When I sat down to read Sady Doyle’s new book examining ‘Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power’ I was on holiday in a sleepy cottage, about as far removed from ideas of horror and monsters, dinosaurs and murders as it is possible to be.
But of course, as Doyle points out, we are never truly removed from these ideas. Images of female monstrosity echo throughout our popular culture. Her new book casts an analytical gaze over the ways in which society has characterised female monsters – where are they? What can their popularity tell us about ourselves?
Split into three sections – daughters, wives and mothers – the book examines a range of mediums. We hear about Mary Shelley, about the girl gang of The Craft film, about true crimes, folk tales and more. In each, Doyle unpicks the depictions of womanhood with a shrewd eye and a good humour. Given the subject matter, this is perhaps not a book you’ll expect to make you laugh – but it will. Care is also taken to present as inclusive a view as possible – Doyle does not claim to be an expert, but she does touch on how issues of race, sexuality and gender identity are also at play throughout.
Doyle is at her strongest when she turns her analytical focus to cinema. The section on slasher horrors (and their unexpected popularity amongst young women) sticks in the mind. While they are ground zero for portrayals of the titular ‘dead blondes’, Doyle argues that these give us the ‘excuse to scream’. This idea of release is a potent one – it underpins, she argues, the popularity of true crime podcasts, and the recent upswing in women identifying with the witch figure.
The central argument operates under a kind of dual lens. On the one side, Doyle argues that patriarchy makes monsters of women because it cannot control them; because they are antithetical to men, who are good; because monsters are horrifying, and deadly, and evil (like women). This monstrosity therefore not only invitesviolence against anyone threatening the hierarchy, but also serves as an excuse for it. It is, after all, heroic to slay monsters.
Behind this statement sits another, one which develops over the course of the book until it practically screams in your face: these monsters are horrifying, and deadly, and evil threats to patriarchy. Monstrous women upset the status quo. Goodness. How awful.
‘If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear.’ Mary Shelley wrote those words in Frankenstein, and they are a fitting prelude to a book which shows us that, of the two options, perhaps inspiring fear is not altogether so terrible. Especially when the first option, love, is so often denied. Implicit throughout the book is the understanding that, while monstrosity is prescribed to women by a society geared against them, the act of taking up that mantle – of choosing to be a monster, or a witch – is one of actively embracing power. That is exactly why this book is so brilliant; it’s not just a study, but a manifesto.
Charlotte Newbury is a poet from the South East with an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Exeter. She mainly writes about ecofeminism and witchcraft, and is always accepting reading recommendations on both. You can find her on twitter @charnewbpoet.