Monsters in the Attic: Women’s Rage and the Gothic




Monsters, Monstrous Feminine, Rage, Gothic, Penny Dreadful, Women's Rage, Queer Theory, Kill joy, Failure, Feminism.

How to Cite

Hawkins, K. (2019). Monsters in the Attic: Women’s Rage and the Gothic. M/C Journal, 22(1).
Vol. 22 No. 1 (2019): rage
Published 2019-03-13

The Gothic is not always suited to women’s emancipation, but it is very well suited to women’s anger, and all other instances of what Barbara Creed (3) would refer to as ‘abject’ femininity: excessive, uncanny and uncontained instances that disturb patriarchal norms of womanhood. This article asserts that the conventions of the Gothic genre are well suited to expressions of women’s rage; invoking Sarah Ahmed’s work on the discomforting presence of the kill-joy in order to explore how the often-alienating processes of uncensored female anger coincide with contemporary notions of the Monstrous Feminine. This should not suggest that the Gothic is a wholly feminist genre - one need only look to Jane Eyre to observe the binarised construction of Gothic women as either ‘pure’ or ‘deviant’: virginal heroine or mad woman in the attic. However, what is significant about the Gothic genre is that it often permits far more in-depth, even sympathetic explorations of ‘deviant femininity’ that are out of place elsewhere.

Indeed, the normative, rationalist demand for good health and accommodating cheerfulness is symptomatic of what Queer Crip scholar Katarina Kolářová (264) describes as ‘compulsory, curative positivity’ – wherein the Monstrousness of deviant femininity, Queerness and disability must be ‘fixed’ in order to produce blithe, comforting feminine docility. It seems almost too obvious to point to The Yellow Wallpaper as a perfect exemplar of this: the physician husband of Gillman’s protagonist literally prescribes indolence and passivity as ‘cures’ for what may well be post-partum depression – another instance of distinctly feminine irrationality that must be promptly contained. The short story is peppered through with references to the protagonist’s ‘illness’ as a source of consternation or discomfort for her husband, who declares, I feel easier with you now(134) as she becomes more and more passive.

The notion of men’s comfort is important within discussions of women’s anger – not only within the Gothic, but within a broader context of gendered power and privileged experience. Sara Ahmed’s Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness asserts that wedescribe as happy a situation that you wish to defend. Happiness translates its wish into a politics, a wishful politics, a politics that demands that others live according to a wish” (573) For Ahmed, happiness is not solely an individual experience, but rather is relational, and as much influenced by normative systems of power as any other interpersonal process.

It has historically fallen upon women to sacrifice their own happiness to ensure that men are comfortable; being quiet and unargumentative, remaining both chase and sexually alluring, being maternal and nurturing, while scrupulously censoring any evidence of pregnancy, breastfeeding or menstrual cycles (Boyer 79). If a woman has ceased to be happy within these terms, then she has failed to be a good woman, and experiences what Ahmed refers to as a ‘negative affect’ – a feeling of being out of place. To be out of place is to be an ‘affect alien’: one must either continue feeling alienated or correct one’s feelings (Ahmed 582). Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild uses the analogy of a bride feeling miserable at her wedding, obliging herself to bring her feelings in-line with what is expected of her, “Sensing a gap between the ideal feeling and the actual feeling she tolerated, the bride prompts herself to be happy” (Hochschild 61).

Ahmed uses to the term ‘Kill Joy’ to refer to feminists – particularly black feminists – whose actions or presence refuse this obligation, and in turn project their discomfort outwards, instead of inwards. The stereotype of the angry black woman, or the humourless feminist persist because these women are not complicit in social orders that hold the comfort of white men as paramount (583); their presence is discomforting.

Contrary to its title, Killing Joy does not advocate for an end to happiness. Rather, one might understand the act of killing joy as a tactic of subjective honesty – an acknowledgement of dis-ease, of one’s alienation and displacement within the social contract of reciprocal happiness. Here I use the word dis-ease as a deliberate double entendre – implying both the experience of a negative affect, as well as the apparent social ‘illness’ of refusing acquiescent female joy. In The Yellow Wallpaper, the protagonist’s passive femininity is ironically both the antithesis and the cause of her Monstrous transformation, demonstrating an instance of feminine liminality that is the hallmark of the Gothic heroine.

Here I introduce the example of Lily Frankenstein, a modern interpretation of the Bride of the Creature, portrayed by Billie Piper in the Showtime series Penny Dreadful. In Shelley’s novel the Bride is commissioned for the Creature’s contentment, a contract that Frankenstein acknowledges she could not possibly have consented to (Shelley 206). She is never given sentience or agency; her theoretical existence and pre-natal destruction being premised entirely on the comfort of men. Upon her destruction, the Creature cries, “Are you to be happy while I grovel in the intensity of my wretchedness?” (Shelley 209). Her first film portrayal by Elsa Lanchester in James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein (1936) is iconic, but brief. She is granted no dialogue, other than a terrified scream, followed by a goose-like hiss of disgust at Boris Karloff’s lonely Creature. Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) merges the characters of Elizabeth and the Bride into the same doomed woman. After being murdered by the Creature, she is resurrected by Frankenstein – and consequently fought over by both. Her inevitable suicide is her one moment of tragic autonomy.

Penny Dreadful is the first time that the Bride has been given an opportunity to speak for herself. Lily’s character arc is neither that of the idealised, innocent victim, nor is she entirely abject and wanton: she is – quite literally – two women in one. Before she is re-animated and conditioned by Victor Frankenstein to be the perfect bride, she was Brona, a predictably tragic, Irish street-walker with a taste for whisky and a consumptive cough. Diane Long Hoeveler describes the ambiguous duality of the Gothic feminine arising from the fantasies of middle-class woman writing gothic fiction during the 19th century (106). Drawing upon Harriet Guest’s examination of the development of femininity in early Gothic literature, Hoeveler asserts that women may explore the ‘deviant’ pleasures of wanton sexuality and individualistic, sadistic power while still retaining the chaste femininity demanded of them by their bourgeois upbringings. As both innocent victim of patriarchy and Monstrous Feminine, the construction of the gothic heroine simultaneously criminalises and deifies women.

I assert that Penny Dreadful demonstrates the blurring of these boundaries in such a way that the fantasy of the sympathetic, yet Monstrous Gothic Feminine is launched out of the parlours of bored Victorian housewives into a contemporary feminist moment that is characterised by a split between respectable diplomacy and the visibility of female rage. Her transition from coerced docility and abject, sexualised anger manifests in the second season of the show. The Creature – having grown impatient and jealous – comes to collect his Bride and is met with a furious refusal.

Lily’s rage is explosive. Her raw emotion is evidently startling to the Creature, who stands in astonishment and fear at something even more monstrous and alien than himself – a woman’s unrestrained anger. For all his wretched ‘Otherness’ and misery, he is yet a man - a bastard son of the Enlightenment, desperate to be allowed entrance into the hallowed halls of reason. In both Shelley’s original novel and the series, he tries (and fails) to establish himself as a worthy and rational citizen; settling upon the Bride as his coveted consolation prize for his Monstrous failure. If he cannot be a man as his creator was, then he shall have a companion that is ‘like’ him to soothe his pain.

Consequently, Lily’s refusal of the Creature is more than a rejection – it is the manifestation of an alien affect that has been given form within the undead, angry woman: a trifecta of ‘Otherness’. “Shall we wonder the pastures and recite your fucking poetry to the fucking cows?” She mocks the Creature’s bucolic, romantic ideals, killing his joyful phantasy that she, as his companion, will love and comfort him despite his Monstrousness (“Memento Mori”).

Lily’s confrontation of the Creature is an unrestrained litany of women’s pain – the humiliation of corsetry and high heels, the slavery of marriage, the brutality of sexual coercion: all which Ahmed would refer to as the “signs of labour under the sign of happiness” (573). These are the pains that women must hide in order to maintain men’s comfort, the sacrificial emotional labours which are obfuscated by the mandates of male-defined femininity. The Gothic’s nurturance of anger transforms Lily’s outburst from an act of cruelty and selfishness to a site of significant feminine abjection. Through this scene Hochschild’s comment takes on new meaning: Lily – being quite literally the Bride (or the intended Bride) of the Creature – has turned the tables and has altered the process of disaffection – and made herself happy at the expense of men.

Lily forms a militia of ‘fallen’ women from whom she demands tribute: the bleeding, amputated hands of abusive men. The scene is a thrilling one, recalling the misogyny of witch trials, sexual violence and exploitation as an army of angry kill joys bang on the banquet table, baying for men’s blood (“Ebb Tide”). However, as seems almost inevitable, Lily’s campaign is short-lived. Her efforts are thwarted and her foot soldiers either murdered or fled. We last see her walking dejectedly through the London fog, her fate and future unknown.

Lily’s story recalls an instance of the ‘bad feminism’ that nice, respectable, mainstream feminists seek to distance themselves from. In her discussion of the acquittal of infamous castatrix Lorena Bobbitt, poet Katha Pollitt (65-66) observes the scramble by “nice, liberal middle-class professional” feminists to distance themselves from the narratives of irrational rage that supposedly characterise ‘victim feminism’ – opting instead for the comforting ivory towers of self-control and diplomacy.

Lily’s speech to her troops is seen partly through the perspective of an increasingly alarmed Dorian Gray, who has hitherto been enjoying the debauched potential of these liberated, ‘deviant’ women, recalling bell hooks’ observation that “ultimately many males revolted when we stated that our bodies were territories that they could not occupy at will. Men who were ready for female sexual liberation if it meant free pussy, no strings attached, were rarely ready for feminist female sexual agency” (41). This is no longer a coterie of wanton women that he may enjoy, but a sisterhood of angry, vengeful kill-joys that will not be respectable, or considerate of his feelings in their endeavours.

Here, parallels arise between the absolutes drawn between women as agents or victims, and the positioning of women as positive, progressive ‘rational’ beings or melancholic kill-joys that Ahmed describes. We need only turn to the contemporary debate surrounding the MeToo movement (and its asinine, defensive response of ‘Not All Men’) to observe that the process of identifying oneself as a victim has – for many – become synonymous with weakness, even amongst other feminists. Notably, Germaine Greer referred to the movement as ‘whinging’, calling upon women to be more assertive, instead of wallowing in self-victimisation and misandry, as Lily supposedly does (Miller).

While Greer may be a particularly easy strawman, her comments nonetheless recall Judith Halberstam’s observations of prescriptive paternalism (maternalism?) within Western feminist discourse. His chapter Shadow Feminisms uses the work of Gayatri Spivak to describe how triumphalist narratives of women’s liberation often function to restrict the terms of women’s agency and expression – particularly those of women of colour.

Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak? asserts that the colonial narratives inherent within white feminists’ attempts to ‘save’ non-Western women are premised upon the imagined heroicism of the individual, which in turn demands the rejection of ‘subaltern’ strategies like passiveness, anger and refusal. She asks, “does the category of resistance impose a teleology of progressive politics on the analytics of power?” (9). Put more simply, both Halberstam and Spivak beg the question of why it is necessary for women and other historically marginalised groups to adopt optimistic and respectable standards of agency? Especially when those terms are pre-emptively defined by feminists like Greer.

Halberstam conceptualises Shadow Feminisms in the melancholic terms of refusal, undoing, failure and anger. Even in name, Shadow Feminism is well suited to the Gothic – it has no agenda of triumphant, linear progress, nor the saccharine coercion of individualistic optimism. Rather, it emphasises the repressed, quiet forms of subversion that skulk in the introspective, resentful gloom. This is a feminism that cannot and will not let go of its traumas or its pain, because it should not have to (Halberstam, Queer Art 128-129).

Thus, the Monstrousness of female rage is given space to acknowledge, rather than downplay or dismiss the affective-alienation of patriarchy. To paraphrase scholars Andrew Smith and Diana Wallace, the Gothic allows women to explore the hidden or censured expressions of dissatisfaction and resentment within patriarchal societies, being a “coded expression of women’s fears of entrapment within the domestic and within the female body” (Smith & Wallace 2).

It may be easy to dismiss the Gothic as eldritch assemblages of Opheliac madness and abject hyperbole, I argue that it is valuable precisely because it invites the opening of festering wounds and the exploration of mouldering sepulchres that are shunned by the squeamish mainstream; coaxing the skeletons from the closet so that they may finally air their musty grievances. As Halberstam states in Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, the Gothic represents the return of the repressed and thus encourages rather than censors the exploration of grief, madness and irrationality (Skin Shows 19). Accordingly, we may understand Lily’s rage as what Halberstam would refer to as a Monstrous Technology (21-22) – more specifically, a technology of the Monstrous Feminine: a significant site of disruption within Gothic narratives that not only ‘shows’ the source of its abjection, but angrily airs its dirty laundry for everyone to see.

Here emerges the distinction between the ‘non-whinging’, respectable feminism advocated by the likes of Greer and Lily’s Monstrous, Gothic Feminism. Observing a demonstration by a group of suffragettes, Lily describes their efforts as unambitious – “their enemies are same, but they seek equality” (“Good and Evil Braided Be”). Lily has set her sights upon mastery. By allowing her rage to manifest freely, her movement has manifested as the violent misandry that anti-suffragists and contemporary anti-feminists alike believe is characteristic of women’s liberation, provoking an uncomfortable moment for ‘good’ feminists who desperately wish to avoid such pejorative stereotypes.

What Lily offers is not ethical. It does not conform to any justifiable feminist ideology. She represents that which is repressed, a distinctly female rage that has no place within any rational system of belief. Nonetheless, Lily remains a sympathetic character, her “doomed, keening women” (“Ebb Tide”) evoking a quiet, subversive thrill of solidarity that must be immediately hushed. This, I assert, is indicative of the liminal ambiguity that makes the Monstrous Feminine so unsettling, and so significant.

And Monsters are always significant. Their ‘Otherness’ functions like lighthouses of meaning. Further, as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (6) reminds us, Monsters signify not only the fragile boundaries of human subjectivity and discourse, but also the origins of the alterity that defines them. Like the tragic creature of Shelley’s masterpiece, Monsters eventually follow their creators home to demand an explanation – their revenant terror demands accountability (Cohen 20). What Lily exemplifies does not have to make others comfortable, and it is under no obligation to remain within any standards of ethics. To return one last time to Halberstam, I argue that the Monstrosity manifested within female rage is valuable precisely because it because it obliges us “to be unsettled by the politically problematic connections history throws our way” (Halberstam, Queer Art 162). Therefore, to be angry, to dwell on traumatic pasts, and to revel in the ‘failure’ of negativity is to ensure that these genealogies are not ignored.

When finally captured, Victor Frankenstein attempts to lobotomise her, promising to permanently take away the pain that is the cause of her Monstrous rage. To this, Lily responds: “there are some wounds that can never heal. There are scars that make us who we are, but without them, we don’t exist” (Perpetual Night and the Blessed Dark). Lily refuses to let go of her grief and her anger, and in so doing she fails to coalesce within the placid, docile femininity demanded by Victor Frankenstein. But her refusal is not premised in an obdurate reactionism. Rather, it is a tactic of survival. By her own words, without her trauma – and that of countless women before her – she does not exist. The violence of rape, abuse and the theft of her agency have defined her as both a woman and as a Monster. “I’m the sum part of one woman’s days. No more, no less”, she tells Frankenstein. To eschew her rage is to deny its origin.

So, to finish I ask readers to take a moment, and dwell on that rage. On women’s rage. On yours. On the rage that may have been directed at you. Does that make you uncomfortable?



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Author Biography

Katharine Hawkins, Macquarie University

Katharine Hawkins recently completed a PhD in Feminist Monster Theory. Her doctoral research demonstrates how the Monstrous Feminine may be adapted as a feminist praxis that speaks back to the limits of both patriarchy and mainstream feminism. She has a keen interest in examining the horror and Gothic genres through Queer and Feminist theory, and is excited to continue exploring the liminal and signifying potential of Monsters in contemporary media. She currently teaches at Macquarie University, Sydney.