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:
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
The Psychology of the Monstrous Feminine
When analyzing the cultural origins and the impact female monsters have had on today’s society, it is also important to explore what might be the psychological reasons why women have been feared. One of the first and most important contributions has been the work of Sigmund Freud, Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, on sexuality and sexual difference. Freud’s theories have since been greatly criticized, especially by feminist academia, however, deconstructing his work could be helpful in shedding light on the underlying mindset of the time that built them in the first place. For this reason, cinema studies professor Barbara Creed chooses Freud as a theoretical starting point when analyzing the issue herself, although she uses his work to show how the notion of female passivity has influenced his interpretation of female sexuality.
Freud and Castration Anxiety
As with every field of knowledge, psychoanalysis has not been immune to misogynistic undertones in the way it was conducted. Especially when tackling the delicate topic of sexuality, female sexuality has often been viewed from a male perspective and in relation to male sexuality, because the grounding theories of the field developed at the beginning of the 20th century were overwhelmingly dictated by male scholars, whose preconceptions about women and female sexuality inevitably influenced their work. For these reasons Freud’s groundbreaking work is still critically analyzed today in order to determine his theories’ reliability and to filter out the sexist preconceptions that involuntarily but inevitably taint his work, especially when it concerns women and female sexuality.
Figure 1. Photo by The Voorhes, representation of sexual difference.
To explain sexual difference, understood as the difference in male and female sexual development, Freud postulates that “feminine sexuality is constituted by not having the phallus, whereas masculinity is by the fear of losing it” (Morris, 2020, p.66). This implies that what determines a subject’s sexuality is not their anatomy per se, but the anxiety in relation to their anatomy or the lack thereof, an idea defined as “castration complex”. Freud’s hypothesis implies two things about female bodies and sexuality: that they are identified as a variation of male anatomy and the phallocentric model, and that they are defined by the concept of lack, emptiness, absence. Early psychoanalysis thus contributes to the notion of the monstrous woman through the idea that she evokes fear and disgust because her dismembered state reminds men of the possibility of castration.
Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine
In The Monstrous Feminine, Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Barbara Creed explores the representation of women as monsters in horror films, and discusses the psychological theories so far developed about the monstrous feminine. Contrary to male monsters, whose monstrosity is not related to their sex nor gender, female monsters are monstrous because they are female: their monstrous characteristics are tightly linked to aspects of womanhood and women’s bodies — they are not individual traits, but features that characterize the category “woman”. Because these distinctively female characteristics — often linked to menstruation, pregnancy, and other reproductive physiological functions — can present themselves at any stage of a woman’s life, any woman can become a monster at any time, and is therefore a constant threat to be tamed. What Creed investigates is what it is exactly about women, in all human societies, that is so shocking and terrifying that it has led to the irony of women, the tormented minority, being portrayed as the tormentors.
Figure 2. Samantha Eggar in David Cronenberg's The Brood.
Creed argues that whenever women are represented as monstrous, it is always in relation to mothering or reproductive functions: she cites Freud, who interestingly linked the sight of the monster Medusa to the sight of the mother’s genitals — both equally horrifying. What Freud proposed was that women are terrifying because, not having male genitals, they are seen as castrated, and are therefore inherently victims (Creed, 2015, p.13). To Creed, women’s perceived victimhood is visible even in horror films, where the ultimate victim is always a woman. Whenever the roles are flipped, she argues, and women become the monsters, the narrative changes in a way that reflects the opposite take on the Freudian theory of castration, developed by psychiatrist Susan Lurie: women are feared not because they are castrated, but rather because they are not. A woman is a threat because she is “physically whole, intact and in possession of all her sexual powers” (Creed, 2020, p.6) — she is not at risk of mutilation like men are. This subversion from a passive, victim role to the more active monstrous one does not mean that women gain more agency, since the latter representation is equally a result of men’s fear, rather than female subjectivity. Nonetheless, it does challenge the fixed roles of passive women and active men, and, if properly examined and reappropriated, it can come to represent liberation and empowerment.
Medusa and Monstrous Genitals
In support of her theory, Creed discusses myths and visual representations of monstrous genitals to highlight a different female role in castration anxiety, where the woman is not a passive reminder of the possibility of castration, but actively threatens to enact it. A very prevalent myth which many cultures share is the vagina dentata (toothed vagina). The myth, with some local variations, generally claims that women have teeth in their genitals, and for this reason they are terrifying. Women must be tamed, and the teeth somehow made harmless for intercourse to take place safely. The image of the vagina dentata is in Creed’s opinion an indication of the active threat posed by female monsters: the woman does not evoke fear because she is castrated — as Freud suggests — but because she threatens castration with her devouring genitals. To Creed, “woman as castrator clearly points to male fears and phantasies about the female genitals as a trap, a black hole which threatens to swallow them up and cut them into pieces” (Creed, 2015, p.106). The second myth Creed considers is that of Medusa, a Gorgon who petrifies men with mere eye contact. In his essay Medusa’s Head, Freud argues that the Gorgon’s head and the snakes instead of hair is a symbol of the castrated female genitals: “decapitated head of the Medusa . . . a representation of woman as a being who frightens and repels because she is castrated” (Freud in Creed, 2020, p.111). However, considering the similarities between Medusa and the vagina dentata that many historians have pointed out, Creed flips Freud’s interpretation and highlights the presence of the snake as a sexual symbol, as well as the active threat of castration represented by her ability to petrify men. Medusa’s decapitated head is thus not a symbol of her castrated genitals; on the contrary, her appearance and monstrous powers represent a warning that she might castrate.
Figure 3. Rubens' Medusa
In conclusion, the reasons for women's monsterization offered by psychology, such as Freud's studies on sexual difference, are clearly linked to female sexuality. Like Creed states, the notion of monstrous women continues to represent a reminder of women’s demonization, especially in regard to their body and sexuality, even when the narrative is rewritten and women are allowed more agency instead of only defining them through notions of passivity and lack. The process of deconstructing these figures is still necessary, as it allows us to reflect on our deepest preconceptions and to be aware of human perceptions of the “other”.
Creed, B. (2015). The monstrous-feminine: Film, feminism, psychoanalysis. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Deleyto, C. (1997). The margins of pleasure: Female monstrosity and male paranoia in “Basic Instinct.” Film Criticism, 21(3), 20–42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44018885
Kahane, C. (1992). Freud’s sublimation: Disgust, desire and the female body. American Imago, 49(4), 411–425. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26304063
Morris, B. (2020). Sexual difference, abjection and liminal spaces: a psychoanalytic approach to the abhorrence of the feminine. Routledge.
Cover Image. Caravaggio (1597). Medusa. [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.domusweb.it/it/arte/2020/10/30/allor-fu-la-paura-un-poco-queta.html
Figure 1. The Voorhes (n.d). [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201711/the-truth-about-sex-differences
Figure 2. Cronenberg, D. (1979). The Brood . [Still]. Retrieved from: https://lwlies.com/articles/david-cronenberg-the-brood-fear-of-the-feminine/
Figure 3. Rubens, P. P. (1618). Medusa. [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://jhna.org/articles/petrifying-gaze-medusa-ambivalence-explexis-sublime/