Sara Reads no. 3

A weekly digest of thoughts on fiction, non-fiction, and all the news I see fit to print.

Womanly Inhumanity and Woman’s Inhumanity (to Woman)
The final issue in the first story arc of Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress came out week before last (and promptly got lost in the shuffle of the HydraCap controversy). It was a fantastic end to the first act of an incredible new series. I seriously cannot praise this series enough. It blends a wide array of mythic traditions with ease, tackles powerful and unsettling topics with unflinching honesty, and incorporates some of the most beautiful art that I’ve ever seen…

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Monstress no. 1 (2015), art by Sana Takeda

The story examines the concept of monstrosity from a number of perspectives, the most interesting of which (to me) are the investigation of the true nature of monstrosity in contrast to humanity and the exploration of the monstrosity/inhumanity of women, and in particular of when it is weaponized against other women.

The known world of Monstress is peopled with five different races: humans, ancients, arcanic halfbreeds, cats, and old gods. At the start of our story, the humans are in a tension-filled cease-fire with the arcanics (and the ancients yet living), and the story’s main protagonist, Maika Halfwolf, is on a quest to find out what happened to her mother. Through her eyes we see the brutality of humankind, in particular the powerful nuns of the Cumean order, who hunt, enslave, and viciously murder arcanics for lilium—organic tissue used to heal wounds and illnesses, and even radically extend life—and this brutality is depicted with a shocking bluntness. By comparison, the inhuman arcanics, most of whom are primarily focused on survival of, and security from, human aggression, seem far more humane. Despite the fact that it is the arcanics who look monstrous, it is humankind that is overwhelmingly portrayed as being monstrous at heart, and by means of this contrastive depiction, the reader is confronted with questions about the relationship between a surface appearance and a true nature.

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Monstress nos. 3 & 5 (2016), art by Sana Takeda

The divide between surface appearance and true nature is a core component of the character arc of Maika Halfwolf, who is revealed over the course of the story to have an old god hidden within her and growing more powerful by the minute. This battle of wills constitutes the soul of the first story arc and is an excellent example of the subgenre that Angelica Jade Bastién has called “the feminine grotesque.” As Bastién has noted, “What continues to mark [stories] of the feminine grotesque is an interest with women at war with each other and their internal selves.” Though Bastién’s primary focus is cinematic examples of the feminine grotesque like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, “women at war with each other and their internal selves” is an almost perfect description of what is going on in Monstress. For the series does not just consider Maika’s struggle with herself, and the monster within, it also presents multiple examinations of women struggling with—and grievously harming—other women.

Over the course of the first six issues, we see the betrayal of women by women—for a myriad of reasons including greed, fear, and out of a desire to serve the so-called greater good—and we see the mistreatment and murder of women by women—mainly for the sake of cruelty, but also out of selfishness, indifference, and the desire for revenge. This too is a not-uncommon fictional (and cultural) narrative. Women are trained by society to be competitive with one another for affection and advancement, and stories (films, television shows, novels, etc.) in which girls and women befriend only to brutalize or betray one another are sadly ubiquitous.

Nevertheless, the unvarnished portrayal of this behavior that Monstress presents—and the way it explicitly ties this type of behavior to monstrosity as concept—is groundbreaking. In summarizing the typical progression of a feminine grotesque tale, Bastién points out that while such stories “often end with the women able to reintegrate their split selves and completing a harrowing  journey toward self awareness, they rarely demonstrate even a glimmer of a hopeful future.” There is always an implied tragedy of existence or an inevitable capitulation to societal demands waiting the wings for heroines of the feminist grotesque genre. Maika Halfwolf—and the pitiless women who are pursuing her—is on one such harrowing journey, and in an ordinary story she—and they—would end tragically. It is my hope that Monstress will break this mold, inverting our perceptions of what makes a monster in order to present a story in which “inhuman” women find peace through the acceptance of their own worst characteristics and the creation of journeys that carry them to the conclusions they desire for themselves.

Woman’s Inhumanity in Fandom
Looking beyond fictional realms, we might say that fear of the feminine grotesque—of the monstrous (inhuman) madwoman who will not conform—is what lies at the heart of many fandom legitimacy struggles. The mainstream attitude to fandom criticism was a major focus of my attention this week, and amid the many very excellent commentaries that were written on the subject, I was especially impressed by this one:

What is scary about transformative fandom is that it’s a place where young women love their media without reservation, and where they can make stories for themselves. That’s why as a culture we’ve decided that transformative fandom is weird and gross and morally wrong, and that’s why all the articles in the world explaining that transformative fandom is a totally legitimate way to interact with a text aren’t really making a dent in the never-ending stream of repulsed investigations of fandom. Because fandom is the province of young women and, culturally, we find young women terrifying.

~ Constance Grady, “Why We’re Terrified of Fanfiction”

It’s frustrating to feel that, after all this time, those of us who have been marginalized in fandom spaces (and social spaces in general) have gained so little ground. On the other hand, the fact that we are seeing so much dissension and debate is suggestive of just how much sea change is actually happening. It might just be that we are, for all the battles we seem to lose, winning the war bit by bit. As glimmers of hope go, I’ll take it.

Final Thought: Philosophy, Education, Intelligence
One of my biggest gripes with academia has been the way it functions to exclude. (It’s one of my biggest gripes with a lot of things.) While there’s no question of the tremendous value of education, it doesn’t ipso facto make you fundamentally smarter than someone else—and it damn well doesn’t make you inherently better. This elitist attitude is found at all levels of the ivory tower, but particularly in the most conservative departments, which is why I’m delighted to see someone from within the system deconstruct that attitude and offer an alternative take on the legitimacy of nontraditional (and non-western) sources of knowledge. Open Letters Monthly has a gorgeous review of Justin E.H. Smith’s The Philosopher: A History in Types, a recent survey of the history of philosophy that argues for the development of a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, approach to the study of one academia’s oldest disciplines. In identifying how the perception of what philosophy is (and should be) has narrowed over time, and how the perception would subsequently benefit from a contemporaneous broadening, Smith suggests a means by which academic practice can trend toward an inclusivity it often lacks and is in dire need of.

I can’t wait to have an opportunity to read it myself! In the meantime, I highly recommend checking out the book review.

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