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.

Works Cited

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.

There’s that old adage: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Images are one of the major transmissions of information, and attempt to represent a particular essence and recreate an experience in the audience. The blogs and try to evoke an anxiety and melancholy in their audience through subtle images (and sometimes not so subtle) of horror.

But we often take for granted just how much we are wired to respond to images, and how much impact they have on us. The philosopher Stephen Asma writes about the evolutionary history of the hominid imagination and states: “The mind’s ability to improvise stories was preceded by its ability to improvise gestures, tools, and images” (103). Before we were able to think in abstraction, our representational associations were visual. Our first associations as the human race were embodied cognition, not linguistic conceptions. Even as “modern humans”, we still begin our journey feeling and seeing our way through the world as children.

Still, there is a bias (especially in Western scholarship) to only associate knowledge and thinking with logic and abstraction. This is a particularly harmful hegemony when put into the context of Teratology. If information isn’t nicely packaged in linear models and supported by rigorous experimentation, then is doesn’t count as real knowledge and therefore it’s less significant. Less significant, the impact and transmission of that instinctual information is brushed aside. The world is a monstrous place and we are constantly bombarded by visceral information we must shift through, not only for our survival in the case of danger, but also in order to be Good. Compounded by social media and the internet, the ease of information transmission has overloaded our senses with images of terrorist decapitations, gang violence, and rape pornography. Even on the lighter side of the scale, turning on the television has become a game of Russian Roulette. You never know what you’re going to see.

Research is still out on what impact this will have on the human psyche individually, and on the whole as the first generation to completely develop in the “Age of Information” grows up. System I of our brain, which is wired to respond visceral and physiological to threats, is still reacting to all this information. It takes a conscious effort on our part to engage System II that employs rational and abstractive thought. We don’t know why that picture of a creepy clown disturbs us, but it does. It takes extra time and energy to think: “It’s just a picture, calm down. Plus, most clowns aren’t scary. They are just normal people with a normal job. Even if there was a creepy clown, I can deal with it by calling the police, etc.” Employing System II every time we hear something on the radio, see something on TV, read something in an email, or respond to a ping on our phone is exhausting. Sometimes we just let things slide.

Regardless of whether or not we do interrogate every piece of information and process it consciously, there is still the subconscious impact we don’t have any control over. Those images settle to the bottom of our mind where it’ll fester to produce a ghost that will haunt our cognitive basement. Perhaps seeing a video of a burning school will stir anxieties about parenthood. Maybe that murder meme you thought was hilarious will stir the pot of your dreaming mind and force you to face something you haven’t been wanting to deal with. There’s no telling when you’re dealing with the murky and still mysterious world of the mind. Images have power and long before marketers were using them to get you to vote for their politician or buy their product, religions were using them to represent the divine mysteries and artists used them to capture knowledge. Images are able to tap into the primordial self and unlock the doors of Being. With such a fearsome key, perhaps a moment may be spared to think about which doors to open.


Works Cited

Asma, Stephen T. The Evolution of Imagination. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. Print.

Us peasants pay homage to a court,
where Life and Death are supreme,
its prince Sleep is a dozing sort,
his sister Oblivion never seen,
Hail to the King and Queen!

Jester Joviality has bones that creak,
Illness boasts a musty petticoat,
Tragedy sports a cutting beak,
while Suicide carries a sad note,
and Catastrophe does naught but gloat.

Fatigue is usually dragged by Reason,
Apathy never bothers to show,
War tramples every season,
and Hate never lets Love know
the parties Lust is going to throw.

Peace normally makes an appearance,
if Hope can stand the company of Doubt,
Mercy will usually run interference,
if Justice and Wrath are about,
the twins Faith and Patience usually pout.

To this court we all belong,
and without exception pay what’s due,
the rich, the poor, the meek, the strong,
will all repay the debts we accrue
by the great courtiers we bend to.

Excerpt from The Road

I recently stumbled upon my “stats” page and discovered my twenty-two followers. I can’t adequately describe my feelings, because I’ve never felt them before. My cheeks flushed and I felt slightly embarrassed, people were reading my ideas? I thought I would simply float in the anonymous sea of the internet until it all crashed in the Skynet apocalypse. Then I felt giddy and overjoyed, people were paying attention to me. I smiled, and would have jumped for joy had years of academia not robbed me of the capacity to outwardly express emotions. Then I realized, I had followers. Oh no…I hope they don’t expect miracles of brilliance and life changing epiphanies. Certainly not now that I’ve restricted myself to one cup of decaf coffee a day. Finally, I felt a solidification of resolve to continue my work. Whether or not it’s any good is pure speculation, but at least people were noticing. That’s something. My graduate supervisor said, “It’s better if people argue with you or even disparage your work. At least they’re paying attention. A lack of attention is a death sentence in scholarship.” I’ve encountered numerous obstacles to my work, not only because of its multidisciplinary nature, but also because of its radical message. Two things that cause allergic reactions in traditional academia.

So thank you to my followers thus far for an emotional roller coaster contained within the span of a millisecond. Thank you for noticing my work and for your support. Cheers to you. *raises a glass*

When it comes to mitigating risk for women within the context of inter-gender relationships, messages tend to be skewed. A substantial amount of cultural dialogue tends to focus on sexuality, difference, or violence. For example, martial arts classes tend to focus on training women how to prevent rape and assault from men. They rarely focus on broader means of strength training or dangers from other women. The message seems to be “some men are dangerous and out to get you, so your main concern should be on how to deal with that”. When I recently changed martial arts instructors, one of the first things that came up was rape prevention. I stated that I had been training since I was a child, long before I was aware of sex or sexual threats, and that martial arts was a form of self-discipline and strength training that helped me be a better person. It’ll still come up, such as when my coach has me in a head-lock on the ground: “If he lets up the pressure or lets go to undo his pants, this is how you can get out of this lock…”. No matter what my goals are, how hard I train, or the context, masculine threat is always present and intrusive.

Slowly, the concept of a strong woman is gaining momentum in the United States. After Pantene launched their “Strong is Beautiful” campaign, numerous other companies and organizations took up the idea. But we still have a long way to go regarding how we as societies and cultures deal with masculine danger. There is an immense lacuna of dialogue about how women and men are supposed to deal with that threat positively rather than reactionary, and what it signifies for inter-gender relationships. While reading Peter Vronsky’s Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters (2004), I came across this passage entitled “Verbal Nonconfrontational Dissuasion” in his chapter “Surviving a Serial Killer”. It gives the reader advice on the best way to survivor an encounter based on criminological evidence:

In many cases, serial killers “depersonalize” their victims – they are substitutes for other people or props in their fantasies. Ted Bundy stated that he avoided getting into any extended conversations with his victims because that might remind him of their personal characteristics. The FBI suggests that talking is probably the most effective and promising way to defuse a violent situation.

Tell the rapist that perhaps you and he could go for a beer first, suggests the FBI. This is not as stupid as it sounds. Any kind of unanticipated reaction can stall the rapist and give the victim time to set the stage for an escape. Focus on personalizing yourself in the assailant’s perception: “I am a total stranger. Why do you want to hurt me? I have never done anything to hurt you. What if I were somebody you cared about? How would you feel about that?” Keep the dialogue in the present tense, the FBI suggests – serial killers rarely think too far into the future. Do not use lines like, “You will end up in jail if you do this,” for you might only remind the assailant of the necessity of killing you as a potential witness – even if he has come to like you. Above all, do not use the popular feminist appeal, “What if I were your mother, sister, or daughter?” The assailant might be precisely fantasizing that he is raping and killer his mother, sister, or daughter when he is attacking you. Such statements as “I have VD” or “I am pregnant” should also be avoided, as they may reinforce the assailant’s fantasy that you are somehow “bad” and deserving of rape and death (376-377).

Monsters are steeped in a long tradition of murder and rape. From incubus and succubus, to siren and centaur. The representation of the worst aspects of humanity are embodied in creatures that violate the body and spirit of unlucky victims. It’s no coincidence then that serial killers and rapists are themselves labeled monsters. But to just cut them off from the rest of humanity belies the traits they share with us, and the traits we share with them. Yes, they are deviant but the social and psychology foundations are the same as ours however far they may have gone awry. Criminologists and psychologists study criminals looking for the reason why someone would do horrific things, as if by finding that one thing we as a society could oust them from the human species and save ourselves: “See? They aren’t really human, they were a horrible aberration that doesn’t really count. Humans are amazingly wonderful and couldn’t possible do those terrible things.” By denying them their humanity, we ignore the monstrosity in each of us. Those deviances are shades of gray on a relative scale. The misogynist who believes women are merely breeding cows holds the same view as a killer who views women as animals. They difference between the two is very real, one kills and the other does not, but the foundation from which they hold their beliefs is very much the same. Could Vronsky’s advice of “Verbal Nonconfrontational Dissuasion” be useful in broader encounters of masculine threats, such as from misogynists? Could it be used to enact cultural change on how masculine threat is treated? Or must women always take the burden of mitigating and dissuading “monsters”; knowing that they are out there looking for victims?

Note: I do not claim to agree or disagree with Vronsky’s methods for evading serial killers. His work is his own. Should you be unfortunate enough to find yourself in such a situation, use your best judgement and remember that your life is worth using every ounce of strength, wit, and grit you possess. Don’t give it up easily. Though you’re in a dire situation, you are still in control of your choices, and once you give in to helplessness you’ve lost. Good luck and God be with you.

Works Cited

Vronsky, Peter. Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters. New York: Berkley Books, 2004. Print.