At first glance, the TV series Penny Dreadful offers a cast of strong women that threaten to topple the supremacy of Victorian patriarchy represented by their male counterparts. Vanessa Ives lives and moves independently. She is single, uninterested in being an “angel of the hearth”, and exudes a sensual confidence. She isn’t afraid to approach men alone, or go into a den of vampires wearing a corset.
There’s also the Irish prostitute Brona Croft who is reborn as Lily Frankenstein. Beaten, raped, and dying of Tuberculosis, her murder by Dr. Frankenstein gives her a nearly indestructible body with incredible strength. She uses her new powers to gather an army of women and wreck her vengeance throughout London.
Minor female characters are just as potent. Joan Clayton is a herbalist and abortionist that mentors Vanessa. Evelyn and Hecate Poole are witches that display an incredible amount of power to manipulate the environment and people around them. Catriona Hartdegen is a Thanotologist (scholar of death) and expert swordsman that wears men’s clothing. Florence Seward is an alienist (early psychoanalyst) who killed her abusive husband.
But a closer look at these characters reveals a dark undercurrent of why each ultimately fails in her bid for autonomy. Vanessa is only independent because of the wealth she inherited from her father, whom the audience learns isn’t her real one; thereby endangering her status via illegitimacy. As the story progresses, the audience also learns that she is the reincarnation of the Egyptian god Amunet – “The Mother of Evil” who is constantly hounded by the brothers Lucifer and Dracula. The former wishes to use Vanessa’s power to overthrow God and the latter to dominate the world, and both will do anything to seduce/oppress her. Brona’s (Lily’s) life is like a stone skipping on the water. She turns to prostitution to escape her abusive fiancé, only to be repeatedly abused. After her rebirth as the betrothed to Frankenstein’s first creation, she attaches herself to Dorian Gray. Dorian tires of her and gives her back to Frankenstein. Joan is burned alive by the very villagers she helped, and accused of witchcraft by the very women whom she saved from the unwanted pregnancies. Evelyn and Hecate meet their end in the course of their patron Lucifer’s failure to enslave Vanessa. Catriona seems to be the only female unscathed, but she is never a strong plot device and merely facilitates the narrative of other characters. Florence is in a male-dominated field that views that world from a phallocentric perspective in which women are continually developing neuroses from their penile inadequacies.
For all their grit and power, each character falls in one way or another. The two main female protagonists most significantly. Vanessa Ives seems to be the powerful matriarch who will end the rule of men. But she is constantly being pulled apart by those male powers, physically and metaphysically. The world of men is symbolized by her real father, the vainglorious adventurer Sir Malcolm Murray, and Ethan Chandler whom she ultimately falls in love with. In her final scene, the fallen vampiric Vanessa sacrifices herself to Ethan; thus re-establishing the rule of patriarchy through the act of female martyrdom for the sake of social order. As the outsider, she redeems herself in the eyes of her men through her saintly death. Lucifer and Dracula represent the masculine metaphysical threats of sin and lust that manipulate Vanessa. Body and soul, she is made to suffer in order to weaken her resolve for autonomy. The most overarching power throughout the whole series is the Christian God. The opening scene depicts Vanessa praying to him, and her last breath is spent on him. Her whole life has been a navigation around the various masculine authorities. As a god in her own right, there was potential for her to establish a new world order. To break the rule of the old god and his Christian men. As an outsider, she had the authority to validate the “unloved ones”, to give power to the “broken and shunned creatures” (Season 3, Episode 1). But the last scene dashes any hope of that. Standing closest to Vanessa’s grave are Victor, Malcolm, and Ethan. Three Anglo males secure in their position as Christian, western men from the upper class. In the background stand Catriona, Florence, and Kaetenay (an apache ally from the United States). Though they allied themselves to the established powers, they are nonetheless outsiders and barred from wielding any authority as women and a subjugated people. Dr. Frankenstein’s creature mourns over her grave after everyone leaves, and the audience isn’t shown the headstone. The “monsters” who would have potentially found a home in matriarchy are now without hope, and Vanessa is removed from view.
Brona-turned-Lily fares little better. Her rage over a lifetime of abuse at the hands of men is bottomless, and she amasses an army of prostitutes to wage her gender war. Ironically, this war is funded by a man – Dorian Gray. When he tires of her, he gives her back to Victor Frankenstein who plans to tame her with the latest chemical technology provided by Dr. Henry Jekyll. Dr. Jekyll promises to domesticate Lily, and “leave her purring like a kitten on your lap” (Season 3, Episode 1). Her strength and her rage don’t save her. In fact, they make the doctors more set on erasing her autonomy and identity. As a vengeful woman, she is a danger. The question of the justifiability of that rage is never asked. It’s only when Lily displays weakness that Victor reconsiders. She tells him of how her daughter froze to death, while laying unconscious in an alley because a customer had knocked her out. Only when she reveals her frailty, is she able to save herself and satisfy the male in power that she is in fact still a women despite her rage and strength, and vis-à-vis that fact weak/harmless. Noticeably, Victor is never held accountable for Brona’s murder and none of his other crimes are made known to his cohorts. Lily’s revolution has failed. Her army is scattered and her acolyte is dead. Even with all her wrath, she seems doomed to skip endlessly across a water of violence and trauma.
Penny Dreadful gives us a starting point to ask the question, why does matriarchy fail? After all, there are currently no dominant matriarchal societies and what stories we do have of them are obscure. Discourse of matriarchy seems to be conducted through a lens of imagination and myth. Why? Luce Irigaray gives us a clue. In her piece Divine Women (1986), she writes that part of identity is imagining the infiniteness of that identity and this is done through divinity: “Divinity is what we need to become free, autonomous, sovereign. No human subjectivity, no human society has ever been established without the help of the divine” (475). But it’s not just the deity itself that bestows such subjectivity, it’s the cosmology as well. When the whole universe is constructed in masculine terms, it is only the masculine that can achieve autonomy. The feminine is relegated to whatever identity that cosmology seeks to bestow on it, and it’s usually in terms of virginity and motherhood. A few goddesses here and there won’t grant women the foundation to build or explore identity; they have no idea what that would look like aside from what a patriarchal cosmology has painted – always in terms of how it relates to the masculine. Vanessa’s power is only unleashed when she chooses a male identity to engage with, either God and his wolf (Ethan), the Devil, or Dracula. Lily’s strength is always in terms of her struggle with male violence. Their bids at reinventing the world and establishing a matriarchy fails because they have no idea what that would be. What would a world look like, filled with powerful people who happen to be women and powerful women who are also people?
The whole world has been built on a particular idea: the feminine is ancillary. She can have no identity apart from the masculine terms on which she was built, and any attempt to be free will result in her death or worse, her suffering. Here then, Penny Dreadful provides us with a teratological lens through which to view matriarchy and its relationship to our past, our present, and our future. The idea of a complete female identity that is autonomous, and that is powerful, is a relational monstrosity because our world is cosmologically based on a patriarchal order. It just doesn’t fit. Furthermore, simply imagining the Other does no good either. Imagining a power that is the opposite of a patriarchy is merely paying homage to that oppressive framework because one is unable to imagine the Other as anything other than a concept in relation to that hegemony. On the one hand, matriarchy is monstrous because it is a perverse reflection of the norm. But if we are to take the position of matriarchy as a possibility because it is the embodiment of female autonomy, then patriarchy becomes the monster seeking to repress that humanity. Yet another position is to do away with monstrosity all together and claim that the struggle for assertion and power is merely human – whether masculine or feminine. However, we can see from history that that assertion is itself very masculine and has always played out in the favor of men. Tracing the histories of pain and sufferings that have resulted, one can’t helped but be horrified and see the inherent monstrosity. So then we start back at square one, and we must question the humanity of a power that rejects the humanness of roughly fifty percent of the world population. Thus, Penny Dreadful elucidates this relational monstrosity that seeks to understand the possibility of matriarchy in a patriarchal world. We are unable to disentangling power from the masculine, and the feminine as a struggle that ultimately fails against that power. Attempts to do so lead to disorientation and empty hands.
Where does that leave the oppressed and unwanted? Perhaps it’s better to do away with it all together. No more patriarchy or matriarchy, just people. Power as human. But as embodied entities, we are unable to do so. We experience the world through our bodies, whatever color or gender they may be, and how we are treated in that world is thusly shaped. Though people will continue to struggle in their assertion for subjectivity and autonomy, that is a very human trait, Penny Dreadful paints a dark picture of the possibility of its success. Unless we are able to construct power and identity in terms outside the dominant framework we are born into, we are bound to be merely specks randomly placed in the cosmology where we happen to find ourselves.
Garry, Ann and Marilyn Pearsall, eds. Women, Knowledge, and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 1996. Print.
Penny Dreadful. John Logan, creator. Showtime and Sky. 2014. Television.