From hysteria to menstruation, women have been largely viewed as incapable of managing the forces within themselves. Ancient Greek philosophers and physicians theorized that our wombs moved within our bodies and caused temporary insanity. The modern world fairs little better, and popular culture along with some schools of medicine think volatile hormones render half the population incapable of reason at any given point in time. Endocrine glands have become the new scapegoat. Too much estrogen and we forget that two plus two equals four, or suddenly suspect that our partner is cheating on us. Despite statistical evidence to the contrary (men make up the majority of violent criminal offenders), women are characterized as easily manipulatable by the whims of passion and unable to exercise willpower.^1 We are depicted as vulnerable to the monster within, and susceptible to being overwhelmed past the point of insanity and destruction.
This paradigm is illustrated in monster narratives. The male protagonist in Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan (Nurarihyon no Mago ぬらりひょんの孫) is a monster-human hybrid that struggles to control his darker nature for the sake of his clan. Once he accepts his non-human self, he gains access to an immense power that ultimately saves the people he loves. This contrasts with the character Vanessa Ives of Penny Dreadful (2014), who is the human reincarnation of Amunet (Queen of Darkness) that sacrifices herself to save the people she loves. She rejects her monstrous self, and views it as uncontrollable and incompatible with the “good” person she wishes to be. While men can be complex with multifaceted identities, women are constrained between the choices of one dimensionality: virgin or whore, good or evil. For women, there is no evolving narrative or coming to terms with the complicated nature of human identity. While there are certainly examples of men falling to their inner beasts, such as Dr. Jekyll from Robert Stevenson’s 1886 novella, the last century has seen men incorporate disparate aspects of their psyche into a holistic subjectivity: Adam, the creature from I, Frankenstein (2014), learns that he is more than just a monstrous creation. He is capable of not only doing great good, but of loving and being loved. He even has a soul.
The macro narratives of religion and mythology are especially flagrant in their depiction of pure women in control, and impassioned women out of control. Both Durga (Hindu pantheon) and Guanyin (Daoist/Buddhist pantheon) are depicted as gods whose power of conquest is directly related to their virtue as women. Guanyin is able to turn Hell into Heaven because she is femininely good (she has retained her virginity despite suitors, has not retaliated against a father who killed her, and is charitable towards the poor), and Durga wages war with the demon Mahishasura for love of the good in a maternalistic fashion rather than out of a sense of self-righteousness. The message then, is that a woman’s power is tied to her virtue as a female. Anything outside that is the antithesis to her identity and carries the potential to dangerously destabilize her. Pure virgin or nurturing mother, those are the choices. Kali, another powerful Hindu mother god, pushes this limit and it nearly costs her Shiva – her divine consort. In one tale, she falls to bloodlust in the heat of battle and can’t stop fighting. She destroys everything in her path, innocent and guilty alike, until Shiva lies down and she inadvertently steps on him. Only when she realizes that she is stepping on her love, does she regain her self control. Contrasted with the soft and collected depictions of Durga and Guanyin, Kali with her extended tongue, wide maniac eyes, and flailing limbs holding a severed head can be shockingly perverse. But even she is tied to an identity that is constrained through a relationship with her male counterpart. Her love of Shiva, and her shame at forgetting that, is what “saves” her and the world.
Thankfully, artists are beginning to explore the complexity of feminine power and identity. Marjorie Liu’s comic Monstress (2015) features Maika Halfwolf who battles a monster hidden within her body while trying to come to terms with her own power and the terrible things she is capable of. This narrative displays complex aspects of identity, including race, religion, and virtue, and then turns it on its head. The reader is kept uncertain about good and evil, right and wrong, all the while empathizing with the struggles of a girl who is trying to find out who she is and her place in the world. The monster rears it head when Maika is in danger from the various factions hunting her and takes the opportunity to feed on people. As Maika tries to resist, she repeats to herself “I’m not…not a monster…no…no I’m not…” (Book 1, Vol. 1). Yet as the story evolves she recognizes that without him she would be dead, and that perhaps she is more than just a victim of circumstances – she has choices, and while some of those choices have tragic consequences, there is no clear boundary between the pure and impure. The illusion of good women vs. evil women dissipates in this matriarchal world. Instead there are just people and the choices they make in complicated positions. Girls and women need these narratives. We need examples that grant us subjectivity and complexity. Not only is it validating, but it shows us that we have options. That we are infinitely more complicated than our gender or sex. As time moves on and artists explore more in this vein, it will be interesting to see what other alternatives we have regarding power and identity that we couldn’t have previously imagined.
1) Crime data from the FBI: https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2015/crime-in-the-u.s.-2015/tables/table-42. Putting aside the debate about whether or not violence is a reasonable response with its own type of logic in a certain context, I’m arguing here that violence is not one of the principle characteristics of a reasonable person who is able to process their emotions in a socially acceptable way for the benefit of the community and self.