A while ago a friend lent me an excellent anthology: The Darker Sex: Tales of the Supernatural and Macabre by Victorian Women Writers. It sounded so far up my street I expected to find it waiting for me on the doorstep as I scurried home to read it.
As you might imagine, it includes a lot of creepy old mansions, brave governesses, and ghostly women wandering around in white gowns. I love that stuff. But towards the back I was delighted to discover something unusual: a Marxist Feminist vampire story.
The story was Luella Miller, published in Mary Wilkins Freeman‘s 1903 short story collection The Wind In The Rose Bush. While the events are definitely supernatural, Luella is more of a metaphorical than literal vampire, mesmerising and leeching the life force from her victims by draining their energy rather than their blood.
Her fellow townsfolk, men and women, old and young, literally work themselves to death in her service. One after another they become obsessed with caring for her, doing her washing and sewing, cooking her meals, making her coffee, working until they become ill and eventually die, when they are replaced by another willing servant.
The story is narrated several decades on by Lydia Anderson, the last person alive who knew Luella; she didn’t succumb to her mysterious power. As Lydia puts it: “There was somethin’ about Luella Miller seemed to draw the heart right out of you, but she didn’t draw it out of me.” She tells the story of all the people whom Luella drained of life, including her sister-in-law Lily:
This Lily Miller had been hardly past her first youth, and a most robust and blooming woman, rosy-cheeked, with curls of strong, black hair overshadowing round, candid temples and bright dark eyes. It was not six months after she had taken up her residence with her sister-in-law that her rosy colour faded and her pretty curves became wan hollows. White shadows began to show in the black rings of her hair, and the light died out of her eyes, her features sharpened, and there were pathetic lines at her mouth, which yet wore always an expression of utter sweetness and even happiness. She was devoted to her sister; there was no doubt that she loved her with her whole heart, and was perfectly content in her service. It was her sole anxiety lest she should die and leave her alone…
…all the time Luella wa’n’t liftin’ her finger and poor Lily didn’t get any care except what the neighbours gave her, and Luella eat up everythin’ that was carried in for Lily. I had it real straight that she did. Luella used to just sit and cry and do nothin’. She did act real fond of Lily, and she pined away considerable, too. There was those that thought she’d go into a decline herself. But after Lily died, her Aunt, Abby Mixter came, and then Luella picked up and grew as fat and rosy as ever.
Unlike many fictional vampires, Luella does not seem to intend any harm against her victims. She is indifferent, almost oblivious. Her supernatural ability to enslave her neighbours does not seem to be within her control; instead, it is more like a poisonous vapour that surrounds her, simultaneously enchanting and slowly destroying them.
Another interesting aspect of the story is the emphasis on Luella’s infantile need. It is not simply that she will not care for herself, forcing others to look after her, but that she cannot. She is entirely helpless, so that when the town finally begins to keep its distance, she herself begins to weaken.
In her article Dreadful Yet Irresistible Luella Miller: Horror in the Absence of Self (PDF), Chiho Nakagawa sees Luella Miller as a feminist parable about the suppression of agency and independence in the feminine ideal taken to it’s logical, monstrous, conclusion:
By spreading her dependency and helplessness into others, Luella makes others experience her dreadful state… Functioning as an addictive substance, Luella Miller lets us see how fearful it is to be a feminine woman without her own self.
I think this is an interesting take, as if Luella exists only as an object of others’ self destructive love, with no subjective self, no agency or control. It is this that makes her state “dreadful”. She is parasitic, overwhelming and consuming her host, but unable to survive without them.
Without the contrasting courage, agency and practicality of “hale and hearty” 87 year old narrator Lydia Anderson, the story could seem to be a misogynist attack on wealthy women.
But I agree with Lynda L. Hinkle and her paper Bloodsucking Structures: American Female Vampires as Class Structure Critique, when she describes the story as: “a stinging critique of a declining but still prevalent social class structure that churned out a large, useless upper class of women whose job it was to be beautiful and consume.”
I read the story as a comment on the economic and social structures which manufactured useless creatures like Luella, wealthy women who were prevented from acquiring ideas, skills, purpose or independence. The same structures, while fetishising helplessness as the supreme feminine virtue on the one hand, forced countless other women (and men) to work themselves into an early grave in the service of their betters.
CONTENT NOTE: Discussions herein of sexual assault, dubious consent, mental health treated badly, homophobia, biphobia and slut-shaming. Oh, and plenty of spoilers.
Welcome back to Hopeless Reimantic Presents! Last time we got our teeth into Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, and I found myself actually saying some pretty positive things about the books. (Honestly, I’m as surprised as you. My fourteen-year-old self is throwing one hell of a sulk.) It’s not the full story, though, and there’s still quite a lot about this series to unpack.
First of all, there’s something I need to make clear: as I said in Part One, I went into this review determined not to talk about the series in relation to Laurell K. Hamilton herself more than was necessary.
I generally hold that unless an author has done something that I can’t reconcile myself to morally, I don’t feel like it’s my business to talk about their personal life when I am supposed to be reviewing their books. And from what I’ve read of Laurell K. Hamilton’s blog posts, she seems kind of entitled and I find her annoying, but…well, let’s just say that as far as I can tell she’s no Orson Scott Card. By and large my problems with the ideas she puts across can easily be expressed in criticism of her work rather than criticism of her.
I ran into some problems with this approach, to be sure; the evidence for Anita Blake being the author’s avatar is pretty compelling. But for the purposes of analysing the text, I’m putting that debate to bed. From here on out, guys, they’re just books, so if anyone is reading this expecting it to be a catalogue of Ms Hamilton’s character flaws, well, it’s not going to be. Hashtag sorry not sorry, or something.
Oh, one more thing: I’m limiting myself to a maximum of one book quotation per point here, because SEVENTEEN BOOKS LORD HAVE MERCY.
Okay! Let’s get started. Where were we? Was I wanting to tear my eyes out? I think I was wanting to tear my eyes out.
…I’m going to need to slip into a more concise format, I think, or that’s just going to be the entire article. Here, then, in no particular order, are My Main Problems with Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter:
1) Anita only has one dating experience that I would describe as fully consensual.
She dates Richard, a werewolf, and then she gets engaged to Richard, and then the vampire she’s been hanging out with decides that he needs “equal time” to win her over, or he’s got no choice but to duel Richard to the death:
“You have dated him for months, and I have said little. Before you marry him, I want equal time.”
“I’ve been trying to avoid you for months. I’m not just going to give in now.”
“Then I will start the music, and we will dance. Even if I die, and you die. Richard will die first, I can promise you that. Surely dating me is not a fate worse than death.”
– Laurell K. Hamilton, The Lunatic Cafe, p.221.
(I’m not so sure about that, dude.)
There’s also the shapeshifter leopard who basically just rapes her (it’s okay, she enjoys it) and then is her mate and it’s all fine, and the other shapeshifter leopard who is Terrifyingly Submissive at her until she gives in (more on that later). These are her four main men and, last I checked, the various loves of her life.
There are a couple of things at play here, and I can intellectually grasp them both. One is that an easy way to add darkness and tension to a story is to have your main character interact with a world which doesn’t recognise their morality, which is how we get all those kind of racist “I was ravished by a barbarian/sheikh/otherwise rich and dark-skinned man” stories (remind me to talk to you about The Panther And The Pearl some time). And that’s not necessarily a bad thing in a fantasy world where you are dealing with beings that might have witnessed the greater part of human history. I do take the point that you might well not care so much about pesky human morals when you’ve been living off blood or sex or male tears or whatever for about a thousand years.
And, credit where it’s due, Laurell K. Hamilton does make some effort to deal with the effect this is having on Anita; she agonises, at least initially, over the detachment she feels from her humanity as she gets drawn deeper into the preternatural world. Hamilton doesn’t really take that conflict anywhere, which is a shame because it makes the whole thing feel a bit too insta-conflict for my liking, but she tries.
The considerably more disturbing thing is the second point, which is that this is supposed to be hot. We’ve touched on this before in the column on alpha males, but one thing that I think I missed there is actually what I find grossest about this particular fantasy – that being threatened or coerced, either physically or by other means, into being with someone is supposed to be evidence of part of a woman’s power and mystique. It’s not that these guys are proto-rapists, no – it’s that women are so damned irresistible that they overwhelm men’s judgement and common sense. Basically, they are the full moon to every man’s boner werewolf (link NSFW).
There is an element of pick-up artistry that states that when you overcome LMR (last minute resistance, usually to sex) you’re actually doing the woman a favour, because you’re taking the responsibility out of her hands. She can’t be a slut, because she’s not in control; you’re preserving her purity while still giving her the sex she wants. That is gross and messed-up and a terrible bit of rape apologia, but it’s the same kind of logic that I’m seeing here; it’s a way to skirt around having Anita own her own sexuality. She can’t help it! She’s just got this energy!
And on that note…
2) There’s hella slut-shaming.
It took me a while to realise this. I started out with Danse Macabre, but the more of these books I read, the more I became convinced that having lots of sex was only okay for Anita Blake, and by extension her harem of men, because Anita Blake has sex because she somehow has to – which is a pretty icky sentence to begin with, by the way.
Anita starts out the series not believing in pre-marital sex. She ends up having quite a lot of it, but there’s never a sense that she revises that belief, which would be really interesting if it didn’t have such weird implications for the other women in the books. Anita has sex because of deep love, a deep sense of obligation (erk) and/or because she is a succubus. Metaphysical events or very strong emotion compel her to bone, and the fact that she ends up enjoying it immensely is somehow a coincidence, which is possibly the strangest permutation of the forced seduction trope I’ve ever seen.
And even that would be okay, were it not for the fact that every single other woman in the books who has sex for such a frivolous reason as the fact she just enjoys it is painted as either a) shallow and heinous, b) mentally unstable, or c) both.
Which brings me neatly to:
3) There is gratuitous use of mental illness as a plot device.
Basically every villain is crazy. And there’s Nathaniel, her second shapeshifter love interest, who is super-submissive and utterly traumatised by his past and hey, did we mention he’s kinky too and can take more pain than anybody else? Because he’s damaged?
Urgh. If I had to hazard, I’d say this follows a lot of the same logic that we see in point 1), but let’s just be honest here; this isn’t just offensive, it’s lazy writing, in the same way that blaming serious criminal offences or terrorism on mental illness is lazy journalism. It’s a way to avoid grappling seriously with what could actually be some pretty compelling issues and it’s depressing me. So let’s move on to our final point:
4) Gender essentialism and homophobia.
This is a pretty interesting one, actually, because the characters around Anita Blake actually call her on some of it, and it doesn’t work. I skipped a quotation for mental illness and point 2, so we can have two in here because it’s my column and I make the rules.
I feel like I need to include this one because it’s in Shutdown, which was actually only released a few weeks ago – and, again, in fairness to Ms Hamilton, releasing it the way she did was a nice idea (it was a freebie because of the US government shutdown, in solidarity with government workers who were off without pay).
The story itself is interesting purely because the premise is so flawed: Richard, Anita Blake’s erstwhile lover, now-Top, is engaged to another woman, and apparently has chosen only now to mention to her that he’s poly and wants to see other people for wild kinky sex. His fiancee has a problem with this – not, you understand, because somehow they have got as far as being engaged without this ever having come up, but because she’s a crazy jealous harpy who can’t wrap her narrow mind around non-monogamy or sex that isn’t vanilla.
I liked precisely nobody in this short, but Anita least of all:
I hadn’t had to endure this much small talk in years. We’d learned a lot about one another, but unless we were looking to date, I didn’t see the point.
Men understood that sometimes you didn’t want to smile, but you weren’t mad either, while women expect other women to be pleasant, and if you’re not they think you don’t like them. There are so many reasons that most of my friends are men.
– Laurell K. Hamilton, Shutdown, pp.6-8
Oh, Ms Blake, you charmer. I could quote this little piece all day, actually, because it shows you a lot about the mess of contradictions that is gender portrayal in these books, but – you guys, I can’t. I just can’t. I think my brain is leaking out of my ears.
Let’s finish up, then, with one final quote, and my witty and insightful riposte.
Look, okay, this isn’t even close to the most homophobia I’ve ever seen in fiction, or the worst. I’ll give you that I really do think this was… misguided, but well-intentioned. For what that’s worth. But the fact remains that I don’t think I’ve seen a non-heterosexual character in the Anita Blake series who wasn’t sex-obsessed, mentally ill (see above) and/or just plain old mean.
Anita Blake herself later gets a girlfriend and starts identifying as “heteroflexible”, which is a completely valid label that I don’t wish to detract from, but in this case reads to me sort of like she’s just started adding “no homo” to the end of all of her sentences about fancying women.
And then there’s…well, this. For context: some of Anita’s male partners are bisexual. She has just had a threesome with one of them and another man, which she feels gives her incontrovertible proof that he is, in fact, also into guys. The other men around her do not seem bothered by this revelation. Which prompts the following:
“In college I had a friend, a girlfriend, a girl who was a friend. She and I went shopping together. Slept over at each other’s dorm rooms. I undressed in front of her because she was a girl. Then toward the end of college she told me she was gay. We were still friends, but she went into that guy category for me. You don’t undress in front of people who see you as a sex object. You don’t sleep with them, or…oh, hell.” I looked up at Micah. “Won’t it weird you out to sleep nude beside him now?”
– Laurell K. Hamilton, Danse Macabre, p.188.
Funny story: my original response to this paragraph was a lot more colourful. I’m going to try and discuss it briefly, coherently and without expletives.
I’m not sure which bothers me more, here: the idea that being attracted to members of one gender means you’re attracted to all members of one gender, or Anita’s assumption that everybody around her is going to have the same weird hang-ups as she is. I will say, though, that reading this made me briefly see red. You can come hang out with my friends, Anita Blake’s token lesbian college friend! They’ll hug you! Even the straight women!
What I’m struggling to articulate is why, exactly, this paragraph was the exact point that I fully lost patience with the series, because in context it’s not actually so bad. Anita is laughed at for her small-mindedness, and they all go to sleep naked and it’s fine.
Except that this never really goes away. There’s a kind of false normal here that you’re not supposed to stray from, and then even when Anita does, all that happens it that it gets this veneer of “exotic sexy sex stuff” that makes the books transgressive and naughty. It doesn’t read like a straight-up sex fantasy. I definitely don’t buy that it’s an honest exploration of sexuality in fiction. I’m not even sure that it’s Laurell K. Hamilton bragging about her sex life with extra fantasy elements.
The best way I can describe it is that it reads like a zoo exhibit, if people who have a lot of sex could actually literally be zoo exhibits. It doesn’t challenge normative attitudes, is what I’m saying. It takes the stuff Ms Hamilton describes as “too underground for the mainstream” and sticks it behind a thick layer of societal assumptions-reinforced glass, so that you can look at it without getting your brain too into all the sex stuff. And then you can go home at the end feeling like you’ve learned something. And perhaps a little icky.
And that brings us to the end of Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. If you enjoyed this column and want me to do more like it, consider dropping me a comment, because the experience was…
…it’s been an experience, guys. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read something else. Something gentle, with no sex in it whatsoever. Maybe some Catherynne M. Valente.
See you next time!
Early December. The leaves have fallen, the sky has darkened. Rain lashes the windows. Doors yawn open before you; blackness whispers chill secrets into your hair, and your worst nightmares take shape ‘twixt the smoky trees, taunting, menacing. Waiting.
Basically, at the time of writing it was the month with Hallowe’en in it, and I hate to waste a perfectly good theme. So without further ado, allow me to welcome you to Hopeless Reimantic Presents! In this column I’ll be going in-depth into the works of specific authors who are in – or cross over into – the romance genre. In the spirit of the season, I thought we’d take a look at the stuff of nightmares: let’s talk about Laurell K. Hamilton. More specifically, let’s talk about Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, one of the weirdest and most controversial series I’ve ever interacted with.
First of all, a slightly complicated preface. Before I ever picked up an Anita Blake book I knew quite a lot about them, and while I’d like to stress that I’m here to talk about the books and not Ms Hamilton herself I feel like I’ll be remiss if I don’t at least give a quick summary of some common controversies surrounding the series and its author.
I first became aware of Laurell K. Hamilton via Anne Rice. Well, not Anne Rice herself, but the now-infamous Anne Rice Author Tantrum, which I arrived at a couple of years after the fact and consequently saw linked to…Laurell K. Hamilton’s similarly poor handling of criticism (link to a Wikispace article, as the original blog post has vanished).
Hamilton isn’t quite as vitriolic in her I Can’t Believe Not Everyone Likes My Book-ness, but she’s still pretty irritatingly condescending, although I do agree with her that if someone’s taking their book up to you so that you can sign it, then opening with “I hated this one and what you’ve done with the series” is kind of poor form.
She’s since made a name for herself on Twitter for calling her critics sexually frustrated, jealous wannabes, and a name for herself among readers and other writers for not handling criticism well and shamelessly inserting herself into her books. The LKH_lashouts community on LiveJournal keeps a nice catalogue of her various posts, blogs and misdemeanours, and I’ve been on it all day, which might explain why my brain is starting to feel too heavy for my skull.
As a lot of you probably aren’t familiar with what makes the Anita Blake series so divisive in the first place, I’ll give you a quick, neutral description to start us off (don’t worry, we’ll get to the incoherent ranting later). The Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series started out as a kind of monster-of-the-week dealio, with some romance in it but not a huge deal. The romantic – and sexual – content of the books got a lot more page time as the series went on, and the tenth book in the series, Narcissus In Chains, saw a metaphysical event turn Anita Blake into a succubus who needs sex to survive.
Subsequent books are arguably more “paranormal erotica” than anything else, and the last time I checked in with Ms Blake she was in a polyamorous relationship with five guys and happy as a clam. This, and the fact that a lot of the events of Anita Blake’s love life seem to mirror the author’s, have led to accusations that Laurell K. Hamilton is using Anita to brag about how much sex she’s having, and have turned a lot of readers off the series.
The upshot of all this is that this time three months ago, your intrepid romance novel enthusiast knew of Laurell K. Hamilton and had formed a pretty strong impression of the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter books – but had never actually picked one up. So when the call came around for horror-themed posts for autumn and winter, and I decided to take them on, I was…nervous, but excited. Here was a series with a strong female lead which had lost popularity as the erotic content had upped and the quality of the writing had deteriorated – the stuff of feminist bad-porn-lovers’ wildest dreams, right?
All that given due consideration, I wanted to approach the series with an open mind, but I didn’t want to actually buy any of the books because a) this isn’t somebody I want to give money to and b) there are approximately bleventeen of the damned things and I don’t have a job. I put out a call on my social medias for donations to the cause.
Three weeks later, I had seventeen Laurell K. Hamilton books. And with various deadlines coming up? I had a week to read them in.
Some would have panicked. Some would have faltered. Some would have done several noisy circuits of the living room, sobbing about the hilarious injustice of life. Some would have said, “Well, that’s okay, I don’t have to read all of these, I’m not that much of a masochist”, picked out a selection, and called it a day.
I did all of these things except the last one. Here’s how I got on. The following are my initial notes:
Initial thoughts on LKH: The Anita Blake series is not as bad as I thought it would be for the reasons I was told I would hate it, but it is creepingly terrible in ways I didn’t really anticipate.
Day 3 of LKH immersion. Eyes gritty. Legs heavy. Some subcranial tenderness. Seem to have “What Does The Fox Say” stuck in my head.
Laurell K. Hamilton Immersion Week, Day 5. Sore throat, some muscle ache. Have been reading some of the earlier books, which are much better even if I don’t like murder mysteries that much. I’m sad that her deep love of stuffed penguins seems to be worn away by all the sexy sexy sex she starts having in a book or so’s time. What happened to Sigmund, Anita? Did Sigmund mean nothing to you? Developing protective feelings for all penguins.
LKH Immersion Week, Day 6. I…I just don’t even know anymore, you guys. Just leave me alone. I’m going shopping for leather.
By the end of the week I’d contracted a stomach virus, although the medical jury is still out on whether or not this was a symptom of my burgeoning lycanthropy. The next full moon isn’t until December 17th, so I guess we’ll find out then.
This is going to be a difficult bit of analysis to write, because – well, I read seventeen books, you guys. I’m having to be extremely choosy about which books I quote and why. Maybe I’ll upload a list of Supplementary Supportive Material, but, um, I wouldn’t count on it.
Broadly speaking, dear readers, here’s the thing: I didn’t hate these books the way I was expecting to.
Look, fourteen-year-old me assumed I’d hate these books because they were a self-insert Mary-Sue-type series that ended with the main character having far too much ridiculously improbable sex and being the best at everything. Fourteen-year-old me was also scared of non-monogamy, kind of selective in her feminism and a lot more judgmental. Fourteen-year-old me would probably have written this bit of the article in a far more entertainingly vitriolic manner.
Unfortunately, you’re stuck with twenty-three-year-old me, and twenty-three-year-old me doesn’t have a problem with any of these things on principle. Look, okay, self-insert Mary-Sues aren’t my cup of tea, and I can see why a sharp rise (hurr) in sexual content in a series which basically had no sexual content at all for the first four books might turn readers off – but those two facts don’t make either of those authorial decisions inherently wrong.
For all her flaws (and she has many – and I’m not just talking about the fun kind of flaws that make a character seem real, either) Anita Blake has some nice bits of refreshingly feminist outlook. One of the best story arcs in the series comes in Danse Macabre, when she has a pregnancy scare. She talks it over with all of her partners, one of them says he’ll stay at home and raise the baby so that she can keep working, and another says he’ll marry her:
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Richard, is that all you think it takes to fix this? Marry me so the baby won’t be a bastard, and it’s all better?”
“I don’t see anyone else offering marriage,” he said.
“It’s because they know I’ll say no. Every other man in my life understands that this isn’t about marriage. It’s about the fact that we may have created a little person. And we need to do whatever is best for that little person. How will marrying anyone make this work better? … What do you think having a baby will do to me, Richard? Do you think just because I have a baby I’ll become this other person? This softer, gentler person? Is that what you think?”
– Laurell K. Hamilton, Danse Macabre, pp. 162-164
Whatever else I think about Anita Blake the character, I wholeheartedly rooted for her throughout this story arc. Would it have been unrealistic for her to keep being a federal agent who has all the sex and also a baby? Sure, maybe. But this is a fantasy series and clearly delineated as such, so if that’s too much suspension of disbelief for you then allow me to refer you to Scott Lynch.
Regarding the non-monogamy…well, there are not a lot of mainstream series that won’t even touch non-monogamy with a bargepole, and twenty-three-year-old me quite likes the normalisation of non-mono and monogamous relationships here. What I’m basically trying to say here is that if Laurell K. Hamilton wants to chronicle her sexy adventures as Badass The Vampire Slayer (And Harem) and people want to read it, I’m honestly okay with that. I wish she’d be more honest about what her books are (she seems to do a lot of If You Don’t Like It You’re Just Too Mainstream For My Awesomeness-ing), but – whatever. Fine.
However. The fact that I didn’t hate these books for the reasons I’d assumed doesn’t mean that they in no way made me want to tear my own eyes out. Unfortunately this article is skittering dangerously close to its word limit, so stand by for Part Two, in which I attempt to explain why cleanly and concisely but inevitably deteriorate into wordless, feeble sobbing.
Can’t wait! See you then.
- Emily McQuade takes the guest post slot now. She last wrote a highly amusing piece for us on the movie Daughters of Darkness, so we asked her to pick another favourite female monster from the silver screen for Halloween. Then the Ed wasn’t well for a bit, so we didn’t put the post up for a while. But here it is now! Do you have a guest pitch? Pitch that pitch to [email protected]!
One thing to be aware of when watching any of Ken Russell’s films is that you will spend at least three quarters of the running time saying to yourself, ‘What THE HELL am I watching.’
Mr Russell’s The Lair of the White Worm (1988) is so bizarre that… well, let’s just take a look at the notes I made the last time I watched it:
‘How do you spot a snake vampire cultist lady? She’ll be playing snakes and ladders. In thigh high boots.’
‘Gratuitous historically inaccurate nun torture.’
‘Where IS Peter Capaldi keeping that mongoose?’
Very loosely based on Bram Stoker’s original story, the film takes an olde worlde horror setup and adds a fantastic lady monster (Lady Sylvia Marsh, as played by Amanda Donohoe – a saucy aristocratic predator who thinks white three corner hats are casual wear) and a high pile of hallucinatory WTF.
(Unfortunately, Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm is not a great read. It’s got potential – Lovecraftian horrors stirring beneath the English countryside – but it’s clunky as hell. And contains so much sexism and racism that it reads like an unsubtle parody of a Victorian horror tale.)
Peter Capaldi plays Angus, an archaeology student who finds the skull of some kind of monster in the garden of a B&B in Derbyshire. The B&B is run by two sisters – Eve and Mary (Catherine Oxenberg and Sammi Davis. Note the unsubtle choice of names) whose mother has disappeared in mysterious circumstances.
Then Lord D’Ampton (Hugh Grant) invites them to his ancestral hall for an 80s folk/rock party, where he re-enacts the legendary tale of an ancestor of his, who killed a giant worm (guess what colour it was.) that was terrorising the village some centuries previously.
(The beast that his ancestor had the squabble with was the D’Ampton Worm. As in the Lambton Worm. Both Stoker’s and Russell’s version of ‘White Worm’ take place in Derbyshire and not Durham. There were a lot of worm monsters about in the olden days, apparently.)
This gets Angus wondering – could his new-found skull have something to do with the one in the tale? Lord D’Ampton is foppishly sceptical. And then Lady Sylvia slinks into view. And spits venom on a crucifix. I haven’t seen Downton Abbey for ages, but I’m pretty sure that her TV namesake is not in the habit of doing such things.
What follows is an unsettling campfest. Lady Sylvia does some horrible things (that poor boy scout) but she’s also horribly fascinating. I don’t know if she was meant to be a satire on the ‘sexy sex ladies who are EVIIILL’ trope or an unsubtle parody of 80s decadence (see Kate Beaton’s marvellous Dracula cartoon for a nice pisstake of how this trope came up in Stoker’s most famous tale). But either way Ms Donohue looks to be really enjoying herself.
Eve and Mary are sketchily drawn characters – it transpires that Eve is a virgin, which makes her sacrifice fodder for the great big worm beast living under Sylvia’s mansion (paging Doctor Freud). Lord D’Ampton has some rude dreams and tries to fix things with his super posh man skillz. Eventually, Angus has to face vamped up Sylvia alone. Yep, Peter Capaldi is the Final Girl.
He does a bit of snake charming with a kilt and a set of bagpipes. And a mongoose. If anyone’s concerned that Doctor Who-loving kids might come across Malcolm Tucker’s epic swears by accident online, wait until they get a load of this.
Lair of the White Worm is basically awesome trash. Or it’s trash cinema French kissing arthouse cinema down a dingy alleyway. And sometimes that’s what you want.
- Emily McQuade lives in North London. She enjoys finding weird old films on YouTube and watching other weird old films at the BFI. When not thinking about films, she enjoys books, gigs and making up elaborate conspiracy theories involving squirrels. She can also be found on Twitter: @missmcq.
- This guest post was originally pitched for Halloween – big apologies to our guest writer Ruth Sullivan that the ed being unwell prevented it going up earlier. We reckon it’s still a great read any time of the year (and if you’re in London and enjoying or about to start enjoying the BFI’s Gothic season, which runs into January, this is an excellent primer!). If you have a guest post a-brewing, email us on [email protected].
The nights have drawn in, there’s a chill in the air and it’s that time of year where I like to do what I, admittedly, like to do pretty much the rest of the year: gather the family around a nice cosy horror film and scare the bejeezus out of ourselves.
I’m especially fortunate, living in Brighton, that there’s a thriving scene of horror fanatics, including the founders of the Classic Horror Campaign, whose raison d’etre is to bring back British horror to our TV screens and who run a brilliant occasional horror film festival called Frighten Brighton.
Last year they ran a day of screenings that traversed the decades from the Thirties to the Seventies. It was fascinating to watch an intricate snapshot of women in horror unfolding before me, reflective of Hollywood’s complex relationship with sexuality, equality, objectification and empowerment.
In just the five films screened – Mad Love, The Cat People, Them, Plague of the Zombies and Phantasm – a gamut of femininity was presented, from virginal innocent to sexual seductress, strident powerful woman to flailing damsel in distress, repressed lesbian to swooning romantic.
In almost all these films there is a notable slide towards objectification; the woman’s body as a object of desire for the monster or mad scientist, the virginal sacrificial lamb, or the slutty cannon fodder helpless to avert her fate. This is reflective of the wider problems within a genre that still churns out women’s bodies to be fondled, fucked, kidnapped and sliced up.
The brilliant, feminist-principled Women in Horror Recognition Month campaign1 recognises this difficult relationship with horror. Their campaign illustrates that it can be one of the most objectifying genres, but is also an important genre for exploring a vast array of issues – power, psyche, politics, social constructs, war, violence, gender – and therefore that it’s important that women’s roles are recognised and supported.
They provide a platform for women directors, writers, actors and aficionados to get their work seen and to address issues within the industry, as well as misogyny in the genre. They’ve also used social media, blogging and film festivals to explore what horror has to contribute to the female narrative.
It’s a massive area to dig into. There’s been a swathe of material written about women as survivors in horror films – they occupy a myriad of roles: the Final Girl, the matriarch (all hail Ellen Ripley!), the victim who finds her nerve and the avenging angel survivor – frequently a victim of sexual violence.
It’s a rich seam to explore, and there’s a whole other vein to mine exploring the ones who live and the ones who die in horror movies, and what this represents metaphorically, culturally and politically. Equally, there’s a huge area to address when it comes to representations of race in horror – for example, why the last one to live is often a white woman (think Night of the Living Dead). But what about when women themselves are the stuff of nightmares?
Women aren’t always the victims in horror, and whilst there have been significant problems in the history of the genre, it has also been willing to explore areas of female experience that other genres just weren’t ready for, often at times when it would have been deeply contentious to make a film that discussed, say, sexuality or sexual violence, let alone the fact that you’d still be hard pushed to find a film about what a nightmare getting your period can be! There are numerous examples of fantastic writing and performances in horror that explore the feminine diabolique whilst also touching on real world issues underneath.
1936’s Dracula’s Daughter is a fine example of how horror can reflect both the cultural perception of women and the abiding social currents, as well as exploring key issues for women through the figure of a female monster. It was produced as part of the Universal stable of horror films, following directly on the heels of Tod Browning’s Dracula.
Gloria Holden plays the troubled and lonely Countess Zaleska, desperate to cure herself of vampirism. She tries both the occult and psychiatry before giving in to her bloodlust. The film is a Gothic delight, and Holden is dark and intense, quietly terrifying and tragic at the same time.
The film barely contains its sapphic undertones. Zaleska lingers over her female victims, covets their bodies and beauty, and prowls the streets at night in search of blood. The countess is very much a creature of her time in cinematic history, reflecting both the notion that homosexuality was considered a psychiatric malaise, and the censorship movements of the 1930s, with the Hays Code being introduced just a few years before. This was the first regulation code for cinema, reflecting religious and conservative views that any deviant behaviour had to be hidden, including sexual acts, prostitution, white slavery and homosexuality. The film is also a shining example of the demonisation of homosexuality, the portrayal of lesbians as predatory and dangerous and this is reflected in the scene where Zaleska attacks a young model, Lili.
1942’s Cat People likewise has a female monster at its heart. Irena moves to New York from Serbia, falling in love with the charming Oliver and marrying him. Underneath the surface, however, is the secret that she is descended from a wild people who can turn themselves into cats. Irena seems convinced that if she gives in to her passions she will lose control and turn into a cat herself – and her marriage becomes strained by a lack of intimacy.
Again, there is subtext around psychology, sexual repression and the power in a woman unleashing her sexuality. There is also a queer subtext as Irena stalks her husband’s mistress, Alice, and her inner cat is unleashed, suggesting that the repression she felt was her sexuality rather than her lack of ardour for her husband. All this is neatly tucked away from the heavy-handed censors, but easily readable.
Horror provided a way to express and explore female sexuality as complex and powerful – although again, it’s a sign of the times that it was also dangerous and deadly. Both films provided bold representations of female sex and sexuality at a time when it just wouldn’t have been possible to do so in a straightforward feature film. Although the subtext was ultimately tragic and fatal, it was a fair reflection of both the turmoil of coming to terms with being queer and the risk of society’s response if the fact was made public. Horror was the perfect cypher.
Moving forward, horror has continued to provide the perfect medium to explore these themes. The female monster has been a great platform for exploring puberty and all its commensurate delights: it’s all blood, mayhem and rage, after all. Think Carrie at the prom, exploding with fear, confusion and violence at her tormentors, triggered by her menstruation. Think Ginger in Ginger Snaps (2000) – first period, first full moon, morphing to discover her sense of identity, her confidence and her sexual liberation.
Both Carrie and Ginger Snaps are reflective of the fact that we are also still culturally trained to view periods and puberty with a sense of revulsion. There are several key moments in Ginger Snaps where adult characters view menstruation with disgust, implying that the girls should be ashamed of even speaking about it. Our bodies are the centre of the change in puberty, and this is interpreted into a kind of body horror, where the confusion, pain, hormones of puberty are projected outwards.
Carrie acquires powers to impact on the world around her to be able to make herself visible, powerful and a force to be reckoned with for the first time. Ginger starts to pay attention to and receive attention from her peers – she becomes a sexual being as well as a creature of rage. Bianca Nielson’s fascinating article Something’s Wrong, Like More Than You Being Female delves even further into Ginger Snaps’ representation of puberty and is well worth a read.
What is great about the film is the way that Brigitte and Ginger deconstruct their experiences together, sharing their views of their society, their bodies, and of their relationships. It’s notable how isolated Brigitte becomes when she can no longer share Ginger’s experiences. Although these conversations revolve around the fantastical, trying to deal with Ginger’s ‘wolfing out’, they’re also painfully familiar.
The female monster also allows us opportunity to address expectations of the female body. Hammer has a lot to answer for when it comes to heaving bosoms and frail victims in flimsy nighties, but in Countess Dracula (1971) it also addressed ageing. In particular, it addressed the fear of no longer meeting the expectation that women should be beautiful, and the anxiety that to age means to no longer be desirable.
The countess, fearing the loss of her young lovers, takes to bathing in the blood of virgins to retain her youth. Played by horror queen Ingrid Pitt, she was also rooted in the real life Elizabeth Bathory, who was imprisoned for murdering over 80 women and allegedly bathing in their blood. Countess Dracula is a silly, campy horror film, but it also manages to contain moments of poignancy, especially as the countess is forced to face her fate – old, hated and done for. It’s not a cheery message, but it’s a fair reflection of the cultural obsession with youth and beauty.
The girl monster also allows us to explore the idea that what’s outside doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s inside – ideas around appearances that fall outside the norms of society, the idea that ‘the other’ isn’t necessarily horrific, and the idea that monsters, conversely, can come in appealing packages. This is especially powerful when it challenges perceived notions of womanhood and beauty.
In Return of the Living Dead 3, reluctant zombie Julie bodily punishes herself because she’s no longer wholesome and good. She uses pain and piercing to control herself and to make her outside appearance reflect the badness she feels within, self-harming, cutting, modifying and piercing until she loses control. Again, on the surface it’s a silly film, but it’s a powerful scene when we begin to unpick the body as an object of aberration for young women. When Julie modifies herself she appears dangerous and sinister, but ultimately she’s still Julie underneath – she’s still a young woman mortified by herself.
This issue is also brilliantly addressed in last year’s breakthrough horror American Mary. Filmed by twins Jen and Sylvia Soska, and from their point of view explicitly feminist, it deals with the world of extreme body modification – carried out by trainee doctor Mary.
The modified women are deeply challenging representations of femininity and beauty. Their appearances are shocking and extreme, although underneath, they are caring and gentle despite seeming monstrous. This is exemplified by the character Ruby Realdoll, who desires to become sexless and doll-like. Her body has been cut and sliced to become featureless – monstrous to the accepted notion of beauty, but beautiful to her and vital to her self acceptance. The modification has dire consequences and accurately reflects how society rejects the other, often violently.
Mary herself – the ‘normal’ girl – is herself made monstrous, violent and increasingly amoral. In part, this is due to the societal pressures on her, including the fact that surgery is a boys’ club from which she is excluded as a young woman. It is also in part caused by an awful attack carried out by someone who presents themselves as the nice guy – nice job, caring profession, well respected, known to Mary. It’s a very challenging scene, mostly because the directors don’t allow you to look away, and because they refuse to fetishise it to make it more bearable. Horror reflects reality – as the directors themselves said, there are no cutaways in real life.
Importantly, though, Mary is also not a particularly nice person. She looks stunning, but she is not what we expect. She is sharp edged, cold, and self-absorbed; neither a fluffy air-headed beauty nor a bookish high achiever. Horror allows us to subvert some accepted tropes and often spits cultural expectations and stereotypes back in our faces. The fact that American Mary has generated so much discussion about what is and isn’t feminist cinema is fantastic.
Mainstream cinema is still deeply prescriptive about how women can act, talk and be – the girl monster refuses to be chained by these prescriptions. Horror is a brilliant, bloody palate for our real issues, and as a result it’s provided a forum for us to to talk about being a woman in a way that other genres could only dream of.
Of course we should enjoy the thrill of being scared. Of course we should immerse ourselves in the delight of a silly campy horror or a terrifying splatterfest – and no, I’m not suggesting that every horror fest should be an exercise in cinematic analytical criticism. But I love our sinister sisters. They’ve been reclaiming the night for decades.
- Ruth Sullivan is a children’s charity worker by day and avid gamer and consumer of pop culture by night. A former teacher and history nerd, she blogs in a personal capacity at i-conoclastic and is part of the reviews team for Close-Up Film. She tweets as @littlespy.
- As a nod to Halloween, here’s our longtime friend Libby of the wonderful TreasuryIslands blog – check out her previous posts for us. If you have a guest post a-brewing, email us on [email protected].
Representations of witches and witchcraft in literature and in popular culture generally are incredibly useful to us, providing a way of critiquing the situation of women under patriarchy that is both effective and accessible.
Children’s literature is particularly rife with such representations. From the wicked women of Grimm and Perrault and folkloric creations like Baba Yaga and Ceridwen, through C.S. Lewis’ Jadis and the maleficent creations of Mary de Morgan to 20th century inventions like TH White’s Madam Mim and the female students of Hogwarts school of Witchcraft and Wizardry, lady sorcerers – both good and evil – have never been far from the pages of the books we have used to educate and entertain our children.
The witches of the classic fairytales and of the stories of the Victorian era are usually monstrous and spiteful, using their magic in service of the Devil – or worse, their own self-interest. They taunt because they can and have few, if any, redeeming characteristics.
In recent decades the image of the image of the witch in popular culture has undergone a transformation, in no small part due to the witches that have appeared in juvenile literature. Since the 1970s, the stories our children have read have overwhelmingly featured good witches (though the frequency with which they are presented as inept deserves some attention). These are my favourites of the modern circle.
Created when Jill Murphy was a teenager, The Worst Witch series follows the adventures of Mildred Hubble as she navigates the social and academic challenges of Miss Cackle’s Academy, a draughty old castle that perches atop a thickly forested mountain and ‘looks more like a prison than a school’.
It’s an uncomfortable enough environment for a youngster to be in, but Mildred has an added disadvantage, being marked as an outsider by her unkempt appearance and her tabby cat (given to her when the rest of the girls receive sleek black kitties).
She was one of those people who always seem to be in trouble. She didn’t exactly mean to break rules and annoy the teachers, but things just seemed to happen when Mildred was around.
– The Worst Witch
The young witch is thoroughly well-meaning and a little too clever for her own good, but she’s also bumbling and frequently wrangling with authority figures. Despite her perceived inadequacies, there’s an air of serendipity that follows her around; her failures and misdeeds inevitably lead to a positive outcome of much greater consequence than the proceeding mishap.
Perhaps this is why she is so well-loved by young readers and so fondly remembered by adults. Often we can see a little of ourselves in Mildred – from her practical incompetence to her trailing shoe laces, she’s a reminder that you don’t have to be perfect to be wonderful.
The only work of historical fiction on my list, Celia Rees’ Witch Child is an overtly feminist text. The protagonist of the book (and its sequel, Sorceress) is Mary Newbury, an adolescent witch forced to flee to the New World following the violent death of her grandmother at the hands of
Caught between a desire to be true to herself and the hypocrisy of Puritanism, Mary is headstrong, smart, empathetic and brave. She exhibits a tolerance that is unusual for her era and generally makes herself an excellent role model for young readers.
For Mary, independence poses a threat – she lives in a time that fears capable women, and her agency and determination could lead her to the same fate as her grandmother. But still she forges onwards, using her wit and her alacrity to light the way and finding friendship and love among another marginalised group.
I should flee, get away. They will turn on me next unless I go. But where to? What am I to do? Lose myself. Die in the forest. I look around. Eyes, hard with hatred, slide from mine. Mouths twitch between leering and sneering. I will not run away into the forest, because that is what they want me to do.
– Witch Child
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is often lauded as feminist; he ridicules misogyny and satirises stereotypes, he writes Strong Female Characters. But there is an incongruency to Pratchett’s feminism which undermines his intended message and ultimately, Discworld is, whisper it, not that feminist.
Tiffany Aching is, to paraphrase her creator, the most feminist of the feminists that he does not have. A child savant, she begins her witching career at nine years old when she embarks upon a quest to save her brother from a sinister fairyland a la Labyrinth. She’s got common sense and amazing chutzpah. While remaining a completely believable pre-teen, she’s shrewd, smart and she will not be condescended to.
‘Zoology, eh? That’s a big word, isn’t it?’
‘No, actually it isn’t,’ said Tiffany. ‘Patronising is a big word. Zoology is quite short.’
– The Wee Free Men
As Tiffany grows up (she is approaching 16 at the time of I Shall Wear Midnight) It becomes clear that she is the natural successor to Granny Weatherwax, the number one witch of the Discworld series, as she begins to display magical abilities rare in people of her age as well as exhibiting characteristics she shares with her mentor – gravitas, knowledge, a tendency towards literalism and the belief that a witch should remain single. Tiffany will ultimately become a better witch than Granny, and it is a pleasure to watch her get there.
McGonagall cares for her charges deeply, but not blindly. She is fair and ethical and has gained great respect within the Hogwarts hierarchy. She’s often sharp with students and teachers alike, she’s a keen believer in rules – without being mindlessly bound to them – and she’s a fan of order in her classroom.
With a witty remark or condescending quip never far from her thin lips, Minerva McGonagall is a force to be reckoned with.
‘Oh, I can’t wait to see McGonagall inspected,’ said Ron happily. ‘Umbridge won’t know what’s hit her.’
– Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Though she is a slight woman in her seventies, McGonagall is a fearless combatant in the battle that rages at the close of the series, directing the action and engaging directly with Voldemort in defence of the institution and the people that she loves.
There are many women in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series that display fine qualities – caring and protective Mrs Weasley; book-smart Hermione; fearless Tonks; even Delores Umbridge can be admired for her sheer bloodymindedness and determination. But McGonagall seems to embody all these qualities and then some.
Winnie the Witch
Winnie the Witch lived in a black house in the forest. The house was black on the outside and black on the inside. The carpets were black. The chairs were black. The bed was black and it had black sheets and black blankets. Even the bath was black.
Winnie lived in her black house with her cat, Wilbur. He was black too. And that is how the trouble began.
– Winnie the Witch
Created by Valerie Thomas and illustrated by Korky Paul, she’s a comical character by design, gangly and tall with an unruly mane of black hair and a reddened nose that I like to imagine comes from a fondness for gin. When we first meet her, she is the only colourful thing in a very dark world. A series of books for middle grade readers featuring Winnie is also available, written by Laura Owen.
But Winnie has no qualms over using her magic to amend the world around her to suit her own purposes without considering the consequences. Winnie is heedless and impulsive, with a catch-all cry of ‘ABRACADABRA’ that, predictably, gets her into scrapes.
She learns from her blunders, though, and she puts things right with grace and unerrring joy. Winnie the Witch lives a hedonistic life and she makes mistakes, but she’s always got a genuine smile on her face and that’s what makes her so refreshing.
Bonus Material: HERE IS THE ACTUAL MASTER READING WINNIE THE WITCH.
- Libby earned her feminist stripes interning for the Fawcett Society where she was horrified by most of the stories she heard. An accidental activist, she is a regular contributor to BCN. Her blog, TreasuryIslands, is the home of her other passion – children’s literature. Libby is very proud of her bad reputation.
Widow imagery on ‘The Gilmore Girls’
The Gilmore girls (of TV’s The Gilmore Girls) don’t have an awful lot in common with the thirteenth century Beguines. Paris Geller, on the other hand – Rory Gilmore’s nemesis, love rival, roommate, co-plotter and sometime editor – also attracts ridicule as a young woman who presumes on the privileges of widowhood.
Her affair with her professor, the novelist Asher Fleming, is treated by most people as a slightly tacky fling between a vain older man and a naive young student. Whilst Paris drops broad hints to Rory about her grand passion (“Mmm, I smell of pipe smoke…”) it is made pretty clear to the audience that Fleming regularly has casual affairs with young women who take his course.
When he dies suddenly (“When he…were you…?” “No, Rory. This great man was not laid low by my vagina.”) Paris goes into mourning, and is appalled that not enough notice is being taken on campus. She takes it upon herself to hold a wake for Fleming, complete with a stack of his last book and herself in dignified black, holding court on the sofa.
Though Paris is not treated as cruelly as Miss Havisham, her party is marked out as the culmination of her grandiose ideas about her relationship. Behaving as Asher’s widow is another one of Paris’ obsessive eccentricities, and the scene is undercut by the appearance of a beer keg in the background by two frat boys whom Rory hurriedly shoos away.
Paris may believe she is enabling the community to pay their proper respects to a great man of letters, whose loss she inevitably feels most keenly, but most of the people at the party think it’s a kegger thrown by some girl they’ve never heard of.
It’s a funny sequence, and Paris is given an unexpected emotional weight by Liza Weil, but the narrative makes it clear she is not entitled to widowhood, and no-one grants it to her. Apart from Emily Gilmore, admittedly, which does nothing to bolster Paris’ cause.
This tension between people who feel like widows, and the society which refuses to legitimise their view of themselves, is given another twist in the final example I’d like to discuss: the speaker in W.H. Auden’s poem Funeral Blues.
Performed so memorably by John Hannah in Four Weddings and A Funeral, the poem has become one of the most famous and popular elegies in English. In its best known version, the poem runs thus:
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
There’s a noticeable shift between the second and third verses in the treatment of the death and its consequences. From demanding exaggerated outward ceremonies to mark the beloved’s death, the poem starts to imagine in both more personal and more cosmological terms.
If the first two verses concentrate on the public and social sphere (the area in which widowhood is bestowed and validated, as we have seen), the latter two are concerned with the relationship of one individual to the whole universe, and how that has been dislocated by another person’s death.
In both there is an anguished hyperbole, an awareness of the discrepancy between the speaker’s own feelings and the way the rest of the world sees the matter. The irony of the lines about the pigeons and the sun are directed inwards, sketching the speaker’s recognition of their lack of proportion alongside a refusal to countenance the idea that proportion is possible any more.
In some ways, it captures Olivia and Paris’ situation from both their own perspective and that of the audience watching them.
That pivot didn’t always shift the poem in this direction, however. The verses were originally composed for a play called The Ascent of F2, about a climber who dies whilst attempting a famously dangerous mountain, having been persuaded by the prospect of public glory and national pride. His lover speaks the lines, which share the first two verses with the later version, but then veer off like this:
Hold up your umbrellas to keep off the rain
From Doctor Williams while he opens a vein;
Life, he pronounces, it is finally extinct.
Sergeant, arrest that man who said he winked!
Shawcross will say a few words sad and kind
To the weeping crowds about the Master-mind,
While Lamp with a powerful microscope
Searches their faces for a sign of hope.
And Gunn, of course, will drive a motor-hearse:
None could drive it better, most would drive it worse.
He’ll open up the throttle to its fullest power
And drive him to the grave at ninety miles an hour.
The satire here is more obvious, and directly develops the first two verses’ slanted glance at the public commemoration of a death. They’re more clearly about the uselessness of marking someone’s funeral with great pomp, without being so specific about the internal emotional world which is being contrasted with those rituals.
Auden reworked the poem as part of a collection of cabaret songs for the singer Heidli Anderson. I find it difficult to read Funeral Blues, in the light of its earlier appearance (and alongside the other songs), without finding an implication that the singer is mourning a dead politician she had an affair with.
The pivot in the middle, from this angle, marks the shift between her satirical comments on the grandiose ceremonies accorded him, and her insistence that the person he really mattered to won’t be recognised during them.
The politics of widowhood
John Hannah’s performance of the poem during the funeral scene of Richard Curtis’ movie brings out this reading strongly. Putting Funeral Blues in the mouth of a gay man mourning his partner shows up the political dimension of the issue of who is regarded as someone’s “widow”.
The lines’ scorn for the rituals and regulations of public grief map provocatively across the character’s situation, legally barred from being recognised as the surviving spouse.
Anxieties around widowhood – and non-widowhood – are a recurring feature of literary history, taking various forms but often expressing the fears of a dominant group that they are losing the ability to define and control other people’s identities.
We might be tempted to mock the anxiety of medieval, early modern and Victorian societies who were so anxious to police the status of widowhood, and so strenuously exerted cultural authority stop people whom they imagined wanted to “play” at being widows. But there are articles and speeches being written right now in response to the prospect of equal marriage, which engage repugnantly in the same task.
I once spent three years researching a particular widow, on and off.
The Duchess at the centre of John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi (1612-13) acquires a lot of her edginess in the original play from the fact that her husband has died before the action begins. She is a young – and according to her brother Ferdinand, “lusty” – widow, whose combination of financial independence and sexual experience makes many in her vicinity nervous.
The equivalent man would be called “eligible”, and receive a lot of invitations from women with marriageable daughters. But a woman in the same situation becomes the subject of a campaign of surveillance and torture which ends in her death.
The more I worked on Webster’s play, the more I noticed that the Duchess was part of a much larger cultural anxiety around the figure of the widow in English literature. She’s an extreme case, admittedly: few other fictional widows end up eating apricots grown in horse dung, kissing the severed hand of their husband or being strangled on the orders of their lycanthropic and potentially incestuous twin brother.
But a continual low charge hums around widows, from the comic grotesque of Widow Twankey to the alluringly threatening Black Widows of gangster novels. Via the Wife of Bath, the Dowager Duchess of Grantham and Aouda from Eighty Days Around The World, to take a handful nearly at random.
Of course it alters across the eras, but time and time again, the figure of the widow acts as a focus for drama.
Sometimes the charge seems to derive from the fact that she is no longer dependent upon any man, or socially “explained” via her relationship to a father or husband. Sometimes it comes instead from the way a widow is seen as over-defining herself in relation to a man no longer present.
Either way, widows in literature often hold the potential to disrupt social order in a variety of ways.
Widows and Pseudowidows
This article, however, is not about widows. It is about women who are not widows. Or rather, women who aren’t widows whilst still looking, sounding, or acting like them.
When considering famous widows in literature, it struck me that two of the names that sprang to mind – Miss Havisham in Dickens’s Great Expectations and Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – don’t technically fit the criteria.
Miss Havisham’s veil is worn to mourn the marriage that never happened, whilst Olivia’s is to remind her of her dead brother, whose memory stops her from wanting to receive suitors. Nonetheless, they both look to me as if they’re trying to take on the role, adopting some of the characteristics associated with grieving spouses.
They wear specific clothes to mark their separation from other people (and from their previous selves), withdraw from normal social life, and refuse to put themselves under the jurisdiction of men. Neither are exactly successful in their attempt to construct themselves positively within the role of a widow.
Miss Havisham has become an icon of “frustrated” and “twisted” womanhood, unsuccessful within the novel’s plot and the butt of jokes in subsequent culture. She becomes a “tragic” figure in both the classical and slang senses of the word: an image of wronged heroism in her own mind, and a sad bitter spinster to the world outside.
Her veil, usually a temporary garment to mark her passing between two states, becomes a fixture, blending with the cobwebs which now cover her wedding cake. In Miss Havisham, Dickens created a figure who memorably combines the revulsion and anxiety felt by Victorian (and later) society towards women who refuse to play out the social roles ascribed to them.
Olivia from Twelfth Night is similarly associated with a veil, at least at the beginning of the play. The first thing we hear about her is that for seven years the world “Shall not behold her face at ample view/ But, like a cloistress, she will veiled walk…all this to season/ A brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh/ And lasting in her memory”.
When Viola (dressed as the male Cesario) manages to speak to her, Olivia prepares by putting her veil back on, setting up the comedy by-play in which Viola claims not to know who the lady of the house is, and the moment when Olivia pulls it back and demands “Look you, sir, such a one I was this present. Is’t not well done?”
Within the first act the grieving Olivia’s attempt to seclude herself is defeated by a combination of plot and Viola’s rhetorical skills. The play treats her mourning as one of the restrictive, self-imposed roles which so many of the characters are trapped in as the action begins. Orsino is locked into his schtick as self-obsessed Petrarchan lover, Sir Toby as the party knight who slinks home in the early hours of every morning, Malvolio as the image of Puritan rectitude and Olivia as the grieving veiled figure wandering inconsolably around her rooms as if her husband had just died.
These roles are all disrupted for the audience’s amusement and the characters’ correction during the ensuing scenes, with the play particularly conspiring to trick Olivia out of her image of herself as a grand widow. There’s an echo here of Miss Havisham, though in a very different key: women are not permitted to adopt the role of widow simply because they want to.
Both characters are diverted away from a successful performance as “pseudowidows” by the narratives in which they appear: Olivia to happy marriage and Miss Havisham to pathological bitterness and mockery.
‘A veil of wickedness’
In fact we don’t have to rely on my close-reading of these fictional texts to find anxiety around women “playing” at being widows. That harping on Olivia wearing a veil and walking secluded from men “like a cloistress” brings another group of women into play, whose apparent freedom from male jurisdiction has produced anger and revulsion in various eras.
I don’t have space to examine the way in which nuns in the Middle Ages navigated the rhetoric of “brides of Christ” alongside the reality that many entered the community after the death of a husband, or their social position. But one particular case stands out amongst the criticism of female religious orders: the bishop of Olmüt’s attack on the Beguines.
These women, who lived together in small self-governing groups, taking few vows and following the Rule of no specific order, were the subject of a lot of criticism in the later thirteenth century. Bruno, the bishop in question, wrote to the pope in 1273 to demand they be suppressed.
In R.W. Southern’s words:
he complained that…the women used their liberty as a veil of wickedness in order to escape the yoke of obedience to their priests and ‘the coercion of marital bonds’. Above all, he was indignant that young women should assume the status of widowhood against the authority of the Apostle who approved no widows under the age of sixty.
The bishop was referring to verses in the New Testament book of 1 Timothy, in which instructions are given for the way the “order of widows” should be run and who should be admitted. These women, who worked for the church and were provided with support, should all be over the age of sixty, have a good reputation and previously carried out pious works.
Obviously “widow” has a technical significance in this Biblical passage, but I was fascinated by Bruno’s line of attack: that the young women of the Beguines were setting themselves up as if they were widows, and thus escaping male authority.
His metaphor of a “veil of wickedness” once again acts as a focus for male anxiety over women who won’t accept their assigned role.
In part two of this post, I’ll delve into widow imagery in modern TV and film, including The Gilmore Girls and Four Weddings and a Funeral.
- Alyson Macdonald, who blogs for Bright Green, sent us this review. She’s previously written badass posts for us on the feminist issues in issue 1 of Kieron Gillen and Kamie McKelvie’s Young Avengers and Dirty Dancing. Do you have a guest post brewing in your brain? email us on [email protected].
Writer Matt Fraction and artist Chip Zdarsky have created a warm and intelligent comic with an overtly pro-feminist take on sex and relationships. Don’t let the fact that it’s called Sex Criminals put you off – the title is a play on words and refers to the main characters’ ability to literally stop time when they have sex, which they use to carry out bank robberies.
It’s a surreal concept, and one which is difficult to write well, but Fraction has built a successful career out of telling these kinds of stories, and is skilled in persuading readers to suspend their disbelief.
In Sex Criminals, time is not presented as strictly linear: events are shown out of sequence, and the adult version of the lead character Suzie narrates scenes from her adolescence, sometimes even appearing next to her younger self on the page. This time-travel effect makes it easier for the reader to accept Suzie’s time-stopping powers, while also establishing her as our link to the story.
By choosing a female lead character, writer Fraction is challenging popular culture’s tendency to shy away from female leads, as well as the relative taboo of women’s sexuality.
In particular, his willingness to discuss female masturbation is refreshing because, while male wanking is openly discussed, joked about, and accepted as a fact of life, there’s still a lingering sense that it’s dirty when women do it.
Early on in the comic, we see young Suzie discovering the Greatest Love of All in the bath, and it’s dealt with in a sensitive, not overtly-eroticised way – adult Suzie, narrating while fully clothed and perched on the edge of the bathtub, is the focus of the panel.
Although we are aware that young Suzie is masturbating in this scene, the aim is not to sexualise her but to introduce her orgasm-related superpower, so the masturbation is less important than what happens immediately afterwards. In a pastiche of the old comics trope of an ordinary kid acquiring superpowers when they hit puberty, Suzie realises that time stops when she comes. Here, Fraction takes an inspired dig at the state of sex education in American schools, because Suzie has no idea whether her experience is normal, and she’s forced to rely on the dubious wisdom of a classmate when the adults won’t answer her questions.
Despite this, Suzie eventually becomes more confident about sex, and it’s made very clear to the reader that when she has sex with a partner it’s her choice to do so. As the narrator, she informs us that the first time she slept with her high school boyfriend Craig she had decided to do so in advance, and we see her enjoy the experience, even though it doesn’t live up to her expectation that it would be a profound, life-changing event. From a feminist point of view, the most interesting of the comic’s sex scenes is Suzie’s first encounter with Jon, who has just been introduced as the love interest. Jon explicitly checks for consent before initiating physical contact, in a way that seems natural, relaxed, and pretty damn sexy.
The admirable gender politics of the writing are perfectly complemented by Zdarsky’s art, which fits perfectly with a comic which is played for laughs as much as for titillation. It isn’t drawn in an overtly erotic style, and there isn’t as much nudity as you might expect. The fact that the art isn’t wank-bank material in and of itself highlights the more cerebral aspects of Suzie’s attraction to Jon; they fancy one another, but their interest is sparked by shared interests over looks.
The art is also key to conveying the comic’s humour, whether it’s in Craig’s ridiculous gurning expression when he’s frozen in time right at the point of orgasm, or the crude drawings of nonsensical sex acts that Rachelle uses to explain “the real raw sex shit” to teenage Suzie. There are also a range of less obvious visual gags worked into the art in backgrounds or on characters’ clothes, including numerous references to a celebrity called “Sexual Gary” who appears to be a pin-up figure for teenage girls.
Although Sex Criminals is a very funny comic, it also has emotional depth. The scenes from Suzie’s adolescence aren’t solely about her sexual development, but also deal with her father’s sudden death and her mother’s difficulty in coping afterwards. Young Suzie’s reactions are balanced by the narration from her adult self, creating a richer and more satisfying narrative.
Sex comedies can often disappoint feminists, but Sex Criminals shows that writers don’t have to rely on tired sexist stereotypes when writing jokes about sex, and that decent gender politics don’t have to be po-faced and humourless. Whether you’re a devoted comics fan or simply curious, this one is definitely worth a look.
Sex Criminals is available now from Image Comics for digital download and from, ahem, specialist retailers.