Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Monstrous Musings

This is a guest post from Natalie Wilson

I am a literature and women’s studies scholar and author of the blogs Professor, what if…? and Seduced by Twilight. I am currently writing a book examining the Twilight cultural phenomenon from a feminist perspective. My interest in vampires and werewolves dates back to my childhood fascination with all types of monsters.

At the age of five, I was convinced a witch lived under my bed.  This resulted in my obsessive need to look under the bed before going to sleep to see if she was there. I didn’t want to see her -- but at the same time, I did. This combined attraction and repulsion to the monstrous characterizes my fascination with them.

I recall being terrified by Star Trek, a show my older sister watched obsessively. When I got view of scary aliens or creepy creatures, I would have nightmares. Yet, the TV set still drew me in, the monsters within too fascinating to ignore.

My older sister was not the best influence in many respects, and took me, her young charge, to see many scary movies from age 6 or so. I attribute my enduring fear of the ocean and sharks to seeing Jaws at the drive-in. I don’t know how old I was, but if I saw it the summer it was released, I would have been four. Surely she must have taken me at a later age than this?!?

My parents did not monitor my viewing habits and seemed to think it was fine in 5th grade when I requested a Halloween slumber party complete with MANY scary movies. Betamax was still the rage, and we had a machine that had become my fondest playmate (I rented Jaws regularly and loved to watch, re-watch, and yes, even watch in slow motion, the part where Jaws eats Captain Quint and he gurgles up blood.)

I remember that one of my favorite scary movies from the Halloween slumber party well: Happy Birthday to Me. Perhaps it was my former fondness for Little House on the Prairie and the fact Mary Ingalls (Melissa Sue Anderson) played the lead role or perhaps it was the death by shish kebab that captured my attention. Whatever the reason, my guilty love of slasher flicks, especially when they include particularly monstrous murderers and story-lines, continues to this day.

In middle-school I discovered American Werewolf in London and my enduring fondness for werewolves was born. A bit later, my love for Bauhaus and Bowie led me to The Hunger, still one of my favourite vampire movies (and still one of the only to include a lead female vampire and a lesbian story-line).

I ended up with degrees in English Literature and, surprise surprise, found myself writing a dissertation on the grotesque in literature and film – a genre that plays on combining the humorous with the horrific  and bringing about reactions of both empathy and disgust. I fell in love with Flannery O’Connor’s monstrous humans and found myself unable to forget Mikhail Bakhtin’s “senile pregnant hags” who embodied “pregnant death, a death that gives birth” while laughing.

Bakhtin’s insistence that “There is nothing completed, nothing calm and stable in the bodies of these old hags” speaks to my embodied experiences - and particularly to being female. It speaks to me now on an intellectual and theoretical level, but I think this is also what drew me to the monstrous as a child – my fascination with my body in a family that liked to pretend bodies and bodily functions did not exist, my curvy, fleshy, boob-having body that threatened to break out of the Catholic school-girl uniform I had to wear each day, my love of touch and my curiosity about “down there” and those parts of the body that dare not speak their names (let alone their desires) in my household, at my school, or at the houses of my Catholic friends…

In perhaps his most famous passage on the grotesque body, Bakhtin writes “the grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world. It is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits. The stress is laid on those parts of the body that are open to the outside world, that is, the parts through which the world enters the body or emerges from it, or through which the body itself goes out to meet the world…The body discloses its essence as a principle of growth which exceeds its own limits only in copulation, pregnancy, childbirth, the throes of death, eating, drinking, or defecation. This is the ever unfinished, ever creating body… “ (Rabelais and His World, p.26).

I am enthralled by this body – the body that is not closed off from the rest of the world, the body that refuses to follow the rules, the body that mingles with other bodies, the body that bleeds, shits, eats, gives birth, dies. It is a monstrous body, a body able to commit untold horrors and profound miracles, it is the human body, the one we all inhabit yet are supposed to treat like some outside object we can control and police. We are meant to exercise this body, diet it into shape, discipline it into holding up the status quo. But I don’t want a “hard body,”  I want a monstrous one. I dream of being a werewolf, a witch, a vampire, a zombie – I yearn for the animality, the magic, the immortality, the hunger these figures exude.

When I try to account for my personal fascination with the monstrous, I return again and again to my childhood, to imagining those monsters in the dark that scared the pants off me but also intrigued me. I think my own sense of monstrousness, of being female in a family where manhood was normal and the feminine was Other, of being very bodily in an atmosphere of bodily-denial, of being too curvy, fleshy, feminine, fluid in a socio-cultural surrounding that abhorred such things, led me to my love of monsters. I felt evil, Other, deviant – those things so long associated with so-called monsters. As Rosemary Garland Thomson argues, monsters are usually what we imagine ourselves NOT to be. As a kid, I did not want to be the unwanted girl-child, the only third grader with breasts, the non-believer in a sea of Catholicism.

Now, as an adult working in academia and surrounded by theory, I know that the monster is a cultural construct; the way we think about, represent, and respond to monsters reveals a great deal about ourselves and the world. As monsters defy easy categorization and reveal the tenuousness of normality, monsters are able to function both as release valves and as cultural conservators. They reveal our cultural anxieties, fears, questions, and desires.

For me, my love of monsters reveals a great deal about my childhood, about the culture I grew up in, and about why I am who I am today. I have always been somewhat of a rebel, refusing to believe that girls were weak, that men knew everything, that only white people mattered, that capitalism was a good thing, that god exists. This too leads me to an affinity for monsters. They allow for (and promote) the disruption of norms, they call into question organizational principles, they reveal the constructed nature of who and what we designate as normal. They threaten to destabilize societal institutions – marriage, the family, monogamy, religion, heterosexuality, capitalism… This is why I love them so much!

I am incredibly fond of things that disrupt “normalcy,” I like subversions of the status quo, I am drawn to those ideas and identities that reveal our hierarchical institutions and dangerous obeisance to binary thought. I am a fan of destabilizing privilege and progressing society towards a celebration of monstrosity (or what has elsewhere been called diversity, Otherness, difference).

Just as the personal is political, so too is the monster. I wish to reclaim those identities deemed as monstrous – being disabled, being female, being fat, being “too” sexual or sexual in the “wrong” way – and to demonstrate (a word etymologically linked to the monster) how we might reclaim monstrosity as a form of political agency. I want to reclaim my own monstrosity and encourage others to do the same.

In my column, which will appear here at Womanist Musings every other Thursday, I will take monstrosity seriously, reading past and present representations of vampires, werewolves, witches, zombies, etc, as important reservoirs for cultural critique. Just as freak shows, circuses, horror films, the gothic and the grotesque reveal a great deal about the cultural construction of bodies, of normative identities, of gender and sexuality, so do today’s monsters – the sparkly vampire, the clairvoyant waitress, the shrimp-like alien – reveal a great deal about patriarchy, socio-economics, and racism.1 As I argued in a recent post, “vampires are made, not born” – so to are monsters made and not-born. Examining who and what we make monstrous, and questioning why we both love and hate these creations, will be the focus of this column. I hope you enjoy my monstrous musings, the first of which will be a review of the recent film Daybreakers.