This Halloween, we’re looking at another kind of scary story. Rooted in Greek mythology, it’s the story of woman as monster the patriarchy has told throughout the ages. Editor and essayist Jess Zimmerman gets into the spooky details in this excerpt from Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology.
The first thing you saw when entering the Dangerous Beauty exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a vintage dress from Versace’s 1992–1993 “Miss S&M” collection. Straps of quilted leather crisscrossed the throat and décolletage of a headless mannequin, each strap adorned with a dollar-sized brassy coin bearing the head of a howling Gorgon, a play on Versace’s usual logo of a placid Medusa face. The overall effect was oddly militaristic, a sort of four-star dominatrix look.
The exhibit, subtitled “Medusa in Classical Art,” was tiny, tucked away in a single room in the mezzanine of the Greek and Roman art collection, next to the study gallery. So perhaps the dress was there to grab the attention of tourists who might accidentally have wandered up from the floor below, a broad indoor courtyard across which a young Hercules, lion-skin coat held meaningfully over his arm, stares impatiently at a statue of his older self. This is often the purpose, after all, of women’s bodies and the clothing that adorns them, especially clothing that highlights the body’s constraints. Clothing like this exists to catch the eye.
In this case, though, gawkers lured by “Miss S&M” were deposited into a room full of artifacts depicting not only Medusa but a coven of other female creatures of antiquity. Gorgon faces—both horrible ancient ones, with tusks and beards, and later ones, whose placid classical symmetry is broken only by a few demure snakes at the temples—stared out from roof tiles, armor, cups, and cameos. A piece of pottery showed Scylla with her snake legs splayed, a pack of dog heads lunging out of her crotch. Sirens perched their bird bodies on plates and mirrors. On the side of one shallow goblet, a Sphinx was painted in loving miniature, crouching over a male victim who appeared to plead for his life. Chasing after the female torso in her chic bondage, in other words, landed you in a nest of monsters.
The sixty pieces in the exhibit were intended to track the way Medusa and her counterparts became subject, despite their monstrousness, to principles of beauty. A gold pendant with a Gorgon’s face from 450 BCE showed a grimacing creature with sharp teeth, a protruding tongue, a creased brow, a knobby chin. An exquisite nineteenth-century cameo, displayed in the same case, showed a perfect, precise neoclassical profile— which is to say, she looked a bit like Graham Chapman, but that was the style at the time. Apart from a coil of snake at the crown of her head, like a fascinator, and another knotted scarflike beneath her chin, she had no visible markers of monstrousness. You’d easily mistake her for a proper young lady with Bohemian hair and odd taste in accessories—the youngest Downton Abbey daughter, maybe. A Siren on one oil vessel from the sixth century BCE sported a full beard, though Sirens were generally coded as female, and had no arms; its head sat atop an awkward, turkey-like bird body. Catty-corner was a 1910 French woodcut in which a Siren, despite having developed bear arms and a fish tail to go with her wings, was still depicted as a beautiful bare-breasted feminine figure with a crown of flowing hair. Creatures conceived as repulsive were gradually reimagined as appealing, even seductive—at least on the surface. The monstrosity remains, but it’s no longer visible.
“In a society centered on the male citizen, the feminization of monsters served to demonize women,” writes curator Kiki Karoglou in an accompanying bulletin. The later monsters don’t just look more beautiful and more feminine; they look more human, underscoring the idea that monstrousness is somehow the human woman’s natural condition. As monsters became more pleasing to the eye, they were defanged—beauty being equated, in classical Greece, with moral goodness—and, paradoxically, made more dangerous. A Medusa with tusks, whiskers, and a grotesque distended tongue could be easily pegged as a threat; a human-looking Medusa could fly under the radar, until you tried to brush her hair. The resulting girl-faced beasts, read the exhibition text, foreshadow “the conceit of the seductive but threatening female that emerges in the late nineteenth century in reaction to women’s empowerment.” When a feminine face might belong to a secret Gorgon, any woman could be a monster. Perhaps every woman was.
This is one of the legacies we’ve inherited from the classical era, which underpins so much of what Westerners see as “culture” and “civilization”: a suspicion of women in general, a feeling that every one of them may have claws and tails if you look below the waterline. The monsters massed together in this little room at the Met represented a series of cautionary tales. Women may look harmless on the face, they said, but look at their snake hair and dog crotches and claws. Look at them crouched over a male victim, ready to bite. Beware their ambition, their ugliness, their insatiable hunger, their ferocious rage.
It was these cautionary tales that brought me to the Met, shortly before the exhibit closed in January 2019. I was writing about these same female monsters, and a few others from the same period—specifically how they’re used to represent qualities that women are supposed to tone down, lest we be seen as dangerous or grotesque. I wanted to look them in the face, all these Sphinxes and Gorgons. I wanted to be surrounded by them, and see if there was a place among them for me. Because my project was to rehabilitate these monsters—not externally, like the (male) artists who gradually made their forms more pleasing and symmetrical, but by showing how the traits we were told made them dangerous are actually their greatest strengths, and ours.
All the stories about monstrous women, about creatures who are too gross, too angry, too devious, too grasping, too smart for their own good, are stories told by men. The versions of these myths, the ones that are most familiar, come from Ovid, Homer, Hesiod, Virgil, Sophocles. I came to the Met to wonder what stories the monsters themselves would tell. What would Medusa say about the ugliness she first experienced as an unjust punishment, and then learned to use as a weapon? What happens when we free the Sphinx from the drama of Oedipus, and let her exist as something more than an obstacle to a man? What was it like for the Sirens on their lonely rock, watching everyone who tried to love them drown?
I’ve had a long-standing interest in female heroes, the women who have broken through gendered notions of who is allowed to embody valor and strength, and I was beginning to suspect that monsters, perhaps ironically, could offer a whole new approach to heroism for people (like me) who are often tripped up by feminine ideals. The qualities we hail as heroic in Western culture—courage and fortitude, selflessness and nobility, steadiness of mind and will—are not unique to men. Arguably, they’re not even characteristic. But in the male-dominated myth, folklore, and literature that defines our culture, they’ve been annexed as “masculine” traits. We’re still struggling to create or consume stories about valorous women, unless they also display the “feminine” virtues: passive sex appeal and fragility that requires rescue. In a hero, these are flaws. Thus, any heroine who tries to embody both contains the seeds of her own undoing.
The female hero can hoist up the shackles of femininity and take them with her on adventures, but that’s not the same as breaking free. (Think of that internet video of a fluffy dog running around a restaurant inside his plastic cage, pushing it along with his nose at an astonishing clip as his owner tries to keep up. You can drag your cage around, but it’s still a cage.) In college, I was a particular fan of Edmund Spenser’s “martial maid” Britomart, who gets to wear armor and carry a spear and go on quests and even rescue maidens—but eventually, even Britomart gallops back into her role as a princess, a wife, and the mother of a race of noble Britons. Her whole mission, in general, has been to find the man she glimpsed in a magic mirror and fell in love with. The rescuing damsels part was just a side quest.
Jumping ahead only a few centuries, Leeloo in the movie The Fifth Element is perhaps my favorite example of the heroine undone by her own femininity. She’s conceived as a perfect being with inhuman skills in both fighting and intellect, but she spends most of the movie in a little Borat swimsuit—and in the end, she needs to be both physically rescued by a man and given purpose by his sexual interest. (Her ability to save the universe is neutralized until Korben says he loves her, and let’s be honest, he’s not talking about their deep emotional connection. They barely know each other, and Leeloo speaks no human language! She’s very hot though.) We’re not in 1590 anymore, or even 1997, and things are improving for the female hero. But truly transcending the cultural expectations placed on a woman—to be attractive and sexually available (but not too available), to never outshine the male heroes, to let herself be transformed at the end into a prize—is so rare that when it happens, we often regard it with suspicion. What do you mean Furiosa and Mad Max never bone down? This is a movie!
And if the heroine truly slips the constraints that her femininity is supposed to place on her, the very heroic virtues she embodies often mutate into monstrosity. In the Old English epic poem Beowulf, the eponymous male hero is described as an aglæca, a word for which we do not know the exact meaning but which is usually translated as something like “hero” or “warrior.” Beowulf’s antagonist, the monster Grendel, also gets described as an aglæca, which in his case is usually glossed as “demon” or “monster” or something similar. What the two have in common is the sense of being awe-inspiring or formidable, so that’s probably more or less what aglæca means. But the word has a feminine form, aglæcwif, and the ancient text contains an aglæcwif too: Grendel’s mother. There is no ambiguity to this word, not in the way it’s come down to us; aglæcwif is translated as “monster-woman,” “troll-lady,” “wretch,” or “hag.” In other contexts, “wif ” (which is also attached to other descriptors of Grendel’s mother) specifically denotes a human woman, and yet—like it’s not indignity enough that she’s always called “Grendel’s mother,” as if the bards were Grendel’s schoolmates who didn’t realize mothers had names—the aglæcwif is assumed to be subhuman and bestial. She’s just as much an aglæca as Beowulf, just as much a wif as the other human women to which that refers, but the combination inspires not awe but horror. The monstrousness of Grendel’s mother, the factor that makes her a hag or a troll or a wretch, comes from her stepping outside the slim strictures of womanhood into the realm of aglæca, of formidability and awe. In another world, she would have been a hero.
About the Author
Jess Zimmerman is an editor at Quirk Books, a freelance writer of essays, and the author of Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology. Her essays, fiction, opinion pieces, and prose poetry have appeared in publications including Vice, Slate, The Cut, the Washington Post, The Guardian, and the New Republic. She lives in Philadelphia. Connect with her online at jesszimmerman.com and on Twitter (@j_zimms).