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.”

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. 

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.