The strawberry in disguise began to cry. She had lost so much, and in turn became lost herself. But she also remembered what the wise strawberry said, “…you’re still sweet and sunny and bright.”

As hard as it was, she let go. The little girl let go of being afraid, and worrying about what other people could do. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let go.

We have come too far my love,
we’ve pushed the limits, it’s time to retreat.
Our coy game has taken us to uncharted oceans,
pull back! pull back! I implore, I entreat.

I’ve hinted at my feelings for you,
you’ve smiled and made your gestures.
But no words come from your lips,
so I pull back for safety measures.

Excerpt from Fissures

One of Teratology’s foundational pillars in the Middle Ages was how to avoid giving birth to a monster. Chapter eleven of Ambroise Paré’s On Monsters and Marvels (1575) is called “An example of monsters that are formed, the mother having remained seated too long, having had her legs crossed, or having bound her belly too tight while she was pregnant”. While obstetric teratology in the medical field has remained focused on studying fetal deformities, specifically how to do avoid doing so, cultural teratology has recently shifted the focus to the monstrosity of pregnancy itself. Movies like Prevenge (2017), Rosemary’s Baby (1986), and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1986) focus more on the anxieties and physical transformation of the mother rather than on the developing fetus, soon to be born baby.

In Prevenge, Ruth is driven to kill people she deems guilty for the death of her boyfriend by the voice of the developing fetus. Scenes depict the protagonist in various states of mania and delusion punctuated by visions of a demonic woman mimicking a film she had watched. As the birth nears, her mania increases as she struggles to maintain her autonomous identity that has become conflated with “widow” and “mother”. The other two films depict the protagonists trying to maintain control over their own bodies as the pregnancy process has been co-opted by outside demonic forces. In many cultures, Western and Eastern, women in misogynistic cultures find that their bodies are even less their own once they become pregnant. What they ingest, how they move or position their bodies, how much they sleep, and all sorts of other aspects of their lives come under the scrutiny of partners, doctors, families, friends, and even strangers. If we accept Aristotle’s claim that women are deformed men, then the pregnant woman is even more so and subjected to more constraint for fear of what it is capable of.*

Thanks to feminism and the efforts of countless individuals, many women are now in a socioeconomic position independent of families and partners for whom they have traditionally relied on for survival. With this autonomy, they can now voice their anxieties, fears, and horror regarding pregnancy. Philosophers from Judith Thomson to Amy Mullin have questioned traditional models of pregnancy which tend to either trivialize the process phenomenologically, as if it had no bearing on the subject, or focus solely on the importance of children and childbearing as if the pregnant woman suddenly lost her subjectivity to the fetus. As more scholars and artists take up this subject, the experience of pregnancy qua the woman will become less taboo to discuss and more of its elements, monstrous and otherwise, will come to light.

*The Generation of Animals, Book 2, 737a: “For the female is like a deformity of the male and menstrual discharge is like semen, but unclean.”

She also remembered slowly becoming scared that one day someone would take her off the bush. They would take her away from the sun, the earth, the water, and the air. The fear grew until she was no longer a strawberry. First her color faded from a bright red to a dull orange. Then she grew heavier as the weight of her fear pulled her down. By the time she touched the dirt, she had already grown little feet and little arms. Too heavy for the small bush to hold, she popped right off.  Not knowing what to do, she wandered away and became lost.

There is something under my bed,

it makes strange noises at night,

and won’t let me rest my head,

nor allow me peace or respite.

It twists my body strange angles,

my thoughts are shaken dizzy,

every quiet moment it strangles

and keeps my resolution busy.

If I perchance stumble on nerve,

taking a peek despite my dread,

with desolate despair I observe,

I’m the monster under the bed. 

 

Excerpt from Persephone Unleashed

As she sat thinking, a memory popped into her head. She was singing, and she seemed to be smaller and very plump. Others were singing with her. Was she hanging from something?

Suddenly, she remembered! She had been a strawberry! Those other voices were strawberries too! She remembered the warm sun on her face, the fresh air, and the cool, clean water. 

The little girl wiped her tears and thought about what the strawberry said. She had always felt sweet and sunny and bright. But little by little, people would do things that made her afraid. Without even realizing it, she had started to only think about what other people could do. Eventually she forgot how to sing and dance. She forgot how to be sweet and sunny and bright.

The big strawberry said, “We can recognize one of our own no matter what form they take. I give you my word by the stem I hang from, that you are indeed a strawberry. Sometimes strawberries forget who they are and can get lost. The world can be scary and if that’s all you think about, you will forget who you really are. But you haven’t changed, you’re still sweet and sunny and bright.”

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.

Endnotes:

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.