The Monstrous Feminine (Barbara Creed 1993)

Barbara Creed, 1993. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge. (182 pages)

The author examines the role of women in horror films challenging the dominant, patriarchal view which frequently puts the woman in the position of victim. She argues that when the feminine is constructed as monstrous, it is frequently done in conjunction with its mothering functions. Her main thesis sustains that the prototype of all definitions (sic) of monstrosity related to the feminine is linked the woman’s reproductive body. Creed opts to use the term ‘monstrous feminine’ instead of ‘female monster, which, in her conception would oppose to the idea of a ‘male monster’. In doing so, she aims at providing a definition that may push the discussion beyond a mere dualism concerning the gender of the monster. Moving from a feminist perspective to a psychology oriented analysis, her arguments move on to attack Freudian concepts of human psyque. Rooted in his explanations of the Oedipus complex, Freud suggests that a woman terrifies because she is a castrated human being. Instead, Creed defends that women are primarily terrifying because they might castrate. In other words, while Freud formerly claimed that women terrify because they are abnormally castrated, Creed seeks to dismantle these assumptions by holding forth that the monstrous feminine is exactly men’s fear of the woman as a castrating other. Creed’s theory is underpinned by a reversal of Freudian patriarchal world-view which holds the woman as an “incomplete” human being. In reply to Freud’s male-centred views she claims that the woman is whole without a penis and that, along with the reproductive body, is what causes fear in men. This new take would reveal important clues about patriarchal society, masculinity and their apprehensions. The Vagina dentata is the image she uses to illustrate this masculine fear of being castrated by a woman.

The Monstrous-Feminine goes on to discuss and analyse the films Carrie, The Exorcist, Psycho, Alien and others. According to the author there are seven possible faces of female monstrosity: 1) archaic mother; 2) monstrous womb; 3) vampire; 4) witch; 5) possessed monster; 6) deadly femme castratrice and 7) the castrating mother. Creed draws heavily on the literary concept of ‘abjection’, as proposed by Kristeva, which is roughly horror derived from bodily fluids and excrements (another female-related aspect: the teaching of toiletry). In that sense, Creed does not bring any innovation, she transposes the main concepts of Kristeva’s literary feminist perspective to underpin her analysis of horror films. This book provides some valuable readings and insightful comments about the nature of some horror films, however, it is an exhaustive reading, very repetitive in its collocations and constantly coming back to the same argument. In short, Creed is proposing a reading that reveals misogynous aspects of society in horror movies, which, in itself is hardly an innovative reading. Nevertheless, her merit lies in the way she applies this framework to the films and that is what makes this book worth reading.

Creed is particularly convincing when pointing out the inequities of psychoanalytic theories to discuss sexual differences. Feminist theories are extremely important when debating ‘otherness’ but it loses is power of making convincing statements if allied to a discipline such as Psychology. The importance of this post-structural, psychoanalytic criticism was, at least in part, that it attempted to engage a serious discussion with horror films, establishing an unprecedented debate with such cultural items. Surely, it still has more to offer as long as it does not insist in finding ‘fixed structures’, providing ‘essentialist’ readings which reduce the plural, conflicting voices in a text. We can not pretend that a work of art is detached from the time and context of it production. Caught up in the critique of either the subject or ideology in general, these reading tend to forget the fact that works of art are made within time-space boundaries, and that must be observed. One way out of this a-historical, pseudo-universalising position is to make psychological readings socially, culturally and historically determined. Despite Creed’s good insights I did not feel completely convinced because, as she was trying to provide me with a key to the unconscious, I could not see how it relates to my world experience or to my own readings when I watched the film. The horror films Creed analysed were supposed to define the female body as an alien and oppressive realm that provokes feelings of disgust or fear but the acceptance of such a statement will depend of who you are.

The discussion she raised about Alien was thought-provoking and particularly illustrative of how totalitarian psychological readings can be is not situated within something more tangible such as systems of repression that are historically specific. Although I can clearly see the theme of the monstrous feminine and the abject in the film, I disagree with the author’s conclusions. It is my opinion the film is about two competing “women”, one is a human, mammal and the other one bears the marks of an insect. The fact that the child’s name is “Newt” (an amphibious) is also suggestive that a competition between species is going on. Also, Creeds reading of Psycho is problematic as the “mother” is not even there. This film seems to be linked to the disintegration of the self and its parallels can be seen the period. It is Creed’s strenuous effort to push a reading at any cost which makes The Monstrous-Feminine unpalatable at times. Indeed, its greatest shortcoming are the excessive claims based on an authority, a symbolism that is not fully convincing. One example of that immoderation that undermines a good argument is the fact that virtually everything becomes be a penis (a knife or even the crooked nose of a witch!), a vagina (caves, grottoes, holes) and even an umbilical cord (the winding road that leads to a castle-like-womb). Throughout the book there is too much discussion about the Freud, Kristeva and Lacan and not enough film analysis. Observations followed by an actual explanation of the images are very rare in this book. Most of the time, when Creed actually tackles a film analysis she tends to resort not to images (p.o.v., lighting, angles, etc.), but to either dialogues or object in the scenes. Soon after she is using these elements to force on the reader the meaning symbols and to push her reading rather then doing a more subtle, suggestive writing.

Finally, when evoking old myths of misogynous nature, Creed resorts to archetypes such as Medusa and her petrifying gaze who makes men ‘stiff’ with horror. Medusa so terrifying that she makes men “wet and shit” themselves (again, Kristeva’s the bodily fluids). However, for a work that aims at debating the concept of monstrosity derived from women, it is almost unpardonable to miss out Lilith, Adam’s former rebellious wife. The Bible, if read secularly, is our primal source of horror. Our western tradition certainly derives from Greece but mostly from a Judeo-Christian tradition that is not referred to in the book and which would have come extremely handy in the discussion of the Exorcist. In my opinion, the most intriguing sentence in the book actually comes from Kristeva. The abject is defined as “the place where meaning collapses” (p.9). In that sense, I believe Kristeva’s notion of border is a much more useful concept to think about monstrosity than other reading provide. Monstrosity takes place when the struggle to make sense out of something (by means of language or any other form of rationality) fails. When ‘meaning’ collapses, monstrosity appears. That which cannot be understood has to be de-monstrated, as the word itself suggests, and the images in horror movies are an attempt at representing that which can not be described, that which can only be shown.

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