The Monstrous Feminine

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.

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  1. 1. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    There are so many stories of the monstrous feminine but one I can think of that is particularly funny to me and also gratuitous is Species with the tentacles that shoot out the nipples. It’s so very ridiculous, unexpected and stupid that it becomes a parody of itself. Good post.

  2. 2. Olivia

    I agree with Diana: good post. It sort of scares me that so many Disney movies- the movies we watch when we’re little- have themes like that. I don’t think it’s good for society.

  3. 3. Nadia Bulkin

    As for a story where the female body is not coded as horrific, what comes to mind is Clive Barker’s “Rawhead Rex,” where the pregnant female body is the only thing that the extremely masculine/phallic monster fears.

  4. 4. Saladin

    Great post — though I won’t be surprise dif you get a bunch of ‘you’re reading too much into it’ so-damn-tired-of-feminism responses form Scott/Cameron fans.

    I’ve always been annoyed by the props Cameron in particular gets for his ‘tough women’ — the fact that Ripley’s supreme line in Aliens is ‘get away from her, you *bitch*!’ kind of undercuts this cred, and Linda Hamilton’s badass Sarah Coonor in T2 is essentially a psycho man-hating bitch who has to let Ah-nold take over the ass kicking and has to re-learn her role as soft mother to be redeemed. I actually love both of these movies and the original Alien (as opposed to Cameron’s and Scott’s later racist garbage like GI Jane and True Lies), but I’m not gonna jump up and down about how wonderful their depictions of women are.

    Re: Ursula and phallic imagery — don’t forget that she has the cock-rocking audacity to command eels! EELS! :p

  5. 5. Ryl

    Excellent post, Marie. Much of Giger’s art has always struck me as overtly and aggressively misogynistic.

    Do you know whether this tendency — to present the life-giving attributes of a woman’s body as monstrous — is prevalent only in western cultures, or it’s accepted globally?

  6. 6. Wolf Lahti

    The concept of the “phallic mother” is widespread throughout the mythology of many cultures. I don’t have the specifics to substantiate it, but my feeling is that it is primarily Western culture that demonizes that aspect. On the other hand, it also glorifies it in the tradition of the union of masculine and feminine being a spiritual goal. (Not so much in Christianity, of course.)

  7. 7. Marie Brennan

    Diana — well, at least we can give the tentacle-nipples points for creativity . . . .?

    Olivia — to be fair, I can’t think of any other Disney movies off the top of my head that are anywhere near as bad, at least on that specific front.

    Nadia — interesting! I don’t really know Barker’s work, so I hadn’t been aware of that one.

    Ryl — mmmm, hard for me to say. I know, as Wolf said, that the “phallic mother” is a widespread image, and so are the vagina dentata, the fear of castration by a woman, and other aspects of monstrous femininity. You also get things like the practice of physically isolating women during the “unclean” time of their menstruation, or after childbirth, etc. On the other hand, Creed was writing specifically about the field of modern Western horror, and I’m not sure other cultures or time periods have exploited the concept quite so systematically for the purpose of emotional effect. (Not to mention profit.)

  8. 8. Marie Brennan

    Saladin — Anybody who can point to Alien and say “you’re reading too much into it” with a straight face is a better comedian than I am.

    Cameron’s work is definitely imperfect, but — harking all the way back to my first post here — I still find them better than a lot of the “tough women” we get nowadays, whose “toughness” mostly consists of their ability to look good in leather. And, as I’ve said before (apparently today is my day to reference myself…), I have a pretty strong tendency to “read into” a text, actively applying an interpretation that highlights the good points rather than the bad. So I though I don’t necessarily disagree with your reading of T2, frex, I don’t read Sarah in the same way myself — kind of like how lesbians have apparently claimed Vasquez from Aliens as one of their own — and I appreciate the fact that she, like many of Cameron’s women, operates from a position of mental strength instead of/in addition to physical. And when he pits his characters against a feminized enemy (Aliens), the solution to it is not Yay Masculinity, the way so many other narratives would have it — cf The Little Mermaid.

  9. 9. Bibliotrek

    I love this post. Every time I think about The Little Mermaid it just seems to get more and more appalling. As a kid, I had read the Hans Christian Andersen version before I saw the Disney movie, so I remember just being relieved that Ariel got her voice back and survived (I was maybe 9 or 10 when I saw the movie for the first time). But I’m starting to wonder whether there is any kids’ movie that treats women more horribly and exalts masculinity more blatantly than The Little Mermaid does.

  10. 10. Marie Brennan

    Bibliotrek — HCA is appalling in his own way, but yeah; Disney’s version is its own special version of awful.

  11. 11. Alma Alexander

    Re. “little mermaid” – monstrous feminine or not, the Disney version vaguely amused me in points but the rest of it merely annoyed and frustrated me. The HCA version is appalling, yes, but it’s true to itself and the themes within it are, like so much of HCA, extremely and viscerally powerful – and the Andersen fairy tales don”t always, more often than not, actually, have the classic “happily ever after” endings which I tend to shy away from, and this is precisely the reason I love Andersen so much.

    Concerning the rest of your post – dear GHU, woman, now I have to go and watch Alien all over again because you’re right, I missed it ALL. I”m aware of the idea, of course – who can’t be, with the “john hurt moment” overshadowing it all? – but all that concealed Freudian preamble, no, I missed that whole thing….

  12. 12. Marie Brennan

    Alma — Andersen’s moralizing kind of gets up my nose (“The Little Match Girl” in particular), so I’m not a huge fan of his work. But that’s neither here nor there. As for Alien . . . trust me, there is nothing “concealed” about the preamble to John Hurt’s demise. You’ll be aghast at how blatant it is.

  13. 13. Andrea K Host

    It annoys me to no end when a sexual woman has to be either evil, a prostitute, or punished. [Or all three.] One of my rare did not finish reading experiences was a novel where it appeared that being a pro-active female meant bad things happened to you (to the point where a girl who was forward enough to bed a ‘light fae’ was frozen to death by the purity of his seed, heh), while a passive, virginal female was so pure that she was able to web a light fae without consequence. I gave up around the point the pro-active female lead was raped/in danger of being raped by the dark fae with the rasp-like penis…

    The whole unicorn/virgin myth is also annoying on that level.

    On the related topic of pregnancy, one of the storylines I’ve loathed, and encountered several times now, is where the plot is all about protecting a pregnant woman because of the child she carries – a story which usually ends with the death of the woman in otherwise successful childbirth. LOATHE that plot – it’s like the woman we’ve come to know was nothing but a suitcase.

  14. 14. Harry Markov

    What I am interested in is whether the monstrous female as symbolism is intentional [often/always/the rule of thumb situation] or whether comes out from the repressed subconscious. With Giger I think it’s obvious, but I did not see that one coming from Ariel, to be honest, and it fits perfectly.

    And another question. Since you are the high-level theorist in the house, so to speak, what is the monstrous feminine that is detached from sexual meaning?

  15. 15. Erin

    Oh, The Little Mermaid. I love Disney as a rule but The Little Mermaid infuriates me to no end. Not only does the tacked on happy ending completely destroy the message of Andersen’s original, but Ursula’s demise is so absurd, sexist, and offensive. It’s just bad storytelling. The happy ending is completely unearned and undeserved. Ariel makes a mess she can’t clean up, gets in trouble for it, and her boyfriend has to save her–despite not having a clue what’s going on. Ariel played an active role in her story. She entered into a bargain and so began a relationship with the villain. As the hero, she should have been the one to defeat the villain in the end and set everything back to rights. Not some shmuck who’s spent the last ten minutes of the movie hypnotized. But he’s the guy. Out of curiosity, did anybody here see the musical version of The Little Mermaid on Broadway? It still ends happily but Ursula doesn’t turn into a monster, Eric stays safely on land, and Ariel dispatches of the villain herself. Needless to say, I preferred it.

    Speaking of Andersen, the monstrous feminine is at the heart of The Snow Queen as well in a way. If you agree with the interpretation that the Snow Queen, a powerful woman able to manipulate a young boy, acts as a sexual presence. She lures Kay away from Gerda, a virgin pure little girl. Everything “good” in the story is childlike and innocent–think of the Young Prince and Princess who sleep in separate beds even though they’ve just been married. However, everything “bad” is associated with sex and maternity. The Lady of Summer for example who wants to steal Gerda because she has no child of her own. The Snow Queen herself who is beautiful but cold and only kisses Kay twice “for fear of kissing him to death.” The Robber Queen who threatens Gerda’s life is a mother and even the Little Robber Girl has a violent eroticism to her. She treats Gerda roughly, insists she lie down beside her, and makes her kiss her pet animals. It’s unsafe to generalize especially since the Little Robber Girl ultimately ends up helping Gerda, but I think it’s safe to say that in The Snow Queen good is associated with childlike innocence while evil is associated with passionate eroticism.

    Unfortunately, I think these stereotypes are so ingrained in the popular consciousness that authors and moviemakers use them without really taking into account what they say about women and in particular female sexuality. It makes me feel bad because I do love a good femme fatale (The Snow Queen is one of my favorite stories) but I do agree that it’s important to recognize these patterns and acknowledge their unspoken meaning.

  16. 16. Marie Brennan

    Andrea — if you haven’t already seen my post on virgins and whores, you can find my thoughts at greater length there. Short form: yeah, it’s a massive problem, and one that makes my head explode every time I encounter it. As for the “suitcase” woman (great term…), I may end up doing an entire post solely devoted to the notion of Woman as Vessel, whether for a savior or some kind of demonic power.

    Harry — in one sense, there is no such thing; the term was coined by Barbara Creed specifically to refer to a constellation of sexualized, feminized horror tropes. Taking your question in a broader sense, though, as asking what female evil would look like in a non-sexualized instance . . . heck, in a way I’m not sure there’s any such thing then, either. Our culture so strongly defines femininity and femaleness in terms of sexuality and its related attributes (beauty, motherhood, etc) that evil detached from those concepts would probably be read as either masculine or ungendered. But I’m not actually much of a gender theorist — what I know, I mostly picked up via osmosis from friends — so I’d have to defer to more educated opinions on that front.

  17. 17. Marie Brennan

    Erin — I think that’s part of why of the classic Disney films, I love Sleeping Beauty so much. Maleficent is an awesome villainness, whose behavior is free of the usual feminine motivators (sex, beauty, motherhood, etc). Sure, if you want to get overly Freudian you can talk about the spindle as a phallic object, but why does Maleficent lay the curse? Because she felt slighted by the King. What does she do when she kidnaps Philip? Gloat over how she’s going to keep him jailed until he’s old and grey, and then release him to his perfectly-preserved true love. What does she do in the final fight? Turn into a freaking DRAGON. Sure, Philip stabs her, and there’s some symbolism in that, but it’s about on the spindle-level: there, but not, I think, the core of the message. (Really, the heroes of the film are the fairies anyway. Especially Merriweather. Who is the bestest.)

    (Huh. It occurs to me this might be an answer to Harry’s question, about non-sexual monstrous femininity. There’s not much traditionally feminine about Maleficent, but I don’t read her as either masculine or ungendered — and she is without a doubt evil. This is what I get for answering comments before I remember to check the moderation queue for first time commenters that need approving.)

  18. 18. Erin K. Coughlin

    Marie-Yes! I’ve actually had this fight with people. Sleeping Beauty is one of my favorite movies and whenever I complain of The Little Mermaid, somebody always says that Sleeping Beauty ends “the exact same way.” But it really doesn’t. Yes, a prince slays the villain but the factors at hand are completely different. Part of what makes Maleficent such an awesome villain is that she isn’t motivated by power, beauty, motherhood, sex. She’s motivated purely by spite. She’s a deliciously evil character who just happens to be female. And the struggle of the movie is really between her and the fairies (who, yes, are totally the real heroes). Aurora’s basically a MacGuffin in her own story–she has no idea she’s in danger–so a faceoff with Maleficent wouldn’t have worked. Phillip has more of a relationship with Maleficent–he’s captured by her etc.–so it makes sense that he has to fight her in the end, unlike Eric in The Little Mermaid. And he wouldn’t have been able to do anything without the fairies. They gave him the sword, helped him escape, and guided the sword into the dragon. In the end, it’s more a case of Good Magic vs. Evil Magic than Male Good vs. Female (Sexual) Evil. I’ve seen/read some versions where the phallic potential of the spindle is played up, but I really don’t get a sense of that in the Disney version. Sleeping Beauty was pretty unique it terms of gender, especially considering it came out in 1959. Women figure in both sides of the fight, but neither the fairies nor Maleficent are defined by their sexuality. Meanwhile, the prince has to be rescued and the traditional princess is barely in the movie.

    And I love Merryweather too! I always wonder what her gift would have been.

  19. 19. Chrystoph

    I think that a large part of the appeal of the monstrous feminine is that monstrous males are rather du jour.

    Stereotypes teach us that men, as a set, are more monstrous than women. Every culture has examples of rapine and other sexual horrors, but they are almost always masculine in nature.

    Most people do not believe that men CAN be raped or sexually assaulted by a woman, so there is a “value” in a representation of the female gone horrific. It is the clash with, possibly ficticious, norms that makes a usable device in writing.

    This is simplified and off the cuff, but think of it this way. If you go to a movie and you see Jason/Freddie/his name is legion go on a killing spree, the horror is in what he does, not who he is. Replace that killer with a woman, and a large part of the effect becomes the fact that the killer is female.

  20. 20. Marilynn Byerly

    In many mythologies, the deity of destruction is also the deity of creation, and the deity is female. Kali, for example. It’s only in Western culture that we demonize the strong female.

    I have a high tolerance for the monstrous female. What bothers me is woman as victim with pain equated with sex. To see what I mean listen to the average horror movie without looking, and you will have a hard time distinguishing between cries of pain and orgasm when a woman is tortured and killed.

    That’s definitely not the message teenaged boys, the target audience of these movies, should be getting.

  21. 21. Ryl

    Speculations, based on my own studies and observations:

    The predominantly male factors in positions of power in many cultures have long striven to micro-manage and be in control of women’s bodies, in order to better serve their own needs [sexually, reproductively, 'legiimate' offspring = male legacy, dowries, land ownership and authority, etc.].

    But if the woman in question is sexually self-determining, then she’s beyond this collective control. Since she no longer fits in with what is deemed ‘natural’ she’s upsetting the status quo and is now seen as monstrous. That which is ‘monstrous’ — that which cannot be controlled — must be destroyed, before she gives other women ideas that threaten the power-base of the controllers.

    Some stories featuring the Monstrous Feminine probably do come from fearful subconscious minds, and there are those stories that are no more than thinly veiled adolescent revenge fantasies.

    But I suspect many stories of the Monstrous Feminine are *quietly preemptive in nature, that they are deliberately didactic, preachy warnings of what promises to happen to those females who dare to be self-determining in any capacity, especially sexually. Because that makes it personal.

    *Conceal the real message behind saccharine sentiments, songs and sparkly costumes.

  22. 22. Marie Brennan

    Erin — that’s why I make these posts, to highlight patterns and get people thinking about them, so we can start to see the differences and what they mean. If you just look at Aurora, yeah, SB comes off badly (boy howdy is she passive), but if you view the fairies as the protagonists, then it leapfrogs over TLM for its depiction of women.

    Chrystoph — If you go to a movie and you see Jason/Freddie/his name is legion go on a killing spree, the horror is in what he does, not who he is. Replace that killer with a woman, and a large part of the effect becomes the fact that the killer is female. Yes, and that’s kind of what I was vaguely driving at in my comment above, about masculine or non-gendered evil. It’s a matter of marked and unmarked categories: male evil is usually depicted as just evil, period, separate from overt sexuality, whereas female evil (being a deviation from the norm) has its femaleness actively coded into it. And femaleness = sexuality.

    Marilynn — be careful of reading too much into that, though. Yes, Kali is a major deity in some varieties of Hinduism, and yes, she’s female — but that doesn’t make Hinduism a feminist utopia. Western cultures are not the only ones that demonize the strong female; it’s happened the world over, including India.

    Ryl — your phrasing makes it sound like you think the “quietly preemptive” stories are somehow preferable to the revenge fantasies. If so, I’m not sure I agree: the revenge fantasies are obvious enough to argue against and resist, but the subtler applications of this ideal (female self-determination is a threat) are the ones that slip under people’s defenses and perpetuate the concept. Species is obviously appalling, and can therefore be ignored; The Little Mermaid, on the other hand, is beloved, and its message is absorbed.

  23. 23. Ryl

    @Marie — not preferable to me. [though I *did* like some of the songs]

    But maybe it is preferable to corporations or anyone else with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo — if influence [of any kind] isn’t easily detected then it’s harder to combat, increasing its chances of success.

    Sorry if my wording was confusing,….

  24. 24. Sam

    Interesting post, and like many stories Alien is certainly loaded with symbolism.

    On the other hand though it’s somewhat absurd, IMO, the way that any form of stabbing/impaling is taken as a sexual metaphor.

    Go back thousands of years, and killing someone by sticking a sharp pointy thing through them has a long “tradition”, not because it’s has phallic symbolism, but because it’s a rather effective way of killing someone.

    Fiction will reflect this.

    Look hard enough and you’ll find sexual symbolism in any act, stirring the spoon in my cup of tea can easily be extrapolated to a sexual metaphor by the same standards you’ve applied here. And that’s even before you get into any symbolism of the milk that’s being stirred in.

    Walking through a doorway is obviously a metaphor for birth (or sex, depending on the point you’re trying to make), and so forth.

    A whirlpool doesn’t, for me as a man, conjure up some fear of emasculation by a dominant female character, it conjures up fear of drowning and dying, there really isn’t any subtext needed.

    Sure part of the horror is from the helplessness it would cause, but that’s because it’s a force of nature, not any kind of embodiment of feminity.

    It’s easy to draw sexual parallels with stories, it’s also often entirely wrong – if you don’t believe me just ask yourself this: how often have you unintentionally said something entirely innocent that sounded like a blatant double entendre.

    I’m willing to bet it’s more than “never”, and that if people had subsequently overanalysed the conversation for your “obvious sexual implications and imagery”, you’d have got rather irritated. :)

  25. 25. Erin K. Coughlin

    Sam: I understand that sometimes a ship’s mast is, to borrow a phrase, just a ship’s mast. However, I still find the end of The Little Mermaid sexist and absurd, especially when compared to the tragic poignancy of the source material. Not only is it completely contrived–Eric must have incredible prowess and, um, aim I guess–but it’s Ariel’s story and Eric saves the day anyway. From her design to her behavior, Ursula is a very sexual character. Ariel’s the Virgin, Ursula’s the Whore, and in the end, the Whore is done in by a guy so the Virgin can get married. Phallic symbolism aside, that’s pretty insulting and (as I said earlier) lazy storytelling. I’m not against a villain being overtly sexual (even though I hate the Virgin/Whore dichotomy) but I really resent Man as Deus Ex Machina. If anybody should have taken Ursula out, it should have been Ariel. And they should have done it without Ursula turning into a giant sea monster because that was just plain silly.

  26. 26. L. Jagi Lamplighter (Wright)

    I think one has to be careful with this kind of thing. I see it right now on both the Left and the Right, though they complain about different things…this tendency to read into everything whatever it is that they want to be offended about that day.

    Everything has a shape. Nearly every shape can be analogized to something else, if we try hard–that doesn’t mean it is something else.

    Every villain is either male or female (well, except in SF, where it can be other.) The females are either sexy or they are not.

    No matter which they are, people complain. When they are male, people complain not enough women. When they are female, they complain ‘women are being made to look evil’

    Sometimes, a story is just a store.

    I’m pretty sure that the guys at Disney really did not have any of this in mind. While there’s nothing wrong with essays that say “this reminds me of that”…to imply that this IS that, when really it is not that, is not doing justice to the stories or the audience.

  27. 27. L. Jagi Lamplighter (Wright)

    Er…that was supposed to say “sometimes a story is just a story.”

    Sorry. ;-)

  28. 28. Erin K. Coughlin

    Wright – I see what you mean there. People love to hate Disney and will go out of their way to pick out what’s wrong with their movies. Ironically, I’ve heard complaints about Disney’s female villains, saying that because they’re “all single women” and all the heroines eventually marry that Disney is naturally against single women. But this leaves out Snow White and Cinderella’s stepmothers who obviously married at some point. So are female Disney villains bad because they show a woman not wanting a man or because they show a woman in control of her sexuality wreaking havoc? Or both? Or neither? Bleck–my head hurts.

    I think you’re absolutely right about the animators not intending any of this–monstrous feminine, virgin/whore etc. In fact, from what I gleaned from the Little Mermaid Making-of Documentary, the original ending planned for the movie was closer to the ending of the Broadway show I mentioned above which has Ariel take out Ursula herself. But Jeffrey Katzenberg thought this was too anti-climactic and wanted the scene to have a traditional monster and, I guess, a traditional slaying. So yes, sexist symbolism was probably unintentional

    However…

    I do think some tropes are so buried in our subconscious that we don’t realize their potential offensiveness–and stupidity. Imagine if Aladdin had ended not with Aladdin using his wits to save himself from Snake Jafar, but with Jasmine coming out of nowhere, killing Jafar, and saving Aladdin. Sure, it would have been cool to see a girl kicking ass but it’s Aladdin’s story and it would have fallen flat. But that’s basically what happened in The Little Mermaid with the genders reversed. We’re so used to seeing the guy swoop in to save the girl at the last minute that nobody thinks twice, poor storytelling or no.

  29. 29. L. Jagi Lamplighter (Wright)

    I agree, Erin, except that I don’t think it is bad storytelling to have a prince save a princess…it is exactly the kind of storytelling that has lifted hearts and spirits for centuries. And there is a reason why it resonated hundreds of years ago and still resonates today. It’s romantic and delightful. That kind of thing does not change, though we can train ourselves not to enjoy it.

    In the case of the Little Mermaid, it is all the more fitting because the story is about how Ariel gives up everything for Eric and Eric does not recognize her or value her. What is needed at the end is for Eric to do something to show that he does value Ariel. He has to be brave and stand up for her. If he does not do something for her, why is he worthy of her?

  30. 30. Marie Brennan

    My apologies for the delay in responding here; I was out of town.

    Sam: As with any kind of symbolic analysis, it’s a question of weight. I wouldn’t call you stirring your tea a sexual metaphor, because nothing else reinforces it. (Or if it does, I don’t want to know about it . . .) As I say elsewhere in the comments, I don’t find Philip stabbing Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty to be terribly symbolic, even though on the face of it the individual moment is the same. What matters is the buildup of evidence: The Little Mermaid has multiple bits of sexual imagery, whose weight adds up to more than the sum of the individual parts.

    Wright — Do the guys at Disney have to have consciously thought of it for it to matter? I certainly don’t believe so. In fact, the most insidious things are the ones you don’t think about, the assumptions that slip out unintentionally. Katzenberg thought it would be “anticlimactic” for Ariel to take out Ursula; much more exciting to have the guy do it! Had you asked him at the time, I doubt he would have said outright, it’s because I’m not interested in letting the girl save the day or any other overtly sexist statement — but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a sexist decision. (Erin, thanks for that detail; I’d never heard that before!)

    I’d also like to pull out a line of yours from a later comment: I don’t think it is bad storytelling to have a prince save a princess…it is exactly the kind of storytelling that has lifted hearts and spirits for centuries. And there is a reason why it resonated hundreds of years ago and still resonates today. It’s romantic and delightful. That kind of thing does not change, though we can train ourselves not to enjoy it.

    What this elides is that such storytelling has lifted some hearts and spirits — but not all. I guarantee you that some people have watched that story and felt their hearts sink. Because the prince wasn’t the character they had invested in; they thought it was Ariel’s story, they were cheering for her to overcome the challenges, and then along comes the guy to take the story out of her hands. The reason they didn’t enjoy the moment isn’t because they’d been trained not to; on the contrary, there’s abundant proof that female readers/viewers/etc. have been trained into identifying with and investing in the male character, imagining themselves in his place because he’s the hero of the story. But there are a LOT of men out there — a depressing number, really — who can’t or won’t do the same with a female character. The hero is supposedly “universal,” while the heroine isn’t. Only women are expected to care about female characters, as anything more than a sex object. Everybody’s supposed to care about the men.

    Is it bad storytelling for a prince to save a princess? No. But it is bad storytelling for him to do so when it isn’t his story — Erin’s gender-switched example of Jasmine saving Aladdin illustrates the point nicely — and it’s also bad storytelling to have 95% tales of princes saving princesses, and a grudging 5% where the princesses get to save the princes. As I said in my original post, it’s a question of patterns, more than individual instances. And there is most definitely a pattern here.

  31. 31. Monica

    The first time I saw Alien, it was in a film class with the theme of “crossing boundaries,” and we watched Thelma and Louise the following week–seeing those two together piqued my interest in Ridley Scott’s portrayal of women, because it’s quite complex. Often, it seems that he shows the potential of female empowerment is always undermined by material reality. Like Alien, T&L takes traditionally masculine genres (the buddy road movie, the setting of John Wayne westerns) and replaces the protagonists with women–who are able to reach a certain level of empowerment, after their own violation by men, and then their only ending is suicide.

    @marie, your characterization of gender in Alien and Aliens is spot-on. I’ve never seen the Disney movies under discussion, so I won’t comment on them–except to say to those who are skeptical of the analysis of them: a writer doesn’t necessarily have to be consciously aware of the messages being relayed in his/her writing. Writing very often unconsciously replicates/represents/reflects power dynamics or hegemonies inherent in culture, and close analysis of literature can very easily reveal these relationships at play.

  32. 32. Mac

    “I’m pretty sure that the guys at Disney really did not have any of this in mind. ”

    While “The Little Mermaid” remains one of my favorite Disney films (in part because as a child I despised the Hans Christian Andersen version so very much, and in part because it was probably the first Disney film I saw on my own, and becaucthe songs tend to cheer my up when I am sad — not to mention that I love how Ursula gets to be both plump AND sexy**) — I don’t think we can call the filmmakers completely unaware. Not with them incorporating penises into the design of Triton’s castle on the VHS cover or putting pictures of Ariel busting out of her clamshell top on the studio walls. Not to mention the creative processing they document and admit to in their own making-of videos. “We put together a really hot, sexy come-on scene for Jasmine!”

    I have interpreted the Erik Ex Machina aspects of the film as the way the mer-world becomes convinced that humans aren’t evil — a human “fish-eater” has to play a pivotal, redemptive part. (Although the typical children’s-movie fudging that they do with how-sentient-are-the-animals-really messes with generating the whole outrage at fish eating, but that’s another topic.) This doesn’t change the fact that Marie Brennan has made some excellent and compelling points here about what all those other elements add up to.

    **Although, as a grown up, looking over visual fantasy as a body of work, I find I would like it a lot if evil villainesses could be evil with something other than their breasts. Why does turning evil automatically make an actress go right into the Marilyn Monroe side-pose, boobs-front, whispery whispery routine? And all that corsetry would seriously distract me from my evil, is all I’m saying.

  33. 33. Marie Brennan

    Mac — Good point about having the human do something redemptive. I can see that being a valid thing to include in the story; I just wish they’d found a better way to do it.

    As for villainesses and evil breasts, that was December’s post. :-)

  34. 34. Tara Maya

    I admit I love the Disney version of Little Mermaid. (Sorry, but I hate unhappy endings.)

    But the message is disturbing. I would say the worst part is not what was added by Disney, but already present in the original. To win a man, Ariel must give up her voice and become a silenced, sexual object, i.e. get him to kiss her. Egads, the symbolism of THAT is worse than of the other sexual metaphors combined.

    Worse yet, she’s in a double bind, because her voice — when it is entertaining, singing, performing — is what attracts male attention in the first place, so when she give it up, she can’t win. I think that’s why in the original, she dies…. she gives up her voice, lets him kiss her, and then he goes and marries someone else anyway. She isn’t the virgin in that story, she’s the whore, and so she has to kill herself. Standard.

    At least in the Disney version, although Ursula calls her a “tramp”, she gets back her voice and her man. Of course, it is only through the actions of two men, the prince, and her father. Who, btw, we learn (to no one’s surprise) in Little Mermaid 3, is an oppressive tyrant. Ursula’s only crime (besides trying to marry Ariel’s man and rule the kingdom) is to practice usury and enforce the rule of law.

    This is why I hated it in Shrek (2? 3?) when the Fairy Godmother turned out to be evil. This is supposed to be breaking fairy-tale stereotypes? Yawn. All you did was take one of the few positive, powerful female characters and make her an evil witch.

    The Sarah Connor Chronicles, on the other hand, even more that the Terminator movies, really did break stereotypes. Some of the episodes were excellent. Take the awesome episode, “Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep,” [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1329927/]. The whole bitch/witch thing is turned on its head. Even when female sexuality is shown, in one scene, as a threat, it’s from a POV you almost never see. As a mother, Sarah is disturbed to see the pretty female robot in a bikini top in front of John (Sarah’s teenage son). Usually, female-sexuality-as-threat is always from the POV of the tempted male. And protective fathers worried about their daughters are not uncommon. But protective mothers worried about their son’s sexual purity? More rare.

    Better yet, there are a number of strong female characters in the story, and although they have some traditional roles — girlfriend, mother, villainess — they don’t act those roles out in the usual way. The girlfriend is also a bodyguard, the mother is also the team leader, the villainess, in the end, might also become an ally… (The series ended, so who knows.)

  35. 35. Marie Brennan

    Tara Maya — I haven’t seen the Sarah Conner Chronicles yet, but they’re on my list of TV shows to try out. Sounds very interesting.

  36. 36. nic

    Very interesting post and comments: to refer to Monica’s post, I remember having an argument with someone in my film class as she saw ‘Thelma and Louise’ as the ultimate feminist movie, and i disagreed. At the end of the film (apologies for spoilers) the two women had to die because they had the temerity to encroach upon the territory of men, and dared to be independent. They adopted the look of men (no makeup, jeans, t-shirts, scraped back hair and baseball caps) and by doing so, ensured that there was no way back to their former lives.
    I watched ‘Goldeneye’ the other night and was struck by yet another depiction of the monstrous feminine, in the ‘bad’ Bond Girl Xenia Onatopp. A woman who obviously likes sex must therefore be a sadistic killer, how ‘other’ can you get?? How many men are portrayed in films as being bad simply because they like sex? She gets her rightful comeuppance by the good guy, the notoriously misogynistic Bond, for daring to transgress, and not be the ‘pure’ girl who needs to be rescued by a man.

  37. 37. Marie Brennan

    Nic — oh, the Bond girls. They allow the viewer to have their cake and eat it, too, condemning female sexuality while also enjoying the display.

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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