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Forget Dickens’ “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” or Austen’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” my favourite opening line has to be from Dennis Todd’s book, Imagining Monsters (1995): “Sometime in October 1726, Mary Toft, the illiterate wife of a poor journeyman cloth-worker, gave birth, in Godalming, Surrey, to her first rabbit” (1).  This is surpassed only by the following line, which reads “She went on the deliver sixteen more” (1).  Todd’s book documents the extraordinary lengths Toft went to to persuade her local surgeon that she was indeed giving birth to rabbits, a series of acts that were so convincing that she was eventually moved to London so that the king’s surgeon could also witness these miraculous births.

It took over a month for her performances to be revealed as a hoax (Todd 2), but, for a modern audience, that she could fool so many people for so long seems utterly ridiculous.  As Todd writes, however, “[t]hose who perpetrated the hoax may have been knaves, but those who were taken in by it were not fools” (39), and he points out that the reason Toft’s charade was successful to begin with was because of an ancient understanding of gestational development.

Many, many feminist writers have demonstrated the mistrust patriarchal systems have for women’s ability to reproduce and the subsequent attempts to control and regulate women’s bodies before, during, and after pregnancy.  In fact, many existing regulations regarding what a woman imbibes during pregnancy are direct vestiges of Early Modern beliefs surrounding the invisible creation of the child in utero.  What has always struck me about narratives espousing these beliefs is how the threat of monstrosity is used to underline the author’s fears for the foetus, with little to no consideration of the mother – apart, of course, from the continued regulation of her body and her behaviour.

One of the most pervasive beliefs regarding the formation of the child during pregnancy was that of maternal imprinting, a belief that pre-dated Aristotle and that persisted well into the nineteenth-century.  Maternal imprinting is the notion that a woman’s thoughts, specifically her fears and desires, will somehow directly affect the physical appearance of the child she carries. Rebecca Kukla offers an explanation for this belief:

              Passions and appetites inhabited an interesting border territory between the realm of the mental and meaningful and the realm of the bodily and brutally causal  . . . Passions, despite their meaningful content, traded in and operated through somatic urges and responses rather than the cold, dispassionate light of reason.  Thus the passions provided the perfect medium for meanings to translate themselves from the world onto bodies.  Women’s pregnant bodies, with their weaker resistance to passions and their intense cravings, their higher impressionability, and the fragile or nonexistent boundaries separating them from their fetuses, were in turn ‘natural’ sites for such passionate transmissions (Kukla 17).

Toft’s case is a perfect ratification of Kukla’s argument, as the cause she put forward for her multiple rabbit births rested on both fear and desire: “Mary Toft would claim in April, when five weeks pregnant, she had been weeding a field and was startled by a rabbit.  She and the woman she was working with ran after it but could not catch it.  The chase made her long for rabbits” (Todd 7).  Todd indicates that it was this narrative – being both startled by a rabbit and thence developing a craving for rabbit meat – that eventually persuaded Toft’s local surgeon, John Howard, of her veracity (8).

Kukla explains that the belief in maternal imprinting was so widely held onto because of an ancient understanding of the womb as permeable and susceptible to corrupting influences, an understanding that would transfer to the pregnant body itself (Kukla 5).  She also notes that even more so than being prone to corruption, the womb itself was seen as a corrupting influence, as it was at the root of untoward cravings, the “seat of capricious and forceful appetites that beckon foreign substances in,” thereby threatening the development of the foetus (6).  What is more, writes Kukla, “[t]he whole notion of a craving – so deeply linked in our imagination with pregnancy – is of not just any appetite but an appetite that is inherently irrational, unpredictable, forceful, and hard to control or deny” (6).

The passionate craving Mary Toft had for rabbit meat, coupled with the fright she experienced while out weeding, went a long way to giving a contemporaneous explanation for her production of rabbits.  However, Todd points out that Toft’s performances didn’t only rest on an eighteenth-century understanding of foetal development but on the fact that she had recently suffered a miscarriage and was therefore sporting very visible signs of pregnancy:

probably most persuasive was the entire mise-en-scène of pregnancy, labor, and birth that Mary Toft staged.  Some of the effects were real enough.  Her miscarriage had left her with signs of pregnancy.  Often she bled, and often her pain was unpretended.  What was not real, she could act, and her most impressive performances were enhanced by her ability to set off powerful, pulsating contractions in her abdomen, contractions lasting for hours at a time (8).

Todd also believes that it was precisely because Toft cited so many reasons for imprinting that many doubted her story: “Perhaps the fact that she fashioned her account to include all three provocations to the imagination – a surprise, an obsessive dwelling on an object, and an unsatisfied longing – should have made more people suspect that she was overreaching” (52).  What is more, even if it was the most widely accepted cause of monstrous birth, maternal imprinting was not in fact the only accepted origin of abnormal births: from the Middle Ages onward, respected scholars across Europe gave various reasons for monstrous birth and, while imagination was included in this litany of causes, it was certainly not considered the most common (48).  By the 1720s, however, maternal imprinting was the most cited cause of monstrous birth, a fact that didn’t escape the notice of Toft’s critics.

Furthermore, birth defects in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance were attributed to maternal imprinting because these defects resembled other objects from the natural world. Thus,when a child was born with a hare lip, its cause was accredited to maternal fears and desires, or to the mother’s physical closeness to a pet.  Todd points out that part of what made Toft such a sensation, as well as aiding her downfall, was that she didn’t give birth to offspring that resembled rabbits, but that these births were of actual rabbits and rabbit pieces (52).

Todd explains that the plan was to originally fabricate a “monster” from the body of a cat and the leftovers of an eel dinner, but that Howard remained unconvinced by the “birth” until he saw a head.  The cat’s head being lost, Toft and her husband use the head of a rabbit, which she passed the next day (6).  Why on earth would Toft (and her husband and mother-in-law) go to so much trouble to concoct such a seemingly daft plan?  Toft’s confession indicates that all three conspirators were motivated by money (Todd 4), where her “monsters” could be exhibited for a fee.

After being pressured into confessing her lie, Toft was imprisoned in Bridewell for a time before being sent back to Godalming, where she lived out the rest of her days.  Reading Todd’s documentation of these events once again (I spent much of my PhD thesis writing about monstrous birth), I’m horrified by the number of people that Toft was examined by.  Not only does Todd list her local surgeon, John Howard, and the Royal Surgeon, Nathanael St. André, as having physically examined Mary Toft in a very intimate manner, but all manner of scientists, scholars, and surgeons from London are quoted as probing Toft vaginally in order to prove that the rabbits were coming from her uterus.  Of course, whether or not Toft consented to all these examinations we’ll never know, as it was never the prerogative of the medico-scientific gaze to document patients’ (especially women’s) experience as objects of this gaze.


Kukla, Rebecca. Mass Hysteria: Medicine, Culture, and Mothers’ Bodies. Lanhalm, US: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005. Print.

Todd, Dennis. Imagining Monsters: Miscreations of the Self in Eighteenth-Century England. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. Print.


In February of this year, I gave a paper at UCC’s School of English Research Seminar series on motherhood, monstrosity, and the artistic technique of anamorphosis.  While conducting research for the paper, I stumbled across this photograph of a sculpture by Mark Prent:

Photograph by David Saltmarche, courtesy of

Photograph by David Saltmarche, courtesy of Mark Prent

Named “Vanishing Point,” the piece is sculpted from forton and silicone and is remarkably lifelike.  I have been fascinated with Prent’s work ever since stumbling upon his website, because so much of it is a clear visual representation of the human need to make Others monstrous, where, in reality, that monstrosity is actually at the very core of ourselves. I want to offer a brief analysis of this sculpture in relation to the frame narrative in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), but first, I’d like to give an overview of monstrosity in Prent’s work.

Prent seems to be as fascinated as I am with the visceral, bodily aspect of monstrosity and, because of this, it has been very difficult for me to choose which sculptures to talk about today (I think I could write a whole book on Prent’s work alone!).  Much of Prent’s work deals with bodily abjection, through the representation of disease, injury, and bodily functions, where the materials he chooses provide an accurate, yet abject, portrayal of the texture of the human body – inside and outside.

“Vanishing Point” fits the category of the abject because it blurs the lines between the bodily acts of birth and vomiting.  By doing so, the sculpture not only draws comparisons between these two acts, but also obfuscates the “natural” boundaries between the self and the Other, prompting one to ask which is which.  As Julia Kristeva notes in Powers of Horror, determining the distinction can be next to impossible, as the abject thing or body “places one haunted by it literally beside himself” (1).  What is more, “Vanishing Point” asks one to come face to face with what we expel from our bodies, and with the possible consequences of such an expulsion may be.

However, inasmuch as Prent really focuses on the abject, there are also other aspects of monstrosity present in his work.  It is also obvious, for example, when looking at “Vanishing Point,” that mutation is also a recurring theme, and one that is used by Prent to interrogate what we mean by “nature.”  I pointed out in my last post that the term “monster” is used to describe something that is unknown and fundamentally unknowable, something that actively resists categorisation.  What Charles Darwin did when he published On the Origin of Species was to suddenly call into question all we knew about categorisation, because the process of evolution quite clearly demonstrates that hybrids, that is, animals or plants between established categories, exist.  For example, while hybrid creatures such as mermaids remain the subject of folklore and mythology, we know that there were once a whole lot of hybrid versions between dinosaurs and birds.  As Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle point out, the very survival of the species relies on hybridised or mutated forms (259).

Prent’s sculpture, “Unnatural History” (2003) deconstructs the act of categorisation through his creation of such a hybrid monster:

Picture by David Saltmarche, courtesy of Mark Prent

Picture by David Saltmarche, courtesy of Mark Prent

I find this piece quite funny, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of a way, mainly because of its punning title.  “Unnatural History” makes fun of the seriousness of Natural History, particularly for its insatiable drive to categorise everything in the natural world.  On a more serious note, however, by doing so, Prent challenges the authority of scientific discourse to name what it sees, by creating something that has no singularity.  This, in turn, deconstructs a singular reading of any organism because it makes obvious the total inability of words to communicate precisely what it is we see.

The kind of singularity words impose upon objects is made doubly problematic in our drive to categorise people through naming.  The proper name quite obviously has no descriptive function but what it does, amongst other things, is impose a singularity upon the speaking subject’s psyche.  Psychoanalysis has blown the notion of a singular self out of the water, and we now know that each of our decisions are determined by a series of unconscious drives.  Prent’s “I, Within Myself” (1992) demonstrates superbly the plurality of the self through its representation of a series of human heads, each nestled within another, like a macabre set of Matryoshka dolls.

“Vanishing Point” also demonstrates this multiplicity of the self, but even more so, I think, it demonstrates the act of self-birth.  Literary scholars will eagerly note that the most common form of self-birth is autobiography, but it is preceded by a few thousand years by the practice of alchemy.  Much sixteenth-century alchemy busied itself with the creation of Homonculi, or little men produced without the assistance of a woman’s body, that is, a masculine usurpation of birth.  Those who have read Mary Shelley’s most famous novel, Frankenstein (1818), know that this is precisely what Victor Frankenstein achieves in his “workshop of filthy creation” (Frankenstein 32), with thanks to the aid of early alchemical treatises, including those written by Paracelsus (who believed that Homonculi could be made with sperm and without an egg).

Many critics read Frankenstein as a birth narrative, or what happens when a man tries to have a baby (see, for instance Anne K. Mellor’s Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters,1988).  It is also, however, a narrative of the birth of Mary Shelley as author (Barbara Johnson “My Monster/Myself” 249).  What is striking is that although this is a novel written by a woman, it performs the births of its three male protagonists – Walton, Frankenstein, and the Creature – through the use of a frame narrative.  Frankenstein is comprised of three narratives, each framing another.  The novel commences with Walton’s letters to his sister, which relate Frankenstein’s narrative to Walton, at the centre of which is the Creature’s narrative – a three-part Matryoshka doll, if you will.

The Creature imparts his sorrowful story to Frankenstein, extracting from him a promise to create a female mate, but Frankenstein reneges on his promise, thus causing the tragic deaths of his nearest and dearest.  Frankenstein, in turn, relates his tale verbally to Walton, who passes the story on to his sister, whose letters we read.  At each stage of the narrative, the “I” tells his story to an “Other,” effectively birthing himself autobiographically.  Speech, and indeed, writing, is an act of creation, because it performatively constitutes the speaker’s/writer’s “I” each time he utters it.

However, because the narrative is not relayed directly, we can never be sure that what we are told is the truth: does Frankenstein truthfully impart the Creature’s tale to Walton and does Walton truthfully impart his tale to his sister?  Tellingly, the sister has no narrative to tell the reader (we read letters addressed to her), but is a silent, ghostly figure haunting the margins of the novel.  Thus, it might be more accurate to say that Frankenstein births the Creature (biographically as well as physically), and, in turn, Walton births Frankenstein.

“Vanishing Point” makes a compelling visual comparison to Shelley’s novel because what, at first, seems to the subject’s birthing of the self (by mouth, therefore by speech), may in fact be the self’s birthing of the Other, or the Other’s birthing of the self.  This is not, I believe, a dilemma, because both the frame narrative of Frankenstein, and the composition of “Vanishing Point” make something quite clear about performative identity practices: however you may performatively constitute me through your speech and your actions, and however I performatively constitute myself through my own speech and identity practices, neither is the “truth” of who I am.  That truth lies, hybridly, somewhere in between.

Textual References:

Bennett, Andrew and Nicholas Royle. An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. 4th ed. Harlow, UK: Pearson, 2009. Print.

Johnson, Barbara. “My Monster/My Self.” Shelley. New York: Norton, 1996. 241-51. Rpt. Diacritics 12 (1992): 2-10. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982. Rpt. Of Pouvoirs de l’horreur. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1980. Print.

Mellor, Anne K. Mary Shelley: Her Life, Her Fiction, Her Monsters. New York: Routledge, 1988. Print.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Ed. Paul J. Hunter. New York: Norton, 1996. 1-156. Print.

Last week, I was very lucky to be a part of a symposium that celebrated the tenth anniversary of one of Cork city’s most disparaged pieces of artwork to date, Half/Angel’s The Knitting Map (2005).  The Knitting Map is a very large knitted rectangle that maps both the movement of people in Cork city and the weather experienced in the city in 2005.  It took over 2000 people (predominantly women) 365 days to knit the map, which took place in the crypt of St. Luke’s Church on the city’s north side.  Today’s blog post is more interested in the discussions that took place during the symposium rather than the Map‘s history and the supposed “controversy” surrounding its production; however, as this was the subject matter of much of the discussion, I will also dip into some of the concerns that were raised during and after the making of the Map.

The Knitting Map Symposium: Art, Community and Controversy 2005 – 2015 was organised by one of the coordinators of the Map‘s production in 2005, Jools Gilson, hosting delegates Jessica Hemmings, Lizbeth Goodman, Roisin O’Gorman, Deborah Barkun, and Sarah Foster, and plenary speaker, Joanne Turney.  The first session focused on the map as art practice and the second on the map’s reception, with special scrutiny on the apparent difference in attitude towards the Map by the Irish media and the media abroad.  The papers and talks delivered by the delegates provided a fascinating insight not just to the Map itself, but to what it signifies as a material object and as a piece of performance, as well as its history and controversy.

2015-04-09 16.13.53

Gilson has repeatedly pointed out that the Map has less to do with being an artistic object than it has as a record of a year in Cork and of all the bodies involved in its production, which is something that many critics of the Map seemed to have missed.  However, what the first session of the symposium uncovered was the simultaneity of the map’s materiality and its status as trace.  Hemmings explained that the bodily issues of labour and production are exposed by pieces like The Knitting Map, where the bodies involved in production leave their ghostly trace on the object.  O’Gorman also understands these bodies as ghostly, but from the point of view of The Knitting Map as map.  As O’Gorman noted, bodies also haunt maps, because maps signify the relationship between bodies and land and make obvious what isn’t included within a map’s boundaries.

O’Gorman’s paper reminded me of the work of Peggy Phelan, especially her book, Mourning Sex: Performing Public Memories.  In Mourning Sex, Phelan is interested in the trace that bodies leave behind, and in the outline of the body, and O’Gorman points out that The Knitting Map is itself an outline, one that archives the process of women’s work as well as the disappearance of the bodies involved in the map’s making.  What became evident during questions and comments was that the map is also haunted by narrative, not only with regard to the sensationalist media accounts surrounding the map’s production and “disappearance,” but to the personal stories related by the knitters while they knitted and to those that the map has instigated in its current spectators.  Goodman said the map reminded her of a particular moment with her grandmother, while I, being aware of the ghostly hands that knitted the Map, am reminded of my aunt, who passed away in 2007.

Analysing cartography as a colonial venture, Barkun explained that maps are signifiers that are meant to be read as markers of the land they endeavour to represent.  The Knitting Map, however, doesn’t try to map land but, instead, maps the movement of bodies (represented by the complexity of stitch) and the affectivity of the weather (represented by colour), which was partly misunderstood by many of the Map‘s critics.  As Barkun contends, signs don’t function if they’re not understood, which is precisely what brings me to the Map‘s monstrosity.

Any scholar of monstrosity will explain that “monster” is derived from two Latin verbs, monstrare, which means “to demonstrate or show,” and monere, meaning “to advise, warn, or foretell.” This means that “monster” is a term used as a catchall for objects and bodies that we have no extant knowledge of; monsters, quite simply, are the unknown and the unknowable, because they actively resist signification.  That The Knitting Map isn’t a knitted map of Cork in an obvious way (i. e. showing streets and the river, and so on) is what makes it monstrous, because its function as map is misunderstood.

The Map is also monstrous because of its hybridity – it is, as a few of the delegates revealed, both a material object and a trace of bodily performance; it is, as Joanne Turney explained, a single thread made out of a series of holes.  It is also aberrant because it crosses boundaries – between High Art and craft; between material and immaterial; between the bodies that are here now and those that have left us.  What is more, The Knitting Map continues to defy a singular classification, and, in so doing, continues to challenge the ways in which we think about art and the bodies that are allowed to make it.

I’ve been following with great interest the current debate regarding the petitioned name change of Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.  Initially named after the the colonialist, Cecil John Rhodes, South Africa’s democratic freedom from Apartheid in 1994 deliberated a possible name change for the university.  Following the recent removal of Rhodes’ statue from the grounds of the University of Cape Town, this dispute has resurfaced.  For readers on this side of the world, the continued existence of Rhodes’ statue in this prestigious university would be on a par with erecting a statue of Oliver Cromwell in Trinity College Dublin.

The name-change first drew my attention when friends on Facebook started sharing a petition to keep the name of the university as it is, which is something that troubles me deeply and for many reasons.  One of these reasons is the performativity of the name.  Names, whether legitimate given names or nicknames, injurious names, or other “illegitimate” forms, perform an act on the bodies they describe.  In the case of legitimate given names, the name performs the act of including one within a kinship group, or excluding one, as it may be, while theorists such as Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler have noted that the proper name has had the effect of signifying women’s existence as property in patriarchal societies.

Butler’s Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (1997) explores the ability of words to injure those they describe, where injury occurs because of the name’s “historicity,” which is a “force [that] is not the mere causal effect of an effected blow, but works in part through an encoded memory or a trauma, one that lives in language and is carried in language.  The force of the name depends not only on its iterability [repeatability], but on a form of repetition that is linked to trauma, on what is, strictly speaking, not remembered, but relived, and relived in and through the linguistic substitution for the traumatic event” (Excitable Speech 36).

In a sense, Rhodes’ name works in much the same way for the people of South Africa, not that it injures through repetition, but because of what the continued use of the name legitimizes in and through the name, within its specific context.  The problem with performative acts is that they rely on a whole other set of acts and contexts in order to properly work (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls these “periperformatives” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity [2003]).  Thus, in the case of marriage, just uttering the “I do” won’t do – you also need the silent ratification of witness and an authority to sanction the procedure.  Rhodes’ name does not create injury when uttered in and of itself, but when used as the moniker of an educational authority that has the power, among other things, to legitimate the country’s next generation of legal, educational, and legislative authorities, its continued use ratifies the operation of force, violence, and ideology as a means to power.  Because that is precisely what the name, Cecil John Rhodes stands for.

Why, then, was the name not changed in 1994?  Professor Paul Maylam of Rhodes University explains in this clip that the university’s governing body decided to keep the name because it has “brand value.”  Maylam notes with distaste that this signifies the increased commodification of higher education, and I’m sure that many academics would agree with him.  However, he points out that, aside from the university’s reputation for academic excellence, Rhodes’ “brand value” lies in its association with what was once named The Rhodes Scholarship.  The scholarship, now administered under the authority of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation by Oxford University, is still largely paid for by Rhodes’ estate and is awarded to African scholars applying to South African universities and other tertiary educational facilities.  And this is precisely where things get sticky.

While for some a change in name might mean a loss or confusion of identity, for others it means a symbol of committed change.  However, that the Rhodes estate is still a funding body of the scholarship associated with the university means that, in a sense, the name that stood for imperial power in Southern Africa now also stands as a symbol of reparation for the damage it once wrought by assisting the very people it once subjugated.  It’s also not this clear cut, mainly because the scholarship was awarded under the Apartheid government with only white scholars in mind.  That Madiba added his name to the Foundation demonstrates the unconditional forgiveness South Africa’s favourite president was famous for, but many South Africans, indeed, many Africans, weren’t as forgiving.

One scholar, Adekeye Adebajo, termed the joining of Rhodes’ and Mandela’s names a “monstrous marriage” (“Mandela and Rhodes: A Monstrous Marriage” 2010).  The evocation of the language of monstrosity is not in the least unusual in this situation, especially given the hybrid admixture of the Foundation’s namesakes, but, one has to ask, at what cost do we remove Rhodes’ name from the scheme?  Could that be the cost of the scholarship itself and thus the loss of potential political, academic, and legislative leadership in Africa?  Or, can Rhodes’ name really be used for good?

A fortnight ago I was very lucky to be given the chance by one of my colleagues, Dr Thomas Birkett, to present part of a lecture to his third-year group studying in UCC’s School of English.  The subject, or rather, object, of our lecture was Grendel’s Mother, the second monster that the titular Beowulf battles in the Old English poem.  The lecture discussed Grendel’s Mother in the wider context of feminine monstrosity by evaluating Anglo-Saxon perceptions of the “correct” way in which to perform femininity, where Grendel’s Mother is perhaps considered monstrous by the poem’s Anglo-Saxon audience because she performs her motherhood in a masculine manner. (She does this by avenging her son, who Beowulf slays by ripping his arm off: Jane Chance gives a convincing argument as to why this behaviour is considered monstrous by a female figure).

During Dr Birkett’s closing part of the lecture, he briefly discussed the depiction of Grendel’s Mother in the latest Beowulf film (dir. Robert Zemeckis 2007), focusing on the digital stylization of Grendel’s Mother’s (Angelina Jolie’s) body.  The poet provides us  with very little physical description of either Grendel or his Mother, which has given both translators and film-makers a lot of artistic licence in their portrayal of the creatures.  Zemeckis’ film is no different in this regard, but, while modern translators of the Beowulf text such as Seamus Heaney have emphasised Grendel’s Mother’s monstrous elements, Zemeckis’ film sexualises her.

The modern Grendel’s Mum is still, however, monstrous.  Whether the director’s intention was to demonstrate the monstrosity of the highly sexualised female image (unlikely), or to garner a teenage male audience (more likely), the film’s representation of Grendel’s Mother reminded me almost immediately of another monstrously sexual femme fatale, Star Trek: Voyager‘s Seven of Nine.

Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero-One, known to her colleagues aboard the USS Voyager as Seven of Nine, or, affectionately, as Seven, wears a skin-tight catsuit, and, like Jolie in Beowulf, a pair of high heels that emphasize her curves.  Seven was a Borg drone who was severed from the collective and encouraged (it must be added, against her will) to become human once more.  Seven’s reintegration into humanity is arguably what made a dull series a lot more interesting, and, watching her learn to become human again also makes us question things we take for granted as humans.

However, like Grendel’s Mother in Zemeckis’ film, Seven’s sexualisation happens at almost a cost to her monstrosity: the Borg collective really aren’t a pretty bunch and neither was Seven when she first encountered the Voyager crew, at least in any standard (human) sense of beauty.

Seven is also not the only female character in the series to have been beautified: the half-human half-Klingon B’Elanna Torres is a sexier version of the alien Klingon (at least as far as humans are concerned), the kind of Klingon you’d want to go to bed with.

B’Elanna in her usual form as a human-Klingon hybrid

BElanna Klingon
B’Elanna as a Klingon, after an alien doctor separates her Klingon and human DNA

This is precisely the point that I’ve been trying to get to: the monstrosity that male monsters such as Grendel, or a male Borg drone, embody doesn’t rest on “fuckability” the way female monstrosity does, at least in their depiction on the screen.  This is important, as a woman’s “fuckability” has everything to do with what she looks like and these figures are constructed for a gaze that values them on this ability alone.

Focus on the sexuality of the monstrous feminine is nothing new -1950s B-movies such as Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and The Wasp Woman conflate the dangers of a sovereign feminine sexuality with anxieties surrounding impending nuclear war* -but I think that female sexuality is used in 2007’s Beowulf and Star Trek: Voyager as a way to diffuse the danger Grendel’s Mother and Seven of Nine impose on the masculine communities of each text.

What I mean is that their exaggerated sexuality is one which is imposed on these figures by a male gaze that gets to define what female sexual allure should be -tight-fitting clothing (or gold paint, in Grendel’s Mother’s case), high heels, perfectly-proportioned figures -and I think that this diffuses the danger either of these women pose.  Seven of Nine is one of my favourite characters in Voyager; she makes me laugh, she makes me question some of my fundamentally core beliefs, she even makes me cry, but she doesn’t scare me, and much of that has to do with her sexualised image.

Shouldn’t monsters be (at least a little) scary?  Isn’t that their point?


* I would like to thank Miranda Corcoran for this wonderful nugget of information and the immensely entertaining paper in which she explored this conflation.

I’ve been thinking an awful lot about my thesis in the last while, even more so than usual.  What I’ve been thinking about is where it fits in with the research that’s already out there and what exactly it is that I’m trying to do with it that makes it an original project.  As such, I’m trying to find out what my thesis’ identity is.  Furthermore, having spent the last year or so researching motherhod in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, monstrous birth in the Middle Ages, and the metaphor of childbirth for writing and art, it has come as no surprise to me that this monstrous tome of which I speak is the offspring of the various texts that have gone into researching it, and that it is in fact a thesis that is about itself.  Hence referring to it as “my hideous progeny,” the very same moniker by which Mary Shelley referred to Frankenstein in the forward to her 1831 edition.

Of course, all theses are monstrous in this same sense: all academic work takes already established texts and ideas and combines their content to make something new.  It is what Derrida refers to as a “normal monstrosity” in “Some Statements and Truisms About Neologisms, Newisms, Postisms, Parasitisms, and Other small Seismisms.”  What makes my thesis extra aberrant is that while it is a thesis about literature, it is neither about a single author nor about a particular literary period.  This is also what makes it extra difficult!

I have found it very difficult to pledge allegiance to any period of human history, mostly because I think there is always something fascinating about finding out how people spoke, thought and went about their daily lives in times past.  It is for this reason that I equally love Art Nouveau jewellery, Norse mythology, and Shakespearean tragedy.  What I really love is the literature and learning about it in its historical contexts.  However, this doesn’t mean that I have to stick to a certain historical period in order to theorize monstrosity, which means that my thesis, while theorizing monsters, is itself a monster that ignores the boundaries we have created to signify specific historical periods.

In Monster Theory Jeffrey Jerome Cohen explains that monsters refuse classification and are beings that rip through categories we think we have already established.  History, therefore, like any other human creation, can’t contain the monster, and s/he leaps through space and time rather like a scary Dr Who.  So, at the same time as it refuses the boundaries of the disciplines, incorporating narratology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and feminist theory (amongst others) my thesis is monstrous because it incorporates texts as varied as an Old English epic poem, a Gothic novel from the Romantic period, an Asian American play and a Post Colonial South African novel, all from very different periods in human history.

I can’t wait to see how my horrible baby turns out!

Men or Monsters?

I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine last weekend, where he told me that he feels guilty for being a man.  I asked him what he meant and he replied that reading various articles on unequal pay, rape, rape apology, the ongoing abortion debate (in Ireland and the US), street harassment, sexual harassment, forced marriage, child marriage, human trafficking, forced prostitution, domestic violence and the myriad other inequalities, discrimination and abuses that women face on a daily basis made him feel “like an asshole” just for being a man.  This is something I come across quite frequently during debates that centre on what are regarded as “feminist issues” -either men feel a sense of guilt for the violence and discrimination their forebears have committed against women or they tend towards arguing vehemently the various reasons men don’t have it quite so good as all that.

As a white South African, I can certainly sympathise with this outlook: while I am quite aware that individually I had as little to do with Apartheid as my friend has had to do with the abuse of women, I benefited from its enforcement.  What this means is that while I had nothing to do with the enforcement of the law and while my parents taught me to treat every person with respect, I still benefited from the unfairness of the system in that I was allowed the freedom to live and move in “white only” neighbourhoods, I received a good education and I had access to proper medical care.  I also didn’t have to work in other people’s houses and didn’t face being beaten, raped and terrorised for the colour of my skin.

The residual guilt I feel is the communal guilt of a nation and of a race that allowed, perpetuated and benefited from the mistreatment of people of colour.  I therefore understand why my friend feels the way he does, but I also wonder just how useful this guilt is.  The number of people who profit completely from systems like Apartheid are actually rather small.  It’s not often spoken about, but white South African women were also at a disadvantage during Apartheid because Apartheid was also a patriarchal system.  In matrimony, women risked domestic violence and marital rape, and many systems that were being put in place to protect women in other states weren’t implemented in South Africa.  Women weren’t even allowed in bars and my own mother was fired from her job when she fell pregnant with me.

Homosexuality was also a crime in Apartheid South Africa and the LGBTQ community was often the South African police force’s favoured target for violent attack.  Yes, white South Africans benefited from Apartheid, but not everybody benefited equally.  This brings me back to the what started this post -men and feminism.  Like Apartheid, patriarchy is a system -or systems -and yes, men do benefit from it, but to varying degrees.  Feminism is not an attack on men, it is an attack on patriarchy -any feminist who claims misandry is not a feminist in my book.  It is also pertinent to point out that in many ways men do not benefit from patriarchy: patriarchy is the system that insists that boys don’t cry, that men should fight for their country, that boys can’t wear pink or play with dolls, that men don’t make good nurturers and carers.

Certain men benefit, but, as RW Connell has pointed out, these men are few and far between, as very few actually fit all the criteria necessary to be considered “real men.”  To those men who feel threatened by feminism or who feel guilty on behalf of their gender, perhaps it’s time to see how patriarchy has mistreated you.

Last Wednesday, my friend and colleague, Donna Alexander, and I went to a pro-choice protest in Patrick Street, Cork, in anticipation of the passing of a bill on abortion legislation by the Irish government later that evening.  Unsurprisingly, the bill was defeated by 101 votes to 27.  This was the first pro-choice rally I’ve been to -and it won’t be the last.  I was expecting to receive some objection from anti-choicers during the protest; what I wasn’t expecting was the experience of being made to feel absolutely monstrous for demanding my right to life and bodily autonomy.


To begin with, many people who came to watch us protest seemed to think that we were some kind of joke.  To be watched like you’re a circus side-show is bad enough without people showing amusement at the fact that what you’re protesting for is considered a basic human right -the right to life.  Protesting for abortion legislation in this country is about being allowed the right to life over the potential life of a fetus -something Savita Halappanavar was denied.  While a few anti-choicers managed to get involved in debates with some of the protesters -which they’re perfectly welcome to do -there were a few who chose instead to resort to name-calling.

Name-calling is a form of injurious language, which Judith Butler points out is constitutional in that it forms the subject according to the name that s/he is called.  This means that name-calling is performative.  One onlooker called us “crazy,” a moniker that has a long history in feminism as one way in which patriarchal control has been successfully exercised, because women have come to believe that they are crazy by virtue of the fact that they are women.  From psychoanalysis to the political arena, women have been made to view themselves as monstrous because they are in some way unhinged and need to be looked after by men.  This is part of the rhetoric that supports the anti-choice campaign, make no mistake.

Another anti-choicer walked backwards and forwards around our group, looking truly horrified at our protest, all the while muttering under his breath that we were “murderers.”  Again, there is nothing new about being called “baby-murderers,” even though what is usually removed in abortion is nothing even vaguely resembling a human baby -it is only the potential for sentient life.  I realise that I am probably opening myself up here to being called much worse, which will only support my argument that the rhetoric advocating anti-choice is in fact anti-women, in that it constitutes us as unable to make choices regarding our own bodies.

However, what left me feeling the most monstrous during this protest wasn’t being watched like I was Wednesday night entertainment or being called names by anti-choicers.  The moment came when a group of teenagers, comprised equally of boys and girls, came to see what we were protesting.  I turned around that they might see my poster, which, as you can see from the picture above says, “A womb of one’s own,” cleverly punning on Virginia Woolf’s famous book on women’s writing (Donna, the poster’s artist, loves her puns).  Looking at the picture of a uterus on my poster, one of the girls exclaimed “eeeew!”

Ew. That’s what this girl feels about what’s inside her own body.  Granted, most of us may feel squeamish when looking at pictures of our insides, but that is arguably because they remind us of our mortality.  I too, remember feeling “grossed out” by what was beginning to happen in my own body, when I was first sat down and given “the talk.”  I have spent much of my life being embarrassed and disgusted by the product of my own uterus -an experience Julia Kristeva names “abjection.”

To feel abjection for one’s own body is about as monstrous as you can get, because one experiences one’s own body as Other, as a monster.  I would argue that in some way or form, every woman has felt this way about her body in the most profound sense.  It made me deeply sad to see the perpetuation of this shame, guilt and disgust expressed by the next generation; I wanted to give the girl a hug.

What this small moment has to do with the protest as a whole, and with the wider demand for legislation around Ireland at present, is that the rhetoric that forces us to feel disgust and shame for our bodies is the same rhetoric that forbids us from being in control over our bodies’ destinies.  I think it’s time to take it back.

Today’s post is going to be more personal than it usually is.  That is because I’m going to deal with an issue that I’ve spent the last five years coming to terms with, which is my own mental illness.  Mental illness, while not necessarily taboo in Ireland, is still an issue that others  the person who lives with it.  What I mean by this is that mental illness makes the person who lives with it other to the “normal” people with whom they interact, (often) in the way in which others view them and (always) in the way in which they view themselves.  Of course, we all view ourselves as different to those around us -we wouldn’t be individuals if this wasn’t the case -but it’s in how we view ourselves, our own self-perception, that makes the difference.  In my case, I have viewed my mental illness (depression and anxiety) as a kind of evil twin, a me that isn’t me yet is, a monster that lives within me (perhaps this is why I am so interested in monsters).

Not all mental illnesses are easy to spot, and it is for this reason that we don’t necessarily other everyone who lives with mental illness.  Depression can be particularly hard to spot, as those who have it don’t necessarily talk about it and only those who are closest to them may feel its effects.  How we view ourselves is, as I have demonstrated, another matter altogether.  There were times when I could feel this monstrous me so acutely that I almost felt as if I was experiencing some form of split in my personality.  I literally made (not physically, but psychologically) an other of the part of me that I did not like.  What startled me when I finally started seeking help, was that I found that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way.

In fact, I’d like to think that the reason there are so many monsters, others, “evil” twins and haunting spirits in literature, is because we all feel this way on some level.  In an article on Elizabeth Bowen, Eibhear Walshe writes that “in Eva Trout [Bowen’s last novel] the self becomes monstrous” (Elizabeth Bowen, ed. Eibhear Walshe, 2009:150), pointing out that in The Death of the Heart, Portia, the novel’s protagonist remarks, “I swear that each of us keeps, battened down inside of himself, a sort of lunatic giant – impossible socially, but full-scale – and it’s the knockings and batterings we sometimes hear in each other that keeps our intercourse from utter banality” (qtd. in Walshe 50:310).  In a sense, this view of the monster within the self is almost positive, but the term “battened” reminds me of yet another monster –Tennyson‘s Kraken, from his poem “The Kraken”, thus bringing us back to a repressed monstrosity.  Tennyson’s Kraken is submerged in the sea, but Portia’s giant is submerged within her very subjectivity.

I have recently had the misfortune of coming across this children’s cartoon, which, in all its vileness, sadly represents a number of common presuppositions about homosexuality which (a) aren’t at all true and (b) perpetuate hate speech.  I call this hate speech because it constitutes those it denigrates (anyone whose identity isn’t heteronormative) through its very description of them.  This is what Judith Butler understands by the performativity of language: our identities are formed by the discourse that surrounds our gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity.

This creation of identities by hate speech is a process whereby monsters are made, as the descriptions that form them are fictional constructs which demonize the individual for their seemingly aberrant behaviour.  This is what Jeffrey Jerome Cohen means when he says that the “monstrous body is pure culture” (see Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996:4).

This cartoon isn’t alone in its creation of gay people as monsters: there is already an existing template upon which this kind of discourse is based and which this discourse then perpetuates (see Judith Butler‘s writing for a better understanding of how this works).  The most pressing example I can see of this in the cartoon is the notion that being gay is somehow catching, where the little girl who is explaining Christian dogma to her friends exclaims, “If anyone tries to make you Gay, stay away from them!”

Of course, we know that this is complete rubbish, that one cannot be “made” gay by an act of persuasion (or otherwise) by someone who is gay or bisexual themselves.  That the perpetrator of this cartoon sees fit to describe homosexuality as contagious, however, is not new.  Ever since the production of ‘the homosexual’ as an identity (see Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality Vol. 1), homosexual desire has been understood as a pathology: first as a disease of the body (particularly its parts) and then, with the advent of Freudian psychoanalysis, as a disease of the mind  (it wasn’t until 1973 that homosexuality was removed from the DSM).  Making gay people “sick” (bodily or mentally) is a form of making monsters because it constructs homosexual identities from fictional pathologies.

Furthermore, implicit in this argument is the idea that being gay is somehow a choice, in the same way that being a liar is.  I’d like to point out at this juncture that the author of the cartoon seems to think that those of us who aren’t Christian seem to live without morality at all -we know lying is problematic, we don’t actually think there’s nothing wrong with it!  However, equating lying with homosexuality is fundamentally missing the point: homosexuality is not merely an act or a series of acts (the way lying is) but is in fact grounded on desire and sexual urge.  One can no more control one’s desire (or its object) than one can control one’s hunger.

I realise that by saying this, I’m painting same-sex desire as some kind of uncontrollable urge that makes automatons out of those who experience it, that homosexuals “can’t help” their aberrant behaviour.  The thing that needs to be changed in this regard is the idea that homosexuality is aberrant, that loving somebody of the same sex is a sin, morally abominable, a disease: all forms of sexual desire are as natural as the next and the only way homosexuality is judged as abnormal, etiolated, aberrant is culturally.

A good friend of mine, Grania Spingies, has this to say about it: “So what if it is a choice? If I’m not born blonde but choose to be blonde, that isn’t a moral choice and nothing about my natural state can inform us whether going blonde is right or wrong. The only real measuring stick is harm, and there nothing about being gay that causes harm to society. Only the fear and hatred of homosexuals does that.”