest in monsters and to recognize their relevance as cultural products. The monstrous body is pure culture” (1997, p.4), Cohen writes, as it embodies and perpetuates the same culture that has created it. Monsters are born in the sites of ambiguity and represent simultaneously people’s fear and their curiosity towards the unknown and the uncertain. They are also essential in the formation of identities of any kind, from cultural to personal, national, or sexual. Any dominant group defines itself by creating distance from a minority, the Other, the racialized, the sexually deviant, the woman, the poor — categories of abnormality that are often depicted as monsters. The etymology of the word monster, the Latin monstrum or monstrare, which means “to show forth”, seems to indicate the revealing potential of monsters: if monsters exist to conceal and exorcise otherness as a way to protect the integrity of the Self and the majority, then understanding them allows to uncover what is hiding underneath them. Monsters “ask us why we have created them” (Cohen, 1997, p.20), as they don’t only represent a physical threat, but also a cognitive one because they “question our epistemological worldview” and present us with “the failures of our systems of categorization” (Mittman, 2013, p.51).


Because they belong to a social minority, women’s bodies have often undergone such a process of monsterization: from Greek and Roman mythology filled with gorgons, female sea monsters and sirens, to the early modern fixation with witches, women have been feared and cast out to the margins of society. Female monsters have, therefore, become a central theme in feminist discourses on embodiment and otherness, which encourages to welcome the differences and uncertainties embodied by the monster, to think critically about the very concepts of the “normal” and the “natural”, and to unmask their nature not as given qualities, but rather as standards to be materialized through specific practices the so-called normal and natural body is “always an achievement”, “a model of the proper where everything is in its place and the chaotic aspects of the natural are banished” (Shildrick, 1999, p. 54).


Figure 2. Michaela Starks’ corset collection, a commentary on constricting female clothing.


Feminist discourse is thus highlighting how, while in the past cultures preferred to turn female bodies into monsters in order to reestablish control of their perceived ambiguities, current societies are constricting women’s bodies in strict, pre-established aesthetic norms which define the acceptable body. Disability scholar Margrit Shildrick denounces the “natural look” as being not the already existing one but one that is achieved through more or less invasive forms of enhancement or modifications, which disproportionately impacts non-conforming bodies, such as female, racialized or disabled bodies. For this reason, deconstructing monsters not only sheds light on past perceptions of female bodies, but also questions present notions of embodiment and bodily autonomy, exposing the biases that regulate the “norm” through the acceptance of the “out-of-the-norm”.



Posthuman Monstrous Bodies


In addition to intersecting with feminist theory, monsters are also central to posthuman discourse. Posthumanism emerged in the late 20th century as a critique of the humanist thought born during the Enlightenment period. It rejects any approach based on the anthropocentric dominance, and questions the assumptions that humanism has used to define the idea of the “Human” — exclusively conceptualized as male, white, and able-bodied. Posthumanism doesn’t completely discard the notion of the “Human”, but rather interrogates its meaning and refrains from strict categories, often choosing to identify living beings as assemblages characterized by fluidity and connectivity. Rosi Braidotti, contemporary philosopher and feminist theorist, writes that people are “inter-connected, but also internally fractured” (2018, p.53), and that humanity has been divided into categories of class, gender, race, sexual orientation, able-bodiedness and age without considering how they intersect. With contributions coming from feminist, anti-colonial and disability studies, the humanist notion of “Human” is finally being deconstructed, in hopes that it could open up future possibilities to minorities, the missing people that humanism excluded from having a say in what it claims to be “universal” knowledge (Braidotti, 2018, p.53).


Figure 3. New Vitruvian Woman


Posthumanism avoids strict categorizations based on standards of acceptability, and thus brings to our attention the non-acceptable, non-human, non-normal, the monster. In fact, both posthumanist thinking and monster theory reveal the fragmented nature of humans, and at the same time their connection with the outer world and with other beings. Just like a monster is born out of the opposite of what defines a “normal human”, the category “Human” derived from the Enlightenment is also a conceptualized idea that is defined by what deviates from it: “In this sense the posthuman emphasizes that we are all, and must be, monsters because none are template humans” (MacCormack, 2013, p.402). In a system where alterity is perceived as failure, monsters and posthuman perspectives open up new possible ways of being and knowing, they embrace and celebrate excesses, failures and disruptive events. In Posthuman Teratology, philosophy professor Patricia MacCormack reflects on the word “teratology” which refers to the scientific study of congenital abnormalities or the interest in mythological monsters — the Greek teras means monster but also marvel. Both the monster and the posthuman are scary because they elude a singular, precise identification. Cohen defines the monster as being at the “threshold of becoming” (1997, p.20), and therefore representing a fascinating yet terrifying uncertainty. The idea of “becoming”, together with one of assemblage, is similarly used in posthumanism to refer to the dissolution of fixed definitions of “Human” in favor of more fluid and mutable identities. “Like the posthuman, the monster is neither before nor beyond the human, but an interrogation of the myths of human integrity, biologically and metaphysically” (MacCormack, 2013, p.414).



Conclusion


Combining multiple spheres of knowledge means putting into practice the multiplicity inherently shared by the posthuman, the monster and the female body, each being of help in understanding the other. Such process begins as a deconstructive act that breaks existing knowledge apart, but it is not to be interpreted as negatively destructive or to be feared as if it were something monstrous. On the contrary, creating cracks in the rigid mold that shapes our definition of “Human” and the human body will let in a multiplicity of diverging perspectives, finally bringing forth the minorities’ voices, who have so far been excluded, and opening up new possible futures.




Bibliographic sources

Braidotti, R. (2018). A theoretical framework for the critical posthumanities. Theory, Culture & Society, 36(6), 31–61. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276418771486


Cohen, J. J. (1997). Monster theory: Reading culture. University of Minnesota Press.


Henriksen, L., Bülow, M. H., & Kvistad, E. (2017). Monstrous Encounters: Feminist Theory and the Monstrous. Kvinder, Køn & Forskning, (2-3). https://doi.org/10.7146/KKF.V26I2-3.100801


Mittman, A. S., & Dendle, P. J. (2013). Introduction: The Impact of Monsters and Monster Studies. In The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the monstrous (pp. 44–57). Ashgate Publishing.


Mittman, A. S., & MacCormack, P. (2013). Posthuman Teratology. In The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the monstrous (pp. 401–422). Ashgate Publisher.


Shildrick, M. (2002). Embodying the monster: Encounters with the vulnerable self. SAGE Publications.

Visual sources



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Sara Manente

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