Archive | October, 2016

Middles and Monstrous Motherhood

18 Oct


The feminine body as long been one of mystery, and even one of monstrosity. One aspect of feminine monstrosity is certainly the female body’s procreative capabilities. As the Bible states that Eve is the mother of us all, biblical myth identifies Lilith as the mother of all monsters. This connection to monstrous motherhood is tied also to other mythological monstrous mothers, like Echidna—the half-snake woman whose family attempted, unsuccessfully, to overthrow the Greek gods. Zeus allows Echidna (her name meaning “she-viper”) and her brood to live so that Greek heroes have monsters to fight. The connection between Lilith and Echidna goes even further than their motherhood; it extends even to one of their traditional forms.

Just as Lilith is often depicted in snake form—no doubt intertwining her mythic form with that of the tempter-snake in the Garden of Eden—Echidna is also half-snake.  And this snake form can also be conceptually linked with the belly; lest we forget, God’s punishment of the serpent was for it to crawl on its belly in the dust forevermore.  And the abdomen, although mistakenly, is often connected with motherhood. Similarly, snakes are connected in many mythological systems with fertility (not just monstrous fertility). However, why would one not assume that monstrous children would not arrive from the monstrous womb that drags the ground?

crommyonian_sow_by_uralowa-d58409eHowever, like the children of the alien queen form Aliens, Echidna is a ravenous example of what Barbra Creed refers to as the monstrous-feminine. Echidna devours her pray, first leading them in with her seductive gaze. And gluttony is linked to both the vagina (vagina dentate) and the stomach. As Eve hungered for more than the Garden could give her, she may have become ravenous. And because the vaginal canal is the passageway for life, it might also be the portal to death. Echidna’s teeth, thus, are often depicted as being lined with sultry, full lips but with dangerous and jagged teeth or dagger-like incisors. Parallel, the alien queen’s teeth are also sharp and shark-like. And like Echidna, the Queen seeks warm-bodies for her children’s sake.

Xenomorph_queen.pngThe Queen uses human bodies, not only as flesh for food to sustain herself and her children, her brood plant eggs in their chests to spread her monstrous children throughout the universe. The chest-bursters here reveal another fear involving motherhood: the male as mother, the subversion of the “natural” roles between the sexes. There is, of course, a normative way for life to come about, and clearly a dominant mother figure in charge will produce totally “unnatural” disharmony.

Thus the themes of gluttony and fertility are all linked in these displays of the monstrous-feminine.  As Simone de Beauvoir writes, the female is the Other. The body—women are often linked only with the body—without a head, as Jeffrey Cohen tells us, monstrous. The monster, like the female, is conceived of a pure body, all body. It is uncontrolled nature. Thus the feminine body, examined here through the myths of Lilith and Echidna and the Aliens story, is monstrously hungry and fertile.


How We Define Who We Are and Why it Matters

18 Oct

autism-pfl-trainAs our course focuses somewhat on identity, I realize that my identity is somewhat scattered. Then again, who’s isn’t. As we’ve discussed in our readings, we as people have many different facets to our personalities, to our embodiments, and to our inner natures. So who gets to determine the final product, and how does we control our identity. As Ellen Samuels points out in her book, Fantasies of Identification, as much as we would like to believe that even our bodily identities are definable, fixed, and naturally determined, identification still relies heavily on the fictions by which we live. That does not mean, however, that those fictions, as unstable as they may be, are not useful, meaningful, and purposeful.

How we choose to identify is important. In fact, identification may be one of the most meaningful things we do in our lives. As Kierkegaard wrote, a duck cannot pretend to be anything but a duck, while we as humans might pretend to be many different things. And this pretense is not unimportant. In fact, this fantasy of identification may be what allows us to form, at least individually, fulfilling lives. Of course, even the category of “woman” is not immune to critique, to movable and permeable barriers. Certainly, this is true of any embodied category. It is certainly true of the category of disability. As Liat Ben-Moshe, et al. point out, disability as a category is defined broadly when marginalizing disabled people, but it becomes substantially more narrow when it comes to dividing resources for accessibility by disabled people.  Lest we forget, however, language plays a certain role in our identification.

I am, of course, hereby referring to the person-first versus identity-first debate. As a disabled person myself, disability informs a great deal of my life. I embody my disability. I live my disability. I do not wish to further disengage with my disability by distancing myself via jargon, even if the adoption of that jargon is done with the best of intentions. Like Emily Ladau, I have experienced the non-disabled stealing away my identity by giving me no other choice with which to identify myself or my community. I stand by Gloria Anzaldua’s assertion in the violence of identity and language denial. To deny me a choice of identity is to deny me community. As Ladau writes of her experience:

I vividly remember the first time I learned about person-first language (PFL). I was listening to a professor of special education speak to a group of students on disability “etiquette.” He handed out a sheet with rules on how to address or refer to a person if they had a disability. While lecturing, the professor seemed keen on calling me out, making me feel like a token, and prompting me to agree that when it came to disability, it was PFL or bust. I went along with it, but something didn’t sit well with me. I was born with my disability. It was news to me that calling myself a “disabled person” was an insult. It had always been just a fact of life, a part of who I was. And now, after all these years of calling myself what I am, here was an educator, who doesn’t even have a disability, telling me I had it all wrong.

Our identities may be constructed, but that does not defer their importance. Socially constructed reality may not be physical reality, but it is still reality. What does it mean, after all, to be authentically anything? Sure, our identities, whether we are speaking of our identities as gender identity, sexuality, racial identity, or disabled community may be constructed, but so is everyone else’s.

Consumer Nostalgia, Boyhood, and The Female Plot Device: An Ode to Barb

18 Oct

Mass-market, consumerbarb cultural nostalgia tends to skew male because the male perspective has been so dominant in the past. I am thinking herein of Louis C.K.’s joke regarding time travel while being white and male (though all groups closest to the normate would fit) as much easier than being a woman or African American—or being queer, trans, disabled, etc.—as white men would be accepted in and treated well in just about any time period. It does seem as if mainstream (marketable) nostalgia focuses on men. Just about every allusion constructed in Stranger Things refers to a story dominated not by men but by boys: The Goonies, Stand by Me, even ET. Sure, there are girls, even interesting girls, in these stories, but the primary focus that is packaged generically as childhood is, in fact, boyhood. What I’m saying here is that the default for consumer nostalgia seems, also, to be male.

Although Istranger-things-characters did enjoy Stranger Things, the critique of the female characters of the story is necessary. We have almost no models of truly feminine strength. We have Winona Ryder’s character, Will’s mother, as a paragon of motherly strength, but we’ve always had male reverence for motherly–especially the mothers of men–virtue. Then we have Nancy, who is strong and independent, but she is also punished for being sexual (losing her “innocence”) by losing a friend–again, this is a narrative of women we’ve all seen before in horror. Then we have the generic, bitchy Carol, the (forgettable) girlfriend of Steve’s best frenemy. It speaks volumes that many fans of the show cannot even remember her name. Finally, we have Barb who everyone, including her mother, seems to forget about the instant she’s gone. Barb serves as more plot device than person. She is the living embodiment of the payment for Nancy’s sins. Barb’s only real purpose in the story is to guilt Nancy into a head-on confrontation with the “demigorgon.” It seems apropos that one would picture Barb as a waffle—the confections preferred by Ele—because she has no more purpose than one of Ele’s beloved Egos… she’s loved, but she’s expendable.

We do have Ele. Eleven is an awesome character, but in Stranger Things she’s cast in the ET role–she’s a stranger in a strange land for many reasons, but mostly because she’s a girl playing with the boys. What’s more, the newest critique of the stronger more  of even the modern story applies here. Ele is more competent, saves the heroes, but does not get to lead the story herself—in this way, she is much like Nancy. Nancy, too, is competent enough to figure out the demigorgon’s attraction to blood, encourages a confrontation with the monster, and saves Jonathan Byers when he freezes as the monster attacks, but she is captured by the demigorgon just as Ele is captured by the “bad men.”

magician4Don’t get me wrong, I like Stranger Things. However, I don’t think this is a problem indicative of Stranger Thing‘s inherent sexism, or even the sexism of film. Instead, I think it’s an interesting indication of the sexism inherent in consumer nostalgia via the cultural representation of our sexist notions from the past.