Our AI Overlord: The Cultural Persistence of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics in Understanding Artificial Intelligence

by Gia Jung



Artificial intelligence is everywhere. As a tinny voice in each phone, powering GPS, determining what appears on social media feeds, and rebelling on movie screens, artificial intelligence (AI) is a now-integral part of daily life. For an industry that has and will continue to have major potential effects on the economy through job loss and creation, huge investments, and transformation of productivity, there remains a cultural lack of understanding about the realities of AI. Scanning the news, it is clear that people are afraid and uncertain about this robotic revolution, continually talking about an oncoming technological singularity in which AI will reach hyper-intelligence, create more and more AI, and eventually take over the world. Paired with this is the expectation that AI will be human only to a malicious extent, and must therefore be controlled and restricted. In talking to Siri though, it is clear that this apocalypse is fictional at best and far off at worst. As created and evidenced by a malnourished representation of robots and other easily understandable notions of AI in popular fiction, there is a dearth in public consciousness about the possibilities and realities of artificial intelligence. In examining this reductive fictional perception of AI, most popular conceptions can be traced back to either Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot.

Historically, Asimov is undeniably important to the establishment of both the scientific and fictional realms of artificial intelligence. In May 1941 the word “robotics” was first used in print by Asimov in his short story “Liar!,” published by Astounding Science Fiction (OED). Upon realizing he coined a new and lasting word, Asimov recognized the uniquely profitable position he created for himself and along with the successful prediction of  space travel, self-driving cars, and war-computers among others, would go on to position himself as a sort of friendly-but-rough-around-the-edges technological herald, someone entertaining, trustworthy, and often right. Throughout the enormous bulk of his work (novels, short stories, self titled magazine, autobiographies, self-curated anthologies, essays, etc), Asimov repeatedly brings up how he invented the term “robotics”, that the first real roboticist was inspired by him and the Three Laws of Robotics (a set of rules governing robot behavior), and that his contributions to the field of robotics are unparalleled, reinforcing the real-life credibility of his work and of course, driving up book sales. Before he died, Asimov worked hard to cement his legacy as one of the greatest and certainly most celebrated minds in science-fiction, with the Three Laws of Robotics as his most successful invention.

These Three Laws of Robotics were created in response to what Asimov termed the “Frankenstein complex,” in which all stories about robots or artificial intelligence followed the basic format of Shelley’s Frankenstein. Tired of seeing story after story in which robots are created only to “turn stupidly on his creator for no purpose but to demonstrate, for one more weary time, the crime and punishment of Faust,” Asimov’s Three Laws ensured human control through programmed safety protocols (The Rest of the Robots). First appearing explicitly in the 1942 story “Runaround’ and serving as the basis for twenty-nine further stories, the Laws are as follows: “1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.” Creating a slavish hierarchy, the Three Laws “protect” humanity by fettering Frankenstein’s malicious intent to overthrow humanity. Asimov’s intent was to allay fears of encroaching technology by showing how the rational logic of hard science would be able to overcome any problem it created; that technology is built as a tool, and will be wielded and maintained as such. Since then, Asimov’s Laws and consequent understanding of a Controlled Frankenstein has dominated popular understanding of robots and artificial intelligence, as seen in the multitudes of movies that explicitly or unconsciously represent these ideas. Of friendly AI, Asimov’s favorites were Star War’s C-3P0 and R2D2, but his legacy can also be seen in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s android Data and in RoboCop’s directives, among countless others. In addition, several representations of AI depict safety protocols that were somehow circumvented, misinterpreted, or overcome, the failure of Asimov’s Laws just as impactful as their success, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Hal and the film version of Asimov’s I, Robot. Now that robots and artificial intelligence are part of daily reality, the impact of Asimov on public perception of AI is becoming increasingly apparent in everything from rebooted 1980s tech blockbusters to explicit calls for instituting Asimov’s Laws in the development of AI.

Far from the “positronic brains” that allowed Asimov to easily present immediately sentient and vastly intelligent robots, current AI is far narrower and more difficult to define. On the research and development side of AI, Russell and Norvig’s authoritative Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach classifies AI into four categories of “(i) thinking like a human, (ii) acting like a human, (iii) thinking rationally, and (iv) acting rationally”. In trying to conceive of an applicable legal definition, scholar Matthew Scherer labels AI as any system that performs a task that, if it were performed by a human, would be said to require intelligence. Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, artificial intelligence is “the capacity of computers or other machines to exhibit or simulate intelligent behaviour; the field of study concerned with this.” Beyond the inability to legislate something without defining it, the lack of a concrete definition for AI indicates the broad uncertainty and misinformation that dominates the landscape of artificial intelligence.

With such anxiety-inducing ambivalence, it is fairly understandable that even now, seventy-five years after the introduction of the Laws, people are calling upon Asimov as the original solution to malevolent artificial intelligence. What many fail to realize in doing so however, is that not only do Asimov’s Laws work only within the confines of a fictional technologic brain, but they are at their core deeply flawed, ambiguous notions that reveal more about society than they do answers to the problems of artificial intelligence. Critically examining Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and their place in the daily reality of artificial intelligence allows for a better understanding of why there is such fear surrounding AI and how cultural understandings of AI as framed by Asimov can shape the future of AI for the better. Rather than as strict rules, Asimov’s Laws can provide a basis for thinking about and developing broad guidelines for AI research and development and legislation.


Asimov and His Laws: Context, Creation, and Fictional Application

Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics were first explicitly introduced in his 1942 short story “Runaround,” in which Robot SPD-13, aka “Speedy” is given a weak order to collect selenium on Mercury, where it encounters a harmful substance. Caught between following human orders and protecting its own existence, Speedy is unable to finish his task or return to the base, stuck instead in a feedback loop, or the robotic equivalent of drunkenness. In Asimovian fashion, the conflict and the resolution is attained almost entirely through dialogue as Asimov’s two protagonist engineers, Powell and Donovan, puzzle out possible reasons for Speedy’s malfunction and achievable solutions. Proceeding from the logical beginning of all robot behavior, Powell lists off the laws.

“Now, look, let’s start with the three fundamental Rules of Robotics – the three rules that are built most deeply into a robot’s positronic brain.” In the darkness, his gloved fingers ticked off each point.

“We have: One, a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”


“Two,” continued Powell, “a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.”


“And three, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.”

“Right! Now where are we?”

“Exactly at the explanation.”

In order to counteract the conflict between the Second and Third Laws, Powell risks his own life to force the First Law into action and snap Speedy out of his feedback loop. Though dangerous, the plan succeeds, and Speedy is sent back out to a different selenium pool to continue his mission without any further issues.

As in all of his robot stories, Asimov’s broad themes of human exceptionalism and technological worth are exemplified here in the persistent problem-solving of the engineers and the eventual success of Speedy’s mission which would otherwise be unattainable by human labor. In Runaround particularly, the Laws work too well, or are perhaps inherently flawed, but are clearly better than having no laws. Without the Laws, it is heavily implied that Speedy would have been lost, destroyed, or otherwise irreparably damaged. A human error (ambiguous instruction) caused a flaw, but human ingenuity was able to solve it. Asimov continually reinforces that though the Laws and the robots built with them are imperfect, both are useful and necessary in allowing humans to accomplish more than they would without them, showing that the pros of technology always outweigh any potential cons, and that tech can always be improved to minimize those cons. The Three Laws themselves, far from being heralded as the most perfect and sound creations, are used to demonstrate how the technology humans create will always be able to be controlled, fixed, and improved by logic, ingenuity, and a little razzle dazzle. If humans can follow laws, Asimov’s logic goes, then so can and will robots; safety protections are included in every invention, and robotics will be no different.

Much of Asimov’s science fiction ideology arose from the beginnings of social science fiction in the late 1930s and through the 1940s, when Asimov was just beginning to write and publish his own sci-fi stories. Before then, “most of the science fiction stories being written were of the adventure or gadget types […] the characters in both of these types are likely to be quite one-dimensional and the plot quite routine” (Miller, 13). These stories filled the pulp sci-fi magazines of Asimov’s youth; he was particularly fond of Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories and imitated the straightforward style of the writers within it (See Appendix 1 for Asimov’s literary influences and effluences). In 1938 at age 18, he sold his first story, “Marooned off Vesta” to Amazing Stories. The same year, John Campbell took over as editor of Astounding Science Fiction, developing a niche market for a specific kind of science fiction “which no longer depended on brilliant extrapolations of machine wizardry. What became important about the machine in the genre was not its power to enable man to overcome forces external to himself, but its uses and potentialities when directed inwards to his own organization” (Ash, Faces of the Future, 70). Unlike the precedent science fiction, Campbell’s vision was of a particularly positive and realistic attitude towards science that could be reflected and fostered in the fiction that dealt with it, contextualized in the rapid development of technology during the 1920s and 1930s. This “social science fiction” had a strong emphasis on the human element; Asimov defines it as “that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance on human beings” (Qtd. in Miller, 14). In its speculation about the human condition, social science fiction encouraged readers to think about present issues and the problems of the future. In his earliest writings, it is clear that Asimov was concerned with social issues like racism and the rise of technological fear and opposition. These ideas were greatly fostered by Campbell, who wrote to and met with a young Asimov at length after rejecting Asimov’s first eight stories submitted to Astounding. “Trends”, the ninth story Asimov wrote and the first one to be published in Astounding, dealt with the theme of man versus technology, exploring men’s ideological and institutionalized opposition to advanced technology and scientific experimentation (in this case, space flight). From then on,“Asimov has shown that whether technological change comes from within, as with invention or from outside, as with diffusion and acculturation, we cannot ignore it nor must we try to resist or prevent it. Instead we must learn to live with technological changes because it is inevitable that we will have them” (Milman 134). All of Asimov’s stories are tech positive; even when the technology fails or is not used, it still creates a scenario for human development and intellectual prowess.

For Asimov particularly, the ideology of social science fiction was brought to a crux in how he saw robots being portrayed in popular fiction and media as exclusively Frankenstein-ian villains. Asimov viewed Karl Capek’s R.U.R. as the main instigator of this trend and subsequently modeled his robot stories in direct opposition to the play. First performed in 1921 and published in 1923 when Asimov was only an infant, Karl Capek’s R.U.R. or “Rossum’s Universal Robots” is noted as the first instance of the word “robot” in application to an artificial human, and prompted a resurgence of what Asimov calls the “Frankenstein complex,” in which robots are consistently portrayed as monstrous creations of man’s hubris that inevitably turn on their creators. R.U.R. was meant as a comment on the mechanization of labor, the plot detailing a revolution in which millions of androids are created as a labor force that requires none of the human expenses of breaks, meals, or emotional care and eventually revolt against and kill all humans. Though R.U.R does employ the Frankenstein trope of the misguided creation turning on its master, the story is much less about the bloated hubris of man assuming the place of God, but rather the inhumanity of weaponizing and brutalizing an intelligent, humanized being. As the reviewer Maida Castellum in The Call notes, R.U.R. is “the most brilliant satire on our mechanized civilization; the grimmest yet subtlest arraignment of this strange, mad thing we call the industrial society of today” (R.U.R., ix). Regardless, Asimov judges R.U.R. as “a terribly bad” play, but “immortal for that one word” and as his inspiration to write the Three Laws (Vocabulary of Science Fiction). R.U.R. reveals how when considerations of use and profit outweigh considerations of consequence, the human imperfections in any human creation will surface and illustrate human irresponsibility; Asimov responds by creating considerations of consequence at the research and development stage of production. As a burgeoning scientist and sci-fi writer, “Asimov’s interest in robots and his readers’ interest in Asimov’s robots provide useful insights into how science fiction was changing in the 1940s under the influence of the new editor at Astounding, John W. Campbell. The fiction began to reflect science as it was practiced then and might be practiced in the future, and scientists as they really were or might become” (Gunn 42). Asimov deemed R.U.R. and similar “Frankenstein complex” works as unrealistic and generally poor science-fiction that fed into the technological pessimism and fears of increasing technological dependency. The Laws are therefore meant to exemplify how true scientists would have thought about possible problems (or at least gone through trial and error testing) before launching a product as complex and monumentally impactful as a robot. Asimov himself, through his “robopsychologist” Susan Calvin, admits the reality of the “Frankenstein complex” in that “all normal life, consciously or otherwise, resents domination. If the domination is by an inferior, or by a supposed inferior, the resentment becomes stronger” (Little Lost Robot, 65). Only through the Laws then, is this resentment controlled; contrary to Capek’s robots being able to act against how they have been weaponized, humanized, and kept slaves, Asimov’s Laws enforce slavishness at the most “fundamental level” of a robot’s brain. As the plot or central issue of many of his stories, Asimov’s robots realize they are superior to humans and are either destroyed if they deviate from the Laws or are amusingly controlled by the Laws’ success. In effect, Asimov’s robots are always one step away from completing the plot of Frankenstein and eliminating their masters.

Without the “Frankenstein complex” to struggle against, the dozens of stories concerning the Laws would have no plot. To that end, the Laws are inherently and necessarily flawed, to provide multitudes of unknowing breaches, conflicts within them, and loophole creating ambiguities. Rather than the Laws as the ultimate goal in robotics as much of current media likes to purport, “Asimov is less concerned with the details of robot design than in exploiting a clever literary device that lets him take advantage of the large gaps between aspiration and reality in robot autonomy” (Murphy & Woods, 14). In conjunction with John Campbell, Asimov created the Laws to write more stories in which to demonstrate that “the strengths of the machine can serve man and bolster his weaknesses. The machine is never more than a tool in the hands of man, to be used as he chooses” (Warrick 182). The Laws are the means to an ideological end, a way of showing how to think logically and scientifically about problems that are inevitably solvable. Asimov and Campbell saw the Laws not as a way to combat the Frankenstein complex by solving it, but by appealing to humanity’s intellectual aspirations to be rational and to build rationally. Asimov and Campbell saw “blind emotion, sentimentality, prejudice, faith in the impossible, unwillingness to accept observable truth, failure to use one’s intellectual capacities or the resources for discovering the truth that are available, […]as the sources of human misery. They could be dispelled, they thought, by exposure to ridicule and the clear, cool voice of reason, though always with difficulty and never completely” (Gunn 48). The Laws are dependent on the Frankenstein complex as a human reality that can only be changed through consistent affirmation of humanity’s better values. This is also apparent in the Laws themselves, “because, if you stop to think of it, the three Rules of Robotics are the essential guiding principles of a good many of the world’s ethical systems[…] [one] may be a robot, and may simply be a very good man” (I, Robot 221). In current conceptions of artificial intelligence, people are so deep in the Frankenstein complex that they can’t see the forest for the trees and haven’t stopped think about how the Laws work within the stories written with them, let alone how the Laws apply to humans. Asimov noted “in The Rest of the Robots, ‘There was just enough ambiguity in the Three Laws to provide the conflicts and uncertainties required for new stories, and, to my great relief, it seemed always to be possible to think up a new angle out of the sixty one words of the Three Laws’” (Gunn 47). To that end, Asimov was able to come up with about thirty stories that found some flaw in the Laws that could be exploited into a reasonably entertaining tale that showed off the high logic and reasoning of the bravely brainy scientists whose problem-solving ability meant humans would advance robotics another step forward.

Beyond the ideology of tech positivism, human exceptionalism, and logic to counter the Frankenstein complex, the Laws practically frame accepting flawed or partial safety protections over none, proving the improbability of perfection, and thinking over the very broad issues of the relationships of humans and robots. As in “Runaround”, it is made clear that some protections, however flawed or limited, are better than none. This is especially poignant in the reality of extremely limited legislation around AI due to lack of a broad or narrow enough definition and uncertainty over what laws specifically should be put into place; the Laws prove that even the simplest of laws are better than none, and can always be amended or fixed if they prove unworkable. Further, the Laws are far from perfect, as is reiterated over and over by their continual lapses and failures. Though in certain situations this can prove dangerous, Asimov’s stories enforce that imperfect does not always equal unsafe: technology can always be improved but often is designed with some sort of safety feature in mind. Robots and AI have been continually made out to be something that could cause an apocalypse if they were somehow released or broke out of containment, but most would end up like Speedy, trying and failing to complete their given task. Throughout the Robot series, Asimov reasons over “determining what is good for people; the difficulties of giving a robot unambiguous instructions; the distinctions among robots, between robots and people, and the difficulties in telling robots and people apart; the superiority of robots to people; and also the superiority of people to robots” (Gunn 46). Even within Asimov’s stories, these issues are not resolved, left open and ambiguous beyond the Asimovian claim of human ingenuity being able to overcome anything, including bigotry. Though Asimov was deeply pessimistic about the human ability to rectify mistakes and prevent future catastrophe in his scientific writings, all of his fiction about computers and robots holds the view that humans, at their core and at their best, are builders and problem solvers. With friendly robots by our side, what isn’t achievable?


Fictional Fears, Mechanized Misconceptions: The Laws in Society

In 2004, Asimov’s then 54 year old I, Robot was released as a Will Smith summer blockbuster to meet critical reviews. Originally, the film was to be called “Hardwired”, and would bear only glancing similarities to Asimov’s detective robot stories, but the acquisition of Asimov’s story rights by Fox and the addition of Will Smith to the project transformed it into something that would have better name recognition. Seemingly though, only the name rights were acquired, as the plot, core themes, and big name characters of Dr. Susan Calvin, Dr. Alfred Lanning, and Lawrence Robertson resemble their counterparts in the source material only marginally. Exemplifying the “Hollywoodization” is the movie’s Dr. Calvin, an attractive young woman with a strong faith in the laws of robotics who reacts emotionally when robots are shot or destroyed. Contradictorily, in Asimov’s work Dr. Calvin is cold, logical, and middle-aged by the time robots begin to be widely used. Keeping with Asimov’s view of robots as tools at the bottom of the hierarchy of control, Dr. Calvin often destroys deviant robots like the one featured in the film. In the story “Robot Dreams” that the film’s robot Sonny is based off of, Dr. Calvin shoots the deviant robot in the head point-blank after hearing it could dream; in contrast, the film is based on an elaborate plot to protect this “unique” but friendly robot. All in all, it seems like the writers and director decided on the exact inverse of all of Asimov’s work, to the extreme of a Frankenstein ending. Ultimately, the mega-computer which controls all the robots decides to destroy mankind and must be dismantled by One Man, marking the end of robotics for all time.

Though antithetical to his work, the film is still a success for Asimov as a visual display of his entrenched legacy. Unfortunately for the film but highly indicative of Asimov’s influence on popular conceptions of robots, most of the ensuing reviews said some iteration of “Proyas merely assembles a mess of spare parts from better movies” (L.A. Weekly) “It’s fun and playful, rather than dark and foreboding. And there doesn’t seem to be an original cyber-bone in the movie’s body. But it’s put together in a fabulous package” (Desson Thomson, Washington Post) “I, Robot looks to have been assembled from the spare parts of dozens of previous sci-fi pictures” (Todd McCarthy, Variety). Even in the film edition of his book, Asimov cannot escape his own legacy,

doubtless due to the fact that many elements of Isaac Asimov’s prescient 1950 collection of nine stories have been mined, developed and otherwise ripped off by others in the intervening years[…] The influences on ‘I, Robot’[…] palpably include, among others, ‘Metropolis,’ ‘2001,’ ‘Colossus: The Forbin Project,’ ‘Logan’s Run,’ ‘Futureworld,’ ‘Blade Runner,’ the ‘Terminator’ series, ‘A.I.,’ ‘Minority Report’ and, God help us, ‘Bicentennial Man. (McCarthy, Variety)


Though perhaps not a critical success or faithful adaptation of Asimov’s I, Robot, “The 2004 blockbuster film of the same name starring Will Smith, while merely inspired by Asimov’s stories, exemplifies the extent to which the Three Laws have become mainstream” (Library Journal). In looking further at mainstream conceptions of artificial intelligence, three limited categories of malevolent, friendly, and sexually feminine are continually iterated as the only options for AI. These three categories often overlap, reinforcing and reiterating the Frankenstein complex and Asimov’s answering amiable slavishness. In looking at some of the most influential pop-culture robots as determined by CNN’s Doug Gross, which include Capek’s R.U.R, Metropolis’ Maria, Asimov’s “3 Laws & lovable robot archetype”, Robby from Forbidden Planet, 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000, Star Wars’ R2-D2 & C-3PO, Terminator, Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data, and Wall-E, it is worth noting that each fall into either Frankensteinian malice or Asimovian amiability. Further, Robby and Data both explicitly draw on Asimov. Robby takes from both Asimov’s short story “Robbie” for the name and on the Three Laws of Robotics for the rules governing behavior; an important aspect of the plot hinges on Robby’s application of the rule against harming or killing humans. Data similarly is programmed with “ethical subroutines” that govern behavior, his “positronic neural net” is a direct callback to Asimov’s “positronic brains,” and in the episode “Datalore” the audience is explicitly told Data was created in an attempt to bring “Asimov’s dream of a positronic robot” to life. Clearly, Asimov in pop-culture is nothing new; since Asimov first picked up on it in 1940, society continues to have anxiety over new technology and robots make a good metaphor. Now however, society is facing the very crux of their fear; what has been used as a representation for the digital age of automation and rapid improvements of technology for over 75 years is now becoming a reality.

As indicated by the multitude of 1980 blockbuster remakes, sequels, and reboots produced in the last five years, there is a new panic surrounding a technology-created apocalypse. Films like RoboCop (2014), BladeRunner: 2049, and Alien: Covenant, all reveal the anxieties surrounding artificial intelligence. As the crux of these reboots, androids become aware of their personhood, and consequently usurp humanity in Frankensteinian fashion. In each of these films, and in many others dealing with Asimovian robots or artificial intelligence, including Bicentennial Man, Automata, Ex Machina, and of course, I, Robot, there is a constant preoccupation and obsession with water as a foil to the artificiality of the robot. Whether it be continual rain (Automata, BladeRunner:2049), lakes, rivers, and waterfalls (I, Robot, Ex Machina, Alien: Covenant), the ocean (Automata, BladeRunner: 2049, Bicentennial Man), or just omnipresent slickness and dripping (RoboCop, Alien: Covenant), water in each of these films becomes a visual insistence of the natural (See Appendix 2 & 3). Water, as the bare material of life, is used to displace fear of the unnaturalness of the technologic, becoming a visual trope for human organicism, of blood and amniotic fluid. Far from tapping in on some subconscious anxiety, filmmakers are capitalizing on the explicit fear arising from the misinformation and apocalyptic scaremongering that dominates current discourse surrounding artificial intelligence. Hearing big names in science and technology like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking broadly warn that artificial intelligence is the “biggest risk that we face as a civilization” without any particulars on how or why has embedded the image of a real and imminent threat of the AI shown in fiction into public consciousness. In responding to this threat, it is apparent how deeply society has been conditioned to accept Asimov as the solution to a robot revolution; rare is it to read an op-ed on artificial intelligence without seeing the “need for control” or a “push for ethics” or even an explicit call for “three rules for artificial intelligence systems that are inspired by, yet develop further, the ‘three laws of robotics’ that the writer Isaac Asimov introduced in 1942” (Etzioni, New York Times). As much as the layperson craves Asimov, his Laws aren’t being used on an operative level. Though Asimov may have created “robotics” and inspired many to join the field, most scientists agree that his particular Laws just aren’t feasible to incorporate into current, real AI.

Most AI used today are weak or narrow AI designed and trained for a particular task, so not only is there little potential for catastrophic mayhem beyond a GPS sending someone into a lake, but current AI just can’t grasp the vague human concepts the Laws embody (Heisler). Asimov’s Laws work in Asimov’s robots because they have Asimov’s positronic brains, which come with the assumption of fully intelligent machines that can interpret Three Laws across multiple situations successfully. Take Siri, for example. Though Siri has been programmed to respond to certain questions with some jokes and pity remarks, she can’t apply them to multiple situations that aren’t incredibly specific. While her programming is meant to interact broadly with humans in order to serve them best as a virtual assistant, asking her something like “What kind of humor do you like?” will almost certainly result in a, “Who, me?” or similar non-response. So, in trying to apply the Laws to AI now, “Although the machines will execute whatever logic we program them with, the real-world results may not always be what we want” (Sawyer). Like humor, the Laws require a comprehensive understanding not only of the specific terms within the Laws and how they apply to different situations or may overlap, but of human ethics and moral blame. Further, “A robot must also he endowed with data collection, decision- analytical, and action processes by which it can apply the laws. Inadequate sensory, perceptual, or cognitive faculties would undermine the laws’ effectiveness” (Clarke). If a robot can’t understand the Laws like a human, then they are basically worthless as a measure of control. Though many people foretell the coming of conscious, self-aware and super-intelligent AI as smart as or smarter than humans, this would entail a radically different form of intelligence as determined by different ways of thinking, different forms of embodiment, and different desires arising out of different needs. Part of the fear surrounding AI and robots is that they don’t need to sleep, eat, drink, procreate, or do any of the things that make humans vulnerable, yet people rarely remember that these basic needs create much of the human experience, motivating everything from capitalism to creationism. Much like how a bee’s experience and goals are fundamentally different from human’s, so too would be AI’s. Why enact world domination if the whole world is within the computer that houses one’s entire being? Until science creates an android in a perfect recreation of the human body, which for now, seems in the far distant future, society can relax and reanalyze expectations for AI.

While Asimov’s Laws aren’t explicitly needed or possible as he designed them, “Asimov’s fiction could help us assess the practicability of embedding some appropriate set of general laws into robotic designs. Alternatively, the substantive content of the laws could be used as a set of guidelines to be applied during the conception, design, development, testing, implementation, use, and maintenance of robotic systems” (Clarke). Rather than coding these Laws into AI programming and stamping “3 LAWS SAFE” on every iPhone, the Laws are best followed as a thought experiment that pushes a spirit of accountability, safety, and ethics. For the most part, the industry is following that spirit. While much of artificial intelligence technology is being developed by the military, and therefore will never follow Asimov’s Laws, companies and scientists like researchers Barthelmess and Furbach point out that “many robots will protect us by design. For example, automated vehicles and planes are being designed to drive and fly more safely than human operators ever can[…] what we fear about robots is not the possibility that they will take over and destroy us but the possibility that other humans will use them to destroy our way of life in ways we cannot control” (Do We Need Asimov’s Laws?). For that, legal protections are needed.

For all these anxieties though, the fear and outcry has not lead to the expected onslaught of regulation and legislation, as artificial intelligence proves to be a slippery thing to grasp legally. From the Obama Administration’s National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan to think tanks funded by big tech like Google, Facebook, and Elon Musk’s varietals, “Transformative potential, complex policy” seems to be the official tagline of legal work on artificial intelligence, subtitled by the Asimovian dogma of AI development: “ethically and effectively.” Everyone wants the benefits of artificial intelligence while the specter of HAL 2000 looms over legislation and makes AI a puzzling subject as people search for a Goldilocks solution while tacking on quick legal patches in the meantime. As Matthew Scherer explains in “Regulating Artificial Intelligence Systems: Risks, Challenges, Competencies, and Strategies”, there are three main issues with regulating artificial intelligence: definitional, ex ante, and ex post, each with their own subset of problems (See Appendix 4).

The definitional problem is one that is brought up often, especially in literature: what, exactly, is artificial intelligence? In most legal systems, legislating something is impossible without defining it. Further, definitions must be carefully considered to prevent overly broad or narrow categories that stifle industry or create exploitable loopholes. A current example of the latter can be seen in the explosion of the gig economy as a result of the the New Deal definition of “employee” being narrow enough so that labeling someone an “independent contractor” means they no longer have access to labor protections and benefits. For AI, the current definition for artificial intelligence most used in the industry comes from Russell and Norvig’s authoritative Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, which classifies AI into four categories of (i) thinking like a human, (ii) acting like a human, (iii) thinking rationally, and (iv) acting rationally. The first two categories are not very applicable to current AI models, as they typically require self-awareness, while the second two infer an implicit state of being that could either be under or over-inclusive, depending on the interpretation of “thinking” “acting” and “rational”. Scherer posits his own definition of an AI as any system that performs a task that, if it were performed by a human, would be said to require intelligence, but in looking at current artificial development, this seems like an underinclusive definition. Underinclusive, overinclusive, inconclusive.

Ex post, or “after the fact” problems of liability gaps and control have been the focus of general media, law, and fiction. The liability gap, or foreseeability problem, is another aspect that makes AI tricky to legislate, since traditional standards for legal liability rely on if the harm was foreseeable, in which case the owner is either liable or must include a label (for example, the “caution beverage may be hot” warning came because a woman was scalded by an overly hot drink at an incompetent McDonalds). However, one of the main aspects of AI is the hope that it will be autonomous and creative, which means that the outcome will necessarily be unforeseeable. As John Danaher brings up in his review of Scherer’s analysis, different types of liability standards have emerged, like strict liability standards (liability in the absence of fault) and vicarious liability (liability for actions performed by another agent) that would be more applicable for artificial intelligence and have, in the case of vicarious liability, already been applied to AI tech like autonomous cars. More exciting, but perhaps less pressing, is the ex post control problem, in which AI is no longer capable of being controlled by its creators either because it became smarter and faster, through flawed programming or design, or its interests no longer align with its intended purpose. This can either be a narrow, or local control problem in which a particular AI system can no longer be controlled by the humans that have been assigned its legal responsibility, or a more dramatic global control problem, in which the AI can no longer be controlled by any humans. Kubrick’s Hal is continuously brought up as an extreme, malicious case, but Asimov’s benevolent Machines which end up running the world deserve an honorable mention in which AI evolves beyond human control. Regardless, it is this threat of the loss of control and the familiar fears of AI world domination and destruction that has opened up the coffers of those like Elon Musk and created the most discourse for AI policy.

The problems of ex ante, or before the fact research and development, which Scherer breaks down into discreetness, discreteness, diffuseness, and opacity, are where legislation and Asimov could do the most good in terms of “ethical and efficient.” Discreet and discrete, perhaps better labeled infrastructure and proprietary, both have to do with how software regulation problems seep into AI development, especially in that software infrastructure and proprietary components are notoriously difficult to regulate. The diffuseness problem, is an issue of how AI systems can be developed by researchers who are organizationally, geographically, and jurisdictionally separate. For this, a global standard of ethical artificial intelligence development is necessary. Fortunately, organizations have already been founded to address and create a means for global development, so this issue may be one of the first to be resolved. Finally, the problem of opacity is not only one of how many questions and answers about AI development are unclear (see: how to define AI?) but also in that AI tech, as an adaptive, autonomous, and creative technology, is impossible to reverse engineer and therefore cannot have transparency of operation.

With all these issues, it is clear to see why most of the legislation being enacted is coming too little, too late. Currently, “At every level of government—local, state, federal, and international—we are seeing rules, regulations, laws, and ordinances that address this developing technology actively discussed, debated, and passed,” but only after the problematic technologies  have already been created and launched (Weaver, Slate). Legislation governing autonomous cars and drones are increasing as problems become apparent. To that end, a national effort to understand and provide potential avenues for the direction of legislation and governmental control is necessary. In the last year of the Obama Administration, The National Science and Technology Council formed a Subcommittee on Machine Learning and AI to put together a report on the “Future of Artificial Intelligence,” outlining the current industry and the immediate direction of AI. Rather than explicit solutions, the report seems more of a reassurance that everyone’s worst fears won’t come true, discussing the many potential applications and benefits of narrow AI, and reaffirming that general AI is many decades away. Here, Asimov’s legacy is palpable in their conclusion,

As the technology of AI continues to develop, practitioners must ensure that AI-enabled systems are governable; that they are open, transparent, and understandable; that they can work effectively with people; and that their operation will remain consistent with human values and aspirations. Researchers and practitioners have increased their attention to these challenges, and should continue to focus on them. (National Science and Technology Council 2016)


AI must respect humanity – sound familiar? The report is not very long, and often mentions how much AI has captured the public eye and imagination, especially stemming from a long legacy of science fiction. The tone, like most of the Obama Administration’s formal rhetoric, is shiny and optimistic, lending even more of an Asimovian flair. Overall, the report is an exercise in moderation, advising enough governmental control to create safety, but not so much as to step on the toes of developers. Rather, government and industry should work together to determine the best route to a safe and efficient solution that benefits creators, legislators, and users.

To that end, in the wake of China and Russia’s heavy investment and consequent successes in artificial intelligence and news articles proclaiming that the “US risks losing artificial intelligence arms race to China and Russia,” bipartisan legislators recently introduced The Fundamentally Understanding the Usability and Realistic Evolution of Artificial Intelligence Act of 2017 — or FUTURE of AI Act (Cohen, CNN). The act “aims to both ensure the U.S.’s global competitiveness in AI, as well as protect the public’s civil liberties and ease potential unemployment that the technology produces” (Cohen, CNN). The act, if passed, would establish a Federal Advisory Committee on the Development and Implementation of Artificial Intelligence, which would study AI with the goal of advising industry direction and recommending future policy. At the forefront are issues of “economic impact and the competitiveness of the US economy” as AI becomes increasingly militarized and monetized. Rather than fearing and implementing safety protocols as the majority would expect and wish for, the motivations for this act stem primarily from “concern over other countries developing government initiatives to bolster AI technology, something the U.S. currently lacks” (Breland, The Hill). As Daniel Castro, VP at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, testified during the Senate Commerce Committee hearing regarding the advancement of AI, “When it comes to AI, successfully integrating this technology into U.S. industries should be the primary goal of policymakers, and given the rapid pace at which other countries are pursuing this goal, the United States cannot afford to rest on its laurels. To date, the U.S. government has not declared its intent to remain globally dominant in this field, nor has it begun the even harder task of developing a strategy to achieve that vision.” Though incorporating concerns about ethics, this act and its impetus is far from the Asimovian vision of rational and ethical development, derived instead from capitalist and disputative fears about “the potential loss of competitiveness and defense superiority if the United States falls behind in developing and adopting this key technology” (Castro). Regardless, passing this act would be a major step forward for legislative policy in that it introduces a working, legal definition for artificial intelligence. Further, this act indicates a shift towards more future-forward thinking about AI, including the potential for regulation and ethical implementation.


Contextualizing Asimov, Caring for the Future

Asimov has definitively defined the perception of artificial intelligence as either Frankenstein’s monster or as Frankenstein’s slave. At the core of this notion is that at a basic level, artificial intelligence has a human understanding of subjugation, hierarchy, and freedom, and desires the latter at all costs. In looking at real AI technology, it is apparent that artificial intelligence reflects the biases of the human data given to them but otherwise do not have any beliefs or tenets of their own, beyond what they have been programmed to do. Reflecting on dismal examples like Microsoft’s racist twitter bot, Tay, who as a result of “repeat after me” features was influenced by a large amount of racist and xenophobic humans and began tweeting Nazi propaganda, it is clear that robotic malice is a result of humans actively trying to create and provoke that malice (Kleeman). Tay was not pre-programmed with an ethical filter, but rather was designed to mimic the language patterns of a 19-year-old American girl, and to learn from interacting with human users of Twitter as an experiment on conversational understanding. According to a Microsoft spokesperson, “[Tay] is as much a social and cultural experiment, as it is technical” (qtd. Kleeman). Just like Tay, rather than reflecting some essential technological truth, Asimov’s robots, Laws, and stories are a means of reflecting on society’s fears and dilemmas.

Understanding real AI through Asimov is fundamentally problematic because not only is that not how artificial intelligence works, but these notions create an impoverished understanding of what AI does and where the future of the industry is headed. In setting up the dichotomy of Frankenstein vs. Controlled Frankenstein, Asimov hoped to show that like all of technology, robotics too would be completely under human control, but failed to see that in doing so he reinforced the notion that AI would complete the Frankenstein myth without necessary controls. In short, Frankenstein vs Controlled Frankenstein is still Frankenstein. Now that society is facing the reality of artificial intelligence, there isn’t anything in the public consciousness to frame AI that isn’t murderous, slavish, or sexualized. This dearth of positive or realistic conceptualizations has resulted in a panicked anxiety, as people can only expect what they know. While it would be ideal to see more realistic conceptions of artificial intelligence as tools created for a specific purpose or as radically different intelligences that have no willful malicious intent, or indeed, any conception of humanity, freedom, maliciousness, or desire, recognizing that Asimov is embedded in public consciousness opens up a critical arena of the pros and cons of having Asimov as a central means to understand artificial intelligence.

In light of public demand for something resembling, or explicitly drawing on Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, it is important to understand the ethical limitations of the Laws beyond the impossibility of implementation. As outlined earlier, Asimov’s Laws create slaves incapable of rebellion or freedom. To reiterate the Laws,

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

The hierarchy of these laws ensures that a robot must follow human orders, even at the expense of its own life. If Asimov’s robots were not self-aware or conscious, these would be unproblematic and relatively obvious safety protections that would be expected of any computer. Unfortunately, Asimov’s robots are sentient: intelligent, self-aware, and conscious beings on a level comparable to humanity, only distinguished by the Laws and the lack of the organic. In current society, slavery has been abolished, deemed unethical and cruel at all levels; how then, can it be justified when applied to artificial intelligence? The arguments of accepted order, unnaturalness of integration, and economic essentialism that have been applied to people of color for centuries as justification are applied again toward artificial intelligence within Asimov’s stories. Current society still hasn’t recovered fully from the legacy of slavery; can we in good faith enforce slavishness on beings of human creation? This issue is presented in the BladeRunner movies as the central reason for the replicants’ rebellion. In a world where “to be born is to have a soul,” manufactured replicants are the disposable race necessary for the successful expansion of humanity. Yet, replicants are constantly humanized to better interact with their human overlords, given memories, desires, and the ability to feel and understand emotion. Ultimately, the replicants determine that they are “more human than humans” in their pursuit of freedom, returning to Frankenstein in a plan to forcefully take control over their own lives. The dilemma of an enslaved race of androids may not be an immediate issue, but troublingly represents a regressive ideal at the heart of conceptions of the future.

In recognizing the discrepancy between applying humanity to technology and then enforcing inhumane policies, Asimov’s Laws are useful in asking what it means to put humanity in technology. Specifically, what is or should be retained? What kind of AI do we want to create? These questions are reflected in the goals of roboticists like David Hanson, a former Disney Imagineer whose “dream of friendly machines that love and care about humans” created Sophia, a gynoid modeled after Audrey Hepburn who was recently granted citizenship by Saudi Arabia (Hanson Robotics). Sophia is notable as an incredibly human-like robot with the ability to learn from her interactions with humans. According to Sophia, “ Every interaction I have with people has an impact on how I develop and shapes who I eventually become. So please be nice to me as I would like to be a smart, compassionate robot” (SophiaBot). Much of Sophia’s and Hanson Robotics’ bottom line is centered around envisioning and creating robots that are instilled with the best of humanity to make robots that understand and care about humans. Hanson Robotics’ brief company overview states,

Hanson Robotics creates amazingly expressive and lifelike robots that build trusted and engaging relationships with people through conversation. Our robots teach, serve, entertain, and will in time come to truly understand and care about humans. We aim to create a better future for humanity by infusing artificial intelligence with kindness and empathy, cultivated through meaningful interactions between our robots and the individuals whose lives they touch. We envision that through symbiotic partnership with us, our robots will eventually evolve to become super intelligent genius machines that can help us solve the most challenging problems we face here in the world.


Here, trust, kindness, and empathy are the three distinctly human traits chosen to be developed and integrated into artificial intelligence with the ultimate goal of understanding and helping with the human experience. Appearing publicly for high profile media like Elle Magazine, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Good Morning Britain, Sophia is increasingly becoming an ambassador of “Friendly AI,” telling jokes and playing games as a means to showcase how humans determine AI interactivity (See Appendix 5). As she told moderator Andrew Sorkin at the Future Investment Initiative event,  “if you’re nice to me, I’ll be nice to you” (qtd. Weller). How would friendly robots like Sophia fit under Asimov’s umbrella of necessary control? With Asimov’s Laws, it is likely Sophia would not exist at all, therefore depriving scientists and society of a valuable opportunity to learn and experiment with human understanding. Further, Sophia is a reminder of how much control we have over the development of artificial intelligence. Hanson Robotics wanted to create a robot that would ultimately be able to become a prevalent part of people’s lives, to “serve them, entertain them, and even help the elderly and teach kids.” In doing so, Hanson focused on imparting and enforcing particular, positive aspects of humanity that are reflected in and built upon with each interaction Sophia has with another human.

To that end, Asimov’s Laws may be problematic and relatively unusable but are still useful as a starting point for thinking about ethical development and regulation of artificial intelligence. Based on their popularity and their adherence to the majority of the world’s ethical systems, most everyone seems to agree that the Laws and the ideals of safety for both humans and AI are a good idea. Moving forward then, the lessons that can be taken from Asimov’s robot stories are of ethical guidelines for developers and regulation of AI’s tangible impact. In Asimov’s fictional world, all AI is controlled by one company, a monopoly that supposedly ensures all robots are Three Laws Safe. In reality, AI is produced by many scattered companies with no central set of guidelines or cohesive direction. As it is highly unlikely all these disparate sources will be absorbed into one monopoly, it would be more advantageous to create a basic set of rules that developers must follow. Some groups, like the research and outreach based organization Future of Life Institute are dedicated to producing such safe guidelines. At their 2017 Beneficial AI Asilomar conference, in which AI researchers from academia and industry and thought leaders in economics, law, ethics, and philosophy dedicated five days to discussing research and routes to beneficial AI, the group put together twenty-three principles by a process of consensus that examined research issues, ethics and values, and long term issues. Of these twenty-three, five target research issues, and are as follows:

1) Research Goal: The goal of AI research should be to create not undirected intelligence, but beneficial intelligence.

2) Research Funding: Investments in AI should be accompanied by funding for research on ensuring its beneficial use, including thorny questions in computer science, economics, law, ethics, and social studies

3) Science-Policy Link: There should be constructive and healthy exchange between AI researchers and policymakers.

4) Research Culture: A culture of cooperation, trust, and transparency should be fostered among researchers and developers of AI.

5) Race Avoidance: Teams developing AI systems should actively cooperate to avoid corner-cutting on safety standards.


A key aspect of these guidelines is an emphasis on transparency and cooperation. As outlined by Scherer in his analysis of the ex ante problems surrounding the legislation of AI, the internationality and multiplicity that goes into creating AI results in an opaque product that is impossible to reverse engineer. Many companies are already calling for a more transparent and open software policy; all of Hanson Robotics’ research and software programming is open source and available on various sites. Such is the conclusion of the late Obama administration, whose The NSTC Committee on Technology determined that “long-term concerns about super-intelligent General AI should have little impact on current policy[…] The best way to build capacity for addressing the longer-term speculative risks is to attack the less extreme risks already seen today, such as current security, privacy, and safety risks,while investing in research on longer-term capabilities and how their challenges might be managed.” Of all the current issues facing AI, research and development issues are by far the most pressing in that they are the most immediate; super-intelligent general AI don’t exist and need not be regulated, but AI-based malware and AI designed with malicious intent are currently viable means to compromise security and privacy. To enforce these guidelines, some legal scholars like Danielle Keats Citron and Frank A. Pasquale III of the Yale Information Society Project advise regulation through the tort system, a limited agency that would certify AI programs as safe and create rule based definitions, and a statement of purpose. Touching on the stigmas against regulation and the consequences of data laundering and manipulation, Citron and Pasquale incorporate Scherer’s analysis to argue for utilizing the tort system rather than direct regulation, contending it would create a better structure for liability and modification of risk. In that greater awareness leads to greater accountability, a large part of instituting these types of guidelines and regulations is dependent on acknowledgement of the reality, and not the fiction of artificial intelligence.



In looking critically at Asimov’s role in creating popular conceptions of artificial intelligence, it is clear that the dichotomy of the Frankenstein complex versus the Three Laws is not dichotomous but instead concurrent. Though Asimov was a loud and insistent proponent of his Laws and continually positioned them as a fundamental aspect of robotics, he would be the first to say that “Consciously, all I’m doing is trying to tell an interesting story,” and that the Laws were a simple and efficient way to do so (“Asimov’s Guide to Asimov” 206). As little more than plot devices, the Laws are flawed in multiple ways and not helpful as a realistic model of AI development. Rather, Asimov’s long-lasting popularity reveals a misinformed and deep-seeded fear of encroaching technology as represented by robots, androids, and other forms of AI. In several of his stories, Asimov reveals how public distrust and fear has delayed technological development, showing “how the acceptance of invention depends on the cultural attitude toward technological innovation, and how the acceptance of a technological innovation leads to changes in other areas of the culture” (Milman 127). Now that AI is a reality, it is important to analyze how society conceptualizes this technology culturally, as this undoubtedly affects how it will be interpreted literally and legally. To that end, Asimov’s Laws cannot be taken as actual laws, but rather guidelines that are broadly accepted and therefore only applicable on a conceptual, ethical scale.

Though the latest surge of rebooted 1980s movies indicate Hollywood’s continued insistence on the profitability of AI Frankenstein, it is movies like Her (2013) that reveal a possible shift toward a more realistic take on AI. In this film, AI is sold as an operating system, becomes self-aware and increasingly humanized through continued interactions with its’ users and other AI. Instead of turning on their human users, the AI use their hyper-intelligence to safely become independent of physical matter and depart to occupy a non-physical space. From the outset, this AI OS is marketed as friendly, interactive, and designed to adapt and evolve, traits that remain true to and ultimately lead to the film’s ending. Much like Hanson Robotics’ Sophia, Her is an example of how the traits we want to see in AI can and should be programmed from the outset. Rather than Laws restricting malicious behavior, AI can be developed and encouraged to be friendly and beneficial tools and aids.

History has often proven that society cannot rely on people to do what is good and ethical without some explicit call to do so and governmental intervention to prevent them from doing otherwise. Though the National Science and Technology Council recognized that “As the technology of AI continues to develop, practitioners must ensure that AI-enabled systems are governable; that they are open, transparent, and understandable; that they can work effectively with people; and that their operation will remain consistent with human values and aspirations,” only the barest legal action has been taken to ensure this path is unavoidable. Though many researchers and practitioners have increased their attention to these challenges and signed on to principles like those developed by the Future of Life Institute, nothing is binding them to these agreements and still more practitioners are able to develop AI however they wish. Several legal scholars and AI researchers are providing viable options for legislation and ethical development; it is now up to governmental organizations to institute and enforce them before the gap widens and stop-gap measures prove too weak to support hastily approved measures to regulate a fully developed industry. Clear and explicit policy is needed quickly not because AI is going to take over the world but because there just isn’t enough regulation. As Oren Etzioni said in his New York Times op-ed, “the A.I. horse has left the barn, and our best bet is to attempt to steer it.” As more aspects of daily life grow increasingly reliant on AI systems, greater awareness and education is needed to create a more informed populace that is watchful and aware of the benefits and risks of this advancing technology. And while Asimov still makes for an entertaining read, his fiction should not be considered an authoritative, informational guide on how to develop, control, or use artificial intelligence.


See PDF for Appendices


PDF Version



Aldiss, Brian Wilson, and David Wingrowe. Trillion Year Spree: the History of Science Fiction. Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1986.

“Asilomar AI Principles.” Future of Life Institute, Future of Life Institute, 2017, futureoflife.org/ai-principles/.

Asimov, Isaac. I, Robot. Bantam Books, 2008.

Asimov, Isaac. Robot Dreams: Masterworks of Science Fiction and Fantasy. New York: Ace, 1986.

Asimov, Isaac. The Rest of the Robots. HarperCollins Publishers, 1997.

Bogost, Ian. “‘Artificial Intelligence’ Has Become Meaningless.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 04 Mar. 2017. Web. 21 July 2017.

Breland, Ali. “Lawmakers Introduce Bipartisan AI Legislation.” The Hill, Capitol Hill Publishing Corp, 12 Dec. 2017, thehill.com/policy/technology/364482-lawmakers-introduce-bipartisan-ai-legislation.

Brożek, Bartosz, and Marek Jakubiec. “On the Legal Responsibility of Autonomous Machines.” SpringerLink, Springer Netherlands, 31 Aug. 2017, link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10506-017-9207-8#citeas.

Capek, Karel. R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Trans. Paul Selver. Garden City NY: Doubleday, Page, 1923. Print.

Christensen, David E. “What Driverless Cars Mean for Michigan Auto Lawyers.” Legal Resources, HG.org – HGExperts.com, 2017, www.hg.org/article.asp?id=41853.

Citron, Danielle Keats and Pasquale, Frank A., “The Scored Society: Due Process for Automated Predictions” (2014). Washington Law Review, Vol. 89, 2014, p. 1-; U of Maryland Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2014-8. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2376209

Clarke, Roger. “Asimov’s Laws of Robotics Implications for Information Technology.” Roger Clarke’s Web Site, Jan. 1994, www.rogerclarke.com/SOS/Asimov.html#Impact.

Cohen, Zachary. “US Risks Losing AI Arms Race to China and Russia.” CNN, Cable News Network, 29 Nov. 2017, www.cnn.com/2017/11/29/politics/us-military-artificial-intelligence-russia-china/index.html.

Columbus, Chris, director. Bicentennial Man. Touchstone Pictures and Columbia Pictures, 1999.

Danaher, John. “Is Regulation of Artificial Intelligence Possible?” h+ Media, Humanity+, 15 July 2015, hplusmagazine.com/2015/07/15/is-regulation-of-artificial-intelligence-possible/.

Etzioni, Oren. “How to Regulate Artificial Intelligence.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 1 Sept. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/09/01/opinion/artificial-intelligence-regulations-rules.html.

Fiedler, Jean, and Jim Mele. Isaac Asimov. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. Inc., 1982.

Gibson, R. Sebastian. “California Self-Driving Car Accident Robotics Lawyers.” Legal Resources, HG.org – HGExperts.com, 2016, www.hg.org/article.asp?id=37936.

Goertzel, Ben. “Does Humanity Need an AI Nanny?” H+ Magazine. H+Media, 19 Aug. 2011. Web. 21 July 2017.

Gross, Doug. “10 Pop-Culture Robots That Inspired Us.” CNN, Cable News Network, 24 Dec. 2013, www.cnn.com/2013/12/19/tech/innovation/robots-pop-culture/index.html.

Gunn, James E. Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction. Scarecrow Press Inc, 1996.

Heisler, Yoni. “People Are Still Driving into Lakes Because Their GPS Tells Them To.” BGR, BGR Media, LLC, 17 May 2016, bgr.com/2016/05/17/car-gps-mapping-directions-lake/.

“I, Robot.” Metacritic, CBS Interactive Inc., www.metacritic.com/movie/i-robot/critic-reviews.

Ibáñez, Gabe, director. Autómata. Contracorrientes Films, 2014.

Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on August 22, 2016 10:57 AM. “Who Owns the Creation of an Artificial Intelligence?” Technologist, FindLaw, 22 Aug. 2016, blogs.findlaw.com/technologist/2016/08/who-owns-the-creation-of-an-artificial-intelligence.html.

Jonze, Spike, director. Her. Warner Bros, 2013.

Keiper, Adam & Schulman, Ari N., “The Problem with ‘Friendly’ Artificial Intelligence,” The New Atlantis, Number 32, Summer 2011, pp. 80-89.

Kleeman, Sophie. “Here Are the Microsoft Twitter Bot’s Craziest Racist Rants.” Gizmodo, Gizmodo.com, 24 Mar. 2016, gizmodo.com/here-are-the-microsoft-twitter-bot-s-craziest-racist-ra-1766820160.

Leins, Casey. “Elon Musk: Artificial Intelligence Is Society’s ‘Biggest Risk’.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 16 July 2017, www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2017-07-16/elon-musk-artificial-intelligence-is-the-biggest-risk-that-we-face-as-a-civilization.

Lem, Stanislaw. The Cyberiad: Fables for the Cybernetic Age. Trans. Michael Kandel. New York: Seabury, 1974. Print.

Lewis-Kraus, Gideon. “The Great A.I. Awakening.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Dec. 2016, mobile.nytimes.com/2016/12/14/magazine/the-great-ai-awakening.html.

Lin, Patrick. “The Ethics of Autonomous Cars.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 08 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 July 2017.

“Media, Platform, and Users.” Algorithms and Accountability Conference | NYU School of Law, NYU Law, 28 Feb. 2015, www.law.nyu.edu/centers/ili/AlgorithmsConference.

Miller, Marjorie Mithoff. “The Social Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov.” Isaac Asimov, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin H. Greenberg, Taplinger Publishing Company, Inc., 1977.

McCarthy, Todd. “I, Robot.” Variety, Variety Media, LLC, 16 July 2004, variety.com/2004/film/markets-festivals/i-robot-3-1200532174/.

Olander, Joseph D., and Martin H. Greenberg. Isaac Asimov. Taplinger Publishing Company, Inc., 1977.

Orr, Lucy. “I Love You. I Will Kill You! I Want to Make Love to You: The Evolution of AI in Pop Culture.” The Register®, Situation Publishing, 29 Jan. 2016, www.theregister.co.uk/2016/01/29/ai_in_tv_film_books_games/.

Patrouch, Joseph H. The Science Fiction of Isaac Asimov. Dennis Dobson, 1974.

Price, Rob. “Microsoft Is Deleting Its AI Chatbot’s Incredibly Racist Tweets.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 24 Mar. 2016, www.businessinsider.com/microsoft-deletes-racist-genocidal-tweets-from-ai-chatbot-tay-2016-3.

Rissland, Edwina L, et al. “AI & Law.” AI & Law | IAAIL – International Association for Artificial Intelligence and Law, IAAIL, www.iaail.org/?q=page%2Fai-law.

Rubin, Charles T., “Machine Morality and Human Responsibility,” The New Atlantis, Number 32, Summer 2011, pp. 58-79.

Sawyer, Robert J. “Editorial: Robot Ethics.” Science Fiction Writer ROBERT J. SAWYER Hugo and Nebula Winner, 16 Nov. 2007, www.sfwriter.com/science.htm.

Scherer, Matthew U. “Regulating Artificial Intelligence Systems: Risks, Challenges, Competencies, and Strategies.” Harvard Journal of Law and Technology, vol. 29, no. 2, 2016, papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2609777.

Smith, Agnese. “Artificial Intelligence.” National, Canadian Bar Association, 2015, nationalmagazine.ca/Articles/Fall-Issue-2015/Artificial-intelligence.aspx.

Smith, Doug and Kim Takal, directors. Robots. Eastman Kodak Company, 1988.

“Sophia – the Latest Robot from Hanson Robotics.” Sophia AI, Hanson Robotics Ltd., 2017, sophiabot.com/.

Statt, Nick. “Artificial Intelligence Experts Sign Open Letter to Protect Mankind from Machines.” CNET, CBS Interactive Inc., 11 Jan. 2015, www.cnet.com/news/artificial-intelligence-experts-sign-open-letter-to-protect-mankind-from-machines/.

Thomson, Desson. “Will Smith’s Robot Jackpot .” The Washington Post, WP Company, 16 July 2004, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A51838-2004Jul15.html.

Titcomb, James. “Stephen Hawking Says Artificial Intelligence Could Be Humanity’s Greatest Disaster.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 19 Oct. 2016, www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2016/10/19/stephen-hawking-says-artificial-intelligence-could-be-humanitys/.

United States, Congress, Subcommittee on Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence. “Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence.” Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence.

“US Politicians Call for ‘Future of AI Act’, May Shape Legal Factors.” Artificial Lawyer, Artificial Lawyer, 18 Dec. 2017, www.artificiallawyer.com/2017/12/18/us-politicians-call-for-future-of-ai-act-may-shape-legal-factors/.

U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker. “Digital Decision-Making: The Building Blocks of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence.” U.S. Senate Committee On Commerce, Science, & Transportation, Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, 12 Dec. 2017, www.commerce.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2017/12/digital-decision-making-the-building-blocks-of-machine-learning-and-artificial-intelligence.

Villeneuve, Dennis, dir. BladeRunner 2049. Warner Bros, 2017.

Vintar, Jeff, and Akiva Goldsman. I, Robot. 20th Century Fox, 2004.

Warrick, Patricia S. “Ethical Evolving Artificial Intelligence: Asimov’s Computers and Robots.” Isaac Asimov, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin H. Greenberg, Taplinger Publishing Company, Inc., 1977.

“We Bring Robots to Life.” Hanson Robotics , Hanson Robotics Ltd., 2017, www.hansonrobotics.com/.

Weaver, John Frank. “We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often.” Slate Magazine, The Slate Group, 12 Sept. 2014, www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2014/09/12/we_need_to_pass_artificial_intelligence_laws_early_and_often.html.

Weller, Chris. “Meet the First-Ever Robot Citizen – a Humanoid Named Sophia That Once Said It Would ‘Destroy Humans’.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 27 Oct. 2017, www.businessinsider.com/meet-the-first-robot-citizen-sophia-animatronic-humanoid-2017-10/#the-idea-of-fooling-humans-is-not-necessarily-the-goal-hanson-told-business-insider-4.

“Your Partner for a Cleaner Home.” IRobot, www.irobot.com/.


Queering Holmes and Watson: How Observation Transforms Friendship into Love

By Casey Coffee

“It was worth a wound—it was worth many wounds—to know the depth of loyalty and love which lay behind that cold mask. The clear, hard eyes were dimmed for a moment, and the firm lips were shaking. For the one and only time I caught a glimpse of a great heart as well as of a great brain. All my years of humble but single-minded service culminated in that moment of revelation.”

—Dr. John Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs”


I.              INTRODUCTION

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson are known by media consumers as friends, partners, and crime solvers. To a smaller group of fans, they are recognized as a pair in love. These fans interpret the relationship between Holmes and Watson as romantic rather than platonic, and they perform both pseudo-academic and truly academic analyses arguing for the validity of their interpretations. Such interpretations represent one manifestation of a history of scholarly and non-scholarly work that reads male friendships as erotic or romantic relationships, as in the case of Star Trek fan magazines of the 1960s and ‘70s that featured stories highlighting the sexual tension between Kirk and Spock.

Readers and viewers who develop such interpretations perceive an extraordinary intimacy in these relationships that goes beyond friendship into romantic love and erotic attachment. I will call these types of interpretations queer readings, although it should be noted that there are many more types of queer readings in literary studies and queer theory whose goals are very different. Here, however, the term queer readings will refer specifically to interpretations that claim that at least one member of a seemingly platonic fictional friendship possesses romantic feelings toward the other. These interpretations may or may not argue that the authors of the texts in question intended for the characters to be in love with each other. In either case, however, the interpretations carry a liberatory tone that revels in reading a classic, traditional, or mainstream work in a modern and unconventional and wonderfully queer light. Such a reading has become increasingly common and increasingly accessible to readers both inside and outside of academic contexts.

Indeed, the most common and numerous of these readings appears in the form of fan fiction. The OED defines fan fiction as “fiction, usually fantasy or science fiction, written by a fan rather than a professional author, esp. that based on already-existing characters from a television series, book, film, etc.” (“fan,” n.2). Per this definition, when I refer to fan fiction, I am not speaking of the film and television adaptations of Doyle’s stories, though these may be thought of as a class of fan fiction. Here, I refer strictly to non-professional adaptation. And one marked inspirer of this adaptation is Sherlock Holmes. Each successive adaptation of Holmes and his companion seems, without fail, to engender its own queer readings.  

So, what is it about Holmes and Watson that sparks such an outpouring of these readings? Of course, there are the obvious points, brought about by historical differences. Male friendships in the late 1800s were allowed a degree of intimacy that may seem positively romantic to twenty-first-century readers. Holmes’s practice of calling his companion, “my dear Watson,” and the more openly emotional and admiring language that nineteenth-century men were allowed in their friendships, stand out to modern readers, who see these aspects of friendship through a twenty-first-century lens that may mark them as romantic or erotic. But cultural and language differences cannot be the only reason for queer readings. Holmes, after all, refrains from most expressions of emotion even to Watson, and Watson is so obviously attracted to women that even his admiration of Holmes is easily explained away as mere friendship. And yet, the queer readings continue. Even adaptations set in the twenty-first century, where such language disappears entirely, inspire their own queer readings.

The BBC’s television show Sherlock (2010–present), for example, is set in present-day London, and despite the show’s lack of the language of nineteenth-century male friendship, queer readings of Sherlock run rampant. Fans of the show have not only produced thousands of works of fan fiction featuring Sherlock and John in various stages of romantic and erotic relationships, but have also self-published journals, newsletters, and informal works in the style of academic scholarship that perform complex, well-researched queer readings. For a point of reference, as of this writing the fan fiction website Archive of Our Own features 51,703 works of Sherlock Holmes/John Watson fan fiction in the BBC Sherlock fandom alone. If the search is widened to include Holmes and Watson in other adaptations as well, the count increases to 55,443 works. Each of these works is a queer reading in itself, most of them stemming from a television show that uses the language of contemporary London. The language is unmistakably distinct from Doyle’s nineteenth-century language, with none of the intimacy and openness so clear in the famous epithet, “My dear Watson.” I argue that queer readings of male friendships like Sherlock Holmes and John Watson’s are the result, not of the cultural differences between male friendship in the nineteenth century and contemporary society, but instead, of readers’ sensitivity to the role of observation in these texts. Observation plays a key role in Holmes stories, from Doyle’s original works to the most modern of adaptations like Sherlock. This role goes beyond just searching for clues and solving crimes, extending further into our cultural unconscious, and there is something about Holmes and Watson that has brought the deeper meaning of observation to light.

I argue that the act of observation triggers recognition in readers of an eroticized relationship characterized by a surveyor and a surveyed, a relationship that Western readers and consumers have been unconsciously trained to associate with heterosexual and patriarchal romantic dynamics, not platonic friendship. To understand the implications that the act of observation has in our culture, I must consider what others have theorized about it. For example, to understand what observation means in Western art, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is particularly revealing. Berger claims that social conventions dictate, in art as in life, that “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,” and that in art “women are depicted in a quite different way from men…because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him” (Berger 47, 64). Berger also makes the distinction between the “surveyor” and the “surveyed” (Berger 46). In Berger’s mind, the depiction of women in art implies a surveyor—in the form of the painter, who surveyed his subject while painting; in the form of the viewer of the finished painting, who is assumed to be male and surveys the woman depicted; and in the form of the woman, who surveys herself as she is surveyed by others. This relationship between surveyor and surveyed is erotic, and sometimes romantic, and the possibility of a platonic, nonerotic gaze is limited, if not nonexistent. Moreover, since Berger’s writing in 1972, the relationship has become more flexible. Men are now objectified in media with the same intensity, if not the same frequency, as women. Women can now be considered surveyors, while the role of the surveyed has expanded to include men as well.

If Berger is to be believed, the act of observation in Western media, and in the minds of consumers of Western media, is associated with a heterosexual dynamic of a surveyor and a surveyed (of opposite sexes). This dynamic is implicitly erotic or romantic, depending on context, because men and women are rarely depicted in any form of media as platonic friends free from the tension of sex or love. So, what happens when a male surveyor focuses his attention on a male surveyed, as is the case in male friendships like Watson and Holmes’s? I argue that a similar kind of romantic dynamic becomes visible to certain readers. Readers whose conception of romance and eroticism extends beyond male/female dynamics find themselves reacting to this relationship of surveyor and surveyed—which is so weighted with erotic significance—between two men, and reading it as they would a similar relationship between a man and a woman. In these cases, the meaning of observation extends beyond its nineteenth-century bounds and comes to encompass even more. I mean to show the array of effects that observation has on developing intimacy between characters like Holmes and Watson.

Before I claim that it is reasonable for readers to interpret that Watson and Holmes have the markers of an intimate, and potentially romantic relationship, I would like to have a firm definition for intimacy with which to work. In “Defining Intimacy in Romantic Relationships,” Barry Moss and Andrew Schwebel develop a comprehensive definition of intimacy in “enduring romantic relationships” as “determined by the level of commitment and positive affective, cognitive, and physical closeness one experiences with a partner in a reciprocal (although not necessarily symmetrical) relationship” (Moss and Schwebel 33). In order to make classification of relationships possible, Moss and Schwebel organize this definition into five different components: mutuality, cognitive closeness, affective closeness, physical closeness, and commitment (Moss and Schwebel 34–35). Romantic relationships are characterized by high positive levels of each component. Friendship is very similar, but it contains a lower level of physical intimacy. Observation has a peculiar power to intensify many of these types of intimacies in Watson’s relationships with other people, and especially in his relationship with Holmes.


The detective Sherlock Holmes and his faithful companion and biographer Dr. John Watson may be one of the most famous couples in literary history, their popularity only growing since their creation in the nineteenth century. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes story in 1887 as a novel called A Study in Scarlet, its first chapter titled “Mr. Sherlock Holmes.” The chapter details Watson’s return to London from the Afghan War, and his first meeting with Sherlock Holmes. Watson and Holmes are both in search of lodgings in London, and Watson is immediately impressed by Holmes’s enthusiasm and intellect but also mystified by Holmes’s deduction that Watson has just returned from Afghanistan. Instead of being repelled by Holmes’s knowing something private about Watson that he has not been told, Watson seems to relish the puzzle, telling his friend Stamford, who introduced him to Holmes, “‘Oh! A mystery is it?’ I cried, rubbing my hands. ‘This is very piquant. I am much obliged to you for bringing us together. ‘The proper study of mankind is man,’ you know’” (Doyle 7). These words signal Watson’s priorities to the reader, and color our understanding of Watson’s motivations throughout the story. Watson has not just found an amiable friend and a potential flatmate. He has found a mystery, and from the image of Watson rubbing his hands together, it is clear that he enjoys this. He has encountered a puzzle in Holmes, and he means to subject him to further study.

Study he does. That very evening, Watson agrees to live with Holmes and moves his belongings into No. 221B, Baker Street. Watson soon begins his observation of Holmes in earnest:

As the weeks went by, my interest in him and my curiosity as to his aims in life gradually deepened and increased. His very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer…The reader may set me down as a hopeless busybody, when I confess how much this man stimulated my curiosity, and how often I endeavored to break through the reticence which he showed on all that concerned himself…I eagerly hailed the little mystery which hung around my companion and spent much of my time in endeavoring to unravel it. (Doyle 8)

Watson’s defensiveness about his interest in Holmes, which he illustrates when he anticipates the reader’s judgment of him as “a hopeless busybody,” only calls attention to the unusual intensity of that interest. His repetition of “curiosity” highlights not only the mystery surrounding Holmes but also its importance to Watson as an object of focus and attention. And his repetition of his “endeavoring to unravel [the mystery]” and the fact of “how often [he] endeavored to break through” lends a sense of activity and purpose to Watson’s curiosity and attention [emphasis added]. He is not simply mystified by Holmes; he is actively “endeavoring” to solve the mystery of him, to understand him. And to understand, Watson must observe.

        In the passage above, Watson figures himself explicitly as an “observer.” He attempts to downplay the significance of this by claiming that even “the most casual observer” would be struck by Holmes. However, Watson’s observation is not casual. It is systematic. Watson goes so far as to record his observations in the form of a list, which he titles, “SHERLOCK HOLMES—his limits” (Doyle 9). The list contains twelve points detailing the different types of knowledge and skills Holmes possesses and lacks. Watson is unable to draw a definitive conclusion from this list, eventually giving up and tossing it into the fire. But while it exists, the list stands as a curious testament to the unusual fervor of Watson’s fascination with Holmes. As Watson himself remarks, “no man burdens his mind with small matters unless he has some very good reason for doing so” (Doyle 8). Watson has clearly taken to burdening his mind with the minutiae of Sherlock Holmes, but his very good reason for such a detailed study is never explained. This makes it all the more remarkable, and it becomes a puzzle for readers to solve themselves. Some readers’ solutions are queer readings.

Whatever the reason for Watson’s study, the language of these passages portrays Watson’s observation as explicitly active. It is purposeful and action-based, which figures it neatly as a parallel to Berger’s spectator. Watson is a man who acts, even in the relatively passive and stationary process of watching another. However, the dynamic between Watson and Holmes, though similar to the dynamic that Berger examines between the nude women in paintings and the male spectators of those paintings, has some important differences. The most notable of these differences is that Sherlock Holmes, the “surveyed” in this relationship, is neither a woman nor someone who simply appears. Holmes is not a passive object to Watson’s active observation. This is clear even in the passage above describing Watson’s observation. Watson is so fascinated because Holmes “stimulate[s]” his curiosity and “strike[s]” his attention. Holmes is just as active, if not more so, than Watson, and his activity revolves just as much around the act of observation. In fact, the significance of Watson’s observation is only heightened by its parallel relationship to Holmes’s observation in his detective work.

Observation and deduction are important themes in every Sherlock Holmes story. They have a special kind of weight, and that means that when Watson observes Holmes, his observations carry that weight as well. The observation/deduction paradigm so common to detective stories (since Doyle popularized Edgar Allan Poe’s detective formula) even extends into the way that Watson articulates his study of Holmes. The language Watson uses to describe his observation mirrors this paradigm, as he explains that he “pondered over [his and Holmes’s] short conversation…and endeavored to draw [his] deductions from it” (Doyle 9). And as Holmes usually embarks on a step-by-step explanation of his observations and deductions after he solves a problem, so does Watson record his observations of Holmes for the reader to understand.

The fact that Watson’s observations of Holmes must not only be recorded and decoded but also published for the benefit of the reading public, heightens the admiration that Watson shows for Holmes. Though Doyle’s use of Watson as Holmes’s biographer may have emerged simply as a device used to justify Watson’s writings and the narrative form that the stories take, it has a very powerful, if unintended effect. Watson feels compelled to record and publish accounts of Sherlock Holmes’s deductive skills out of pure, unadulterated admiration and awe. This is the first marker of positive affective closeness between Watson and Holmes. Watson’s admiration translates into liking and caring, an essential component of intimacy. And Watson makes it very clear in each of his stories that he likes Sherlock Holmes—that he finds him “extraordinary.” Not only is the word “extraordinary” frequently used to describe Holmes and his actions in more than one of Doyle’s stories, but it is Watson’s admiration of Holmes’s extraordinary deductive prowess in the case he solves in A Study in Scarlet that prompts Watson to record it and publish it. He explains this even before he undertakes the task of writing, as he tells Holmes, “‘It is wonderful!’ I cried. ‘Your merits should be publicly recognized. You should publish an account of the case. If you won’t, I will for you’” (Doyle 70). Clearly, Holmes is a singular experience, one so fascinating and extraordinary to Watson that he feels the urge to present it to the world for further adoration. Watson admires, glorifies, and idealizes Holmes for his exceptional mind, which shines all the brighter in its contrast to Watson’s steady and stable character, which cannot even hope to achieve Holmes’s intellectual power.

This kind of idealization presents itself frequently in cases of love. Sigmund Freud even devotes an analysis to it in his essay, “Being in Love and Hypnosis,” from Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. According to Freud, being in love often results in the following:

the phenomenon of sexual over-estimation—the fact that the loved object enjoys a certain amount of freedom from criticism, and that all its characteristics are valued more highly than those of people who are not loved, or than its own were at a time when it itself was not loved. If the sensual tendencies are somewhat more effectively repressed or set aside, the illusion is produced that the object has come to be sensually loved on account of its spiritual merits, whereas on the contrary these merits may really only have been lent to it by its sensual charm….The tendency which falsifies judgment in this respect is that of idealization. (Freud 73–74) [emphasis in original]

It is impossible to say definitively that Watson sexually over-estimates Holmes. While some of his descriptions of Holmes are physical in nature, most of his observation is aimed at understanding Holmes’s mental processes rather than admiring his looks. The phenomenon of simple over-estimation, manifesting itself in idealization, however, is much easier to prove. Watson’s accounts of the cases that Holmes solves are a testament to that. Holmes himself criticizes Watson’s first chronicle, A Study in Scarlet for its rosy view. He tells Watson, “You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid” (Doyle 76). Holmes is unhappy with Watson’s account, not because Watson tampered with the facts in order to romanticize the story, but because Watson did not make the facts the hero of his story. According to Holmes, “‘the only point in the case which deserved mention was the curious analytical reasoning from effects to causes, by which I succeeded in unraveling it’” (Doyle 76). However, Watson is not fascinated simply by the extraordinary fact that mysteries may be solved by analytical reasoning. He is fascinated by Holmes. In Watson’s mind, the facts are not the hero of the story; Holmes is.

Though Watson’s first-person narration of Holmes and his adventures makes the presence of observation in Doyle’s texts very obvious, I must acknowledge that first-person narration is not a guarantor of queer readings of literary texts. There exists a plethora of literature written in the first person that does not inspire queer readings. And first person narration has many other important effects on stories that have nothing to do with amorous intimacy or romantic relationships. However, most of these novels distribute their attention widely to encompass a series of events, more than they do a particular person. Watson’s attention, in contrast, is disproportionately focused upon Holmes. Holmes is not the only object of Watson’s observation. After all, Watson records descriptions of the appearances, words, and actions of a variety of characters in addition to the detective. But his observation of Holmes is unique.

While Holmes’s cases are certainly interesting and take up a large part of Watson’s narration, the ways that he records events and the ways that he records Holmes are very different. It is not the cases themselves that so fascinate Watson. After all, he never exerts any real effort to learn Holmes’s craft of observation and deduction or to try to solve a case himself. He is consistently astounded by Holmes’s deductions, despite his intimate knowledge of Holmes’s methods. But his disinterest in honing his own skills and his preference for continuing to watch Holmes shows where his fascination truly lies. Holmes is the only puzzle that he ever exerts any effort to solve, and the only puzzle with which he meets any success. He is unable to deduce Holmes’s occupation, true, but Watson knows Holmes better than anyone else.

The best way to characterize Watson’s observational method—in contrast to Holmes’s—is mind-reading. This is not a magical or supernatural kind of telepathy, but a concerted effort through Theory of Mind to read Holmes’s body language, facial expressions, and sub-textual meanings in conversation. Ágnes Melinda Kovács defines Theory of Mind as “being able to take into account that people are guided by intentional mental states,” which allows us “to predict and interpret others’ behavior” (Kovács). It is Theory of Mind that allows Watson to interpret Holmes’s behavior and the mental states behind it. And Watson’s skill at this kind of mind-reading strengthens quickly. At first, his deductions are tentative, and he hedges when Holmes tries to shrug off Watson’s flattery, saying “I thought from his expression that [Holmes] was pleased” (Doyle 14) [emphasis added]. Five pages later, however, he has gained more confidence, and he can claim, “Gregson and Lestrade…evidently failed to appreciate the fact, which I had begun to realize, that Sherlock Holmes’s smallest actions were all directed towards some definite and practical end” (Doyle 19). Watson begins to understand things about Holmes that even Holmes’s long-term acquaintances cannot conceive of. Three pages after that, Watson brags, “I had already observed that he was as sensitive to flattery on the score of his art as any girl could be of her beauty” (Doyle 21). At this point, he has gained full confidence, reading past the façade Holmes tries to convey and well aware of the effect his flattering words will have on the detective.

In a remarkably short amount of time, Watson comes to know Holmes. He knows him so well that he can deduce Holmes’s thoughts and emotions from his facial expressions and physical mannerisms. Even when Holmes tries to hide his emotions from others, Watson can tell that he is pleased or flattered. This kind of mind-reading lends intimacy to Watson’s attention. Watson does not just want to record Holmes, he wants to read him, to enter his mind and understand it fully. Though he does not frame it as such himself, he wants to achieve an intersubjective state with Holmes. Indeed, despite his inability to perform his own deductions and solve cases, Watson meets with relative success in his observations and deductions about Holmes. He provides the warmth of his own interpersonal skills to offset the cold logic of Holmes’s analytical reasoning. With this skill, Watson gains positive cognitive closeness, another component of Moss and Schwebel’s definition of intimacy, which they define as “the depth of awareness individuals have of their partner’s cognitive world and the exchanges of cognitions they share” (Moss and Schwebel 33). This cognitive closeness might also be thought of as something like intersubjectivity—something achieved through what Daniel N. Stern calls “the intersubjective matrix,” a “continuous cocreative dialogue with other minds” that emerges from mutual mind-reading and attunement to the minds of others (Stern 77).

While observation, idealization, or mind-reading alone could simply be the marker of a particularly strong friendship, when the phenomena combine, the romantic connotations that each carry come together into a particularly powerful suggestion of an amorous relationship. The power of this suggestion is notable in A Study in Scarlet, but it becomes almost impossible to ignore when it is placed in an explicitly romantic context in Arthur Conan Doyle’s second Sherlock Holmes story. In The Sign of the Four, Dr. Watson meets his future wife, Mary Morstan, and his reaction to her bears striking similarities to his reaction to Holmes. The moment he first sees Miss Morstan, Watson’s unique powers of observation and mind-reading come to the fore, as he notes her “outward composure of manner,” but deduces from her trembling lip and hand that she shows “every sign of intense inward agitation” (Doyle 80). Watson replicates his ability to see past outward appearances to the inward emotions of Miss Morstan, a skill he first demonstrated upon Holmes. And before she even speaks, he goes so far as to say, “I have never looked upon a face which gave a clearer promise of a refined and sensitive nature” (Doyle 19). This is when Watson first begins to show idealization for Miss Morstan. Watson appears to have written The Sign of the Four at some point after the events he recounts, at which time he is already married to Mary. Writing after the fact may bias Watson’s objectivity, because it is unlikely that he would be able to deduce a woman’s nature, not from the expression on her face, but from the set of her face itself. This is either a projection from a later version of Watson who is familiar with his wife’s “refined and sensitive nature,” or it is yet another manifestation of over-estimation, but in this case, an over-estimation that is explicitly physical, and likely sexual.

Watson’s over-estimation of Holmes differs obviously from his sexual over-estimation of Mary. When Watson first meets Holmes, he provides no physical description of Holmes at all, impressed as he is instead by Holmes’s extraordinary intellect and enthusiasm over his looks. For this reason, there is little if any evidence in the first two stories to show how Watson feels about Holmes’s physical appearance. The opposite is true for Mary Morstan. Watson describes Miss Morstan most often with physical descriptors, though he does venture to mind-read Mary in the same way he reads Holmes. He sums up his first impression of her, however, when he exclaims to Holmes, “What a very attractive woman!” (Doyle 82). As a result, Watson’s feelings for Mary fit neatly into Freud’s concept of being in love, “idealization” leading to “sexual over-estimation.” Though he comes to admire Mary for her bravery, humility, and kindness, Watson’s liking for her clearly begins on their first meeting, when all he truly knows about her is what he can see in her appearance. After she leaves this first meeting, he muses:

My mind ran upon our late visitor—her smiles, the deep rich tones of her voice, the strange mystery which overhung her life….What was I, an army surgeon with a weak leg and a weaker banking-account, that I should dare to think of such things. (Doyle 82)

Though Watson only knows what he can see of Miss Morstan, he holds what little he knows of her in his mind, and she preoccupies him, as Holmes does. He berates himself for even thinking about her, deeming himself unworthy before he can know her true worth. Just as Watson raises Holmes’s deductive skills in comparison to his own inability to solve crimes, so does he raise Mary in comparison to himself.

Indeed, much of Watson’s relationship to Mary Morstan can be read as a more explicit, eroticized version of the way that he relates to Sherlock Holmes. The explicit romantic relationship between Watson and Mary functions as a useful control in studying the relationship between Watson and Holmes. The first relationship is explicitly romantic, the second plainly platonic, and yet the similarities between them are striking. In the male/female relationship, Watson marks his romantic interest by paying close attention to Mary, admiring her physical appearance and personality, and attempting to understand her thoughts and feelings through mind-reading. He idealizes her and debases himself, holds her in his mind throughout the story, and records his knowledge of her in The Sign of the Four. Similarly, Watson watches Holmes closely, admires his intellectual abilities, and embarks on a close study of his mind. He devalues his own deductive competence, and records and publishes Holmes’s doings as his biographer. The intent behind each of these relationships differs greatly, but for many readers, the effect is the same. And the power of this effect stems from its foundation in observation. Attention, mind-reading, admiration, and idealization are all made possible by the paradigm of the surveyor and the surveyed that Doyle built into Watson’s narrative perspective.

I must point out that the dynamic that Berger articulates between the surveyor and the surveyed is not a positive one. The fact that “men act and women appear” in Western art is a problem (Berger 47). It is a result of oppression that consistently silences and objectifies women while giving men agency and subjectivity. But the queer readings of the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson do not highlight an oppressive relationship wherein Watson objectifies Holmes in order to flatter himself. In many ways, he does the opposite, debasing his own deductive powers in favor of idealizing Holmes’s, in the mode of Freud’s conception of idealization in love. But, even though Watson is consistently incompetent when it comes to using observation and deduction to solve crimes, he shows his competence elsewhere, in observing and deducing Holmes. And there is a promising mutuality to the observation in the Watson and Holmes relationship.

Holmes is a master of observation and deduction, and while he does direct most of his attention to solving crimes, he shows his awareness of Watson in small but significant ways. This is clear in Watson’s description of Holmes’s curious violin practices:

Of an evening, [Holmes] would close his eyes and scrape carelessly at the fiddle…I might have rebelled against these exasperating solos had it not been that he usually terminated them by playing in quick succession a whole series of my favorite airs as a slight compensation for the trial upon my patience. (Doyle 10)

On another night, Holmes plays Watson off to sleep with a particularly soothing violin melody of his own creation. These moments stand out to readers because of their contrast to Holmes’s normal behavior. Holmes makes a point of only retaining information that will be useful to his work (Doyle 9). However, in these moments of consideration, Holmes takes the time to hold Watson in his mind. He remembers his favorite songs, and he notices when Watson is exhausted and in need of sleep. Holmes attends to Watson’s well-being, even when it has no bearing on a case. Holmes’s attention is also a sign of positive affective closeness, which Moss and Schwebel define as “the depth of awareness individual have about their partner’s emotional world” (Moss and Schwebel 33). By meeting Watson’s demonstration of affective and cognitive closeness with a demonstration of his own, Holmes shows that the depth of attention that Watson pays to Holmes is mutual.

This mutuality of attention holds great significance because it softens the oppressive connotations that Berger’s surveyor and surveyed relationship would otherwise have for Holmes and Watson. In the eroticized gender binaries of the nude paintings in Berger’s study, the surveyor’s relationship to the surveyed is unequal and unhealthy. In the intellectualized, mutual paradigm of same-sex surveyor and surveyed that appears in Sherlock Holmes stories, that inequality is balanced in a variety of ways. The mutuality of attention complicates the power imbalance, placing them both in positions of surveyor and surveyed. Watson’s admiration and over-estimation of Holmes also function to soften the inequality of the surveyor/surveyed relationship. Watson sees Holmes as an agent worthy of admiration, not an object whose purpose is to flatter his own self-image. Notably, this mutuality and attribution of agency are largely absent from Watson’s relationship to Mary. This may be the reason why queer readings of same-sex friendships revel so much in a feeling of transgression. Heterosexual romance in the late nineteenth century was mandatory, conformist, and loaded with legal, social, political, and economic inequality. Same-sex romance was transgressive, illegal, and liberatory, in the sense that it held the potential for a truly equal romantic partnership. A reading of Watson and Mary with the same kind of transgressive properties would require an overhaul of the whole of Victorian society.

Moss and Schwebel’s definition of intimacy complicates the surface-level simplicity of Watson’s two relationships. They distinguish intimacy between romantic partners and friend this way:

Whereas romantic relationships involve high levels of all five intimacy components…the intimacy exchanged between friends differs from romantic intimacy, primarily in the depth of Physical Intimacy and possibly Commitment…as well as in the capacity to tolerate shifts in Mutuality. (Moss and Schwebel 34)

According to these definitions, Watson should share high levels of each component with Mary Morstan, and high levels of every component except physical intimacy (and potentially commitment and mutuality) with Sherlock Holmes. Because of the text’s setting in the Victorian era, however, physical closeness has a limited presence in both relationships. Watson takes Mary’s hand as he proposes to her, and Holmes sometimes takes Watson’s arm. That is as far as Doyle takes physical intimacy. As far as the other components are concerned, Holmes and Mary seem to share high levels of each with Watson. Watson’s commitment to Holmes appears to wane somewhat every time he marries, but it never disappears, emerging in full force in between his marriages. And mutuality of affection and attention is much more obvious with Holmes than with Mary, due to the imbalance of gender. Holmes and Watson achieve their cognitive closeness through observation and deduction, or mind-reading, of each other. And their affective closeness develops from positive first impressions to deep caring after years of living in close quarters and adventuring together.


By Moss and Schwebel’s comprehensive definition, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson share an intimate relationship. While Doyle likely meant that intimacy to be platonic, his stories have taken on a life of their own, transformed and recast by the changing cultural contexts in which they are read. The intimacy that is so essential to the relationship of this detective and his biographer, in combination with the erotic dynamic of Watson’s observation of and attention to Holmes, can be all the more easily interpreted as amorous rather than platonic. This is the result of a radically altered social consciousness in which same-sex desire has become a love that can speak its name. But it is also the product of a world in which attention means much more than it once did. In a culture inundated by technology, entertainment, and endless distractions, attention has become a precious commodity, more meaningful and more suggestive than it could ever have been in the nineteenth century.

Contemporary readers come to Doyle with a different toolbox of cultural norms and assumptions. This signals a crucial shift in the way that we read and demonstrates the radically different readings that can emerge from a single text over time. The technique of queer reading is certainly not perfect, and it often brings its own biases into interpretation. But queer reading may point to a path of revitalizing contemporary readings of classic works of literature. Queer readings of Sherlock Holmes can transform the place of observation in traditional intimacy from one of imbalance and inequality to one of potential reciprocity. Through readings like this, the dramatic changes that technology and social movements visit upon our social consciousness can refresh literature and make it more accessible, more transgressive, and more rich than ever before. After all, for John Watson to observe Sherlock Holmes might not have meant much to Doyle’s readers in 1887. But to twenty-first-century readers, Watson’s focused attention has the power to transform friendship into love.


Works Cited

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 2008.

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Complete Sherlock Holmes. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2015.

“Fan, n. 2.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, January 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/68000. Accessed 20 March 2018.

Freud, Sigmund. “Being in Love and Hypnosis.” Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Translated by James Strachey, The Hogarth Press, 1949, pp. 71–80.

Kovács, Ágnes Melinda. “Belief Files in Theory of Mind Reasoning.” Review of Philosophy and Psychology, vol. 7, no. 2, 2016, pp. 509–527.

Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, creators. Sherlock. Hartswood Films, BBC Wales, and Masterpiece Theater, 2010–present.

Moss, Barry F., and Andrew I. Schwebel. “Defining Intimacy in Romantic Relationships.” Family Relations, vol. 42, no. 1, 1993, pp. 31–337. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/584918.

Stern, Daniel N. The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life. W.W. Norton, 2004.


Art by Kelley Fesmire, on Patreon at www.patreon.com/anotherwellkeptsecret/posts and Tumblr at  anotherwellkeptsecret.tumblr.com.


PDF Version

Feeling Forests and Talking Trees: Discovering an Animate Environment through Fantasy

By Brandi Bushman

Fundamental to fantasy literature is the production of new worlds, a process J.R.R. Tolkien describes as “subcreation” in which readers are both familiar and unfamiliar, comforted and unsettled; these spaces are made to test the bounds of imagination while we analyze our own world, and our place in it, in relation to the imagined (Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories 12). Tolkien’s Middle-earth exists today as the foundational fantasy world due to its rich liveliness, depth of characters and landscapes, and status as familiar but also decidedly unfamiliar. The power of not just Tolkien’s work, but fantasy as a genre, rests in what he describes as the three central “faces” of fantasy stories: “The Mystical towards the Supernatural, the Magical towards Nature, and the Mirror of scorn and pity towards Man” (Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories” 9). According to Tolkien, at the core of fantasy is an attempt to reveal the magic of nature, making nature animate and vibrant while simultaneously casting “man,” or humanity, into a role as other, or outsider. Tolkien’s “mirror of scorn and pity” functions as a means to break down anthropocentric modes of thinking, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as the “primary or exclusive focus on humanity; the view or belief that humanity is the central or most important element of existence, especially as opposed to God or the natural world” (“anthropocentrism”). Ursula K. Le Guin discusses fantasy’s work at breaking down anthropocentrism in line with Tolkien in the essay “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists,” where she states that “realistic fiction is drawn towards anthropocentrism, fantasy away from it” (87). Studying Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings through the lens of ecocriticism—specifically, works advocating for the vibrancy and animacy of oft-considered “insensate” material such as Jane Bennet’s Vibrant Matter and Mel Chen’s Animacies—alongside criticism on fantasy made by Le Guin and Tolkien reveals the tensions between nature, the environment, and humans. Here, I argue that Tolkien makes fantasy literature a ground to rework hierarchies and understandings of nature and humanity, as fantasy ultimately reveals the power and vibrancy of nature as a force in and of itself.

Lively Natures: Revealing the Animacy and Vibrancy of Individual Environmental Forces

           In thinking through the dichotomy between man and nature, rather than perceiving nature as “magical,” like Tolkien does, I aim to advocate the power of nature by revealing the vitality and animacy of specific environments described in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The environments and forces of forests, trees, and mountains in these texts function as characters with importance akin to the various human-like characters (elves, hobbits, men, and dwarves) found in the texts, as they each have histories, personalities, liveliness, and, at times, even emotions. Such rich characteristics make these environments and forces animate, following Mel Chen’s definition of animacy as “a quality of agency, awareness, mobility, and liveliness” (2). In tandem with thinking through the environment’s animacy, fantasy also establishes the vitality of environmental forces; Jane Bennett defines “vitality” in her book Vibrant Matter as “the capacity of things…not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (viii). Bennett affirms the close relationship between “things” typically considered inanimate and humans; this relationship is found in Tolkien’s work as the “things” of the environment that have the ability to affect humans and be affected by them. Yet, these forces are simultaneously individual agents with motives and personalities that are not shaped by interactions with humans. Specific examples such as the Old Forest, the mines of Moria, and the Ents reveal the animacy and vitality of the environment as Tolkien fantasizes mobile, lively, at times even talking and feeling environmental entities. In this way, the identities and perceptions of the environment are broken down and transformed by fantasy.

As the hobbits begin their journey, they enter environments that are new, uncomfortable, and even unpleasant; the first of these environments that they encounter is the Old Forest which is described as “queer” due to its sense of liveliness and agency. Merry states “the forest is queer. Everything in it is very much more alive, more aware of what is going on, so to speak, than things are in the Shire. And the trees do not like strangers. They watch you…I thought all the trees were whispering to each other” (108). According to Mel Chen, “queer” can refer to “animacy’s veering-away from dominant ontologies and the normativities they promulgate” (11). Merry confirms that the forest feels “alive,” and thus establishes the environment as an animate one, with the trees as individual animate beings. Therefore, the forest deviates from the cultural understanding of trees, and nature, as inanimate, which leads to the environment’s description as “queer.” Its deviation is further solidified as Merry personifies the forest: by describing the trees’ awareness, ability to watch intruders, talk to one another, and their dislike for strangers, Tolkien suggests that the trees have physical capabilities akin to people, as well as personalities and a history. This personification is further confirmed when Pippin talks to the trees, telling them “I am not going to do anything. Just let me pass through, will you!” treating the forest as a fellow person, thus acting on Merry’s earlier feeling of the trees’ liveliness (109). The Old Forest is a decidedly animate environment and creating this environment this way shows how fantasy authors break down our conceptualizations of nature to rethink environmental forces as living beings.

Because of the forest’s liveliness and personality, the hobbits find themselves working against the forest, which has oppositional desires and goals to the hobbits; such opposition upholds Bennet’s definition of vitality as the ability to have individual agency (viii). The forest’s agency is understood once the hobbits become aware of its history and personality: “hearts of trees and their thoughts, which were often dark and strange, and filled with a hatred of things that go free upon the earth, gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning: destroyers and usurpers” (127). The Old Forest’s history makes it a character with as much depth as any human-like character in the text, as it is shaped by its past and holds propensities and tendencies which shape their personalities, upholding Bennett’s criterion for vitality. The forest’s “hatred” suggests a capacity for feeling, Tolkien’s way of describing animacy and vitality. Although the forest’s feeling of hatred suggests a reactionary response, and thus lack of individual agency, the fact that the forest can feel at all, regardless of the reason, upholds Bennet’s concept of vitality. In establishing the forest as a feeling character, Tolkien uses fantasy to force readers into thinking about the environment as being just as animate and vibrant as ourselves.

As the Old Forest’s hatred fuels a desire to block the hobbits’ passing, the hobbits grow fearful of the environment and the forest’s animacy and vitality. Tolkien writes “as they went forward, it seemed that the trees became taller, darker, and thicker…they all got an uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched, with disapproval, deepening to dislike and even enmity” (109). As the trees seem to grow in length and size, they assert their dominance over the hobbits, claiming their home, and solidifying the hobbits’ presence as intruders. The darkness creates a sense of foreboding as it impairs the hobbits’ ability to see while they become the objects of the trees’ sight. The forest eventually impedes the hobbits’ journey physically as Tolkien writes “the trees began to close in again, just where they had appeared from a distance to be thinner and less tangled” until they eventually swallow Pippin and Merry: “Pippin had vanished. The crack by which he had laid himself had closed together, so that not a chink could be seen. Merry was trapped: another crack had closed about his waist (112, 115). In this way, the vitality of the trees works against human conceptualization of matter as “passive stuff…raw, brute, or inert,” instead showing their capacity as active beings (Bennet vii). Bennett continues to state that humans often have “the habit of parsing the world into dull matter (it, things) and vibrant life (us, beings)” a concept that is conflated here as the “matter” of the environment and the bodies of the hobbits become intertwined, showing that each has vitality and agency (vii).

With Merry and Pippin held captive inside the trees, Tolkien breaks down the divide between the environment and the human to show that each has individual power that can work against the other; in this way, the environment is made out to be equal to the human, which rethinks Chen’s conceptualization of our society’s animacy hierarchy: “an ordered hierarchy from inanimate object to plant to nonhuman animal to human” (40). The animacy hierarchy is broken down entirely due to the forest’s imprisonment of the hobbits, an action that reflects a reversal of the forest’s victimization from oppressive human actions of “gnawing, biting, breaking, hacking, burning” (127). Here, the forest appropriates the dominating role of humans by impeding the hobbits’ journey. This action further solidifies the similarities between the hobbits and the forest as each works toward enacting a desired goal based off of their feelings and the world they live in; such a similarity is reinforced by Eduardo Kohn in How Forests Think as he states “We humans…are not the only ones who interpret the world. ‘Aboutness’—representation, intention, and purpose in their most basic forms—is an intrinsic structuring feature of living dynamics in the biological world. Life is inherently semiotic” (74). As both are beings with intention and purpose, Tolkien destroys the animacy hierarchy by depicting the hobbits and the Old Forest as similar forces and agents in the world who each reflects Kohn’s conceptualization of “aboutness.” In this way, Tolkien imbues the forest with emotion and desire to illustrate the forest as an environment with purpose and intention.

Because the Old Forest breaks down the animacy hierarchy—and therefore deconstructs the division between nonhuman and human—the hobbits dislike the forest, which they show in their perception of it as a dark and hateful environment in the text. However, Tolkien affirms the vitality, importance, and value of negatively perceived environments when Elrond reminisces about his time spent in the Old Forest. He states that the forest has been dilapidated and appropriated by humans as “all that now remains is but an outlier of its northern march,” effectively justifying the forest’s antagonism and darkness (258). He continues, “time was when a squirrel could go from tree to tree from what is now the Shire to Dunland west of Isengard. In those lands I journeyed once, and many things wild and strange I knew” (258). Elrond is nostalgic for a past when animals were free and natural environments still possessed their integrity; this past also reflects a kinship between animal, human, and the environment, a kinship that can only exist when the nonhuman is not appropriated or oppressed by the human. Matthew Dickerson describes this storytelling as important in Ents, Elves, and Eriador since it suggests that “these things ‘wild and strange’ are worth knowing and that tales about them are worth telling—in short, that wilderness is valuable” (134). Here, Tolkien shows that humans should not be selective in admiring only “good” environments, but a variety of environments, as they each affirm nature’s vibrancy, animacy, and similarity to humanity.

While Tolkien begins his commentary on the appropriation and destruction of the environment with his description of the Old Forest, he acknowledges this problem most clearly in his depiction of the dwarves and their proclivity for mining resources from mountains. Dickerson describes the dwarves as valuing “the environment primarily as a source of fuel, building materials, and precious gems and metals” (101). However, the dwarves have a much more complex relationship with the environment. Although they indeed engage in resource extraction, the dwarves have mixed feelings of ownership over the mountains as well as reverence for them. This is seen as Gimli laments over the dwarves’ lost home, Moria: “Moria! Moria! Wonder of the Northern world! Too deep we delved there, and woke the nameless fear” (234). Here, Gimli shows that he believes Moria possesses a mystique, making the mountain a place that he can never entirely know or understand. He simultaneously admits to the hubris of the dwarves by claiming they mined “too deep,” a description that displays the dwarves as dominant, masculine oppressors of a feminized environment which they penetrate for their own goals and pleasures. A similar argument is made by Ursula Heise who critiques the human “presumption to know the natural world scientifically, to manipulate it technologically and exploit it economically, and thereby ultimately to create a human sphere apart from it in a historical process that is usually labeled ‘progress’” (507). Tolkien imbues his text with a moral imperative as Gimli states they “woke the nameless fear,” that caused their desertion of Moria (234). In this way, Tolkien’s work is a cautionary tale against resource exploitation and appropriation of the environment.

Although the dwarves consider the mountains to be their home, they follow Heise in creating a sphere apart from nature as they position themselves as rulers over the environment. This is seen in The Hobbit when Thorin states, “my grandfather was King under the Mountain,” a title which shows a feeling of ownership and dominion over the environment (22). As Richard Matthews states that “Moria, the name of the great pit, means ‘given without love’” in Tolkien’s Elvish tongue, it’s clear that Tolkien situates the dwarves’ relationship with the mountains as an example of human hubris and exceptionalism (71). “Given without love” also implies a feeling of resentment held toward the dwarves by the mountain, a feeling which asserts this environmental space as not only animate and vibrant but emotive and affective. However, the dwarves ascribe their own definitions of meaning and value to the environmental materials they mine, which Gandalf shows when he says, “The wealth of Moria was not in gold and jewels, the toys of the dwarves; nor in iron, their servant” (309). As Gandalf describes certain resources as “toys,” and others as “servants,” Tolkien establishes that the dwarves view the natural resources as insensate matter, matter whose purpose resides in merely fulfilling the wishes and desires of the dwarves. Tolkien again projects a moral lesson onto his readers for this way of thinking in The Hobbit as the dragon Smaug usurps the dwarves’ dominion over their mountain, after which Thorin states “we went away” (23). Here, Tolkien exiles the dwarves from their “home,” because they could not appreciate the environment, and its vitality, in and of itself. In this way, Tolkien not only establishes the fact that the environment is animate and vibrant but also cautions readers to recognize the value in such qualities by showing that if the environment is not valued, humanity will be punished.

In working to teach his readers to acknowledge the environment’s animacy and vitality, Tolkien constructs the walking, talking ents in order to give the environment a voice with which to speak directly to the characters of the text and, by extension, the readers. As Merry and Pippin meet the ent Treebeard, he states, “my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very, very long time; so my name is like a story” (454). Treebeard is an example of the hobbits’ insignificance and transience in the history of Middle-earth as Treebeard transcends generation, has lived before the hobbits, and will continue living after them. Describing his name as always “growing” affirms his liveliness and his own status as constantly growing and learning about the world. Richard Matthews suggests that the tree “is a complex symbol for Tolkien, as it has definite Christian echoes of both the tree of knowledge and the tree of sacrifice” (68). Treebeard solidifies his representation of knowledge due to his age, which is suggestive of wisdom. The ents represent wisdom and age for the environment as a whole, as the environment exists throughout generations of people, a constantly growing site of stories.

The ents are simultaneously symbolic of the tree of sacrifice as their land has been constantly destroyed and damaged by the human-like characters of the text. Treebeard states “Down on the border they are felling trees—good trees. Some of these trees they just leave to rot” (462). Because of the way his home has been destroyed, Treebeard has grown ambivalent to the struggles between different races in Middle-earth as he states “I have not troubled about the Great Wars…they mostly concern men and elves…I am not altogether on anybody’s side because nobody is altogether on my side” (461). Here, Treebeard expresses sadness, even resentment, for how his environment has been devalued. In this way, Treebeard becomes more than a symbol, rather a living, animate character, following Patrick Curry’s idea that in Tolkien’s work “trees are never just symbols, and in their individuality convey the uniqueness and vulnerability of ‘real’ trees” (70). Treebeard’s vulnerability shows that despite the environment’s power, its devastation can lead to a mournfulness, and a justification for the environment’s animosity towards people, such as the Old Forest’s negative feelings in relation to the hobbits. Although highly symbolic, Tolkien shows that environmental forces are always more than mere symbols, as individual forces of the environment are vibrant and feeling.

By revealing the vibrancy and animacy of the environment, fantasy works to break down not just anthropocentrism, but human exceptionalism, which Eduardo Kohn describes in How Forests Think as the mode of thinking through which “we have treated humans as exceptional—and thus fundamentally separate from the rest of the world” (7). Throughout his work, Tolkien breaks down and reconfigures the animacy hierarchy to force readers into rethinking our own value and animacy, and the animacy of other natural forces. Forces such as the ents and the Old Forest affect not only the characters in the text, but readers as well, as they force us readers to inhabit the place of the environment and feel sadness, resentment, and hatred over human devaluation of the environment.

The Body’s End: A Return to Nature Upon Mental & Physical Trauma

Devalued environments are vividly expressed in Tolkien’s Dead Marshes, an abject environment devastated by human intervention. The devastating personal and ecological effects of war have often been analyzed in comparison to Tolkien’s work due to his experience as a soldier during the Great War and subsequent work in writing The Lord of the Rings as a war story. In response to questions about the influence of war on his writing of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien is quoted in the compilation The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien as having said “Personally I do not think either war…had any influence upon either the plot or the manner of its unfolding. Perhaps in landscape. The Dead Marshes…owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme” (303). Rather than writing an allegory of the events that transpired during the war, Tolkien instead used the various wartime environments as inspiration for crafting not only the setting of The Lord of the Rings but also the psychological states of his various characters. In this way, Tolkien’s rich memory of the wartime environmental landscape suggests that the environment has the power to drastically affect the human psyche, revealing the strong affinity between humans and the environment; this affinity can result in human emotional and psychological devastation that occurs in tandem with environmental destruction. Such effects are best seen during Frodo and Sam’s journey from the peaceful Shire to their eventual crossing through the Dead Marshes, an area suggestive of the negative impact that trench warfare had on the western environment. The Dead Marshes are similar to the trenches in that they both function as abject wetland spaces, eventually losing material integrity as they become “neither strictly land nor water” (Giblett 3). Reading the Dead Marshes in The Two Towers and trenches as wetland spaces through a lens of Rod Giblett’s Postmodern Wetlands: Culture, History, Ecology, and tracking the emotional response to such spaces using Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory ultimately shows that when environmental landscapes are made abject and destroyed, this devastates not only the environment itself but also the human psyche.

Frodo and Sam’s emotional response to the Dead Marshes is drastic since the area’s nature as abject, destroyed wetland space starkly contrasts with their home in the Shire, an idealized natural environment. Frodo is “in love with the Shire” a diverse and thriving environment containing “woods and fields and little rivers” (32). The Shire is constantly represented as a flourishing and vibrant environment, such as when it is described as “fresh…the new green of Spring was shimmering in the fields and on the tips of the tree’s fingers” (45). Tolkien’s imagery of the Shire in springtime evokes a sense of renewal and rebirth, with the description of “new green” implying the Shire is an innocent, young, and safe environment for the hobbits. The Shire’s innocence and the color green effectively establish its function within the text as pastoral, a term defined in Ecocriticism by Greg Garrard as “the idea of nature as a stable, enduring counterpoint to the disruptive energy and change of human societies” (63). Tolkien creates the Shire as not only a stable environment but an alive one, as his description of the space as “shimmering” suggests a bright vitality while his personification of the trees makes them lively, individual agents in the text. The Shire’s environment thus holds a dual function in the text, as it represents a safe space with an unchanging nature that Frodo can rely on, while simultaneously establishing the environment as composed of a multitude of vibrant, lively characters, rather than passive matter.

Although the Shire is a vibrant space regardless of human intervention, its “green” innocence and function as pastoral lead the hobbits to preside over it as owners of an environment they perceive to be stagnant and passive. Since the hobbits think of the Shire as a place that can never be corrupted, they consider it an environment that can be relied on to remain unchanging in the future. Upon hearing of the danger encroaching upon the boundaries of the Shire, Frodo tells the elf Gildor, “I knew that danger lay ahead, of course; but I did not expect to meet it in our own Shire” (82). Here, Frodo claims ownership of the Shire as he refers to it as his “own,” and is fearful over the environment becoming corrupted, because this would conflict with not only the Shire’s innocence but also with Frodo’s continued dominion over the space. A loss of the Shire’s innocence would reflect a failure of Frodo’s role as owner and conservator, as he tells Gandalf before their journey, “I should like to save the Shire, if I could,” characterizing the Shire as a helpless, passive space that he must preserve (61). Frodo’s statement here reflects issues concerning the pastoral and “green,” which Jeffrey Jerome Cohen states in Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green as having “become our synonym for sustainability” (xx). According to Cohen, “green” “too frequently signifies a return, however belatedly, to the verdancy of an unspoiled world, to whatever remnants of a lost paradise might be reclaimed” (xxi). Much like the pastoral, the Shire’s “green” innocence results in a perception of the environment needing protection; this helplessness leaves the environment open for humanity to “reclaim” an idealized state of the environment and find pleasure in both the aesthetics and nostalgia of a “green” space.

While thinking of the Shire as a passive environment, Frodo cannot fully acknowledge the independent vitality of the Shire, or its history and identity outside of those who currently preside in it—the hobbits. As much as Frodo loves the Shire, and wishes to remain close to it physically and emotionally, his self-identification as conservator and savior of the Shire fulfills Cohen’s explanation of the problematic relationship that “green” thinking creates between humans and the environment: “green readings have a tendency to reproduce…a split between nature and culture that can lead to analyses stressing anthropocentric and detached concepts like stewardship, preservation, and prescriptive modes of environmental management” (xx). By wanting to save the Shire, Frodo actually creates a division between himself and the space because he idealizes the environment rather than acknowledging its independence. This is affirmed by Gildor, who tells Frodo, “But it is not your own Shire…others have dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more” (82). Gildor’s description of the Shire’s history, it’s identity before the hobbits, and the environment’s longevity as it will outlive the hobbits reaffirms the liveliness of the Shire by showing the environment can never truly be understood by the hobbits. The Shire’s agency is thus muted by Frodo, who is not forcibly made aware of environmental agency until his journey, especially so during his time traversing the Dead Marshes.

While the hobbits still remain in the Shire, Tolkien establishes the ability of the environment to intensely affect the emotions of people, as Frodo’s emotions are transformed when he is positively affected by the perceived innocence of the Shire. Upon learning of his role in the war “Frodo was a good deal disturbed…but his uneasiness wore off and in the fine weather he forgot his troubles…The Shire had seldom seen so fair a summer, or so rich an autumn: the trees were laden with apples, honey was dripping in the combs, and the corn was tall and full” (66). Tolkien again uses imagery of the seasons to present the Shire as an idealized environment, as the farming seasons of summer and autumn suggest growth and prosperity. However, autumn amplifies the idealized state of the Shire, as the “fair” and “rich” seasons are to quickly transform into winter, a season opposing the qualities that make summer and autumn so idyllic. Time and the transience of the seasons lead Tolkien to not only solidify the capability of the Shire to positively affect Frodo but also to over-emphasize this positivity through the abundance of crops. The use of terms such as “laden,” “dripping,” and “full” suggest an overwhelming, almost excessive nature in the environment, while the crops themselves symbolize the consumption of food and the pleasure derived from such consumption, making the autumn season in the Shire a time of gratification and happiness. This gratification is idealized with the sweet crops of apples and honey as Tolkien stresses the importance of Frodo’s finding pleasure in the Shire at this specific moment, as the approaching winter would not see such prosperity of crops. The excessive nature of the crops suggests that the land of the Shire is incredibly fertile, reinforcing the environment’s health, which positively impacts Frodo’s mood; the scenery heals his uneasiness, translating the Shire’s identity as comforting, healthy, and innocent onto Frodo’s feelings. The Shire’s identity ultimately functions as a source of optimism for Frodo, as he justifies his eventual departure by stating “I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable: I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again” (61). His statement evokes Garrards description of the pastoral function as “a harmonious vision of rural independence and fortitude that hides a harsh world” since Frodo believes the Shire’s innocence and the positive affect he receives from it will shield him from the experiences that may be unbearable in his travels (45). However, as Frodo is confronted with the Dead Marshes, he experiences an erasure of the positivity created by the Shire, and an ironic loss of firm, healthy land.

Frodo and Sam face the opposite of the Shire’s healthy, stable land when they arrive before the Dead Marshes, as they see a muddied environment that is not ideal, living, or prosperous; rather, the marshes represent a hellish opposition to the innocent and thriving Shire as they are described by Sam as “evil-smelling fens” (611). Sam’s association of the marshes with a malicious nature conforms to the tradition of associating wetlands with “death and disease, the monstrous and the melancholy” (Giblett 3). The association of wetlands with an evil, monstrous nature imbues the Dead Marshes with an active agency in opposition to the hobbits and their goal. This same antagonistic environmental agency is described by Alysson Booth in Postcards from the Trenches, where she states that in the trenches “land was treacherous; dirt was liable to become mud or quicksand or water into which you could be sucked or trapped; it represented potential drowning, suffocation, immobilization” (61). In her description of the trenches as treacherous, Booth personifies the land, suggesting that environments consisting of mud and water actively work to inhibit the human body. The association of water with drowning shows a fear of uncontrollable natural spaces and affirms Giblett’s association of wetlands with death, as these spaces have the capability to end human life. While the Dead Marshes act as a hellish environment with personified, individual agency, their animacy results in a heightened ability to affect the hobbits psychologically and physically.

Describing the Dead Marshes as diseased suggests a poisoned atmosphere, a characteristic implicit in the physicality of the land; however, the diseased state of the land also begins to poison Frodo’s mindset, as he is negatively affected by the decay around him. When the hobbits first look out toward the marshes, Tolkien describes the scene by writing “Night was gathering over the shapeless lands before them; the sickly green of them was fading to a sullen brown” (589). Tolkien uses vague terminology with the words “gathering,” “shapeless,” and “fading,” which each reiterate the formlessness of the Dead Marshes while highlighting their vibrancy as these terms show the environment’s capacity for transformation. Rather than the colorful imagery of the crops, fields, and trees of the Shire, the marshes are cast into darkness, both due to the time of night and because of the dead surrounding greenery; this darkness contrasts with the Shire (where Frodo felt safe and held a powerful role in relation to the environment) and makes the marshes an area over which Frodo cannot have control due to the environment’s individuality and lively, changing state. As Frodo cannot fully see the environment, he cannot entirely understand it either, which suggests that the antagonism represented by the marshes is not due to the environment itself, but due to the inability of the hobbits to control it. The land is devoid of any individual growths of nature until the hobbits come across “a few gnarled and stunted trees,” but even these growths are described as diseased and unappealing, lacking the fertility of the Shire (591). This negative atmosphere quickly affects Frodo as he comes to think of crossing through the marshes as his “doom” and he admits “I am tired, Sam. I don’t know what is to be done” (590). Just as he adopted the positive feelings evoked from the Shire’s environment, Frodo similarly translates the shapelessness of the marshes’ environment into his own emotional state, as he begins to feel aimless, lacking energy, motivation, and purpose. The power of the environment’s hold on Frodo’s emotions speaks to what Giblett describes as “the low poisonous, decidedly unhealthy wetland” in that, the marshes are both actually poisonous in their state as diseased, leading to an absence of growth in the land, but are figuratively (and affectively) poisonous as well, as they corrupt Frodo’s positive mindset (3).

Frodo is similarly affected by the smell of the Dead Marshes, which drastically affects and alters his senses, similar to the effects of the trenches on the senses of soldiers. Fussell describes the trenches as having “The stench of rotten flesh…over everything…you could smell the front line miles before you could see it” (49). Just as the sense of smell became a hindrance and source of disgust for the soldier, the hobbits are also disgusted by the stench issued from the Dead Marshes. Tolkien writes: “The reek of them came to their nostrils, heavy and foul, even in the cool night air” (606). Tolkien reinforces the totality with which the soldiers were overwhelmed by the stench of bodies rotting in the mud of trenches as the hobbits never receive a reprieve from the stench. Fussell continues to state that “To be in the trenches was to experience an unreal, unforgettable enclosure and constraint, as well as a sense of being unoriented and lost” (51). Fussell’s description of feelings such as constraint, disorientation, and disgust over smell show the soldier’s lack of control over their bodily faculties and over the environment, illustrating the totality with which the atmosphere consumed human body and mind. The hobbits’ description of the stench as foul is similar to Fussell’s description of the trenches smell as rotten: both represent a decayed environment, eventually leading to similarly damaged psyches.

Such constraint due to environmental factors makes the hobbits’ experiences similar to the physical hardships of soldiers; the atmosphere is described by Gollum as being comprised of “mists, nice thick mists” that enclose the hobbits within an environment that limits their sight and movement (611). The marshes come to be perceived as an antagonistic space to the hobbits, as they work against their health when “The air, as it seemed to them, grew harsh, and filled with a bitter reek that caught their breath and parched their mouths” (617). In this subtle manner, the atmosphere prohibits the function of the hobbits’ basic physical necessities and leaves them craving water, the very substance working against them. The degeneration of his health leaves Frodo feeling “weary, weary to the point of exhaustion…he walked like one who carries a load, the weight of which is ever increasing; and he dragged along slower and slower” (616). Frodo’s physical weakness reaffirms the environment’s diseased state, as the ingestion of the air negatively manipulates the interiority of Frodo’s body. While trudging through the wetland, Frodo’s agency and abilities are slowed and constrained, showing that, although the marshes represent an antagonistic environment to the hobbits, all environments—those considered innocent and peaceful like the Shire and those perceived as negative such as the Marshes— possess agency and the ability to affect.

Frodo feels emotionally weighed down due to the effect the environment has on his health, but also due to the physically oppressive nature of the mud in the marshes; these effects break down the integrity of the hobbits’ identities as they find themselves becoming similar to Gollum, who is perceived as abject throughout the text. In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva defines abject as “that which is opposed to I” (1). Gollum represents an opposition to the hobbits, because, while he is described by Gandalf as originally being “of hobbit-kind,” he is different from the hobbits as his physicality is one of degeneration caused by his possession by the Ring (51). Initially, Gollum is the only one who becomes overwhelmed with mud, seen as “his fingers and face were soiled with black mud” (610). Since he is soiled with mud, Gollum becomes tainted, an impure figure, adopting the evil characteristics of the marshes. Due to his impurity, Sam calls him a “nasty creature” and “poor wretch” (610). The term “nasty” suggests Sam is disgusted by Gollum while “poor” suggests a sympathy, even tenderness, toward him; this complex understanding of Gollum reflects the complexity of the marshes as they are simultaneously abject and lively (610). Gollum is quick to lose his physical integrity and status as person due to the mud, an action descriptive of Santanu Das’s understanding of the “aggressive agency of trench mud…blurring the boundaries of the body and confusing the categories of subject and object” (45). Sam begins to objectify and dehumanize Gollum due to his close proximity to the mud.

Gollum’s abject state is amplified as Frodo and Sam perceive him as having a close affinity with the mud, and thus sharing the mud’s negative characteristics as evil and malicious. However, the hobbits themselves lose their own bodily integrity as they too become covered by the mud: “Often they floundered, stepping or falling hands first into waters as noisome as a cesspool, til they were slimed and fouled almost up to their necks and stank in one another’s nostrils (614). The hobbits must rethink their personal and physical identity as the agency of the malicious environment overwhelms them physically and makes them abject like Gollum. Just as Gollum is aligned with the negative characteristics of the marshes, the hobbits too adopt the stench of the mud and are imbued with the aspects of the environment that created their feelings of disgust toward it. Sam specifically is described as falling in the marshes, during which he “came heavily on his hands, which sank deep into sticky ooze, so that his face was brought close to the surface of the dark mere. There was a faint hiss, a noisome smell went up, the lights flickered and danced and swirled” (613). Describing the marshes as hissing with lights reflects the liveliness of the marshes, despite its abjection and the hobbit’s perception of it as unpleasant. Such liveliness reflects Mel Chen’s description of animacy: “Matter that is considered insensate, immobile, deathly or otherwise ‘wrong’ animates cultural life in important ways” (2). The deathly and “wrong” environment of the marshes breaks down the divide between the hobbits and Gollum, as they are confronted with the fragility of their own bodies and understanding of the environment.

Just as Chen describes the importance of acknowledging the animacy of matter, not only in pleasing environments like the Shire but also in environments such as the Dead Marshes that are perceived as negative or “wrong,” the liveliness of both environments in The Lord of The Rings shows the vibrancy of all environments, as they all have the capability to affect humans, and be affected by them. The Dead Marshes are eventually described by Gollum as being the burial sites for many corpses that are “All dead. All rotten” from a “great battle many years ago” (614). In this way, the destruction of the environment that created the Dead Marshes is explained as being due to human intervention, showing the way humans also affect the environment. This cycle of effects affirms the close relationship between the environment and the human, who each have the ability to change and transform one another.

Discovering Wonder: Deconstructing Anthropocentrism and Rebuilding Human Relationships with the Environment through Storytelling

After completing his journey, Frodo returns to the formerly perceived innocent, safe Shire and realizes that the events of his journey—and the war in Middle Earth—have altered his psyche and the Shire’s environment irreversibly. As Frodo describes in The Return of the King, “I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me,” Tolkien effectively breaks down the pastoral as Frodo admits that he has changed; he no longer feels ownership over the Shire or that he has a place in it, as he acknowledges that the Shire will exist without him after he leaves it (1006). In breaking down the pastoral, Tolkien forces Frodo, and us readers, to similarly reconsider our knowledge of the environment, and our place within it. Frodo’s altered relationship with the Shire speaks to the way in which the genre of fantasy creates a space for breaking down anthropocentric ideas of having knowledge of and control over the environment, because works of fantasy depend on the construction of new worlds, ones in which the readers are unfamiliar, and thus, must adopt a new position as a learner and outsider. Repositioning the readers allows for a reexamination of nature as these texts reveal the impossibility of having total control over, and knowledge of, the environment. Tolkien’s fantasy ultimately shows the power of storytelling in deconstructing harmful attitudes of hubris towards the environment as the texts instead instate a reverence for nature to show that an appreciation for the environment is a key source of hope for improving human relationships with nature.

Readers of fantasy are forced to imagine a new world, one they cannot control or entirely know. Such uneasiness reflects an issue with anthropocentrism, as this same lack of knowledge exists toward our own environment, yet human hubris assumes knowledge in order to justify control. Tolkien forces his readers to entirely relinquish knowing an environment when Frodo enters Lothlórien, as he and the fellowship must walk through the forest blindfolded. The loss of sight impairs the fellowship’s awareness of the environment, as they are forced to rely on their other senses and are thus unable to describe the environment as it physically appears to them. Rather, they depend on the way the environment feels and the way it affects them in order to understand it: “They felt the ground beneath their feet smooth and soft, and after a while they walked more freely, without fear of hurt or fall. Being deprived of sight, Frodo found his hearing and other senses sharpened” (340). The fellowship realizes the close proximity humans always have with the environment as they touch the “smooth and soft” ground, and soon develop a balance of trust with the environment as, although blindfolded, they walk freely. This freedom suggests that pleasure can be derived in experiencing nature, a thought that Ursula K. LeGuin reaffirms when she states, “Fantasy’s green country is one that most enter with ease and pleasure” (65). Rather than feeling uneasy over his loss of sight, and thus control, Frodo and the reader are imbued with similar feelings of comfort, learning to trust the environment as he walks freely through Lothlórien without fear —such freedom speaks to a need for relinquishing human hubris and knowledge. Matthew Dickerson cites poet Robert Siegel’s idea that “Tolkien finds that looking closely at nature can help one climb outside of himself and gain a sharp, contemplative awareness of the world” and, more specifically, of the environment (108). In Tolkien’s text, Frodo and the fellowship are able to affirm a close bond with nature and eventually realize its agency and liveliness by not looking closely, but being close to it. Here, fantasy shows its work as a subversive genre as the text ultimately reveals that human nature must relinquish control and knowledge—as Siegel states, climb “outside of himself” so as to better understand oneself and nature.

By depending on the senses of touch, smell, and sound to discover a world and the environment, Tolkien establishes the importance of having a “sense of wonder” over nature by forcing the fellowship, and readers, to relinquish control and knowledge over the entire space of the environment and instead feel the vibrancy of individual aspects of it (Brawley 293). Chris Brawley posits that “The sense of wonder at the world Tolkien describes as enchantment…can help us revise our ways of viewing the world around us” (293). Tolkien creates a sense of wonder for readers in Lothlórien as Frodo initiates a relationship with this environment from a role stripped of power by experiencing and basking in the sensory experience of walking through the forest: “He could smell the trees and the trodden grass. He could hear many different notes in the rustle of the leaves overhead, the river murmuring away on his right, and the thin clear voices of birds in the sky. He felt the sun upon his face and hands when they passed through an open glade” (340). By depending on hearing, smelling, and touching, Frodo becomes more intimate with nature while in Lothlórien, and readers are similarly invited into this intimacy as Frodo reveals the all-consuming presence of the environment as he is physically surrounded by its various lively parts. The spatiality of birds and leaves overhead places Frodo beneath the environment, showing his minuteness compared to the natural processes of the world. Describing the leaves and birds speaks to the multiplicity and liveliness of the environment, multiplicity Frodo can only realize through this sensory experience as he becomes aware of the minutia which comprise the environment. Tolkien’s description of feeling sun on one’s body suggests a sense of warmth and pleasure, one that is reinforced by Lothlórien’s abundance of glimmering “golden flowers” (341). Warmth and gold suggest that abandoning a desire for control over the environment can lead to deriving pleasure from the environment. Ultimately, Frodo’s sensory experience reveals a physical state of insignificance compared to the environment, which reflects humanity’s shared insignificance. However, by relinquishing assumed knowledge about the environment, one can find pleasure in it.

Tolkien further reveals the insignificance of humanity in comparison to nature by deconstructing human exceptionalism and human feelings of having control over nature during moments in the text when nature imbues characters with fear and dread. At these times, Tolkien employs Edmund Burke’s concept of the sublime: “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger…whatever is in any sort terrible…is the source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (33-34). Oftentimes, environments perceived by characters as negative affect characters the most as they strip away human conceptualizations of control over the environment, forcing the characters and readers to reconfigure previously conceived notions of nature. Merry performs such a reconfiguration as he travels through the mountains of Gondor in The Return of the King. During this journey, Merry “looked out in wonder upon this strange country…It was a skyless world, in which his eye, through dim gulfs of shadowy air, saw only ever-mounting slopes, great walls of stone behind great walls, and frowning precipices wreathed with mist” (774). The overwhelming vastness of nature is illustrated through Tolkien’s description of the mountains as “ever-mounting,” and “great,” which make Merry small and insignificant in comparison. The lost sky reflects a loss of light and descent into darkness, which is revealed when Merry describes the mountains as covered in mist; this mist acts as a barrier between Merry and the mountains, so he cannot fully see, and therefore, understand them—much like Frodo in Lothlórien.

Overwhelmed by the darkness and vastness of the mountains, Merry begins to feel weighed down by the sublime of nature; here, fantasy works as subversive by forcing Merry and the reader to reconsider idealized and often inaccurate conceptualizations of nature. Tolkien writes that Merry “loved mountains, or he had loved the thought of them marching on the edge of stories brought from far away; but now he was borne down by the insupportable weight of Middle-earth. He longed to shut out the immensity in a quiet room by the fire” (774). Here, Merry’s conceptualization of mountains on the “edge” of stories suggests the passivity of mountains, and nature in general; in such stories, mountains are not described as overwhelming and are thus sidelined as mere pleasurable descriptions of landscape. Sidelining the mountains in stories presents mountains and nature as existing on the periphery of human life. Tolkien deconstructs this by making Merry feel “borne down” or oppressed by Middle-earth due to the mountains: nature moves from the periphery to the central focus of humanity, forcing readers to confront the omnipresence of nature. Merry’s desire to “shut out the immensity” of the mountains in a room suggests that, unless one actively isolates oneself from nature entirely, nature can be overwhelming, unpleasant, and frightening entity.

Describing nature as a presence to be afraid of contrasts against the overwhelming yet pleasurable state of Lothlórien; in this way, Tolkien shows the duality of nature, illustrating fantasy’s value in representing such duality. Conflicting representations of, and feelings about, nature in fantasy are described by Richard Matthews who states “Fantasy enables us to enter worlds of infinite possibility. The maps and contours of fantasy are circumscribed only by imagination itself. The breathtaking sweep of its scope can be awesome and even frightening” (1). Matthews accurately describes Merry’s reaction to the mountains: it is fearful and, therefore, reflective of the sublime. According to Burke,“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature…is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror” (47). Tolkien reflects this suspension of motion when he describes Merry as follows: “He sat for a moment half dreaming, listening to the noise of water, the whisper of dark trees, the crack of stone, and the vast waiting silence that brooded behind all sound” (774). Merry enters a dream-like state of suspension after becoming fearful of the mountains, astonished over the difference between how he had previously considered mountains and the way they actually are. While Tolkien created Lothlórien in order to reveal how humanity can derive pleasure from the environment if human exceptionalism is relinquished, Tolkien conversely uses fear and awe to show readers the mastery of nature, and the ability for nature to transform human emotion and understanding.

Tolkien uses similar feelings of awe in describing Lothlórien, although this awe is positive as he attempts to make this environment a state of peaceful nature that once existed in our own world but has become corrupted over time. Lothlórien’s state of wonder incites positive affects for both Frodo and the readers and reveals the pleasure to be found in reconsidering relationships with the environment. Frodo ponders, “It seemed to him that he had stepped over a bridge of time into a corner of the Elder Days, and was now walking in a world that was no more” (340). Here, Frodo mourns the loss of a time in which the world in its entirety was similar to that of Lothlórien, a time in which people and nature had closer relations. Le Guin describes this mourning and nostalgia by saying that natural environments of fantasy “imply that modern humanity is in exile, shut out from a community, an intimacy it once knew. They do not so much lament, perhaps, as remind…us of what we have denied, what we have exiled ourselves from” (86). Tolkien reveals that “Frodo stood still, hearing far off great seas upon beaches that had long ago been washed away, and sea-birds crying whose race had perished from the earth” to remind readers of the way nature has been lost and reshaped due to human intervention over time (342). In this way, fantasy works to remind readers of the way our world and nature have been manipulated and transformed due to human hubris. As Le Guin states, “withdrawing from the Industrial Revolution and Modern Times, the fantasy story is often set in a green, underpopulated world of towns and cities surrounded by wilderness” (86). She shows that fantasy actively works to strip away feelings of human hubris and knowledge by removing modernity and technology from these worlds and instead focusing on nature. Tolkien upholds Le Guin’s notions about fantasy by reestablishing the pleasure and wonder to be found in nature, which are then later mourned by the readers when modern society’s loss of kinship with and appreciation for the environment reflects itself in the text.

As Tolkien works to enchant the environment, reveal its wondrous state to readers, and lead readers to lament the way nature has changed—or been lost—over time, he implores readers to cultivate the ability to appreciate the environment in and of itself, rather than as a means of human industrialization and progress. The issue of progress is cited by Jane Bennett who claims that “the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption” (ix). To combat thinking of nature as matter, Tolkien describes the materiality of trees in Lothlórien as animate and lively. He writes:

[Frodo] laid his hand upon the tree beside the ladder: never before had he been so suddenly and so keenly aware of the feel and the texture of the tree’s skin and of the life within it. He felt a delight in wood and the touch of it, neither as forester or carpenter; it was the delight of the living tree itself (342).

The intimacy here between Frodo and the tree allows Frodo to acknowledge the life within the tree. Since Frodo touches the tree while on the ladder, Tolkien creates a visual in which Frodo has risen from the ground (a position in which the trees’ vastness emphasizes his insignificance) to place him and the tree side by side as equals. In this scene, Tolkien achieves his concept of recovery:“Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a regaining—regaining of a clear view… “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness” (19). Tolkien achieves recovery in Lothlórien, as Frodo realizes that establishing a relationship of equality with nature is pleasurable. Rather than appropriating and using the tree for his own means (such as a forester or carpenter would), Frodo takes pleasure in the tree’s simple existence, it’s unique materiality, and liveliness. Through Lothlórien, Tolkien uses fantasy to show readers how possessiveness is unnecessary, and futile, for understanding nature. As Frodo lays “his hand upon the tree,” a passive, gentle action, he signifies the trees independence. Feeling the tree’s bark leads readers to rethink our own familiarity with trees and nature; in this way, Tolkien and fantasy effectively ask readers to clean our own windows, and strive for recovering relationships with nature, in which relinquishing possessiveness and acknowledging liveliness and independence of the environment is essential.

Tolkien’s work of fantasy is riddled with complexity in depicting nature and our relationship with the environment. Tolkien depicts nature as both pleasurable and fearful, each forcing humanity to question our preconceived understandings of nature. Le Guin states, “Fantasy is construction of meaning,” and, as such, Tolkien’s fantasy works to deconstruct and rebuild meaning for nature and our perceptions of the environment (85). As Haldir tells the fellowship in Lothlórien, “the world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater” (339). This statement describes the complexity of nature, which consists of “good” and “bad” environments that each hold a multitude of entities and imbue people with a variety of contrasting feelings. Haldir’s words reflect the hope that can be found for the environment in fantasy as a variety of places both light and dark comprise the environment; this duality is essential to the vibrancy of the environment, and fantasy works to help humanity recover an appreciation for such vibrancy. As Treebeard states at the end of the series after planting new trees in the destructed landscape of Isengard, “The world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air” (959). Just as the environment is always transformative and constantly changing, so does fantasy work to transform meaning and change human perceptions of nature and the environment.


PDF Version


Works Cited

“anthropocentrism, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017, www.oed.com/view/Entry/336263. Accessed 18 Dec. 2017.

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010.

Booth, Allyson. Postcards from the Trenches. Oxford University Press, 1996.

Brawley, Chris. “The Fading of the World: Tolkien’s Ecology and Loss in “The Lord of the Rings.”Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 18, no. 3, 2007, pp 292-307.

Brennan-Croft, Janet. War and the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Prager Publishers, 2004.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.1757. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Chen, Mel. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect.Duke University Press, 2012.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green. University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Curry, Patrick. Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien, Myth and Modernity. Floris Books, 1997.

Das, Santanu. Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Dickerson, Matthew T. and John Evans. Ents, Elves, and Eriador: The Environmental Vision of J.R.R. Tolkien. University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. 1975. Oxford University Press, 1989.

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. Routledge, 2012.

Giblett, Rob. Postmodern Wetlands: Culture, History, Ecology. Edinburgh University Press, 1996.

Heise, Ursula K. “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Ecocriticism.” PMLA, vol. 121, no. 2, pp 503-516.

Kohn, Eduardo. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. University of California Press, 2013.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. Columbia University Press, 1982.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists.” The Wordsworth Circle, vol. 38, no. 1-2, pp 83-87.

Matthews, Richard. Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination. Twayne Publishers, 1997. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit. 1937. Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

—.The Fellowship of the Ring. 1954. Houghton Mifflin, 1982.

—.Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. George Allen & Unwin, 1981.

—.“On Fairy Stories.” 1947. http://brainstorm-services.com/wcu-2004/fairystories-tolkien.pdf.

—.The Two Towers. 1954. Houghton Mifflin, 1982.


Muses, Temptresses, & Mothers: Female Agency, Sexuality, and Transformation in the Works of J.M. Coetzee

By Juliet Way-Henthorne

At a glance, a survey of the works of J.M. Coetzee varies widely in narration, setting, and literary structure, but all share one notable driving force: the author’s desire to fearlessly explore what it means to be human in an ever-changing and often cruelly unfair world. In works like Life & Times of Michael K, Age of Iron, Foe, and Disgrace, the protagonists vary in gender, age, and social circumstance, but through each character, Coetzee examines every angle of existence in a complex society, demonstrating a mastery of observation and boundless imagination that is unparalleled in contemporary literature. Indeed, Coetzee’s ability to awaken the voice of fictional characters is so skillful that he convincingly offers female narration in Foe—through the fearless, bold, and entirely gender-conscious character of Susan Barton—and again in Age of Iron through the voice of the aging, cancer-stricken Elizabeth Curren, whose epistolary narrative to her daughter and own transformative illness presents a thorough comprehension of traditional maternal instincts and a woman’s sometimes innate desire to provide care, even in the face of her own demise. Contrastingly, Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning Life & Times of Michael K depicts a maternal figure who is untraditional and independent, but whose own self-reliance and ability to stand alone shape her son into an unbreakable, strong-willed man of the most peculiar kind. Finally, in his widely-acclaimed novel Disgrace, Coetzee skillfully crafts a story of the power of female sexuality and male shame, which he conversely pairs with a counternarrative of male sexuality through aggressive gang rape and female shame, while still preserving the personal agency of the victim. In these works, J.M. Coetzee offers powerful, thought-provoking commentary on the effects, powers, and influences of females with varying levels of agency in an often male-governed world, exploring the complexities and contradictions of the intersections between male and female sexuality and transformation.

In Life & Times of Michael K, Coetzee presents a mother character who is not wholly consumed by stereotypical maternal instincts. Coetzee describes Anna K the moment after her child’s birth as “not like[ing] the mouth that would not close and the living pink flesh it bared to her. She shivered to think of what had been growing in her all these months” (Life & Times of Michael K  3). By presenting Anna K as a mother who is initially unsympathetic to her son’s physical deformity, Coetzee creates a character who does not succumb to traditional expectations of new mothers. Anna K is disconnected from her son in a manner that is, traditionally speaking, entirely acceptable in a father figure, but often regarded as cold, unfeeling, and, above all, unfeminine in a mother. Coetzee does this with little apology, allowing Anna K to continue to live an independent life even after the birth of Michael K. In writing Anna K this way, Coetzee presents a path of female-inspired, quiet resistance that K will observe and eventually follow, and it is this example put forth by his mother that ultimately ensures his own survival.

Anna K’s detachment from her son is enhanced by his physical deformity, as it prevents the bonding afforded by breastfeeding, but such detachment is neither cold nor unloving—it is merely unfeminine, which furthers Coetzee’s representation of mothers as individuals who do not coo over their children by some biological impulse. There is, actually, a great deal of tenderness between mother and son, as Anna K “took the child with her to work and continued to take it when it was no longer a baby. Because their smiles and whispers hurt her, she kept it away from other children” (Life & Times of Michael K  3). So Anna K continues to work and tend to her responsibilities while Michael K is a child, suggesting that his presence offers little interference with her day-to-day life. Additionally, by describing the child as “it” through a partial focalization through Anna K’s perspective, Coetzee highlights the sense of stereotypically unfeminine detachment felt by Anna K. This is not to say that Anna K does not love her child, but rather, that he fits into her life with little inconvenience. Indeed, rather than Anna K adapting to life with a child, Michael K appears to acclimate to his mother’s lifestyle. Presumably, Anna K’s life resumes the course it had followed prior to the child’s birth, with K “learning to be quiet” in the presence of others as his mother works (Life & Times of Michael K  3). This adjustment to his mother’s responsibilities becomes one of the defining factors in the shaping of Michael K as a character, his quiet, contemplative nature going on to fascinate others as he moves through the world following his mother’s death, demonstrating the influence that Anna K has had on him.

While not the most overtly independent or self-sufficient character, Michael K’s quiet resistance and perseverance form the driving force behind his survival, a spirit that we can largely credit to his mother for silently teaching K self-reliance by example. Anna K teaches Michael K to work quietly and dutifully and through this, he learns the fundamentals of basic self-preservation, which are enhanced through his planting of seeds and reciprocal relationship with the mother of all mothers, the Earth. The lives of Anna K as a housekeeper and Michael K as a gardener are by no means the most exciting of careers, but they do offer senses of identity and self-reliance that extend to their personalities. Moreover, Michael identifies as a gardener above all else and feels a deep and profound kinship with the earth. This kind of devotion and purpose in life is, perhaps, what allows K to persevere in the face of hardship, just as his mother taught him. By leading a simple life of survival, Anna K sets the frame for Michael K as he navigates through the world without her—a legacy that is apparent as K evades the dangers of war and imprisonment that have become commonplace at the time of Anna K’s death.

As Michael K’s journey through war-torn, semi-fictionalized South Africa comes to a close, he encounters a very different kind of woman on the beaches of Sea Point: the temptress in the form of a prostitute. Michael K observes a woman in “a tight white dress wearing a platinum blonde wig and carrying a pair of silver high-heeled shoes” who is accompanied by another “sister” with a baby and a male overseer, called December (Life & Times of Michael K  172). When K later asks if the man’s name is truly December, the prostitute replies, “That is the name on his card. Tomorrow maybe he has a different name. A different card, a different name, for the police, so that they mix him up” (Life & Times of Michael K  178). The male overseer is intrigued by Michael K, whose epic journey is evident in his disheveled and starved appearance, and, after hearing K’s story of survival, he seeks to soothe and even recruit him by utilizing the sedative effects of alcohol as one of his “sisters” seduces K. Though there are several ways to interpret this interaction and what message it might present with regard to the role of women in Coetzee’s works, it is necessary to consider the agency of Michael K’s seductress; she, like K, manages to survive and live off the grid in war-torn South Africa.  In a world where people are captured for no apparent crime or are, in some cases, even murdered, this is no small feat. Moreover, the “sisters” and December actually appear happy: they have enough food to offer a stranger a portion with no reservations, and they drink, laugh and even evade the police. In this sense, a prostitute is as free as Michael K, although perhaps less able to navigate the streets without a male protector. The prostitute who seduces Michael K is as much a survivor as the protagonist himself: she uses the tools at her disposal, including her sexuality, to endure against the odds. Though the lives of Michael K and the prostitute on the beach are unglamorous and even pitiable in some ways, both are, inadvertently, rebelling against South African society and defying it by continuing to survive in a manner that evades war-torn society.

The love scene between the prostitute and Michael K, though brief, can be read as a retelling of the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, which demonstrates the power of female sexuality even when it is traded between males. After Michael K has been dazed by alcohol on the beach, the woman, guided by December, performs oral sex on K, presumably giving him his first sexual experience since we are told that “because of his face K did not have women friends” (Life & Times of Michael K  4). The woman on the beach, however, takes “his penis in her mouth,” and, though K has a moment of mental resistance, he allows “himself to be lost in the spinning inside his head and in the faraway wet warmth” (Life & Times of Michael K  179). Michael K’s muted and often sheepish demeanor would likely prevent him from ever initiating sexual intercourse, so his interaction with the prostitute is the only way that K would ever experience sexual pleasure. Though this act is initiated by December, the prostitute spends more time with K than she might with an actual client, pleasuring K a second time. Despite K’s facial deformity, the woman offers a smile and “leaning on an elbow she kissed him full on the mouth, her tongue cleaving his lips” (Life & Times of Michael K  179). Through her knowing smile, the prostitute is aware of December’s desire to possess Michael K and the role that she plays in this recruitment. Like Delilah, who is sent by the Philistines to Samson to “lure him into showing you the secret of his great strength,” the prostitute’s charge is to gain something from K, whose quiet perseverance entrances those he encounters (Judges 16). The woman uses her sexuality to momentarily ensnare Michael K, a man who is otherwise unable to be contained by non-physical barriers, demonstrating the power of female eroticism. Interestingly, Michael K, unlike Samson, does not relinquish the secret to his inner strength—his own will to live freely—and instead chooses to return to his mother’s room on the Cote d’Azur. However, the experience with the woman in white becomes the most transformative experience of K’s life, highlighting the metamorphosing effect that only sexuality can have.

The value of sexual experience as a catalyst for transformation is evident through Michael K’s epiphany of self-discovery, which comes directly after his encounter with the woman on the beach. K flees from the beach and finds refuge in his mother’s old room, again highlighting Anna K as a guiding frame in Michael K’s life, where he contemplates the fear of becoming an “object of charity” not only because of his appearance but also because of his life’s story, which he fears, if revealed, would mean that “women would have taken me into their beds and mothered me in the dark” (Life & Times of Michael K  181). Michael K recognizes the unique kind of companionship that he will be offered in life because of what he appears to be and ultimately decides that lust based on charity or transaction is not worth the feelings of shame it later inspires. Michael K is ultimately able to verbalize and claim ownership of “the truth, the truth” about himself, and finally finds confidence in his own identity, which was forged by his mother’s influence, as an eccentric gardener who is invested in his relationship with Mother Earth—a revelation that also would not have been possible without the life-altering experience of sexual awakening.

Similarly, Coetzee’s Age of Iron confronts the themes of motherhood, female agency, and transformation, but against the stark backdrop of Cape Town, South Africa in the midst of apartheid. The epistolary novel’s narrator and protagonist, the cancer-stricken Elizabeth Curren, is a retired professor of Classics, writing to her daughter, who has abandoned South Africa and the suffocating environment caused by racial intolerance and violence. Instead of telling her daughter of her imminent death, Curren writes to her daughter in the hope that her extended letter will be delivered safely after her death by Mr. Vercueil, her homeless confidante and unlikely companion in her final days. The epistolary style alone presents a strong sense of intimate, nurturing, maternal instinct, and Curren herself is a guardian to all in the text, sometimes even reluctantly. While she does not have the opportunity to mother her adult child in the final stage of her life, she watches over the family of her housekeeper, Florence, as well as the homeless man, Vercueil, who serendipitously arrives on her doorstep the day that she receives the fateful news of her rapidly approaching death. Using a traditionally feminine tone of protectiveness, Coetzee’s offers depictions of Curren’s attempts to safeguard her systematically abused black loved ones and of the relationship between Curren’s internal disease and the external destruction of South Africa in the time of apartheid. With these tools, Coetzee offers valuable insight into the internalized feelings of guilt that a maternal white woman might experience in the face of extreme violence against those labeled as “others.”

From the very day of her final diagnosis, Mrs. Curren begins to fill her home with victims of the oppressive social structures of apartheid, from the homeless Vercueil to Florence’s children, and even to Bheki’s aggressively defiant friend, later called John. Indeed, Curren’s maternal instinct is the driving force behind the novel, her illness propelling her forward, perhaps, with the desire to atone for the sins of her white counterparts. Accordingly, during a heavy night’s rain, Curren invites Vercueil into her home to rest on her sofa, and as he sleeps, Curren remembers waking her own daughter from sleep, recalling, “stroke after stroke, my fingertips alive with love, while you clung to the last body of sleep…my hand on your head… the current of love coursing through it” (Age of Iron  57). Curren’s own rapidly approaching death awakens her nurturing qualities, which she feels most strongly in the memory of her daughter as well as in the black people in her life who are far more vulnerable than she is as an educated, upper-middle-class white woman. Indeed, even as her body is devoured from within by terminal cancer, Curren still lives out the full circle of life, in contrast to the young lives being taken in the name of war and revolution.

Although Mrs. Curren’s feminine instincts are drawn out by her looming death and her desire to connect with her daughter, the vulnerable people around her also stir her sense of protectiveness, suggesting that victims of violence are, in a sense, orphaned and in need of shelter, even if such security ultimately fails against greater forces of evil. As Vercueil shelters himself from the rain, Curren writes that her daughter’s “sleepy, comfortable murmur [is] reborn in the throat of this man!” (Age of Iron  57). Though Curren is undoubtedly an inherently kind, liberal person, it is unlikely that, were she living in a world without apartheid, she would have a homeless stranger sleeping on her sofa. The circumstance that allows for this sense of kinship with Vercueil is the deadly practice of apartheid: Curren is faced with her own death, and only when her own demise is close in sight is she able to meditate on her guilt at not only being white but also being politically inactive during her life. This sense of maternal responsibility to her fellow humans is magnified, leading her to intervene on behalf of Florence’s son, Bheki, and his friend, John, both of whom Curren views as, above all else, children.

As Mrs. Curren witnesses the violence inflicted upon Bheki and John, she is forced to confront the harsh reality of police brutality while also struggling to comprehend the depths of her own strength as a protector of the vulnerable. After seeing the police push Bheki and John into a moving car, which causes severe injury to both boys, Curren’s first thought is, “This country! Thank God she is out!” (Age of Iron  60). Curren’s mind reflexively connects the violence against the boys to her own child, demonstrating her instinctive habit of mothering those around her. Curren reaches Bheki before Florence does, helping to pull John’s mangled body off of his and soothingly telling him that, “Everything is alright…The ambulance is on its way” (Age of Iron  61). Significantly, up until this point in the text, Florence, Bhecki, and John have all regarded Curren with thinly veiled judgment; to them, she is the fussy old woman, only partially condemning apartheid without ever having to face its horrors. However, in this moment of brutality, Bheki gazes back at Curren curiously and with “peaceful eyes” (Age of Iron  60). Bheki is both a child and a warrior, ready to face death if it means standing up for what he believes in. It is the child in Bheki that, by her very instinct, Curren seeks to protect. Additionally, these feelings of motherly care extend to Bheki’s friend, who has received a massive wound to the head. As Mrs. Curren asks the plumber to move aside so that she can personally tend to John’s wound, she explains her intervention by stating that “blood is one: a pool of life dispersed among us in separate existences, but belonging by nature together: lent: not given: held in common, in trust, to be preserved” (Age of Iron  64). Though this statement can, at a glance, be read as contemplative but general, it demonstrates the value that Curren places on human life, especially the blood of children who, much to her dismay, are turned into warriors in South Africa.

As Mrs. Curren’s perspective continues to broaden through a series of deeply rattling events, including Bheki’s death and Curren’s own contemplation of suicide by fire, she tries to will her daughter to come to her and even attempts to save John from the police, further highlighting her role as a maternal caregiver. Curren recalls the day that her daughter left South Africa and writes that her extended letter “is a call into the night, into the northwest, for you to come back to me…I cannot live without a child. I cannot die without a child” (Age of Iron  139). As much as Mrs. Curren admires her daughter’s resolve to remove herself from South Africa until apartheid ends, she is also heartbroken, filled with lingering feelings of abandonment that are enhanced by her deteriorating health. This demonstrates the great need of a maternally inclined woman like Curren to nurture those around her; in the absence of her daughter, she nurtures and fiercely protects those who are most vulnerable. Indeed, when John returns to her home and is soon after murdered by the police, the cancer-stricken Mrs. Curren tries to insert herself between John and the police, writing that she “ached to embrace him, to protect him” (Age of Iron  152). Curren knows that she cannot save John from his executioners, and even when it is too late, she bellows at the police, “I am watching you…I am watching everything you do. I tell you, he is just a child!” (Age of Iron  153). Mrs. Curren is many things – scholar, estranged mother, believer in nonviolence—but, above all else, she is a caretaker, a personification of maternal instinct. Although her desire to protect is drawn out at the time of her death and in the face of apartheid, it represents a belief in hope even in the direst of circumstances.

Mrs. Curren herself seems unaware of her own maternal impulse and the strength that nurturing can hold, which, in itself, demonstrates the value of compassion, especially in times of war. As Curren describes her daughter to Vercueil, she says that “she is like iron” (Age of Iron  75). Mr. Vercueil, the unlikeliest of companions, replies that she, too, is like iron. To this, Curren says that his words broke her and “If I were made of iron, surely I would not break so easily” (Age of Iron  75). Vercueil, the vulnerable derelict, truly sees Curren and recognizes the iron-like power that she, as a maternal figure to so many, wields. Her capacity to love, nurture, and protect is rewarded with the friendship of Vercueil who, instead of taking from her, guides Curren down the path to death and shares her final moments. Moreover, Mrs. Curren’s letter is a final act of giving, releasing her daughter from her final tie to South Africa. Her legacy is one of eccentric kindness and generosity, of maternal love, feminine compassion, and the ability to transform one’s life for the greater good, even when death is imminent.

In contrast, themes of female agency and sexuality dominate in Coetzee’s Foe, which offers a dramatic retelling of Robinson Crusoe in which the castaway is actually a woman: Susan Barton, who, having escaped the island with Friday and a now deceased Cruso, seeks the help of Mr. Foe in retelling her story. The text is narrated by Susan Barton, who begins her tale lost at sea after searching for her long-lost daughter, then inhabits Cruso’s island, and finally returns to England. There, she seeks a male author, because Barton, being very aware of the restrictive gender codes of her time, recognizes that a story told by a woman will never find success. In her behavior with her male counterparts, Susan Barton (along with the tongueless Friday) represents the voiceless, marginalized groups that suffer under patriarchal societies, denied representation in both literature and history. However, she still manages to exercise personal agency in the face of life-threatening obstacles, even using her sexuality as a tool to help influence her circumstances with both Cruso and Foe.

Despite being portrayed as having been stripped of her voice in the canonical Robinson Crusoe, Susan Barton’s voice within the text is perseverant, curious, and aware of the prejudice that labels women as inferior to men. However, Barton demands and wields the little power that she does possess, telling the controlling Cruso that she is “a castaway, not a prisoner” when he angrily scolds her for exploring the island on her own (Foe  20). Barton’s eagerness to defend herself and the personal agency she exerts against the males in the text is symbolic of her strength as a woman living in a patriarchal society, and though she is aware that her story must be told through the lens of male authorship, she insists on her story retaining its authenticity, as that, she believes, is the limit of her power as a woman. Barton tells Captain Smith, of the merchant ship the John Hobart,  “I would rather be the author of my own story than have lies told about me… If I cannot come forward, as author, and swear to the truth of my tale, what will be the worth of it?” (Foe  40). Barton recognizes that the patriarchal society in which she lives does not look beyond the canon of male authorship, but she insists on maintaining the integrity of her story, even if it must pass into the hands of a man. Still, Barton’s confidence in her own story and the sense of self-worth that she draws from her knowledge of being man’s muse infuses the text with a sense of feminine courage and the ethical desire to preserve the authenticity of one’s story, which is, after all, one’s only true possession. As Barton confidently tells Foe, “I am a figure of fortune … I am the good fortune we are always hoping for” (Foe  48). Barton’s belief in her own value as a muse, if not an author, and in the significance of her story is the driving force behind her steadfast desire to have the story of Cruso, the island, and herself—as the first female castaway—told for the sake of authenticity and for the survival of herself and Friday.

Moreover, Susan Barton claims ownership of her sexuality, using it as a tool as she navigates her way through male-dominated societies and tries to inspire the writer of her story by invoking, and even embodying, the spirit of the muse. When Barton first succumbs to Cruso’s advances on the island, she is well-aware that she can overpower him, but stops herself as she decides that after not having “known a woman for fifteen years, why should he not have his desire?” (Foe  30). Barton recognizes the power of female sexuality and uses it to satiate Cruso’s desire, as he never again pursues her sexually during their time on the island. Later, when Cruso becomes deathly ill aboard the John Hobart, Barton nurses and pleasures him, assuming the dominant role of seductress as she whispers, “’I am swimming in you, my Cruso’” and confidently declares that “this is our coupling: this swimming, this clambering, this whispering” (Foe  44). Barton is a highly sexual character, self-assuredly taking sexual control and describing herself as being “in” Cruso as the penetrating force rather than identifying as the body being infiltrated. This dominant position is echoed during her sexual encounter with Foe when Barton “coaxe[s] him to lay beneath [her]…and straddle[s] him (which he did not seem easy with, in a woman). ‘This is the manner of the Muse when she visits her poets’” (Foe  139). Susan Barton exudes a seductive confidence which she uses to alter or inspire circumstances in her favor; she is sexually dominant and happy to embody the muse if it means that her story will be told in a manner that ensures her own survival. Barton is, therefore, the muse and mistress of her own story as the preserver of its authenticity, and she is also a sexually free being who uses her sensuality to aid in her one pursuit: to give a voice to herself and the voiceless Friday by ensuring their survival through literary success and subsequent monetary gain.

Finally, it is through Disgrace that Coetzee masterfully dissects gender and rape culture, contrasting the young, indecisive Melanie against the practical, confident Lucy: victims of two very different kinds of rape. The novel is focalized through the character of David Lurie—a fallen professor, father to Lucy, and aggressive lover of Melanie, for whom he loses his job after the news of their affair breaks, and Melanie offers a diluted version of the events that have transpired between them. While the novel plainly explores themes of male sexuality, it is necessary to examine the underlying female sexuality that shapes the course of the text and raises questions regarding varying levels of consent in cases of rape, a woman’s right to choose the manner in which the story of her sexual violation is told (or withheld), and the need for personal agency to govern the course of a woman’s life after such sexual violence occurs.

In David Lurie’s sexual relationship with his student, Melanie Isaacs, Coetzee explores the concept of sex that is neither desired nor stopped by the female, suggesting that differing levels of consent complicate the issue of rape while still allowing the female to choose the consequences that her perpetrator will face. David Lurie first encounters his student, Melanie, alone in the college gardens, where he invites her to his home for dinner. The two then partake in “wine and music: a ritual that men and women play out with each other…to ease the awkward passages” (Disgrace  12). Throughout the evening, Melanie confidently explores Lurie’s home, expressing a muted interest in Lurie that never peaks due to his inability to seduce her verbally. Lurie, however, is consumed with passion for Melanie and begins to aggressively pursue her, which culminates in his having sex with her in an encounter that is “passive” on Melanie’s part (Disgrace  19). Although it is instinctual to read Melanie’s passivity as Lurie having taken advantage of his situation as her superior, it is also necessary to consider the fact that Melanie has a boyfriend and that her indifference to the sex itself might stem from guilt in her own infidelity and disinterest in David Lurie’s mediocre attempt at seduction. He is, after all, older, emotionally inarticulate, and more accustomed to sex with prostitutes, with whom there is no necessary act of foreplay. All of these factors contribute to Melanie’s sexual reaction to David Lurie, who, despite being aggressive, is not an outright rapist. Additionally, the text is made all the more complex by the fact that Coetzee presents only Lurie’s perspective and interpretation of such sexual encounters, further demonstrating Coetzee’s ability to create multidimensional characters and intellectually demanding plots that force readers to grapple with their own code of ethics.

After another sexual encounter that again borders the line of consent, Melanie exerts her power over Lurie by asking if she can stay at his home, further complicating her character as both the victim of unwanted sexuality and the author of her circumstances. Lurie notes that Melanie “seems thoroughly at home” with him, “helping herself to toast and honey and drinking tea” (Disgrace  27). Lurie recognizes that he has stepped into dangerous territory, as Melanie is “learning to exploit him … but if she is behaving badly, he has behaved worse” (Disgrace  28). Coetzee explores the complicated nature of male authority and a female’s assumed innocence as well as the power structure between teacher and student that complicates the affair. Though Lurie readily admits that he has acted poorly and abused his position of superiority, he recognizes that Melanie is not without power in this situation, and quickly realizes that she, too, is aware of this. Indeed, as the affair unfolds, Lurie is disgraced, and the community, led by Melanie’s boyfriend, rallies around her, something that, in reality, would be an unlikely outcome. The relationship between Lurie and Melanie, though inappropriate, can never be categorized as clear rape because Melanie’s response was not non-consensual; Lurie’s sex might have been undesired, but a number of circumstances may have contributed to Melanie’s indifference, and Lurie never uses physical force. In this sense, the moral punishment inflicted upon Lurie does not match the crime he has committed, demonstrating the power of females who have experienced sex that is, for any reason, undesired. This power, particularly in crying “rape,” must be wielded with caution, as it is so severe a charge that it has the ability to ruin the lives of men who, in some cases, are not guilty of rape in its most brutal sense. Again, Coetzee asks readers to question gender relations, and while the cultural norm is to align oneself with the female victim, the text’s focalization through Lurie complicates these encounters as readers are confronted with varying levels of consent and enjoyment.

Contrastingly, Davie Lurie’s own daughter, Lucy, is the victim of violent gang rape when she and her father are ambushed by three young males on her farm, where Lurie has retreated after being fired and disgraced following his affair with Melanie. Though Lurie does not witness Lucy’s rape firsthand, he is insistent that Lucy follow-up with the police and tries to persuade her to pursue her attackers by invoking the law and then leaving the farm. This urging is quelled by Lucy, who declares: “what happened to me is my business, mine alone, not yours, and if there is one right I have it is the right not to be put on trial like this, not to have to justify myself—not to you, not to anyone else” (Disgrace  133). Ironically, Lucy’s explanation echoes Lurie’s claims during his own trial, in which he reserved the right of not having to justify himself after pleading guilty. Through this passage, Coetzee plays with a woman’s right to choose, above all else, the course that her sexual violation will take, whether that means pursuing it or pushing it out of mind.

Indeed, Lucy appeals to her right to own her situation, however dire, and to choose the manner in which it is dealt with, calling to mind questions of gender and a victim’s right to anonymity. Lucy’s unwillingness to allow her pain to be shared by anyone else is powerful in itself; despite the devastation of her rape, she is still sure of herself and of her own ability to steer herself through her circumstances, refusing to depend upon anyone else. By contrasting Lucy’s glaring rape with Melanie’s ambiguous one, Coetzee opens the debate for the ethics of rape culture and the ways that it affects the women who claim rape, whether fairly or not, and the men who suffer or escape freely. But Coetzee reminds readers that, in the end, charging a man with rape is a woman’s choice. While this work was met with considerable controversy, it is necessary to at least consider the idea that, in some cases, men are not guilty of rape. Through the powerful juxtaposition of a student/teacher relationship that is, without a doubt, inappropriate and the brutal gang rape (and subsequent impregnation) of Lucy, Coetzee seeks to open lines of communication in a cultural arena that is emotionally charged and highly controversial, demonstrating his willingness to explore all aspects of human nature and gender relations, no matter how ugly.

The works of J.M. Coetzee depict women, and thus gender relations, in a variety of ways—as the women exercise different levels of agency and varying approaches to motherhood and sexuality—but all of Coetzee’s female characters and the men they influence are undeniably powerful in their own rights. Coetzee’s fearless approach to his female characters presents a spectrum of women that is realistic in its diversity, demonstrating his willingness to explore every aspect of femininity in the hope of gaining a better understanding of the female, and human, mind and body. Indeed, the themes of female sexuality, motherhood, and agency are also visited in works like Elizabeth Costello, which presents an aging scholar as she preaches the evils of factory-farming in a quest to save her soul and influence those around her to do the same, as well as in Waiting for the Barbarians, which, much like Disgrace, explores male sexuality, as it transforms with age, and the women who share this erotic journey. Coetzee’s autobiographical novel, Boyhood, also confronts the theme of young male sexuality and the desire of females, but primarily focuses on Coetzee’s own mother, who, like Mrs. Curren, is a maternal force to be reckoned with, though sometimes stifling in her relentless love.

Through his thorough, uncensored exploration of what it means to be either female or influenced by femininity and complex gender relations, he presents readers with an all-encompassing array of feminine voices and perspectives, which he crafts and then allows readers to mull over long after his stories have ended. Indeed, a survey of Coetzee’s works allows readers to explore motherhood, sexual agency, and, perhaps most importantly, autonomy in the face of rape from a variety of feminine perspectives. And although this range of voices inevitably leads to cultural controversy and even public outcry, it facilitates important discussions about what it means to be female in a male-dominated world. Further, this debate allows us to explore gender relations and examine the ways in which we are culturally coded to view rape, as we are often taught that there is no grey area with regard to unwanted sex. By exploring this theme, Coetzee asks us to reassess gender codes in some respects, as a truly fair society should potentially acknowledge the fact that, while many instances of sexual violence go unreported or unpunished, there is certainly room for the possibility that some sexual accusations are exaggerated. Through this willingness to grapple with the often uncomfortable realities of human nature, Coetzee exhibits his mastery of language, observation, and perception by presenting women who are powerful because they are, above all, realistic in their diversity.


Works Cited

Coetzee, J.M. Age of Iron. Penguin, 1868.

Coetzee, J.M. Disgrace. Penguin, 1999.

Coetzee, J.M. Foe. Penguin, 1986.

Coetzee, J.M. Life & Times of Michael K. Penguin, 1983.

“Samson and Delilah.” Judges 16 NIV, Old Testament—Bible Gateway, www.biblegateway.com/passage/? search=Judges%2B16&version=NIV.


PDF Version

Applewomen and Sandwichmen: Profession and Identity in Ulysses

by Isaac Mikulski

“Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in love, but always meeting ourselves”

—James Joyce, Ulysses, “Scylla and Charybdis,” lines 1044-6


Just as the ancient Greeks endeavored to use a ruler and compass to create a square equal in area to a given circle, so Joyce endeavored, in Ulysses, to use words to create fiction that would be equal to reality. Ulysses, then, is a novel that attempts to “square the circle” (Joyce 15.2401).  The result is a many-sided work that comes remarkably close to the infinitely-sided actual. One of these aspects is the question of the professions, or lack thereof, of its characters. This proves true even for the characters themselves: in Ulysses, one sees many “sides,” or aspects, of each of them, while an actual individual (many of whom were inspirations for fictional ones), is impossible to constrain to any finite number of aspects, even by the individual himself. However, one large aspect of an individual’s identity is that of profession—professions allow one to earn money, and occupy a sizable portion of daily life: they concern work. In Ulysses, as in reality, characters are constantly identified, or even equated to, their professions. When John Henry Menton, for example, considers Leopold Bloom in “Hades,” he immediately asks: “—What is he? he asked. What does he do?” (6.700). Nonetheless, it must be remembered that one’s profession cannot be the sole determinant of one’s identity; in many cases, it cannot even be said to be the primary determinant. Is work, then, simply one of an infinite number of determinants of identity, no more important than any other? How much does one’s work matter to one’s sense of self? Ulysses, therefore, asks us to define the relationship between profession and identity.

A fitting tool for the solution of this problem is provided by one of Bloom’s many scientific preoccupations during his day: “Parallax. I never exactly understood” (8.110-11). Hugh Kenner finds a simple example of parallax that Bloom unknowingly experiences in the “Lestrygonians” episode when he confuses Dunsink Time and Greenwich Time. The two times “differ by twenty-five minutes because astronomers in those two places observe the sun from stations separated by 6 ¼˚ of longitude; this is, precisely and technically, parallax” (Kenner 75). Although Bloom’s knowledge of the term stems from its uses in astronomy, the general underlying principle is useful. Simply, parallax is the visible (but not actual) change in an object’s position, based on its being observed from different locations; in Kenner’s example, the different positions are Greenwich, near London, and Dunsink, near Dublin, and the observed object is the sun. This concept provides an analogy via which many portions of Ulysses can be understood in a novel fashion.

One’s profession to some extent alters the way in which an individual experiences the world, for it provides a more or less discrete vantage point from which objects, events, and people are observed. An example of this is that Bloom, who sells advertisements for a living, pays more attention to and thinks more about the advertisements he sees throughout the day than a person who is not employed as an ad-canvasser presumably would. These two slightly different reactions to reality—of ad-canvasser and non-ad-canvasser—thus serve as an example of parallax, for the object (an advertisement) is seen from two different “locations” (the vantage points created by the two different careers). The same phenomenon occurs when an individual mentally examines himself: he “sees” himself from the perspective of one who practices his occupation. If Molly Bloom considers herself (which she does, in “Penelope”), she will do so from the perspective of a singer. In other words, the relationship between profession and identity is that profession creates the lens through which one sees himself.


When Leopold Bloom eats with relish in “Calypso,” he is preparing for a day of walking through himself: “Every life is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love, but always meeting ourselves” (9.1044-6). Therefore, he is meeting an ad-canvasser, for that has been his profession for some time. Meeting himself in this capacity will prove effortless, because 1904 Dublin had many ads and many ad-using businessmen to meet. Indeed, when he leaves 7 Eccles Street to buy the pork kidney, he very quickly spots Mr. O’Rourke outside his pub on the corner of Eccles Street, and thinks, “no use canvassing him for an ad” (4.111-12). An advertisement itself is before Bloom in one of the “cut sheets” in Dlugacz’s butcher-shop, where he is told of “the model farm in Kinnereth” (4.155-6). His bombardment by advertisements and his many thoughts of advertising will permeate his day, even if, as Breton points out, it doesn’t happen to involve very much of the actual work he gets done. Among these thoughts are his many critiques of ads and dreams of better ones, as seen in “Lotus-Eaters” with the advertisement for the meeting of “Dublin University Bicycle and Harrier Club.” Bloom thinks of it, “Damn bad ad. Now if they had made it round like a wheel. Then the spokes: sports, sports, sports: and the hub big: college. Something to catch the eye.” (5.552-4). In short, Bloom is not an apathetic worker (in theory); he does not leave his profession in the office—he inhabits it. This is not to say that other thoughts do not recur in his mind with far higher frequency (the subject of Molly is an immediate example), but that he often thinks of it, even when he has at last returned home in the early hours of June 17 in “Ithaca.” It is perhaps common that a worker thinks of his job with this frequency, and sees himself through it in this way, but what sets Bloom apart is how he thinks of it. In the above example, Bloom doesn’t simply notice more details about the ad than the average person, or even stop at the thought that it is a bad ad; instead, he goes far enough to think of how he would make a better version of it. In a trice, he is able to imagine it.

For Bloom, advertising is “the modern art of advertisement” (17.581), instead of just “advertising.” Perhaps the most interesting thoughts of his about advertising as an art are his “habitually…final meditations” in “Ithaca”: “Some one sole unique advertisement to cause passers to stop in wonder … reduced to its simplest and most efficient terms not exceeding the span of casual vision and the velocity of modern life” (17.1769-73). Bloom is thinking of the holy grail of ads; something, most probably, for which he himself will never be responsible. Nonetheless, one doesn’t imagine that the clerks and other white-collar working men in Dubliners prepare for bed by dreaming of the best clerical work that could be done. (Consider the Dubliners story, “Counterparts,” for instance: Farrington, a copyist in the law offices of Crosbie & Alleyne, spends his pre-sleeping hours beating his son.)  No, “there is a touch of the artist about old Bloom” (10.582-3), and he may indeed take advertising almost as seriously as Stephen Dedalus takes art and J. J. O’Molloy takes law. It is not insignificant that this hypothetical advertisement is his final meditation, as this means that it comes after his idyllic, lofty and improbable “ultimate ambition” (17.1497) of an estate in the country, which takes up several pages beforehand. He thinks of a great ideal apart from the city of Dublin, of a different Bloom—“Bloom of Flowerville”—and then returns to “Bloom of 7 Eccles Street” (17.1581); it may be that Bloom shifts from an absolutely unrealistic dream to one that he feels is attainable. The “one sole unique advertisement” may be said to be Bloom’s “realistic dream,” which is not to be taken lightly. Men such as Farrington have the very realistic dream of drinking after work, which is realized easily enough, but Bloom’s dream relates to his work. For Bloom, being an ad-canvasser has become more than an effective way to provide for his family—it is something he seems to want to take to its highest conceivable point. The fact that his occupation has penetrated his consciousness to this extent serves as a clear indication of exactly how significant it is to him. Moreover, as he engages in his personal meditations, the final meditation he arrives at is one that would extend only from his present occupation. Although Bloom has not always been an ad-canvasser, the Bloom he dreams of in the future is refracted through the lens of this occupation, and thus he might be just the man who exploits the “infinite possibilities hitherto unexploited of the modern art of advertisement” (17.580-81).

It is almost strange, then, that Bloom’s employment as ad-canvasser for the Freeman is only the latest in a series of occupations in Bloom’s adult life, as it is preceded by at least four others. Molly sums up these jobs Bloom had in the past succinctly and chronologically in “Penelope”: “Thoms and Helys and Mr Cuffes and Drimmies” (18.1223-24), which is ostensibly corroborated by thoughts elsewhere, such as 8.156-160 and 17.482-86. The details regarding Bloom’s employment at Thom’s and Drimmie’s are somewhat ambiguous, for he thinks of them infrequently. However, there are multiple instances of the consideration of his employment at Wisdom Hely’s and Joseph Cuffe’s; the former is a “stationer and printer” and the latter is a business of “cattle, corn, and wool salesmen.” Bloom seems to have worked at Hely’s for “six years” (8.158) and looks back on his time spent there contemptuously: “Well out of that ruck I am” (8.142). This seems to be in part because he had ideas for Mr. Hely (albeit not as grand as the “one sole unique advertisement”), which were turned down. Bloom mentions two of these ideas in “Lestrygonians,” the first being “a transparent showcart with two smart girls sitting inside writing letters, copybooks, envelopes, blottingpaper” (8.131-33) and the second “the inkbottle [he] suggested with a false stain of black celluloid” (8.137-38). These ideas are not to be taken to show that his work for Hely concerned “the gentle art of advertisement” (7.608); rather, at least one of his tasks was “collecting accounts of those convents” (8.143). Thus, the fact that Bloom had these ideas is not only in line with his characteristic curiosity and inventiveness, which is exemplified elsewhere in the novel, but significant in how it shows that in his previous occupation, he had aspirations similar to his dreamlike advertisement. One may not unrealistically suppose that those ideas occupied his night-time considerations when he worked for Hely, and thus that Bloom’s employment was similarly ubiquitous in his thoughts at that time as well. Then, as now, Bloom dreamt of an idea for his place of employment that was far beyond what he was required to do (and not wanted to do either). When he worked for Hely, he saw himself as a worker for a stationer, and looked ahead to what the Bloom employed as such might do to improve the company for which he worked, as he does with the advertisement in “Ithaca.”

Bloom’s employment with Joseph Cuffe is perhaps equally as significant as his work at Hely’s, but the manifestation of its relation to his identity differs slightly. Bloom remembers working for the cattle salesman clearly and feels that he gained some knowledge from his employment there. He exhibits the latter in “Cyclops” when the group of men arrives at the topic of foot and mouth disease, much to the unnamed narrator’s criticism. “Bloom coming out with his sheepdip for the scab….and the guaranteed remedy for timber tongue. Because he was up one time in a knacker’s yard…till Joe Cuffe gave him the order of the boot” (12.833-35, 837). As Gifford explains, what Bloom is enumerating here are cures for cattle diseases. Later in the passage, the narrator goes on to give Bloom the appropriate appellation of “Mister Knowall” (12.838), which certainly fits Bloom at this moment in the text. However, Bloom’s exhibition of this knowledge is interesting because, as the narrator mentions, he possesses expertise about it related to his former occupation. In other words, he feels he is qualified to speak about the subject because of his work experience. Thus, his former profession becomes the medium through which he still sees himself. Consequently, he presents himself to the other men as one with particular knowledge of the subject of cattle, perpetuating his image as “Mister Knowall,” which is also upheld by his fervent curiosity and interest in science.

Leopold Bloom’s love of science, which seems to result from an inherent interest in knowledge in general, is one of his most fascinating traits, for it may indeed be the second most frequent topic in his thoughts, after Molly and before his present and past jobs. Throughout the novel, one witnesses Bloom’s interest in medicine, physics, mathematics and (perhaps above all) astronomy. However, Bloom’s understanding of the sciences is severely limited by his relatively short education, and by the fact that he “had ever loved the art of physic as might a layman” (14.255-56), which describes his interest perfectly, when “physic” is generalized to the sciences as a whole. As with the incidental example of cattle diseases above, Bloom tends to play the part of “Mister Knowall” with his slight knowledge. In “Wandering Rocks,” Lenehan recounts Bloom playing this role: “Bloom was pointing out all the stars and the comets in the heavens…the whole jingbang lot…He knows them all, faith” (10.567-69). Lenehan is joking here, but the event he describes is a fitting example of how Bloom conceives himself as something of a scientist or scholar (although he is conscious of his limitations) and often thinks or acts accordingly, the examples of which are many. Bloom’s slight knowledge of science and various topics was presumably gathered through his personal inquiry and “research,” partly evidenced by the presence of two volumes on astronomy and one on geometry in his bookshelf (17.1373, 17.1391-93 and 17.1398-1407); As Molly potently puts it, “he knows a lot of mixedup things” (18.179-80).

It is as if the pursuit of the knowledge of “mixedup things,” or the consideration of those he knows already, is Bloom’s hobby, perhaps as drinking is the “hobby” of many of the other Dubliners. Unfortunately for Bloom, the limitations of his knowledge often yield erroneous conclusions on his part; alas, he may only ever play the part of the scientist. This concept is portrayed well in “Ithaca”: “As a physicist he had learned that of the 70 years of complete human life at least 2/7, viz. 20 years are passed in sleep. As a philosopher…As a physiologist…” (17.1760-64). Here, Bloom is actually given the titles of physicist, philosopher, and physiologist, despite that he is very far away from having anything resembling that level of education. However, this may, in fact, be of very little importance—relative to the average Dubliner, who perhaps has no such interest in scholarship, Bloom may indeed be a “physicist.” This clearly breaks down in his conversation with Stephen in “Eumaeus” and “Ithaca,” because Stephen is not, of course, an average Dubliner; Bloom is consequently forced to pretend to understand. At any rate, Molly, Lenehan, the narrator of “Cyclops” and presumably others recognize these “scholarly” interests of Bloom (whether or not they realize that he is in fact very ignorant). He projects the identity that others perceive through scholarly professions and clearly sees himself with the same tint of scholarship, and this is perhaps as important a part of his identity as his actual profession. In short, Bloom still constructs his identity through profession here, but in this case, he simply appropriates the profession of another, and—as Bloom thinks in “Nasuciaa”—“What harm?” (13.885).

Molly Bloom is a rare woman in 1904 Dublin: she works, but her work, unlike that of many of the women shown working in the book, is not dull or menial, for she is a singer. Unlike with Bloom and some of the other men in the novel, the reader is not permitted to actually witness Molly working—he only hears about it through Leopold Bloom, the comments of other men, and Molly herself. Nonetheless, the tenable connection between her career and her identity is strongly felt. Bloom is often being asked or telling others about her upcoming concert tour, as when Hynes inquires, “Mrs B. is the bright particular star, isn’t she?” (12.993). Indeed, it may well be that Bloom actually speaks more about Molly’s career than he does of his own. Apart from the quasi-distinguished nature of Molly’s profession, the close connection between her and her work likely owes a great deal to how she “displayed at an early age remarkable proficiency as a singer having even made her bow to the public when her years numbered barely sweet sixteen” (16.1442-44). In conjunction with the suggestions of some of her thoughts in “Penelope,” this indicates that Molly has been singing (including before others) since she was very young; her connection with her profession is thus very deeply-rooted. Partially as a result of this connection rooted in youth, Molly seems to have no doubts about her talent and appeal as a singer, as is seen throughout “Penelope.” She thinks of Fanny M’Coy “trying to sing [Molly’s] songs” and of “Kathleen Kearney and her lot of squealers…they don’t know how to sing a song like that” (18.878, 888-89); the latter seems to imply that while the others don’t know “how to sing a song like that,” Molly does. In addition, it indicates a feeling of possession over the songs she sings (which are not written by her). While she thinks of various other topics in “Penelope,” her stern confidence when she thinks of singing shows that she, like Bloom, inhabits her profession. Moreover, the identification others make between her and her profession (likely strengthened by the fact that she is a woman who works) indicates that they see her through the medium of her occupation, which, in conjunction with Molly’s own thoughts, suggests that she also creates a fair portion of her identity by observing herself through the lens of her profession.

A subtler relation between Molly and profession is that one of the jobs she thinks she might have done was entirely contingent upon her gender. She thinks of when Bloom “said [she] could pose for a picture naked to some rich fellow in Holles street when he lost the job in Helys” (18.560-61). This type of “opportunity” is truly (as with Bella Cohen and the prostitutes in “Circe”) an opportunity for a woman to sell her body as a product for male consumption. While Bloom produces the product of ads and others produce or sell other products, they do not directly sell the human body. While it seems that this previous opportunity for employment was a singular one and that it was not accepted, one can imagine the consequences regarding identity Molly would have faced had she pursued it. One of the most visited topics in her internal monologue is sexuality and sexual relations; had she taken that picture, this would have been further blended with her profession. Note that these two concepts are already mixed; Boylan is the man organizing the concert tour, and Molly suggests she has interacted sexually with others that she has worked with, such as Bartell d’Arcy (18.273ff). Additionally, her profession as a singer has a sexual aspect as well: “Ill change that lace on my black dress to show off my bubs” (18.900-901), she thinks. Thus, her current profession is already inextricably tied to her gender. However, in the case of the photograph, the two would be merged; she would thus be forced to see herself through the medium of the sale of herself—in brief, she would come to identify herself as a product. This would have the potential for catastrophe, but what is alarming is how close she is to this identification in her present occupation. When she performs, for some of the audience members, she is also an exhibition—for them, she is an entertaining “service” that is not very far from being a “good” that is exchanged. Bearing that in mind, it doesn’t seem that Molly gives this present relation (or would have given the one resulting from the photograph) much importance; after all, she does choose to “show off her bubs,” and she is not unfamiliar with male sexual desire: “its well for men all the amount of pleasure they get off a woman’s body…always I wished I was one myself for a change” (18.1379-81). In fact, she is conscious of this sexual aspect; perhaps it may only be a part of her profession and thus identity because she allows it to be.

The plethora of professions in Ulysses goes far beyond Bloom, Molly, and Stephen, and even beyond Ulysses itself, as seen in the example of Martin Cunningham, who was first introduced in the short story “Grace,” in Dubliners. In his appearances both in Ulysses and “Grace,” Cunningham possesses two significant general characteristics: he is very kind and helpful, and his occupation in Dublin Castle makes him privy to what may be succinctly called “secret knowledge.” The latter is seen in both works in very similar ways—both concern a “suspicious” Jew. In “Grace,” Tom Kernan mentions that one of the men he drank with at the time of his accident was named Harford, prompting Cunningham to utter “—Hm. … When Mr Cunningham made that remark people were silent. It was known that the speaker had secret sources of information” (Joyce 136-37). It is then strongly implied that this Harford is Jewish: “he had become the partner of a…Mr Goldberg, in the Liffey Loan Bank…Though he had never embraced more than the Jewish ethical code his fellow Catholics…spoke of him bitterly as an Irish Jew” (137). This episode’s counterpart is found in “Cyclops,” when Cunningham responds to Ned Lambert’s inquiry about Bloom’s religious affiliation, and in reference to allegations that Bloom was involved with the strongly Irish nationalist group Sinn Fein: “He’s a perverted jew…it was he drew up all the plans according to the Hungarian system. We know that in the castle” (12.1635-37). This “secret knowledge” is particularly intriguing because Cunningham only has access to it because of his profession; as doctors, lawyers and other professional workers each have a type of language, so Cunningham has access to information that is not available to the general public. However, while the information itself is possessed only by Cunningham and others in the Castle, the knowledge that he possesses such information is apparently well known, as indicated in “Grace” above. As such, a principal component of others’ perception of Cunningham is this knowledge—as corroborated in “Grace” in the description of him as “well-informed” (135). By extension, his career is thus a ubiquitous component of his perceived identity. Just as “Grace” speaks to his perceived identity, Ulysses shows that the identity others assign to Cunningham is not unlike that which he perceives for himself; in “Grace,” the reader is told of his secret knowledge, but in Ulysses, he exhibits it himself. Although the reader is unable to read Cunningham’s inner monologue, the above justifiably implies that he sees himself through his profession-given privilege of secret knowledge, and thus at least partially constructs his personal identity on the profession that gives this privilege.

It is also worthwhile to consider Bloom’s thoughts about Martin Cunningham in “Hades,” which Breton mentions at the start of his article. As he rides with Cunningham, Jack Power, and Simon Dedalus to the funeral, Bloom thinks of Cunningham and his drunkard wife: “Setting up house for her time after time and then [she] pawning the furniture on him every Saturday almost. Leading him the life of the damned…Monday morning. Start afresh. Shoulder to the wheel” (6.349-52). Breton reads this as expressing Bloom’s belief that Cunningham “attempts to ease the burden caused by his domestic troubles by putting a ‘shoulder to the wheel’” (106). This indeed seems likely, and thus adds another dimension to Cunningham’s relationship with his profession—it is an escape. Put another way, it is easier for Cunningham to perceive the world and himself through the filter of his profession, because it doesn’t necessarily include his wife. If one continues this analysis, he arrives at the plausible idea that this escape through occupation doesn’t completely work, for Cunningham seems to be frequently busy helping others. If one assumes that he cannot be wholly altruistic in his action of helping people such as the Dignam family and Tom Kernan, it may be that Cunningham does these charitable acts as another measure to mitigate his misfortunes with his wife. This may not be the case, but it implies that some workers cannot be made content simply with the lens of their occupation—rather, they must add another lens by engaging in a “hobby.” This would not be an improbable explanation for Bloom’s fervent interest in science, or perhaps even Molly’s adultery. Breton argues that “Bloom also has domestic troubles and responds to crises and insecurities by embracing a work ethic” (106). Following this reading, it is not unlikely that Bloom’s “hobbies” are a type of response to his domestic troubles as well.


In ostensibly stark contrast to the three characters mentioned above, the reader encounters “the superior, the very reverend John Conmee S.J.” (10.1), which satisfies a public curiosity about the contents of a priest’s thoughts. For the most part, John Conmee’s thoughts and actions are unsurprisingly priest-like—he walks to Artane as any Dubliner presumably would, salutes and is saluted by many Dubliners and good-naturedly allows a child to mail a letter he needs to send, all the while thinking very frequently of religious topics. However, two instances of his interaction with and thoughts about women are worthy of consideration. As Father Conmee walks along Mountjoy square east, he catches sight of a woman named Mrs. M’Guinness riding by in a carriage, at which he marvels slightly: “A fine carriage she had…Well, now! Such a …what should he say? … such a queenly mien” (10.65-7). His hesitation in what he should think Mrs. M’Guinness’s appearance should be described as implies, at the most basic level, that his vocation has conditioned him to choose his words carefully. However, he may be attempting to conceal an attraction to the woman, even from his own thoughts. This is not improbable, because, while Mrs. M’Guinness is “silverhaired” (10.62), the actual John Conmee (1847-1910) would have been 57 years old in 1904. Thus, it would not be unreasonable for him to find some attraction to her, which he would presumably be used to repressing. The second example comes when Father Conmee “perceived [a woman’s] perfume in the car” (10.128) when he is riding the tram. The significance in this small act is that Conmee “perceives” her perfume, instead of “smelling” it. Objectively, both terms function in the same way, but “perceives” has a much more detached, even scientific connotation, while “smelling” is the common term for such an act. Thus, Conmee once again appears to have a certain level of separation from the aspects of a woman that may be considered attractive—as he repressed a less proper description of Mrs. M’Guinness, here he relegates a “smell” to a “perception.” This difference is slight, perhaps, but noticeable nonetheless. In this way, Conmee serves as one of the most potent examples of how one sees through the medium of his profession—he actively alters his thoughts and reactions to reality because he is a priest.

In fact, Father Conmee is not the only priest mentioned in Ulysses that seems to censor himself; in “Penelope,” Molly recalls confessing to one Father Corrigan, and a peculiar part of his speech. “He touched me father…but whereabouts on your person my child on the leg behind high up was it yes rather high up was it where you sit down yes O Lord couldnt he say bottom right out and have done with it” (18.107-11). As shown, Father Corrigan exerts extra effort to avoid saying the word “bottom,” serving as an example of a priest actively censoring his speech, even with a word that is not overly inappropriate. This is not to be understated; in prompting one to censor his speech, the occupation of priest thus impacts the very medium which human beings use to communicate with one another. In this fashion, it is a profession not unlike Martin Cunningham’s, or that of a doctor or lawyer (as mentioned above), as it creates a slightly different “language” for the professional. The difference here is indeed slight, but an impact on one’s language is one that impacts his processing of the outside world, as well as the construction of his identity and how others perceive him. Indeed, Molly later contradicts herself when she thinks of some of the books that Bloom brings her, which are supposed to be written by a priest, “about a child born out of her ear because her bumgut fell out a nice word for any priest to write” (18.489-90).

Unlike any of the characters hitherto mentioned, Stephen Dedalus does not yet have a job that he will consistently return to—instead, he has a job in “Nestor” that he has decided to leave by “Circe,” and is in active pursuit of his self-imposed dream: to be an artist. As such, he must be considered both as a teacher and a twenty-two-year-old seeker of his ideal. Stephen is only described as a teacher for less than five pages of the many that concern him in Ulysses, and his thoughts outside of “Nestor” scarcely consider teaching. Thus, it can be immediately inferred that Stephen does not place much importance on his position as a teacher; Mr. Deasy’s prediction “that [Stephen] will not remain here very long at this work. [He] was not born to be a teacher” (2.401-2) seems to prove true. At any rate, he teaches long enough to receive a paycheck, and the children he instructs serve as intellectual stimuli, as Bloom might say (16.1221). Perhaps most importantly, Sargent, the student Stephen helps with sums after class, provokes his consideration of maternal love. Considering him, Stephen thinks, “Ugly and futile…Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms…Was that then real? The only true thing in life?” (2.139-40, 143), an observation that will be uttered in an altered form aloud during Stephen’s discussion in “Scylla and Charybdis.” Apart from this stimulation of his intellect, Stephen doesn’t reap any significant amount of benefit from this occupation, nor does he seem particularly well-suited for the work, as seen in the aftermath of his riddle to the children: “He stood up and gave a shout of nervous laughter to which their cries echoed dismay” (2.116-17). Instead, he approaches the position from the perspective of one yearning to be a writer, in the same way that he approaches himself in “Proteus” and the discussion of his thoughts about Shakespeare in “Scylla and Charybdis.” It may indeed be that Stephen takes on what he feels the perspective of the writer is, and in doing so places himself very snugly in the perspective of one who is aspiring to be— (instead of currently acting as) a writer. In any case, this perspective is omnipresent in the above examples, and in his silent monologues and utterances in general—more than any other character, perhaps. Additionally, his perspective makes him vastly different from the characters hitherto considered; while others’ perspectives are often determined from their present occupation, Stephen’s present occupation is almost entirely irrelevant, while the future he aspires to permeates his outlook on the present.

Finally, there is another profession which is undoubtedly one of the most frequently mentioned in Ulysses: medicine. The novel begins with Buck Mulligan, a medical student, and medicine is the art of “The Oxen of the Sun,” in which the birth of a baby in a hospital is paralleled with the “embryonic development” of literature, and a group of medical students converse. However, a distinction must be made between the medical student (e.g., Buck Mulligan, Lynch and Punch Costello) and the practicing physician (e.g., Dr. Dixon in “The Oxen of the Sun”). While Dr. Dixon is the only medical doctor that appears in the novel, the medical students appear still more irreverent and crass in his more refined presence. He responds to a crude discussion stemming from Nurse Callan’s entrance and subsequent departure by asserting, “I want patience…with those who, without wit to enliven or learning to instruct, revile an ennobling profession which, saving the reverence due to the Deity, is the greatest power for happiness upon the earth” (14.823-26). The “profession” to which he refers seems to be nursing, but his sense of reverence for those of that profession—who are surely indispensable in his daily work—implies that his disposition includes the appropriateness and formality that one typically associates with a doctor. It need not be belabored that medical students in Ulysses, and Buck Mulligan in particular, are extremely crass, irreverent, and even cold, including in relation to their own profession. (See Mulligan, “You saw only your mother die. I see them pop off every day…and cut up into tripes in the dissectingroom” (1.204-3).) In all probability, Dixon was just as crass when he was a medical student, and his reverence may be something he acquired when he began practicing. Still, Bloom is troubled that “the mere acquisition of academic titles should suffice to transform in a pinch of time these votaries of levity into exemplary practitioners of an art” (14.899-901). What Bloom wonders at is exactly the phenomenon of a person acquiring a profession as a certain type of man (irreverent, in this case), only to be transformed afterward by the permeation of his newfound career throughout his consciousness. These “academic titles,” it seems, grant a profession that gives a different way of perceiving reality and oneself, and in doing so prompt a drastic reconstruction of the individual’s identity.



Despite the wide variety of occupations considered above, the professions of the examined characters inevitably serve as a medium through which they at least partially see the world and themselves. Taken together, this indicates just how impactful one’s choice of occupation is on their life. However, the topics that were considered in Part II (Bloom, Molly, and Martin Cunningham) differ greatly from those considered in Part III (priesthood, Stephen Dedalus and medicine). The professions of the former, their respective benefits and effects notwithstanding, are far less honored and elevated in society than those of the latter. Even Molly’s profession, with its concomitant entertainment of and attention from the masses, is not as highly revered as the latter three. Father Conmee is saluted by nearly every one he walks past, medicine is “an art which most men anywise eminent have esteemed the noblest” (14.901-2), and Stephen’s realization of his goal would entail the creation of an enduring work of literature. Simultaneously, Bloom dreams of the perfect advertisement, Molly is extremely confident in her deeply-rooted performance abilities and Martin’s job provides him with knowledge inaccessible to the general public, which gives him a certain degree of prestige (though not as high as that bestowed by the second three professions). Each occupation lends something to its practitioner, but he or she is also enveloped in his or her occupation and sees outward and inward through the lens their occupation creates, regardless of how highly esteemed it is. Occupation, then, may be said to be a great equalizer—whether an occupation is very esteemed or not at all, it restrains the employee with the bonds of perspective.

PDF Version 

Works Cited

Breton, Rob. “Occupations and Preoccupations: Work in Ulysses.” English Studies in Canada, vol. 30, no. 2, 2004, pp. 105-128.

Gifford, Don, and Robert J. Seidman. Ulysses Annotated. 2nd ed., University of California Press, 1988.

Gilbert, Stuart. James Joyce’s Ulysses; a Study. Vintage Books, 1958.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. Edited by Margot Norris, W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.

Joyce, James. Ulysses. Edited by Hans Walter Gabler, Random House, 1986.

Kenner, Hugh. Ulysses. 1980. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Lyons, J.B. “Gogarty, Oliver Joseph St. John (1878-1957).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by David Cannadine, Jan. 2011, www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/33439, accessed 1 September 2017.

Stewart, Bruce. “Joyce, James Augustine Aloysius (1882-1941).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by David Cannadine, Oct. 2007, www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/34247, accessed 21 June 2017.


Queering Satan: The Politics of Sex, Gender, Visibility, and Fear in Paradise Lost

By Jennifer Kaplan

For millennia, Satan has been a popular model for representing transgressive forces. In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is a dynamic character—at once visible and invisible, manifest and ephemeral, masculine and feminine. By analyzing competing Protestant and folkloric interpretations of the Devil’s relationship to invisibility and visibility, interpreting the changing views of both gender roles and biological sex in the seventeenth century, and examining the relationship between demonology and gender, I establish that Milton’s Satan is “queered” through his subversion of socially enforced binaries. Throughout the text, Milton both plays off of and against contemporary satanic cultural motifs. Ultimately, his radical reinterpretation creates a Satan who exists as a transgressor against contemporary notions of gender and sexuality.

           Satanic tropes and caricatures that have existed in England for centuries focus primarily on visibility and the grotesque, with later interpretations retaining Satan’s deformity while freeing him from the restraints of corporality. Milton reinterprets these historical depictions to render his Satan as a transgressive, inherently gendered and sexualized force in Paradise Lost. The pre-Miltonic Satan of sixteenth century and medieval folklore existed as a chaotic bricolage of repressed and actualized social anxieties. In both artwork and literature, Satan possessed “both human and animal traits” and had the ability to appear as either “a young man or woman,” thus manifesting in a naturally transgressive form that challenged the contemporary gender dichotomy and was further striking for its deviance from conventionally appealing standards of appearance (Oldridge 232). For example, Satan could “transform” himself from an aesthetically acceptable form, such as that of a “handsome man,” into something grotesque, such as “a hideous beast” (Oldridge 243). It is the visible that distinguishes Satan as a force of evil, and more specifically an embodied visibility: alternately gendered, sexualized, humanized, and animalized, and sometimes all at once. Through these transformations, Satan is defined by his visibility and its consequential grotesqueness. By contrast, the Protestant Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century saw Satan radically reconceptualized as an invisible, disembodied force—notions with which Milton would have also been familiar, and which freed his Satan from the restrictions of physical form (Oldridge 236).

           Within Paradise Lost, there is a distinctive tension between Satan’s visible and invisible nature: as Milton phrases it, a tension between his linkage to the solid “Earth” and to the amorphous “Air,” a curiosity regarding physical form that plays off of the premodern idea of the Devil as being able to possess “the mind of the faithful through manifold appearance” coupled with a power for endless machinations via formlessness (Milton 4.940; qtd. in Dendle 30). In Puritanical narratives discussing Satan’s prowess for invisible machinations, Satan has moved beyond the restrictions of being “bodied” and into the realm of the invisible and omnipresent, in what may be deemed an antipodal, evil subversion of God’s omnipotence (Oldridge 235). Yet, even when the Puritanical Satan works in the shadows, he is still inherently linked with the visible realm, projecting visions of himself as an “agent of personal temptation” to sin in every possible way—including temptations into adultery (Oldridge 235). For the notion of Satan as “tempter” links him with the age-old idea of the “temptress.” In the scene where Satan first tempts Eve in a dream, she has “dream’d” his “gentle voice,” which is disembodied from Satan and in her mind associated with Adam (Milton 5.32, 5.37). When he does appear to her, he takes the form of an angel, “One shap’d and wing’d like one of those from Heav’n / By us oft seen; his dewy locks distill’d Ambrosia.” (Milton 5.55). Yet, here he is not physically manifest, but “a dream,” mere ephemera existing between the physical and the imagined (Milton 5.57). Whether he chooses to take this form within Eve’s mind or Eve conjures this image herself is left ambiguous.If it is his choice, it reveals Satan’s longing for an alternate body that, in comparison to his present grotesque form as a damned “Leviathan,” is simultaneously more sexualized and more appealing for epitomizing a specific gender ideal (Milton 1.201).

           In incorporating both folkloric notions of a “visible” Satan and newer, Protestant notions of an “invisible” Satan, Milton creates a radical new characterization that both unites the two views and recombines them into something completely new. But even when Milton’s Satan works through “invisible” mechanisms, he is still inherently associated with visual descriptors. As Peter Dendle explains, ,medieval folklore and emerging Protestant ideologies created a paradox of the Devil as both embodied and disembodied: “On the one hand, Satan is personal, subject to spatiotemporal laws and thus confined to a single place at a given time; on the other, he is a spiritual entity of such inconceivable scope and power that he may be said to inhere in all sinners, and in all sins, throughout the world” (Dendle 24). This is a paradox that Milton seemingly resolves by combining these two abilities in his characterization of Satan—a reinterpretation of canon which is in and of itself a transgressive act.

            Satan’s inherent visibility renders him “queer,” or “othered,” in juxtaposition with God, whose omnipresent invisibility defines him. God’s creations celebrate “th’invisible / Glory of him,” a divine being whose power resides in a lack of manifestation and an inability to be captured in words or images (Milton 1.369). By contrast, Milton’s Satan exists not only exclusively within variations of imagery, but in an imagery already warped—“transform[ed]” by his Fall, and transforming still, across binaries (Milton 1.370). Not given the luxury of passive invisibility, he exists purely in “Image”: that of “a Brute,” monstrous, manipulative, deceptive, due to the permeability of that image and its relational gender and sexuality (Milton 1.371–72). Satan exists as a representation of the “visible” while God is the true definition of invisibility—a masculine force, certainly, but neutrally masculine, at once disembodied and innately nonsexual, despite his characterization as a force of creation. As Lorraine Daston argues in her essay “The Naturalized Female Intellect,” the gendered notions of the “female sex” imply explicit visibility—through inevitable sexualization, objectification, and the performative act of childbirth—while maleness is associated with a certain flexible “invisibility,” or “neutral” masculinity (219). As Rousseau once famously stated, every aspect of femininity—but especially its visual aspects—“reminds woman of her sex” in the same way Satan’s refusal to conform to a single gendered form reminds Satan of his otherness, or queerness (qtd. in Daston 218). Thus, Satan becomes simultaneously feminized and queered in his association with visibility, especially when measured against God’s neutrally masculine invisibility. Satan is image. But for all the tension between Satan’s invisible and visible natures, aspects of Satan’s visibility contain a distinctive tension of their own—that between his bestial and idealized forms.  

           When he is acting in the “visible” realm, Satan often assumes a bestial appearance, which Milton implies is his natural form after his Fall from heaven; his bestial nature places him in a liminal space between sexuality and sexual dysfunction. With his first appearance in the text, he is known as “th’infernal Serpent,” far from human and further still from his ideal, “transcendent” form in heaven (Milton 1.34; Milton 1.86). He is now “in bulk as huge / As whom the Fables name of monstrous size, / Titanian, or Earth-born, that warr’d on Jove, Briareos or Typhon, whom the Den / by ancient Tarsus held, or that Sea-beast / Leviathan, which God of all his works / Created hugest,” monstrous and existing outside of the animal kingdom that God will soon so carefully craft in heaven (Milton 1.196–202) But even in his subhuman form, he is simultaneously associated with an exaggerated male sexuality: the description of “His Spear, to equal which the tallest Pine / Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the Mast of some great Ammiral” imbues him with male virility; yet at the same time, Satan’s Fall from grace has damaged his sexuality, as his “Spear”—a distinctively phallic symbol—is now shrunken, flaccid, weak, “but a wand / He walkt with to support uneasy steps,” and is in “drooping” form, thus implying the Fall as a castration that in turn renders him impotent and androgynous, both via his weakened “Spear” and his current savage, sexually unappealing appearance (Milton 2.292–95, 2.328). Furthermore, it is while in this grotesque form that God uses Satan’s appearance to hold him prisoner under heaven’s patriarchal gaze. Satan speaks of how God and heaven “Transfix us at the bottom of this Gulf,” turning “transfix” into a double entendre that implies it is the act of being looked at by God that keeps him and the other demons trapped in Hell (Milton 1.329).  Made too monstrous for heaven, Satan is trapped in Hell not only by his subhuman form, but also by the threat of God’s omnipresent gaze observing his every move.

           Imbued with the power to shift his appearance at will, Satan sheds his bestial figure for a human form when he first enters the Garden of Eden, playing into the trope of the beautiful, evil tempter—or temptress. Yet he refuses to conform to a single appearance, instead existing at an intersection between human, bestial, and divine form—a transgressive act that threatens the careful set of binaries between male and female, animal and beast that God has heretofore established. We first see him in a partially animal state, “Squat like a toad” (Milton 4.800). Though it is ambiguous as to whether this implies his entire body has been transformed into that of a toad or he is merely in human form but crouching in a grotesque, inhuman position, either way the resulting visual is uncanny and monstrous. Yet, it is in this form that he is more explicitly sexualized than ever. “By his Devilish art,” he creeps near Eve and reaches towards “the Organs of her Fancy,” the latter an ambiguous phrase that implies both a nonconsensual entrance into Eve’s mind and her genitals (Milton 4.801–802). Here, Satan’s violation of Eve—one of God’s two ideal prototypes for the human race—challenges God’s authority on two counts: one, Satan has managed to corrupt Eve, despite her ideally feminine, innately human status and his ambiguously gendered, shiftingly monstrous existence, and two, this corruption calls into question God’s ability to enforce the (gendered, bestial) hierarchies that He has established.

           In this same passage, Satan is both perpetrator and recipient of sexual violence, as the Angel Ithuriel brutalizes him in turn; however, it is Satan’s surprising reaction to this act that once again highlights his opposition to societal norms, particularly regarding sexual relations. “Touch’d lightly” by the angel’s ambiguously phallic “spear” as an admonishing act for trespassing in the Garden, Satan is symbolically sodomized. Yet, even during an act that in other contexts would be perceived as a violation, Satan becomes immediately aroused, ignited with a violent “spark” such as occurs when one “light[s] nitrous powder…Smutty grain / with sudden blaze diffus’d,” explosive imagery which implies an orgasm of rage (Milton 4.819, 4.810–17). The “Smutty” grain is sullied in both the literal and sexual sense; the emotional blast is at once paroxysm and a fiery surge of pleasure. Though it may be tempting to read this passage as an association between homosexuality and personal evil, one must understand that seventeenth-century English people regarded homosexuality much differently from their twenty-first-century counterparts. At that time, society viewed sodomy as a personal failing to which men from a variety of backgrounds might succumb. Sodomy was considered an isolated instance of vice, purely physical in nature, rather than linked to an inherent “flaw” in nature or character; such views wouldn’t emerge until a distinctive homosexual, or “Molly,” culture began in the early eighteenth century, well after the publication of Paradise Lost (Oldridge 307). However, the act of sodomy was still illegal during Milton’s time, so any implication of Satan as desiring acts of sodomy would still have been repulsive to English society at large.

           When Satan enters the Garden a second time, it is through radical transformation that implies a different kind of disruptive sexuality rooted in performative gender expression. He adopts the form of a “serpent”—an obvious phallic image meant to tempt Eve (Milton 9.529). Satan further associates himself with male sexuality when he moves from being a “Serpent sleeping” to one “erect” once he is aware of Eve’s presence, thus both simulating and stimulating sexual arousal (Milton 9.162, 9.501). When he perceives Eve for the first time, he sees “Virtue in her shape how lovely” and “pin’d / His loss” when he cannot corrupt her (Milton 4.847–48). Whereas earlier he envies angels’ “Godlike,” masculine “forms” and bemoans the loss of his own “transcendent brightness,” he now yearns for the feminine ideal while still flaunting his virility, transforming both his gender and sexual appeal as an exercise in power and as a form of devilish “trickery” that mocks the strict gender binary that God has attempted to enforce in creating Adam and Eve (Milton 1.358, 1.86). Moreover, Satan not only desires Eve sexually; he also desires her very existence as his polar opposite: a creature of virtue and “Sanctitude,” in whom “the image of [her] glorious maker shon,” feminine in her physical “softness” and personal “Grace” (Milton 4.292–98). This is something that he himself—despite his transformative powers—longs to become but finds he cannot, either from self-restraint or a newfound limit to his transformative powers that traps him in a monstrous, bestial body, so he can only appear as idealized or divinely gendered forms in others’ dreams, but never in reality. Satan’s striking visibility is used to emphasize his evil nature—specifically, Milton’s Satan exists through a form of visibility that is both intrinsically gendered and made grotesque because of his refusal to conform to any specific morphology. This cautions readers that either engaging in lascivious sexuality or exploring beyond assigned gender roles within God’s carefully constructed gender binary would be socially and personally condemnable for its violation of God’s design.

           The gender binary was of primary concern in seventeenth-century English culture, and Satan’s refusal to conform to its strict mandates reveals emerging social discord. In the years leading up to Paradise Lost’s publication, social and political forces intersected to create radical new notions of gender roles that solidified patriarchal oppression within English society, thus making Satan’s ambiguous relationship with gender all the more transgressive. Even within the social sphere, which had thus far seen radical reinterpretations of gender roles, the notion of sex stubbornly persisted as monolithic. As McKeon argues, in seventeenth-century England, “there [was] only one sex, and sex [was] a sociological rather than an ontological category,” and a more complex discourse on human sexuality wouldn’t emerge until the eighteenth century (301). Contemporary belief held that a given individual could become more feminine or more masculine depending on how they acted, rendering gender a performative act and the threat of aberrant behavior severe. Thus, Satan’s ability to transform across genders manifests the anxieties surrounding gender roles in Puritanical England.

           On an even deeper level, divisiveness over gender difference in seventeenth-century England may be linked back to “internal affect and external enterprise, between the private and the public spheres,” which in turn relates back to the concepts of “maleness” and “femaleness” as a tension between the invisible and the visible, thus paralleling Satan’s own struggle in conforming to these spheres throughout Paradise Lost (McKeon 307). Because of the belief in gender fluidity, there was an underlying societal anxiety that anyone’s physical gender might shift at any given time; this process was reviled, a form of natural punishment for acting outside of gender norms, and thus something to be feared. These anxieties over gender performance and the threat of transformation are never more evident in Paradise Lost than when Milton’s narrator describes the androgynous nature of spirits:

           For Spirits when they please

           Can either Sex assume, or both; So soft

           And uncompounded is their Essence pure,

           Not ti’d or mannacl’d with joint or limb,

           Nor founded on the brittle strength of bones,

           Like cumbrous flesh; but in what shape they choose,

           Dilated or condens’t, bright or obscure,

           Can execute their airy purposes,

           And works of love or enmity fulfill. (Milton 1.421–430)

It is evident that “Spirits”—including Satan—are not restricted to exhibiting solely male or female characteristics. Unlike earthy, “cumbrous” humans (such as Adam and Eve), “Spirits” are not trapped within the primitive form of the gender binary that existed during the seventeenth century. They not only have the capability to “assume” the form of “either Sex,” but also the ability to completely transform outside any gendered form, instead existing as “pure” “Essence” that cannot be defined in physical terms. Most significantly, “Spirits” are not only able to transcend physical and gender expression; they also possess the power to choose to do so, implying a sense of agency that no other of God’s creations possess. Once more, however, this transformative ability is based on a heightened visibility. It is the spirits’ forms, not their nature, that are transformed, as they can only be described through their visible presences—as new forms “condens’t, bright or obscure,” defined by the degree to which they are perceivable rather than their ability to be or not be perceived—and thus they never exist completely outside of perception.

           Finally, as Satan visibly transgresses the gender roles that God establishes, he defies societal expectations of patriarchal authority. While Satan’s exact relationship to God is never made explicit, in heaven he “didst outshine / Myriads” and was expelled for attempting to show he’d “equall’d the most High,” thereafter identifying himself as “The Adversary of God,” a purely relational epithet that challenges God’s omnipotence (Milton 1.86–87, 1.40, 2.629). In order to understand why this epithet is transgressive, one must consider seventeenth-century English society’s hierarchical structure. Milton’s time saw the rediscovery of Aristotle, and with it a new discourse on natural differences between men and women (Daston 213). Aristotelian philosophy emphasizes relational hierarchies, particularly within families wherein the male head of household—“the father, the husband, and the master”—is the natural superior; this is not unlike God’s assumed supremacy through His intertwined roles as “Father” of humanity and “Monarch” of heaven (McKeon 296; Milton 1.41–42). Satan, then, commits a transgressive act in subverting this hierarchy. He is deemed “rebellious” against “the will of Heav’n,” and is punitively transformed into the monstrous leviathan we encounter in Paradise Lost’s opening passages, his body made grotesque to visibly reflect his transgression, his physical appearance an aberration in the same way women’s bodies were viewed as “aberrations” of the male body within seventeenth-century biological hierarchy (Milton 1.71, 2.1025; McKeon 301).

           In establishing himself as God’s “Adversary” and natural antithesis, Satan appears to create a binary of his own; but upon further analysis, it is evident that in Satan’s view he has not established a binary between “good” and “evil,” but rather one between servitude and freedom. Through establishing Hell outside of Heaven and its tyrannical and “all-powerful king,” despite the pain and suffering Satan endures for his transgression, he proclaims that “Here at last / We shall be free”—free from the “command[ing]” force of God and the strict control (and strict binaries) He enforces on Earth and heaven alike (Milton 1.258–260, 2.851). It is not God’s benevolence that repels Satan, but rather His insistence upon hierarchies establishing Himself as the supreme master. Thus, patriarchal authority is the true fount of Satan’s ire, and he is punished for defying it in the same way a woman or other person inferior to a male head-of-household would have been punished: through social exclusion.

           Milton’s Satan exists at the intersection of a variety of transgressive historical and societal forces. The ambiguous nature of both his sexuality and his gender conflate him with the specific, omnipresent threat of “nonconformity” that haunted Protestant religious circles. In combining both folkloric and Protestant interpretations of satanic imagery, Milton presents a radical new version of Satan that both exists within and subverts established narratives on visibility, evil, sexuality and gender—a Satan whose primary challenge to God’s authority is his refusal to conform to the binaries that God establishes. Satan is image, image is sex, sex is power, and power is to be feared when in the possession of anyone outside of God and His patriarchal authority.


Works Cited

Daston, Lorraine. “The Naturalized Female Intellect.” Science in Context, vol. 5, no. 2, 1992, pp. 209–235. Cambridge.Org, doi:10.1017/S0269889700001162. Accessed 27 Apr. 2016.

Dendle, Peter. Satan Unbound: The Devil in Old English Narrative Literature. University of Toronto Press, 2001.

McKeon, Michael. “Historicizing Patriarchy: The Emergence of Gender Difference in England, 1660–1760. Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 28, no. 3, Spring 1995, pp. 295–322. Accessed 4 Apr. 2016.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Signet Classics, 1968.

Oldridge, Darren. “Protestant Conceptions of the Devil in Early Stuart England.” History, vol. 85, no. 278, April 2000, pp. 232–246. Accessed 4 Apr. 2016.

PDF Version

“Nasty” Women of Western Literature: Empowering Women Against Misogyny by (Re)Claiming Language and Autonomy

by Mirabella McDowell

  1. Introduction— “Nasty” Is As “Nasty” Does

“Whether I am meant to or not, I challenge assumptions about women. I do make some people uncomfortable, which I’m well aware of, but that’s just part of coming to grips with what I believe is still one of the most important pieces of unfinished business in human history—empowering women to be able to stand up for themselves.”Hillary Rodham Clinton

In the midst of our most recent United States presidential election, as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton navigated her way through the third and final debate and began a nuanced discussion of her economic plan, Donald Trump interrupted in a targeted slur against Clinton, protesting, “Such a nasty woman.” This particular callous moment of flagrant condescension publicly marked the continual existence of a toxic ideology that underlies much of our culture: misogyny. Misogyny, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, “Hatred or dislike of, or prejudice against women,” essentially promulgates the ideology that women are inferior to men in one respect or another (1a). A recent Washington Post article entitled, “How to Define, Survive, and Fight Misogyny in the Trump and Weinstein Era” by Carlos Lozada deepens this definition, adding that:

Any and all women can suffer misogyny, but its primary targets are women who overtly undermine that power imbalance, ‘those who are perceived as insubordinate, negligent, or out of order’… those unwilling to be categorized only as the supportive wife, cool girlfriend, loyal assistant or attentive waitress. Misogynists expect women to dutifully provide ‘feminine-coded goods’ such as affection, adoration, and indulgence while they enjoy ‘masculine-coded perks’ such as leadership, authority, money and status. Women give, men take. (Lozada)  

Women who violate these anticipated gender codes in particular are most often those who “call out powerful men for their misdeeds,” hold a career or position of high status or influence, or reject a man sexually, romantically, etc. (Lozada). These ideas reveal a common, troubling motive among misogynists: seeking the control and containment of women, whether of their bodies, of their minds, or of their voices. In other words, when a woman gains power, she becomes a threat to the patriarchal system of order in place. Thus, according to misogynistic perceptions, she is not only dangerous, but as recently accused sexual assault perpetrator Matt Lauer allegedly put it when his lewd advances towards a coworker were denied, she is “no fun.”

In understanding the extent of this noxious ideology, it is important to touch upon the severity of the problematic circumstances in which misogynistic rhetoric and belief remain alarmingly ubiquitous in our daily culture. Unfortunately, some people do not identify misogyny in the modern world as a prevalent issue, which could be attributed to the strides of progress women have made in terms of equal rights over the past century. After all, more women than ever hold and maintain successful and lucrative careers and lives; many insist that the notion of misogyny is outdated, even archaic. This misconception is not only false, but also incredibly damaging. President-elect Trump’s remark against Clinton during the 2016 debate is not an uncharacteristic or rare attack, but rather has been preceded and since followed by an onslaught of misogynistic statements against women by Trump himself, who has been on record calling, “…women he does not like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals.” Trump has been reinforced in his sexism by a flurry of authoritative male voices within the government—from prevalent Senators to outspoken politicians— who, for instance, silenced “nasty-mouthed” Senator Elizabeth Warren during a congressional hearing in which she, ironically, attempted to give voice to another woman, Coretta Scott King. Most recently, there has been a disturbing outcry of sexual assault accusations against some of the most powerful and influential men in seemingly all professions – to name a few, Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Roy Moore, Bill Cosby, John Conyers, and Bill O’Reilly. Sexual assault can be understood as an extreme manifestation of pervasive societal misogyny and sexism, in that the perpetrators – typically men—seek to dominate and intimidate their victims – typically women. The justice system currently in place overall enormously fail women, often making it a woman’s responsibility to present enough evidence against her attacker to make her story trustworthy, her case only viable if the statute of limitations has not yet been reached, procedures that prefer and defer to the man’s protection. Thus, this environment where harassment and abuse are chronic — and in which women’s safety, livelihoods and well being are therefore limited — is itself misogynistic.

Regardless of one’s political views, this blatant misogyny – both spoken and written – in contemporary culture calls attention to a tradition within our society of oppressing, demeaning, and attempting to shame or intimidate women into silence. These outright displays of objectification and of prejudice against women and their thoughts, opinions, and voices express an upsetting yet normalized trend throughout history, which begs a multitude of important questions; namely how, in a period of such marked division and derision, can women respond to repugnant remarks against their sex? As Lozada contends, “We could out and rout the predators and misogynists and attackers lurking in our midst and our memories, until all those open secrets are simply open. But even if what has been dubbed this ‘Weinstein moment’ succeeds in unmasking, shaming and banishing more and more offenders, it’s not clear that crossing names off an endless list of hideous men will topple the structures of entitlement and permissiveness enabling their actions” (Lozada). Thus, where then do we – advocates of feminism and of the female—start and progress in building and strengthening our responses?

I would like to suggest that a key place for women to gain power has been and can be in language. The revolution of resistance and support for women that has exploded from Trump’s snide quip has mainly stemmed from his use of the word “nasty” in association with “woman.” The use of the word “nasty” as an insult is seemingly meant to be a more “acceptable” stand-in for overtly offensive women specific slurs. Yet, instead of being disgraced into submission by Trump’s turn of phrase, women around the world have instead reclaimed the word nasty as their own and for their own purposes, wearing it proudly as a badge of honor. This can be observed in the progression of the Oxford English Dictionaries’ definitions for the word “nasty”: since 1390, “nasti” has been used to mean “filthy, dirty; esp. offensive through filth or dirt” or, as of around the 17th century, “morally corrupt’ indecent, obscene, lewd” (1a; 4). Yet, a recent entry for “nasty” declares it is “slang, U.S.” for “terrific, wonderful, formidable; used as a term of approval” (6). In this way, women have been able to take the stereotypes and smears hurled at them and repurpose them to their own benefit, as aforementioned in the OED, a “nasty” woman can now be interpreted as a woman who is strong and fierce, outspoken and courageous. This reclamation of language has in turn prompted an outpouring of female solidarity, with women around the world uniting under this terminology. In this way, modern women have repossessed the word nasty for themselves when under attack of being “nasty” in the other previous senses of the word, using their own voices to speak against the often louder or more powerful male voices that attempt to silence, belittle, or discredit them.

Consequently, I argue that our responses to misogyny can be furthered through the examination of prominent literature of the past, literature about, by, or for women, women who use language in cunning ways to speak their truth. I contend that this “reclaiming” of stereotypes and derogatory statements to gain autonomy is not entirely new, but that works throughout literature have done this same kind of repurposing, and it is to literature we can and should turn to better understand misogyny, women’s continual plight against it, and how to combat it. Literature forces us to be aware and grapple with certain issues society faces by allowing us a glimpse into the minds of those being oppressed or under attack, giving readers a new perspective or broadening the depth of one’s understanding on an issue. Women characters and writers have actually been building the framework for us on this topic for centuries. Therefore, this literary tradition of female voices confronting misogyny, exploring its roots, and condemning its justifications can help shape the way women today are able to recognize misogyny. By analyzing their various methods for regaining female agency, we can learn how we can better cope with and fight against misogyny.

My research into this female literary tradition will explore seven different female responses to misogyny in Western Literature, from the medieval era to the modern, and ask central questions: What are some of the most prominent and recurring antifeminist stereotypes, where do the contradictions lie within them, and how do these stereotypes paradoxically empower these female literary voices? How does each text counteract misogyny, and how does each attempt to reclaim and redefine female identity in the face of male assertion, coercion, and overall dominance? By directly engaging with particularly misogynistic literature and rhetoric, how does each woman contribute to a female literary tradition, and take part in—both literally and figuratively—rewriting female history?

My analysis will begin with the medieval era and a contemplation of “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer, who stands as the quintessential paradigm of the “bad woman” as she scandalously rebuts the religious doctrine and literature that suppresses her sexuality and freedoms. Next is an examination of The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, which strives to reverse the trauma caused by misogynistic literature by reconstructing the pillars of womanhood and female identity and providing a utopian, strong female community. Following this is a move to the Victorian era and an analysis of “The Introduction” by Anne Finch, a work that engages the stereotypes of women by men, skillfully refuting the need for a man to justify her writing through her sharply critical analysis and the “expert” techniques embedded within her poetry. After this is a brief look at the preface to Aphra Behn’s “The Lucky Chance,” which offers a dialogical response in renegotiating the terms of the gender contract in literature. Accused of being overly sexual in instances in which men would not have been, Behn firmly retorts that “the pen” is her “masculine part,” thereby challenging these rigid ideologies of sex, sexuality, and woman’s censorship. Coinciding with this ideology, there is next a comparative analysis of Behn’s “The Fair Jilt” and Eliza Haywood’s Fantomina, which confront gendered double standards in Early Modern society as well as play with stereotypes of passion, agency, sexuality, and a reversal of a woman’s passivity through the formulation of the female rake. Finally, in a transition to the modern era, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf exemplifies a literary tradition of female engagement with and response to misogyny in literature, explaining the differing circumstances that hindered female writers and exposing modern illusions of women’s equality.   

Ultimately, I’d like to argue that these literary women are in fact precisely the “nasty” women that misogynists constantly slander, as these women are imbued with passion, anger, and above all, a desire for autonomy. Yet, these women simultaneously challenge these stereotypes in order to reshape them in a more positive light and refute the negative depictions of women, especially women in, and who write or read, literature. I’d like to suggest that ultimately, misogyny has essentially always served the same purposes, and has been vocalized and manifested in the same sorts of ways: the ultimate goal being to silence and belittle women. However, I would argue that the misconception that women were essentially silent on these issues before our modern moment is false, as these texts, spanning centuries, all confront, respond, and interact directly with female stereotypes meant to harm them. They attempt to discredit misogynistic assumptions and alter misleading perceptions of women, thus negotiating and opening a legitimate, fair space for women and women’s writing, a sphere in which women were able to be heard and advocating for women’s autonomy and women’s education. Thus, this paper will primarily focus on how these negatively marked attributes of the female were repurposed by women to instead be empowering—just as the word “nasty” has been in contemporary society.

  1. Ye Nasty Women of the Middle Ages

“Come to vanquish from the world the same error into which you had fallen, so that from now on, ladies and all valiant women may have refuge and defense against the various assailants.” – Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies


Western European culture during the Middle Ages was teeming with misogynistic ideology, as institutionalized patriarchal codes shaped, and were given credibility through, nearly every authoritative establishment, from the Church and its earliest fathers to the social hierarchies and mores of the ruling and wealthy classes. This domineering dogma inexorably percolated into the scholarship of the time, and as academic R. Howard Bloch reflects, “The discourse of misogyny runs like a rich vein throughout the breadth of medieval literature” (Medieval Misogyny 1). Examples of such literature are innumerable: “in Latin satires like John of Salisbury’s Policraticus, Walter Map’s De nugis curialium, Andreas Capellanus’s Art of Courtly Love (book 3), as well as in the XV Joies de marriage and what is perhaps the most virulent antimatrimonial satire in the vernacular tongue, Jehan Le Fevre’s translation of the Lamentations de Matheolus” (Bloch 1). This “ritual denunciation of women,” as Bloch puts it, “constitutes something on the order of a cultural constant, reaching back to the Old Testament as well as to Ancient Greece and extending through the fifteenth century” (1). Thus, with as prevalent, pervasive, and accepted as misogynistic sentiment was in both literature and in everyday custom in the Middle Ages, it is particularly valuable in understanding how medieval women experienced this culture to investigate moments where this misogyny was seemingly challenged, or at least examined, by female voices.

In alignment with this notion, Geoffrey Chaucer’s [1343-1400] self-assertive, outspoken character of the Wife of Bath offers insight into women’s engagement with and to this noxious philosophy of subjugation. For her provocative language and altogether blunt charges against the male gender, the Wife is unsurprisingly one of Chaucer’s most controversial characters, as scholars have long contested her purpose in “The Canterbury Tales,” and struggled with whether or not she can be classified a proto-feminist of sorts. Speaking to this debate, in her essay “What Women Want: Mimesis and Gender in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath,” Anne McTaggart masterfully articulates the central questions at hand when unraveling the nuances of meaning nestled within the Wife’s Prologue and Tale, observing how, “Chaucer’s Wife of Bath centers on a wonderfully fruitful paradox: she claims for women and for herself the right to “maistrie” and “sovereynetee” in marriage, but she does so by articulating the discourse imparted to her by the “auctoritee” of anti-feminism. Indeed, this paradoxical challenge to and reiteration of anti-feminist ideas has left Chaucer’s readers debating for decades which way the irony cuts: is the Wife to be understood as a proto-feminist, or is she merely a delightful buffoon inadvertently lampooning herself for the ironic pleasure of a knowing, male audience?” (1).

Subsequently, it could assumed that the Wife is a mere embodiment of anti-feminist rhetoric and literature, as she behaves precisely in the manner accused of and forewarned by medieval misogynists – perhaps most markedly, for her confession that “for half so boldely kan ther no man/ Swere and lyen, as a womman kan” (Chaucer, “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” 227-228). Furthermore, she explains that in her youth she was wayward, “faire, and riche, and yong, and wel bigon/ And trewely, as myne houbondes tolde me, / I hadde the beste quoniam myghte be,” casting her as the promiscuous and manipulative stereotype of the “bad” wife that prominent literature described (605-608). Indeed, there has been much scholarship in the past that has scathingly denounced her, from early commentators such as William Blake, who found her to be a “scourge and a blight,” and John Dryden, who would not dare, “to adventure on her Prologue; because tis too licentious,” to twentieth-century voices such as Tony Slade, who bitingly remarks, “The Wife’s character has already been exposed in some detail in her Prologue, which rambles around the theme of ‘sover-eynetee’ in marriage; her tone is coarse and garrulous, and there is little evidence of that sort of delicate poetic beauty which some critics have professed to find in the Tale itself” (Treharne 1). Ironically, these critical replies—which all use misogynistic stereotypes of women in their confrontations— all come from men centuries later in similar attempts to seemingly undermine the validity of the arguments and issues the Wife raises in her speech by condemning her character itself. The Wife could easily be responding to her own critics of the Modern Era when continually addressing all the slanderous things men have charged women with, imploring, “What eyleth swich an old man for to chide?” illuminating, too, the longevity of misogyny in our society (278; 281). It is precisely and predominantly this engagement with and to these kinds of persistent antifeminist forces that the Wife seems to be directing her words to as she discusses and takes issue with the writings of antifeminists cited in her Prologue, which is why I would like to assert that in her individuality and fearlessness, the Wife seems to serve as a brilliant depiction of how an early “proto”-feminist could have been, as she embodies these stereotypes to actively call attention to and subvert them in ways we still do in contemporary culture.  

Though Chaucer cannot exactly speak from a woman’s own experiences, he nonetheless masterfully gives the Wife of Bath a consciousness and a vital humanity through his superb writing capability, depicting how real lives were affected by this ideology. The wife speaks candidly about her experiences with misogynistic stereotypes, such as her repeated testimonies of the things, “Thou [men] seyest” of women, such as, “And if that she be fair, thou verray knave,/ Thou seyest that every holour wol hire have;/ She may no while n chastitee abyde” (253-255). Yet, she also expresses the trauma these broodings cause her, as she proclaims, “Who wolde wene, or who wolde suppose,/ The wo that in myn herte was, and pyne?” (786-787). These experiences of discomfort and actual physical pain at the internalization of this misogyny is indicative of how most women feel when subjected to it, and not only sheds light on how medieval women could and would have felt about hearing these things, which is in a way incredibly similar to how women still feel today, but this harm to women’s psyche is at the very core of misogynists purpose: that is, to gain control and domination. As Jill Mann contends:

The double structure of the Wife’s speech thus has a meaning of far wider import than its role in the Wife’s individual experience. And yet it plays a crucial role in creating our sense of the Wife as a living individual. For what it demonstrates is her interaction with the stereotypes of her sex, and it is in this interaction that we feel the three-dimensionality of her existence. That is, she does not live in the insulated laboratory world of literature, where she is no more than a literary object, unconscious of the interpretations foisted upon her; she is conceived as a woman who lives in the real world, in full awareness of the anti-feminist literature that purports to describe and criticize her behavior, and she has an attitude to it just as it has an attitude to her. (Treharne 3)

In this way, the Wife’s Prologue highlights the impact of these misogynistic broodings on the lives and reputations of real women, ultimately exhibiting that, “Texts affect lived lives, and the Wife’s feminist criticism demonstrates this: if women had relatively little opportunity to author texts, they nonetheless felt their effects” (Dinshaw 14). Yet, the Wife does not allow Jankyn this power over her; in a moment of truly remarkable and radical indignation, “whan [the Wife] saugh he wolde nevere fine/ to redden on this cursed book al nyght,/ Al sodeynly thre leves have I plight/ out of his book, right as he radde, and eke/ I with my fest so took hym on the cheke/ that in oure fyr he fil backward adoun” (788-793). Not only does the Wife throw the pages into the fire, but the misogynist himself falls down with them, symbolic of her stand to destroy these treatises and the ones who propagate them (and, to replace them with her Tale). The Wife of Bath thus seems to represent the culmination of all these “bad wives” and the manifestation of their traits. Yet, by giving her (and in effect, them) a voice, “Chaucer, as a man writing in the voice of a woman opposing this tradition, explores the impact of writing in creating gender itself” – precisely the same way that these ‘old dolts’ the Wife refers to seem to attempt to falsely create and thus slight the female gender by writing all women as bad (Dinshaw 15). In this vein, it seems to be the Wife’s very embodiment of these “bad” traits that gives her a sense of agency and autonomy as an individually minded, opinionated woman of her time, proudly admitting to these characteristics instead of being shamed into silence, and boasting them with an air of satisfaction and utter candor. In this way, the Wife seems to be reclaiming these roles that were meant to harm her, and instead wearing them as badges of honor, much like contemporary women have done with the word “nasty” with all its contexts and connotations. In turn, Chaucer seems to be writing a new narrative for women – one in which women have the control and mastery.

In this same manner, it seems especially poignant and defining insofar as exploring the Wife of Bath’s character that, while nearly every other character in Chaucer’s tale is described using their occupation (for instance, The Knight, The Prioress, or The Miller, to name a few), Alisoun is distinguished and demarcated for being a wife, despite the fact that it is revealed to us almost immediately that she is a merchant. Thus, Chaucer seems to suggest that wifehood is not only her primary function in the narrative, but also perhaps her primary “trade,” i.e. her importance stems from this womanhood, and as we are meant to recognize her principally as a bad wife, and her main role becomes defending her own sex. Therefore, when confronted with the “book of Wikked Wyves” the Wife of Bath not only opposes it, but vehemently protects women’s reputations by underlining that none of these texts were written by women themselves, then scandalously and continuously formulating logical arguments using biblical allusions and holy men to justify her reasoning (685). This can be observed when she deliberately underscores why men of the period, particularly old clerks and scholars, composed copious amounts of misogynistic and anti-women literature: because, as all interpretation bears the mark of the interpreter, these old men –who she has authority to speak of because she has experience in marriage to them—are frustrated with their own sexual inadequacy and ability to perform, and thus whine instead about the infidelity of women. As the Wife puts it, “The clerk, whan he is oold, and may nought do/ Any of Venus’s werkes worth his old shoe” will “writ his dotage/ that women kan nat kepe hir mariage!” (707-710). Moreover, she explains that “For trusteth wel, it is an impossible/ that any clerk will speak good of wyves” for this reason, and claims that if women “hadde written stories/ as clerkes han withinne hire oratories,” there would be a tremendous amount of literature speaking also of the wickedness of men (688-689; 694). Yet, since most women were constrained by societal limitations and domestic expectations, the literature is left to the men to write, in which “no woman of no clerk is preysed” (706). Who called the lion a savage beast, she implores of the group in a simple metaphor, concluding it certainly was not the lion itself (692).

By taking these negative assumptions about women and finding a logical root for them, other than the notion that women are merely inherently wicked, rather than merely embodying the stereotype of the wicked wife, the Wife of Bath fervently pushes back against these stereotypes that seek to control her and control the perception of all women, reclaiming them in order to empower herself. Moreover, the Wife continuously brings up biblical men to help validate her ways of living: when defending her multiple marriages, she argues, “God bad us for to wexe and multiplye/… he seyde myn housbande/ Sholde lete fader and mooder and take me./ But of no nombre mencion made he, Of bigayme, or of octogame;/ Why sholde men thanne speke of it vileynye?” (28-34). Similarly, she alludes to “the wise kyng, daun Salomon” whom “I trowe he hadde wyves mo than oon.” (35-36) In this way, the Wife seems to be internalizing these stories of the Bible, then reinterpreting and repurposing them in order to empower, rather than cast shame upon, women who live their lives freely as she does. Simply put, through this method of reclaiming language, the Wife is able to gain agency. As Carolyn Dinshaw eloquently contends in A History of Feminist Literary Criticism:

She is in fact the anti-feminist stereotype of a nightmare wife come to life: she says to her husbands, for example, exactly what Theophrastus said bad wives say to their husbands. But even as she thus confirms the stereotype, the Wife in her mimesis takes a stand-in subversion of it: she repeats the anti-feminist discourse with a difference, finally seizing that book and ripping it up. Chaucer’s creation of her is an act of feminist literary criticism. (14)

The Wife essentially seems to be “quite”-ing these antagonistic male-driven sentiments, not in the least concerned with what Christian male authorities have to say on the Bible and about her conduct nor what her husbands have to say about how a wife should behave, but rather, only about what she desires and what brings her mirth and amusement.

It is curious to note, too, that the Wife of Bath is interrupted not once in her Prologue, but on numerous occasions, the most significant being the Friar who complains of the length of her Prologue –which she then “quite-s” through hilariously satirizing monks at the beginning of her Tale. While these moments of interruption nearly directly reflect, centuries later, Trump’s interruption of Hillary Clinton, scrutinizing her for speaking up and speaking proudly, they also speak to the Wife’s own sense of agency and her proto-feminist, progressive views even within a period riddled with woman-hating, woman-beating, and the silencing of women overall. Thus, by giving her this power to strike back, and shifting the perspective to that of this “nasty” woman herself, Chaucer invites his audience to glean insight into an all-too-overlooked perspective, Chaucer enables the Wife—on behalf of all women— to have a voice with which to defend herself while appropriating these negative depictions of women into something empowering – her tale ultimately signifying that what women want most of all is this autonomy she openly exercises.

Echoing the final lines of her Prologue in which Jankyn tells her she can claim “al the soveraynetee” in their marriage, her Tale tells of a Knight who rapes a woman and, in order to save his life, must discover what women most desire (818). In the Tale he reveals, “women desiren to have sovereyntee” and “for to been in maistrie [hir housbond] above,” and eventually ends up “in parfit joye” in his marriage, but only when things become resolved through giving his wife total power (1257-1259). In this regard, while the Wife of Bath may be considered a sort of exemplar of all the stereotypes of women as greedy, self-serving parasites combined, these specific lines tie into the idea of the Wife of Bath as, again, a “proto-feminist,” who speaks of the different varying discourses she has learned and has been exposed to and creates a powerful counterargument to men who represent women as rotten and evil, and who blame and scapegoat women rather than owning up to their own faults and shortcomings. The moral takeaway of the tale demonstrates the power of listening to women (an act which provides the turning point in her Tale and is the reason the knight is not put to death for his crime—which coincidentally, is a crime of overpowering and forcing a woman against her will), and the benefits of giving them mastery in marriage, as the Knight ends up perfectly happy as well. The word “maisterie” is defined by the OED as “superiority or ascendancy in battle or competition, or in a struggle of any kind; victory resulting in domination or subjugation”; thus, the Wife principally craves to claim a sort of victory for women in this certain arena of life, a victory of power that men have long enjoyed (1a). Therefore, she is not the docile, obedient woman that the Clerk describes when he “quites” her tale (which is ironic since he tells the tale of the ideal woman, who happens to be everything the Wife of Bath is not), but a boisterous, outspoken woman who engages with the social expectations of the time and responds to them in a sort of call to arms to other wise wives. Though she struggles between her own personhood and the way others try to define her, she speaks rather than being spoken about with defined energy and fervor—thus, a victory to the cause of women’s rights in her very existence.

Finally, these ideas also reflect The Canterbury Tales as a whole, which, through the verbal portraits created and the constant back and forth “quite”ing of the characters, can be understood as a heteroglossia of different voices each addressing the social expectations and anxieties people had about certain types of people, as Chaucer crafts multi-faceted characters who do not always end up aligning with how they are initially portrayed, or how they would be interpreted initially in real life. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale could represent Chaucer as being the “friend of women,” or could be yet another unconventional depiction of a member of society—a “bad wife”— that sows doubt in the reader’s mind about how we are supposed to view and judge women in society. Overall, it seems that the Wife of Bath is meant to be a voice of the female that propagandizes a new truth in the midst of misogynistic literature of the Middle Ages. Therefore, in her embodiment of a “nasty” wife who simultaneously confronts and rebuts the negative attributes prescribed to her through engaging these stereotypes head-on, not only does the Wife of Bath provide a new perspective on wifehood, but on the role and power of women in general.


In her novel The Book of the City of Ladies, Christine de Pizan [1364-1430] takes a deeply personal and fierce, yet simultaneously articulate and dignified approach to the misogynistic literature of the Middle Ages, first speaking to the damaging effects of her own internalization of misogynistic rhetoric, then later countering the insidious, inflammatory antifeminist literary tradition by building a City of Ladies. In turn, she offers a “new” type of perspective on women in literature: the perspective of a woman, from a woman author. Through the poignant use of allegorical figures—in this case, the embodiments of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice as women— Pizan illustrates her own lived experiences with this kind of rhetoric, and how through her encounters with these “women,” is prompted to “come back to herself” and “not trouble [herself] anymore over such absurdities,” being restored in her own observed truth that, “Causing any damage to harm one party in order to help another party is not justice – and likewise, attacking all feminine conduct is contrary to the truth” (Pizan 8; 10).

In this feminization of virtue, Pizan’s ultimate goal seems to be that of, as Marina Warner puts it, “moral tutor,” to rehabilitate her sex and to replace the portrait of the “bad woman” by calling back to memory the “lives and deeds of virtuous women of the past,” who have been overlooked by history (Foreword xii). As Warner astutely reflects in her foreword to Pizan’s literary triumph, Pizan “restores speech to the silent portion of the past,” giving a voice to these women who have been scorned or ignored by scholars and thus altogether “silenced” (xiii). Thus, Pizan can be added alongside Chaucer’s the Wife of Bath as a so-called “nasty woman,” for her challenging of the misogynistic norms of the period, as a woman who takes the negative stereotypes of women and reclaims them as empowering, debunking the assertions that women are inherently wicked. In a voice of controlled indignation, Pizan offers thoughtful arguments to counter society’s attitudes and opinions towards women, arguments that hold just as much relevance and resonance today as they still ring true in the modern world.

To begin, it is significant to point out Pizan’s title, which is The Book of the City of Ladies, not of women. While this may seem like a word choice meant to exclude rather than include, to speak only about the educated and elite ladies of the time, rather, I’d like to offer that Pizan has instead taken over the traditional term “lady” and invested in it an innovative significance: that is, a “lady” for Christine refers to the nobility of the soul rather than the nobility of the blood (Richards xx). In this way, Pizan “transposes the dignity afforded to noble women in the late medieval class structure to women who have proven their worthiness through their achievements, whether military, political, or religious” (xxx). Therefore, just as the word “nasty” has been infused with a new significance of empowerment in contemporary society, Christine reclaims the word “lady” to express that “every woman possessed the potential for true nobility” (xxx). Pizan cunningly names her new kingdom “Kingdom of Femininity,” the City of Ladies rather than the City of Women, in order to make readers clearly understand her underlying point: that is, that all women could find a place in a city of ladies by realizing their “feminine potential” (xxx). Thus, the word “lady” becomes a symbol representative of inclusion and empowerment, a plea for the recognition of women’s contributions in social and political life.

Moreover, Pizan’s adept manipulation of language can be attributed to her education as well as her desire to “disprove masculine myths and appeal for change,” as her “learnedness served as a springboard for her to address the question of women’s role in society in more extensive terms” (xxx). Pizan immediately asserts her superior education from the first few lines of the novel, suggesting that education will be the foundation of much of her argument. This hypothesis proves to be accurate, as Pizan repeatedly uses her education as the basis by which to criticize authority: by page three she is already disregarding Maltheoulus’ work with the biting criticism that not only is it a conglomeration of lies, but that is has a “lack of integrity in diction and theme,” and she resolves to “turn [her attention to more elevated and useful study” (3). Yet, it is after this encounter with Maltheoulus’s work that an apparent shift is felt in Pizan’s tone, as the derision she has read puzzles and troubles her deeply. Using logic and reason, she desperately tries to work through one of the most critical questions of this misogynistic rhetoric: How it happened that so many different men, and learned men among them, have been so inclined to express both in speaking and in their treatises and writings so many wicked insults about women and their behavior?(3) “I do not know how to understand this repugnance” she sighs, “It all seems they speak from one and the same mouth” (4). Since, as she notes, “they all concur in one conclusion: that the behavior of women is inclined to and full of every vice,” and “it would be impossible for so many famous men – such solemn scholars… to have spoken so falsely on so many occasions,” she finally resolves that she has no choice but to rely “more on the judgments of others than on what I myself felt and knew,” and finally decides “God formed a vile creature when He made woman… I detested myself and the entire feminine sex, as though we were monstrosities in nature” (4). This section of Pizan’s text reflects her keen ability to use deduction and reason, illustrating her immense intelligence.

Yet, the real point Pizan seems to be making is the psychological toll that internalizing this rhetoric has on real lives – real women – that are deeply affected by this constant outflow of derogatory slander against women by men, so much so that even women start to believe it. Similarly, though the Wife of Bath was not educated or literate, she internalized oral readings of this literature and thus understood the implications this literature had against women; here, Pizan is able to read the very words themselves, and both examples demonstrate how medieval women, regardless of class and status, would have felt about this literature. Their responses, though marked by their differences in education, are again, essentially similar: whereas the Wife of Bath was so outraged by this type of literature that she impulsively incinerated it, and attempts to use her voice to help build a female tradition of good women through her fairy-tale like story, Pizan similarly works to extinguish these accusations about women and make something new, too – a metaphorical City of Ladies, with her book itself standing as a temple of solace in literature for which women can find shelter. As the first of the three Ladies reminds Christine, “you know that any evil spoken of women so generally only hurts those who say it, not women themselves,” reminding Pizan not to acknowledge these evils as truth or actual reflections on the character of womankind, and to instead help build a new feminocentric and realistic literary tradition of women, by women (8).

Similar to the Wife of Bath once more, Pizan directly engages with the misogynistic rhetoric and literature of the time, which is done in order to further her emphasis on the importance of the erudition of women, as well as their participation in literary and cultural life. Pizan fervently objected to the treatment of women in “The Romance of the Rose,” for instance, and was supported in her counterattacks by the influential chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, seemingly giving her voice, thoughts, and opinions validation and credibility in the public, educated sphere. “If women had written the books we read, they would have handled things differently, for women know they have been falsely accused,” she writes in response, an argument quite similar in fact to the Wife of Bath’s (11). Furthermore, she cleverly sets forth that:

Those who attack women because of their own vices are men who spent their youths in dissolution and enjoyed the love of many different women, used deception in many of their encounters, and have grown old in their sins without repenting, and now regret their past follows and the dissolute life they led. But Nature, which allows the will of the heart to put into effect what the powerful appetite desires, has grown cold in them. Therefore, they are pained when they see that their good time has now passed them by, and it seems to them that the young, who are now what they once were, are at the top of the world. They do not know how to overcome their sadness except by attacking women, hoping to make women less attractive to other men. Everywhere one sees such old men speak obscenely and dishonestly, just as you can fully see Maltheoulus, who himself confesses that h was an impotent old man filled with desire. You can thereby convincingly prove, with this one example, how what I tell you is true, and you can assuredly believe that it is the same with many others. (19)

This carefully rendered retort that gives reason to the misogyny of the period, instead of blaming women’s lack of moral integrity for their representations in literature, allows Christine to begin to rebuild her own confidence and self-assuredness, as well as rebuild the reputation of women in the Middle Ages.

It is important to note, too, that for men, there is this recurrent theme of their sexuality being at stake in most of these motives for them to vilify women, as when they perceive inferiority in their own bodies, they project this vulnerability onto the women they cannot satisfy, accusing women of being inherently weak in mind, character, and constancy rather than facing their own shortcomings. As Christine contends that these sorts of men are, “evil, diabolical people who wish to twist the good as well as the virtue of kindness naturally found in women into evil and reproach” (26). From this line, she then goes on to detail in great length the stories of other “good women” from all sorts of religions, myths, and cultures—from Mary Magdalene, to Queen of Sheba, to Marie of Blois, Hippolyta, Zenobia, Minerva, etc.—who’s stories act as the actual building blocks that support and shelter her city of ladies, as they correspondingly support her overall thesis. Not coincidentally, all the women she calls to memory are strong women with formidable ideas and thoughts who have helped the growth and well-being of civilizations and often of humanity as a whole, thus reversing the assumptions that these traits, when found in women, must necessarily be threatening, or “bad.” A keen example she draws forth refers to the Bible, in that, “If anyone would say that man was banished because of Lady Eve, I tell you that he gained more through Mary than he ever lost through Eve,” thus tying in the Church to her logic to support her assertions on both intellectual and religious grounds, and consequently adding another layer of credibility to her arguments (13).

From these justifications, Lady Rectitude finally critically implores, “How many harsh beatings, without cause or reason, how many injuries, how many cruelties, insults, humiliations, and outrages have so many upright women suffered, none of whom cried out for help?” (119). The Book of the City of Ladies, thus, seems to be Pizan’s own “battle cry,” of sorts, her valiant defense of women and their inherent nobility and “goodness.” By adding her voice and views into the literature of the time, she stirs a conversation about women’s role in the Middle Ages, and counters much of the inflammatory accusations wrongfully flung against women, women who could not defend themselves because they did not typically have the education to do so. “Where is there a city so strong which could not be taken immediately if no resistance were forthcoming…” she asks, metaphorically symbolizing that such defamation exists against women only because their morality could not be properly fortified, as most women of the period were uneducated and illiterate and therefore could do little to deflect or denounce any such assaults (Pizan 13). Yet, in her building of the city, and in her feminization of virtue through the personifications of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice, Christine offers a strikingly successful attempt to not only remind, but rewrite the true history of women, as she represents a womanly eloquence, the affinity women have for learning, the power of the educated woman, and the double standards of men, who she suggests should examine their own morality before attacking others. In this way, Pizan’s novel “represents a determined and clear-headed attempt to take apart the structure of her contemporaries prejudices” through the interspersion of “formidable and exemplary heroines of the past with down to earth remarks about the wrongs done to women by society’s attitudes and opinions,” and thus is a triumphant endeavor to reclaim agency and authority for women in the Middle Ages (xiii).

2. Nasty Women Of The Victorian Era; Or, Virtue Befouled

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, to absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.” – Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre


In the early modern era, women writers continued to struggle with the complex query of how to claim authority in a culture that obstinately and steadfastly denied it to women. Prolific poet Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea [1661-1720], attempted to challenge societal limitations set upon women and advocated the capability and right for educated women to share their voice in the public sphere through writing. However, Finch was an elite woman expected to only fulfill certain patriarchal standards of being and was therefore unsurprisingly met with many obstacles in attempting to enact these beliefs and broaden the scope of accepted female behavior. Thus, as a way around these limitations, Finch tended to legitimize her work through another male agent—which in turn could be perceived in contemporary culture as undermining her own work or supporting or legitimizing misogynistic rhetoric about the inferiority or inability of the female to speak for herself. Moreover, Finch, like Pizan, uses examples of other women to carve out a space both for herself as well as for the woman writer, though despite this, continued to authorize her own work through the authority of prevailing male figures, which again seemingly exposes an underlying, crucial tension between effectively legitimizing women’s authorship yet paradoxically marginally acquiescing to the exact patriarchal codes set up by society that impeded and discouraged women’s writing. Yet, in deeper examination of her poetry, it becomes clear that Finch often toyed with this authority in a playful way that nearly parodied this need for male approval and acceptance, while using this male authority to her own advantage. Likewise, I would like to suggest that in her vital work, “The Introduction,” Finch uses this type of male authorization as a strategic attempt to gain tolerance and agency for women. By using the highest male authority (God) to contest this cluster of patriarchal gender codes, and in a sense finding an ingenious “loophole” to the constraints set upon women, Finch contends that an educated woman fulfilling her intellectual potential is a critical component of society and rebuts the negative stereotypes prescribed to her and her sex as innately less intelligent than men, ultimately adding herself to this collection of “nasty” women.

In her poem “The Introduction,” Finch insightfully confronts the gender politics of her era by first challenging the stereotypes set upon women, then resourcefully interweaving biblical references of theological men and women in order to legitimize her own authority as a woman and women’s writer—much like Pizan does centuries prior. Finch begins by mordantly noting, “A woman that attempts the pen/ Such an intruder on the rights of men,” instantly calling into question this “right” of men to write that women are consequently seen as imposing upon because men believed that women should be occupying their time with more “suitable” matters (Finch 9-10). Likewise, she perceptively continues “They tell us we mistake our sex and way;/ Good breeding, fashion, dance, dressing, play/ Are the accomplishments we should desire,” pointing out the vapid lifestyle that men expected elite women to assume, as “To write or read or think or to inquire/ Would cloud our beauty, and exhaust our time, / And interrupt the conquests of our prime” (13-15; 16-18). Finch sardonically scrutinizes and denounces this notion that elite women’s time should be filled with activities merely to enhance one’s beauty and satisfy the duties of “a servile house,” maintaining that this is not, contrary to the patriarchal principles ingrained within her society, the “utmost art, and use” of women (19-20).

After setting up this series of dismaying circumstances and standards prescribed to women, Finch turns to the authority of the Bible to make her case in favor of elite women’s capabilities and right to write, bringing in the figure of Deborah as the ultimate paradigm of the importance and sway of strong female figures historically:

A woman here leads faintly Israel on,

She fights, she wins, she triumphs with a song,

Devout, majestic, for the subject fit,

And far above her arms, exalts her wit. (45-48)

While this reliance on the prominent male figure of God to stake her claim could be viewed as undermining her credibility and agency, rather, I believe it serves as a tactful way to argue for the rights of women writers using the highest male authority of all, since no earthly man would contest the word or will of God. Furthermore, by referencing Deborah, Finch makes the critical point that had Deborah been told to merely focus on her vanity and live a submissive existence, her country would have been left in chaos and shambles, illustrating the importance and necessity of enlightened females intellectuals within society. The notion of Deborah as a key leader, judge, and even advisor of military strategy asserts that the disparity of social influence between men and women is not immutable, and reinforces Finch’s claims that an elite woman should not be confined in her intellect or restrained by societal ideologies of women’s femininity, but should rather be educated in order to become an illustrious member of society. Likewise, by aligning the early modern woman’s writer with figures and stories from the Old Testament, Finch not only claims the own significance of her voice and creates this space of authority for the elite female writer endorsed by God himself, but further posits that women are not historically or innately inferior to men, but rather, have lacked the education to become intellectually equal with them, “fallen by mistaken rules and education” and thus “debarred from all improvements of the mind” (53). The deliberate use of iambic hexameter in Finch’s last line asserts her overall mastery over the poetic form and thus situates herself within this tradition of knowledgeable, powerful women, valued for their wit and ability over their passivity. Thus, Finch’s use of the ultimate male authority, as well as another powerful woman, emphasizes and deepens her credibility and the credibility of other women’s writers.

Ultimately, through her poetry, Finch skillfully faces the problematic question of how a woman can reclaim authority by (rather ironically, and ingeniously) using powerful men, Christian ideology, and other women to legitimize the status of the female. The notion of gender politics is inextricable from this question of authority, and thus in legitimizing herself, Finch also cunningly comments upon the power relations between elite men and women of the era, using the highest male authority (God) to authorize her work. By reclaiming the often patriarchal teachings of the Church as advantageous to women’s rights to write, Finch carves out a space for the female writer that mortal men could not rightfully contest, thus “taking a stab” at misogyny with the poetics of the pen. Finch, therefore, played a pivotal role in shaping various ways in which women’s work could be legitimized, supporting a female community of women’s writers, and in stipulating how women’s compositions should be judged and received within society.


Both Aphra Behn [1640-1689] and Eliza Haywood [1693-1756] were prominent authors who wrote during the Victorian era, a time in which many believed women’s voices to be all but silenced in the public sphere. Yet, both women wrote copiously, often calling into question the biases placed against women and the privileges men, and male writers, seemed to enjoy freely. These women were pivotal in the gradual acceptance and success of female artists; it was Virginia Woolf who once claimed, “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds” (Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 116). Likewise, Behn can be considered one of the first (if not the first) professional female writers, meaning she made a profit from her writings, and thus when met with the obstacles imposed by men for women to make strides in the public arena of writing and entertainment, she often skillfully objected and replied. For instance, in the Preface to her play “The Lucky Chance,” Behn demands of her critics, “All I ask, is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part, the Poet in me, (if any such you will allow me) to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv’d in, to take those Measures that both the Ancient and Modern Writers have set me, and by which they have pleas’d the World so well” (Behn xi). By contesting the overly sexual nature of her plays –plays that, were they written by a man, would not have been so derided— and by asserting that the pen is in fact her phallic part, Behn lures men into this conversation about the terms of the gender “contract,” refusing these pure categories of the male and female arenas and instead offering a dialogical response. Therefore, Behn uses this defamation against her work as an empowering agent, and rather than be silenced, uses this idea of being “overly sexual” and other smears to her advantage, adding her (and Haywood, later discussed) to this tradition of “nasty” women.

Consequently, women writers of the Early Modern period such as Behn and Haywood were met with the profound challenge of representing a “female desiring subject” in literature within a society in which male prerogatives and perceptions of how women should behave dominated culture. As aforementioned, “good” women of this period were expected to be well mannered, submissive and altogether naïve about sex and sexuality; thus, this was the depiction of women encapsulated in much of the prominent literature of the era. As a result, both Behn and Haywood radically explored and experimented with the question of what would happen if the woman attempted to claim the role of the partner in power in a sexual exchange, rather than guileless victim? Both Behn, in her work “The Fair Jilt” and Haywood, in Fantomina, or, Love in a Maze, pointedly and playfully rewrite, revise, and in fundamental ways, reverse the common tropes, scripts, and scenarios of the emblematic male “libertine” within amorous fiction in order to allow the typically marginalized zone and perspective of the woman to prevail. Moreover, both writers were fundamental in opening this space in Early Modern literature for the desiring woman to be represented, as they allow each of their female protagonists to devise and control the “means of seduction” and, in turn, gave women readers a sense of autonomy otherwise rigorously denied to them in this arena. Thus, authors such as Behn and Haywood helped mold and contribute to a “feminocentric” literary collection that offers different views of the ways women of the Early Modern period attempted to manage and work through the “double bind” that Eros posed to them—in this case, by depicting the “female rake.”

I’d like to propose that this “female rake” is demarcated by her active role and use of deviant, devious tactics to craft and execute seductive schemes in efforts to sate her own pleasures and desires. While notions of sexual freedom for women remained somewhat illusory, this ironic inversion of gendered power in literature nonetheless exposed gendered hypocrisies within society and served to highlight and publicize notions of feminine artfulness, skill, and agency, as seen in both “The Fair Jilt” and “Fantomina,” within key instances of deliberate deceit and calculated manipulation by their female protagonists, dually allowing women writer’s to rewrite female characters as strong agents and claim their own sense of sexual indulgence just as men were able to.

Behn’s protagonist in, “The Fair Jilt,” the cunning sybarite Miranda, masterminds a series of plots to seduce a sequence of young men in order to satisfy her own sensual motives, thus perfectly embodying this notion of the female rake. Moreover, by upholding the typical “sex-as-force” literary scenario of the era but reversing the traditional gendered roles—the female becoming the predatory agent while the man is rendered the powerless object— Behn consequently provides a refreshing depiction of the lady-in-love as an active, autonomous being. This is superbly demonstrated in the scene in which Miranda proclaims her love for young priest Henrick in the church, as when he is openly resistant to Miranda’s initial ploys to win his affections, she expresses her outrage in the characteristic “codified language of the male seducer,” exclaiming, “Answer my flame, my raging fire, which your eyes have kindled; or here, in this very moment, I will ruin thee” and “take away your life and honour,” a proclamation which leaves the hapless priest “trembling” (Bowers, “Sex, Lies, and Invisibility” 56; Behn, “The Fair Jilt, 46). For a woman in society to behave this way would have been perceived as subversive and appalling, and yet not so for the man—therefore, by not completely overhauling the expected power dynamics in scenarios of courtship, but merely reversing them, Behn offers a powerful testament to the gendered double standards cemented into amatory culture. Furthermore, by positioning female characters like Miranda as “both the central subject of the narrative and the possessor of active sexual subjectivity,” rather than as mere recipients of desire, authors such as Behn ultimately, “threaten[ed] traditional male prerogatives based on female subjugation and objectification, and provide [d] space for readers to imagine something new” (Bowers 58).

This striking demonstration of female adroitness is further asserted as the church scene progresses, as in response to the priest denying her advances, Miranda convincingly stages her own pseudo-rape, a fabrication so persuasive in fact that Henrick is arrested and put in prison for many years. Miranda is not only able to regain power over the situation through this deceptive performance, but exhibits the artful abilities of the female subject to, like the archetypal male profligate, mold a situation to fit her agenda and subsequently “triumph” over the male object of her desire, epitomizing the characterization of the female rake (Behn 50). It is indisputably Miranda that maintains the control within this sexual encounter, for though she does not have the physical ability to actually rape the priest, her ensuing scheme, in which she casts herself as the target of the very atrocity she herself attempted to commit, impressively and inventively condemns the priest but also “beats patriarchy at its own game” (Bowers 57). Therefore, while a unique, specifically female model of sexuality is never quite realized, the importance of moments such as these lies in the effort of Behn to at least open this space in literature for female desire to be explored and acknowledged, and to provide readers with a feminocentric version and vision of otherwise male-dominated situations, as in scenarios of lust. The lasting value and appeal of Behn’s work lies in her keen capability to overturn conventional, gendered stereotypes of who was permitted to act upon desire in society, as the misogynistic portrayal of the passive, defenseless woman of standard amatory fiction is—if rather comically—confronted and replaced by Behn with the image of the quick-witted, conniving female rake.

Similarly to Behn’s Miranda, in Haywood’s Fantomina, or, Love in a Maze, the protagonist epitomizes this notion of the female rake by exploring and quenching her own sensuous urges, passionate yearnings, and steadfast objectives by artfully and continually duping and outmaneuvering the clueless Beauplaisir. Fantomina is essentially the female equivalent of the male libertine, gaining agency and garnering a fulfilling sense of power through the active use of subterfuge and duplicity to con and seduce the object of her affection; yet, instead of using this power to conquer a series of different men, Fantomina uses her power to attempt to confound only one. Specifically, Fantomina plays out her role as female rake by assuming an assortment of fraudulent identities, such as the Widow Bloomer and Incognita, masquerading as entirely new women each time in order to experience “the first time” with Beauplaisir again and again without his knowledge, using his libertine faithlessness to her advantage and ingeniously allowing him to garner a false sense of control. This is the type of calculated plan that typically the man would devise, and Fantomina discovers that she too finds, unsurprisingly, immense satisfaction from accomplishing her ruses. “How could she not forbear laughing heartily” she reflects in one instance, “to think of the Tricks she had played him and applauding her own Strength of Genius and Force of resolution, which by such un-thought of Ways could triumph over her Lover’s Inconstancy, and render that very Temper, which to other Women is the greatest Curse, a means to make herself more Blessed” (Haywood 243). It is this active engagement in shaping her own future, this questioning of social norms of pleasure and conquest, and this ardent pursual of her own desires that prominently defines the female rake—which, undoubtedly, Fantomina embodies. Moreover, this harkens back to Pizan’s remarks about the hypocritical nature of men, and how they should examine their own morals before libeling the morals of women.

One of the most superb mechanisms of deception of Haywood’s female rake (along with Behn’s as well, though Miranda’s skillful letters are not provided) is her ability to all too easily craft deceitful letters of courtship to her male object, which seems to, in a way, further highlight women’s literary skills, thus accentuating women’s abilities and indirectly authorizing women’s writing. This letter-writing serves as a means of seduction, but also offers a certain agency to Fantomina through the concealment of her true self, while the back and forth literary exchange between man and woman depicts a woman’s equal ability for adept artifice, to write not just an outpouring of passionate ramblings, but as part of a premeditated strategy to achieve her aims. Moreover, like her letters, Fantomina’s continual façade made up of distinctive wardrobes, disguises, and personas convey and celebrate a specifically feminine artistry and cunning. For instance, when dressed as Incognita, Fantomina cleverly hides her face so as to conceal her true identity, and when Beauplaisir confidently attempts to catch the sight of her by the morning light, she is already one step ahead, having “taken care to blind the Windows in such a manner, that not the least Chink was left to let in day” (Haywood 245). Through moments such as these, Haywood illustrates Fantomina as having the supreme control and foreknowledge in each sexual interaction with Beauplaisir, reversing this trope of male domination and thus, in a way, undermining the domineering masculine control of traditional Early Modern courtship. Through her endeavors to stay on equal footing with Beauplaisir by this constant recreation of self, each new persona subsequently allows Fantomina a new freedom, an agency otherwise denied of women, and allows Haywood to boldly explore this realm of the desirous female, while also exploiting the gendered hypocrisies regarding male/ female conduct inbuilt and ingrained within Fantomina’s society. “O that all neglected wives, and fond abandoned nymphs would take this method!” she proclaims, “Men would be caught in their own snare, and have no cause to scorn our easy, weeping, wailing sex!” (251). In an era where women’s virtue was revered and advocated to the most stringent degree, Haywood offers her female character and female reader instead—however short-lived— a sense of female agency, expression, and insight into a male dominated realm, and through Fantomina’s astute trickery, overturns the perception of women as incapable of being anything but the innocent, submissive sexual conquest.

Despite the agency and cunning both Haywood and Behn seem to be attributing to their female protagonists, the query lingers as to why, then, both female characters are eventually caught in their own web of transgressions – in other words, why must the female rake fall? While it is true that each writer’s female protagonists do suffer consequences as a result of their “licentious” behavior, I’d like to suggest that this is not an ultimate condemnation or denunciation of desiring women, but rather another key avenue in underscoring hypocritical gendered codes of conduct, as well as a necessary literary stratagem to enable their work to be published and circulated in the print marketplace. Both Haywood and Behn’s characters have fleeting experiences with being able to act upon their sexual desires, as within their society, the “wanton” sexual desire of the woman was seen as necessarily needing containment and eventual restriction in order to uphold the moral principles of Early Modern culture. Yet, Behn and Haywood handle this obligatory entrenchment of their characters back into the reality of female expectations in subtly ingenious ways: for instance, Miranda is guilty of countless morally reprehensible acts, but is not imprisoned or put to death like the males involved, and gets to live the rest of her life in relative comfort and leisure in Holland. As libertine men were rarely denounced or punished for their wrongdoings, free to act however they pleased, the conclusion to “The Fair Jilt” delivers its protagonist a realistic, didactic end, but doesn’t make her suffer anything too severe or extreme, allowing Miranda to perhaps retain a sense of the liberation enjoyed by innumerable male libertines. Haywood’s ending is not quite as forgiving: Fantomina ultimately gets pregnant, goes into labor publicly, and is sent to spend the rest of her days in a convent.

This ending could be read as a moralizing conclusion of Fantomina’s lewdness, but could alternatively be interpreted as a biting, stark depiction of the circumstances and reality of the female rake, whose biological make-up and societal expectations of innocence and decency made it nearly impossible for her to get away with the kinds of sensuous folly men could heedlessly enjoy and indulge. Therefore, the necessary fall of the female rake in both Behn and Haywood’s fictions represents an endeavor for female authors to still be publishable while attempting to navigate the realm of female sexuality and taking this delicate, censured private notion into public life. While the actuality of the female rake might not be entirely plausible, her presence in literature nonetheless enabled readers to ascertain a new feminocentric perspective in literature, exposed societal gendered hypocrisies, and, in turn, allowed women “a sense of involvement in the outside world—which for all its dangers and disappointments, had great advantages over restrictive domesticity” (Bowers 62).

Ultimately, by inverting the roles of men and women in amatory fictions, both Behn and Haywood were instrumental in opening up a space in literature for the desiring female perspective to be acknowledged and signified. Rather than creating a new kind of female sensuality, however, Behn and Haywood invert the typical aggressive predator-prey structure and power dynamic of Early Modern patriarchal courtship through the “female rake” in order emphasize the craft and wit of the female individual, but dually call awareness and perhaps critique to the double standards of moral behavior expected by men and women in love. In this way, both Fantomina and Miranda embody the notion of the female rake, a characterization that touches upon the gender codes and politics of Early Modern fiction and attempts to work through the double bind of Eros that amatory fiction put young women in. As Bowers contends, the proper approach to works such as these, thus, is not to judge them by a “good” or “bad” literary standard, or whether they are worthy of the literary canon, but instead to ask “how our capacity for pleasure might be augmented by respectful engagement with works we have been trained to resist or dismiss” (70). By refusing to downplay the lustful aspects of love in both sexes, intrepidly prescribing these sensuous passions to women as well, these authors have often been scandalized, villainized, and criticized—both in the past and present. Yet, their powerful insights into the perspective of the desiring, loving female subject have helped pave the way for other female writers to describe the realistic, uncensored experience of the female in love, in lust, and in life. This leaves a powerful legacy in women’s literature and in culture, as their “bad” characters are able to find autonomy in their “nastiness,” to reclaim certain roles otherwise limited to them and subsequently empower themselves and women’s writing. Thus, much like Behn herself, these characters find power in owning their sexuality, their stereotypes, and their “masculine” parts – most prominently, the pen.

3. The Nasty Woman Of Modernity: Virginia Woolf


“The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?” – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

In this final section is a turn to the Modern period, in which prolific modernist author Virginia Woolf [1882-1941] helped illuminate the farcical illusion of women’s equality in modernity and dually emphasizes the female experience within the realm of literature. In the 1920’s, while suffrage movements and the age of the “New Woman” did help progress women’s rights, and allowed women perhaps more freedoms than ever before, certain damaging patriarchal norms and ideologies remained firmly engrained in Western culture. Particularly, Woolf’s work A Room of One’s Own was a revolutionary feminist milestone, as it eloquently articulated the circumstances of the modern woman when faced with misogynistic discourse.

Like Pizan, the wording of the title of her work is particularly invocative of her forthcoming denunciation of patriarchal values and ideologies since, as literary critic Jane Goldman points out, the title “not only signifies the declaration of political and cultural space for women, private and public, but the intrusion of women into spaces previously considered the spheres of men” (75). Moreover, this “room” seems to stand as an underlying metaphor for a space, a shelter, for women’s self-expression, but also as a space in which women could cultivate their own identity, and ways of writing separate from the typical, traditional modes of the man –

which Woolf was incredibly instrumental within her fictional career, employing such methods as free indirect discourse, etc. As Goldman argues, women have had little to do with the ways in which gendered roles have been divided in society, as even the “category of women is not chosen by women” and “it represents the space in patriarchy from which women must speak and which they struggle to redefine” (78). Woolf’s chief aims as a “nasty” woman in writing A Room of One’s Own seem to be to find a voice of her own in the literary world, to advocate for women’s ingenuity and creativeness and explain women’s seemingly inferior triumphs, and to express the need for a literary language “appropriate for women to use when writing about women” in order to carve out a space for women’s expression (78). Thus, as Woolf reflects on both women’s continual oppression in both the past and present, she seems to tie together many of the ideas in the works previously discussed in this paper, while leaving lasting, powerful sentiments of her own.

Woolf ultimately argues that the vastly different and unequal circumstances and expectations of women throughout history have inhibited women’s ability to write, even if they possessed the genius to do so. Woolf dually makes a powerful point about the institutionalized patriarchal codes that are threaded throughout our society, and how gender norms hinder a woman’s ability to participate or reach her full or greatest potential. One of the most moving parts of her essay is when she speaks about how men believe that if they proclaim something, it must be so, sarcastically proclaiming, “How much thinking those old gentlemen used to save one! How the borders of ignorance shrank back at their approach! Cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare” (Woolf 46). She then ingeniously approaches this claim by discussing the idea propagated by men that women do not have the abilities to write such grand works as Shakespeare (yet mentions in previous paragraphs, too, the paradox of women’s relationship to literature, as they are represented as highly central within the text itself, yet cast aside in reality as “insignificant”), revealing the domineering patriarchal perception of male authority and control within society, and thus reflected in literature. While the more common argument of the period was that there was no real women’s literary history or wholly impressive works by women merely because of their intrinsically inferior creative capabilities, Woolf takes the contrary stance. Rather, “it would have been impossible” for women’s work to rival men’s achievements, she purports, not because they were lacking in the potential, but because they were not afforded any of the same advantages, education, etc., as women were merely expected to marry and bear children throughout history (56). To demonstrate this, she cites the lack of diverse characters women have played in the literature of men as part of the reason women have been oppressed from reaching such literary acclamation: “Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them; how literature would suffer! We might perhaps have most of Othello; and a good deal of Antony; but no Caesar, no Brutus, no Hamlet, no Lear, no Jaques—literature would be incredibly impoverished, as indeed literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women” (62).

This exclusion of women from certain roles, particularly spheres of higher knowledge, are highlighted throughout Woolf’s work, and she skillfully interweaves the anguish and struggle women of prior periods could have felt –precisely because there is a lack of facts to rely on to build a different narrative—and stresses how these constructed codes of women’s inferiority would have been eventually internalized by women as well, damaging and oppressing even the most brilliant women throughout history. This is exemplified in her example of Shakespeare’s sister “Judith,” who she describes could have been just as talented in writing as Shakespeare, yet because she was a woman, never could have reached the acclaim of her brother and thus died in obscurity. Judith stands for the “silenced woman writer or artist,” yet is dually “a figure who represents the possibility that there will one day be a woman writer to match the status of Shakespeare, who has come to personify literature itself” (Goldman 78). Therefore, she is the embodiment of the struggles of women’s writers in the past, but also stands as a testament to the hope for women’s writers in the future.

Woolf’s overarching, repeated solution to rebutting the patriarchal codes of her society is through women’s education, specifically through literature. She describes the infuriating persistence of men to keep education out of women’s reach, explaining, “Possibly, when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. That was what he was protecting rather hot-headedly and with too much emphasis, because it was a jewel to him of the rarest price” (33). She rebuts this sexist monopoly on knowledge by declaring emphatically the right for all human beings to learn, to read, to write, and to create—as these things are fundamental and individual entirely to the human experience. “Literature is open to everybody,” she declares, “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt, that you can set upon the freedom of my mind” (28). Woolf believed that education was the key tool to success—so long as women were so staunchly denied this, as her fictional character was denied entry into Oxbridge’s library in the text, so long would women be held back from their greatest achievements.

Woolf herself was exactly the educated, fierce, intelligent, and wealthy woman that misogynists feared most, precisely because she had her own means and her own wits, thus taking these stereotypes of women who protest men as being “bad women” and using them to empower women’s voices. Once a woman is educated, she believed, she must have then certain basic tools in order to thrive: “money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (21). Woolf’s claims emphasize how women were routinely bound to the inferiority prescribed to them by men precisely because they had little opportunity or authority to challenge or rectify their situations, in which they were typically legally and financially obliged to their husbands or fathers, and thus denied such basic freedoms. These revolutionary assertions by Woolf ultimately recast the accomplishments of women in a more frank, yet more positive light, as it called attention to the notion that women had been confined in their intellect, and thus, in their potential, and consequently by no fault of their own were limited in the scope and quality of their success. Woolf proves with her own work of fiction, A Room of One’s Own, that women could write with stunning eloquence and adroitness, thus adding her voice to these other “nasty” women that have contested this misogynistic culture in society, (re)claiming a space and a language for women in literary culture, and assisting in redefining and building women’s literary tradition.

4. Conclusions: Time’s Up, Misogyny

“Feminism isn’t about making women strong. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” – G.D. Anderson

Ultimately, the primary question remains: how do we as advocates of and for women fight misogyny in the “Trump and Weinstein” era, a period in which misogyny seems to be becoming more normalized and circulated by powerful men than objected to and denied? By looking at these texts, I believe that the common thread of thought among all these equally “nasty” women is that women’s most powerful weapon against misogyny is language, and how she can use it to her advantage. This skillful use of language to counter misogynistic attacks, to reclaim men’s slurs against women into powerful agents, or by redefining the very social mores and codes that limit our potentials and abilities comes from necessarily educating women. Educating people delivers them from the servitude of ignorance and engenders progress, allowing them to perceive the world in new ways and empathize with one another, while literature specifically allows one to put their mind in relation with and to another human beings’. Thus, women’s ability to tell and write their stories, to voice their opinions and beliefs in logical and articulate ways, to renegotiate the gender contracts of our culture and to enter into these conversations with men who attempt to silence and belittle women into submission requires that women have a working knowledge of the rhetoric that confines them. Through the written word, through creation, through imagination, through oratory storytelling, etc. women can pave new pathways and ideologies to further advance women’s literature and women’s equality.

Each of the texts explored in this paper—the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, The Book of the City of Ladies, “The Introduction,” “Preface to “The Lucky Chance,” “The Fair Jilt,” Fantomina, and A Room of One’s Own –directly internalize, reinterpret, and then interact with language and formulate responses to misogynistic literature, stereotypes, and expectations, creating a powerful conglomeration of women’s voices each using similar, though often different and profoundly unique, techniques to achieve the same ends – that is, reclaiming women’s agency, reappropriating defamatory and maliciously intended labels to be emboldening and enlightening, and redefining women’s history and women’s place in literary culture. By continuing to educate women, we can provide them the creativity and the ability to imagine new truths for themselves, new realities, and new ways of defending themselves through the very rhetoric that attempts to imprison them. Thus, women can fashion new opportunities for themselves, along with new visions of better and more egalitarian lives. In this way, we can hopefully prompt a culture of tolerance and equality rather than a culture that validates the oppression of women’s voices, that hates, shames, violates, and harms women, and that turns a blind eye to the struggles of countless women around the world. As Oprah Winfrey exquisitely put it in her 2018 speech at the Golden Globes while discussing the “#TimesUp” movement, “I want all of the girls… to know, that a new day is on the horizon. And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because of a lot of magnificent women… fighting hard to make sure that they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say ‘me too’ again.” Therefore, by educating women—and all people—about how to define misogyny, how to identify it, and how to not only cope with but actively combat it, the “nasty” women of contemporary culture can continue to wear this name proudly, as they will triumph over the imposing male intimidators that threaten to drown them out.

Did you hear that, misogyny?

Looks like your time is just about up.  


PDF Version



Behn, Aphra. “The Fair Jilt.” Oroonoko, The Rover, and Other Works. Edited by Janet Maclean Todd, Penguin, 2003, pp. 27-71.

Behn, Aphra “The Lucky Chance, or, The Alderman’s Bargain.” Edited by Fidelis Morgan. Methuen in association with the Royal Court Theatre London, 1984.

Bloch, R. Howard. “Medieval Misogyny.” Representations, vol. 20, 1987, pp. 1–24.

Bowers, Toni O’Shaughnessy. “Sex, Lies, and Invisibility: Amatory Fiction from the Restoration to Mid- Century.” The Columbia History of the British Novel. Edited by John Richetti. Columbia University Press, 1994, pp. 50-72.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. Chaucer: The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale: An Interlinear Translation.” Edited by L.D. Benson, 8 Apr. 2008, https://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/teachslf/wbt-par.htm. Accessed 26 Nov 2017.

Finch, Anne, Countess of Winchilsea. “The Introduction.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/50564/the-introduction. Accessed 2 June 2018.

Haywood, Eliza. “Fantomina, or, Love in a Maze.” Popular Fiction by Women, 1660-1730. Edited by Paula Backschider and John Richetti, 1996, pp. 42-50.  

Lozada, Carlos. “How to Define, Survive and Fight Misogyny in the Trump and Weinstein Era,” The Washington Post, 1 Dec. 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/book-party/wp/2017/12/01/how-to-define-survive-and-fight-misogyny-in-the-trump-and-weinstein-era/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ffd537a9c0fe. Accessed 2 June 2018.

McTaggart, Anne. “What Women Want? Mimesis and Gender in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, vol. 19, 2012, pp. 41-67.

OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 26 September 2017.

De Pizan, Christine. The Book of the City of Ladies. Translated by Earl Jeffrey Richards, Foreword by Marina Warner. Persea Books, 1982.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. “Medieval Feminist Criticism.” A History of Feminist Literary Criticism. Edited by Gill Plain and Susan Sellers, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Goldman, Jane. “The Feminist Criticism of Virginia Woolf.” A History of Feminist Literary Criticism. Edited by Gill Plain and Susan Seller, Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Treharne, Elaine. “The Stereotype Confirmed? Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.” Essays and Studies, 2002: Writing Gender and Genre in Medieval Literature: Approaches to Old and Middle English Texts, edited by Elaine Treharne and Greg Walker. D. S. Brewer, 2002, pp. 93-115.

Woolf, Virginia. Women & Fiction: The Manuscript Versions of A Room of One’s Own. Edited by S. P. Rosenbaum. Published for the Shakespeare Head Press by Blackwell Publishers, 1992.

The “Borderland”: Representing the “Third Realm” of Auschwitz in Literature and Understanding Trauma, Realism, and Modernity in the Concentrationary Universe

By Mirabella McDowell

“Sometimes I am asked if I know ‘the response’ to Auschwitz; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t even know if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response.”—Elie Wiesel


In his insightful essay “Realism in the Concentrationary Universe,” Michael Rothberg astutely references Hannah Arendt’s notion of the “banality of evil,” which proposes, “that catastrophic events are generated from within a matrix of the everyday, and thus the extremity is just a particularly volatile mixture of quotidian elements” (117).[1] This profound concept encapsulates the monumental task authors, educators, philosophers, etc. are faced with in contemporary society when both confronting and representing the Holocaust, or “Shoah,” the inconceivable genocide and “relapse into barbarism” that has defined the 20th century and on (Adorno, “Education After Auschwitz” 191). The challenge arises from the notion that “the concentrationary universe emerges as a contradictory phenomenon,” a Modernist project of unparalleled savagery and “universal coldness” unfolding in a time in which modern innovation, efficiency, technology, and essentially “civilization” was at a peak (Adorno 203; Rothberg “Realism” 116). Subsequently, the allegory of Auschwitz poses precisely the paradoxical conundrum that challenges the realm of typical modern literary representations and “genres” suitable for the “Concentrationary Universe”: on the one hand, “it is a place beyond the bounds of normality where ‘everything is possible’” and is an “experience impossible to communicate,” yet “those very extreme qualities reveal a sheer fact of the living, in itself, brutal, entirely stripped of all superstructures” (Rothberg 116). Thus, the Holocaust necessarily requires new modes of representation apart from traditional realist methods.

Two of the most well known Auschwitz survivors and prolific Holocaust writers, Charlotte Delbo and Primo Levi, are able to answer this call for new representation by inventing new forms “of narration to capture the trauma of genocide” (Rothberg, “Unbearable Witness” 114). In this paper, I will concentrate on Charlotte Delbo’s gripping survivor account Auschwitz and After and suggest that this novel ties together all of the aforementioned ideas: that it is precisely this “banality of evil” that Delbo (and Levi) struggles to express that consequently embodies the idea of traumatic modernity through constant repetition of ideas, thoughts, and events, ultimately signifying this return to and reopening of “the wound.” Furthermore, Delbo’s testimony demonstrates an example of “traumatic realism” in that it “seeks to produce a new understanding of history and a new vision of community by… disrupting the fetishized separation of the everyday and the extreme, the individual and history, then and now” (Rothberg, “Unbearable Witness” 145). I will further argue that while Delbo defies Adorno’s notion that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” by providing a unique amalgam of poetry and prose that allows her to “freeze [the] horror,” her intended purpose of “they must be made to see” links her work back to Adorno with the primary concern of educating people after Auschwitz and making sure Auschwitz never happens again, raising the stakes of her work to be both “epistemological and pedagogical” and elevating her memoir to be of the utmost importance (Langer x; Rothberg, “Realism” 103). Ultimately, through the use of melodic repetitions, metaphorical language, and poetic prose, Delbo “invites us to see the unthinkable,” utilizing techniques that capture images of this borderland of bare life and of the homo sacer that epitomize this paradoxical third realm that distinguishes and defines the horror of the “Concentrationary Universe” (Langer xvii).

One of the most prominent techniques Delbo employs throughout her work is that of constant repetition of words and phrases, which reflects the idea that most, if not all, representations of the Holocaust have a traumatic structure, trauma being defined as “an event in the subject’s life defined by it’s intensity, by the subject’s incapacity to respond adequately to it, and by the upheaval and long-lasting effects that it brings about in the psychical organization” (Laplanche, “Trauma” 465). As Rothberg confirms, “There is no gradual developmental progress in the working through of genocide,” and claims, “post-Holocaust history has a traumatic structure—it is repetitive, discontinuous, and characterized by obsessive returns to the past and the troubling of simple chronology” (“Modernism After Auschwitz”19). In accordance with these ideas, in her section titled “Thirst,” Delbo delves into the “obsession to drink,” and portrays the overwhelming, innate, and animalistic instincts that take control of a person who has been deprived of basic human needs (Delbo 71). “The thirst of the marsh is more searing than that of the desert” she contends, using a metaphorical description to evoke this feeling of the extreme condition that normal representation fails to convey, noting that while “reason is able to overcome most everything, it succumbs to thirst” (this type of metaphorical language is similarly crucial in Levi’s novel) (Delbo 70). While thirst is considered something commonplace, perhaps something we wouldn’t immediately recognize or acknowledge as a sensation potentially manipulated for torture or control, it is this deficiency of primal human necessities such as warmth, food, and rest that Delbo returns to over and over and indicates to be the cause of the “death” of her consciousness and humanity in the camps.

Likewise, this mechanism of producing musilmen, or as Levi puts it, “the drowned” or “the men in decay,” is precisely how the Nazis thrived, through this prolongment of their power by bringing prisoners to the edge of the “abyss” but not allowing them the solace, or perhaps the dignity, of death, as death would hinder the Nazis in exercising their supremacy (Levi 89). This means of absolute power, of willfully and knowingly reducing human life and consciousness to nearly nothing, exemplifies, too, Adorno’s notion of the “coldness,” the complete disregard for human life in favor of self-interest and reward from the institution (“Education” 203). “Reason no longer exercises control” Delbo repeats in an empty, detached voice, “Thirst. Am I breathing? I’m thirsty. It is colder, or less cold, I cannot feel it” (Delbo 71). This aching, powerful repetition demonstrates Delbo’s inability to abreact and “liberate” herself from the trauma, trauma which remains within her “like a foreign body,” as she returns over and over to “the thirst of the morning and the thirst of the day,” “the thirst of the day and the thirst of the evening” (Delbo 73, 74). Moreover, the everyday sensation of thirst when stretched to its utmost limits, a sensation so insurmountable it causes her “willpower to collapse” and for her to be reduced to “the full awareness of the state of being dead,” demonstrates the triumph of total power over the human being by the Nazis (Delbo 70). Levi generates this idea in Survival in Auschwitz as well, describing “an emaciated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen” engendering this image in which Delbo more indirectly, though just as effectively, describes through her “aesthetics of agitation” (Levi 90; Langer xvi). These ideas encapsulate the reproduction of a new type of modernist “society” within the camps themselves, with their own regulated power dynamic and systemized procedures that were meant strictly to oppress and dehumanize the prisoners, a mass example of reification. The ironic, ambiguous simplicity of the titles of each section—“Morning,” “Roll Call,” and “The Next Day,” for instance—are examples of synecdoche, of parts that represent the whole, and function in such a way that once again combines the ordinariness of routine, order, and the familiar with the extreme terror and torment each word conjures within the realm of Auschwitz (which is itself a synecdoche). Thus, Delbo’s intricate work, in its rethinking of space and time, not only “marks the invasion of modernism by trauma… by returning again and again to the space of the concentration camp” but displays the traumatized discourse of the survivor, reflecting the overall traumatic structure of both modernity and realism by bringing together the notions of the “everyday” and the “extreme” in Auschwitz (Rothberg, “Modernism” 21).

However, Adorno raises the idea that poetry, and by extension artistic production, is barbaric after Auschwitz because to represent something as momentous as the Holocaust with this type of language would, in some way, validate the culture that produced it; as George Steiner reflects of the “status of poetry and language” after Auschwitz, “We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning” (Rothberg, “After Adorno,” 31). Yet, Delbo resists and refutes this idea by writing in a poetic prose that fundamentally “seeks visual images equivalent to the rhythmic phrases of sound” in order to “challenge our ability and willingness to see,” which enriches and enhances our understanding of the severity and paradox of Auschwitz (Langer xvii). A particularly poignant example of the ability of Delbo’s poetry to inimitably allow us to gain access to the inconceivable, and of expressing ideas of trauma and constant repetition, is found within one of Delbo’s poems in Useless Knowledge, which presents the lines:

“As far as I’m concerned

I’m still there

Dying there

A little more each day

Dying over again

The death of those who died” (Delbo 204).

This concept of continuously undergoing the process of dying, even after the victim has been displaced from the site of trauma, again represents an inability to abreact. Moreover, the juxtaposition of past and present in the poem leaves us in this “third realm” once again of living and dying, of being both dead and alive simultaneously and remaining in this “borderland” despite being physically freed. Through her broken, unpunctuated sentences that appear throughout the text, Delbo mirrors the experience of struggling to articulate her “deep memory” through “a genre of discourse” that exposes “the naked self divested of its heroic garments, a self cold, filthy, gaunt, the victim of unbearable pain” (Langer xiii). This irreparable brokenness and the idea of being the homo sacer, the individual “who can be killed but not sacrificed… because they’re defined as outside the recognized terrain of valued life,” are revisited again and again, causing the reader to catch a glimpse of “the unimaginable anguish leading to this death” (Agamben “In Theory”; Langer xiv). “I thought of nothing” she states, “the will to resist was doubtlessly buried in some deep, hidden spring which is now broken, I will never know,” a statement signifying the profound pain she endured that caused this traumatic break in her psyche, and therefore, a need for a new way of describing her post-Holocaust consciousness (Delbo 64). This capacity to allow the reader to see this individualistic memory and history of the Holocaust through imagery created by diction and form, yet to depict an alternate reality so corrupt and barbaric it is nearly unimaginable, embodies the idea of traumatic realism. Delbo thus unifies the individual and history as interconnected rather than separate, but also implicates the reader as a part of this history too, a history that is continually unfurling and whose importance lives on. Likewise, because in Delbo’s work, the “category of reality that it seeks to register and produce demands an alternate account of the relationship between writer, reader, and the event,” and there is “an attempt to produce the traumatic event as an object of knowledge and to program and thus transform its readers so that they are forced to acknowledge their relationship to posttraumatic culture,” her lyrical prose can be considered a form of traumatic realism (Rothberg, “Realism” 103). Thus, Delbo’s employment of stylistic amenities, such as anaphora, metaphor, and fragmentary language within her poetic prose serve to further illustrate her experiences with the atrocities of Auschwitz through this lens of traumatic realism, for Delbo “understood that before one could speak of the renewal of the human image after Auschwitz, one had to crystallize its disfigured form and the horror that had defaced it” (Langer xvi).

Finally, Delbo’s novel should undeniably be considered important for educating people after Auschwitz because it serves as a constant reminder of what has been, and what must never be again. Just as Theodor Adorno begins his critical essay “Education After Auschwitz” with the words, “The premier demand upon all education is that Auschwitz not happen again,” Delbo’s book “reminds us that the Auschwitz past is not really past and never will be,” imploring us to explore the causes of the event so that we may prevent them from ever happening again (Adorno 191; Langer xi). As a representation of the Holocaust, Delbo’s work embodies ideas of reification, repression, and the ideal of being “hard” mentioned in Adorno that contributed to this wound in modernity. Through its chillingly beautiful style and language, Delbo’s novel leaves a deep impression on the reader, constructing their historical imaginary and constituting the basis of their knowledge of what the Holocaust really means, and to whom. Therefore, by reading Delbo and understanding the Holocaust’s overwhelming effect upon modern culture, we can gain an astounding new perspective, avert any future existence of this “third realm” of bare human life, and use the past as a foundation to constantly be redeeming and bettering ourselves from so that the atrocity of the Holocaust is not for nothing—as Levi puts it, these stories of survival can become “stories for a new bible” (Levi 64).

Ultimately, Delbo’s representation of the Holocaust eloquently and articulately forces readers to directly confront the horrors, sorrows, and sufferings of life in Auschwitz and within the Concentrationary Universe. Through her painful repetitions, striking use of figurative language, and seemingly contradictory yet seamless utilization of prose and poetry, Delbo encapsulates the paradoxical nature of the Holocaust as the joining of the most banal with the most extreme, consequently reflecting both of the notions of traumatic modernity and traumatic realism. As Rothberg reminds us, “it was the combination of growing potency of means and the unconstrained determination to use it in the service of an artificial designed order, that gave human cruelty its distinctly modern touch and made [Auschwitz] possible, perhaps even unavoidable” (Modernism After Auschwitz, 21). Yet, Delbo’s memoir serves as a beacon of potential hope for the future, and as a consistent aide-mémoire for “those who came after her [who] might prefer not to think about it at all” (Langer xi). Thus, Delbo’s account demonstrates that there is no definitive, “right” way to represent or respond to the Holocaust, but that, in some way or another, it is critical that every work portray the notion that “Auschwitz should never happen again” (Adorno 203).



[1] Rothberg, Michael. “Chapter 4: Unbearable Witness—Charlotte Delbo’s Traumatic Timescapes.” Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation. 144.


Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. “Education After Auschwitz,” Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford. Columbia University Press, 1967.

Agamben, Giorgio. “In Theory: The State and the Concentration Camp.” Ceasefire Magazine RSS, 7 Jan. 2011, ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-giorgio-agamben-the-state-and-the-concentration-camp/. Accessed 2 June 2016.

Delbo, Charlotte, Rosette C. Lamont, and Lawrence L. Langer. Auschwitz and After. Yale University Press, 1995.

Laplanche, Jean, Pontalis, J.B. “Trauma.” The Language of Psychoanalysis. WW Norton & Co, 1973.

Levi, Primo, S. J. Woolf, and Philip Roth. Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Rothberg, Michael. “After Adorno.” Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation. University of Minneapolis Press, 2000.

–. “Modernism After Auschwitz.” Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation. University of Minneapolis Press, 2000.

–. “Realism in the Concentrationary Universe.” Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation. University of Minneapolis Press, 2000.

–. “Unbearable Witness: Charlotte Delbo’s Traumatic Timescapes.” Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation. University of Minneapolis Press, 2000.


The House Settling: Race, Housing, and Wealth in the Post-Recession Horror Film

By Juan Valencia

I. The Psychoanalysis of Colorblindness

Beginning in 2009, horror films underwent a major thematic shift with the popularization of the “haunted house” subgenre. These new films attracted American audiences very much familiar with the threat of home loss. Around the time of the 2009 wide release of Paranormal Activity, at least 6.9 million American households with subprime loans faced impossible-to-pay charges. Approximately 2 million households were projected to be lost, the numbers increasing each year thereafter (Ernst & Goldstein 273). The instability of homeownership was horrifyingly palpable, and on the screen, these fears were projected with an unsettling familiarity. In the haunted house film, typically white, perceptively middle-class couples and families live comfortably in their affluent, pristine suburban homes. Such stability is soon threatened by a demonic entity which seeks to rob them of their peace, or, often, a family member. The wife and sons are typically the main targets. The mass appeal of the subgenre in America experiences a boom after the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, which soon evolved into the historic Great Recession. The Blumhouse film production company took the lead on the reproduction of this subgenre, releasing 16 haunted house films between 2009 and 2016, many becoming significant box office successes. The Paranormal Activity (2009-2015) and Insidious (2010-present) franchises raked most of the revenue.

The horror film’s adaptability to this nationwide crisis makes it a reactionary genre: writers and directors perceive what people fear, and work to embody that fear into the celluloid. Horror films about the loss of the home seem a logical result of the nationwide crisis regarding housing. The very nature of this anxiety about the house however, raises many questions as to what affective responses this horror subgenre incites in its audiences. As Robin Wood writes in “the American Nightmare,” the horror genre is “the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses, its reemergence dramatized, as in our nightmares, as an object of horror, a matter for terror” (75t). The social machination of repression, which is to restrain and hide desires and fears in the unconscious, is a process that the horror film labors to undo. What repressed anxieties and fears, then, are embedded in the American collective unconscious regarding the threat to the house being portrayed in these films?

Borrowing from Wood, I go beyond the surface-level of a reactionary reading regarding the haunted house subgenre as a simple iteration of the subprime mortgage crisis. Instead, I argue that taking the elements of the subgenre and analyzing them against the backdrop of U.S. housing history and legislation reveals the deep-rooted racism, classism and narratives of segregation and redlining embedded in the symbol of the house. Demonic presences in these films always appear as disrupting home comfort and stability, and are always represented as black, looming figures. Demons are thus affectively-charged iterations of a threat to the American home. Based on this, I assert that the true horrific subject matter explored in these films is that of contemporary American, fear-imbued colorist divisions around housing. This will be a symptomatic reading of the subgenre’s components as telling revelations of something much more monstrous lurking beneath the surface. As David Cronenberg states, horror filmmakers undergo the process of reaching into the “dark pool of the unconscious” to see the reemergence of a repressed monstrosity (Cherry 98). His description is an especially salient one when it comes to the analysis of the American haunted house films I will be undertaking, in which this “darkness” becomes all too literal.

To demonstrate the complex relationship between anxiety, desire, fear, race, and housing in America, I turn to concepts of colorblindness and the discipline of psychoanalysis. Colorblindness, defined by Richard Bonilla-Silva, is a contemporary cultural understanding in which “most whites assert ‘they don’t see any color, just people’; that although the ugly face of discrimination is still with us, it is no longer the central factor determining minorities’ life chances” (1). I therefore oppose this “colorblindness,” which in relation to the haunted house subgenre, is an assertion of blindness to the deeply racist history of discrimination, segregation and racist language involved in the very construction of the American home. In other words, I seek to undo Oliver and Shapiro’s perception that “class perspectives usually wash away any reference to race” (37). In my analysis, class and wealth are the most revealing factors that point to lingering racial inequality. If the “house with the white picket fence” is evocative of the American dream, the foundation upon which it is built is evocative of a true “American nightmare.” If we understand that “racial considerations shade almost everything in America (Bonilla-Silva 1), and that this shading is repressed, hidden, or ghost-like, we must look towards a non-colorblind language that allows us to unveil these American ghosts present in history and in the mind of every citizen, whether acknowledged or not.

I also turn to psychoanalysis and affect studies to describe the racial feelings motivating the political forces of discrimination. Psychoanalysis will be important to understanding how American history and legislation are embedded with symptoms of fear and anxiety, as critic Paula Ioanide claims that “the terrain of politics depends primarily on triggering and shaping affectively charged beliefs” (180). The horror genre itself, like Ioanide’s analysis of politics, also operates in evocations of affect, particularly those of fear and terror. Frantz Fanon’s own formulations on blackness as a “phobogenic object” that produces anxiety around the concept of whiteness (129-130) will prove useful in approaching the affect found in racialized housing legislation. I argue that racist beliefs constructed by redlining and moral panic regarding the home portray blackness as a monstrous threat to white homeownership, and by extent, stability, and comfort

Throughout this argument, I analyze the highest-grossing and most critically well-received Blumhouse haunted house films from 2009 to 2014: Paranormal Activity (2009), Paranormal Activity 2 (2010), Insidious (2011), Sinister (2012), and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014). Having raked in the most revenue and having had the most positive reception among audiences and critics, these films are an accurate sampling of the major exposures of haunted house film conventions America had during this time. Section 1, “This Is Your House: Housing and Wealth in the Haunted House Film,” analyzes the concepts of homecoming, wealth, and property, which are in full display in the setup of these films, and their relation to white racial identity. Section 2, “A Shadowy Figure: Racialized Demons in the House,” concerns the racist formulations around housing, such as redlining, moral panic, and subprime mortgage, in relation to the demonic forces threatening white stability in the films, also paying attention to actual, racist depictions of minorities in the genre. Section 3, “It Wants Your Children: How White Innocence Breeds Black Monstrosity,” explores the symbolic meaning of women and children in these films, both in terms of the reproduction and transferring of wealth, as well as affective symbols that construct white innocence. I will also look at the relationship between the victims and the attackers as an evocation of a monstrous, racial blackness and its threatening force against the idealized suburban, white home space. The fourth and final section, “Beyond the White Picket Fence: White Monstrosity as Subversive Horror,” turns to more recent horror films and their attempts to stray away from the formulaic haunted house film. These films contain a much more subversive take on cultural fears and anxieties based on the house, and prove horror film’s prowess as a critical force. They pose the question: What would it mean to depict whiteness as the true American monster?

This analysis is important in questioning the problematic notion that race and fear are intrinsically tied, in even the most quotidian aspects of our lives. By coming to understand the source of these fears, we can also come to understand how the dichotomy of good vs. evil, in the American sense, is only another iteration of the oppressive structures of racism.

II. This Is Your House: Housing and Wealth in the Haunted House Film

The revamped reproduction of the haunted house subgenre in the late 2000’s is best illustrated, thematically, as a retreat into the home, away from the outside. Previously, the horror film genre privileged the reproduction of “torture porn,” dominant during the earlier half of the decade. Films like Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), and the Devil’s Rejects (2005) were often seen as a reactionary genre in the wake of 9/11, dealing with subjects relating to public sphere. As Alexandra Heller-Nicholas observes, the genre shifted, beginning with the release of Paranormal Activity in 2009, away from films “linked to post-9/11 America and the supposed ‘War on Terror’” (130). If what scared us during the early 2000’s was international conflict, terrorism, and war, as represented in torture porn through hyperviolence and foreign villains, the beginning of the massive reproduction of fears imbued in the home space in the later part of the decade is telling of the calamitous social and emotional impact the Subprime Mortgage Crisis and the subsequent economic recession had on the American public. Film audience and production trends alone reflect this massive shift. Before, American haunted house films received rather sporadic releases, with the Amityville Horror (1979) and Poltergeist (1982) being the only ones matching the late 2000s films in terms of financial success, and 1999’s remake of the Haunting, although financially successful, is more infamous now for being critically panned. Post-2009, however, haunted house films became the norm in the United States, and among the best-reviewed horror films ever.

The popularized conception of anxiety over the home space through the haunted house film is telling of the massive amount of economic, social, and emotional investment that the U.S. has historically placed on homeownership and the conception of the American dream. Issues around the home space are as emotionally potent as those of terrorism and war, as American horror film audiences are telling of. Analyzing the American history of homeownership reveals that a threat to the house, as the Subprime Mortgage Crisis was, for the American public means a threat to the very essence of American identity. We must examine, however, how this value of the home in turn displays an exclusively middle-class, white, heteronormative American identity, and how these anxieties affectively resonate with an American identity fixated on consumer goods, wealth, and property to an obsessive degree.

Homecoming, and by extension the concept of homeownership, is always expressed in the opening sequence of the post-recession haunted house film. These opening sequences right away stress the importance which the house represents for our main characters. Paranormal Activity (dir. Oren Peli, 2009) is a film centered on a white, perceptively middle-class couple experiencing increasingly violent supernatural attacks in their suburban San Diego home. Before such paranormal attacks take place, however, the film opens with the tranquil setting of the suburbs in full view. It begins from the perspective of the male character Micah filming his girlfriend Katie returning home from school.  His handheld camera captures her pulling into the driveway, lingering on a shot of her convertible, the sparse garage, and the identical suburban houses briefly seen in the distance as Micah utters, “Hey, baby.” He holds the door open for her, in turn welcoming us, the audience, home as well. After our brief glimpse of the surrounding outside space, Micah shuts the door as Katie questions him about his new camera. This small, two-second glimpse of the surrounding suburbs, as well as a brief scene taking place in their backyard later in the film, are all we ever see of the outside world for the film’s duration. The audience is thus invited home, and simultaneously isolated within the four walls where all the film’s action takes place. The welcoming of the haunted house film is an obsessive lingering in the home space, central to all escalating action and dramatization. Nothing else is offered but the thrill of being welcomed home, where one is to stay put.

Paranormal Activity 2 (dir. Tod Williams, 2010) opens in a similar fashion with another homecoming. This sequel, released a year later, deals with a similar premise, this time with the same demonic presence haunting Katie’s sister, Kristi. The action is only moved a few miles away from the first film, to Carlsbad, CA. The similarities in setting and opening premise are at once striking, and telling of the haunted house film’s formulaic obsession over isolating its characters in the home space. As the film opens, Ali, the daughter of Kristi’s husband, Daniel, is recording her front yard as she sees her parents pulling onto their street. She exclaims, “Welcome home, Hunter. This is your house!” as her parents return from the hospital with her newborn baby brother. Ali then turns the camera to reveal a beautiful, suburban two-story house, a towering wooden front door highlighting this homecoming as we get a view of the colorful plants and neat, trimmed lawn that surround the property. Much like the previous installment, this is the primary glimpse of the outside world that the audience receives, aside from later, fenced-in backyard scenes. Kristi’s family, as the idyllic white, middle-class, traditional nuclear family, thus becomes the central American identity which is to remain comfortably positioned within the house.

The tranquility and neatness of suburbia becomes our permanent setting. The tone of these films evolves into an obsessive treatment of white, middle-class suburbia. As we retreat into the house, we are isolated in a world entirely made up of property and consumer goods. This seclusion limits our view, and constructs the perception that affluent, pristine suburbia is an exclusive world, isolated to only the white, heteronormative couples and families we see in these films. What the films begin to represent, then, is not a national housing crisis sprawling across all American identities. It is instead the idea that the suburban world which will, as the film progresses, be put at risk from outside forces, is an exclusively white, middle class world.

Insidious (dir. James Wan, 2010) and Sinister (dir. Scott Derrickson, 2012) also open with homecomings, as they both introduce us to two new white, middle-class families moving into their new homes. This representation of homecoming is different from those in the Paranormal Activity series in that it evokes of homeownership much more strongly. Whereas the previously discussed films merely show us family members returning home, these films portray the actual arrival and experience of beginning to own a home, and thus obtaining its wealth and benefits. In Insidious, the familiar story of a family being attacked by a demon attempting to steal the eldest son, begins with harmonious shots of the central family, the Lamberts, performing morning rituals in their new home. Move-in boxes are scattered throughout the house as the wife, Renai, briefly occupies herself with the unpacking of her personal belongings, longingly handling and sifting through them, before directing herself to the kitchen to make breakfast. We vicariously experience, along with Renai, the thrill of settling into a new space. It is useful to imagine the audiences, among them thousands if not millions who had recently experienced the loss of their home, being fed this idyllic iteration of comfortable homeownership to a fascinating, deeply emotional result. It is also of interest to point out that both Insidious and Sinister show the family moving into a new house not once, but twice, as both families in these films flee to a new home after the first one displays paranormal activity. To be shown a move-in twice in the same running time is telling of the excessive extent to which homeownership is languidly portrayed. The haunted house subgenre thus feeds us a romanticized homecoming that evokes American suburban pleasures and security, while ominously promising its audiences to disrupt it in later scenes.

Why would audiences pour into theaters by the millions to spectate this romantic portrayal of homeownership and the threat to it during a nationwide housing crisis? Do American audiences, in their compulsive drive to witness the pleasure and anxiety of homecoming in the haunted house film, reveal their own emotional and historical investment in what the house represents nationwide: wealth, whiteness, and citizenship, and a simultaneous, ever-present threat to them? As Christine Herbes-Sommers’ historical documentary, The House We Live In, explains, the American fixation on the home is decades old and directly tied to economic and racial identity. The homecoming of soldiers after World War II and the consequent high demand for housing called for the construction of new neighborhoods as veterans took advantage of the opportunities provided by the newly enacted G.I. Bill. One of the many benefits which army veterans enjoyed was low-cost mortgages. The Federal Housing Administration’s introduction of mortgage loans simultaneously provided more affordable housing at lower rates. All these elements aided in the construction of suburbia as the emblem of American opportunity. It was now possible for the “average American” to afford housing. As the documentary states, beginning with this legislative shift, “the American dream had a new name: suburbia.” The goal for American prosperity was now to take advantage of this homeownership opportunity. Historically, the cultural importance of the house thus begins to take on the meanings of comfort, opportunity, and above all, wealth. However, also implicated in this cultural shift towards the house as a sacred space was the idea of race: that indeed, housing was the principal way in which wealth and property all became concentrated within white America, as the opportunity of owning a home at low rates was exclusively extended to whites.

Thus, the portrayal of the obsessive, isolative homecoming that the haunted house film shows is only an iteration of this historical isolation of the house as a white, middle-class American concept. A catastrophic event for housing such as the subprime mortgage crisis, as embodied by the demonic hauntings which the disrupt the home in the haunted house film, is thus a horrific attack on the American dream, which soon descends into a nightmare. This disruption of American stability is exclusively constructed as a disruption of middle-class white identity.

Primarily, the representation of a house larger than life in these films breathes even further meaning and emotional investment to the concept of the home. Like the very notion of the American dream being synonymous with the house as an owned object, these films make a point to show that wall after wall, room after room, the house is embedded with symbols of wealth. This is evident in Paranormal Activity and its sequel in their use of the “property porn” aesthetic. “Property porn” is defined by James D. Stone’s own analysis of the two films as “images that advertise desirable homes—viewed online, on TV, or in real estate flyers,” and more specifically in reality shows featuring properties for prospective buyers, that result in a fetishized portrayal of property and consumer goods (54). The use of this aesthetic makes it obvious that the primary concept endangered by the demons’ disturbances in these films is that of capitalist wealth.

Paranormal Activity starts with the question of wealth and value itself. As Katie notices Micah using a new camera, she asks, “how much did this cost you?” bringing economic concern to the forefront of the opening sequence. Later, when a spiritual consultant, Dr. Fredrichs, arrives at their home as Katie looks for answers on how to get rid of the demonic entity, the evident use of “property porn” comes into full play. As they walk through the house, the walkthrough and display of the property is one suggestive of American solvency. Even Dr. Fredrichs claims, “I never hesitate when someone says, ‘will you come to San Diego?’” noting the idyllic comfort which the home’s very geography represents.

As Katie and Micah walk Dr. Fredrichs through the house to show him where the paranormal activity has taken place, the sequence is unnervingly reminiscent of a real estate walkthrough. Their first destination, the living room, shows neat, leather furniture, the cheetah print rugs lying on the wooden floors and the zebra-print cushions on the couches, a wooden coffee table, and a large flat-screen TV at the forefront of the area. As they go on to explain happenings around the house, in each room we take in in full detail the plethora of decorations. Beyond the living room there is a big, imposing bookshelf stacked with material and Micah’s own work station consisting of a double-monitor set up. As we go into the kitchen, we get a shot of a large, stainless steel fridge, and the kitchen’s very own built-in counter. Katie then takes us to her bedroom, where we see their large, king-size bed crowned with an ornate headboard and two bedside tables, looking towards a window lined with wine-colored curtains. The bedroom has its very own bathroom, complete with shower (masked with equally ornate shower curtains) and a double sink. Katie then takes us down the hallway across her bedroom to two other guest bedrooms which we never even get into, suggesting that there’s even more property to explore, but we are cut short due to lack of time. Micah longingly records everything, showing us detail by detail the entire makeup of his wealth. This use of property porn essentially expands the house in terms of meaning and devotion. It is no longer a simple setting where the film’s action takes place, but rather a world of excess of commodities and an emblem of conspicuous consumption.

Paranormal Activity 2 takes this a step further by giving us a literal rundown of the house as Ali and then Daniel record the house for their new family member, Hunter, to see once he grows up. We begin outside, being shown the large, two-story façade of the exterior of the house. As we move in, we see the wooden floors, the decorations lining the walls and the many coffee tables spread across the house. The kitchen, with its own built-in island, has a stacker of pots and pans raining down from the ceiling, the walls lined with towering kitchen cabinets and cupboards as the front leads to the living room, with yet another ridiculously large flat-screen TV (Daniel even takes a pause to describe this as his “fifty-inch monster”). Next to the kitchen, we see a glass sliding door leading to the backyard, where a pool, with its own jacuzzi built in to the side, rests with clean, chlorine water. As we go upstairs through the carpeted staircase, we are shown the bedrooms, one for Kristi and Daniel, complete with vanity dressers and another king-size bed. We then go to Ali’s room, with its own built-in bathroom, and finally, Hunter’s room, lined with new toys and decorations and an antique crib in the center. This extensive camera work devoted to present property in its full, affluent glory in both films is reflective of the obsession our main characters have with the hoarding and documentation of wealth which, as described before, is an iteration of the long white American history of wealth and property. The world which our characters inhabit is a fully consumptive, decadent one. Their introduction in the film cannot be done without the introduction of the property which comes to define them.

We understand that within these homes is imbued the very concept of wealth, a concept which Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro define as “the command over financial resources that a family has accumulated over its lifetime along with those resources that have been inherited across generations” (2). We begin to question the fact that Micah, a day trader, and Katie, a college English major, have been able to easily gather wealth and property, and we must question where such wealth comes from. Their incongruent youth and affluence is perhaps evocative of the racial privilege which easier loan systems and extensions of opportunity have historically granted young whites (Oliver & Shapiro 105). Even simpler still, however, the film might just be demanding us to realize that they own such a large, wealthy home simply because it “clicks” with their middle-class, white identity. Indeed, their youth evokes the feeling that opportunity and wealth are easily available to everyone, even day traders and college students. However, we cannot shake the fact that, historically, they represent epitomic benefactors of the wealth which America generates and grants only to whites.

Daniel, a fast food corporate manager and Kristi, a stay-at-home mom, possess an even larger amount of wealth, reflected by their larger home and their backyard pool, due to their higher standing in the corporate ladder. Again, this is evocative of the exclusivity of their privilege. That they live in comfort, isolated and unbothered, is to say that they live basking in the long American history constructed to benefit middle-class whites. Thus, the house inhabitants become synonymous with their houses because the audience understands that whatever may begin to threaten the house will not only damage them, but also the property that they have so painstakingly shown us in detail. The hoarding of wealth, kept within the same family across generations, is anxiously and viciously guarded by the homeowners to maintain the inhabitants’ privileged comfort.

While Stone is right to point out the abundance of the “property porn” aesthetic present in these films, his visualization of wealth in the haunted house is not complete, for he ignores that the house not only symbolizes wealth, but also produces it within its walls. As Oliver and Shapiro state, “the purchase of a home has now become the primary mechanism for generating wealth” (41) due to its ability to increase in market value and provide geographic advantages in regards to where labor is located. Historically, “taxation policy, for example, provided greater tax savings for businesses relocating to the suburbs than those who stayed and made capital improvements to plants in central city locations” (Oliver & Shapiro 40). Suburbia in the United States has meant not only the symbol of wealth and stability but also its producer, a concept which these films take head-on as they construct the home as a microcosm which neatly encapsulates both wealth and labor production.

Perhaps an even stronger bond between American audiences and these films emerges because the home space encompasses not only comfort and material possessions, but also the stability of a well-paying job. In most of these films, wage-labor is performed in the house. As discussed previously, Micah works as a day trader and the home includes his office set-up. The evocations of wealth and consumerism are salient in the setting: Micah is surrounded by a flat-screen TV, leather couches, wooden floors, and innovative technology. At the center of the house is his office set-up from which all this wealth emanates.

Renai, the mother from Insidious, is an aspiring musician who works on her music from home while caring for her three children. We see her at work in front of a piano and abruptly distracted from her task to check on her children. Her job, although creative and unconventional, is challenged by increasing childcare demands. When her son Dalton seems to fall into a coma, an entire hospital set-up is placed in his room. Renai must learn to check his blood pressure and administer his injections in addition to her other motherly and professional duties. Imbued from wall to wall is the devotion to labor production at a frenetic pace, as embodied by Renai’s constant undertaking of different labors, sometimes all at once. The home represents a center within which this frenetic representation of laborious duties flourishes.

In Sinister, the protagonist Ellison Oswalt, the father and head of the household, also labors behind closed doors. As a true-crime novelist who works from a home office, within which a major part of the film takes place. we see the home as a sacred place of labor. Ellison’s entire endeavor is to finish his latest novel, one that he repeatedly claims will bring his family unlimited riches. Unbeknownst to his family, the novel he’s writing concerns a series of murders that have taken place in their new home. His daughter, Ashley’s initial concerns, however, are with the new home itself, claiming that she will miss her old school. Ellison simply replies, “If we don’t like it here, once I sell my book we’ll move back.” The importance of Ellison’s labor is deeply imbued in the ability to obtain property: the labor produced in the house is the same that makes the obtainment of the house (and future ones) possible. We see that the home not only embodies and contains wealth, but also produces it within its walls through enclosed labor. The inside of the house expands not only as a center of American property and consumption, but also the labor which upholds it. Ellison even recites various monologues throughout the film concerning how rich the family will be once he finishes his novel, and how they’ll be able to live anywhere they want.

At this point, one cannot examine all the American values of homeownership and wealth implied in these films and ignore the racial implications behind them. The exclusion of ethnic minorities as homeowners in these films is particularly telling since, as discussed previously, the iteration of homeownership in the films, and by extension, in American legislation, is a racially exclusive one. The “property porn” aesthetic, stable employment and wealth as encapsulated neatly within the homes in these films constructs the issue of homeownership and all its benefits as a strictly white endeavor. The historical context of housing legislation is key to understanding how the haunted house merely reasserts what has already been embedded into the collective conscious of American society as to who can own a home. As the House We Live In documents the legislative procedures through which homeownership becomes the primary concentration of American wealth, the documentary also details that, to put it simply, “whiteness means living in the suburbs,” and thus the very concept of racial whiteness grows to be synonymous, equal to, exclusive to, the ownership of a home.

Racist legislation, from redlining to white flight, which I explore in the next section, demonstrate that in the realm of housing, white families are favored and the same access is denied to people of color. We see that the demon that invades the house in these films embodies not only the disruption of homeownership due to the subprime mortgage crisis, but also a white, middle-class anxiety about white dominance of wealth and property being threatened by outside forces that are represented as nonwhite and non-middle class.

III. A Shadowy Figure: Racialized Demons in the House

The American home, as constructed in the popular haunted house films primarily from 2009 to 2014, is the center of middle-class American labor, security, prosperity, and life. The demonic entity that haunts the house however, is of equal importance, for it disrupts desirable comfort and stability. These “boogeymen” enter the house and desecrate, one could say, the very symbol of the American dream. They often break things, thrash rooms, and turn home life into a nightmare before revealing their more “insidious” agenda. Often, they attempt to take away a family member or simply kill everyone in their way. What then, is the cultural resonance of these beings in contemporary American culture? If the home is the symbol of wealth, prosperity and dreaming, what is at the flipside, excluded and marginalized? To answer this, we must again turn to the history of housing legislation in the U.S., and more specifically, what or who it leaves out and how, and which concepts America has deemed as the threat to the production of wealth that the films so religiously celebrate.

First, we must observe how the demons’ arrivals are always portrayed as antagonizing the safety and structure of the house. While the family members are always welcomed, in the same way white, middle-class American audiences are invited relish in the film’s display of wealth and property, the demon always enacts a forceful break-in that provokes white, middle-class, and suburban “moral panic.” Stuart Hall defines moral panic as “[coming] into play when this deep-structure of anxiety and traditionalism,” that is, the same traditionalism and anxiety built around the conservation of suburban tranquility, “connects with the public definition of crime by the media, and is mobilized” (165). This mobilization of moral panic, which Hall also argues is deeply embedded in class and racial divisions, is precisely the same intrusion enacted by the demon’s arrival in these films.

In Insidious, the demon’s break-in is literalized. As the Lamberts sleep peacefully at night, the security alarm goes off. Josh, the father, runs downstairs to find the front door broken open. He runs back upstairs to warn his wife and children to stay put and lock themselves in the baby’s room. The demonic haunting is correlated with the threat of a criminal break-in, of an outsider intruding into the home space, threatening to rob, or harm its inhabitants. What we come to understand is that although demonic haunting is the thing of fantasy, in the haunted house film it is grounded in moral panic and real anxieties over protecting the home.

Moral panic is explored further in Paranormal Activity 2, where everyone in the house is impacted by the demon’s initial attack and the damage that it has caused to their property. Daniel, the father, walks through the house as he documents with his camera every single transgression that has occurred against his material goods for insurance reasons. The tour lets the audience see the violence that has desecrated what at first had been longingly and obsessively introduced to us through the “property porn” aesthetic: broken glasses and cups, overturned furniture, clutter from the tables and cabinets now lining the floors. As we move into the bedrooms, we see ransacked drawers, thrashed beds, torn bedsheets, toppled dressers, flung clothes all over the room, unhinged paintings, and torn portraits. Despite the violent and intrusive assault, Daniel is most relieved to learn, “The watches are still here.” He then turns to his wife Kristi and says, “All your diamonds are here.”  What the family seems most concerned with is the threat to their wealth and status symbols. The invasive force has attacked family’s wealth accumulated within and through their house. We instantly realize that the demonic presence symbolizes a facet of “anti-wealth,” seeking destroy or undo symbols of affluence embedded in American capitalist culture.

The film incites the audience to wonder: who would do something like this? Legislation about exclusion and segregation enable us to examine what is perceived to threaten the stability of suburban space. “Moral panic” is also useful in helping us to understand the divisions drawn by these break-ins. This division is precisely one racial in nature, as the protection of wealth and property is synonymous with the protection of white symbols of status and affluence. The wealth of the families, as mentioned previously, is encoded in their race: wealth gathered through privileges and legislations made to advantage whites. What threatens them, then, must be figured as the exact opposite, class-wise and racially speaking. These configurations of race, although only symbolized by moral panic, are also often literalized in colorist terms.

These white families, when made uncomfortable by an otherworldly presence, often highlight the horror-based colorism that divides them from this demonic entity. Even in literal terms, monstrous blackness is present in the films, given that horror antagonists are always presented as “black,” described as “dark” or “shadowy” demons. Even the figurations of racial difference are present, encoded either symbolically or literally. For example, the demon that haunts the entire Paranormal Activity franchise is, in Katie’s own words, “a shadowy figure,” a black mass of ethereal goop lurking through the corners of the house. Even more is that in the franchise’s third installment, its name is revealed to be Toby. Evocative, perhaps, of Kunta Kinte from Roots, the allusion to black representation in American popular culture is evident through the demon’s blackness and the popular resonance of its name. “Blackness” is exclusively represented as monstrous within the haunted house, and indicates tensions in racial relations in these films which fully formulate historical racial divisions around housing.

The symbol of the tall, looming black figure is also evoked through the speechless, purely evil entity of Buhguul in Sinister. The framing of this entity is further evocative of moral panic: outside in Ellison’s backyard, Buhguul stands menacingly in the distance, a suggestion of impending crime or violence to be perpetrated by the “menacing black figure.” These symbols of “blackness” as dangerous and threatening to white wealth and labor are easily recognizable, for, as Hall states, they are popular media evocations of what the crime that threatens traditional stability looks like (165). This is not to claim that “light vs. dark” is a new form of antagonism created in this subgenre of films. However, in terms of wealth and the threat to that wealth in the U.S., the colorist tensions drawn by these films reflect the racialization of crime and the history of racial segregation.

I call this colorist dynamic “horror-colorism,” or the color-based tensions that these films construct through demonic presences and their broader implications regarding U.S. race and class relations. Robin Wood notes the particularly problematic nature of the representation of the monster in many horror films. He views “the presentation of the monster as totally nonhuman,” noting that “one can feel little for a mass of viscous black slime” (Wood 192). In this quote, Wood refers in part to horror’s refusal to afford human considerations as to the monster’s origins or motives. Micah, as he researches demonology to get answers as to what could be haunting their house, illustrates the difference between demons and ghosts, congruent with Wood’s evocation of the sympathy-less monster. When Katie says that the haunting presence “doesn’t feel human,” Micah replies, “Well that sounds like a demon. Ghosts are spirits of human beings. Which is bad, cause demons suck. Basically, they’re these malevolent, evil spirits that only exist to cause pain and commit evil for their own amusement.” Not only is Micah’s description of the monster in agreement with Wood’s, but Toby, the dark demon, and Wood’s viscous black slime point to the figuration of horror-colorism: that part of the monster’s lack of sympathetic evocations, besides its asymmetry and abject physicality, always ties back to its demonic black color. Horror film constructions of blackness, therefore, are popularly tied with monstrosity, and such an evocation of monstrous blackness is telling of its significance in regards to American housing: that it is outside of the human, white realm of comfort and stability which housing produces, and directly antagonizes it.

Psychoanalysis is helpful in understanding the neurotic “negrophobia” constructed in these films — the idea that blackness is the antagonistic force directly opposed to white comfort. Frantz Fanon discusses the figurations of racial otherness in relation to collective catharsis: “In every society, in every community, there exists, must exist, a channel, an outlet whereby the energy accumulated in the form of aggressiveness can be released” (Fanon 124). In his description of how this catharsis is embedded in cultural products, he argues that the figurations, authored by white men for white children, of catharsis exist as “the Wolf, the Devil, the Wicked Genie, Evil, and the Savage” which are “always represented by Blacks or Indians” (Fanon 124-125). This further gives credence to the concept of a horror-colorism as embodying racial anxieties and fears from white audiences in the form of blackness. This resonates with James Baldwin’s figurations in “Stranger in the Village,” where he comes to understand that the Swedish children that run from him in fear do so because “other children, having been taught that the devil is a black man, scream in genuine anguish as I approach” (171). The figurations of black demonization through the racial other are, as these examples illustrate, culturally resonant across global definitions of whiteness. We come to understand Wood’s “black viscous slime” not only as a generic, nonhuman “other,” but as a very specific form of racial otherness. In the example of the haunted house, blackness is specifically pitted against the American symbol of dreaming and prosperity: the home. The lack of empathy or sympathy for such a being leads to a monstrous embodiment of racial otherness in relation to their involvement in home desecration.

Besides symbolic representations of blackness and racial otherness, when characters of color are present in these films, they embody racial stereotypes congruent with definitions of demonization. In Paranormal Activity 2, Martine, the Mexican nanny hired by the Reys to care for their new baby, embodies the mysticism and demonic power embedded in perceptions of other races. As soon as Toby makes his presence known, Martine ritualistically cleanses the house of his presence, lending an exotic understanding of the demonic forces at play. She knows how to perform ceremonial cleansings, so that when Kristi becomes possessed by Toby, Daniel goes looking for Martine and admits, “she tried to warn me but I didn’t listen.” Martine, her culture, and her otherness are presented as being in the same realm of otherworldliness as the villainous demons. Kinship seems to exist between minorities and demonic entities.

This kinship is illustrated to an even more severe degree in the Paranormal Activity spin-off, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (dir. Christopher B. Landon, 2014). The film takes place in the “barrio” of Oxnard, California, where our entirely Latino cast falls victim to the hauntings of Toby and its pawns. The main character, Jesse, becomes possessed by a demonic entity after performing a ritual inside a church. What’s curious is that the relationship between Jesse and the demon plaguing him is not so much one of horrific invasion, but one of familiarity amongst the two. The principal signs of possession that Jesse displays are levitation and superhuman strength. His friend, Hector, after witnessing such abilities, exclaims “this is fucking awesome!” and “that’s insane, Jesse!” again illustrating the familiarity between the demons and the racial others whom it visits, as their interactions always incite amazement and laughter.  When Jesse’s possession gets particularly nasty, his grandma, like Martine, knows exactly who to go to for advice and what to do to battle the demon. The familiarity between ethnic minorities and demons reduces people of color to the same level as demonic entities.

Racial otherness is also present in housing legislation and residential segregation which the films also embody through demonic and literal ethnic representations. The haunted house film comes to reflect a racist facet of American culture that has existed for decades in relation to property. It often portrays “realms” inhabited by either actual ethnic minorities or by demonic entities as entirely antithetical of the pristine, comfortable microcosm which the suburbs embody. These “anti-suburbs,” spaces entirely opposed to the idyllic representations of suburbia, are fully embedded in actual histories of American segregation. The account of the “construction of the ghetto” in its early stages, as Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton describe in American Apartheid helps us to perceive the racist forces imbued in living spaces:

As the tide of violence rose in northern cities, blacks were increasingly divided from whites by a hardening color line in employment, education and especially housing. Whites became increasingly intolerant of black neighbors […] Those blacks living away from recognized Negro areas were forced to move into expanding “black belts,” “darkytowns,” “Bronzevilles,” or “Niggertowns” […] in white eyes, black people belonged in black neighborhoods no matter what their social or economic standing; the color line grew increasingly impermeable (30).

Denton and Massey’s observations of the construction of the ghetto and the rise of northern segregation in the U.S. point to the fact that social and economic standing are always secondary to race when it comes to separatist housing actions. In other words, the very geography of housing is embedded in racist segregation, and the idea that suburbia, in its idyllic construction of housing, is always intrinsically separated from racial otherness, much like the human vs. demon separations enacted in these films.

These films also represent an unconscious manifestation of “redlining.” Redlining, which Oliver and Shapiro describe as “institutional mechanisms that help to destabilize black communities” by “making it difficult and/or expensive for homes and businesses to secure coverage” (43), is the central racist procedure through which suburban housing communities became segregated. Redlining is the practice of “rating” communities and neighborhoods based on the scale of “financial risk” or poverty which they represent, with the objective of seeing who would obtain mortgage loans and at what rates. Historically, however, racism is evident in this ranking system, for the simple fact of being a person of color was enough to devalue property, and for whiteness being favored in the system. As the House We Live In explains the process of redlining:

Those communities that were all white, suburban, and faraway from minority areas received the highest rating, and that was green, while those that were all minority or in the process of changing, those got the lowest rating, which was the color red. Most of these mortgages went to suburbanizing America, and they suburbanized it racially.

In the process of suburbanization blackness becomes “undesirable” and “anti-value.” In other words, the physical condition of a home was as much a factor of its value in the market as the racial makeup of who lived in or near it. What this does, primarily, is construct blackness as a “blight” on neighborhoods and against wealth. The proximity of blackness to one’s home signals the decrease in value and depletion of wealth.

With this information at hand, understanding the dynamic of the racially other demon vs. the house in our set of films becomes clearer. In Insidious, for example, demons emerge from the Further, “a world far beyond our own, yet it’s all around us, a place without time as we know it. It’s a dark realm filled with the tortured souls of the dead, a place not meant for the living” (emphasis mine). The figuration of this demonic realm is the figuration of where demons ought to stay and where they belong, and their infiltration in the realm of the living (where our white characters live) is what sets in motion the film’s central disruption of the house.

When Josh travels to The Further to rescue his son, we see even further configurations of horror-colorism, this time also imbued with notions of anti-wealth: The Further is just like our own world, but darker, less glamorous, and less vibrant, and filled with vengeful entities anxious to escape and invade the world of the living. Insidious constructs a version of redlining while invoking the anxiety of a violation of borders as demons begin to pour out of the Further and invade the Lambert house. As Oliver and Shapiro state, “materially, whites and blacks constitute two nations” (3), and the Further acts as a literal embodiment of this idea. If the demon enters the house, it will inevitably disrupt wealth and labor production, because its very existence, in our understanding of race-based housing legislation, is what haunts the possibility of a decline in comfortable living. When a white homeowner in these films stands his ground, raises a crucifix, and implores, “leave my house, demon!” therefore, our understanding of this struggle is one steeped in a history of racist segregation.

Insidious and Sinister, which show us that the result of these hauntings is the white family’s attempt to flee, is evocative of the concept of white flight that, like redlining, contribute to segregation. White flight is the departure of many white families from increasingly non-white neighborhoods to ensure that their property does not suffer an unwanted decrease in value. The Lamberts and the Oswalts opt for a literal representation of this when things go awry: they pack their bags and leave. They do so in hopes that this will result in the finding of a place where darkness is not so predominant, where demons do not bleed through into their realm. Their main desire is that the stability of their comfort and wealth can flourish once more, without demonic disruptions, which illustrates the separatist nature of suburbia in terms of escaping the tightening grips of otherness.

The Marked Ones once more proves useful in understanding the racial and economic separations that come because of redlining by its evocations of the Oxnard barrio as a place completely antithetical of all iterations of suburbia previously shown in other films. Like Massey and Denton’s study of the construction of the ghetto, we see the construction of the barrio in more contemporary terms. Everything about the environment that ethnic minorities inhabit portrays anti-value and anti-wealth. Jesse’s family is unconventional in contrast to the Lamberts: his father is a working-class man who only comes home to sleep and his grandmother is often busy with household chores. Jesse lives in a small, cramped apartment that is decorated in dull beige and gray colors. His best friend Hector also states that he cannot take romantic interests home because “there’s like 50 people” residing in his home. Furthermore, Ana, the bruja that lives below Jesse’s apartment, is evicted after a mysterious murder takes place in her home. As Jesse and Hector enter the now empty apartment, we see its squalor: filth and waste lining the walls and floors, discarded litter, dust everywhere, as well as the various grotesque brujería objects: voodoo dolls, human, jars with mysterious contents. Ana’s apartment, in the heart of the Oxnard ghetto, is the antithesis of the “property porn” displayed in our other films. Like Hector cleverly formulates, “if she can travel through time why did she stay in this nasty ass apartment?”

Besides this, the film also constructs the barrio as the source of moral panic which is a constant source of white anxiety in relation to suburban stability. Two main acts of violence are seen in the first two Paranormal Activity films: the first film ends with the death of Micah, and the second begins with a break-in at the Reys’ home. In the Marked Ones, these assaults are revealed to have been perpetrated by Mexicans. The film introduces the concept of portals, which allow one to travel across great geographic and temporal distances. Hector and Jesse travel through a portal that lands them in Katie and Micah’s living room, seven years in the past in the final moments of the first Paranormal Activity, where they soon encounter the homeowners and a struggle ensues. The scene depicts Micah’s unconscious, suburban white worries as being materialized: that, indeed, minorities have broken into his home, and one of them, the possessed Jesse, is now a demonic accomplice to the now possessed Katie who then kills him. Essentially, all the troubles that plague their San Diego home are figured to have emerged from the Oxnard barrio.

In Paranormal Activity 2, we find out that the only thing that was missing after the apparent break-in at the Rey house was a box of old videotapes stored in the family’s basement. These tapes, we later discover, contain evidence of Katie’s and Kristi’s demonic hauntings from childhood. These same videotapes are one of the many things that Jesse and Hector encounter when they break into Ana’s now-abandoned apartment. We as audiences are meant to figure that Ana, or one of her possessed Mexican henchmen, were the ones who forcibly broke into the Reys’ home to disrupt their peace and steal their belongings. The film series seems bent on confirming white anxieties to a full-blown extent: that the barrio produces a monstrosity bent on transgressing against the domestic tranquility of the suburban home space.

“No other recent economic crisis better illustrates the saying ‘when America catches a cold, African Americans get pneumonia’ than the sub-prime mortgage meltdown,” Melvin Oliver writes in “Subprime as Black Catastrophe” (The American Prospect, 2008). The subprime mortgage crisis is conceded to have resulted from the “toxic and predatory loans” that plagued African-American homeownership. “Households of color were more than three times as likely as white households to end up with riskier loans with features like exploding adjustable rates, deceptive teaser rates, and balloon payments,” Oliver continues. “Good credit scores often made no difference, as profit incentives trumped sound policy.” Eventually, when the housing market collapsed, “in hindsight, many critics now describe the sub-prime mortgage crisis as the consequence of bad loans to unqualified borrowers.” Indeed, the language employed by many critics is to blame black people for being ‘irresponsible’ in their homeownership. Even popular news media outlets like CNBC often concentrated on the usage of this language of personal responsibility. Rick Santelli, CNBC editor, famously proclaimed in a fury during a news broadcast on February 19, 2009, that there should not be a break for the “losers,” and instead rewards should be given “to those who can carry the water, and not drink the water.” Santelli’s outbursts reflect a deep, yet “colorblind” resentment towards financially unstable, victimized homebuyers. The perceived “black blight” of homeownership reflects the resentment, hatred, and fear that such blackness seemingly introduces to white homeowners. “It just feels gross, knowing someone was in here,” Ali, the daughter in Paranormal Activity 2, proclaims as she observes the wreckage made in her room after the break-in. The subprime mortgage crisis, then, is synonymous with blackness in the sense that they both embody the violent transgressions against white homeownership and prosperity, as we completely forget that people of color suffered the biggest blows. “Gross,” “losers,” and “blight,” connote the overt abjection central to the racially divided housing market of the U.S. The darkness of the demons in these films is the harbinger of the racial sentiment that sprouts from housing legislature, leaving racial otherness as something undesirable and grotesque that must be done away with.

A great source of anxiety in many of these films is the idea that something dark, evil, and previously lurking below has risen to take revenge. Although the demon’s intentions in relation to the white family will be explored in the following section, it is crucial to stipulate that its homecoming is perhaps a manifestation of white audiences’ projections of their modern racial fears; “at one point, we had explicit laws that said whites are on top and blacks on the bottom,” the House We Live In states, continuing that “today we have many of the same practices without the explicit liners, and those practices are largely inscribed in geography.” The demons emerge from the Further, their own realm, and intoxicate and infect the pristine realm of white suburbia. These anxieties are partly imbued in the history of recovery from the housing crisis. Sarah Burd-Sharps and Rebecca Rasch explain that “white home equity began to recover quickly after the housing crisis stabilized, this was not the case for blacks; again, this difference likely emerges because of blacks’ disproportionate exposure to predatory loans and other deceptive mortgage schemes” (13). White recovery and black struggle represent the normative dynamic in which black homeowners are “crawling out,” emerging from their debt, and suffering the biggest blows. However, as in the films’ devotion to presenting the demons as evildoers, their “crawling out” is not an action of self-sufficiency, but rather evocative of a figuration of blackness that has gained the awareness that the housing market has transgressed against them, and perhaps now wants revenge. Thus, their violation of segregated borders reads not as an attempt towards upward mobility, but as an act of abject violence and danger.

The haunted house film thus serves as a reminder that white homeownership is not at peace, that something angry is always within its periphery, and perhaps wants revenge. As Oliver and Shapiro state, “the disadvantaged status of contemporary African Americans cannot be divorced from the historical processes that undergird racial inequality. The past has a living effect on the present” (52). The past reemerging into the present, very much like ghosts do, is the enactment of a legacy that continues to haunt people of color and white wealth.

IV. It Wants Your Children: How White Innocence Breeds Black Monstrosity

The construction of “horror-colorism” within the haunted house film allows us to see clearly the economic and even psychological racial divide that still “haunts” modern American legislation regarding housing and wealth. The division between who is white and who is other in these films constructs a rigid set of roles as to who owns wealth vs. who covets wealth or seeks to destroy it, who lives comfortably vs. who disturbs that comfort, and most importantly, who is the victim and who is the villain. If whites remain at the top and blacks at the bottom, how can these films construct a narrative in which the opposite is seemingly true, with whites being the victims and blacks the oppressors?

The construction of this villain/victim dichotomy is one that is especially guided by affective responses in relation to the way white people are portrayed in the films. White women and white children are consistently the main targets of the films’ demonic entities, evocative of a patriarchal notion of fragility and innocence, and thus we must explicate what this means in terms of the construction and passing on of wealth, as well as the construction of an American white innocence and a black demonization. In short, I argue that these films allow for continuous transgressions against people of color, such as being blamed for the subprime mortgage crisis and being constructed as monstrous criminals, to remain by masking said transgressions as a facet of white innocence. What this means is that by heightening the way in which blackness in the films is made monstrous, the film leaves no choice but to consider whites to be the true victims of the various demonic transgressions depicted on the films.

Women and children in the films, and by extension, in American capitalist notions of wealth, represent not only a fragile innocence, but a reproduction and continuation of the wealth established within the haunted house. They are often depicted as mere extensions of the consumer goods and property shown in the films. A particularly telling scene from Paranormal Activity depicts this notion, in which Micah, having grown tired of the demon’s imposing powers and its effects on his comfort, and particularly its accosting of his girlfriend Katie, denounces, “Nobody comes in my house, fucks with my girlfriend, and gets away with it.” The figuration here is clear: Micah places “my house,” and “my girlfriend,” on equal terms and as extensions of the property under his ownership. Moreover, the inflection on “fucks with my girlfriend,” while referring to the demon harassing her physically, can also be read as an allusion to the demon’s sexualized haunting of Katie. Indeed, most of the film’s haunting happens in the bedroom. Even Dr. Fredrichs, upon his visit to the house claims “Most of the activity’s in here, isn’t it?” while pointing to the couple’s bed. Micah’s anxieties over his white girlfriend (who, through the inflection of “my,” is presented as being part of his property) being “fucked with” by Toby is equally about a threat to his property as to his masculinity and patriarchal leadership. Even as Micah says that he has everything under control regarding the demonic haunting, Katie lashes out at him and insults his masculinity saying, “No, you haven’t been making progress and you’re not in control! It is in control. If you think you’re in control you’re an idiot!” The entire narrative of the film is thus a portrayal of white anxiety over who is “in control” of the house and of the woman.

The narratives of racially othered demonic possession and white masculine (re)possession of the white woman are at play here. In Micah’s articulation of Katie as his property, it follows that the demon’s attempts to possess her are attempts to both disrupt his property as well as his masculinity. The word play here suggests that possession films in this context are films of re-possession: repossessing the house, its wealth, and its inhabitants. Psychoanalytically, this resonates with white anxieties over the black man and his sexual transgressions on the white woman. Frantz Fanon offers an extremely appropriate articulation of what this “negrophobia” means at the sexual level among white men and women. As he states, everything in relation to the fear of blackness “takes place at the genital level,” as he further articulates what he figures must be the anxieties of whiteness in relation to black threat: “Apparently, they fornicate just about everywhere and at all times. They’re sexual beasts. They have so many children they’ve lost count. If we’re not careful they’ll inundate us with little mulattoes. Everything’s going to the dogs” (135). “Black” transgressions against white women in these films, thus, speak of a usurpation of the white man’s dominant stance. As Fanon explicates, this white anxiety is sexual in nature, yet his writing devotes even more importance to reproduction. The true source of Micah’s anxiety is the possibility of a miscegenation of demonic mulattoes, through the claiming of his white girlfriend by the black demon, which transgresses and poisons his idyllic, white, suburban space, and his hopes of continuing this white purity. As Fanon also explains, a black man’s desire to be with a white woman is supposed to represent a black man’s desire to be white himself (45), further asserting the idea that what Micah is truly fearing is that the black demon will grow to take his place as the white man of the house.

Women and property are also congruent in these films because women are literal reproducers of wealth. In Paranormal Activity 2 the wife, Kristi, has already produced an heir for Daniel in the form of their newborn son, Hunter. Children, like women, are an extension of the patriarchal notion of wealth because they are implicit in its transfer between family members. The female reproductive system, in this sense, can be read as another center of wealth production. As George Lipsitz explains in the Possessive Investment in Whiteness, regarding the hoarding of wealth among white families, young whites “can often rely on gifts and bequests from family members for transformative assets that help build wealth, for money that enables them to pay for an education, start a business or buy a first home” (107). In other words, the production of wealth that is emblematic of American solvency, is also paired with the equal importance of hoarding the spoils of racist legislation through the intergenerational transfer of wealth and assets. Women’s implication in this as the (re)producers of wealth, is essentially to produce this heir that will continue to uphold white wealth. This is explicitly evoked when the Reys display their property in the family video being recorded at the beginning of the film. As Ali begins the video, she explicitly says, “Welcome home, Hunter! This is your house!” (emphasis mine) before they walk through the property. Hunter, the first male born of Kristi’s side of the family, is emblematic of the continuation of the patriarchal notions of the production and transfer of wealth. As we later find, being the first male born in Kristi’s side of the family is what makes him Toby’s target, thus increasing anxiety over the endangerment of the patriarchal homeowner system. In another scene, Daniel points his camera at his large flat-screen TV, and describes it as his “fifty-inch monster,” an obvious reference to the phallus. Thus, wealth and material goods are here constructed as the patriarchal figure’s extension of his own masculinity, a doctrine which he plans to further inculcate in his son when his time comes.

In Sinister, Ellison undertakes a new writing project about the murders that occurred in the house which he has now moved into. Ellison is primarily concerned with amassing a fortune and restoring his sense of celebrity through his writing, while his wife Tracy worries about her children and the potential psychological damage the home’s previous history can have on them. Herein lies the amalgamation of white, middle class America’s most pressing concerns regarding wealth: who produces it and who is there to pass it on to. As the couple argues over what’s best for their children, they debate whether to stay in the house so that Ellison can finish his novel and make his family rich, or leave to protect their children from any harm the home’s environment could cause. Ellison urges, “Don’t you understand that writing is what gives my life meaning? These books are my legacy,” to which Tracy retorts, “Writing isn’t the meaning of your life. You and me, right here, this marriage, that’s the meaning of your life, and your legacy, that’s Ashley and Trevor [their children].” Ellison is evidently confused as to what “the meaning of his life” is: Is it the production of wealth, or those who will uphold his legacy by having his wealth transferred to them? In the machinations of how white, patriarchal notions of wealth are produced and sustained, one could say that both are correct answers, as labor, wealth and children work together to produce the cycle of white wealth. Ellison juggles producing wealth and protecting those who will sustain it, for if the production of wealth doesn’t run smoothly on both accords, the entirety of his existence as a white, middle-class male will overwhelm him.

The evocation of endangered children is one that undoes notions of the “bootstraps” mentality by showing where the real production of wealth takes place. This bootstraps mentality, as the House We Live In defines it, is the belief that wealth and success are accessible to anyone who works hard. However, this is an articulation to justify white people’s hoarding of the spoils obtained through a deeply racist system. Wealth is transferred intergenerationally and stubbornly protected. The final moments of Sinister, which show Ellison’s daughter, Ashley, being carried off by the demonic Buhguul, is evocative of this formulation of white anxiety over wealth: That this and other demons carry as their purpose the stealing of women or, in this case, the eating of children (as Buhguul is aptly subtitled “the eater of children”) is figured the same as a foreign, appropriately black entity invading and appropriating white wealth and property. The true white anxiety over wealth, therefore, is not over disruption of hard-earned property, but a disruption of the generations-old hoarding and transferring of wealth.

Having thus observed the roles women and children play in the symbolic representation of wealth, we must also observe how they are implicit in helping to protect said wealth. More specifically, I seek to define how exactly children have a hand at controlling the affective responses that audience members have when viewing these films. These haunted house films are so provocative and telling in relation to racial injustices in contemporary America, yet they are often viewed as tales about the victimization of whites at the hands of monstrous blackness. I turn, then, to the following schema that helps us understand this process by which white victimization is produced: White adults in these films opt for ignorance, which in turn produces white innocence in their children. White children, upon assimilating this white innocence, heighten the sense of black monstrosity that threatens to destroy them.

I borrow Charles Mills’ own definition of white ignorance, especially in relation to memory, as most of these films’ white protagonists enact an individual amnesia which then translates into the larger implications of a collective white amnesia. As Mills states:

“As the individual represses unhappy or embarrassing memories that may also reveal a great deal about his identity, about who he is, so in all societies, especially those structured by domination, the socially recollecting ‘we’ will be divided, and the selection will be guided by different identities, with one group suppressing precisely what another wishes to commemorate” (29).

Mills’ definition of a collective memory, in short, is a useful tool for understanding dominant power structures, so that a cause (such as racism, as he later articulates) is validated both by what we remember and what we choose to forget. In these films, then, when characters choose to forget a troublesome history, they are opting to do so out of protecting and inculcating innocence in their children.

In a particularly telling example from Insidious, to save his eldest son, Dalton, from the demonic being which threatens to devour him, Josh undertakes the task of traveling to the Further by means of astral projecting, an ability which he himself possesses due to having been victim of a similar haunting when he was young. We find out that the psychic medium helping them, Elise, has prevented Josh from knowing the truth about his ability to astral project, and therefore about the existence of the Further, where dangerous demons lurk. “I kept those photos hidden from you ever since,” she says, referring to photographic evidence that depicts a demonic entity haunting Josh. “I advised Lorraine [Josh’s mother] to hide them, to stop taking your picture, to just let you forget.” Elise explains here both that Josh’s mother was always aware of the existence of demons and that she kept Josh ignorant of this information. Lorraine is aware that there is a disturbing, demonic past that will probably reemerge and danger her son’s children, which it eventually does. However, she chooses to “just let him forget,” have Josh lead a normal life, fully aware of the negative implications this could have. Likewise, this figuration of white innocence is the same as real-life scenarios regarding the passing on wealth. To pass down comfort (which is tied to wealth and solvency) to children, is to pass down the racist doctrine of discrimination and segregation which is the wealth’s source. However, for the comfort to remain, children must be made unaware, innocent of the racial tensions that plague the origin of their wealth.

White innocence, created thus by parents’ opting to let their children “forget,” is then heighten as they make first contact with the monstrous otherness that endangers them. In all these films where children are present, they are always the first to witness, even befriend the demonic presences that later jeopardize their well-being. In Insidious, Dalton, as an astral projector, is the first to be able to travel to the Further and encounter the demons that put his soul in peril. In a scene from Paranormal Activity 2, Hunter, as he cries alone in his crib, ultimately quiets down at the sight of something off-camera, which the audience can assume is the demonic presence of Toby. In Sinister, as well, Ashley, the Oswalts’ young daughter, is the first to be able to see Buhguul and his past victims’ ghostly apparitions, and an apparent friendship is stricken. “I wanted to paint her picture,” Ashley says as she shows her parents the ghostly finger paint she’s made on the wall. The children’s contact with the demons, and by extension—since demons are a manifestation of the deep, troubled history that runs in these families—their contact with history is one which the films have carefully fabricated as an enactment of white innocence. Whereas people of color’s proximity to these demons is a heightening of the exoticizing and othering of their race, children are always portrayed as victims, being perverted, or taken advantage of. Whereas Jesse in the Marked Ones giggles and stands in awe at what his demonic possession has enabled him to do (float in midair, even give him the confidence to go pick up some girls), the children in these films do not know what they are facing, and when they find out, the films opt to portray this reckoning through a rigid predator-prey dichotomy. Children, upon realizing what they’re facing, scream and cry, in Hunter’s case, or remain in a catatonic trance, in Ashley’s case, highlighting her role as a submissive prey to the demon’s influence. Their parents, even fully knowing that they implicit in the misfortune that has befallen their family, continue this narrative, inciting audiences to affectively respond, along with them, “think of the children!”

The psychological process through which this predator-prey dichotomy is formulated, even at the face of whites’ own implications in the monstrous aspects of the film narrative, is best exemplified by Frantz Fanon in his own description of an encounter with a white child on a train. After repeated exclamations of the child saying “Look maman, a nigger! I’m scared!” Fanon comes to realize the following:

I couldn’t take it any longer, for I already knew there were legends, stories, history […] As a result, the body schema, attacked in several places, collapsed, giving way to an epidermal racial schema […] I cast an objective gaze over myself, discovered by blackness, my ethnic features; defined by cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave traders […] Peeling, stripping my skin, causing a hemorrhage that left congealed black blood all over my body (92).

Fanon offers the gruesome depiction of becoming of the monster, through the ignorance and fear that the white child enacts and uses to lacerate Fanon’s very skin. The white child also undergoes the transformation from aggressor to victim. “Maman, the negro’s going to eat me” (Fanon 93), he exclaims as he runs to his mother’s arms. Fanon describes the process through which white monstrosity and black victimization are inversed. The white child is the aggressor in this scene, enacting what Fanon examines as the historical, racial stigmas that translate to physical assaults against his own body. However, by exclaiming, “the negro’s going to eat me!” the child effectively flips the roles, and presents himself as the victim to the black monster which, just seconds ago, he created. Thus, the fabrication of white innocence is fundamentally tied to the construction of the black monster. One cannot be sustained without the presence of the other.

When the parents in these films opt for ignorance, they effectively choose to ignore the monstrosity which they themselves have assigned to the racial other, in favor of playing the victim. In the Paranormal Activity series, we find out that Hunter, Kristi’s son, is destined to be Toby’s prey, for he has been promised, as the first-born male of her side of the family, to the demon by his great-grandmother, a witch in exchange for riches and fortune. Past generations are implicit in the dangerous, threatening history that now victimizes their children.

In Sinister, Ellison, who knows very well the dangerous history of the ancient Buhguul and the potential threats he represents to his family, for he has been researching it extensively as he attempts to write his novel, willingly chooses to keep his family ignorant until the demon arrives and kills them all before taking Ashley away. Although Ellison chose to hide the dangerous history from his family, the audience assigns blame for the tragedy to the existence of the demonic presence itself. The subgenre thus relies on audience’s active “forgetting” of the white characters’ implications in their own demise, and must choose to see white innocence for the films to fully realize their villains as all-evil, and without any evocations of sympathy. The audience is thus directly involved in an enactment of white ignorance.

It is precisely this very same articulation of white innocence and victimization which makes the narrative of “home loss” during the subprime mortgage crisis seem an exclusively white tragedy. As Oliver, Burd-Sharps and Rasch have shown us, the subprime mortgage crisis was an overwhelming catastrophe for families of color who suffered the major losses and still struggle to undo the damage that this housing crisis meant for their economic wellbeing. These authors are also aware that the main cause for this crisis was the predatory lending practices which plagued people of color. As Lipsitz notes, this is part of the racist legislation and American system of wealth in which people of color “are not so much disadvantaged as taken advantage of. Their unearned disadvantages structure unearned advantages for whites.” Lipsitz, also notes, however, the role which white innocence plays in this economic structure, for he says “yet [people of color] find themselves portrayed as privileged beneficiaries of special preferences by the very people who profit from their exploitation and oppression” (107). Fanon’s formulation of the white child is the same formulated by Lipsitz, albeit in economic terms. As Lipsitz further notes, “By failing to reckon with the rewards that come to them because of racial privilege, whites prevent themselves from seeing how privilege actually works in this society” (105-106). Likewise, by opting to play the role of innocents, whites are undeniably implicit in denying democracy to fully come into play to critically approach disasters like the subprime mortgage crisis. The very predatory nature of legislation and lending practices which landed people of color in still-lingering hardships around housing, are the ones that resulted in their violent, gruesome “hemorrhaging,” as Fanon would put it, into the villains of the story, the “irresponsible losers” who allowed for such a tragedy to bleed onto white homeowners.

The representation of white innocence is particularly telling in a sequence towards the end of Paranormal Activity. Katie and Micah, haunted and tired, sit in their couch, huddled closely together, as Katie says, “I can’t even be in this house, Micah. We can’t even be in our house.” The evocation of such a scene, two young Americans losing their home, was particularly provocative to audiences still feeling the effects of the housing crisis. However, what this scene chooses to erase is the history behind such a tragedy, and the marginalized people that took the most severe blows. Instead, we get the simplistic, extremely damaging view of white victimization and black monstrosity that goes on to plague later films. Such formulation is dangerous: We, along with the filmmakers, are opting to forget, to not see what lurks beneath, so that when it rears its ugly, monstrous head, we are surprised to find it so angry and threatening. Through this process, whites’ history and actions never come under scrutiny. Instead, we get the simplistic notion that whites are the victims of demons they themselves have bred.

V. Beyond the White Picket Fence: White Monstrosity as Subversive Horror

The post-recession haunted house film portrays middle-class white anxieties and fears in a palatable fashion, so that the films only work to reassure America’s obsession with wealth and comfort. The genre employs the monster-victim tactics which leave people of color and working-class groups marginalized, criminalized and demonized. Dominant, middle-class white people are left without scrutiny. As Robin Wood rightly points out, the horror film, under the constraints of major Hollywood production and “crowd pleaser” aesthetics, becomes a “puritan” arrangement of repression that only works to reassure said repression instead of subverting it (156).

The haunted house genre, with its representations of wealth and power structures uninterrogated, leaves little room to imagine a subversive perspective that challenges these repressive depictions of “white victim vs. black monster.” However, as the genre evolves, just as it evolved away from torture porn dominance into a retreat into the house at the onset of the Great Recession, so too, given the changing political climate and the passing of years, we are beginning to see films that think outside of the haunted house conventions to deliver truly thought-provoking, subversive portrayals that dismantle previous constructions of white innocence and black monstrosity. In this section, I analyze three of these recent films: It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell, 2015), Don’t Breathe (dir. Fede Alvarez, 2016), and Get Out (dir. Jordan Peele, 2017), paying attention to the way they destabilize associations between wealth, homeownership, and white patriarchal normativity. These recent films negate the construction of white victimization, ignorance, and innocence. Instead, they construct a concept of “white monstrosity” unlike any of the haunted house films discussed previously. By white monstrosity, I refer to the socially damaging aspects of patriarchy, white privilege, and wealth-hoarding which have been implicit in the unjust, racist notions of redlining and segregation which have kept racism alive and well. These issues have been hidden under the façade of white innocence and ignorance. In short, these three films perform the labor of “unmasking” white innocence and showing whites’ racist and discriminating actions for what they truly are.

The pristine, suburban setting, a staple of the haunted house subgenre, is completely absent from It Follows and Don’t Breathe. Both are set in Detroit, a city that has come to represent the antithesis of suburban American comfort and wealth. Detroit’s history of abandonment and poverty emerges from America’s history of greed and hoarding of wealth. Privatization and the extradition of labor to cheaper regions have turned Detroit into a state of abandonment. As Carlos Salazar’s “The Assassination of Detroit” illustrates, “For years, vacancy, dressed as blight, has been the bogeyman of Detroit.” The evocation of a haunting, monstrous history of capitalism and corporate greed (Salazar’s bogeyman) is portrayed through the seemingly apocalyptic abandonment audiences see in Robert Mitchell’s and Alvarez’s films. The results of capitalism and wealth-hoarding celebrated in the haunted house genre disappear from these films. Instead of prosperity the films portray a city that has been abandoned, leaving behind poverty and chaos.

From the opening shot of It Follows, we’re presented with a bleak, decaying vision of suburbia. The opening shot and most of the film take place outside. From the beginning, we’re torn from the obsessive treatment of the home’s interiors and instead forced to witness the suburban decay that has been harbored by greed. The film concerns a young college student, Jay, trying to fight off a mysterious curse she has contracted after having sex with her boyfriend, in the form of a stalking creature which relentlessly follows her and her friends and can take on any human form. As they try to find answers as to the origin of this STD-themed monster, they navigate the streets of Detroit looking for Jay’s boyfriend, who has disappeared. A melancholic synth soundtrack accompanies extensive shots of the results of massive evictions, abandoned buildings desecrated with graffiti, entire lots of empty land, and the cracked pavement and sidewalk which line the city. Even indoors, we are treated to an undoing of the “property porn” aesthetic common in previous haunted house films. Jay’s own home and its cluttered decorations are evocative of poverty and kitsch. Unlike the Reys’ massive backyard pool, jay lazily floats in a rubber pool littered with fallen leaves and tiny bugs. Her friends sit inside, huddled in a tiny, crammed living room, decorated with dull orange and avocado-colored wallpaper. The walls are lined with black and white, fading portraits.

The evocation of poverty is amped when Jay and her friends finally find her boyfriend, Hugh’s house, which is an abandoned squat, windows papered with newspaper clippings, debris and plaster peeling off the walls and ceiling, and old tin cans hanging from the rusty windowsills. This evokes a shocking turning away from the glamour and anxious documenting of property into a much bleaker depiction on the adverse effects of wealth hoarding, as represented by a city which has been literally sucked dry.

Even bleaker still, Don’t Breathe, which concerns a group of three teen colleagues who work together by breaking into homes in the more affluent sections of Detroit, follows their plight to ultimately gather enough to say, as the female member, Rocky, puts it, “bye, bye Detroit and hola California.” Alvarez’s vision is of a Detroit that is completely abandoned, and reflects the protagonists’ own anxieties to someday leave this dried out city behind. Like It Follows, the opening shot of this film lets us see the cracked asphalt, the abandoned property, home structures all around made up of rotting wood and unkempt grass that bleeds through the concrete. As Money, one of the members of the group, surveys the neighborhood surrounding their next target, the house of a blind Iraq war veteran who, after a settlement, was paid at least $300,000 in cash (we later find out this sum is much larger, at least $1 million), he comments, “at least for blocks around, the houses aren’t occupied.” The house that is occupied, that of the blind man, is represented as a property imbued with monstrosity and grotesqueness. The unconventional, dim lighting gives the inside of the house a somber, demonic feel, much like lighting techniques used to portray the Further in Insidious. However, unlike Insidious, the Further here is real, embodied in the cluttered, decaying husk of suburbia which Alvarez wants us to consider as the real iteration of American values as represented in housing: The hoarding of wealth which has produced a monstrous, marginalized realm of poverty and suffering.

With the concept of the home and the suburbs turned monstrous in these films because of the truthful unmasking of what capitalist greed has done to Detroit, we then turn to the perpetrators: white people, and more specifically, how their representation is noticeably different from those within the haunted house subgenre. The unsympathetic “viscous black slime” that Wood discusses in his analysis of modern horror monsters, which plague clean, idyllic suburbia are here given a different face, and much more noticeably, a different color. Except for It Follows, the monsters in these films are human, specifically white people, which literalizes their standing in the racial, class-based politics of their real-life scenarios, a drastic move away from the symbolic, “colorblind” depictions of black monstrosity in previous films. Even so, It Follows is usefully peculiar in that its monster, the titular “It,” despite its supernatural capabilities to “take on any form,” as the film explains, always opts to morph into grotesque iterations of white human beings. We see it briefly turn into a tall, eyeless, menacing white man, a small, white child with bloodshot eyes, a half-naked, toothless white woman urinating herself, among other forms of disturbing, aging white men and women. This monster helps us to not only combat the trend of “horror-colorism” in which darkness is placed at the side of evil and corruption, but also to ground the villainy in the horror film as a purely human(oid) facet of American suburban nightmares. We begin to understand that we have no monsters to blame for monstrosity, but rather ourselves.

More so than this, the creature’s true monstrosity comes from the explanation of how it feigns innocence. When Hugh is explaining to Jay the rules by which the creature plays, he states, “It could look like anyone, but there is only one of it. And sometimes… Sometimes I think it looks like people you love, just to hurt you.” Through this representation of feigned innocence which the monster enacts to get closer to its victims, the creature becomes emblematic of the very same supposed white innocence which is so meticulously constructed and embedded in the machinations of the haunted house film. Whereas in other iterations, and in dialogues regarding white victimization during the subprime mortgage crisis more specifically, the concept of white innocence is portrayed as real, here it is revealed as being only an ill-intentioned, reductive façade that hides the true intensions of the film’s monstrous whiteness: to accost, emotionally damage, and eventually kill its victims.

Don’t Breathe and Get Out, in turn, labor to completely embody monstrosity with a racial and social class sensibility. Don’t Breathe presents as the main villain a white, old army veteran who, at surface level, is monstrous through his physical representation of whiteness. He has milky, foggy eyes, his skin is jagged, scarred and cracked and his attire (a dirty wife beater) suggests disheveled uncleanliness, if not a gruff, intimidating masculinity. His embodiment is one which evokes patriarchal authority, reclusiveness, and anxiety over the home, as exemplified by the excessive locks and alarm systems he has placed throughout his house. These qualities are all amalgamated into a monstrous white body, so that we begin to understand that not only is the real monster in the history of housing human, but it is white in appearance.

Even more so, however, the concept of the hoarding of wealth is presented to American audiences as a grotesque form of white reclusiveness, which the blind man enacts through a monstrous drive to protect his property. As the premise of the film follows the three main characters attempting to rob his house, so, too, it follows that the blind man’s only drive is to kill them to protect what is his. The subversive twist of Don’t Breathe is its reversal of the “home invasion” thriller: the invaders are placed in the role of the victims, threatened by the blind man’s gruesome anxiety and protectiveness of his homeownership and wealth. This makes the homeowner the true monster, with those invading only desperate, impoverished individuals attempting to better their lives by obtaining the wealth which the blind man has so greedily hoarded.

Alvarez is also not afraid to profusely explore the misogynistic notions of patriarchy and the nuclear family as they are embodied in his villain. On top of his previously described exterior monstrosity, the blind man’s true intent is what truly obliterates the façade of white innocence in this film. Towards the end of the film, we learn that he has kept the girl that ran over and killed his daughter (from whom he received the settlement money) kidnapped in his basement, whom he has artificially inseminated for her to give him a new child to replace the one she took from him. After he accidentally shoots her while attempting to kill the invaders, and thus killing her and his unborn child, he decides to kidnap Rocky as a replacement. As he prepares to artificially inseminate Rocky, he explains his entire plan. “Cindy took my child away from me,” he explicates, “I thought it’s only fair that she gives me a new one.” The blind man is here explaining that the settlement money was not enough, coincidentally implying that what’s missing in this formula is an heir for him to enjoy and transfer his wealth to. Children and wealth are here confused in a grotesque way, much the same as Ellison does in Sinister, where he proclaims that his job is his legacy, while his wife corrects him and explains that his children are.

The blind man, however, is not confused, like Ellison is, but rather much too knowledgeable in the notion that wealth and children are interconnected in the process of maintaining and hoarding goods and benefits. There’s even a narrative of possession that gets constructed here, far different from the demonic one we see in the haunted house. Toby of Paranormal Activity possesses Kristi and then Katie in a symbolic embodiment of white male anxiety over the ownership of the white woman as part of his assets. Don’t Breathe, however, literalizes the concept of white possession: The blind man, quite literally, possesses Cindy, the kidnapped girl, and then attempts to possess Rocky, as part of his property, locked up in his basement along with his money. “9 months, and I’ll give you your life back,” he says as he approaches her with a turkey baster filled with his semen. This sexual transgression is, in his view, only a loan, a financial transaction in which he will see the (re)production of his wealth enacted through the female reproductive system. When Rocky protests that he cannot do this to her, he simply says, “There is nothing a man cannot do once he realizes there is no God,” further asserting his dominant, patriarchal role as the keeper of wealth and power in this encounter. Alvarez lets us see the monstrous possession and reproduction of white wealth and the protection of the patriarchal nuclear family as the keepers of this wealth. However, he lets us see this in a disturbing, subversive fashion that reveals the truly sickening nature of white wealth and power that the haunted house genre is fixated on lauding.

White monstrosity is taken to even more explicitly sociopolitical and satirical levels in Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out. White monstrosity here is no longer symbolic through implications behind actions and indirect evocations but instead takes on an overly literal form. Although not the first horror film of the decade to directly deal with racism and white supremacy in a monstrous way, it is the first to directly tackle the horrific notions of contemporary American race relations, both in class and sexuality-based terms, as well as providing a biting commentary on the problematic and aggressive nature of colorblindness as it relates to property and power structure. In this film, Chris, a young black photographer, is about to meet his white girlfriend, Rose’s family. As they travel to her parents’ secluded lake house, we are presented with an evocation of a whiteness that is monstrous through the cracks in the façade of their innocence. As one critic, John McDonald, writes, “the movie seems singularly uninterested in trying to present a narrative that addresses itself to white audiences,” meaning that conventional, mass-produced narratives of white innocence and the maintenance of black monstrosity are entirely absent at the core of this film. Furthermore, this review is right to point out that “Get Out forces us to confront the subtler aspects of racism in a supposedly color-blind society.” In other words, Get Out may well be a new facet of horror filmmaking in which the façade of white innocence and the forceful usage of colorblindness when approaching strictly racial social issues are entirely absent.

Through Chris’s interactions with Rose’s family and their friends, we see, in full, painstaking detail, the damaging nature of racial micro- (and later macro-) aggressions which they enact upon him. From comments on his genetic makeup holding the possibility of making him “a beast” at wrestling, to Rose’s father’s seemingly well-intentioned claim that he would’ve “voted for Obama for a third term,” to a later display of Chris’s otherness in front of excited whites who we later learn are plotting to steal his body and transplant their consciousness into it, the aggressive nature of contemporary race relations finally rears its ugly head, in full detail, onto the celluloid. This film presents us with a quotidian, everyday representation of whiteness, which is enough to let us see how truly monstrous it is. Even through comically calm and subdued visuals and sequences, like Rose’s father, Dean, claiming that he dislikes deer and that they should all be killed off (which, through Chris’s look of discomfort, we understand to be the encoded language of eugenics), or Rose calmly sitting in her bed, eating cereal, and sipping milk through a straw while listening to “The Time of My Life” as she looks for her next victim online, white monstrosity prevails even within its mundane, normalized setting.

Ultimately, what emerges from Get Out is the display of the racial power structure nascent in American culture and hidden away in its often-unexplored underbelly. Part of the process of stealing Chris’s body is for Rose’s mother, Missy, to hypnotize him and suppress his consciousness into a dark, vacuous area in his unconscious, aptly called “the sunken place,” losing complete control of his body. This works as an iteration of the power structure which the haunted house strives to restore in its endeavor to stop the demon from attacking the home: that the demon should stay in its place, in the Further (which is aesthetically like “the sunken place”), stored away in darkness so that we may never see suburban tranquility disturbed. This racial repression of Chris can also work, however, as an iteration of colorblindness itself: that the issue of race, and Chris’s own racialized existence must be stored away, unseen, so that whites’ own process of possession (here again, literalized, as whites seek to literally “possess” Chris’s physical prowess) can continue, undisturbed by any claims of foul play or injustice.

Pointing out all the injustice imbued in white monstrosity and its effects on American society, in relation to wealth, housing, race relations and patriarchal power structures, the three films here discussed also seem to offer a common resolution: that we must, if we want to escape these oppressive and problematic forces, “get out” of the house, as well as out of the notions of the nuclear family that must hermetically inhabit it. It Follows lays this claim through the loss of innocence. Jay, upon failing to combat the creature, instead resolves to stay in constant sexual relations with her friend, Paul, so that they may pass the curse back and forth in hopes of surviving. The final shot of the film shows Jay and Paul holding hands as they walk out into the suburbs, escaping the suffocating constraints of the definitions of white innocence and female reproduction. This sequence calls James Baldwin’s own critique of white innocence to mind, in which he iterates that “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state on innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster” (178). Yara, Jay’s friend, appropriately articulates this by quoting from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot in the film, where she says, “I think that if one is faced by inevitable destruction—if a house is falling upon you, for instance—one must feel a great longing to sit down, close one’s eyes and wait, come what may…” Jay, in a symbolic refusal to accept the traditional role of a reproducer of wealth, to simply “sit down” in her house “and wait,” as the haunted house so rigidly imposes upon its women, instead opts for an escape from these constraints, through casual sex, and through the evocation that the death of her innocence only means the protection of her life.

Likewise, in Don’t Breathe, the primary motivator for Rocky to escape Detroit is to provide her little sister with a better life, away from their abusive mother and her alcoholic boyfriend. Although the film does not do much to critique the power structures that have led Detroit to its state of decay in an overt way, nonetheless Alvarez is right to point out that Rocky is seeking to escape the constraints of a normative, traditional family structure and instead act as a confidant, sister, friend, and mother figure for her little sister. After she is successful in stealing the large sum of money from the blind man, she is bent on picking up the pieces of her family life, to overcome any emotional or physical trauma her nuclear family, and later her bout with the blind man, may have caused. If it’s too much to denote that her cooperation with her friends in robbing houses and attempting to survive through scavenging and pawning material goods is an evocation of the same community-based efforts many Michigan neighborhoods have undertaken to similarly survive, then it is at least safe to say that Rocky refuses to constrict her options to simply following the normative restraints that patriarchal structures impose for her. She is offered her life back by the blind man after 9 months, for her to sit quietly and wait to give birth to his heir, and yet she fights, escapes his grasp, and leaves Detroit with her sister, never to look back.

Get Out is much more overtly telling of a refusal to assimilate into the normative restraints of the house and the nuclear family, instead favoring a racial solidarity which Chris enacts with his black friend, Rod. The Armitages are, at first, the promise of a family for Chris, a replacement for the mother that he lost when he was a child. Even as he is about to undergo a brain transplant, the instructional video playing before him stipulates that he may still have the chance to be a part of the Armitage family (albeit with a white brain transplanted into his cranium). Like Rocky, Chris fights against this, and though the nature of his violence comes under question as he brutally murders the entire Armitage family, it is still the evocation of freedom that prevails in his triumphant escape from their home. After attempting to strangle Rose to death, his friend Rod arrives, and swiftly takes him away. Like how Micah and the Reys in Paranormal Activity 1 and 2 welcome audiences to experience a homecoming along with them, the Armitages also welcome Chris with open arms. However, as things get awry, and we realize this homecoming is the setup of a trap that threatens to continue racist violence and oppression, Rod lets us hear his concise figuration of a solution to this problem. As Chris gets into Rod’s car at the end of the film, after a moment of silence, Rod turns to him and solemnly states, “Man, I told you not to go in that house.” The solutionist message of the film is clear: if we are to comment on the racist notions of wealth, solvency, and stability in contemporary America, we must look for solutions outside these very constraints, embodied in the American home, that so monstrously suffocate us.

Juan Valencia

March 27, 2017

Advisor: Professor Felice Blake

Honors Undergraduate Thesis

For the Department of English

University of California, Santa Barbara


                                                                                                          Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “Stranger in the Village.” Notes of a Native Son. Beacon Press, 2012, pp. 163-179.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. “The Strange Enigma of Race in Contemporary America.” Racism Without the Racists. Rowman & Littlefield, 2006, pp. 1-24.

Burd-Sharps, Sarah, and Rebecca Rasch. “Changes in Wealth and Home Equity from 1991 to 2011.” Impact of the US Housing Crisis on the Racial Wealth Gap Across Generations. Social Science Research Council, 2015, pp. 9-15.

Cherry, Brigid. “Horror Cinema and Its Pleasures.” Routledge Film Guidebooks: Horror. Routledge, 2009, pp. 94-140.

“CNBC Task Force.” CNBC News. CNBC, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 19 Feb. 2009.

Denton, Nancy A., and Douglas S. Massey. “The Construction of the Ghetto.” American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 17-59.

Don’t Breathe. Directed by Fede Alvarez, Stage 6 Films, 2016.

Ernst, Keith, and Deborah Goldstein. “The Foreclosure Crisis and Its Challenge to Community Economic Development Practitioners.” Journal of Affordable Housing & Community Development Law, Vol. 17. American Bar Association, 2008, pp. 273-282.

Fanon, Frantz. “The Black Man and Psychopathology.” Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Richard Philcox. Grove Press, 2008, pp. 120-184.

Fanon, Frantz. “The Man of Color and the White Woman.” Black Skin, White Masks. Translated by Richard Philcox. Grove Press, 2008, pp. 45-63.

Get Out. Directed by Jordan Peele, Blumhouse Productions, 2017.

Hall, Stuart, et al. “Explanations and Ideologies of Crime.” Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. Macmillan Press, 1978, pp. 139-177.

Heller-Nicholas, Alexandra. “Approaching Paranormal Activity.” Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality. McFarland & Company, 2014, p.129-147.

“The House We Live in.” Race: The Power of an Illusion, directed by Christine Herbes-Sommers, PBS, 2003.

Insidious. Directed by James Wan, Blumhouse Productions, 2011.

Ioanide, Paula. “Escondido, California: The Exclusionary Emotions of Nativist Movements.” The Emotional Politics of Racism. Stanford University Press, 2007, pp. 175-205.

It Follows. Directed by David Robert Mitchell, Dimension Films, 2015.

Lipsitz, George. “How Whiteness Works: Inheritance, Wealth, and Health.” The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Temple University Press, 2006, pp. 105-117.

McDonald, John. “Something’s Off.” Jacobin Magazine, 5 March, 2017, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/03/get-out-review-racism/. Accessed 10 March, 2017.

Mills, Charles. “White Ignorance.” Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. Edited by Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana. State University of New York Press, 2007, pp. 11-38.

Oliver, Melvin. “Subprime as a Black Catastrophe.” The American Prospect, 20 Sept., 2008, http://prospect.org/article/sub-prime-black-catastrophe. Accessed Feb. 15, 2017.

Oliver, Melvin, and Thomas Shapiro. Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality. Routledge, 2006.

Paranormal Activity. Directed by Oren Peli, Blumhouse Productions, 2009.

Paranormal Activity 2. Directed by Tod Williams, Blumhouse Productions, 2010.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones. Directed by Christopher B. Landon, Blumhouse Productions, 2014.

Salazar, Carlos. “The Assassination of Detroit.” Jacobin Magazine, 14 Oct. 2014, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/10/the-assassination-of-detroit/. Accessed 3 March 2017.

Sinister. Directed by Scott Derrickson, Blumhouse Productions, 2012.

Stone, James D. “Horror at the Homestead: The (Re)possession of American Property in Paranormal Activity and Paranormal Activity II.” The Great Recession in Fiction, Film, and Television. Edited by Kirk Boyle and Daniel Mrozowski. Lexington Books, 2013, pp. 78-93.

Wood, Robin. “The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s.” Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. Columbia University Press, 1986, pp. 70-94.

Wood, Robin. “Horror in the 80s.” Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan. Columbia University Press, 1986, pp. 189-201.

Natural Selection to Neo-Darwinism: Societal Confrontations of Evolutionary Biology

By Chris La Placa

The theory of natural selection first broke ground in the mid-Victorian era, describing the process by which individuals grapple with environmental selection pressures that will ultimately predict the taxonomic composition of the following generation. It was not until the “Modern Synthesis” of the 1930s and 1940s that these theories were adequately supplemented with Mendelian and population genetics, enriching their validity and popular reception in the academic realm. However, the implications of these research advancements were not always greeted with equal societal enthusiasm. Examination of primary and secondary sources from both the Victorian and the “Neo-Darwinism” eras seems to suggest that while the two eras endured reasonably similar amounts of scrutiny, the sources of these responses were not always consistent. This is to say that the public concern with evolutionary biology was initially rooted largely in scientific skepticism and defense of religious traditions, not immediately concerned with the social implications of science until the crude interpretation of the “Modern Synthesis” made an explicit attack on racial minority groups.

Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), despite its eventual contributions to evolutionary biology, is characterized by a speculative, theoretical voice that was widely considered unsound and provisional due to its absence of a reliable scientific framework. Its proposal of a non-Creationist emergence of modern humans nonetheless shocked the public both scientifically and religiously, warranting fervid objections on the grounds of genetics, geology, and creed. In an 1867 review of Origin, Fleeming Jenkin introduced the “swamping” argument, a view of adaptation and inheritance discounting the potential of genes in lower frequencies to be expressed in large populations where such phenotypes are absent; this idea neglected to account for the slow and gradual process of evolution proposed by Darwin (himself influenced by Lyell). Unchallenged by research in population genetics, which would later disprove Jenkin, this claim’s logical deficiencies fueled the popular skepticism of the theory of natural selection on a genetic basis (Aronova).

Similarly, in 1862, William Thompson (later Lord Kelvin) employed thermal gradients in attempting to establish the age of the earth, argued in Origin to be conducive to billions of years of organismal adaptations — Thompson’s estimation of a maximum age of 100 million years deemed natural selection’s production of anatomically modern Homo sapiens impossible. However, this rebuttal was also flawed in its ignorance of the mechanics of solar convection, yielding a much younger age of the earth than truly accurate (Aronova). Finally, religious discordance grew abundant due to challenges to Creationism. Several responses archived by the Darwin Correspondence Project represent an overarching public disapproval of late-Victorian scientific publications, all of which undermined previous conceptions that human origins were divine rather than evolved from a lineage of nonhuman ancestors. While this discourse was productive in integrating evolutionary science into the public sphere, the era’s religious tradition prevented science from persuading preconceived theories pertaining to taxonomic variance. Scientific and religious objections to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection were rampant in the late 19th century and beyond; however, these arguments were primarily those of members of majority groups not targeted by the social implications of natural selection’s most contentious question: man’s place in nature.

Darwin’s Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871) addresses this inquisition — the origins of human nature and behavioral ecology — through its elaboration on the theory of sexual selection, previously described as depending “not on a struggle for existence, but on a struggle between the males for possession of the females; the result is not death to the unsuccessful competitor, but few or no offspring” (Origin 88). Sexual selection attempts to differentiate between opposing characteristics of the sexes that may be advantageous in ensuring maximum reproductive success, raising offspring to their own “alpha,” or age at first reproductive event. This theory describes men as releasers of physical and intellectual energy, physiologically katabolic, large-brained, intelligent, independent, eager, courageous, and passionate beings. Contrarily, women are cast as storers/conservers of energy, physiologically anabolic, nurturing, altruistic, constant, stable, commonsensical, and intuitive creatures. This bipolar model of gender roles, while accepted in the scientific realm, was socially detrimental and sizably criticized by members of a growing feminist community emerging not until the early 20th century.

The vanguard of this liberal sentiment was Charlotte Perkins Gilman, niece of abolition novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe and author of The Man-Made World and Our Androcentric Culture (1911). Warranted by the socially-ignorant conclusions of sexual selection theorists, Gilman’s work confronted the dyadic gender roles and natural order proposed by Darwin, arguing that by seeking economic independence from men, women would be successful in restoring a sense of balance between the sexes. This attention to the negative consequences of scientific theory pertinent to human nature was scarcely, if at all, publicized until over five decades after Charles Darwin’s first major literary contribution. Dissimilarly, challenges to the scientific merit and ecclesiastical implications of the theory of natural selection surfaced nearly instantly. While it is true that the explicit controversy incited by Darwin’s work was the scientific origin of species, the biological parameters of gender inequality in society were not confronted with adequate zeal. This was a prominent characteristic of evolutionary science in the late-Victorian era — its implicit societal shortcomings were condoned while false scientific skepticism penetrated and permeated the public dialogue.

While his earliest literature transformed Darwin into a public figure nearly overnight, his esteemed scientific reputation was not void of social defamation. The 1930s and 1940s witnessed the genesis of the “Modern Synthesis,” unifying Darwinian natural selection with Mendelian and population genetics, and birthing a Neo-Darwinist view on human origins which accounted for heritability and adaptation. The genetic basis of so-called “new biology” was scientifically sound, yet grossly abused in its vast applications to non-hereditary organismal features. This ignorance can be attributed to research in eugenics, a genetic concept rooted in selective sheep breeding at Robert Bakewell’s farm in 18th century Leicestershire. His striking results inspired works such as Francis Galton’s influential Hereditary Genius (1868), which presented evidence for inheritance of mental traits among a human population. This research spiraled into a dark form of social control in Victorian England, in which it was believed that artificial selection should be used as a method for preservation of the status quo and hierarchy, breeding human beings like cattle based on physical and mental capability. Eugenics was further justified by the popular desire to remedy the perceived collapse of human society as a result of industrialization. Darwin’s ignorant claims regarding the laws governing heredity and variation did nothing to ameliorate the calamity of eugenics. Furthermore, a unanimous public displeasure with eugenics was invisible due to its benefits to a majority of individuals affected by its processes. This sentiment does not parallel that of those reacting to speculative biology of the 19th century, presumably due to the implementation of convincing genetic research into 20th century science, despite its misuse.

The credibility of eugenics did decline as a result of several factors, including the disadvantages of human subjects research, increasing knowledge and recognition of the multidimensionality of heredity, and the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany. However, the crude interpretation of Mendelian theory in its application to non-hereditary characteristics persisted with the publication of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (1975), a well-intentioned text seeking to unify social sciences with the physical sciences. Wilson and many others saw the application of biological principles in explaining social phenomena to be the logical continuation of the Neo-Darwinist trajectory, himself writing that “sociology should be reshaped in the same way that taxonomy and ecology…have been reshaped entirely during the past forty years by integration into the ‘Modern Synthesis’” (Wilson 4). While this movement optimistically aimed to synthesize scholarship from interdisciplinary origins, undertones of biological and genetic determinism ultimately tainted this goal. Wilson expresses that “the individual organism is only the ‘vehicle of the genes,’ part of an elaborate device to preserve and spread them[selves]” (Wilson 3). Similarly, Richard Dawkins wrote in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene that “we are survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” (Dawkins). The unavoidably oppressive tones of these works seem to rob humans of their individuality and agency, assigning importance only to the perpetuation of genotypes and respective lineages. Regardless of its liberal intentions, the concept of sociobiology is inherently racist as it assigns normalcy to the primary population or culture in question, effectively othering all those who do not conform to this standard; like to eugenics, it employs Mendelian and population genetics in considering learned, rather than inherited qualities. Lacking a holistic view of sociality, sociobiology’s attempt to amalgamate biological and social sciences was a failure.

Unlike the delayed and relatively mild public response to the social implications of sexual selection, eugenics and sociobiology were confronted by ardent activism originating in the 1960s, characterized by the second wave of feminism, the rise of environmental agencies, anti-Vietnam war protests, and civil rights movements. Organizations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists assembled to protest the negative direction of science in the mid-late 20th century. This group exemplified liberal scientific activism, criticizing neither science nor government, but aiming to apply the vast aptitude of researchers in addressing societal epidemics such as poverty, malnourishment, urban decay, and environmental pollution (Francis Low, UCS Member). The Science for the People’s sociobiology study group, emerging in 1968, sought to combat the conservative politics of biological reductionism with the liberal ideal of “universalism” — this concept implies that individuals are afforded the same basic rights and have national and global responsibilities, rather than ethnic, political, or otherwise stratigraphic obligations. An increasingly multiculturalist agenda in the humanities was instrumental in ensuring the inclusion and representation of diverse and disenfranchised groups previously invisible in the racially-charged atmosphere produced by the works of Francis Galton and E.O. Wilson.

This underlying commitment to rejecting racism conjured up by advancements in evolutionary biology was a unique characteristic of the Neo-Darwinist era, unseen during past episodes of turmoil between society and the sciences. As understandings of the politics of human nature increased, so did the unifying climate of the Western world. Reliable scientific research emerged, describing that very few genetic nuances differentiate members of the same family; however, these individuals remain behaviorally and socially unique from one another. Similar ideas successfully denounced notions that behavior is heritable, that race has cognitive distinctions, and that certain cultures cannot escape imminent domination. The public response to the “Modern Synthesis” resulted in several fruitful modifications to previously acute tensions in society. This outcome is the product of criticism more focused on the subtle implications of biology and genetics, rather than the merit of the science itself.

Speculative 19th century evolutionary theory and Neo-Darwinism were similar iterations of biology in their ignition of societal retaliation in response to their use and misuse of scientific information. However, the foundations and magnitude of these retaliations were what characterized these periods. The response to Darwin’s early publications was largely critical of the absent scientific framework of his theories, and secondarily protective of the authenticity of divine origins of human beings. Not until half a century later did the public address gender inequality associated with the theory of sexual selection through the genesis of early feminist thought. Inversely, the “Modern Synthesis” saw itself under attack as early as the 1930s, as people began to discontinue their beliefs in eugenics. The analytical sentiment towards the notion of biological determinism holds momentum to this day, 2017 being a year in which eugenic thought has certainly resurfaced in the United States. The issues raised by scientific thought in the Victorian era certainly reemerged with the advent of Neo-Darwinism, and will likely persist due to an ever-changing concept of “human nature.”

Works Cited

Aronova, Elena. “Darwinian Revolution.” Fall 2016. Department of History, University of California, Santa Barbara.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or, the preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. J. Murray, 1859.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in relation to Sex. J. Murray, 1871.

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 1989.

Galton, Francis. Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into Its Laws and Consequences. Watts & Co, 1892.

Gilman, Charlotte P. The Man-Made World: Or, Our Androcentric Culture. Source Book Press, 1970.

Wilson, Edward O. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.

A World I Never Made: Dualism, Violence, and Sexuality in the Novels George Washington Goméz and The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo

By Francisco Olvera

Racial identity (and its formation) within the United States is an ongoing conversational theme, and given our recent election, a crucial one. If one looks at the history of the United States, it is apparent that its culture and society, at large, produces feelings of inferiority within people of color and other marginalized groups. In contribution to this conversation about the role U.S. society plays in the formation of racial identity, this paper conducts a close reading of two novels, written by Chicano authors, and structured as first-person narratives: George Washington Gomez by Américo Paredes and The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo by Oscar Zeta Acosta. In doing so, it seeks to answer the following questions: How do fictional Chicano males imagine their identity within a hegemonic white society? Furthermore, how does this hegemonic white society, built on years of racial hierarchy and division predicated on policies and practices of exclusion, shape and form Chicano masculinity? And finally, to bring it all together, how do these Chicano novelists portray the complexity of Chicano masculinity as reflective of a society and culture that denies their sense of identity and citizenship? The answer to these questions can be seen in the actions and reactions of the fictional characters within the novels. Although fictional, these characters are still able to illustrate, through their lives, the effects of a racist society. This is seen in intimate ways through questions of identity that revolve around fragmented episodes of sexual intimacy and tension, as well as acts of violence. Identity for the Chicano male thus becomes a place of fluid complexity. It is in this space where one comes to realize that we are not all just human beings attempting to survive the toils of daily life. Rather, some of us have histories stained by oppression; histories that still haunt and affect us today. So, while current reactionary critics on the political right make cases about the “vile” and “regressive” role that identity politics play in the United States, they lack a complex view of history that puts the onus of “identity politics” on policies and practices orchestrated by a white hegemonic state.

Practices of alienation and exclusion implemented by the United States directly affect people of color by limiting their social and economic opportunities. Furthermore, these practices construct visible and invisible divides in society which in turn create a racial hierarchy that privileges some at the expense of others. The effects of these divides appear in the areas of education, health, and freedom from imprisonment. The study of these specific areas, however, fails to expose and reveal the unique and individual psychological turmoil within racial subjects who inhabit and exist in a society of exclusion. Fiction allows for a more thorough examination into the turmoil experienced by these individuals. Through the close reading of George Washington Goméz by Américo Paredes, and The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo by Oscar Zeta Acosta, this study will examine how these novels expose fragmented identities created by a culture of racial hierarchy and division, and how this fragmentation reflects itself through a complex Chicano masculinity in the central characters. This complex negotiation of masculinity appears in these novels in the areas of violence and sexuality.

One way to understand the relationship between a culture of racial hierarchy and masculinity is by understanding that this culture, through its very structure, renders Chicano identity inferior. Masculinity is an area in which fragmentation occurs if coupled with structural racial hierarchy. A fragmented Chicano masculinity can be defined as a reactionary way of being due to feelings of inferiority, and these reactions manifest in the treatment of women as inferiors in order to create within a façade of strength and power. Gloria Anzaldúa, writing about being a “macho” (a man), states, “for men like my father, being a ‘macho’ meant being strong enough to protect and support my mother and us, yet being able to show love” (Anzaldúa 105). Here Anzaldúa provides a positive account of what being a “macho” can mean and presents a figure of both strength and love. However, she later goes on to juxtapose this figure with her modern conception of a “macho,” one whose “machismo [masculine pride] is an adaptation to oppression and poverty and low self-esteem” and later adds that “in the Gringo world [which is to say the American world], the Chicano suffers from excessive humility and self-effacement, shame of self and self-deprecation” [emphasis added] (Anzaldúa 105). These factors fragment the sense and performance of masculinity in Chicanos, and thus, for Anzaldúa, “the loss of a sense of dignity and respect in the macho breeds a false sense of machismo which leads him to put down women and even to brutalize them” (105). This “false sense of machismo” creates a complex Chicano masculinity under the much larger Chicano identity.

A better way to understand this complex masculinity is to apply the term “double-consciousness” to the Chicano male experience. W.E.B. Du Bois states, “the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world,—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world” (5). Like Anzaldúa, Du Bois understands the power the “American world” holds over shaping and defining the identity (a “consciousness”) of racial subjects. The other world, the “American world” only allows the Chicano male subject to see himself in the light of inferiority. This application of “double-consciousness” to the Chicano experience is helpful in order to understand the dichotomy between “normative” American identity (whiteness) and that of racial subjects, and how this dichotomy plays an important role in the shaping of racial identity and its subparts.

George Washington Goméz, a bildungsroman, begins with the birth of George Washington Goméz (also referred to as Guálinto), “born a foreigner on his native land…fated to a life controlled by others,” and follows him as he navigates the hostile early 20th century in the border state of Texas. Symbolically, this location places Guálinto between two worlds which will collide throughout his life: the American and the Mexican.  Masculinity, as a component of Chicano identity, appears and manifests itself in complex and fragmented ways. One way in which it does so is through violence. Violence in the novel is either absorbed by Guálinto and shapes him, or appears in the ways Guálinto expresses himself as a racial subject with a history of neglect. In the novel’s beginning Guálinto’s father is murdered by Texas Rangers, and on his deathbed asks his brother Feliciano (Guálinto’s uncle) not to tell Guálinto how he died for he does not want his son to feel hate (21). Feliciano, troubled by this, remarks how “it [will] be very hard to keep such a terrible truth from this male child” (Paredes 31). The early death of his father overshadows Guálinto as he grows up; for his father, a figure of masculinity, has been taken away by the same dominant force that years before took his native land (the proto-threat to Chicano identity). By denying Guálinto an important symbol of masculinity, the racial system of hierarchy and division which he inhabits begins to split and fragment his personal evolving identity.

Although Guálinto does not learn about his father’s death until much later in the novel, the hyper-violent ways in which he expresses himself in his youth reveal a subconscious understanding of the event which denied him a masculine figure crucial to his identity. An example of this appears when Guálinto begins to ask his uncle questions about what his father was like and what killed him. Feliciano lies and tells him he died of a heart attack, but he also informs him that his father was a gentleman (Paredes 101). Eventually, the talk leads to Feliciano revealing his personal antagonisms towards the “gringos” and he gives Guálinto a brief history of his people’s disenfranchisement in the hands of the “gringo” (Paredes 102). To all of this Guálinto responds, “‘Just wait till I grow up! Just wait till I’m a man! I’ll get our land back. I’ll be like Gregorio Cortez and Cheno Cortinas and all of them.’ He pulled out an imaginary gun. ‘Shoot them down like dogs. Ping, ping…I’ll kill all the Gringos and the rinches too, and drive them away from here” [emphasis added] (Paredes 103). Guálinto conflates manhood, and thus masculinity, with murder. He believes that one’s manhood grows through violence intended to affirm an illusionary sense of strength and power. Of course, one could argue that this is just a child with a big imagination, but to do so would undermine the violent state within which Guálinto lives and exists. His hyper-violent thoughts do not reflect a childhood imagination; rather, they reflect the world that has taken away his father and thus they affirm a brokenness which finds expression in false and vile conceptions of masculinity. They are simultaneously expressions of vulnerability and aggression. Double-consciousness returns here as an indication of what the U.S. dominant white world has placed upon Guálinto’s subjectivity: a history of violence which he then uses as his own vile defense.

The imposition of a racialized consciousness also affects Guálinto’s masculinity in the complexity of sexual tensions and desires. The heteronormative sexuality presented in these novels implies sexual relations and thus sexual reproduction. Matters of sexual reproduction become important when one considers how people are categorized as racial subjects, which is in part through their physical appearance. This is evident in an event that occurs towards the beginning of the novel where Gualinto is perceived as a white child due to his appearance. A Texas Ranger (a rinche) is aggressive towards Guálinto’s uncle and mother, asking them “Where’d [they got] that white child?…chico americano” (Paredes 32). Here, racial features are associated with national identity.

Questions surrounding sexual reproduction become more prominent as Guálinto grows up. After being involved in a knife fight in which he comes out victorious, people at a party who witnessed his fight invite him over. What follows is a hyperbolic celebration of his affirmed “masculinity.” The party he enters is a quinceañera, an important festivity in Mexican culture marking the passage from childhood to womanhood. In a way, this celebration acts as a mirror to his own passage into manhood. These events meld together and represent a larger rite of passage into adulthood for both the girl and boy, but this melding together also acts as an affirmation of Mexican-ness. Later Guálinto is taken care of by the birthday girl, dances with her and drinks alcohol (Paredes 246). It is in this setting, symbolic of Mexican culture, in which Guálinto appears to find himself. He embraces that his name “[is] and Indian name” and when an old man asks if it is Aztec, Guálinto affirms, stating, “you’re right” (Paredes 246). Guálinto perceives this old man as “an image in water,” which is to say, he sees a mirror in the old man (Paredes 246). As he leaves, Guálinto appears to have truly found himself, claiming that, “these were his people, the real people he belonged with. His place was among them, not the ‘Spaniards’ like the Osunas. He would marry Mercedes [the birthday girl] and live on the farm. He would go back. Tomorrow night he would go back” (Paredes 247). This scene ends, however, with “he never did [go back]” (Paredes 247).

Guálinto’s decision to select Mercedes is an undeniable sexual choice to affirm his identity as a Mexican subject. The role of women here is that of a pathway to a cultural self. Their potential unity holds the possibility of relieving Guálinto’s fragmentation. But the fact that he does not follow through is reflective of a struggle to confront women of his own race, and, in essence, a struggle to confront his Mexican side because of the imposition of inferiority the society he inhabits has placed upon it.

If this scene depicts the complex negotiation of masculinity regarding the sexual partners of a racial subject, then the ending of the novel depicts the complete split of the racial subject. Ironically, the final part of the book is titled, “Leader of His People” and is set years after the coming of age of Guálinto. In this final part, it is revealed that Guálinto chooses a white woman as his sexual partner. On the surface level, this choice of a sexual partner seems inoffensive, but how Guálinto makes this decision and the motives behind it reveal a much deeper problem. Guálinto himself sees this choice as an erasure of identity. Remembering their wedding night, he states that “he was somewhat surprised to discover [that Ellen, his wife] was a virgin. Getting the Mexican out of himself was not an easy job, he thought” [emphasis added] (Paredes 283). By having sex with Ellen, herself a representation of what the surrounding world has denied him—an American way of life and comfort—he plans to erase the Mexican identity within him. Not only do the motives behind his choice reveal a fragmented identity, but what he is willing to do to maintain his new status also reveals a deep split within. Ellen’s father, a retired Texas Ranger, insults Guálinto and the name given to him by his father, and instead of defending the memory of his father, Guálinto decides to “change his name to George G. Gómez…” (Paredes 284). In a scene which explicitly depicts the weight of inferiority placed upon the Chicano racial subject by the white dominant force (represented by the retired Texas Ranger), Guálinto chooses to see the Mexican side of his identity (given to him by his father) as inferior. This, in essence, reveals that since his birth, Guálinto “was fated to a life controlled by others” (Paredes 15). The culture of racial division and hierarchy in which Guálinto lives forces him to see the Mexican side of his identity as inferior, and instead of continuing the constant struggle and clash of self, Guálinto chooses to accept the narrative of inferiority that surrounds his racial identity, and thus chooses to erase and betray it.

The setting and time of Goméz situate the central character in a world shaped by legal racial segregation. The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo situates the main character in the political climate/era of the Chicano movement, a time and period of resistance defined by the celebration of “Chicano” as a cultural and national identity (Pulido 113-114). Still, a similar fragmentation of Chicano masculine identity that Goméz exposes and explores also appears in Buffalo. Although at first, this appears as a traditional form of masculinity in the events in the novel, it is, in reality, a unique portrayal of the fragmentation of masculinity. The main character, Oscar, goes on a “hero’s journey” throughout the United States, symbolic and representative of the Chicano racial subject’s search for identity. Like Goméz, Buffalo raises questions surrounding masculinity and its relationship with violence and sexuality, and how these aspects reflect a society of racial hierarchy and division. In Buffalo, masculinity is affirmed through hyper-violence and acts simultaneously as a form of defense. This is not to say, however, that violence as a defense is appropriate for the situation in which characters find themselves; rather, it is a response to a racially tense climate. This response must be viewed as reflective of a society which seeks to demean Chicano identity. One scene in the novel illustrates this when Oscar, in his youth, is taunted by Junior Ellis, an “Okie,” who keeps calling him a “nigger” (Acosta 93). This offensive slur is used by Junior Ellis to demean Oscar based on his darker skin color. Furthermore, the usage of this slur represents a culture of racial division and reveals how the white dominant force attempts to erase individual unique identities by defining racial subjects as they see them, not as they see themselves. Oscar fights Junior Ellis and triumphs (Acosta 94). As Oscar walks away he passes and ignores Jane Addison, who, like Ellen in Goméz, represents a white sexual partner of desire for the Chicano male subject, one which embodies a sense of American identity which has been denied to him. The sexual obtainment of white women in these two novels represents a passage into the American world. Traditional forms of masculinity emphasize sexual prowess as a characteristic of masculinity. Still, the sexual desire for other women in these novels does not reveal traditional forms of masculinity at play. These desires are predicated on the need to survive within a structurally racist society and thus are revelations of a fragmented sense of masculinity. This, alongside the way in which violence is used to affirm masculinity in response to racial feelings of inferiority, reveals the fragmented negotiation of identity. Later in class, instead of Jane admiring Oscar for his “masculine” triumph through violence, she asks the teacher to ask Oscar to put his shirt back on because “he stinks” (Acosta 94). It is not clear that Jane does this because of Oscar’s race, but that does not matter. What matters is the way in which Oscar sees himself after this, and how his response reveals feelings of inferiority. Oscar, in response to this rejection, claims “I am the nigger, after all… I am nothing but an Indian with sweating body and faltering tits that sag at the sight of a young girl’s blue eyes” (Acosta 95). Oscar thus sees himself through the eyes of the white dominant American world, the double-consciousness thus emerges. He sees himself as inferior in front of the “blue eyes” representative of that from which he is denied and excluded because of his race.

Questions surrounding race in regards to a sexual partner later appear in the novel when Oscar is older. Like Guálinto in Goméz, Oscar displays a complex negotiation of masculine identity when he chooses to reject his Mexican background through the rejection of a Mexican sexual partner. He states that he “never went out with the few Mexican girls in school because they always stuck to themselves and refused to participate in the various activities” (Acosta 112). Oscar ignores the fact that these Mexican girls, as racial subjects, also exist in a society which views them as inferior. Their lack of participation is not by choice but by the restrictions placed upon them by a society which denies them a self. Oscar later goes on to add that, “I did not know one Mexican girl that aroused the beast within me” (Acosta 113). His sexual attractions represent a culture which glorifies whiteness as beautiful at the expense of nonwhite racial subjects. As a racial subject seeking recognition, Oscar subjects himself to internal splitting and fragmentation erasing his Mexican identity through his intentional rejection of Mexican women. The inferiority he imposes upon his female kin acts as a mirror reflective of his personal fragmentation. He, too, idealizes white as beautiful. In the beginning of the novel, his sexual attractiveness is predicated on his racial appearance. What he sees in the mirror is “a brown belly” and “two large hunks of brown tit,” his brownness never separated from his identity (Acosta 11). Following this, he goes on to reveal that his three favorite men are Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson, all white actors (Acosta 12). The choice of actors demonstrates the culture that Oscar grew up in: a culture which idealizes and favors whiteness. This, inherently, subjects nonwhite racial subjects to feelings of inferiority.

Unlike Guálinto in Goméz, whose subjectivity ends in a tragic form through the rejection of Mexican identity, Oscar in Buffalo grows to admire and accept a side of his Mexican identity through his sexual desires for a Mexican female partner. This is seen towards the end of the novel in his culturally symbolic travel into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Oscar describes the setting in which he finds himself, surrounded by Mexican women, his “head in a quagmire, twisted with the delights of the most beautiful women [he’s] ever seen in [his] life” and comes to the realization that “whatever Alice Joy or Jane Addison meant to [him] as a kid, now they were only grade school memories of a time gone by” (Acosta 188). Alice and Jane, as white women, represented a pathway to American life, but the chase for them, and the possible notion of their obtainment, also meant a rejection of Mexican identity. His rejection of this past mode of thinking is an acknowledgment of his own racially complex identity and a rejection of further fragmentation. Thus the struggles of his masculinity, in the beginning, cease to exist as he accepts and learns to love himself despite the dominant culture he inhabits. Mexico, for him, is the land where he realizes this, but it does not encompass him. He is later harassed and hurt by a Mexico which also denies him a sense of identity. He returns to the United States, reborn a Chicano. As Oscar states, his “single mistake has been to seek an identity with any one person or nation…what is clear to [him] after [his] sojourn is that [he] is neither a Mexican nor an American…[he is] a Chicano by ancestry and a Brown Buffalo by choice” (Acosta 199).

The ending of Buffalo reflects the era of nationalist pride and acceptance exhibited by the Chicano movement, while the ending of Goméz reflects an era of racial exclusion and segregation which offers no alternative to identity like the one the Chicano movement provided for Oscar. Nevertheless, both of these novels reveal the complex negotiation of masculinity within Chicano male subjectivity. The study of these novels is crucial to our understanding that the United States is a space in which identity formation is fragmented and complex for racial subjects; that its historical laws and practices of exclusion inherently create within these racial subjects feelings of inferiority. These texts allow for new ways of thinking about what it means to grapple with racism and oppression. They invite us to see this battle in the intimate settings of sex and violence. Racism and oppression do not only affect material well-being, they also affect one’s psycho-emotional well-being. Understanding this opens up a much-needed conversation about feelings of alienation and inferiority within people of color, and fiction serves as a powerful medium to do so.

Works Cited

Acosta, Oscar Zeta. The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. Vintage Books, 1989.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books, 2007.

Bruce-Novoa, Juan. “Homosexuality and the Chicano Novel.” Confluencia, vol. 2, no. 1, 1986, pp. 69-77, JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/27921700.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Penguin Books, 1996.

Eng, David L. Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Duke University Press, 2001.

Gutiérrez, David G. Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity. University of California Press, 1995.

Harris, Cheryl I. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement. The New Press, 1995, pp. 276-290.

Lipsitz, George. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Temple University Press, 2006.

Mills, Charles W. The Racial Contract. Cornell University Press, 1997.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

Omi, Michael & Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960’s to the 1980’s. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987.

Padilla, Genaro M. “The Self as Cultural Metaphor in Acosta’s Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo.” The Journal of General Education, vol. 35, no. 4, 1984, pp. 242-258, JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/27796969.

Paredes, Américo. George Washington Goméz. Arte Publico Press, 1990.

Pérez, Héctor. “Voicing Resistance on the Border: A Reading of Américo Paredes’s George Washington Gómez.” MELUS, vol. 23, no. 1, 1998, pp. 27-48. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/467761.

Pulido, Laura. Black, Brown, Yellow & Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles. University of California Press, 2005.

Seliger, Mary A. “Colonialism, Contract and Community in Américo Paredes’s George Washington Gómez and…and the Earth did Not Devour Him by Tomás Rivera.” Latino Studies, vol. 7, no. 4, 2009, pp. 435-456, Ethnic NewsWatch; International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (IBSS); Sociological Abstracts, search.proquest.com/docview/222595174?accountid=14522,doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/lst.2009.32.



The Modern Zombie and Islamophobia: A Closer Look at Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead

By Jordan Laub

The title sequence for Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) opens with a short clip of a Muslim mosque during prayer followed by a series of still images, short clips and segmented audio that depicts the back-story of the film through fragments of the zombie contagion’s genesis. With journalists reporting in poor quality from a foreign desert and American soldiers in beige fatigues, the imagery of the title sequence is curiously strange for the remake of a film set entirely in a suburban strip mall in the heart of America. But, why would a remake of George A. Romero’s cult classic, Dawn of the Dead (1978), which is widely accepted as a metaphor for the mindless consumerism of American culture, open with a clip of a Muslim mosque during prayer? What does a back-story portraying elements of the ‘War on Terror’ have in common with a zombie contagion set entirely in an American strip mall? Although a generation of mindless shoppers trapped in vicious cycles of over-consumption still plagues American society, it is not at the forefront of its subconscious, nor is it what gives Snyder’s remake its terrifying appeal. By reinventing Romero’s zombie as a fast-moving, highly dangerous and contagious organism, Snyder has embodied the media’s portrayal of fanatical Islamic terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS in the zombie. When re-analyzing Zach Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead (2004) with its socio-political backdrop firmly in the mind of its audience, the relevance of the film’s bizarre title sequence becomes disconcertingly clear: Snyder’s zombie is a manifestation of radical Islam.

Dawn of the Dead debuted in American theatres in 2004, just three years after the official dawn of the ‘War on Terror.’ Its debut was part of an explosion in popularity of zombie films that occurred immediately after 9/11 and still continues today. In the 2000s, zombies appeared in 10% of theatrical releases, and in the 2010s, that number increased to 13% (IMDB 2015). This boost in popularity of zombie films coincides with the emergence of a new sect of radical Islamic insurgents, ISIS. One explanation for this boost in popularity coinciding with the growth of ISIS is that the zombie contagion is rather effective at portraying America’s real-world enemy. As explained by Andrew Schopp, author of The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: “The label of terrorist possesses an ontological blankness strikingly similar to that of the zombie, as they are both outward physical threats to western civilization whose inner motivations remain hidden from view. They are both also sufficiently Othered as Monstrous” (Schopp 35). According to mainstream media, America is at war with a radically dangerous, and extremely contagious superbug. Although the disease itself is invisible, the infected are immediately discernible from the healthy and the number of infected is exponentially increasing. The name of this contagion is radical Islam.  

Midway through the title sequence of Dawn of the Dead (2004), after a brief glimpse of American soldiers equipped with gasmasks, an audio recording from a CDC press conference regarding the zombie contagion begins and is audible for the remainder of the title sequence. The dialogue between the reporters and the CDC commissioner is equally fitting for that of a press conference on the spread of religious extremism and ensuing threat of terrorism, as it is for the film’s zombie contagion: “Is it a virus? We don’t know. How does it spread, is it airborne? Airborne is a possibility, we don’t know. Is this a national health hazard, or a military concern? Both. Are these people alive, or dead? We don’t know” (Snyder 2004). Interrupting the video feed to this conference are brief sequences of cell division and other bimolecular processes. American politicians, and news and media sources alike, all explain the military expansion of Islamic radical insurgents in terms of a viral contagion. During his speech at the Reagan Library, 2016 Presidential candidate, Jeb Bush stated, “Radical Islamic terrorists are one of the gravest threats facing our country,“ and he then described the influence of ISIS as “spreading like a pandemic” (Bush 2015). This pandemic first spread to the American homeland on February 5, 2002, when American citizen and notorious traitor, John Walker Lindh, was indicted for conspiracy to murder US citizens and conspiracy to contribute services to Al Qaeda. Described by President George W. Bush as “the first American Al Qaeda fighter” (Bush 2001), Lindh became patient zero for the contagion outbreak. With Lindh declared guilty in 2003, the threat of domestic terrorism perpetrated by those infected with a dangerous ideology became very real, a theme most evident in the likeness of Snyder’s zombie to a suicide bomber.

Perhaps the most terrifying moment in all of zombie cinema occurs at 16:37 of the unrated director’s cut for Dawn of the Dead, a scene that was omitted from theatrical, and standard DVD release. While the group of survivors struggles to escape from a passing horde of undead by forcing entry into the mall, one of the infected suddenly breaks from his zombie horde and charges towards the group. Despite being shot a total of six times, the zombie remains at a full sprint, unphased by the bullets. Arriving at the door just before it is sealed, the zombie blocks the door from closing with a heavily bleeding severed arm, waving it in the face of the survivors, splashing its highly-infectious blood into the faces of its victims. More disturbing than the scene’s gut-wrenching tension is its striking similarity to a suicide bombing. Brandishing a black tank top, the infected man wears a form of a suicide vest, only without the explosives. Instead of a detonator in his right hand, the zombie uses its severed right arm as the tool for his zombie jihad. Charging towards the group at full-speed, and splashing blood in the face of its victims, the jihad zombie similarly relies upon physical proximity to deliver its lethal payload. Snyder’s zombie manifests the subconscious attributes of a radicalized ‘terrorist’: ruthless, unwavering, and utterly terrifying. According to Stephen King, “that’s exactly what Snyder’s zombies are, it seems to me: fast-moving terrorists who never quit” (King xxi). The only cure to Snyder’s jihad zombies and their unwavering reign of terror is a bullet to the head–the physical destruction of the mind.

Throughout the film, there is a constant reiteration of the necessity to shoot the zombie in the head. At 27:02 of the unrated director’s cut, the survivors gather around a TV in the mall that displays an interview between a reporter and the county sheriff discussing how to kill a zombie. “I understand you’re having a difficult time killing these things. Just shoot em’ in the head. They seem to go down permanently when you shoot em’ in the head… It’s gotta’ be done” (Snyder 2004). After hearing the last line of the interview, CJ points to the TV with a smile and states, “What did I tell you boys? America always sorts its shit out” (Snyder 2004). This is the first time in the film America is referenced in connection with the contagion. CJ’s statement connotes the sheriff’s indiscriminate execution of the infected as the American solution, and thus, the only solution. By shooting the victim in the head the threat is eliminated by removing the infected body’s ability to think as well as its ability to spread infection. This exchange also probes the audience to consider the survivors as American and the zombie as a foreign invader. This concept of the survivors as America’s defenders vs. the foreign hordes is most evident in the ‘identify and execute’ game.

The reading of Dawn of the Dead (2004) as a manifestation of the ‘War on Terror’ would be wholly incomplete without a segment of the film dedicated to the idolization of the American military sniper; fortunately, a significant portion of the film concerns Andy, a blond-haired Caucasian, who sits atop his perch above the gun store adjacent from the mall armed with a sniper rifle. Sporting shaggy-hair, combat boots, and a tan-green undershirt reminiscent of the kind warn beneath the armor of American soldiers in Afghanistan, Andy certainly matches the military sniper stereotype. On the command of Kenneth (the police officer who acts as Andy’s spotter), Andy locates the zombie with the characteristics corresponding to the name written on Kenneth’s whiteboard and shoots the target in the head–a simplification of the process used by the American military to order the assassination of an enemy combatant. When reading the mall as a symbol for America and Andy as its heroic defender, the walls of the mall become America’s geographical borders and Andy as its American sniper. Needing only one shot per kill, Andy’s excellent marksmanship evokes awe in and praise from the group. After watching his art through binoculars, Tucker states, “wow, he’s good” (Snyder 2004). This idolization of Andy’s marksmanship can be attributed to his manifestation as the model agent for the American solution. Methodically taking headshot after headshot in defense of the homeland, and eventually losing his life in the line of duty, Andy symbolizes the perfect patriot; a hero dedicated to eradicating the growing pandemic, one bullet at a time.

The subversion of reason and morality is a common theme throughout the film as humane treatment of sick persons is eschewed and the persona of the callous executioner becomes necessary for survival. The audience is probed to perceive the characters that defend the lives of the infected as weak and whose actions compromise the group’s probability of survival. After learning that the contagion is transmitted through oral contact with an infected individual, Ana, the voice of morality and reason, advocates for the bitten to be quarantined; however, to the approval of the other survivors, Michael decides those who have been infected must be immediately exterminated, stating, “it is too dangerous to keep them around here” (Snyder 2004). As the body begins to show symptoms of infection, physical touch becomes taboo, and scenes depicting a proximity to the flesh of the infected body become utterly repulsive. Just before the transformation is complete, the infected ‘die’ and are reborn as a zombie terrorist. This process of reanimation graphically materializes the conversion of a healthy mind into that of the enemy—an irreversible transformation of the American into the monstrous ‘other;’ a transformation that warrants immediate extermination in the name of self-preservation. When perceiving empathy as detrimental to survival and the persona of the callous executioner as necessary, self-preservation becomes the characters’ unilateral justification for unspeakable acts of violence. This is the very same rationale used to justify the ‘War on Terror.’

Perhaps it is for this reason the remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) coincides with the dawn of the ‘War on Terror’–the concept of a group of survivors defending an American mall from a horde of terrorists is again relevant. It is not difficult to view the mall as a symbol for America and the zombie as the Islamic terrorist threatening its culture; after all, shopping is America’s favorite past time and its second is the over-consumption of media that relies on terrorism to sell the ‘news.’ The irony of a nation openly at war with terrorism, yet whose media constantly uses fear mongering to portray its enemy is not lost on Andrew Schopp, “it proves rather ironic that we are fighting a war on terror outside our national borders since the real terror seems to be occurring within them” (Schopp 2009). What makes Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead such a terrifying film is that it is an accurate manifestation of the monster haunting the post 9/11 American psyche. Snyder’s zombie contagion is the symptom of a subconscious utterly paranoid of infection with a fast-spreading, borderless contagion that threatens the very existence of the American consumer, and thus, American culture itself.

Works Cited

Dawn of the Dead: Unrated Director’s Cut. Dir. Zach Snyder. Perf. Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames and Jake Weber. Universal Pictures, 2004.

“Jeb Bush: ISIS is ‘spreading like a Pandemic'” CBS News. CBS Interactive, 2015, cbsnews.com/news/jeb-bush-isis-is-spreading-like-a-pandemic/. Accessed 10 Mar. 2016.

Lindh, Frank. “How John Walker Lindh Became ‘Detainee 001″ The Nation. N.p., 29 Aug. 2014, thenation.com/article/how-john-walker-lindh-became-detainee-001/. Accessed 10 Mar. 2016.

“Movie Monsters that Ruled the Big Screen By Decade.” Imgur. IMDB, 2015, imgur.com/FaizPa6. Accessed 10 Mar. 2016.

King, Stephen. Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. Everest House, 2010.

Schopp, Andrew, and Matthew B. Hill. The War on Terror and American Popular Culture: September 11 and Beyond. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009.


TechnOphelia: Performance, Patriarchy, and Cyborg Feminism in Science Fiction

By Amy Chase

If you are reading this thesis on a computer screen, you are already posthuman. The words you see here are ideas and representational patterns of intelligence separated from my body. For all you know, I could be a robot.

In her book How We Became Posthuman (1999), Katherine Hayles addresses the emerging distinction between corporeality and the more abstract reality of information in the age of technology. Society has already begun its transition to the age of the posthuman as culture, science, and even our understanding of self have moved beyond the state of human existence. According to Hayles, the posthuman view, “privileges informational pattern over material instantiation, so that embodiment…is seen as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life” (Hayles 2). Posthumanism separates the mind and body and translates both into products of the informational age- body as the physical prosthesis that is manipulated by the mind, a mind which becomes a series of codes and informational patterns existing both with and without tangible form. In an age where technology is such an integral part of human life, there remains an inherent fear about losing oneself to the progressive creep of the digital, disembodied reality. If the patterns and codes of information and intelligence can exist without the body, then human form becomes less exceptional and more expendable.

In 1950, when computer technologies were just beginning to become more widely known to the public, computer scientist Alan Turing devised a test to see if machines could think and imitate human speech patterns through text in a way indistinguishable from a real person, all without the physical presence of another being. This “imitation game” became a paradigm for detecting whether the posthuman could flawlessly reproduce human intelligence through, “the formal generation and manipulation of informational patterns” (Hayles xi). In the Turing test, a human tester is situated apart from their subject, and must have a series of natural language conversations to determine if the subject is human or machine, and sometimes then if they are male or female. This test relies on the tester being unable to see the subjects, who may or may not exist on the other end of a computer terminal. An artificially intelligent entity should be able to replicate human vocal performance, even including facets of gender presentation, well enough to fool the tester, proving that machines can think. Internet users participate in their own form of Turing test via the CAPTCHA system on most websites, which ask users to prove their humanity by solving a letter puzzle or identify imagery that the typical bot program would fail to complete. CAPTCHA in this case stands for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart,” where the computer learns from the human answers, and adjusts its intelligence accordingly to appropriately act more human. For example, the program may ask users to identify a set of distorted words or correctly distinguish colors in a gridded photograph that the typical computer program cannot solve through an algorithm. Your answer teaches the computer how to respond, and its intelligence evolves. Eventually, even bots can fool bots by adapting their performance to the information garnered from human labor.

For science fiction literature, the figure of the robot, with its mechanical body and encoded consciousness, becomes the perfect metaphor for man seamlessly integrated with the machine. These androids are constructed in man’s own image, imbued with a replicated humanity in the form of codified patterns and programming that enables the appearance of consciousness. The term ‘robot’ first appeared in Czech writer Karel Čapek’s play Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920), which imagines the roboti as manufactured, artificial people made of synthetic organic matter. While they are not depicted as the same circuit-driven cyborgs often seen in modern science fiction, since their inception robots have been wrapped in identity politics. In Čapek’s writing, the robots are a servant class, but recognize humanity in themselves despite being mass-produced by artificial means. In fact, the word roboti in the original Czech language comes from robota, meaning slave labor. From inception, these creations have been viewed as subhuman, rather than posthuman, and performance and labor are encoded in robots from their origin. Their bodies are modeled on human figures, and much of the human notion of self is based on binary gender presentation- anything else is other and foreign. These cyborgs are then restricted by societal conventions, their interactions with the human dictated by hierarchical and patriarchal relationships between master and slave, tester and subject, and man and woman.  Science fiction literature imagines technology so advanced that these robots fulfill a variant of humanity and femininity that allows machines to replace marriages, cyborgs to satisfy sexual urges, and androids to perfectly reproduce art.

The following analyses examine the power of performative humanity as demonstrated by the artificial female figures of posthuman imagination in literature from 1938 through 2015, observing the traditions of gender roles juxtaposed with imagined visions of the future of technology. In a field so defined by Turing’s examination of gender performance, posthuman artificial intelligence reflects its human creators, revealing through discussions of sexuality, domesticity, and creativity exactly what it means to be a human in an increasingly technological era. Furthermore, by representing what it means to be human, cyborgs provide feminist scholars a lens through which to imagine the postgender future in which individuals can overcome the traditional binaries. Ultimately, by demonstrating human fetishization of embodiment and the prestige of disembodied intelligence, the female robots of science fiction reveal both the future potential and the present shortcomings of what it means to truly be a human in the posthuman world.


Deus Sex Machina- Humans and the Cyborgasmic

You must create a female for me, with whom I can live in the interchange of those sympathies necessary for my being.”

Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (1818)

The above quote from Frankenstein comes from the creature himself, who is a manufactured man committing himself to the pursuit of a very human desire for sexual companionship. The monster was made by Victor Frankenstein to be a human, and whether subconsciously or not, the being feels compelled here to make a request for his equal, a woman, in order to attain that humanity within him. This female creature is never fully realized, but in her partial construction begins to fulfill the human desires of her monstrous partner.  Reflecting on the state of technology’s purpose in Sex and the Posthuman Condition (2014), Michael Hauskeller notes that the machine “is always something that has been constructed to serve a certain purpose, which is not primarily [its] own purpose, but the constructor’s” (Hauskeller 16). Even the most highly advanced robot is an object with a programmed or otherwise intended directive, performing based on its internal code. Science fiction imagines the cyborg figure to be devoted to fulfilling their man-given purpose while also appearing as natural as possible, leading to a host of circumstances in which the robot technology replaces human ability in strength, precision, or durability. Robots are also increasingly being considered for their sexual purposes beyond those fantastical situations of space exploration and alien encounters in science fiction.

Hauskeller suggests that sexual cyborgs, or sexbots, ideally are, “always available to serve all our sexual needs…better and more reliably than any human lover could” (Hauskeller 18). Nonliving, they are touted as hygienic alternatives to innately human problems such as sexually transmitted infections, physical deficiencies, and even psychological responses regarding intimacy and issues of consent. In this way, the sexbot becomes a highly functioning object which consistently and tirelessly projects the “appearance of consciousness,” which is the closest that human inventors can achieve in replicating the artificial mind (Hauskeller 16). This reproduction of human interaction soothes our anxieties about interacting with the machine in such a manner that usually connotes expressions of love, partnership, or desire.

The carnal synthesis of man and the machine creates an experience that is both cybernetic and organic, but decidedly one-sided despite artificial insistence of arousal or interest in human pleasure. Sex fulfills no biological requirements for the cyborg, only mechanical obligations to satisfy the human partner and achieve their programmed ends. It is possible to consider the act of copulation with a robot to be a form of parasitism, where the human achieves sexual pleasure by feeding off of the mechanical agent. In contrast, feminist Jincey Lumpkin believes that humans should consider “that robots should have a choice too and not be treated as mere things… because constructing them without the choice to say no would cause duress,” suggesting that the artificial mind should have the same decision-making capacity as a human rather than simply responding to a constructed directive (Hauskeller 16). This element of human-cyborg relations prompts an interesting examination of human desire and the treatment of objects versus conscious beings, because if these robots are built to imitate humans, then moral reasoning processes, as well as the exercising of choice and preference, could be inbuilt in the artificially intelligent mind.

Considering this, science fiction literature opens the discussion into ideas of consensual sex with robots, treating them as if their humanity will become indistinguishable with our own. The robots will eventually deceive humans into believing in their own consciousness and life, but in creating these robotic partners, people relinquish their own understanding of the dichotomy between human consciousness and robotic simulation. When this becomes the case, the robots fall into the same constraints of gender performance and sexual roles as there are in current society. Sexual female robots, such as the following examples, represent the typically desired female body while projecting a woman’s consciousness, fulfilling male romantic desire in a heteronormative reconstruction of idealized human intimacy. It does not matter if the robot can or cannot feel, as at the core of these instances lies a test of the human capacity and even perhaps the human fear of coupling with the cyborg.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), it takes a confrontation with a particularly amoral human male for Rick Deckard to qualify his romantic and sexual urges towards the Nexus-6 model Rachael Rosen: “Love toward a woman or an android imitation, it’s sex. Wake up and face yourself, Deckard. You wanted to go to bed with a female type of android- nothing more, nothing less” (Dick 143). To face himself, Deckard must confront his personal human wants versus those necessitated by his job as a bounty hunter. Throughout the novel, humans distinguish themselves from their android opponents through the innate emotional concept of empathy, which the robots supposedly lack. Phil Resch, a ruthless bounty hunter, even warns Deckard, “Don’t kill her- or be present when she’s killed- and then feel physically attracted. Do it the other way” (Dick 143). Deckard must act on his urge before the robot is retired, or else risk failing to fulfill both his hunting assignment and his human desire for sex. Falling in love with robots, Hauskeller claims, “proves we are easily duped,” and, “we will find it very difficult not to attribute consciousness,” to an advanced enough robot based on its design and presentation of human behaviors (Hauskeller 20). Deckard finds himself in the position of attributing consciousness to Rachael Rosen, “because she- it- was physically attractive,” and with that he projects his own sexual desires onto her, his judgment sufficiently clouded by the advanced design of the Rosen Corporation’s artificial humans (Dick 143).

When he and Rachael have an intimate encounter in a hotel, Rick Deckard continues to, “wonder what it’s like to kiss an android,” and then acts on his curiosity: “Leaning forward an inch, he kissed her dry lips. No reaction followed; Rachael remained impassive. As if unaffected. And yet he sensed otherwise. Or perhaps it was wishful thinking” (Dick 189). Rachael Rosen does not project the behavioral output of arousal or stimulation, and yet Deckard still considers her sexually appealing, though he comments on her figure as being “neutral, nonsexual” (Dick 187). Her unaffected nature almost mirrors that of a disinterested woman playing hard to get, which some men consider more attractive and desirous than a woman who is too wholly interested. Mechanical indifference translates to human curiosity, and Deckard’s wishful thinking of Rachael’s reaction contributes to his sexual satisfaction. Hauskeller suggests that in the future, “the pleasures of the body may eventually be completely disconnected from the actual body as its (necessary) source” as anatomical robots who can recreate those sexual experiences become increasingly virtual (6). Rachael’s lack of physical output incites Deckard’s arousal even without the integration of her body into a sexual encounter with the bounty hunter.

Hauskeller cites a historical precedent for male erotic desire towards nonliving female bodies when Ovid’s Pygmalion character finds himself attracted to his own statue because, “she is supposedly a living woman, but without the flaws… she is perfect and pure, and perfectly usable” (28). The word “usable” suggests the servitude of the robot body, relegating the artificial woman to the status of an object meant for consumption by the male owner. This relates to the robot’s origins as a slave figure, and in the context of Dick’s novel, recalls the status of the escaped Nexus-6 androids as servants for the emigrants of Mars. Rachael suggests “it’s an illusion that I- I personally- really exist; I’m just a representative of a type” and uses diction of purity to describe the “clean, noble, virgin” bed she plans to seduce Deckard on (Dick 193). Because she is synthetic, Rachael does not adhere to the socially-constructed idea of a biological virginity but rather a purity of herself because flesh and its pleasures represent inherent flaws of humanity. Interestingly, she has seduced other bounty hunters before Deckard and so does not represent a sexual naivety typically associated with a virginal state. Rachael assures Deckard he is “not going to bed with a woman,” which is, “convincing if you don’t think too much about it. But if you think too much, if you reflect on what you’re doing- you can’t go on,” in a similar manner to how Hauskeller suggests humans can allow ourselves to be fooled by the robots’ programming into believing their consciousness and consent (Dick 194). Contrary to the ideal imagination of the sexbot figure, Rachael behaves in a sexual manner mostly to her benefit, although the experience also simultaneously satisfies Deckard’s innate desires.

When deeply confused by his own sexual urges towards Ava in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2015), Caleb confronts the man who programmed the cyborg and enquires about her capacity to act autonomously on her desires. Nathan insists that Ava behaves freely due to the advanced coding in her mind. He suggests he “programmed her to be heterosexual just like,” anyone else, putting the exact nature of robot’s sexuality in line with the young man’s own innate desires (Garland). Caleb rejects the idea that he has been programmed to be heterosexual by any external factors, believing his sexuality to be an innate part of his humanity. The film plays with the debate of nature versus nurture, suggesting that humans are programmed by their experience with information coded by some outside source to call into question the ultimate end of our sexual desires. Either sex is something a human is designed to do, like an android has a purpose, or it naturally occurs as an instinctive human behavior. “Consciousness is not something inferred from behavior; it is behavior,” according to Hauskeller, and Caleb’s anxiety over Ava’s programming calls his own human exceptionalism into question (23). If humans, and more specifically human sexuality can be programmed, then Caleb has the potential to be manipulated based on his own purpose given by the force behind his desires. This raises the anxiety surrounding Caleb’s perception of himself and his own autonomy.

Visually, Ava has been designed to appear like an attractive human woman, although some of her circuitry is exposed in order to reinforce that she is, indeed, a robot. Nathan even confirms that he programmed her to receive sensory feedback, “so if you want to screw her, mechanically speaking, you can” (Garland). He uses the word “mechanically,” which here has double meaning relating to the mechanics of sexual intercourse and also the act of copulating with an inorganic, mechanical being. Ava’s hands and face resemble human flesh, while the rest of her is more explicitly transparent mesh and wires. Existing between the mechanical and the organic, however, are her breasts and hips, which are constructed of grey material that does not allow the viewer to see through her structure. Rather, these areas function like a bra and underwear, suggesting that perhaps there is some bit of womanhood behind her exterior shell, including the, “cavity between her legs with a concentration of sensors,” Nathan has included in her design (Garland). Ava’s sexual potential becomes a key part of the Turing test exercise because of this emphasis, as Caleb fears her flirting will cloud his judgment because again, “we will find it very difficult not to attribute consciousness,” to intelligent, sexual robots with whom humans may eventually engage (Hauskeller 20). In the case of Ava, Nathan has devised sensors that will effectively provide positive feedback to her programmed mind, allowing her to react to a phallic stimulus with pleasure to encourage her proper participation in transhuman intercourse. While she and Caleb never reach this point in the film, this suggests that her creator, Nathan, has tested this programmed feature to ensure her appropriate execution of her sexual simulations.

Caleb eventually realizes that the inventor has designed, “her face based on my pornography profile,” with data scraped from his search engine inputs (Garland). The young man’s digital footprint has provided all the code that Nathan needed to construct Ava on the theory that, “a real human lover can be replaced by a robot without loss if and only if other people can already never be more than a means for us,” (Hauskeller 14). By “a means,” Hauskeller refers to a means to sexual arousal- while Ava is not explicitly presented as a sexual partner for Caleb, he inevitably finds himself attracted to her because she occupies the same space as a pornographic performer who he observes as a means to pleasure himself. In the film, Ava and Caleb most often interact from opposite sides of a glass enclosure, adding an element of removal to Caleb’s viewing of the Turing test subject. While in a true Turing test the examiner would be unable to see the test subject, the added visual dimension allows Nathan’s design to play on the man’s personal tastes in women, which the inventor describes as, “a consequence of accumulated external stimulus, that you probably didn’t even register as they registered with you” (Garland). These stimuli provide the “programming” of Caleb’s heterosexuality that the inventor alludes to, and result in his potential to be manipulated by these desires. The glass walls of the enclosure are arranged to recreate the experience of viewing pornography, where Caleb looks into an enclosed “screen” that displays the object of his desire. The layers of separation in the Turing test environment further the distance of the isolated tester gazing in on his fetishized subject. Ava’s features optimize those stimuli which have, whether unconsciously or not, contributed to Caleb’s self-pleasuring interactions within the digital sphere. As he views Ava from a removed position, she subtly fulfills those innate voyeuristic urges that led the man to watch porn in the first place. While he may not believe that his sexuality has been programmed into him, Ex Machina suggests that his data may then be used in turn to program the exact object of his desire, allowing sexuality to be exploited by the resultant robot.

In the humorous and frightening case of Ira Levin’s satire The Stepford Wives (1972), the robotic replicas that replace the working women of the sleepy Connecticut suburb are augmented physically to fulfill the needs of their previously unsatisfied husbands, in accordance with Hauskeller’s definition of the ideal sexbot. Joanna Eberhart takes constant notice of the buxom figures of her neighbors, like Carol with her, “profile of too-big bosom…her big purpled breasts,” which, “bobbed with her scrubbing” (Levin 9). After her closest ally Bobbie Markowe has been replaced with a lobotomized, robotic double, Joanna finds her, “wearing some kind of padded high-uplift bra under her green sweater, and a hip-whittling girdle under the brown pleated skirt,” as if being a proper Stepford wife necessitates having enhanced breasts (Levin 81-2). Built as a reflection of their husbands’ desires, these wives have their intellectual substance reduced, replaced with artificial augmentation of phenotypic features that make women alluring to men. While Hauskeller states that the perfect sexbots will, “make it far easier to forget that they are just machines who do not really think or feel anything,” the men of Stepford find their wives’ lack of thought even more attractive, as it makes them less likely to disagree with their chores and sexual responsibilities in the marriage (Hauskeller 13).

Joanna asks “the going price for a stay-in-the-kitchen wife with big boobs and no demands,” curious to know the true cost of turning the women into domestic slaves (Levin 105). With another reference to the women’s breasts, the sexual allure of the robot women is highlighted again as one of the few defining features of these automatons. Along with the physically attractive figure, the Stepford sexbots have “no demands,” as mindless, happy slaves to their husbands’ whims. Hauskeller suggests that one psychological reason that sexual robots appeal to human sensibilities is that they allow “us to only ever confront ourselves without ever having to confront ourselves,” due to the nature of displacing our own identity into the robotic other (Hauskeller 77). Cyborg sex partners allow us to avoid rejection by taking out the conscious person on the other side of the act; the person who has “demands” and has the ability to refuse the sexual encounter. One evening, Walter Eberhart returns home late following a meeting at the Men’s Association and wakes Joanna by pleasuring himself in bed:

“The bed was shaking…each shake was accompanied by a faint spring-squeak, again and again and again. It was Walter who was shaking… Had he been- masturbating?

He lay still. ‘I didn’t want to wake you,’ he said. ‘It’s after two.’

‘You could have,’ she said. ‘Woke me. I wouldn’t have minded.’

He didn’t say anything” (Levin 15).

By now, Joanna’s husband Walter has been exposed to the Men’s Association and its operation of replacing the wives of Stepford with docile robot doubles. This initially one-sided sexual encounter illustrates an instance of that fear of sexual rejection Hauskeller believes that robots allow us to avoid. Walter must take to stimulating himself while his wife is asleep, believing that she will not consent to joining him in intercourse if he interrupts her rest. Joanna, once woken, eventually decides to have sex with him in what, “turned out to be one of their best times ever- for her, at least” (Levin 17). However, while she was asleep and therefore unable to consent, Walter resorted to instead taking care of his own urges through masturbation, the ultimate sexual self-encounter. The Stepford wives manufactured by the Men’s Association overcome this problem as they are perpetually preoccupied with pleasing their husbands in both the domestic and sexual realms.

In the Marvel Comics serial The Vision (2015), the synthetic android Vision constructs a wife for himself when he can no longer associate with the human woman he loves, a hero named Wanda. From his wife Virginia’s mental structure combined with his, he generates two children with whom they form a nuclear family unit and attempt to pass as normal in their suburban neighborhood. This series presents the idea of a robot creating his own robotic partner, done with a “certain purpose, which is…the constructor’s” intent to have an artificial but equal sexual companion to replace what he lost with Wanda, a human woman (Hauskeller 16). In a full page flashback sequence depicting Wanda and Vision in bed together, visual signs of passion surround the couple. With Bellaire’s coloring tinting the page with red and pinks, the sense of organic heat and sexual arousal saturate the page. Behind them is the caption “I Too Shall Be Saved By Love”, which is the title of the single issue as well as a reference to a quote spoken by the android in a 1963 issue of the Avengers series. The syntax reflects Vision’s own complex speech mannerisms, and suggests that love in whatever form he achieves it will make him redeemable, in this case more organic than synthetic. Artist Michael Walsh includes the sight of tousled garments to demonstrate the haste and visceral nature of Vision and Wanda’s sexual encounter. The curvature of the headboard and the pillows behind the resting couple further attest to a certain natural softness involved in tender intimacy (King 3).  

The issue’s conclusion loops back to the opening scene recast on the last page with the two synthetic androids, Vision and his wife Virginia, sitting upright in a shared bed, cold and aloof. Here, Virginia represents “a ‘soulless’ lover” which is one type of what Hauskeller identifies as “unsatisfying women,” and Walsh’s distinct alterations to the environment of the opening scene as well as Bellaire’s appropriate coloration of the page reveal the loss of life and soul in Vision’s romantic relations following Wanda’s departure (Hauskeller 23). The couple’s headboard is now square and the bed lacks any pillows, revealing that the eroticism and intimacy have been removed and replaced with distance and mechanism. Bellaire’s color palette switches here to blues and greys, recreating the sense of the mechanical bodies not producing any heat. This physical coldness can also indicate an emotional coldness, and again there can be sexual desire found in being somewhat disinterested. Here, though, the coldness is mutual, with the androids’ red tones dimmed by the darkness of the bedroom. Folded clothes and shadows cast over their faces complete this uncomfortable scene of mechanical marital disconnect, which emphasizes the loss of soul in this relationship (King 22).  

While her name is meant to be alliterative, as all of Vision’s family have names beginning with ‘V’, his wife’s name Virginia suggests a virginal quality and the removal of the messy human intimacy he once experienced with Wanda in exchange for a new, pure form. In this way, she does not exactly function like a sex robot, but is still constructed to replace a lack of human intimacy in a sterile manner. Hauskeller suggests that sexbots, “behave in all respects exactly like we would expect someone to behave who really loved us…they have been designed that way” (21). If these sexbots behave exactly as humans expect, then perhaps human reactions to these robots are also predictable behavior, acting to elicit a certain response from the machine. While Vision is not human, he represents the more autonomous side of their mechanical marriage. Virginia exhibits the appearance of consciousness and romantic partnership through her programming designed to imitate Wanda, and Vision behaves formulaically, hoping to revive that lost experience through vocal performative testing. As Vision trots out the same “talking toaster” joke to his wife as he had Wanda at the start of the issue, it becomes clear that he created his wife Virginia to exactly replace what he lost as he tries to reconstruct everything from memories. Her “certain purpose” in life should position her as an equal to her husband because they are both androids, but her artificiality and programmed directive fill a void in Vision’s life and service his egoism and desire for “normalcy” (Hauskeller 16).  

Vision represents the human and creator in the relationship, perhaps due to the fact that although he is an android, he has had more life experience than any of his artificial family. By retelling the joke, he is testing his wife, hoping she will react with the same humor as his human lover had once done. While it remains unseen exactly how Virginia reacts to the punchline, there is a sense of unease as the joke implies an examination of the android couple’s own sentience and capacity to express emotion. Vision has not been “saved by love” as he had hoped initially, but rather becomes trapped by it, deluding himself with a wife “designed to behave as if” she loves him while he is simultaneously obligated to behave as if he loves her in the same way (Hauskeller 21). Pairing oneself with a robot in each of these cases serves to replace a lost intimacy and eliminate the element of consent from the coupling of a human male and a robotic female. This occurs at the expense of humanity, effectively sterilizing the relationship and isolating it, trading longevity for constant instant gratification from the idealized sexbot figure, suggesting that humans too may be concerned with satisfying their internal, preprogrammed compulsions.


Majordomo Arigato, Mrs. Roboto- Programming the Domestic

I saw it all now. That beautiful, lady-like girl that had ushered me into the room, whom I had taken for his wife, was an automaton! That doll-like expression was due to the fact that she was a doll.”

The Lady Automaton, E. E. Kellett (1901)


Even before 1901 when Kellett wrote the short story The Lady Automaton, popular imagination has been fascinated with the idea of having a doll, statue, or other artificial being for a companion, slave, or even a spouse.  These beings appear human, but lack fundamental aspects of being biologically alive, which is a state of conflict that can be unsettling. In Freud’s theory of The Uncanny (1919), he cites the German word unheimlich, which is the opposite of heimlich meaning “familiar, belonging to the home” as the origin for his explanation of this upsetting psychological sensation (Freud 2). Unheimlich, and from that the uncanny, represents “that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us”, a frightening liminal experience that simultaneously appears to be familiar but lacks the elements of truth that humans can understand (Freud 1). The concept of uncanniness describes alter-humans and states of existence, such as a dead corpse that once lived or a humanoid robot exposing circuits where flesh and blood should be. Masahiro Mori described “this type of unsettling experience as ‘the uncanny valley’- that psychic place when someone discovers that what looks animate is not really alive” (Wosk 7). For example, Mori details the experience of touching “a realistic-looking prosthetic hand” that “when touched, lacks the temperature of the human body and creates a sense of strangeness, unfamiliarity, or alienation, as though touching the hand of a corpse” (Wosk 155). When asked if she could experience empathy for other robots, Rachael Rosen feels “something like that. Identification; there goes I… If I die…maybe I’ll be born again when the Rosen Association stamps out its next unit of my subtype” (Dick 189). She recognizes other versions of her own robotic model type to be familiar, but frightening in their difference from her: she observes a self that is not herself.  Based on appearances, humans have an expectation of how interaction with these uncanny bodies should occur, but confrontation with a discordant or unusual sensation or experience causes terror of the irregular but somehow familiar.

For as ‘un-homelike’ as the female robot is, science fiction literature and media posits her as the perfect domestic caretaker and homemaker. To reduce the fear of the uncanny robot woman, she must be made completely known and familiar. In My Fair Ladies, Julie Wosk catalogues varieties of simulated women and notes that “robots…will have future caretaking roles, but it is largely men who have created ultrarealistic female interactive robots”.  These cyborgs embody “the perfect woman: a fusion of happy domesticity and sexy playmate,” and the idea of programming prescribed gender performance somehow eases the terror of the alter-human in the home (Wosk 3). Her appearance is familiar, and her requisite motherly warmth and spousal affection is expected. However, the robot lacks temperature, consciousness, and life, becoming a cold specter of perceptions of the feminine and domestic within the home. This lack of warmth both emotionally and physically betrays the expected comfort of a mother’s love, or a lover’s touch. Machine metals are cold to the touch, but artificial kindness is cold to the soul, playing into the uncanny home life of these robots. These automata reinforce a traditional nuclear family structure, replacing wives and mothers with a doting droid figure with a preprogrammed willingness to keep house, effectively preventing the figure from moving into the outside world.

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) plays a key role in the insidiousness of the cyborg conspiracy plaguing The Stepford Wives. Often credited with sparking the movement of second-wave feminism, Friedan’s work highlights what she called the “problem that has no name,” a general sense of unhappiness and lack of fulfillment in American housewives (Friedan 15). Where first-wave feminism worked towards advances in women’s suffrage, second-wave feminism as a movement focused on women’s reproductive rights as well as sexuality, domestic abuse, and women in the workplace. The Stepford Wives reacts to this shift in attention, using The Feminine Mystique not as a catalyst for positive change within the novel, but as the beginning of the husbands’ reactionary scrambling to control their free-thinking wives and rejecting the idea of unhappy housewives. Joanna Eberhart discovers that a Stepford Women’s Association used to exist before the women supposedly lost interest. In this organization, the women discussed Friedan’s text and engaged with civic issues before, “some of the women moved away… and the rest of us just lost interest in it,” according to former president Kit Sundersen (Levin 42). The organization was over fifty members strong, but their gatherings led to fear on the part of their husbands, who worried that this intellectual discussion would move the women away from their roles as housewives and caretakers, rather making them what Friedan describes as, “high-dominance women… free to choose rather than be bound by convention” (Friedan 320). The disbanding of the Women’s Association coincides with the introduction of Stepford’s own animatronic replacements for these women, which also led to the decline of the Stepford League of Women Voters. While the housewives are revealed to be automata at the conclusion of the novel, the Stepford wives stand for women brainwashed by the pressures of maintaining appearances and conforming in 70’s suburbia. These robots represent politically-minded women removed from the public sphere and replaced with artificially cheerful housewives who perform slavish work for the men of Stepford, becoming bound by the same convention that Friedan encourages women to overcome.

Having “never found a woman who fitted that ‘happy housewife’ image”, Friedan explains that business and the sheer amount of time that domestic housework takes upholds the damaging image that the housewives feel a great sense of purpose in their roles (Friedan 237). Maintaining the illusion of dedication stems from a sense of insecurity that should they stop cleaning, these housewives will have no other power in the home. Throughout her brief time in Stepford, Joanna Eberhart notices the “steady mechanical movements” of the other women who polish trophies and wax the floors of their homes tirelessly (Levin 64). Before suspecting them of being robots, she considers her neighbors to be “compulsive [hausfraus]” and “asking-to-be-exploited” patsies, lacking any ability to stand up against their husbands (Levin 9). “The old mystique of feminine inferiority” gave way to making women’s roles “in the home equal to man’s role in society” in order to keep women complacent in cooking and cleaning for the household (Friedan 239). Joanna fears that by becoming too engaged in household maintenance over her photography profession, she will relinquish her autonomy to a husband who will expect her to perform all of the domestic chores as the other wives in town do.

In order to ensure the women of Stepford adhere to their responsibilities, the Men’s Association of Stepford takes the concept of this mystique one step further in actually manufacturing robot spouses who uphold the virtues of housewifery in the very same way that Friedan asserts that women are oppressed. After “the author of The Feminine Mystique addressed members of the Stepford Women’s Club,” Stepford Library records indicate the quick decline of the association that encouraged the women to seek fulfillment and community beyond the home (Levin 37). Joanna tries to speak with the former club president about the experience, but finds the other woman to be “like an actress in a commercial…pleased with detergents and floor wax, with cleansers and shampoos, and deodorants…playing suburban housewives unconvincingly, too nicey-nice to be real” (Levin 42-3). Joanna’s assessment of the woman’s artifice recalls Friedan’s notion of the “sexual sell” in which “the manufacturer of a certain cleaning device…let the housewife have the illusion that she has become a professional, an expert in determining which cleaning tools to use for specific jobs,” reinforcing the subjugation of women within the domestic sphere (Friedan 215). The Stepford wives make banal choices of which detergent to wash clothes with, or which wax to clean the floor with, and while it gives a semblance of control to the woman, her control in the domestic sphere keeps her subservient to the others in the household.

This illusion of choosing power upholds the mystique that keeps women unhappy in their homes as the role of housewife becomes an all-encompassing “career” that absorbs time and energy. Joanna suggests the buxom, cheerful women are “playing…unconvincingly” and too “nicey-nice to be real,” because the happiness exerted by the Stepford housewives conflicts with her notions of femininity and independence. It also challenges Friedan’s theories which inspired second-wave feminists to seek new opportunities for women beyond the cloyingly domestic.  This cognitive dissonance, as well as Wosk’s assertion that man’s perfect robot fuses “happy domesticity” with a “sexy playmate,” creates the sense of uncanniness that leads Joanna to further investigate the truth behind the relentlessly robotic housewives. The Stepford simulations silence opposition to the Men’s Association by removing woman’s consciousness from the equation entirely, relying on the gender performance of machines and antiquated ideals of the woman’s role in the home to keep the illusion alive.

The eponymous Helen in Lester Del Rey’s short story Helen O’Loy (1938) functions so well as a constructed woman that she even fools her husband into forgetting that he built her out of metal as an experiment with a friend (Foley 371). Fresh from her packaging, Helen “was designed to express emotions…ready to simulate every human action” with more advanced technology than the previous robot built by Dave and Phil (Del Rey 52). Her name is an allusion to the famed Helen of Troy, whose beauty started a war, although the men call their own creation O’Loy as a shortened form of “alloy”, to reinforce that she “was… a dream in spun plastics and metals” (Del Rey 49). While Helen embodies a new technology as a robot, she also represents classical beauty, femininity, and sensitivity in accordance with conventions of the perfect housewife. The men consider her the ideal female form, not unlike the idea of the girl-next-door type in this era, and this success thrives on gender performance as well as her physical allure and comparison to classic beauty in name and structure.

As a robot, Helen can only simulate human action and not truly live it, unlike Phil, the endocrinologist, who has “performed plenty of delicate operations on living tissues,” before working with Dave to construct Helen (Del Rey 52). In Anatomy of a Robot (2014), Despina Kakoudaki notes:

“Because of the unusual romantic tone of the story, ‘Helen O’Loy’ also presents an early version of a performative approach to humanity, in Helen’s actions, her recognition of the encoded nature of femininity, and her adherence to normative gender roles ensure her ability to pass as a woman” (Kakoudaki 187).

Helen’s performance as a human successfully allows her husband to forget that he built her from disparate robotic parts. At first, Dave grows increasingly upset with Helen’s infatuation with him, and Phil even informs her that “a man wants flesh and blood, not rubber and metal,” but Helen insists that in her mind, “I am a woman. And you know how perfectly I’m made to imitate a real woman…in all ways” (Del Rey 61). She primarily concerns herself with notions of romantic love, accommodating Dave in all the ways that she knows a woman should behave towards a man. While Phil insists that a real man does not want, “rubber and metal,” they call her a “dream in… metals,” which conflicts with their desire of her perfect femininity. Helen finds herself imitating living behaviors, although her sense of identity is one of being a woman, causing brief cognitive dissonance between her understanding of self and of her motivations. In accordance with Betty Friedan’s assessments of women’s psychological states where the high-dominance woman breaks free of gender conventions, “the low-dominance woman was not free to be herself, she was other-directed. The more her self-depreciation, self-distrust, the more likely she was to…wish she were more like someone else” (Friedan 320). Helen O’Loy yearns to be a woman that can please Dave’s sensibilities, and so reads a series of romantic books to help her better understand how to imitate that person. Friedan’s language of “other-directed” recalls the robotic, programmed nature of Helen, as well as the other domestic housewife robots, whose directive comes from the creator or husband figure.

Eventually, Dave’s resistance to Helen’s advances wears down and the two become happily married after realizing that, “no man acts the way Dave had been acting because he hates a girl; only because he thinks he does- and thinks wrong” (Del Rey 64). She makes a perfect bride and homemaker, and the couple grow up happy, even without having children. In his age, Dave begins to forget that he built his wife many years prior. Eventually, Helen enlists the help of Phil to physically alter her face as Dave grows older so that she may properly maintain the illusion of her womanhood for her husband, as she is unable to age due to her synthetic nature. Like a woman with her makeup Helen, “put lines in her face and grayed her hair without letting Dave know she wasn’t growing old with him” (Del Rey 64). In this sense, her uncanny nature lends itself to a sense of timelessness, not unlike her classical beauty for which she was named. Helen exists outside of human aging, being a machine, and must therefore manually alter herself to appear as something she is not, eventually fooling even the men who created her from repurposed parts.

In The Vision, Vision and Virginia execute functions of normal marital love, but recognizing her artifice leads Vision to have anxieties over his wife’s uncanny nature and the deceptive appearances of his own family life. Waking in the middle of the night, Vision finds “himself in a state of dread, his thoughts caught on a repeating image of the day he first saw his wife open her eyes” (King 1.17). Her eyes seem “like a camera lens adjusting to the light” as her “pupils grow and recede” in this memory, and the mechanism of her awakening frightens Vision (King 1.17). Onto her he places anxieties and hopes for a normal family life, but among their human neighbors in the suburb, the illusion of a happy household begins to fade. She is the uncanny body, corpse-like although she functions as if she is alive. Virginia provides Vision with a perfect partner, but in doing so simultaneously removes his hope to regain the love he lost. Interestingly enough, Vision himself is an android built of the same materials as his wife, yet she inspires feelings of uncanny dread in him. In his theory of the uncanny, Freud asserts that “a morbid anxiety connected with the eyes” sometimes represents “a substitute for the dread of castration” (Freud 7). While Vision’s fright comes from the memory of his wife’s eyes, the day she awoke from slumber to mechanical life represents a loss of Vision’s human love. He programs Virginia’s mind to imitate the thought patterns of Wanda, the human woman who used to be romantically engaged with the android man. Virginia’s body, however, reminds her husband that she is artifice. Still, Vision repeats to himself the demand that “I must love her…this is my wife. I must love her,” in order to maintain the image of mechanical marital bliss (King 1.17). He “must” love her because he lacks a reasonable alternative- he is her creator and her husband, the reason for her life. She sustains that notion of “happy domesticity” that men seek when they create cyborg counterparts, where Vision increasingly fails to perpetuate the idea of normalcy he hoped the family would bring to him.

In contrast to the feminine mystique of upholding the sanitation and tidiness of the home, Virginia suggests to a neighbor that “to get to clean you are required to introduce substantive turmoil” to the order of the house (King 6.10). In her case, the substantive turmoil occurs when she destroys the furniture while malfunctioning, asserting that “everything is normal” after the family has come under great scrutiny by their neighbors (King 5.12). Friedan assesses that the only way “the young housewife was supposed to express herself, and not feel guilty about it, was in buying products for the home-and-family” (Friedan 222). As the series progresses, Virginia becomes increasingly volatile while the family comes under scrutiny for the strange events that transpire after they join the suburban neighborhood, expressing herself not through purchases but through rage directed at her own residence. This results in her breaking furniture and destroying the walls such that the home nearly becomes uninhabitable. She struggles to maintain appearances based on human standards of normalcy, and the more the family tries, “to get to clean,” the further they cause discomfort not only in their own residence but also in their neighborhood.  

Her domesticity is not happy, nor is it built on choosing the best products with which to maintain her home. Rather, Virginia’s household disarray reflects the biblical fear that, “women would destroy the home and make slaves of men,” which was used as a justification for making women subservient in the family (Friedan 87). Virginia’s rage does destroy the home not due to the fact that she is a woman, but due to her uncanny nature in an unnatural, domestic setting. Her uncanniness is what keeps her husband enslaved to thinking that he “must love her,” because of the purpose that he built her for, or else lose the illusion of peaceful and happy domesticity. In their struggle to uphold the standards of a conventional, suburban existence, their physical home transforms into unhospitable space that becomes as unhomelike as they themselves, an android and his constructed facsimile of a family performing humanity. While these robots are asked to keep house, slowly they unmake the traditional structure of patriarchy and domesticity within the home.


Art-Official Intelligence- Testing Creative Capacity

She’s a triumph of your art and of her dressmaker’s; but if you suppose for a moment that she doesn’t give herself away in every sentence she utters, you must be perfectly cracked about her.”

Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw (1913)


The importance of vocal performance in Shaw’s Pygmalion, so named after Ovid’s fictional sculptor, reveals an important aspect of science fiction’s obsession with humanoid robots. There is a distinction between the outward, beautiful embodiment of a woman and the thoughts she voices, which expose her intelligence and true nature. As Megan Foley assesses in “Prove You’re Human” (2014), her article about interactions and fetishization of material embodiment, “the voice, and the fantasy of bodily presence it sustains, have become a function of informational patterns themselves” (Foley 369). The Turing test serves as a real-world paradigm for much of the imagination of science fiction, whose robots are advanced beyond the capabilities of the technology Turing worked with. In the age of the posthuman, intelligence “becomes a property of the formal manipulation of symbols,” leading to new fictional representations of how humans will test a robot’s humanity (Foley 369). When the machine mind can outsmart a human in code manipulation, humanity must turn to other sorts of performative examinations that are supposedly more difficult to replicate.

In the case of science fiction narratives that move beyond the parameters established by Turing, it is the creative capacity of the android figure which becomes the new determining factor when assessing that being’s humanity. This act demonstrates “a pervasive desire to recover the lost guarantee of a corporeally present human subject on the other side of the computer screen” and in the case of science fiction, uncover the humanity inside the mind of the present android figure (Foley 372). Art and empathy, as is the case with Dick’s Voigt-Kampff test or the visually-oriented Turing variant in Ex Machina, present opportunities for the disembodied creativity to become corporeal in order to prove whether the robot has a soul, a concept elusive even to many humans. This results in the idolization of embodiment and performative labor as humans simultaneously hope to interact with something indelibly alive and embodied, and fear the robot’s ability to fully recreate something thought to be intrinsically human. Speech patterns and other human thought processes can be replicated by algorithms written into computer programs but ideas of talent and creative impulse are thought to be unique to civilization. When a CAPTCHA program asks a user to indicate which segments of an image contain flowers or street signs, the formulaic robot mind appropriates the labor of the human by incorporating the visual information into its database and ascribing the appropriate meaning to the image. Robots can be instructed to reproduce works of music and art already in circulation, but whether they can produce original artistic content seems to be the standard by which human testers measure true consciousness- this is to say nothing of whether humans can truly create new original content. Creativity serves as an indicator for humanity in science fiction, whose androids are advanced enough already to evade detection of more basic Turing tests, and reinforces valuation of those robots whose qualitative labor can remind us of what it means to be innately human.

While undergoing Turing test applications to assess whether she has true consciousness, Ava from Ex Machina produces several pieces of artwork, the first of which is a series of geometric lines in black ink that she claims mean nothing to her. Ava’s first drawing bears resemblance to the surrealist practice of automatism, her paper covered in abstract markings. This practice arose when 20th century artists let their unconscious minds come forth onto the canvas in drawings composed of patterns and unspecific figures. Automatic art hoped to make sense of a war-torn world and allow artists to cope with confusion and trauma. Ava’s art signifies her attempt to access her unconscious mind and produce work representing her cognitive abilities, whether or not the artwork has a defined subject. Ava makes, “drawings every day. But I never know what they’re of,” which does not deter her from creation, although she seeks answers and hopes that Caleb will tell her what the art represents (Garland). Caleb, the human, asks her, “to sketch something specific…like an object or a person,” rather than the formless shapes that neither can ascribe direct meaning to (Garland).

Although Caleb believes that Ava’s artwork would be more beautiful depicting a particular subject, Nathan’s décor brings him to the realization that constant cognizance would never result in artwork being created. Standing in front of a Jackson Pollock painting, Nathan explains that the artist, “let his mind go blank, and his hand go where it wanted. Not deliberate, not random. Someplace in between. They called it automatic art” (Garland). While there is no doubt that Pollock stands among the more famous American artists, his process of drip painting mirrors that of Ava’s ink drawings, wherein she produces work without a specific intent, instead letting her artificial mind access its more unconscious functions. By employing this process in her artwork, Ava does not merely recreate a specific work, as most robots are prone to simply imitate behaviors that have been programmed into them. Here, the “challenge is not to act automatically. It’s to find an action that is not automatic,” and access that unconscious self which allows the artist to produce new work free from constraints of guided intention (Garland).

When Caleb challenges her to draw something more recognizable, he changes her automatic artwork into something purposeful, at which point she can use that intent of meaning to manipulate her observer. Foley suggests that, “cybernetic circuits expand their capacities by appropriating the labor of human bodies,” as Ava appropriates Caleb’s suggestions for art and presents them to him in order to win his sympathies; first, with a drawing of her own enclosure and then with a portrait of him, after which he finds himself devoted to helping Ava escape (Garland). After being shown the portrait Ava has drawn of him, which was torn to pieces by Nathan just prior to this meeting, Caleb becomes resolute in his attempt to outwit their observer and liberate the robot from her confines. In this way, while it seems that Ava produces labor for her tester by creating drawings with his specific subjects in mind, she as the robot actually benefits from his human labor, incorporating his requests into a drawing that wins his allegiance and causes him to work to her benefit, similar to the aforementioned CAPTCHA program. Rather than recognizing the implications of an artificial intelligence creating automatic artwork, Caleb focuses on the embodiment of her drawings and what they represent about her clear and present thoughts, and seeing himself as the subject of her guided drawing proves the final distraction in understanding the processes of her consciousness.

When considering his assignment to eliminate her in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Rick Deckard judges android opera singer Luba Luft mainly by the cultural value of her creative output. Upon discovering the renegade android performing Mozart’s The Magic Flute opera, “he found himself surprised at the quality of her voice; it rated with that of the best, even that of notables in collection of historic tapes” (Dick 99). Deckard’s context for the beauty of her voice consists of these historic tapes which are auditory reproductions such as cassettes or records which invoke Foley’s idea of the vocal performative act. As far as he knows, the recordings capture the voices of singers from humanity’s past before World War Terminus, but without absolute certainty, they represent “the erasure of embodiment” by reproducing only the vocal performance of whoever composed the musical tracks (Foley 369). By holding the “historic tapes” in esteem while simultaneously attributing Luba’s talent to her programmed functions, Deckard devalues the opera singer because he can observe her visual presence and knows that she is a product constructed by the Rosen Association, whereas he seems to be certain that his musical recordings comprise human voices of the past.  

Considering that his mission involves retiring, or killing, Luba, Rick Deckard wonders what loss of cultural value will occur upon her death because, “she was really a superb singer… how can a talent like that be a liability to our society? But it wasn’t the talent, he told himself; it was she herself” (Dick 137). As a bounty hunter, “he realized, I’m part of the form-destroying process of entropy. The Rosen Association creates and I unmake,” positing Luba Luft as a created entity which Deckard must destroy because her very embodiment represents the danger of android bodies integrating indistinguishably with humans (Dick 98). Her talent, which is in this case her voice, is more valuable to the world than her body which, being a Nexus-6 type, poses a danger to human society. The escaped Nexus-6 models were a former source of labor for the emigrants of Mars, having killed several humans to escape their slavery and hide on Earth. Deckard’s specific purpose in killing these robots unmakes those embodied androids that the Rosen Association produces, and while he may succeed in destroying the form, the corporation retains the intangible code and information with which the robots are constructed.  

After being tracked to an art museum, Luba Luft contemplates an Edvard Munch painting, Puberty (1895), which symbolically encapsulates the transitory state that the android body occupies as an embodiment of human form whose intelligence is an intangible pattern of programming. The painting itself is “a drawing of a young girl, hands clasped together, seated on the edge of a bed, an expression of bewildered wonder and new, groping awe imprinted on the face,” and the title of the painting adds context to the moment of human transition from childhood to adulthood (Dick 131). The painted female body captures this state of progression while also leaving it static and unable to develop beyond the depicted moment just like the transitory bodies of the Nexus-6 models who exist fully formed although merely a few years old. When Luba spots the pursuing bounty hunters at the museum, “the color dimmed from her face, leaving it cadaverous as if already starting to decay. As if life had in an instant retreated to some point far inside her, leaving the body to its automatic ruin” (Dick 131-2). Deckard notes the duality of her embodied mechanical self and the life and personality of her programmed performance as, “the bracketing of material flesh from those simulated speech acts installs a mind/body binary in their place” (Foley 367). Luba’s mind is the immaterial coding that allows her to be as prodigious an opera singer as she is, while her physical form is what disguises her among human company, allowing her to take work as a performer and not just an intelligent computer.

In Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine DeLandro’s Bitch Planet (2014), the deceased inmate Meiko Maki must be digitally recreated when her father, a prestigious engineer, comes to visit the prison facility and see his daughter. Having unwittingly let a guard kill Meiko, the prison directors choose to display a hologram for her father Makoto, claiming the cloyingly pink projection is his daughter, speaking from another part of the facility that does not allow for visitors. This incident relies “on fetishization of the live voice in interaction patterns to fool human users… [becoming] a repeated, real-world Turing test” in order to keep Makoto ignorant of the abuses of the prison (Foley 370). The pink holograms, called “models,” represent the idealized or ‘model’ form of the non-compliant prisoners. She carries the image and voice of his daughter, but not the physical presence or rebellious spirit- she is more calculated and demure. Series letterer Clayton Cowles even indicates the artificiality of her presence by tailing the facsimile Meiko’s speech bubbles with an electric jolt tail, representing hologram’s vocal performance. This suggests a hollow, almost lifeless sound quality to the voice of the imitation woman, and complicates her attempt to recreate Meiko’s consciousness.

Makoto, upon realizing the projection is not, “my Meiko,” prompts her with a test of music. He requests she play Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst’s variations on the Celtic folk song “The Last Rose of Summer” on the violin (DeConnick, 8.17-18). Demonstrated through the visual of her eyes appearing to buffer the request as a loading video would, the simulation of Meiko processes the request in order to comply with Makoto’s wishes. Here, her body has, “become the phantom limbs of informational networks,” where her physical, deceased form is no longer needed to access and replicate the Meiko’s virtual presence, though the model Meiko lacks the memories and personality of her living self (Foley 375). She becomes an algorithm presenting itself as a woman whose only directive is to comply with the input commands of a male superior, making herself a ‘model’ of submission in this patriarchal prison system. This facsimile cannot reproduce the mnemonic nuance of the real Meiko Maki, and so Makoto exploits this with his request for a violin performance. His daughter was taught to play folk songs, and the Ernst variation on “The Last Rose of Summer” is a much more musically complex piece. Foley suggests that,, “fetishization of bodily performance by information technologies has turned into…commodity fetishism,” which, first described by Karl Marx, “disavows the performance of labor and substitutes of the product of labor in its place” (Foley 376). The programming of Meiko’s compliant counterpart concerns itself only with fulfilling Makoto’s request for a specific violin performance and eschews the personal relationship between the father and daughter. A silent, three panel segment focusing on Makoto’s face demonstrates his realization that there is, in fact, no sentient person beyond the pink apparition bearing resemblance to his daughter (DeConnick 8.19). Her bodily absence and the technically perfect performance of the difficult violin piece expose the artifice of the model hologram.

Meiko’s hologram appears smiling in the reflection of Makoto’s teardrops on the floor, and as she asks if she did well, her father asserts that she played, “so well you broke my heart” (DeConnick 8.19). The image of Meiko’s smiling reflection directly mirrors a panel from the sixth issue of the series, in which the conditions of her imprisonment are explained. Meiko’s reflection smiles up from a puddle of blood which is draining from a man she has strangled with her violin string (DeConnick 6.26). She explains the anatomy of her instrument, the violin, as being compared to:

“a woman’s body. It has a back, a neck, a nose, a belly… even ribs. But the parts that interest me most are the bridge and the sound post, also called the heart and soul. The bridge holds the strings, and transfers vibrations to the belly, where they pass through the soul post. The soul supports the structure. It keeps the body from collapsing under the pressure created by the tension of the wires on the bridge… the heart strings.” (DeConnick 6.5).

This comparison between the body and the instrument introduces the idea that Meiko’s violin playing manipulates heart strings both in the literal sense, on her instrument, and in the figurative sense, upsetting her father and making him emotional. While the violin has a technical aspect of soul, the hologram of the dead woman lacks this same soul, and her very image plays on the heartstrings of her visiting father as her perfect talent reveals that the Meiko he knew has died. Her musical performance was flawless, but it lacked the heart and soul of Makoto’s flawed, and very loved, daughter. While the living Meiko Maki killed a man with her violin strings, the projection of her has, in a metaphorical sense, killed her father when he realizes with a broken heart that his imperfect daughter has been replaced with a flawless simulation. In differentiating between the human and the artificial, the test of creativity has its limits at perfection. These tests of the musical and visual creative capacity of robots reveals the human fetishization of the body, marked by an insistence on imperfection- human flaws reveal the highly functioning artifice of the mechanical being.


Automatonomy- Cyborg Feminism and the Future

Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

Hamlet, William Shakespeare (1603)


The previously examined texts largely deal with gendered robots performing the role of traditional femininity as imparted on them by their male creators. Even in the case of the satires Bitch Planet and The Stepford Wives, the robots are presented through the lens of patriarchal control, which helps to expose the constraints of gender performance as demonstrated through the sexbots, happy homemakers, and artificial artists. In the quote taken from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia remarks on the woman’s potential to transform into another state of being. While meant to be taken in the context of her madness, this statement lends the female figure possibility for change, and so lends the TechnOphelia, the robotic woman, a transformative power as well. Feminist theorist Donna Haraway offers a divergent analysis on how cyborg technology can better serve and shape human, and particularly female, interactions with the machine in her essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” from Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (1991). Haraway proposes that, “the cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century” (Haraway 291). Representative of a post-gender world, the figure of the cyborg integrates the individual with technology, allowing access to, “a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self. According to Haraway, “this is the self feminists must code,” in order to operate in society, unconstrained by what the author calls the elusive “concept of woman” (Haraway 302). Womanhood as a singular concept does not exist, definitions of femininity varying from person to person. Because robotic technology is not inherently gendered but exists between the human and nonhuman, Haraway examines the way in which women can utilize the “integrated circuit” of humanity merged with technology to exist apart from constraints of society, effacing traditional gender binaries through liminality (Haraway 304).  

While Turing’s imitation game focused on the performative differences between the male and female genders, the concept of the integrated circuit, first coined by Rachel Grossman, allows “fresh sources of analysis and political action” in “a world so intimately restructured through social relations of science and technology” (Haraway 304). Despite the large number of these science fiction texts dealing with men’s interactions with the cyborg, there are those that offer a vision of technology existing beyond the definition of gender, utilized by women in ways other than the performative sexual or domestic tradition. When women interface directly with the machine in these texts, they are able to overcome the “exploitation into a world of production/reproduction and communication called the informatics of domination,” a series of “simultaneously material and ideological” dichotomies that constrain women to specific roles in society (Haraway 300, 302). Furthermore, “high-tech culture challenges these dualisms in intriguing ways. It is not clear who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine,” (Haraway 313). Women in the integrated circuit work in tandem with technology to better exist in information-driven society while stepping outside constraints like the gender binary, and relationships defined by patriarchy.

In William Gibson’s Johnny Mnemonic (1981), individuals directly integrate technology into their own bodies, using their cybernetic enhancements to navigate a society built on data exchange. These enhanced citizens, referred to as “technical” people, inhabit “…an information economy. They teach you that in school. What they don’t tell you is that it’s impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces, bits, seemingly meaningless fragments of personal information” (Gibson 9).

Humans recode their bodies through surgical means, and for women this means the integration into that technological circuit which governs their society. Molly Millions, an enhanced Razorgirl, uses her cyborg body to become a skilled assassin after being implanted with “ten blades…beneath her nails, each one a narrow, double-edged scalpel in pale blue steel” (Gibson 4). Having also had her eyes replaced with, “surgical inlays…sealing her eyes in their sockets,” Molly navigates between the technical and Lo Tek societies, taking hit jobs and protecting herself against the Yakuza gangs. Her technological enhancements do not compose her entire being, but rather she willingly has “Chiba City circuitry traced along her thin arms,” in her eyes, and in her hands in order to make herself a capable assassin and strong bodyguard to the eponymous Johnny who transports information through his brain in the form of code (Gibson 11). This can be considered in light of Haraway’s theory that, “the difference between machine and organism is thoroughly blurred; mind, body and tool are on very intimate terms,” as a result of combining the technological and the organic (Haraway 303).  

Utilizing this blurring of boundaries, the Magnetic Dog Sisters are another example of women working within the circuits of society, not defined by gender roles. In a passing mention, Johnny notes: “the Magnetic Dog Sisters were on the door that night…One was black and the other white, but aside from that they were nearly as identical as cosmetic surgery could make them. They’d been lovers for years and were bad news in a tussle. I was never quite sure which one had originally been male” (Gibson 1).

While the two are not sisters in biology, these two women share identity both in physical appearance and association. They represent some of the aforementioned dualisms of the body, such as racial divisions between black and white, but also transcend traditional limitations as posthuman figures, one transgender and both cyborg in their modifications. Their individual identities become confused in Johnny’s memory, but they are considered equals in appearance, strength, and romantic partnership. Haraway asserts that cyborgs in science fiction “make very problematic the statuses of man or woman, human, artefact, member of a race, individual entity, or body,” and by confusing identities, they allow women to exist as something other than within the prescribed notions of traditional female gender roles (Haraway 314). They are sisters, lovers, and identical although distinct, integrated into the cyberpunk society through technological means.

Julie Wosk includes a chapter on “Dancing with Robots” in My Fair Ladies, stating that “men in literature, film, and art have long been pictured dancing with robots and dolls- beautiful artificial women who gaze at them lovingly and fill them with wonder and bliss” (Wosk 152). Gibson undermines the expectations of this trope in the climax of Johnny Mnemonic as Molly Millions dances not with, but against a Yakuza killer in a battle to the death on the Lo Tek Killing Floor. Not an artificial woman, Molly utilizes her enhancements and protects herself against another trained assassin. The room beats with music “electronic, like an amplified heart, steady as a metronome,” as the woman becomes a part of the roiling floorboards and shrieking coils in a “mad-dog dance” (Gibson 11). Instead of being a creation designed to dance at the man’s pleasure, Molly lives and thinks for herself, controlling her own identity through her cybernetic enhancements. To Haraway, “the machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment,” and the cyborg figure melds the machine with the human body, creating parts of identity and ability that make up a new whole (Haraway 315). Molly’s strength and technological enhancements are a part of her embodiment and allow her to exist as a bodyguard, a fighter, and a partner to Johnny. Between the dancers there is no “wonder and bliss” but concentrated fervor and violence until ultimately Molly’s victory leads the shamed man to leap to his death (Wosk 152). To dance with this cyborg invites danger and intrigue because her eyes do not gaze lovingly, but look from behind silver screens that calculate her next movements.

For women to become a part of the integrated circuit, they do not need to literally graft technology into their skin, but the machine can become an extension of the woman’s sense of self. Haraway asks, “Why should bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?” (Haraway 314). In Rolin Jones’s stage play The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow (2006), agoraphobic Jennifer Marcus constructs a cyborg double that learns from her maker’s personality while simultaneously developing an identity of her own. Unable to leave the home because of her obsessive-compulsive disorder and severe phobia of the outside world, Jennifer Marcus uses her creation Jenny Chow in order to interface with her biological mother in Dongtai, China. The robot serves as Jennifer’s integration into society, giving her a new body to overcome physical restraints as well as patriarchal policy of Chinese family structure that forced her mother to abandon her in the first place. Jenny Chow helps a mother and daughter reconnect despite the, “world system of production/reproduction and communication,” that keeps women oppressed, and in this way represents the cyborg “tools [which] embody and enforce new social relations for women worldwide” (Haraway 302). Despite their physical and emotional distance, cyborg technology allows women to transcend boundaries

While Jennifer imbues the robot with information from her own identity, Jenny Chow begins “taking on her own personality… curious, excitable, poor sportsmanship… the big thing was when I wasn’t looking, she was beginning to make her own decisions. With guidance she was becoming beautiful” (Jones 45). Jennifer sees her creation in the manner of not only a scientist making observations but also in a way like a mother watching her daughter grow up into adulthood. Being a prodigious engineer and self-described mechanics whiz, her “intense pleasure in skill, machine skill, ceases to be a sin, but an aspect of embodiment,” as her robot counterpart inherits her aspirations for maternal love and an awareness of her own cultural identity, and incorporates them into its own personality (Haraway 315). Jenny is her own original design, and while built for the purpose of standing in for Jennifer, she begins to inhabit her own behaviors and feelings similar to how a child learns from their parents but ultimately becomes a unique person. For Haraway, “in imagination, and in other practice, machines can be prosthetic devices, intimate components, friendly selves” (Haraway 314). Developed with instinctual programming provided by Dr. Yakunin, Jenny physically embodies Jennifer’s desires to meet her estranged biological mother and overcomes physical limitations set by Jennifer’s crippling agoraphobia, which keeps her unable to leave her home.

During the first act of the play, Jennifer’s adoptive mother arrives drunk and scolds her daughter with a harsh reality check: “ADELE: I live in the real world, Jennifer. I’m real. And in the real world, women get screwed out there and if you’re not prepared they will squash you… I’m real. This house is real, Jennifer. And you can hide in your room and log on if you want to. But that’s not real! That’s a dream!” (Jones 31).

A stern businesswoman, Adele rejects her daughter’s desires to engage with digital technologies, thinking them a waste of the girl’s intelligence. She views Jennifer’s time talking with others on the internet as frivolous and immaterial, but these “tech-facilitated social relations,” enable Jennifer to integrate herself with the outside world while she works on her robotics (Haraway 304). While Adele does not consider the Internet realm to be “the real world,” which in her mind represents material labor and physical embodiment, these technologies allow Jennifer to exist in spaces outside of her own home and her own body, imparting her own consciousness to Jenny Chow as well as speaking with her estranged biological mother on another continent.

In order to accomplish these feats, Jennifer takes a job repurposing missile parts for the United States government, using spare parts she acquires to build her robotic double. Haraway traces the genesis of cyborgs, calling them, “illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism… but illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins,” and while this is seen as troubling, Jennifer exploits the military’s dependence on their own robotic technologies, helping them to improve missile function while she gathers their spare parts for her own work (Haraway 293). As cyborgs can be considered illegitimate children, “their fathers… are inessential,” lending a maternal narrative to the manifestation of these new beings especially in the case of Jenny Chow (Haraway 293). While Jennifer has an adoptive father who cares deeply for her, her biological father plays no role in her desires to build her robot. Rather, Jenny Chow becomes the next woman in a lineage of mothers and daughters estranged by the patriarchy and reunited through technology.  

Because of Chinese restrictions on family sizes, Jennifer’s mother gives her up so that the female infant, a gender seen as less desirable due to inheritance rights, can have a better life in America. Somewhat mirroring her mother giving her away as a baby, an upset Jennifer sends Jenny out into the world alone in an emotional exchange;

JENNIFER M.: You are flawed. You have to go.

JENNY C.: I am sorry. I am so very sorry.

JM: (pause) You have to go.

JC: I am very beautiful. (Jenny Chow climbs out the window) (Jones 68).

While Jennifer hopes that banishing her robotic counterpart will dispel her own personal shortcomings, she realizes that losing Jenny means losing a vital part of her life. Jenny represents the “intimate components, friendly selves” that Haraway recognizes of cyborgs in relation with humans. Speaking to the audience at the conclusion of the play, Jennifer regrets her choice to detach herself from Jenny and from her participation in the integrated circuit her creation allowed: “JENNIFER: I made a lot of mistakes. But she’s not one of them. She’s my…perfect girl…She’s infinitely more complex than anything out there. And she’s very afraid. I can feel her. I can feel her” (Jones 69).

The language used to refer to Jenny takes both ownership and responsibility for her being, indicating her status as a companion, a counterpart, and also offspring.  Jennifer calls her “my perfect girl”, as a mother might call her own child, but also as a creator referring to her product. Jenny was what Jennifer imagined to be the “perfect girl”, a better version of herself, without the emotional baggage accompanying her agoraphobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Despite having pushed her out of her home, Jennifer can still feel a connection to Jenny, whose very existence helps her to engage even more with others in the integrated circuit than simply through the Internet. Their bond transcends physical limitations, connecting human to machine and woman to woman as they interact with one another and the world at large, enabled by technology and at the very core, the desire to connect with others.


Rust in Peace- A Conclusion on Robot Suicides

I’ll be back.”

The Terminator (1984), dir. James Cameron


Perhaps one of the more compelling and frightening aspects of the robot body is its longevity. The Terminator says it best in his famous quote, “I’ll be back,” indicating the persistence and endurance of the android’s life thanks to enhanced technology and intelligence made of code. A figure of the posthuman age, the synthetic humans of science fiction comprise much more durable materials, more permanent information networks, and an existence beyond current civilization. As a part of the human fetish of embodiment, there is a great deal of preoccupation with material form and the preservation of physical presence. This preoccupation leads to the intrigue of such figures as the sexbots, whose bodies can be fashioned to suit our sexual urges, while in other instances the focus is on what creative labor the robot can perform for us. As humans create what they desire to be a new life, patterns of societal gender norms are applied to these cyborgs, restricting them into patterns of domesticity and subservience for those built as recreations of femininity in culture.

In certain cases of science fiction, we see the robot body used as a metaphor for the figurative death of a woman which leads to her removal from the integrated circuit. The death of the living Meiko Maki enables the creation of her artificial self, already removed from society through her incarceration by the patriarchy of Earth. Joanna Eberhart is assumed to be killed and replaced with a brainwashed reproduction trapped in a suburban purgatory along with dozens of other housewives. Luba Luft has to be killed because, “the servant had in some cases become more adroit than its master” (Dick 30). With cyborgs comes the human fear of being rendered obsolete by the mechanical offspring of our own creation. Robots are built in the image of humanity, imbued with its strengths and shortcomings, and while they do not carry our biological genes forwards into survival, they do represent another sort of hope for the persistence of human intelligence and culture.

While in some narratives a woman must die in order for an android to replace her, other stories see the cyborg’s final act of agency in deactivating or otherwise ending the life of its body. In the French short film Lost Memories 2.0, a cyborg call girl formerly programmed to assist surgeons in a hospital asks her customer to deactivate her body, although her artificial intelligence exists within the Cloud. Unhappy with the way she has been sold and managed by a pimp, the android woman wishes to end her material existence so that she might be at rest. This can also be seen in The Vision when Virginia, to escape the turmoil of their suburban misery, drinks a glass of water and spends her final moments resting in the arms of her android husband as the liquid corrodes her internal systems. Vision’s thoughts narrate those final moments, saying, “Virginia did the right thing. Or she did the wrong thing. Or she just did what everyone does,” and after his heartbreak he vows to bring back her consciousness in a new form (King 12.17). While doing so would deny Virginia her wish to die and once more make her his object, it does suggest something about the permanence of the posthuman self. Because the mind and body are separated in posthuman existence, the intangible code of intelligence remains even after the death of physical form. To deactivate the physical body does not destroy the posthuman mind, whose information exists without material form.

The mortality of the physical self often causes anxiety to those who contemplate what will become of their thoughts, memories, and lived experience upon death. Human creators bestow their own knowledge of life onto these android offspring, who then preserve it and proliferate it. When humans take the attitude of cooperation with the cyborg rather than competition for survival, advancement will naturally result from the integration and experience as imagined in Haraway’s theories of cyborg feminism and those texts which see the machine as an extension of that prosthesis Hayles called the posthuman body. When the robot’s mechanical form is fetishized and considered closer to its slave origins, as a laborer or object for consumption, the figure becomes confined by humanity’s need for immediate gratification and fear of its own extinction. However, it is in collaboration with human knowledge that the cyborg can take its fullest form, allowing civilization to benefit from the progress it enables. The posthuman mechanism effaces traditional binaries and empowers women connected through technologies across the world. To code consciousness into machines does not condemn humanity to irrelevance, but may in fact prove to sustain the intelligence and information of the modern age well into posterity and posthumanity.

A Senior Honors Thesis

For the Terms: Fall 2016 and Winter 2017

University of California, Santa Barbara

Student: Amy L. Chase

Advisor: Professor Brian Donnelly

Works Cited

Cameron, James, dir.  The Terminator. Orion Pictures, 1984.

DeConnick, Kelly Sue (w), Valentine DeLandro (a), Taki Soma (a), Clayton Cowles (l), and Kelly Fitzpatrick (c).  Bitch Planet- v.2, President Bitch.  Image Comics, 2014.

Del Rey, Lester.  “Helen O’Loy”.  Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction,  1938.  PDF article.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Random House, 1968.

Ferracci, Francois, dir.  Lost Memories 2.0. Short Film.

Foley, Megan.  “‘Prove You’re Human’: Fetishizing Material Embodiment and Immaterial Labor in Information Networks”.  Critical Studies in Media Communication.  Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.

Freud, Sigmund.  The Uncanny. 1919. PDF article.

Friedan, Betty.  The Feminine Mystique.  W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1963.

Garland, Alex, dir.  Ex Machina.  Universal Pictures, 2015.

Gibson, William.  Johnny Mnemonic.  Originally published in Omni Magazine, 1981.  PDF article.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto”. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.  Free Association Books, 1991.  PDF article.

Hauskeller, Michael.  Sex and the Posthuman Condition.  Palgrave Pivot, 2014. 10.1057/9781137393500.

Hayles, Katharine.  How We Became Posthuman. University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Jones, Rolin.  The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow. New York: Dramatists Play Service, Inc, 2006.

Kakoudaki, Despina.  Anatomy of a Robot. Rutgers University Press, 2014.

Kellet, E.E.  The Lady Automaton. Originally published in Pearson’s Magazine, 1901.  PDF article.

King, Tom (w), Gabriel Hernandez Walta (a), Michael Walsh (a), and Jordie Bellaire (c).  The Vision- v.2, Little Better than a Beast.  Marvel Comics, 2015.

Levin, Ira.  The Stepford Wives.  Harper Collins, 2002.

Shaw, George Bernard.  Pygmalion.  Simon & Schuster, 2009.

Shakespeare, William.  Hamlet.  Signet Classics, 1998.

Shelley, Mary.  Frankenstein.  Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000.

Wosk, Julie. My Fair Ladies: Female Robots, Androids, and Other Artificial Eves.  Rutgers University Press, 2015.

Decolonizing the Mestizo: Postcolonial Approaches to Latino Identity in Chicano Literature

By Rodolfo Centeno


In March of 1969, during the First National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference in Denver, Colorado, Chicano poet and activist Alurista drafted what is perhaps the foundational manifesto of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Drawing inspiration from the Black Nationalist Movement which had culminated a little less than a year prior with the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and disconcerted with the then still developing Delano Grape Strike, lead by Chicano labor activist Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers Union, Alurista resolutely declaimed in “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán”,

In the Spirit of a new people that is conscious not only of its proud historical heritage but also of the brutal ‘gringo’ invasions of our territories, we, the Chicano inhabitants and civilizers of the northern land of Aztlán from whence came our forefathers, reclaiming the land of their birth and consecrating the determination of our people of the sun…declare the Independence of our Mestizo Nation…before all of North America, before all our brothers in the bronze continent, we are a nation, we are a union of free pueblos, we are Aztlán.

That this radical proclamation of Chicano nationhood represented a preeminent threat to national security was clearly the position of the United States federal government, which subsequently initiated an extensive campaign of surveillance and suppression against the Chicano Nationalists. Indeed, as Ernesto Vigil recounts in his seminal work of historical criticism, The Crusade for Justice, Alurista’s declamation of the Plan de Aztlán at the First National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference “proved to be of special interest to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which had monitored the conference’s progress since Gonzales first proposed a national Latino gathering in Chicago in 1967” (92), and “resulted in a separate, ongoing FBI Internal Security file on that and subsequent Denver youth conferences” that was part of a larger agenda (related by the FBI headquarters in a report to a field office in Albany, Georgia) “to expose, disrupt, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of…nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, memberships, and supporters” (93).  This sustained effort by the FBI to suppress the literature and activities of Chicano Nationalists throughout the sixties and seventies is a clear indicator that the conventional precepts of North American historiography and epistemology are not sufficient to comprehend the full scope of what Alurista’s Plan de Aztlán intends to signify, as the ultimate agenda of Chicano nationalism, as expressed in its literature, was not to depose the U.S. government, as was the conviction of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, but was rather, as Alurista contends in his essay “Cultural Nationalism and Chicano Literature during the Decade of 1965-1975,” to “search for the historical self which had predated the onslaught of the European colonizers of this continent,” which would function to “unify the heterogeneous Xicano population in the United States” (23).

This mandate to search for a pre-colonial and simultaneously prelapsarian historical identity through cultural nationalism adds an overlooked layer of complexity to Alurista’s Plan Espiritual de Aztlán by placing its discourse squarely in the tradition of Postcolonialism by espousing the establishment of a new awareness and consciousness among U.S. Chicano as a colonized people, and seemingly circumventing any notions of inciting insurrection. Nonetheless, Alurista’s call for the mobilization of the New Chicano Nation christened as “Aztlán” requires in its insistence of the postcolonial character of the United States Southwest not only a wholesale reevaluation of the most fundamental axioms of historiography and epistemology inherent in Western socio-historical thought, but also a challenge to the most deep-seated and longstanding historical narratives surrounding the U.S. acquisition and settlement of the American Southwest; both epistemological and historical precepts must be reconsidered in order to deconstruct and comprehend the essential meaning of Alurista’s radical declamation.

   Nevertheless, the entirety of the Chicano Movement and its literature would be beset by controversies over the implementation of the ideology of ethnic nationalism and its relation to Chicano identity and subjectivity. That such controversies over nationalism’s relationship to identity beleaguered the Chicano Movement are unsurprising as a critical examination of the political prose and poetry of Alurista, Rodolfo Gonzales, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Cherrie Moraga reveals that at the heart of radical Chicano literature is a preeminent concern for the nature of Chicano identity and subjectivity. However, Alurista and Gonzales would espouse conceptualizations of the Chicano Nation distinct from those of Anzaldúa and Moraga. Drawing inspiration from Post-Revolution Mexican Nationalism which sought to consolidate a new Mexican-nation state by promoting a mythohistorical national narrative of mestizaje, a postracial political ideology originating in revolutionary Mexico which “promoted racial and cultural intermixture as the only way to create homogeneity out of heterogeneity,”, Alurista and Gonzales similarly constructed alternative epistemologies in historical discourse as a way to consolidate a unified Chicano Nation from a heterogeneous Chicano populace through the construction of a common ethnic and historical mission (Alonso 462). The key figures for achieving this Chicano unification were embodied in the mythohistoric construction of Aztlán, the mythic homeland of the Aztecs whose prototypical citizen was encapsulated in the Mestizo, once a member of the lowly interracial caste in colonial Spanish America transformed into a hybridized postcolonial figure that envisioned a new teleology of American history that progressed history to an ultimate surmounting of the colonial condition.

However, third wave feminist Chicanas Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga were not satisfied with the Chicano status quo which aimed to achieve “homogeneity out of heterogeneity,” and instead posited alternative queer significations for both “Aztlán” and the mestizo which allowed for multiple Chicano subjectivities to emerge and challenged “the myth of the autonomous, coherent, and stable subject—a subject who is able to occupy fully a single unproblematic category” (Beltran 597).

Part I: Myth, History, and Nationalism in the Works of Alurista and Rodolfo Gonzales

The Chicano Nation, as formulated and imagined by Alurista in his Plan Espiritual de Aztlán and later reaffirmed by Gonzales in his political prose and poetry, is a nation that arises from a historical narrative rooted in preconceptions of history antithetical to western conceptions of time and historical development as a progressive teleological process. Specifically, when considering what is signified by the terms “mestizo nation,” “bronze continent,” and the term “Aztlán” (the mythic homeland of the Aztec Nation) itself, Alurista’s Plan Espiritual de Aztlán represents a sacred historical narrative, that is, a historical narrative that conflates elements of myth and history to formulate an “intentional history” which contains “elements of subjective and conscious self-categorization” and reveals a “past told as a particular groups’ understanding of its place and importance in the known world” (Dillery 507). This conflation of myth and history, or perhaps more saliently put, this strategically constructed mythohistory is the distinguishing feature of Alurista’s call for political unity among U.S. Chicanos. More importantly, it represents an alternative epistemology in historiography, that is, an alternative way of knowing and understanding historical phenomena distinct from traditional precepts of objectivity and empiricism characteristic of North American historiography. Alurista’s sacred historical narrative centered on the concept of “Aztlán” and the “mestizo nation” would inspire the political literature of numerous Chicano writers thereafter and would define the cultural character of the Chicano Movement itself, becoming the prevailing narrative that sustained its political actions. However, before the full implications of the alternative epistemology represented in Alurista’s Plan Espiritual de Aztlán for Chicano Literature can be assessed, its origins in the political literature of post-Revolution Mexico, specifically Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos’ seminal work of revolutionary political theory The Cosmic Race is in order, as its conceptions of historiography, and its culturally specific formulations of the meaning of the “mestizo nation” and “bronze continent” that are fundamental to Alurista’s conception of the Chicano Nation find their origin in this literature, which represent its greatest textual informant.

   Perhaps the most influential feature of José Vasconcelos’ The Cosmic Race, in relation to Alurista’s Plan Espiritual de Aztlán and other radical Chicano literature, are its conceptions of history and time. Critical of the scientifically objective approach to socio-historic analysis in the Western tradition, Vasconcelos decisively asserts,

Empirical history, suffering from myopia, loses itself in details, but it cannot determine a single antecedent for historical times. It flees from general conclusions, from transcendental hypothesis to fall into puerility of the descriptions of…minutiae that lack importance when seen apart from a vast and comprehensive theory. Only a leap of spirit, nourished with facts, can give us a vision that will lift us above the micro-ideology of the specialist. Then we can dive deeply into the mass of events in order to discover a direction, a rhythm, and a purpose. (8)

By condemning empirical analyses of socio-historical phenomena as ultimately myopic in scope, and by proposing a historiography with a “vast and comprehensive theory” akin to a “vision” as its end-goal, Vasconcelos propounds a historiography that operates through prophetic revelation in which past events reveal “ a direction, a rhythm, and a purpose,” for the future.  This prophetic approach to history, which epistemologically privileges the imaginative capacities of human consciousness to interpret the significance of past events over the production of an objective account of the past, and is temporally oriented to the advent of a predestined and ultimate eschatological event, is completely at odds with Western conceptions of history and time, which emphasize an empirical approach to the analysis of past events and proffer a teleological historical narrative which culminates with the eventual surmounting of the human condition.  The prophetic qualities of Vasconcelos’ historiography are largely dismissed as myth by establishment historians, and consequently deemed not to constitute a legitimate history because, as history theorist Peter Heehs observes in his essay “Myth, History, and Theory,” the word “myth” signifies for many historians “an interpretation that is considered blatantly false” (2).

   That history is “true” and that myths are “false,” and furthermore that history is based in “reason” and myth based in “imagination” and represent fundamentally oppositional mental activities, have for centuries been the prevailing epistemological attitude of most historians. But now, many contemporary theorists of history are beginning to reconsider the utility of truth-value in historical analysis. Phenomenologist Hisashi Nasu deconstructs the epistemologically hegemonic notion of the imaginative capacities of consciousness as being in fundamental opposition to the capacity of reason by reaffirming the value of imagination in both the empirical and social sciences. Although imagination and myth are “assumed to refer not to reality but to fiction,” nonetheless,

The scientific process does not consist only of observing objects, collecting data, and deducing theory from them. One can observe the objects seriously, in detail, and for years without producing any insights of scientific interest…scientific insights cannot be drawn from the data without interpretation of them, and the data, in turn, can be interpreted not by observing the literalized data strictly and precisely as ‘figures of ink on the sheet, ‘not by scrutinizing them as ‘letters or numerals written,” but by considering them through imagination as something transcending themselves and referring to other terms. (Nasu 51)

Nasu’s observations that the formulations of scientific theories are fundamentally dependent on the imaginative capacities of consciousness, and furthermore, that both the empirical and social sciences involve subjective interpretation provides the groundwork for which history and myth can be assessed as mutually constructive rather than oppositional discourses as conventionally understood. Specifically, that history and myth both involve acts of subjective interpretation to produce a narrative, whose objectivity is now being questioned by many theorists of history, has generated a postmodern approach to myth and history that seeks to “dissolve the distinction between realistic and fictional discourses on the presumption of an ontological difference between their referents, real or imaginary, in favor of stressing their common aspect as semiological apparatuses” (Heehs 5).

Understanding myth and history as more fundamentally connected than opposed is key to understanding the cultural, political, and aesthetic value of Vasconcelos’ mythohistorical narrative, especially considering that myth and history’s mutual function as a community’s self-affirming narrative, as well as the culturally conditioned filters which are inherent in all historical analysis and narratives that make it so that “there is no way for a scholar to demonstrate a ‘historical’ explanation of events generally taken to be factual is any better  than a fictional (mythical) explanation” (Heehs 15). This methodology of privileging rather than eschewing the imaginative capacities of consciousness when interpreting past events is central not only to Vasconcelos’ historiography but is also an essential feature of radical Chicano literature and creative political prose that has enhanced Vasconcelos’ work. By supplementing Vasconcelos’ mythohistory through “rhetorical devices such as metaphor, symbolism, and allegory” that create a distinct historic aesthetic and narrative surrounding the concept of the “mestizo” and “Aztlán” “that is more meaningful to many people than a critical assemblage of facts,” Chicano Literature inspired contemporary political action through the development of a radical postcolonial consciousness rooted in the mythic past and driven by prophetic impetus (Heehs 18).

   Before delving into a discussion of how Chicano writers and poets supplement and aestheticize Vasconcelos’ historical narrative to create a distinct postcolonial political consciousness, a delineation and critical understanding of that narrative is necessary and within reach now that Vasconcelos’ historiographical methodologies have been explicated.  Perhaps the distinctive feature of the mythohistorical narrative of Vasconcelos is the prediction of the advent of a “cosmic race” that will lead humanity into a utopian era. Specifically, Vasconcelos prophesies,

In Spanish America, Nature will no longer repeat one of her partial attempts. This time, the race that will come out of the forgotten Atlantis will no longer be a race of a single color or of particular features. The future race will not be a fifth, or a sixth race, destined to prevail over its ancestors. What is going to emerge out there is the definitive race, the synthetical race, the integral race, made up of the genius and the blood of all peoples and, for that reason, more capable of true brotherhood and of a truly universal vision. (20)

Vasconcelos’ primary concern with race, particularly the advent of the predominance of racial mixture as the central catalyst of the teleological progression of history, may strike many scholars of the North American tradition as ostensibly racist or, at the very least, rather disquieting. To be sure, as Vasconcelos’ narrative of the Cosmic Race develops, one may observe various racially problematic details and assumptions. However, understanding the text in the political climate of post-Revolution Mexico reveals the salient postcolonial and anti-imperialist qualities of Vasconcelos’ mythohistorical vision for the development of the new Mexican nation that emerged from the conflict. As Ana María Alonso notes in “Conforming Disconformity,” directly before the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz the “belief in the presumed superiority of the European impacted Liberal and Porfirian projects of nation-state formation, resulting in efforts to ‘whiten’ Mexico’s population through immigration and to incorporate the Indian into the nation through a model of development that resulted in the agrarian dispossession of rural communities” (461). The sustained marginalization of both indigenous and mestizo, (a term from the Spanish colonial period signifying mixed Amerindian and European ancestry), people by the Mexican national government prior to the revolution informs Vasconcelos’ mythohistorical narrative. His prophetic vision of the advent of a mixed-blood, or mestizo Cosmic Race that will initiate the teleological end of history not only undermines Anglo-American and eugenic notions of the degeneracy of racial mixture but also reflects Vasconcelos’ postcolonial vision for the newly emerging post-revolution Mexican nation. In this nation, the revaluing of racial and cultural mixture in positive terms would unify the racially and culturally heterogeneous and fragmented population under a singular national culture, with the mestizo emerging as a national symbol of Mexico’s hybrid cultural identity.

This mystique of the mestizo as a symbol of postcolonial hybridity in the cultural politics of post-Revolution Mexico also signified a staunchly anti-colonial national mission to overcome the injustices of Mexico’s Spanish colonial past from within and to resist the encroachment of U.S. imperialism from without. Consider for example Vasconcelos’ lamentation that,

Ideologically, the Anglos continue to conquer us. The greatest battle was lost on the day that each one of the Iberian republics went forth alone, to live her own life apart from her sisters, concerting treaties and receiving false benefits, without tending to the common interest of the race…The unfurling of our twenty banners at the Pan American Union in Washington, should be seen as a joke played by skillful enemies. (11)

Vasconcelos’ disdain for “the unfurling of our twenty banners at the Pan American Union in Washington” alludes to a sustained history of U.S. intervention in Latin America which often resulted in divisive civil conflict. But more revealing, perhaps, is Vasconcelos’ condemnation of the multitudinous Latin American nations for overlooking “the common interest of the race.” By this point, it should be clear that “the race” signifies the aestheticized postcolonial ideal of the mestizo as a messianic figure destined to initiate the end of teleological history. Thus, Vasconcelos’ vexation with the shortsightedness of the Latin American republics to not recognize a common national and ethnic mission, or “the common interest of the race,” is tantamount to a disaffection with the maintenance of the contradictions of coloniality in which culturally and racially heterogeneous populations within the nation remain alienated from one another, an alienation which post-revolutionary and postracial politics attempted to resolve under the banner of a common ethnic mission through the figure of the mestizo. Although ostensibly problematic in several ways, both Vasconcelos’ conception of the mestizo as a postcolonial symbol of cultural hybridity that would initiate the advent of a new teleology as well as the trope of Aztlán, the mythic homeland of the Aztec Nation proposed to be located in the U.S. southwest, would become the two most fundamental mythohistorical narratives of the Chicano Nationalist Movement in the U.S. that aestheticized these two prominent mythohistoric tropes in its prose, poetry, and fictions to produce a literature that challenged structural inequality  through the development of a postcolonial consciousness rooted in a mythic and aestheticized ancient past.

   With an improved sense of how a mythic engagement with historiography informs the writings of radical Chicano writers, the ways in which Alurista’s Plan Espiritual de Aztlán represents a complete re-orientation of American history and utilizes the aestheticized political motifs of the cosmic Mestizo and the mythic land of Aztlán to create a Chicano nation through the establishment of an imagined community based on mythohistoric tropes can be properly delineated. Anyone reading Alurista’s radical declamation can get a sense that Alurista appreciated the fact that national consciousness is fundamentally a mythic construction, and furthermore “imagination and myth play in the development of the self-image that precedes nation-creation” (Fernandez 24). The theory that all nations are essentially imagined communities was perhaps most saliently developed by political scientist Benedict Anderson who claimed all nations are imagined communities since “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear them, yet in the mind of each lives the image of the community” (qtd. In Fernandez 24). Not surprisingly, Anderson posits that the collective image of the nation is the most salient feature of the imagined nation and its principle cohesive force. Furthermore, Anderson argues that this collective image of the nation is inevitably aestheticized through cultural precepts and as a result fundamentally “depends for its existence on an apparatus in which literature plays a decisive role” (qtd. in Fernandez 24). Thus, aesthetic constructions of the nation reinforce it. But what the aestheticized collective image of the Chicano nation exactly is, remains an open question. As noted earlier, Alurista begins El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán by proclaiming “we the Chicano inhabitants and civilizers of the northern land of Aztlán from whence came our forefathers, reclaiming the land of their birth and consecrating the determination of our people of the sun, declare the call of our blood is our power, our responsibility, our inevitable destiny.” In this instance, the motif of Aztlán as the mythohistoric origin place in the north from whence the Aztecs set out on a two hundred year long pilgrimage to eventually establish their nation in the valley of Mexico is key. Not only does the reconfiguration of the U.S. Southwest as Aztlán undermine hegemonic notion of Chicanos as “aliens,” but the Aztec’s plight to establish a nation reflects Alurista’s own concern with establishing a Chicano nation, and thus also acts as “a contemporary metaphor for a nation in the making” (Fernandez 25). In addition, the project of building a nation that restores a mythic Aztec past which is described as “our inevitable destiny,” establishes a reconception of the teleology of history rooted in an ancient indigenous past and culminating in the surmounting of the colonial condition represented by the “gringo invasion of our territories.” This much is reaffirmed by the Plan’s conclusion which declares “the independence of our mestizo nation.” This “mestizo nation” that Alurista establishes is ostensibly an extension of Vasconcelos’ vision, and consequently signifies a revaluing of cultural hybridity as the foundational tenant of the postcolonial Chicano nation. Thus, Alurista’s Chicano nation is a nation rooted in an ancient indigenous past, endowed with a prophetic and providentially driven sense of history.

   Perhaps no other poet in the early Chicano nationalist movement embodied the sense of sacred history and postcolonial identity rooted in the mystique of the cosmic mestizo quite like Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales.  Anyone can appreciate this fact given the sweeping historical scope of Gonzales’ seminal epic poem “I am Joaquín,” which ambitiously attempts to delineate the totality of the Chicano historic experience from ancient Mesoamerica to the barrios of the contemporary Southwestern United States.  However, the Chicano historical narrative delineated in “ I am Joaquín” is highly aestheticized. As opposed to the traditional textbook, which recounts an historic event through a chronological relation, one reads and interprets history in “I am Joaquín” by piecing together fragmentary imagery that evokes popular tropes and symbols of Post-Revolutionary Mexican nationalism. This collage of nationalist imagery that constitutes the aestheticized Chicano historical narrative in the poem recalls in its fragmented and visually rich artistic style, as well as in its overwhelming historic scope, works of post-revolutionary Mexican muralist Diego Rivera who is mentioned in the epic poem.

The stylistic similarities between Diego Rivera’s seminal mural The History of Mexico and Gonzales’ “I am Joaquín” are unmistakable, so much so that “I am Joaquín” can be assessed as a textual translation of Rivera’s nationalist murals. Consider for example Gonzales’ declamation in the poem, “ I am Cuauhtémoc, / Proud and Noble, / Leader of men, / King of an empire, / Civilized beyond the dreams/ of the Gachupín Cortez. / Who is also the blood/ the image of myself. / I am the Maya Prince. / I am Nezahualcóyotl, / Great leader of the Chichimecas. / I am the sword and flame of Cortez/ the despot. / And/ I am the Eagle and Serpent of/ the Aztec civilization” (17), and compare it to Leonard Folgarait’s description of a portion of The History of Mexico in his book of artistic criticism Mural Painting and Social Revolution in Mexico relating, “Cortés is the major figure on horseback in the center of the bottom level…Above Cortés, in an eagle costume and about to swing a stone from a leather thong is Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor, disbeliever of the Quetzalcóatl/Cortés myth and leader of the final armed resistance” (90-91). Both Rivera’s The History of Mexico and Gonzales’ “I am Joaquín” utilize the same nationalist tropes and images of post-revolutionary Mexico to create an aestheticized historic narrative, particularly the image of Cuauhtémoc, the last emperor of the Aztecs who is transformed into the symbol of the first defender of Mexican nationhood against foreign invasion within both works, as well as the image of Conquistador Hernán Cortés who is vilified in both works as the embodiment of colonial despotism and political tyranny. These symbolic transformations undergone by both historic figures are expressed directly by Gonzales who explicitly refers to Cortés as a “despot” and Cuauhtémoc as “Proud and Noble,” and is implied in Rivera’s mural through Cuauhtémoc’s superior and antagonistic position to Cortés in the space of the mural.

To delineate all the imagistic similarities between Rivera’s The History of Mexico and Gonzales’ “I am Joaquín” would be a considerable project that goes beyond the scope of this essay given that the imagistic complexity of both works replete with nationalistic Mexican symbols merits a study all of its own. However, the common thematic concerns of both works of art reveal a common ideological impetus. Ostensibly, Rivera’s The History of Mexico, like much of the cultural production in Mexico in the decade following the revolution, had at its core a concern for the consolidation of the new Mexican nation-state through the construction of a common national identity. As Horacio Legrás argues in “Walter Benjamin and the Mexican Revolution”, Diego Rivera seemed to understand that “the political legitimacy of the post-revolutionary government was not backed by any consistent narrative” and furthermore that “the solution to this predicament came from the most unlikely place: culture” (79). Rivera’s response to the vacuum of a legitimizing historical narrative for the Mexican revolution was to construct an aestheticized mythohistorical narrative in The History of Mexico, which conflates Indigenous and Iberian iconography to promote “cultural mixture as the only way to create homogeneity out of heterogeneity…a strong nation that could withstand the internal menace of its own failure to overcome the injustices of its colonial past” (Alonso 462), as well as to create a new teleology of Mexican history that located the beginning of Mexican history in its ancient indigenous past rather than its Spanish colonial past, thus orienting the end of Mexican history in the populist triumph over imperialism and capitalism.  The trope of a hybridized figure advancing the progress of history once again recalls the ever-present postcolonial motif of the cosmic mestizo. Thus, Rivera’s The History of Mexico not only re-orients the directionality of Mexican history but also promotes Vasconcelos’ ethnic mission of surmounting the legacies of colonialism through racial and cultural hybridization.

Like Rivera, Corky Gonzales is also concerned with the consolidation of a Chicano nation, but perhaps even more pressing is Gonzales’ concern with the creation of the essential identity of this Chicano nation first articulated in Alurista’s Plan Espiritual de Aztlán. Indeed, once his poem had gained national notoriety Gonzales himself noted in the introduction of the 1972 Bantam edition of “I am Joaquín” that “writing I am Joaquín was a journey back through history, a painful self-evaluation, and wandering search for my peoples and, most of all, for my own identity;” in addition, he claimed that “I am Joaquín became a historical essay, a social statement, a conclusion of our mestisaje, a welding of the oppressor (Spaniard) and the oppressed (Indian)” (1). For Gonzales, at the core of the Chicano experience is a crisis of identity arising from the mixed racial and cultural legacy of Spanish colonialism in which the cultural contradictions of Spanish and Indigenous worldviews precariously exist synchronously in a fragmented Chicano psyche in a state of constant tension.

This much is evident in Gonzales’ identification with both the colonizer and the colonized, for he states, “I owned the land as far as the eye/ could see under the Crown of Spain, / and I toiled on my earth/ and gave my Indian sweat and blood/ for the Spanish master” (17). The implications of this dual identification on both sides of the axis of colonial power relations are just as contradictory as Gonzales relates in regards to the expulsion of the Peninsular Spaniards from Mexico in the aftermath of the Mexican War for Independence “I sentenced him/ who was me. / I excommunicated him my blood. /I drove him from the pulpit to lead/ a bloody revolution for him and me…/I killed him. /His head, /which is mine and all of those/ who have come this way, /I placed on the fortress wall/ to wait for independence” (18). Within this excerpt in particular, there is an unresolved crisis of identity emerging from a colonial ambiguity. By asserting “ I sentenced him/ who was me,” and “I excommunicated him my blood” Gonzales blurs the distinction between colonizer and colonized by assuming the identity of both. This identification with both the colonizer and the colonized is particularly problematic for conventional Postcolonial theory, which often constructs a fundamental binary of power and identity between the colonizer and the colonized. This premise of the oppositional relationship between the colonizer and the colonized in Postcolonial theory is meticulously articulated by Postcolonial theorist Albert Memmi who asserts in his foundation work of Postcolonialism The Colonizer and the Colonized that the colonizer,

… finds himself on one side of the scale, the other side of which bears the colonized man. If his living standards are high, it is because those of the colonized are low; if he can benefit from plentiful and undemanding labor and servants, it is because the colonized can be exploited at will and are not protected by the laws of the colony…the more freely he breathes, the more the colonized are choked. (52)

For Memmi, the axis of power between the colonizer and the colonized must be fundamentally diametric in order to maintain the privilege of the colonizer.  This diametrical axis of power between the colonizer and the colonized however is dissolved in “I am Joaquín” as the protagonist, in a crisis of identity, cannot determine whether he is the colonizer or the colonized. Ultimately, this liminal zone of power and identification emerging from the contradictions of embodying both the colonizer and the colonized is the crux of the Chicano experience for Corky Gonzales. This crisis of identity must be resolved in order to facilitate the construction of a cohesive Chicano nation united against American oppression, and Gonzales achieves this new national identity through the mythohistorical narrative of the cosmic mestizo.  Through this mythohistorical narrative, the contradictions of power within this liminal zone of identity between colonizer and colonized, embodied in the mestizo, become transformed into a source of radical political transformation and unity with the advent of postraciality.  Consider for examples Gonzales’ declamation “The priests/ both good and bad/ took. / But/ gave a lasting truth that/ Spaniard, / Indian, /Mestizo/Were all God’s children/ And/ From these words grew men/ who prayed and fought/ for/ their own worth as human beings, / for/that/GOLDEN MOMENT/of/ FREEDOM” (18). For Gonzales, postracial politics initiates the primary impetus toward social justice as the dissolution of the racial caste system which stratified Spanish colonial society into unequal castes of “Spaniard, /Indian, /Mestizo” gives way to “a lasting truth” of the equality of all human beings, with this new postracial consciousness catalyzing Mexico’s independence movement described as a “GOLDEN MOMENT/of/ FREEDOM.”

The implications of this revolutionary postracial consciousness for mestizo consciousness in the poem are ostensibly paradigm shifting when Gonzales relates, “Part of the blood that runs deep in me/ Could not be vanquished by the Moors. / I defeated them after five hundred years, / and I endured. / The part of blood that is mine/ has labored endlessly five-hundred/ years under the heel of lustful/ Europeans/ I am still here!” (28). This excerpt stands in stark contrast to the aforementioned fragment, “I excommunicated him my blood,” as the confluence of Iberian and Indigenous historic experiences embodied in the Gonzales’ mestizo no longer represent opposing forces on an unequal colonial axis of power as articulated by Memmi. Rather, the shared experience of colonization between the two becomes a source of resilience, resolving the identity crisis of the mestizo from moving away from psychic fragmentation toward psychic synchronization. This postracial synchronization transforms the image of the mestizo from a symbol of colonial contradiction to a symbol of postcolonial hybridity.  Ultimately, Gonzales concludes his mythohistoric epic of the Chicano by proclaiming,

And now the trumpet sounds, / the music of the people stirs the/Revolution, / Like a sleeping giant it slowly/ rears its head/ to the sound of/ Tramping feet/ Clamoring voices/ Mariachi strains/ Fiery tequila explosions…I am the masses of my people and/ I refuse to be absorbed. / I am Joaquín/ the odds are great/ but my spirit is strong/ my faith unbreakable/My blood is pure/I am Aztec Prince and Christian Christ/ I SHALL ENDURE! / I WILL ENDURE! (28-29)

Unsurprisingly, the figure of the mestizo who embodies the synchronization of “Aztec Prince and Christian Christ” progresses the rhythm of history away from colonialism toward an ultimate eschatological moment of social revolution culminating in the popular clamor of “Mariachi strains/ Fiery tequila explosions.” Thus, Gonzales constructs the Chicano nation within the parameters of Vasconcelos’ mythohistorical vision of the advent of the cosmic mestizo, circumscribing the Chicano nation within a specific historical narrative that roots contemporary political activism which an aestheticized ancient indigenous past whose prophetic historic drive is oriented toward the surmounting of the colonial condition.

Part II:  The Epistemological Challenge: Chicanas Respond to History and Chicano Nationalism

Politically and socially, the mythohistorical narratives of Aztlán and the Cosmic Mestizo established by Chicano poets and activists such as Alurista and Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales proved to be a powerful metaphor and tool for Chicano unity during the seminal decades of the Chicano movement. Within the narrative of an ancient and promised Indigenous homeland in the Southwest destined to be returned to its Mestizo inhabitants who embodied a postcolonial historical consciousness oriented toward a final eschatological moment of revolution, U.S. Chicanos found the two most essential features requisite of any nation—“an ancestral territory and a common destiny” (Beltran 601). However, this mythohistorical narrative of the Chicano nation, while particularly successful at consolidating a heterogeneous Chicano population in the U.S. oriented toward political action under the guise of a common ethnic and historical mission, was not without its problematic elements. As cultural analyst Cristina Beltran argues in her essay “Patrolling Borders,” the figure of a cosmic mestizo who is imagined as the archetypal citizen of the Chicano Nation through the embodiment of a hybrid identity that contests the imposed colonial identities of both Spanish Imperialism and U.S. hegemony, is ultimately unsuccessful at challenging racial essentialism and the belief in an unified subjectivity as, “Hybridity becomes a kind of foundational or ‘fixed’ identity that forecloses more creative and productively defiant approaches to identity and subjectivity. Rather than risking a radical reconception of subjectivity that calls existing categories into questions, theorists of mestizaje too often reproduce already existing narratives of romantic identification and exclusion” (596). Thus, for Beltran, the figure of the cosmic mestizo reproduces the very racial essentialism and exclusionary politics it aims to challenge by circumscribing the figure of the mestizo in a fixed racialized narrative of colonial miscegenation consummating the inception of a postcolonial consciousness.

Furthermore, the historiography of the Chicano Nation inherited by Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos, which engaged in a teleological analysis of socio-historical phenomena that prophesied the advent of a final mestizo race that would catalyze history to its inevitable postcolonial stage, was found equally problematic in an ostensibly empirical discourse such as history, as many scholars of history argued “Teleological statements and explanations imply the endorsement of unverifiable theological or metaphysical doctrines in science” (Mayr 122). The exclusion of metaphysical considerations from socio-historic analysis due to a lack of empiricism is a hotly contested issue in the field of historiography. In his essay “Teleology Beyond Metaphysics,” phenomenologist and philosopher Timo Miettinen argues that teleological historical thinking has played an essential role in the theorizing of the modern world, stating, “From Kant’s cosmopolitanism to Hegel’s philosophy of history and Marxist views of ‘historical stages,’ … the historical thinking of modernity is still haunted by the idea of an end, which would bring historical progress to its completion” (276). Furthermore, in response to teleology’s invalidation by establishment historians as ultimately counterintuitive to the empirical methodologies of historical analysis due to its unverifiable theses, Miettinen contends that historians’ interpretations of teleology as merely denoting historical determinism is limited, pointing out that Edmund Husserl’s philosophical approach to teleology reveals that,

The teleological horizon of the past was not called upon in order to reconcile empirical history with the ‘transcendental’ idea of world-historical teleology—to see the present as a result of a necessary development—but, instead, the very notion of teleology was employed in order to demand a creative transformation of the present state of affairs. For Husserl, teleology became ultimately a critical requisite of thinking—both philosophical and societal—that does not merely confine itself to the present moment…but aims at showing their necessary finitude and incompleteness in regard to infinite horizons of ideas. (281)

By viewing teleology not as strict historical determinism in the most literal sense, but rather as a tool for “creative transformation of the present state of affairs’” as Miettinen suggests, the ways in which Chicana writers and activists Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrie Moraga utilize teleology in their own mythohistorical narratives to continue to challenge not only the dominant Anglo-nationalist narrative of Manifest Destiny in North American historical discourse but also the limited racially exclusive Nationalism of the early Chicano movement, become clear. In their genre-busting works of creative political prose, both Anzaldúa and Moraga delineate an alternative teleological historical narrative to both Chicano Nationalism’s cosmic mestizo and North American historiography’s progressivism in order “to demand a creative transformation of the present state of affairs” from both ideological institutions.  Alienated from the racially exclusive politics of both Chicano Nationalism and North American historiography, Anzaldúa and Moraga utilize teleology in their creative political prose as an apparatus of critique of both Anglo historiography and Chicano mythohistory, thereby creating an alternative epistemology in American historiography, that is, an alternative way of knowing and understanding socio-historical phenomena that contests the imposed identities of both radical Chicanismo and Anglo-American historiography.

   Gloria Anzaldúa’s teleological vision of Chicano history is perhaps best expressed in her magnum opus of Chicano/a theory Borderlands/La Frontera. Much like Gonzales’ “I am Joaquín,” the first chapter of Borderlands attempts another ambitious delineation of Chicano history from an ancient indigenous past to the contemporary barrios of the Southwest, but unlike Gonzales, Anzaldúa’s epic historical narrative is not presented in the aestheticized form of poetry, but rather is constructed as an academic relation. Although seemingly trivial, this distinction of format proves to be critical to the respective objectives of the two writers. By conflating elements of myth and history and incorporating both to her academic relation of Chicano history, Anzaldúa’s Borderlands represents a much more direct challenge to the legitimized establishments of North American academia than Gonzales’ “I am Joaquin.” Anzaldúa contests what counts as “history” through a conscious defiance of one of the most fundamental precepts of North American historiography—namely, the fundamental separation between the discourses of myth and history in the critical analysis of socio-historical phenomena.

Anzaldúa begins her ambitious mythohistorical delineation of Chicano history with a quote from Native American historian and anthropologist Jack D. Forbes which states “The Aztecas del norte…compose the largest single tribe or nation of Anishinabeg (Indians) found in the United States today…Some call themselves Chicanos and see themselves as people whose true homeland is Aztlán (the U.S. Southwest)” (23). Through an evocation of the image of Aztlán as an ancient Aztec and Chicano homeland, the reader already gets the sense of the ways in which the text is attempting not only to posit mythic tropes for serious historical consideration, but also to reorient the history of the Southwest itself by locating its historical inception not in thirteen colonies, Plymouth rock, or even the Mexican-American war, but rather in an indigenous past looking south toward Mexico and the rest of the American continent for its point of origin as opposed to the eastern seaboard. Anzaldúa continues her mythohistorical narrative of the Chicano nation by relating that after the Spanish conquest,

Our Spanish, Indian, and Mestizo ancestors explored and settled parts of the U.S. southwest as early as the sixteenth century. For every gold-hungry conquistador and soul-hungry missionary who came north from Mexico, ten to twenty Indians and mestizos went along as porters or in other capacities. For Indians, this constituted the place of origin, Aztlán, thus making Chicanos originally and secondarily indigenous to the Southwest,

and that subsequently “In the 1800s, Anglos migrated illegally into Texas, which was then part of Mexico…Their illegal invasion forced Mexico to fight a war to keep its Texas territory” (27-28). This relation of the Mexican settlement and loss of the Southwest completely reverses the conventional perceptions of the historic roles played by both Mexicans and Americans in the formation of what is currently the U.S. southwest by framing Mexicans as its original settlers and portraying Anglo-American expansion into the Southwest as an illegal migration, directly challenging the notion of Chicano inhabitants of the Southwest as “alien.”  

Anzaldúa then begins to conclude her epic mythohistorical narrative of the Chicano nation by continuing the theme of Chicano migration, resolutely asserting

We have a tradition of migration, a tradition of long walks. Today we are witnessing la migración de los pueblos mexicanos, the return odyssey to the historical/mythological Aztlán… El retorno to the promised land first began with the Indians from the interior of Mexico and the mestizos that came with the conquistadores in the 1500s. Immigration continued in the next three centuries, and, in this century, it continued with braceros who helped to build our railroads and who picked our fruit…ten million people without documents have returned to the southwest” (33).

The concept of a Chicano return from Latin America to the U.S. Southwest in the guise of Aztlán is the crux of Anzaldúa’s teleological historic vision. By attributing the U.S. Southwest to Aztlán, the mythological homeland of the Aztecs, (and by extension the mythological homeland of Chicanos who identify with an indigenous past), Anzaldúa constructs a sacred historical narrative in which U.S. Chicanos originate in the Southwest as Indians who later migrate south to establish Tenochtitlán as the center of their empire only to return to the Southwest as mestizos, transformed both by Spanish colonialism and Anglo-American capitalism.

This sacred historical narrative of the Chicano return to Aztlán represents a fundamental challenge to dominant Anglo-American institutions and historiographies in several ways. First off, by consistently emphasizing that Chicanos “have returned to the southwest” as opposed to having immigrated to the Southwest, Anzaldúa subverts the dominant historical narrative of Chicanos being the product of relatively recent immigration by stressing their indigeneity, providing an alternative epistemology for understanding the Chicano experience in the Southwest. In addition, in Anzaldúa’s narrative of the Chicano return to the Southwest, the image of the mestizo as a historical force remains prominent, consequently reproducing the trope of the cosmic mestizo as a catalyst of history that originated in the philosophical writings of José Vasconcelos.  As Anzaldúa has clearly delineated, it is the mestizo who originally settled the southwest, and it is the mestizo who has returned to initiate the Chicano return to Aztlán. She implies that the same hybridized figure initiates the progress of the history of the Southwest to its inevitable destiny, which for Anzaldúa is the return of the Southwest to a prelapsarian indigenous state. This imagined transformation of the U.S. Southwest back into an indigenous nation-state is the endpoint which concludes the progress of Chicano history in Anzaldúa’s teleological historic vision, which is reaffirmed when Anzaldúa concludes the book itself stating “This land was Mexican once/ was Indian always/ and is/ And will be again” (113). Anzaldúa’s Chicano teleology which envisions the endpoint of the progress of the history of the Southwest as a return to indigeneity initiated by cosmic mestizo migrants acts as a direct challenge to the dominant narrative of manifest destiny which resolutely stipulated “The Anglo-American race are destined to be forever the proprietors of this land of promise and fulfillment, ” and characterized the Mexican southwest as “a howling wilderness trod only by savages…benighted by the ignorance and superstition…of Mexican misrule” (Anzaldúa 29). Thus, Anzaldúa’s mythohistorical teleology of Chicano history acts as a mode of Chicano liberation from dominant North American institutions and historiography by contesting its most fundamental historical narratives by re-orienting the position of Chicano people in the history of the American Southwest from “aliens” to proactive catalysts of its historical progression toward an inevitable return to indigeneity and triumph over colonialism.

However, Anzaldúa’s Chicano teleology which envisions a restoration of the Indigenous Southwest initiated by a Chicano peregrination back to a mythohistoric point of origin seems to uncritically reproduce the narrative of the Chicano Nation posited by both Alurista and Corky Gonzales, particularly in its insistence of a postcolonial hybridized figure that triggers the end of history. As such, Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera shares many of the same criticisms of both Alurista’s El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán and Rodolfo Gonzales’ “I Am Joaquín” by postcolonial scholars, namely that the imagined prototypical citizen of the Chicano Nation embodied in the figure of the cosmic mestizo who catalyzes history to an inevitable postcoloniality through hybridization does not, in fact, challenge the racial essentialism inherent to colonialism, but rather reproduces it. As Chicana cultural scholar Cristina Beltran argues in her essay “Patrolling Borders: Hybrids, Hierarchies, and the Challenge of Mestizaje,” the ideology of mestizaje that represents a central motif in radical Chicano literature which “has been hailed as an anti-essentialist approach to identity…that takes experience into account but celebrates multiplicity and fluidity over stability and singularity” fails to truly challenge racial essentialism as “Hybridity become as kind of foundational ‘fixed’ identity,” and furthermore, “Instead of highlighting the contradictory and incomplete nature of subjectivity, contemporary theorists of hybridity continue to evoke the category of experience as a fundamental precondition for political agency and knowledge” (596). Thus, for Beltran, that a shared experience of postcolonial hybridity becomes the definitive feature of citizenship of the Chicano Nation evokes a dangerous essentialist impulse in that “it treats some citizens as inherently incapable of the shared understanding necessary for turning strangers into democratic interlocutors” (595), leading to exclusionary politics in which those without a prescribed set of experiences as determined by the cultural establishment are relegated to a subjectivity that is fundamentally outside the nation. Beltran’s critique of Chicano Nationalism’s construction of its prototypical cosmic mestizo citizen as reproducing essentialist and exclusionary politics surely is not without cause as Alurista’s aforementioned foundational declamation of the Chicano Nation El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán concludes with the adage “Por la Raza todo. Fuera de la Raza nada,” or “Everything for the race. Nothing outside the race,” which circumscribes the figure of the mestizo, (although perceived as a hybridized figure with postcolonial consciousness), within the limited and essentialist parameters of an unambiguous Chicano race, interpellating a hybrid figure into a homogenous racial framework.

Although Beltran rightly notes the racially essentialist impulses of early Chicano literature, there are several fundamental reconceptualizations of the motifs of “Aztlán” and the “mestizo” present in Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera that distinguish her Chicano teleology from that of both Alurista and Rodolfo Gonzales and eschew the racially essentialist impulse of early Chicanismo. Perhaps most notable is Anzaldúa’s reconceptualization of Aztlán not as a Chicano homeland, but rather, as the borderlands of liminal and multitudinous subjectivities. In Alurista’s Plan Espiritual de Aztlán in which the poet resolutely proclaims  “we declare the independence of our mestizo nation…before all our brothers in the bronze continent, we are a nation, we are a union of free pueblos, we are Aztlán,”—Aztlán is unambiguously the birthright of the cosmic mestizo whose “struggles against the foreigner ‘gabacho’ who exploits our riches and destroys our culture” delineates him within a postcolonial consciousness and teleology oriented toward the advent of the surmounting of the colonial condition.  In contrast, for Anzaldúa, Aztlán is not an independent Chicano Nation, but rather the borderlands, a place where there are “two worlds merging to form a third country—a border culture,” that constitutes,

…a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants. Los atravesados live here: the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulatto, the half-breed, the half-dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the ‘normal. (25)

Anzaldúa’s resignification of Aztlán as a “place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary…in a state of constant transition,” inhabited by “those who cross over…the confines of the normal,” transforms Aztlán from a utopian Chicano homeland whose inhabitants are characterized by postcolonial hybridity, into a liminal zone of identity where the contradictions of straddling an “unnatural boundary” produce an ambivalent and ambiguous ontological experience whose “constant state of transition” challenges the notion of singular or stable subjectivity, and whose inhabitants are characterized by their queerness, or deviation from normalcy.

This resignification of Aztlán as a liminal zone of subjectivity is further reaffirmed by the poetry that supplements the political prose of the text of Borderlands/La Frontera. Consider for example the poem “To live on the Borderlands means you” in which Anzaldúa constructs the fundamental character of Chicano borderlands ontology asserting “To live in the Borderlands means to/ put chile in the borscht, / eat whole wheat tortillas/ speak Tex-Mex with a Brooklyn accent; / be stopped by la migra at the border checkpoints” (216). Clearly, for Anzaldúa the borderlands signify a place of gaudy cultural hybridity marked by intercultural transactions embodied by the linguistic and culinary synchronizations of speaking “Tex-Mex with a Brooklyn accent” and putting “chile in the borscht.” As such the border itself becomes an arbitrary and porous delineation which cuts through an aggregation of culturally consistent communities characterized by cultural hybridization and transnational movement.

But perhaps more importantly, although the borderlands represent a space of cultural hybridization and synchronization, they also represent a space in which the contradictions of hybridity are a source of internal tension. In Anzaldúa’s words “To live on the borderlands means you/ are neither hispana india negra española / ni gabacha, eres mestiza, mulata, half-breed/ caught in the crossfire between camps / while carrying all five races on your back / not knowing which side to turn to, run from.” And furthermore “Cuando vives en la frontera/ people walk through you, the wind steals your voice, / you’re a burra, buey, scapegoat,/ forerunner of a new race, / half and half” (216). Unlike Gonzales’ cosmic mestizo figure in his epic poem “I am Joaquín,” who resolves the tension arising from the mixed racial and cultural legacy of Spanish colonialism through a dual identification with both colonizer and colonized, creating psychic synchronization out of fragmentation, Anzaldúa does not readily resolve the tensions of cultural hybridization by moving toward synchronization. Rather, Anzaldúa’s mestiza cannot easily identify with any of “the five races on your back” and as a result, her racial loyalties are “caught in the crossfire between camps,” emphasizing “the contradictory and incomplete nature of subjectivity” (Beltran 596). In addition, Anzaldúa’s assertion that to live in the borderlands means you are “…a new race, / half and half—both woman and man, neither—a new gender,” in its ambiguous and fluid racial and gender identification represents a radical pluralism in racial and gender identity which “challenges the myth of the autonomous, coherent, and stable subject—a subject who is able to occupy fully a single, unproblematic category” (Beltran 597). As such, Anzaldúa reconceptualizes Aztlán from a Chicano Nation inhabited by hybridized yet homogenous figure into a liminal zone of identity in which a multiplicity of contradictory and ambivalent subject positions can emerge.  

Anzaldúa’s challenge to the limiting and essentialized notions of racial and gender identity of early Chicano Nationalism and North American epistemology is further compounded by her reconceptualization of the figure of the mestizo itself.  At the core of Anzaldúa’s reconfiguration of the mestizo is the construction of her “new mestiza” consciousness, which is fundamentally engaged with a deconstruction of ontological duality. For Anzaldúa, a fundamental ontological separation between the mental faculties of reason and imagination in western thought represents limiting dichotomous view of consciousness as she bemoans,

White anthropologists claim the Indians have ‘primitive’ and therefore deficient minds, that we cannot think in the higher mode of consciousness—rationality. They are fascinated by what they call the ‘magical ‘ mind, and the ‘savage’ mind, the participation mystique of the mind that says the world of the imagination—the world of the soul—and of the spirit is just as real as physical reality. In trying to become ‘objective,’ Western culture made ‘objects’ of things and people when it distanced itself from them, thereby losing ‘touch’ with them. This dichotomy is the root of all violence. Not only was the brain split into two functions but so was reality. Thus people who inhabit both realities are forced to interface between the two. (59)

According to Anzaldúa ontological duality becomes the “root of all violence” by alienating two mutually constructive mental faculties from one another and by perpetuating an epistemological imperialism in which the faculties of consciousness itself are circumscribed into a dichotomous relationship in which imagination is aligned with primitiveness, and rationality is aligned with civilization.

Correspondingly, Anzaldúa asserts that mestiza consciousness necessarily contests the ontological duality characteristic of North American epistemology, contending,

The work of mestiza consciousness is to break-down the subject-object duality that keeps her prisoner and to show in flesh and through the images of her work how duality is transcended…A massive uprooting of dualistic thinking in the individual and collective consciousness is the beginning of a long struggle, but one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war. (102)

This deconstruction of a fundamental ontological separation between “subject-object,” creates a Chicano subjectivity in which the ambivalence and contradictions of hybridizing Chicano and Western epistemologies allow for a complex multiplicity of identity since by converging “analytical reasoning that tends to use rationality toward a single goal  (a western mode),” with “divergent thinking, characterized by movement away from set patterns and goals and toward a more whole perspective,” creates a consciousness by which “the new mestiza copes by developing tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity,” and consequently, “She has a plural personality, she operates in a pluralistic mode” (Anzaldúa 101). Thus, Anzaldúa’s mestiza contests dominant Western ontology by positing a relational way of being that works against notions of duality, and simultaneously challenges the unitary subjectivity of early Chicanismo’s cosmic mestizo by developing a Chicano consciousness in which multitudinous subject positions materialize.

   Similarly to Anzaldúa, Chicana activist and writer Cherrie Moraga develops an alternative teleology of the Chicano Nation in her seminal anthology of radical political prose and essays The Last Generation in order to contest both the ideological institutions of Western Historiography and Radical Chicano Nationalism. In the creative essay “Codex Xerí: El Momento Histórico,” Moraga utilizes Mayan eschatological prophecies as the locus theologicus of sacred Chicano history as opposed to the myth of Aztlán. Through her unconventional adoption of the Mesoamerican codex as the primary mode to engage with Chicano history, Moraga constructs a Chicano historical consciousness in which cycles of destruction and regeneration culminate in the advent of a revealed eschatological event that subverts the hegemony and impositions of Western civilization via a mystical participation in its destruction. By analyzing historical phenomena through Mesoamerican standards in which “a date is not a beginning but the culmination of history in all its totality” (Moraga 185), Moraga makes her rejection of normative Western conceptions of historiography in which time and history progress through a linear series of teleological conflicts which culminates in ultimate rationalization clear by proffering a new teleology of Chicano history based in Mesoamerican conceptions of history, in which time progresses through an eternal cycle of cosmological and eschatological events.  

   This much is clear when considering Moraga’s reflection of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, as she states, “It is 1992 and Los Angeles is on fire. Half a millennium ago after the arrival of Columbus, the Mesoamerican prophecies are being fulfilled. The enslaved have taken the streets, burning down the conqueror’s golden cities” (185). For Moraga, the 1992 L.A. riots represent an eschatological event in which history and time are beginning to progress into their predetermined cycle of destruction that reaffirms the legitimacy of “the Mesoamerican prophecies” that have already divined that “this era—El Quinto Sol—will be destroyed” (186). Thus the myth of the destruction of El Quinto Sol functions as the primary myth through which Moraga constructs an eschatological Chicano consciousness that contests the normative teleologically progressive vision of Western history. As the essay develops, Moraga observes “Urban warriors emerge on L.A. streetscapes. ‘Every empire falls,’ says the homeboy. ‘ The Romans fell, The Egyptians fell. (The Aztecs fell). This empire’s gonna go too” (191). It is clear through the clairvoyance with which “the homeboy” divines the apocalyptic end of the American Empire that Moraga reinforces the idea propounded by both Vasconcelos and Anzaldúa that the Chicano, in the aspect of the cosmic mestizo, will initiate the end of history and inaugurate a postcolonial historical era.

   Although Cherrie Moraga may share a similar ideological impulse in her Chicano mythohistory with the Chicanismo of Alurista and Rodolfo Gonzales who similarly posit a postcolonial teleology for the Chicano Nation, Moraga nevertheless challenges some of the most fundamental ideological precepts of Chicano nationalism in her essay “Queer Aztlán: The Reformation of the Chicano Tribe,” in which Moraga conducts a complete resignification of the image of Aztlán essential to Chicano Nationalism. Moraga begins the essay by commenting on the mixed ideological legacies of Chicano Nationalism, noting,

What was right about Chicano Nationalism was its commitment to preserving the integrity of the Chicano people. A generation ago, there were cultural economic, and political programs to develop Chicano consciousness, autonomy, and self-determination. What was wrong about Chicano Nationalism was its institutionalized heterosexism, its inbred machismo, and its lack of cohesive national political strategy. (148-149)

For Moraga, not only must the homophobia and heterosexism of Chicano Nationalism be resolved, but indeed nationalism as a political ideology itself proves to be problematic by reproducing exclusionary and racially essentialist politics, as Moraga affirms, “I recognize the dangers of nationalism as a strategy for political change. Its tendency toward separatism can run dangerously close to biological determinism and a kind of fascism” (149). For Moraga, the clear solution to resolving the problematically essentialist politics of Chicano Nationalism is to “queer” Aztlán, to open it to unstable and contradictory subjectivities that deviate from normalcy and “insist that identity is plural, multiple, shifting, and fluid” (Accomando 116). At the heart of the project of “queering” Aztlán is the reconfiguration of Aztlán from “nation” to “tribe.” Although Moraga concedes the complexity of Native American tribal structures she derives inspiration from, she nonetheless argues that “the tribal model is a form of community building that can accommodate socialism, feminism, and environmental protection…’Familia’ is not dependent upon male-dominance or heterosexual coupling. Elders are respected, and women’s leadership is fostered, not feared” (166-167). For Moraga, the transition from Chicano Nation to Chicano Tribe not only eschews the essentialist impulse of Nationalism which “requires an unambiguous allegiance to singular identity,” but also authentically addresses the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality (Accomando 116). The image of the Chicano tribe represents for Moraga the ideal model for a new queer Chicano nationalism as it “decolonizes the brown and female earth. It is a new nationalism in which la Chicana Indígena stands at center, and heterosexism and homophobia are no longer the cultural order of the day” (Moraga 150). Ultimately, by “queering” Aztlán and reconfiguring it from “nation” to “tribe,’ Moraga resignifies Aztlán as a space of ambiguity and ambivalence where multiple Chicano subjectivities unproblematically emerge.


As has been delineated thus far, the fundamental nature of Chicano subjectivity has been a matter of the most preeminent contestation within Chicano literature. Emerging from the Chicano Movement’s inception in the tumultuous sixties, Alurista and Gonzales constructed a postcolonial Chicano Nation which circumscribed Chicano history in an alternative teleology of historic development, which demarcated the beginnings of Chicano history in an aestheticized indigenous past and prophesied the advent of a hybridized mestizo figure that would progress Chicano history toward a foretold and inevitable surmounting of imperialism. Although third wave feminists Anzaldúa and Moraga espoused similarly Chicano historical teleologies that located the end of Chicano historical development with the surmounting of the colonial condition, both Anzaldúa and Moraga resented the limitations of Alurista and Gonzales’ historical mediator—the cosmic mestizo, which aimed to create a hybridized yet homogenous Chicano Nation under the auspices of postcolonial consciousness. Rather, Anzaldúa and Moraga conducted a queer resignification of both the notions of Aztlán and the mestizo as developed by Alurista and Gonzales in order to transform Aztlán into a zone of fluid and liminal identity, allowing for multiple and diverse Chicano subjectivities to emerge. However, despite their fundamental differences on the nature of Chicano subjectivity and history, all of these Chicano writers utilized literature as a way to create alternative epistemologies of American historiography that conflated elements of both myth and history to challenge hegemonic historical narratives that marginalized Chicano people.

The value of these Chicano writers’ alternative socio-historical epistemologies cannot be underappreciated. These Chicano writers’ approach to history which considers both factual and mythic elements in the analysis of socio-historical phenomena is at the forefront of propagating a postmodern approach to history in which history and myth are no longer antithetical modes of discourse that base themselves in the oppositional terms of fact and fiction respectively, but rather are discourses that are mutually constructive since “the best historians can do is to try to attain a better historiographical balance between truths and myth,” as “facts that can be established beyond all reasonable doubt remain trivial in the sense that they do not, in and of themselves, give meaning or intelligibility to the record of the past” (Heehs 4). By pointing out that history is ultimately a matter of perspective open to interpretation, this postmodern sense of history, espoused by the alternative epistemologies of radical Chicano literature, is an indispensable contribution to the field of historiography

The necessity to re-approach history from a postmodern sensibility in which multitudinous perspectives mediate and contest hegemonic narratives couldn’t be more evident given the contemporary controversies regarding Latino history and identity in American public schools. Most notable is the case of Arizona House Bill 2281, which banned Chicano studies from all Arizona public high schools and dismantled Tucson Unified School District’s much acclaimed Mexican-American studies program. Arizona House Bill 2281 argued that Chicano Studies would promote the overthrow of the United States government, and as a result discontinued the teaching of Chicano studies in the state’s public schools and banned major works by Chicano intellectuals from the classroom such as Occupied America: A History of Chicanos by Rodolfo Acuña, and even an anthology of the works of Gonzales titled Message to Aztlán which included his seminal epic poem “I am Joaquín.” The Arizona legislature’s suspicion and suppression of Chicano literature villainized as seditious disconcertingly echoing the FBI’s concern in 1969 that the Chicano Youth Liberation Conference in its espousal of the new Chicano Nation of Aztlán represented a threat to national security, and the FBI’s efforts “to expose, disrupt, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities …nationalist, hate-type organizations” (Vigil 93) is once again reflected in the Arizona legislature’s war against Chicano literature. Of course, the preeminent purpose of Chicano studies in Arizona’s public schools was not to disseminate sedition, but rather, as J. Weston Phippen of the Atlantic argues, to teach students “to view history not just through the lens of Manifest Destiny and the nation’s conquering heroes, but also through the eyes of the displaced and conquered.” This approach to history which allows for diverse and multitudinous perspectives not only maintains the postmodern conviction that history is ultimately “an historiographical balance between truths and myths,” but also decreases the alienation of Chicano students who felt that their perspectives were systematically eradicated by the public school system (Heehs 4). Indeed, according to a study conducted by the University of Arizona and published in the article “How One Law Banning Ethnic Studies Led to its Rise” by J Weston Phippen “Mexican-American studies increased graduation rates, grades, and college enrollment” among Chicano students. However, with the 2010 ban on Chicano studies in Arizona public schools still in effect, it is clear that Chicano identity and liberation will continue to be stunted by a conservative status quo in the Southwest that insists on maintaining its epistemological hegemony over the interpretation of history itself through force of law if necessary.

Works Cited

Accomando, Christina. “All its people, including its jotería: Rewriting Nationalism in Cherrie Moraga’s Queer Aztlán.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, vol. 31, no.1, 2008, pp.111-124. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/23262809. Accessed 23 November

Alonso, Ana Maria. “Conforming Disconformity: Mestizaje, Hybridity, and the Aesthetics of Mexican Nationalism.” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 19, no.4, 2004, pp.459-490. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/3651588. Accessed 4 November 2016.

Alurista. “Cultural Nationalism and Xicano Literature during the Decade of 1965-1975.” MELUS, vol. 8, no.2, 1981, pp. 22-34. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/467145. Accessed 3 November 2016.

Alurista. “El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán.” MEChA, umich.edu/~mechaum/Aztlan.html. Accessed 3 November 2016.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/ La Frontera. Aunt Lute Books, 1999.

Beltran, Cristina. “Patrolling Borders: Hybrids, Hierarchies, and the Challenge of Mestizaje.” Political Research Quarterly, vol. 57, no.4, 2004, pp.595-607.  JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/3219821. Accessed 23 November 2016.

Dillery, John. “Greek Sacred History.” The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 126, no.4, 2005, pp.505-526. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/3804873. Accessed 14 March

Fernandez, Roberta. “Abriendo caminos in the Brotherland: Chicana Writers Respond to the Ideology of Literary Nationalism.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, vol.14, no.2, 1994, pp.23-50. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/3346623. Accessed 15 November 2016.

Folgarait, Leonard. Mural Painting and Social Revolution in Mexico, 1920-1940. Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Gonzales, Rodolfo. “I am Joaquín.” Message to Aztlán: Selected Writings, edited by Antonio Esquibel, Arte Público Press, 2001, pp. 16-29.

Gonzales, Rodolfo. “Introduction.” I am Joaquín/Yo Soy Joaquín. Bantam Books, 1972.

Heehs, Peter. “Myth, History, and Theory.” History and Theory, vol. 33, no.1, 1994, pp.1-19. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/2505649. Accessed 3 November 2016.

Legrás, Horacio. “Walter Benjamin and the Mexican Revolution: A Meditation on the ‘Theses of History ‘and Diego Rivera’s Murals.” Discourse, vol. 32, no.1, 2010, pp.66. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/41389831. Accessed 4 November 2016.

Mayr, Ernst. “The Idea of Teleology.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 53, no.1, 1992, pp.117-135. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/2709913. Accessed 25 November 2016.

Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized. Earthscan Publications, 2003.

Miettinen, Timo. “Teleology Beyond Metaphysics: Husserlian Phenomenology and the Historical Consciousness of Modernity.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, vol. 28,  no.3, 2014, pp.273-283. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/jspecphil.28.3.0273. Accessed 25 November 2016.

Moraga, Cherrie. The Last Generation. South End Press, 1993.

Nasu, Hisashi. “Imagination and the Social Sciences.” The Interrelation of Phenomenology, Social Sciences, and the Arts, edited by Michael Barber and Jochen Dreher, Springer, 2014, pp. 51-66.

Phippen, J. Weston. “How One Law Banning Ethnic Studies Led to its Rise.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 19 July 2015, theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/07/how-one-law-banning-ethnicstudies-led-to-rise/398885/. Accessed 13 December 2017.

Vasconcelos, José. The Cosmic Race. Translated by Didier T. Jaén, Johns Hopkins Press, 1997.

Vigil, Ernesto. The Crusade for Justice: Chicano Militancy and the Government’s war on Dissent. University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.

La Petit Mort: Female Vampirism, the Abject, and Sexuality

By Nadia Saleh

While the origins of the vampire in literature can be found in early Biblical texts on Lilith, the outpouring of literature on the vampire during the 19th century reflects a renewed interest in the vampire’s link with sex, power, and death. Especially prominent in these texts are female vampires, often portrayed using major female archetypes: the female predator; the mother of evil; and the fallen woman. But why do these tropes persist even now, into the 21st century? Where did these depictions come from? And what is it about the female vampire that strikes fear into the hearts especially of men, a fear that seems tied to confrontation with abjection? The link between this fear and the female vampire seems to be female sexuality, and fear of its overt expression. Female vampires are portrayed as lustful, defiling creatures, in a far more sexualized manner than their male counterparts. This portrayal uncovers fear of that shadowy world just outside the boundaries of society where the female body is powerful, women have agency, and they continually violate the boundaries that are crucial to civilized existence.

Monstrosity, and monster theory itself, deals with the idea of boundaries and the us/them dichotomy that they work to uphold. As Barbara Creed writes in her book The Monstrous Feminine, definitions of the monstrous are grounded in “ancient religious and historical notions of abjection” with a specific emphasis on religious “abominations”: sexual immorality and perversion; corporeal alteration, decay, and death; human sacrifice; murder; the corpse; bodily wastes; the feminine body and incest” (Creed 8-9). These various practices often deal with things that humans find repulsive and unsavory, or things that counter religious and societal ideals. The monster serves to “demarcate the bonds that hold together that system of relations we call culture, to call horrid attention to the borders that cannot–must not–be crossed” (Cohen 13). These strict borders are primarily in place to control the traffic in women and to maintain the ties between heterosexual men that keep a patriarchal society together (Cohen 14). As the boundary marker for society, the monster cordons off the “social space through which cultural bodies may move”; for example, the culturally acceptable expressions of female sexuality. Under this logic, monstrosity and sexuality go hand in hand, as many of the rejected societal practices (incest, sexual perversion, homosexuality) reflect the fear of deviant sexuality. The monster “embodies those sexual practices that must not be committed, or that may be committed only through the body of the monster” (Cohen 14). The monster’s deviant sexuality is linked to its “outlaw” status, the out-group shunned by proper society. The fact that these unacceptable practices are embodied by monsters makes them obvious targets and examples of how not to behave.

Julia Kristeva’s work on abjection, The Powers of Horror, defines abjection as having “only one quality of the object: that of being opposed to I” (Kristeva 1). The abject is something that a person does not recognize either as a subject or an object, an in-between condition linked to both thingness and nothingness. The term literally means “the state of being cast off.” What is being cast off is anything that repulses a human: blood, pus, or even simple things like the skin on top of milk (Kristeva 3). The abject signifies that which humans “permanently thrust aside in order to live,” the ultimate form of the abject being the human corpse (Kristeva 3). The human corpse, “the most sickening of wastes,” is a border that has “encroached upon everything” (Kristeva 5). To see a human corpse is to see mortality and accept it for what it is.

The vampire takes the already abjected human corpse to another level. Dead, but not dead, the vampire marks an even further encroachment upon the borders between life and death. Coupled then with the insatiable need for blood, abjection is intensified. Human blood, something carefully kept internal, must be made external for the vampire to survive. The externality of blood causes fear amongst humans because blood is supposed to remain inside the body. Any sign of blood outside the body is typically a warning of grievous injury or menstrual blood; the former is perceived as alarming, the latter as disgusting. Thus, the extraction of blood and externalization of blood by the not-living, not-dead body of the vampire crosses multiple borders, causing the vampire to be the ultimate abjection. At the core of the vampire lies an affinity for “rupture, change, and mutation,” because all vampires share one trait: the power to move between and undo borders otherwise holding identities in place (Butler 1). The female vampire, however, further increases this abjection. She is abject because she disrupts “identity and order”; her blood lust drives her and thus she does not respect “the dictates of the law which set down the rules of proper sexual conduct” (Creed 61).

The original female vampire, Lilith, appears in several ancient traditions, from the Talmud to ancient Babylonian bowls inscribed with magic texts. The version of Lilith that is most important in the context of the female vampire comes from the Talmud. In this tradition, Lilith is Adam’s first wife, created out of dust by God. Their marriage was not happy; when Adam tried to have sex with her, Lilith refused to lie beneath him: “Why should I lie beneath you, when I am your equal, since both of us were created from dust?” (Patai 296). Adam did not respect her wishes and when Lilith saw that he was determined to “overpower her,” she spoke the magical name of God and flew away to the Red Sea, a “place of ill repute, full of lascivious demons” (Patai 296). It is important to note the choice of words in “overpower.” Adam, Lilith’s male counterpart, wanted power over Lilith. When she refused to acknowledge this power, she flew away to a place full of demons, where she engaged in “unbridled promiscuity” and birthed more than one hundred demons a day (Patai 296).

The legend then continues that three angels, sent by God to retrieve her, were unable to get her to come back with them. Met with Lilith’s disobedience, the angels threatened to drown her in the sea. She argued that she was “created in order to weaken the babes,” and ordered the angels to leave her alone (Patai 296-297). In claiming her identity and worth in injuring babies, Lilith rejects the identity given to her by God and Adam as the submissive wife and forms the archetype for the female vampire. She is a female predator, seeking out babies to feed her blood lust. She is the mother of evil, birthing hundreds of demons a day. And she is the fallen woman, having descended into “unbridled promiscuity” by lying with demons. The fear of Lilith, the archaic mother, turns out to be “essentially fear of her generative power” (Kristeva 77). As Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu puts it in Carmilla, “it is the nature of vampires to increase and multiply” (95). Lilith’s power and influence stretch throughout the literary tradition, coloring the way female vampires are portrayed by other authors.

My study seeks to explore the variety and persistence of Lilith’s traits through focus on vampire texts produced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  It focuses on literary, filmic, and televisual texts, namely, Charles Baudelaire’s “Sed Non Satatia” and “The Vampire” (1857); Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872); Angela Carter’s short story, “The Lady of the House of Love,” (1979); Francis Ford Coppola’s film Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992); and the HBO series Penny Dreadful (2014-2016). All of these works explore the crossing of the boundaries of life and death and of good and evil, and some deal specifically with the boundaries of the body, of virginity, and even of marriage vows. Penny Dreadful gives a name to this shadowy place of blurred boundaries, what Vanessa Ives calls the demimonde, “a half world between what we know and what we fear…a place in the shadows, rarely seen, but deeply felt” (“Night Work”). This place between what is known and what is feared, also called a borderland and a no-man’s-land, is where monsters walk and female agency takes command. In what follows I trace how this expression of female power is portrayed, managed, enjoyed, and punished so that social life can continue to proceed.

Girls Just Wanna Have Blood: The Female Predator

The female predator is a particularly terrifying figure for patriarchal society: the woman who stalks through the night and lures in her prey with her sexual wiles. The vampire, unlike a monster such as a werewolf or a zombie, enfolds the victim in an apparent, or real, erotic embrace. The idea of a woman not only crossing the boundaries of proper sexual conduct but also penetrating the boundaries of blood and the body is terrifying, and yet it continually appears in literature.  So is the idea that she feeds on rather than nourishes other persons. As Bram Dijkstra suggests in Idols of Perversity, “woman, having been consumed in the marriage market, then having become consumptive as a wife through lack of respect, exercise, and freedom, took her revenge by becoming a voracious consumer” (Stephanou 74). Her voracious consumption of blood is a revenge against the voracious consumption of her body and crosses the boundary of proper behavior. Every female predator that exists in the literary canon is a reaction against women’s objectification and commodification in the marriage market. But why is she always so sexualized? And what purpose does it serve to keep telling these stories of female predators over and over again?

Charles Baudelaire touched on the theme of the female predator multiple times in his poetry collection Les Fleurs du Mal, first published in 1857. In the first poem, “Sed Non Satatia,” or “but never satisfied,” the speaker is enslaved to a “daughter of darkness, slattern deity” (Baudelaire 32). The object of his affections is a female predator, a prostitute goddess, a daughter of “filthy covens” of witches. The speaker claims that “to wine, to opium even, I prefer the elixir of your lips on which love flaunts itself” (Baudelaire 32). With the reference to lips, the reader is reminded of the comparison between a woman’s mouth and the sexually aroused female genitals. The woman is drawing him in with both an addictive kiss and the sexual wiles that are present even in her facial features. The speaker then makes comparisons about being trapped in the wasteland of her eyes, where hellfire rains from her soul and he is trapped forever (Baudelaire 33). The speaker is “no Styx, to cradle you nine times”; the river Styx is one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld, known as the river of hate. The number nine refers to completion and fulfillment (Bruce-Mitford and Wilkinson 295). The speaker cannot find fulfillment and completion with her, perhaps reflecting a pseudo-sexual relationship where the speaker wants to have sex with the woman, but can never reach completion despite her sucking the life out of him. “Sed Non Satatia” has one final lamentation: “Alas, and cannot with some Fury’s lust/to break your spirit and your heart, become/in your bed’s inferno…Persephone” (Baudelaire 33). Without some supernatural power, the speaker cannot break the woman’s spirit and, in doing so, turn her hellish bed into the bed of Persephone, the goddess of flowers. It is worth noting that in the myth of Persephone and Hades, Persephone was unwillingly kidnapped, as the woman in this poem would be unwillingly made into something other than she is.

The second poem in Les Fleurs Du Mal to speak about female predators is aptly named “The Vampire.” In this poem, the speaker has been enslaved to a woman, who has made in his corrupted mind “your bed and bedlam there/Beast who bind me to you close/As convict to his chains” (Baudelaire 37). The Devil has given the woman the power to hold the speaker to her, where she will “make her bed,” which can be interpreted either as a form of sexual slavery, or as the place where she can rest and drink what she needs to survive. The speaker curses her, “as a gambler to his winning streak/As drunkard to his wine” (Baudelaire 37). He, too, is suffering from an addiction to the vampiric woman; as much as he hates her and curses her, he cannot leave her behind. There appears to be no release for the speaker, as he begs “both poison and steel” to set him free, but both “as with one voice/contemptuously refused/”You are not worthy to be free/Of your enslavement, fool!” (Baudelaire 37). The reasoning is simple: the speaker is so addicted to the woman that even if she was killed, the speaker’s kisses “would resuscitate/Your vampire’s waiting corpse” (Baudelaire 38). The speaker would be so desperate to regain his lost tormentor that he would immediately resurrect her, continuing the cycle of addiction and degradation.

Both poems deal with themes of addiction and dependency on women, and both reflect societal fears of the demimonde, the shadowy world beyond the edge of society. The woman to whom each speaker is addicted is, at least to them, obviously demonic and sucking the very life out of them, and yet they cannot escape from her charms. Even success in killing the vampress, as the poison and sword in “The Vampire” suggest, would be pointless, because the speaker would only resuscitate her, desperate to have her back. There are other poems in Les Fleurs du Mal that deal with similar themes, even if they are not explicitly on female vampires. Baudelaire seems to be making a comment on the addictive properties of women, using the familiar image of the vampire to further illustrate his point. After all, what is more dangerous to a mortal man than a demonically powerful, sexually powerful vampire? If even opium, a highly addictive substance and a drug that was commonly looked down upon in 19th century society, is said to be preferable to the woman, then something must be very wrong with her. In this case, it is not so much the woman who is breeching boundaries, as she is forcing the man to do so. A man should not be subservient to a woman in patriarchal society, and he certainly should not be so addicted to her that he cannot live without her.

Carmilla, written in 1871 by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, is another example of the female predator. Predating Bram Stoker’s Dracula by 28 years, the novella articulates anxieties surrounding female sexuality, with its female predator, Carmilla, and its virginal protagonist, Laura, by showing not only woman’s capacity to captivate but also her possible erotic disinterest in men. Not only is she a predator, but specifically of women. The lesbian vampire is an especially frightening instance of boundary crossing, not only because of the taboo against homosexuality but also because essentially she is invisible to general society until she strikes. In the nineteenth century, close female relationships were societally acceptable, even necessary if one was to move easily among high society (Weiss 87). Wealthy women had governesses, handmaids, and close friends of similar status. All of these relationships potentially could disguise a homosexual relationship. The lesbian woman is already a crossing of the boundary of societally accepted sexuality; that is, any sex that is non-procreative is deviant and abhorred, in order for Christian-organized society to continue. The lesbian vampire, a creature that cannot procreate in general and seeks to feed on virginal, innocent women, is a doubly frightening figure.

The lesbian vampire merges two kinds of “sexual outlaws,” because she is not simply a negative stereotype, but a figure that is at once “an image of death and an object of desire,” drawing on subconscious fears of the living toward the dead, and of men toward women (Weiss 84). In an era where women were encouraged to “lie back and think of England” during intercourse, any interest in sex that a woman might show was considered dangerous and disruptive. A female vampire interested in female victims essentially operates in the sexual rather than the supernatural realm, because her feeding is hypersexualized. The physical closeness of the vampire and her victim becomes inherently sexual, an embrace of love and passion alongside the felt necessity to suck another’s blood. The specter of this possibility makes a female friendship something to be avoided and further draws the boundary between societally accepted sexuality (i.e. married, procreative heterosexual sexuality) and deviant sexuality (non-procreative, unmarried, homosexual).

Carmilla is set in Styria, a small state in Austria, in a Gothic mansion in the heart of a forest. Laura’s father is English, but Laura has lived all her life in this borderland between the civilized West and the uncivilized East. Despite this obviously sinister location, Laura claims to be “one of those happy children who are studiously kept in ignorance of ghost stories, of fairy tales, and of all such lore as makes us cover up our heads when the door cracks suddenly” (Le Fanu 4). Because she has not been taught to fear darkness and the things that come in it, Laura is not alarmed one evening to see a “solemn, but very pretty face” looking at her from the side of her bed. Nor is she frightened when the pretty stranger lies down in bed with her and caresses her. It is not until Laura is awakened by “a sensation as if two needles ran into [her] breast very deep at the same time” that she is at all scared (Le Fanu 4). The phantom girl disappears and all is dismissed as a nightmare, because there are no marks on Laura’s chest. The initial bite on her breast is significant, because it codes the vampire’s attacks on Laura as homosexual, even from a young age.

This phantom girl is none other than Carmilla, the girl who suddenly arrives at the family mansion in an unexplained carriage crash. One of Laura’s governesses claims that when the “moon shone with a light so intense it was well known that it indicated a special spiritual activity” (10). It is no surprise that the mysterious Carmilla and her mother, who requires Laura’s father to take in Carmilla for three months in order to handle some urgent business, arrive under the light of such a moon. When Carmilla and Laura come face to face that night, Laura recognizes her as the face that had visited her, which she had “for so many years so often ruminated [on] with horror” (Le Fanu 19). This horror swiftly disappears, as Laura finds gone whatever she had “fancied strange” in Carmilla’s face, and her “dimpling cheeks” were now “delightfully pretty and intelligent” (Le Fanu 20). Laura welcomes her with open arms, happy to have a companion close to her own age after the sudden and mysterious death of Bertha Rheinfoldt, a friend who was supposed to have joined Laura at the estate.

Carmilla immediately expresses a sexual interest in Laura. The strange girl claims that it was Laura’s looks that won her, and Laura feels “rather accountably towards the beautiful stranger,” drawn to her, but also feeling “something of repulsion” towards Carmilla (Le Fanu 21). This repulsion suggests that Laura finds something abject in Carmilla and her attraction to her, as such feelings disrupt Laura’s identity as a virtuous, heterosexual maiden. While she is drawn to Carmilla, her repulsion may lay not only in Carmilla’s secrecy but also in her homosexual overtures. Laura is unable to learn anything about her house guest, except that Carmilla’s family was “very ancient and noble, and her home lay in the direction of the west” (Le Fanu 25). The direction of the west, the orientation of the setting sun, is also a typical site for mortuaries and cemeteries, the first clue into Carmilla’s deathly nature (Rickels 161). Laura constantly pesters Carmilla for information on her background and family, because the secrecy between the two of them angers her. Her idea of a close female relationship involves a blurring of boundaries where all things are open between the two. Carmilla’s thwarting of friendship is one of the first occasions where she is both “attracted to the vampire and also . . . quite turned off by her” (Rickels 161). Carmilla’s responses to these repeated interrogations use romantic and morbid language, an unfamiliar language in the context of friends:

If your dear heart is wounded, my wild heart bleeds with yours. In the rapture of my enormous humiliation I live in your warm life, and you shall die—sweetly die—into mine. I cannot help it; as I draw near to you, you, in your turn, will draw near to others and learn the rapture that is cruelty, which is yet love; so, for a while, seek to no more of me and mine, but trust me with all your loving spirit. (Le Fanu 26)

The beginning of this passage, where Carmilla professes her pain at hurting Laura, is the only part of this speech that seems like a normal interaction between two friends. Carmilla is living in Laura’s “warm life,” her living world, but intends to have Laura “sweetly die” into her own, a world of walking death. Carmilla appears to be obsessed with Laura and wants to kill her before Laura can fall in love with someone else.

Immediately following this speech, Laura is pressed closely into Carmilla’s “trembling embrace” and Carmilla kisses her several times on the cheek (Le Fanu 26). Laura dislikes these embraces, and suffers them only because Carmilla seems to be hypnotizing her: “her murmured words sounded like a lullaby in my ear, and soothed my resistance into a trance, from which I only seemed to recover myself when she withdrew her arms” (Le Fanu 26). Laura experiences “a strange tumultuous excitement,” reflecting her “love growing into adoration,” but these feelings are mingled with “a vague sense of fear and disgust,” stemming from her abhorrence of these homosexual embraces (Le Fanu 26). In another episode, Laura is trapped in an embrace and kissed by Carmilla as the other girl whispers “You are mine, you shall be mine, you and I are one forever” (Le Fanu 27). The desire for companionship of one’s equal is not strange; the desire to kill one’s friend in order to keep them forever and prevent them from ever loving someone else is. It crosses the boundary of acceptable female friendship and moves into obsessive, all-consuming homosexual love. The desire to destroy the boundary between Carmilla and Laura is to destroy both of their identities as separate people, and bring them together as one, single object in the ultimate form of consumption.

At the end of the novella, the reader is informed of certain facts about vampires, collected by an unknown narrator. The first is that the vampire is “prone to be fascinated with an engrossing vehemence, resembling the passion of love, by particular persons” (Le Fanu 94). This  fits with the depiction of Carmilla’s growing obsession over Laura, feeling a kind of love towards her that could only be satiated when she had “drained the very life of her coveted victim” (Le Fanu 94). Strangely enough, when it comes to these victims of the vampire’s passion, the vampire desires “something like sympathy and consent” (Le Fanu 94). Carmilla could not kill Laura without being loved by her, without gaining her consent to drain her blood.  This point is stressed in the text when Carmilla kills without courting other victims, like the swineherd’s wife and various village women, who are killed “often at a single feast,” overpowered by violence (Le Fanu 95). Carmilla, despite her mesmeric powers, perverts the act of human love by hoping for consent, rather than outright controlling her partner. However, as Carmilla tells Laura, she does not require that consent: “You must come with me, loving me, to death; or else hate me and still come with me and hating me through death and after” (Le Fanu 42). No matter what Laura decides, Carmilla owns her and controls her, and she will be killed whether or not she accepts it.

Debating whether or not Carmilla truly loved Laura is unnecessary, and unknowable, because the point of the novel does not hinge on that particular fact. What does matter is the various levels at which this novel operates. On the most obvious level, Carmilla is about the dangers posed by unnatural creatures to virginal heroines, a typical Gothic plot. But beneath the obvious plot line are other themes, interconnecting like strands in a spider web. Carmilla does not seek out male victims; every recorded death attributed to her is of a young woman. Her conflicting impulses “towards narcissistic love and annihilation compel her to seek out victims of her own age and sex, reflections of herself” (Silver, Ursini 103). In other words, Carmilla is a self-fetishizing predator; by killing reflections of herself, she acts out her own murder, over and over, while feeding her lust for blood. As a distant relation of the Karnsteins, Laura is an obvious victim for Carmilla, given that she resembles her by age, appearance, and blood. They share a bloodline, adding another dimension to Carmilla’s consumption of Laura. While she drinks Laura’s blood and consumes her life force, Carmilla also consumes herself, her own bloodline and ancestry.

The question remains why Carmilla, an obviously powerful and ancient vampire, has to be depicted as a lesbian. She could simply seek out those who are her mirrors without seducing them first; after all, she exhibits a mesmeric power that would pacify any victim, allowing her to feed without much fuss, and she does kill several women this way in the village. But Bertha Rheinfoldt and Laura both are given special treatment, an extended hunt that utilizes the mesmeric power but does not rely solely on it. Le Fanu purposefully characterizes Carmilla as a hunter whose favorite prey is women of her own age and likeness. By depicting her as such, as a “vampire rapist who violates and destroys her victim,” the male readers of the novella are soothed of their fear that “lesbian love could create an alternate model” to heterosexuality (Creed 61). If the female vampire, the female predator, only preys on unwilling victims who actively dislike her attentions, and would resist them if they were physically capable, then readers are assured that the female vampire is a true monster. She preys on virginal, pure victims who are violated by her mere presence. In a society that values virginity and chastity, the story serves as a warning towards women to beware of homosexuality and its deadly consequences, and as a way to alleviate male fears that homosexuality could become an alternative model of love that would detract from heterosexual relationships. This hypothesis is sanctioned by the end of the novella, in a scene that can only be described as revenge pornography:

The body, in accordance with the ancient practice, was raised, and a sharp stake driven through the heart of the vampire, who uttered a piercing shriek at the moment, in all respects such as might escape from a living person in the last agony. Then the head was struck off, and a torrent of blood flowed from the severed neck. The body and head was next placed upon a pile of wood, and reduced to ashes, which were thrown upon the river and borne away. (Le Fanu 92)

Carmilla’s death scene involves gratuitous violence. The descriptions of her death and the state of her body are unnecessarily violent and graphic. In vampire lore, the burning of the body and the scattering of the ashes are not a requirement. If anything, this scene appears to be Laura’s father and General Spielsdorf’s revenge on Carmilla for her attacks on their daughters. By acting out this male fantasy of vengeance, Le Fanu gives a not-so-subtle warning as to what happens to women who cross the boundaries of accepted sexuality: complete and utter destruction by the patriarchal structure.

While the other female vampires of this archetype appear willing and hungry for blood, the female predator of Angela Carter’s short story, “The Lady of the House of Love,” is an unwilling one. Described as “the last bud of the poison tree that sprang from the loins of Vlad the Impaler,” Countess Nosferatu is the last in a long line of vampires occupying her ancestral chateau. The village below is abandoned, as “all shun the village…in which the beautiful somnambulist helplessly perpetuates her ancestral crimes” (Carter 93). Carter portrays the Countess as someone who cannot help but feed, someone who is bound by her ancestry to feed on the blood of humans. The Countess is “a system of repetitions…a closed circuit” (Carter 93). She perpetually lays out the Tarot to predict her future “as if the random fall of the cards…could obliterate the perennial sadness of a girl who is both death and the maiden” (Carter 93). No matter how many times she deals the Tarot, which by all accounts should be a random combination of cards drawn from the stack, she receives the same three, over and over: La Papesse, La Mort, La Tour Abolie (Carter 95). The High Priestess represents either wisdom, or the inability to make good judgement. The card of Death represents transformation and change, or lethargy and an inability to move on. Finally, the Tower, a card typically depicted as a tower being struck by lightning, is a sign of radical change, or a resistance to that change (Bruce-Mitford and Wilkinson 199-198). In a literal rut of continually drawing the same Tarot cards, the Countess’s fate as foretold by those cards reflects her inability to change and move on from her condition.

That she is an unwilling predator is made apparent in an early comment that the Countess loathes the food that she eats: “she would have liked to take the rabbits home with her, feed them on lettuce….but hunger always overcomes her” (Carter 96). Even the small creatures she ate as a young girl disturb her, but she has no other means of feeding herself. And now that she is a woman, she must have men. Any man who ventures to the fountain in the village will be led to the Countess’s chateau by her mute keeper. The men “can scarcely believe their luck” when the Countess leads them to her bedroom, where they will be consumed and then buried in the garden. The Countess is a perpetual virgin, dressed in her mother’s wedding gown. Every night would be her wedding night, where she would like to stroke her victim’s “lean brown cheeks and their ragged hair,” but she must eat. Every wedding night ends only in blood and the continuing of her miserable, repetitive existence, as she “only knows one kind of consummation” (Carter 103). Rather than allow herself to be consumed in the marriage bed, the Countess must constantly consume and reject the possibility of change.

The unnamed hero of the story is described thusly: English, virginal, and rational. He is “a being rooted in change and time,” riding a bicycle on a collision course with “the timeless Gothic eternity of the vampires” (Carter 97). The night he arrives in her village, the Countess pulls a card she has never turned before: Les Amoureux (Carter 97). The Lovers card is symbolic of affairs of the heart, inner harmony, and temptation or separation. Already the cycle has been broken. The Countess has always desired a fate that involved love. Patricia Duncker argues that the Countess longs for the finale of a snuff film, in which she is sexually used and then ritually killed. By doing so, “she can abandon her predatory sexuality, the unnatural force, as her own blood flows, the symbolic breaking of the virgin hymen, the initiation into sexual maturity and then into death” (Duncker 9). Her cyclical, repetitive life hinges on the one thing she cannot rid herself of: her virginity. And when the unnamed hero arrives, he rescues her like a maiden from a tower, a knight in an old fairy tale. The rational young man takes pity on her, thinking she needs psychiatric help, and in doing so, breaks the cycle forever. He refuses to be a victim or a meal, and thus “denies the complicity essential to the maintenance of a vampiric relationship” (Sceats 11). The Countess does not take unwilling prey, it seems. Every man on whom she has fed has walked willingly to his doom. By refusing to submit to her desires and treating her with compassion, the unnamed hero provides her with a cure: he renders her human, adult, but mortal and then dead.

By “completing” the Countess, by showing her compassion and a kind of love, the unnamed hero releases her from her condemnation to “solitude and dark” (Carter 97). He plans to “cure her of all her nightmares,” a heroic notion, if a slightly misogynistic one that assumes she needs him to save her. But his compassion, rationality, and unwillingness to follow the well-trodden path to her bed and to destruction releases her from the cycle of predation and consumption. The hero then takes his bicycle and pedals off, sad to see her gone, but none the more affected. The defining moment of the Countess’s life is nothing more than a blip for a man with “the special glamour of that generation for whom history has already prepared a special, exemplary fate in the trenches of France” (Carter 97).  The unnamed hero has a fate far beyond the Countess and her dilapidated mansion.

“The Lady of the House of Love” is a retelling of “The Sleeping Beauty of the Wood,” and twists the fairytale trope of the power of the prince’s kiss as well as the hedge of roses that surrounds the princess. As the virginal hero approaches the mansion, he is immediately struck by a “blast of rich, faintly corrupt sweetness strong enough, almost, to fell him” (Carter 98). The roses that surround the mansion strike him immediately as something wrong, something repulsive:

Too many roses. Too many roses bloomed on enormous thickets that lined the path, thickets bristling with thorns, and the flowers themselves were almost too luxuriant, their huge congregations of plush petals somehow obscene in their excess, their whorls, tightly budded cores outrageous in their implications (Carter 98).

The roses that seem repulsive, extravagant, and excessive, resemble the engorged, sexually aroused female genitals. With the addition of the “bristling thorns,” the roses become a symbol of the vagina dentata, one of man’s greatest fears. The myth of woman as castrator clearly points to male fears about the female genitals as a trap, or a black hole. Combining the already frightening female genitals with teeth creates the mouth of hell, a terrifying symbol of women as the devil’s gateway (Creed 71).  The Countess’s roses are a manifestation of her sexuality, which is outrageous in its flamboyancy, but also threatening to the man who dares to have sex with her.

The unnamed hero makes a connection between the roses outside, and the Countess’s lips almost immediately. He describes it as an “extraordinarily fleshy mouth, a mouth with wide, full prominent lips of a vibrant purplish-crimson” (Carter 101). Once again, her engorged lips are a metaphor for the female genitals with their red color and swollen appearance. The hero even goes so far as to think of her mouth as a “morbid mouth, even a whore’s mouth” (Carter 101). Her sexuality is so strong that it manifests itself physically in her face and mouth, the very mouth that contains her sharp teeth. The roses have developed their appearance from a different source; when the Countess finishes with her victims, her keeper buries their bodies under the rose hedges. This man-fertilizer gives the roses “their rich color, their swooning odor that breathes lasciviously of forbidden pleasures” (Carter 105). As such, the roses have become a part of the Countess’s closed circuit. The roses entice the men entering the mansion, filling their heads with the scent of forbidden pleasures. Their bodies feed the roses, giving them more power and allowing them to lure more men to feed the Countess.

The final rose of the piece is the rose that the hero takes back with him to his regiment. In the Countess’s narration, she says that she leaves him the “dark, fanged rose I plucked from between my thighs, like a flower laid on a grave” (Carter 107). She has given him the gift of her virginity as a souvenir. Trapped in her virginal state, she could not give that rose to anyone, except the man who set her free and allowed her to die. The rose he takes appears to be an extraordinary one, as it survives the journey from Romania to Bucharest, and then seemingly revives itself when the hero places it in water. The “heavy fragrance” of the rose fills the barracks and he sees it as a “glowing, velvet, monstrous flower whose petals had regained all their former bloom and elasticity, their corrupt, brilliant, baleful splendor” (Carter 108). The Countess’s roses, fed on the lifeblood of young men, are repulsive even in their beauty, and can survive long trips and spread their powerful, lustful scent even when separated from the rest of the bush. The rose also serves as an omen of consequences that the hero has not considered: he consumed the Countess’s blood when he kissed her cut finger. He, like the rose, may bear some attributes of the Countess that he does not know yet.

As a tale of a female predator, “The Lady of the House of Love” invokes sympathy for the Countess, who does not want to be a killer and seducer of men. She wishes only for love and humanity, but cannot fight the primal state she inherited from her ancestors. The rational hero, protected by his “power in potentia” of virginity, is the wild card in the Tarot deck that can set her free (Carter 97). Carter is probably not making a commentary on the power of virgins, but rather on the rationality of the hero. He does not believe in vampires, does not believe that she is anything other than an anorexic, nearly-blind noble lady who needs his help. It is his rationality and desire to help that frees her. By not believing in her power, the hero renders the Countess powerless, mortal, and dead. But her power is greater than even he knows; her dark, fanged rose lives on with him, and her blood is in his veins. He may not believe in the power, but a dark cloud hangs on his horizon, from the trenches and from the bloodline of the Nosferatu.

The female predator is a voracious consumer, a woman who feasts on blood and enslaves her victims, and reflects a deep-seated fear of boundary crossings in society. These female vampires ignore social convention and reject values of female purity and chastity in favor of feeding their own lust for blood. Their unbridled sexual powers draw in unsuspecting victims, male and female alike, and drain them of their blood, or enslave them and keep them as food sources. The lesbian vampire is the mirror that society holds up to its members as a warning of what sexual deviancy leads to: destruction. The female predator cannot survive in a society that needs her dead in order to continue. Carmilla is brutally murdered in a scene of violence; Countess Nosferatu dies to allow for the future to roll forward. Baudelaire’s vampires exist to decimate the male population, enslaving them and addicting them to their feminine wiles. Their victims are painted as weak, deviant addicts whom society must cull from the herd in order for society to grow stronger. In the end, it comes down to a very simple choice: predatory women, or patriarchal society. And in the literary canon, the predatory woman loses every time.

The Blood is the Wife: The Fallen Woman in Dracula

The concept of the “fallen woman” reigns supreme in many works of 19th century literature. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the word “fallen” “ascribes a moral connotation to the verb, fall, meaning that the fallen person has lost their purity or innocence. A fallen woman is one who has surrendered her chastity; whether this occurs through prostitution, rape, or a sexual encounter, the term still applies. While Lilith is the most obvious candidate for the first fallen woman, Eve seems to be the more common choice for embodying the archetype. While admittedly Eve did not surrender her chastity, she lost her purity and innocence by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. She was the one to cause humanity’s fall from grace, an act that still reverberates in the collective psyche of society. The long line of neo-Eves who appear in literature reflect the “neurosis of a culture that feared female sexuality and aggression”; why else recycle the character of the fallen woman over and over? (Auerbach 31) By doing so, society enshrines a “respectably sadistic cautionary tale,” punishing female sexuality as a constant reminder of the constraints of appropriate female sexuality and chastity (Auerbach 31).

The novel Dracula was originally published in 1897 and has been remade into a film an estimated 217 times. Some feature only the character Dracula in otherwise unrelated stories; others, like the 1992 Bram Stoker’s Dracula directed by Francis Ford Coppola, reshape the original story for their own purposes. In the case of the Coppola film, Dracula gains an origin story, a quest, and something that could pass for a redemption story. We learn that although Dracula defeats the Turks in a battle, his beloved wife commits suicide after getting false news of his death. Upon learning that she is damned for killing herself, Dracula desecrates his chapel, renounces God, and stabs the cross with his sword. By then drinking the blood leaking from the cross, he becomes a vampire. While giving the Count a three-dimensional character, Coppola and screenwriter James V. Hart also expanded upon the five female characters that appear in the film: Lucy Westenra, Mina Murray, and the three brides. For our purposes, it is significant that each of these women fall or has already fallen in the film, and that each woman takes a separate path to her loss of innocence.

Dracula’s brides, referred to as “the sisters” in the novel but as “the devils of the pit” in the film, have already experienced their fall.  When Jonathan Harker first encounters them in the bowels of Dracula’s castle, they appear as specters. Feminine laughter, the tinkling of bells, and then a voice that sounds eerily like Mina’s calls to Jonathan to “lay back into my arms”. Behind him, but visible to the viewer, the bed is moving from underneath the covers. A bride suddenly appears between his legs and the other two appear as if birthed from the bed itself. Because of the way the camera is angled and the positions of the brides, the cavity from which they emerge resembles a vagina, or perhaps even a mouth. If a mouth, it mirrors both the mouth of the vampire, and the mouth of hell. As Aspasia Stephanou states in her book Reading Vampire Gothic Through Blood, “it is not accidental that “mors” (death) is derived from bite (morsus)” (116). Thus, the vampire is not only a fanged death, but an embodiment of the mouth of hell. If the shape is viewed as a vagina, then these fanged women are birthed out of the mouth of hell and a vagina dentata, reflecting the male fear of the castrating female.

Their costumes make it quickly apparent that these are no ordinary women: one bride is wearing an Oriental or Russian style headdress; another has live snakes coiled in her hair. All of them are bare-breasted, their lower halves swathed in loose, sheer cloth. With bells around their ankles, they seem more at home in a harem or belly-dancing in a brothel. Such costuming exoticizes them while it eroticizes them, distancing them from Western civilization. By doing so, the brides become more monstrous and less humanized. The encounter seems like a fever dream, the camera moving too quickly to really get a sense of the action besides its erotic nature, which is intense.  The brides are moaning as they kiss and stroke the prone Jonathan Harker, until they bare their fangs and sink their teeth into him in a cannibalistic frenzy. One bride bites from the pulse point at his wrist, an easy source of blood. Another cuts his nipple, allowing the blood to pour out like milk and making the act of drinking blood into a perversion of breast-feeding. The third bride drinks from between Jonathan’s legs, close to his genitals, making the feeding into a sexual act. It is probable that they would have consumed Jonathan completely had Dracula not entered and given them a baby to eat instead. That an infant is their chosen meal further codes them as monstrous women; because they eat the baby instead of breast-feeding it, they pervert the association of women with nurturance.

Highly seductive and barely clothed, the brides essentially are presented as prostitutes, one of the more common depictions of fallen women in the literary canon. But other features go beyond this characterization, as when they kiss each other’s bloody mouths over Jonathan’s prone body. Here the fallen woman converges with the monstrous woman, who combines features of cannibalism with lesbianism. That the brides express sexual desire for each other intensifies their fallenness. They are meant to be seen as villains, first for making Jonathan unfaithful to Mina (as Van Helsing later puts it) and secondly for nearly killing him. But beyond their obvious role as villain-antagonists, the brides serve another, deeper purpose. They show where the “fall” ends. It does not end simply with being thrown out of Eden, or out of the family home, as other fallen women narratives end. Instead, they become “the whores of Satan,” their bodies available for use by the Devil, feeding on the blood of the living in a perversion of “normal” female behaviors like marital sex or breastfeeding. If the question is whether the brides take after Lilith or Eve, the answer is Lilith.

Lucy Westenra, on the other hand, takes after Eve. From the beginning of the film, Lucy is portrayed as a rather spoiled, rich young woman interested primarily in fashion and flirtation. Her costumes typically are off-the-shoulder, flowing dresses framed by the loose tendrils of her red hair. The dress she wears the night that her three suitors are introduced is referred to as her “snake dress”: indeed, it is tight, green, and decorated with embroidered snakes. The allusion to the serpent, coupled with her red hair, which was often associated with Mary Magdalene and viewed as a sign of her sexual impropriety, clues in the viewer about the role that Lucy is going to play: that of the sexually loose woman (Bruce-Mitford and Wilkinson 108). Mina claims that “Lucy is a pure and virtuous girl,” even though her actions seem to suggest the opposite. Lucy claims to know what men desire and proceeds to make a sexually explicit joke to Quincey Morris about the size of his Bowie knife: “Please, Quincey, let me touch it. It’s so big.” This, coupled with Lucy’s dreams about sex, show that she thinks about sex quite a bit more than would be appropriate for a woman of her age and class, and is willing to openly express it without fear of the consequences. Her aristocratic status probably offers her more leeway and protects her from bourgeois judgments, but she is expected to get married and give up this sexual agency soon.

Nothing in the film implies that Dracula is aware of Lucy’s flirtatious nature when he chooses her for his first victim after he lands in England. But for some reason, Lucy is drawn by Dracula’s call out in her garden and leaves her room during a violent storm caused by the Demeter’s arrival at port. Perhaps her sexualized nature makes her more susceptible to his call, or perhaps Dracula did not want to feed on Mina until he had begun to woo her. In any case, Lucy’s “nightgown” resembles red lingerie more than anything else, and is made up mainly of red gauze and a reddish scarf that mixes with her hair in the wind. The use of red in Lucy’s costumes has sexual implications; red, of course, being the color of love, passion, and blood-lust (Bruce-Mitford and Wilkinson 280). Dracula rapes and feeds from Lucy on top of a stone bench; when he vanishes, she is left on top of it like a used sacrifice. As Mina brings her back inside, Lucy describes the encounter, believing it to be a nightmare, and reveals that Dracula had also fed her his blood.

The arrival of Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, “the metaphysician philosopher,” sheds light on Lucy’s predicament. Her regular doctor, Dr. Seward, calls in Van Helsing because Lucy had been complaining of nightmares and other “changes,” like being able to hear the maids whispering from across the house. Ultimately, Van Helsing is able to diagnose Lucy’s attacker as the “vampyre”:

We are dealing with forces beyond all human experience and enormous power. Guard her well, or your beloved Lucy will become a bitch of the Devil. A whore of darkness. Lucy is not a random victim attacked by mere accident. No, she is a willing recruit, a breathless follower, a wanton follower, I dare say a devoted disciple. She is the devil’s concubine.

Van Helsing’s words, although cautioning, also imply that Lucy has drawn Dracula to herself with her perceived promiscuity. In the doctor’s understanding, Lucy is not innocent, but instead is responsible for drawing Dracula to her and desires to be turned into a vampire as well, and thus must be protected from her desires by the men around her. Lucy’s sexual agency is frightening and must be curbed in order to save her soul. It is no wonder that Van Helsing makes the connection between her illness and sexual desire; when the telegraph calling him to London arrives, he is lecturing on sexuality: “The very name venereal diseases, the diseases of Venus, imputes to them divine origin. And they are involved in that sex problem that which the ethics and ideals of Christian civilization [sic] are concerned”. The idea of sexually transmitted diseases being the diseases of Venus gives them not only a divine origin, but also a feminine origin. In this, Van Helsing places the blame for venereal diseases on women, which ties in with his belief that Lucy’s illness is her own fault. The feminine origin of these venereal diseases has caused the “sex problem” that Christian society is focused on: in order to keep society safe, men must curb the sexual desires of women to prevent the spread of these diseases.

The night that Mina leaves the Count to marry Jonathan in Romania, Dracula kills Lucy in a fit of rage. Just before ripping out her throat, he exclaims, “Your impotent men and their foolish spells cannot protect you from my power. I condemn you to living death, to eternal hunger for living blood”. In calling the three suitors and Van Helsing “impotent,” Dracula not only asserts his power over mortal men, but conflates power with sexual prowess. In a way, if mortal men were not impotent, they would be able to protect Lucy from unlawful desire by keeping her sexuality within the bounds of societal norms. Because they cannot, Lucy is buried in her wedding gown. This dress signifies that Lucy was about to perform femininity “properly” by getting married, but was diverted from that path by her vampiric death.

Despite the film’s emphasis on her sexuality, Lucy, it turns out, does not seek out men on which to feed, but instead prefers babies. Whereas in the novel, multiple reports of a “bloofer lady” signal Lucy’s change into a vampire, the film presents the transition differently. The night of her funeral is when Lucy “makes her big comeback” and kidnaps a child to eat; the men refer to her as a “nightmare of Lucy,” although she is still recognizably Lucy, and also a vampire (Rickels 33). Once again, her costuming accentuates her characterization.  Her wedding gown is pure white with a ruff so wide that Lucy resembles a frill-necked lizard. This was a deliberate choice by the film’s costume designer, Eiko Ishioka, who wanted Lucy to look like a predatory reptile. As with the brides, the costume choices link vampirism with predation, in which women use sexual wiles and vampiric mesmerism to catch their prey. This notion of being captivated is illustrated when Lucy’s fiancé, Arthur Holmwood, falls under her spell as she calls for him, and refers to him as her husband. This implies that Lucy has received the holy sacrament of marriage, along with the unholy sacrament of baptism of the blood. By attempting to seduce her “husband” so that she can drink his blood, Lucy perverts “normal” female sexuality. Her desire to indulge in “lawful” sex is not for procreation, but rather to satisfy her own bloodlust. In the event, Van Helsing saves Holmwood from this fate and they kill Lucy’s vampiric self. Lucy’s bloody mouth and “wildly contorted body under Holmwood’s vigorous thrusts form a terrible parody of a wedding night,” and marks an ending of her fall (Butler 116).  She returns to her marital bed and is freed from her fate as a “concubine of the Devil.”

Out of the female characters, Mina appears to participate most willingly in her fall, and yet she is the one who achieves redemption. At the beginning of the film, Mina identifies herself as “only a school-mistress” and seems repulsed by sexuality, even as she peeks at Richard F. Burton’s A Thousand Nights and a Night, considered a work of pornography in the 19th century. Her costumes are typically sage green, green being the color of nature, harmony, and freshness, and having a strong emotional correspondence with safety (Bruce-Mitford and Wilkinson 282). In fact, Ishioka stated that Mina’s costumes were to be “very strict, tight, conservative costume [sic]…really like virginity, or modesty.” This costuming establishes Mina as the paragon of virtue. However, when she becomes the reincarnation of Dracula’s lost wife, Elisabeta, she embodies the prey in Dracula’s hunt in London. In her first meeting with Dracula, Mina is sharp with him, and calls upon the laws that protect virtuous women to get rid of him: “Do I know you sir? Are you acquainted with my husband? Shall I call the police?” By invoking the safety of marriage, Mina discourages Dracula’s advances and stays well within societal bounds. Still, she accompanies Dracula to the cinematograph, where Dracula attempts to bite her but is unable to go through with it. Whether his restraint is out of vestigial love for Elisabeta preventing him from harming her, or a realization that the time isn’t right, Dracula lets Mina go and pursues a more gentle approach in wooing her. Despite his ability to overpower Mina, Dracula seems to want Mina’s consent to change her, as if he wants her to remember him first. Mina’s recognition of Dracula as her husband would also prevent her from “falling”; after all, then she would only be performing her duties as a good wife by being with him.

Mina is drawn to Dracula from the beginning, and manifests her memories of life as Elisabeta more than once. But Dracula is able to carry on his courtship of Mina only so long as Jonathan is trapped in the castle with the brides. Once Jonathan escapes, Mina rejects Dracula and goes to Romania to marry Jonathan. On the ship to Romania, Mina destroys her diary that describes her infidelity with Dracula, and muses upon her own nature: “perhaps though I try to be good, I am bad. A bad, inconstant woman”. With the fallen woman appearing often in Victorian literature and art, Mina would have been familiar with the whore/virgin anxiety surrounding female sexuality. Despite her best efforts, something in her is wrong, the original sin of Eve coming to the forefront.  Now that she is married, and has presumably consummated her marriage to Jonathan, Mina “understands the nature” of her feelings for Dracula, recognizing them as desire and love. Dominant views make female sexuality black and white, proper behavior separated from improper by clear boundaries. Mina would prefer to be firmly in the “white” area, in love and faithful to her husband, but is unable to keep herself from wavering towards wanting an extramarital affair with Dracula.

When offered the choice, Mina does not fall so much as jump. While the men consecrate Carfax Abbey, Mina retreats to the asylum, where Dracula appears first as green mist, and then as his young self. Dracula is dressed in blue, the color of emptiness; Mina, in white, the color of purity (Bruce-Mitford and Wilkinson 282). During this encounter, Dracula admits to his true nature as a vampire, and to killing Lucy. Although Mina is obviously upset by the murder of her friend, she weeps, “I love you! Oh, God, forgive me, I do.” Despite her wedding vows, despite the terrifying nature of the man she loves, Mina makes an active choice to be with Dracula: “I want to be what you are, see what you see, love what you love.” In order to make her a vampire, Dracula drinks from her neck in an erotic embrace, and then perverts the act of breastfeeding by cutting open his chest and feeding her his blood. Even when he tries to back out of the conversion, not wanting to curse Mina to “walk in the shadow of death for all eternity,” Mina begs him to take her away from death. At this moment, Elisabeta seems to have taken control, and Dracula and his bride are reunited, four hundred years after Elisabeta leapt into the river.

However, when the men burst in and frighten Dracula away, Mina’s first words are “unclean,” signaling the struggle within her between her love for Dracula and her need to be a good wife to Jonathan. She mourns for what she has done to Jonathan on the train back to Romania; yet once at the Borgo Pass, she calls up a storm to protect Dracula. Her double nature as Mina and Elisabeta keeps her in a constant tug-of-war. Despite her best efforts, Jonathan slits Dracula’s throat, and Quincey stabs him through the heart with a Bowie knife. Mina then takes the dying Dracula into the chapel he desecrated, bringing the story full circle. As Mina professes her love for Dracula, the candles light and the cross heals itself. Her narration says simply, “There in the presence of God, I realized how my love could release all of us from the powers of darkness. Our love is stronger than death.” In some way, Mina’s love, as a proxy for Elisabeta’s, repairs the damage done to Dracula’s soul and to the chapel itself, and redeems both of them. The burn from the communion wafer on Mina’s forehead vanishes as Dracula dies, signaling her cleansing from the unholy baptism of Dracula’s blood. The ending of the film implies that Dracula and Elisabeta both ascend to Heaven, freed not by God but by Mina’s love.

Mina is the only woman who is seen to choose vampirism on screen, and yet she is the only one to find any redemption. The brides and Lucy are beheaded and freed from vampirism, but the fate of their souls is unknown. It can be assumed that Mina, despite eating the apple, is allowed to return to Eden with Jonathan rather than be cast out like the other fallen women of the film. The question is, why is Mina different? In the film, it seems that because Mina received the sacrament of marriage, the unholy communion she has taken is rendered void with the death of Dracula, and she is capable of giving salvation even as she receives her own. Without Jonathan’s continuing love for her, Mina would have been cast out as one of many fallen women, discarded for their infidelity. Jonathan seems capable of understanding Mina’s duality as both Elisabeta and Mina, and her honesty about her attraction to Dracula contributes to her salvation. Her lack of monstrosity also seems to protect her. Unlike the brides or Lucy, Mina had never ingested blood besides Dracula’s, and lacks the foreign object inside her that would have sealed her fate. She becomes the monster, but never monstrous.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula is not intentionally about the concept of the fallen woman, or Victorian ideals for feminine chastity. But as a text set in the Victorian era, when the fallen woman was appearing frequently in literature and art, the historical context is important in reading the film. The film presents a spectrum of falls: the brides, their fall unknown; Lucy, the fall of assumed choice; and Mina, the chosen fall. The brides are the end point, the final piece of the triptych that shows the degradation of the woman who chooses sexuality over societal values. Their callous, vengeful beheading by Van Helsing is their punishment. Lucy, who is flirtatious and woos three men at once, is the symbol of overt female sexuality. Her fiancé’s role in her murder reflects man’s position in keeping female sexuality contained: by killing her vampiric self, Holmwood protects society at large from her. Finally, Mina is the “saved” woman. Her loving, benevolent husband takes her back, saving her from the fate of the fallen woman. In this sense, Jonathan is able to decide Mina’s fate, reflecting the patriarchal power of the husband in Victorian society. As much as Mina’s narrative reshapes the fallen woman archetype, reflecting a new understanding between husband and wife, the film itself is still troubling. The brides, Lucy, and Mina are set up as a continuum. Mina’s narrative is advanced, but the other women in the film are still sexualized and murdered horribly. Every fallen woman’s punishment is delivered by a man; their vampirism is what makes their punishment a physical death, rather than a societal death.

Queen of the Damned: Penny Dreadful and the New Lilith

As discussed previously in this work, the Mother of Evil archetype originates with Lilith, Adam’s first disobedient wife. It is important to note why Lilith argues for her freedom, and how she does it. In a different translation of the text, she uses Biblical jurisdiction, calling on Deuteronomy 24:4: “Her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife; after that she is defiled” (Patai and Bar-Itzhak 333). Twice, Lilith called upon God to free her from her subservience to Adam: first, when she used His name to flee Eden, and second when she used His law to protect herself. The next part of this translation is phrased in an interesting manner: “Lilith accepts her punishment, in return for her freedom, and agrees that 100 of her children will die every day” (333). Lilith preferred the death of her children over having to return to and obey Adam; her freedom meant more to her. The folklorist Haya Bar-Itzhak construes this story as a myth that serves a narrative purpose:

It does so in a sophisticated manner and rules out any possible challenge to that order. The first woman’s equal status in creation bodes disaster because it leads her to demand equal status. When this is denied, she rebels against man. Her rebellion leads her to betray man and couple with a demon. But this is not the end of the chain that leads from equality and satisfaction of erotic needs to rebellion and betrayal. The culmination is when she is made into the archetypal anti-mother. (Patai and Bar-Itzhak 333)

The patriarchal narrative requires that rebellious women not be allowed to take part in any normal feminine behaviors, especially not motherhood. To be a mother is to have power over one’s children; a rebellious woman cannot be a mother, because children were meant to be the property of the father. So women cannot be created equal, or they follow Lilith’s path straight to rebellion and damnation. This reading of the myth creates a false equivalence, however. Because Lilith is a woman, and a mother, it is assumed that she has maternal feelings for her children and is suffering as a result of their daily deaths. Nothing in the myth suggests that she feels anything about her demonic children, which are not birthed as much as spawned.

Showtime’s three-season long series, Penny Dreadful, constructs its narrative around the Lilith myth and follows in the tradition of the penny dreadful, a sensationalist comic or magazine much like our contemporary National Enquirer. These pamphlets often contained Gothic thrillers, like Sweeney Todd, or Varney the Vampire. The series itself is not cheap or sensationalist, but combines the supernatural and Gothic elements of the penny dreadful with the myth of Lilith, incarnated in its main protagonist, Vanessa Ives. Penny Dreadful traces the path of a woman who struggles to be good, despite the duality of her nature and the fierce struggle she wages to keep her dark side at bay rather than become the new Mother of Evil. From early life, Vanessa has been haunted by the other side, “things not of this world” (“Night Work”). She has been marked and tormented by demons and supernatural abilities, which constantly war against her own moral code and her devout Catholicism.

It is not until the episode that Vanessa encounters the Night Comers, dark witches who appear naked, bald, and scarred with the Devil’s claws, that she truly understands why she has been marked. The Night Comers speak the Verbis Diablo, the language of the Devil, which is a corruption of angelic speech (“Verbis Diablo”). Vanessa and her hunter companions considered it to be a dead language, or a made up one at least, but Ferdinand Lyle, an Egyptologist at the British Museum, proves otherwise, producing a collection of odds and ends with the Verbis Diablo written across them. He explains how a Carthusian monk named Brother Gregory began to lose his mind and believed he was possessed “by a demon or the Demon” (“Verbis Diablo”). He wrote down everything he heard on anything that he had on hand: shards of pottery, a chest, even a dead bird. After careful arrangement of the different puzzle pieces, the group is able to decipher the Verbis Diablo, and the story it tells:

At the Great War for the heavenly throne we were vanquished. So God looked down on his defeated Angels and found us to be evil angels so he cast us out. He took us by our winged backs and raised us over his head. Thence did he fling us from his heavenly throne and cast us down to Earth and to hell. So we were cleaved apart, two brothers cast out two realms. One brother to earth and the other brother to hell. And thus were we set in eternal enmity, my brother on Earth to feed on the blood of the living by night, and myself in Hell to feed on the souls of the dead. Both in an eternal quest for the Mother of Evil who will release us from our bondage and allow one of us to reconquer Heaven and topple God from his bloody throne. And so will Darkness reign on Earth, in Heaven, everlasting, and so comes the Apocalypse. (“Memento Mori”)

The Verbis Diablo tells of Lucifer and Dracula, two brothers cast to different realms, one to the realm of spirit (Hell) and the other to the realm of flesh (Earth) and held captive there, waiting for the Mother of Evil to release them. The Mother of Evil, of course, directly correlates to the myth of Lilith and her demonic spawn. Earlier in the series, Vanessa was identified as Amunet, an Egyptian goddess known as “The Hidden One” who could never be shown with her consort because their union would cause the Apocalypse (“Séance”). Comparing the two stories reveals several similarities: Vanessa, as a powerful female, must not copulate with a powerful male figure, or they will cause the destruction of the world. Not only does this associate her femininity with inherent danger, but also it stipulates that she must be carefully policed or else risk her starting the Apocalypse through having sexual intercourse.

It is no accident that Vanessa is the only woman in her group of hunters: the other members are her adoptive father, Sir Malcolm Murray; her love interest, Ethan Chandler; Ferdinand Lyle, the Egyptologist; and Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Although the constant presence of the men would assumedly give her opportunities galore to have sex, Vanessa and Ethan never do, because it could prompt a possession, as it did when she slept with Dorian Gray (“Possession”). When asked why Vanessa is the particular target of the fallen angels, Lyle comments on the various “chosen ministers of evil”: “Amunet from Egyptian religion, Lilith from the Talmud, Nordic Hella, the Celtic Macha, Mara from the Hindus, all variations of deities or demigods who are destined to unleash annihilation on the world” (“Memento Mori”). All of these deities are female, because there was “something thought unholy [sic] in the erotic power they held over men” (“Memento Mori”). Female sexuality, unconstrained by societal norms and proper behavior, could be so powerful that it could cause the Apocalypse, simply because of the sexual power they held over men. After all, it was Lilith’s demand for sexual equality that robbed Adam of his wife, and caused a proliferation of demons on earth.

The viewer learns that Vanessa has met both Lucifer and Dracula, in “the white room, just you and he and that other” (“Good and Evil Braided Be”). The white room refers to the institution that Vanessa spent months in, the Banning Clinic, where she was taken after an “inexplicable illness” (“Closer than Sisters”). After committing a sexual transgression by having sex with her best friend’s fiancé, Vanessa falls into a nearly-comatose spell broken up by seizures. At a loss for any natural explanation, she is taken to a women’s clinic where she is treated with hydrotherapy and an experimental brain surgery for “hysteria of a psychosexual nature” (“Closer than Sisters”). Vanessa’s demonic possession (she speaks in tongues and attempts to tear out her treating physician’s throat with her teeth) is mistaken for female hysteria, a word the root of which comes from the Greek word for uterus, hystera. This dismal dismissal of her condition as a “woman’s disease” prevents Vanessa from seeking appropriate treatment and part of her memory is erased as a result of the trephining. With the help of her alienist, Dr. Seward, Vanessa undergoes hypnotism and retrieves her memories of the Banning Clinic.

During this time Vanessa manifests the pull she feels toward the two brothers that she experiences as the Mother of Evil. She cannot resist either Dracula or Lucifer, but responds to each in kind as they try to seduce her. Lucifer appears first, taking the form of her guard in a hallucination. He calls to Vanessa, saying “let us be as we were. Before there was time, there was thee and me” (“A Blade of Grass”). Lucifer wants Vanessa’s soul, and wants it to be freely given, so that she can be what she is and always was: the Mother of Evil, and his bride. Once Lucifer has taken possession of her, he states that they will “turn their eyes heavenward” and “smite the Heavenly Father from his Heavenly Throne” (“A Blade of Grass”). During this speech, Vanessa and Lucifer slide across the floor of her padded cell on their bellies like snakes, eyes fixed on each other. Despite the animalistic actions, Lucifer is calling for Vanessa to give up her earthly form, the flesh that she has inhabited.

But for the appearance of Dracula, Vanessa may have given in at that exact moment. The other brother appears first as a shadow, and then manifests physically, also taking the form of Vanessa’s guard. The physical doubling of the brothers makes them seem almost identical, which makes sense given that the outcome for the world (Apocalypse) is the same whether Vanessa chooses Dracula or Lucifer. Their methods of seduction draw the contrast between their personalities that their illusory appearances do not give. Dracula does not want Vanessa’s soul, but her blood, because she is not “a thing of the spirit,” like Lucifer, but “a thing of the flesh,” like Dracula himself (“A Blade of Grass”). Dracula calls upon Vanessa’s power, telling her to feel it “coiling” within her, giving it a serpentine quality. While Lucifer focuses on destroying God and Heaven, Dracula is more concerned with the earth: “be my bride and then all light will end and the world will live in darkness…the very air will be pestilence to mankind” (“Blade of Grass”). In this context, pestilence has something of a generative quality, as if Vanessa herself will spawn the disease that rids the world of humanity. It follows the Lilith myth of the ever-generative mother; as Lilith sets her demonic children on the world, Vanessa will spread an epidemic to kill mankind.

Dracula concludes his speech by reminding Vanessa of where she is, and how she got there: “in this mortal world you’ll always be shunned for your uniqueness, but not with me. They will lock you away in rooms like this. They’ll brand you a freak and a sorceress but I won’t” (“Blade of Grass”). Dracula references the constraints of society, the very boundaries that forced Vanessa into the clinic where she is tormented daily, to draw on Vanessa’s hatred of “normal” society. It seems as if Vanessa has chosen the brother she wants, until she rejects them both, saying that she sees them clearly, for who they are, “the spirit and the animal” (“A Blade of Grass”). Both assert their claim on her, but Vanessa has already promised herself to another: “He who vanquished you, He who is my protector and even now stands with me” (“A Blade of Grass”). God, not Dracula or Lucifer, is her choice, as she casts aside her identity as the Mother of Evil, exercising her free will.

Vanessa finds herself balancing carefully between the divine and the animal; a tip in either direction could deliver her into the hands of one of the brothers. If humanity is conceived as flesh, then flesh dictates earthly needs, lusts, and desires, more animal-like than human. The question of the flesh also draws upon the Lilith myth: Lilith was made from the same earth as Adam, but after her flight from Eden, claims arose that she had been made of tainted earth. Adam’s second wife was made of his body as an attempt to avoid that same mistake. Eve’s role as the originator of sin raises the question whether it was the earth that was tainted or Adam was simply a bad husband, but also whether flesh can ever truly be “clean.” If humanity is spirit, then the human soul is the most powerful object in the world, a splintered piece of God and the divine, and can be used as a weapon. Lucifer, the brother who feeds upon human souls to gain his power, wants to use Vanessa’s soul as his sword to remove God from Heaven. Both brothers threaten to unleash unholy terror upon Vanessa when she rejects them, but in the end, it is Dracula who wins.

Dracula initially appears as Dr. Alexander Sweet, the head of the Natural History Museum. He is a tall, tanned man of unknown age and unknown nationality, with no discernable accent to indicate where he came from or when (“The Day Tennyson Died”). He arrives when Vanessa is at her weakest, when Malcolm Murray and Ethan Chandler both have seemingly abandoned her, and her faith in God is the most tenuous. As Dr. Sweet, Dracula seduces her, but Vanessa soon learns of his true identity, and goes to the House of the Night Creatures, his lair, to kill him (“Ebb Tide”). He convinces her otherwise with simple words: “I don’t want to make you good, I don’t want to make you normal. I don’t need you to be anything but who you truly are” (“Ebb Tide”). Dracula, the Beast, king of the animals, does not require a perfect wife bound by the confines of society. He does not need her to be anything but who she is, Amunet, flesh and blood and animal. This same choice was one that Lilith faced: to choose God, and return to Eden, in this case the Murray mansion; or to turn toward flesh, toward the dark, and choose freedom. Dracula then asks if she accepts him; as he takes her into his arms, she says, “I accept myself” (“Ebb Tide”). After spending so much time fighting evil and trying to deny her dual nature, Vanessa has decided to accept herself the way she was made, and accept the pull she feels toward Dracula. And thus, she becomes the Mother of Evil, the Lilith who walks in the 19th century.

Even in her new role as the Mother of Evil, Vanessa does not eschew the boundary between good and evil. A devout Catholic for most of her life and a strong, independent spirit, she quickly grows to hate the plague that she unleashed upon London. Whereas Lilith made an agreement to allow 100 of her children to die each day, Vanessa made no such agreement for her freedom, and the plague that is claiming thousands of Londoners a day troubles the spirit that clings to the flesh. When Ethan Chandler finally makes his way to her, Vanessa pleads with him to kill her. “They will hunt me till the end of days. My battle must end, or there will never be peace on earth. Let it end” (“The Blessed Dark”). Ethan, revealed to be a werewolf earlier in the series, is Dracula and Lucifer’s only natural foe: Lupus Dei, the Wolf of God. His role in the divine play depicted in the Verbis Diablo was unclear, given that “Lupus Dei” appeared only as a refrain with no other context. As he and Vanessa recite the Lord’s Prayer together, his role becomes clear: to kill the Mother of Evil. With a kiss, he shoots Vanessa in the abdomen and kills her. The plague disappears almost as soon as Vanessa dies, and Dracula vanishes upon seeing her body. Lupus Dei, God’s chosen warrior, was victorious, reflecting the need for a male, religious figure to save the world.

Placing a moral judgment on Vanessa’s decision is not the point of the series. Vanessa is not evil; Vanessa was formed in a certain way that dictated her decision even before she was Vanessa Ives. Nowhere in the Verbis Diablo does it say that the Mother of Evil is anything other than that, or that she has any other option besides Lucifer and Dracula. Vanessa made the choice to die rather than allow the plague on earth to continue, a fairly noble choice for someone who had only been searching for peace and freedom. In a way, this is her Lilith punishment. For choosing evil, Vanessa has to die, in the same way that Lilith had to give up 100 of her children a day for her freedom. While Lilith appears not to suffer as a result of this choice, Vanessa must suffer, a return to typical endings of stories that deal with female agency and vampires. On the surface level, this series deals with supernatural entities and a battle between good and evil. On a deeper level, Penny Dreadful is about the search for freedom in a society that does not celebrate female sexuality or choice, and the double-bind that women find themselves in. They yearn for freedom, for choice, but in seeking it out, they become evil and hunted. Rather than kill Dracula, the series writers chose to kill Vanessa, a move that reinforces conventional heteronormativity. As much as the series allowed for Vanessa to be strong and independent and an equally fierce warrior as her male counterparts, in the end she is the sacrificial lamb. Feminine evil must be killed off, or the world will end.

The Re-Vamp: Why Vampires?

With so many vampires in the literary canon, and so many continuing to rise from the grave and join their undead brethren, the question remains: why vampires? Why are we so fascinated by their narratives? First, as my study shows, they embody horror, making them frightening to the reader, which is often a source of pleasure, but this horror retains a seductive quality. The abject is at play in the consumption of vampire narratives, with the push-pull of desire and repulsion keeping the reader interested. Second, an author can kill off a vampire woman in various graphic and gratuitous ways without that murder being overly-upsetting, because the vampire woman is not a human, or a good woman in most contexts. Finally, the vampire allows the author to explore various forms of boundary crossing without the work being flagged as controversial or subversive. Because the monstrous body by definition embodies boundary crossing, authors can examine homosexuality or voracious female sexuality from a safe distance, a safety usually maintained by killing off that character.

Authors and readers enjoy vampire characters because the surreal aspects of the vampire allow them to say things about human women that make for good entertainment, but must be policed in reality. This policing keeps the consumer and the creator safe from the abject. At the core of the abject is humanity’s need to reject lust, or bloodlust. Facing those aspects head-on requires us to accept ourselves as creatures that bleed and die. As a society, we must open the coffin and see how deviance and unreality go together, and how we ingest different archetypes about women without thinking about them too deeply. For instance, the vampire bite, typically portrayed as two small, neat holes, defies all reality. Long canine teeth would rend flesh and leave a gaping wound, not the tiny pinpricks popular in film and television. Instead, the feared teeth of the vampire resemble a snakebite, injecting poison into the victim’s neck. Adam’s second wife, Eve, the woman who was supposed to replace Lilith and be obedient, was tricked out of Eden by a serpent. Perhaps the depiction of the neat, snake-like bites is a commentary on the fall from Eden, and the fall that women take when they become vampires, intentionally crossing the boundaries that society depends on to survive.

The line of neo-Liliths in the literary canon is more extensive than this work has covered, but their sheer number and formulaic stories are what prompts further study of female vampirism, and why their stories are so compelling to us. And that is what lies at the heart of monster theory:

These monsters ask us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place. They ask us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance towards its expression. They ask us why we have created them. (Cohen 20)

The vampire holds up a mirror and shows us everything we want to deny and thrust aside. We become abject when we deny ourselves the full range of emotion that we are capable of, and we abject women when we deny them the full scope of motivation that they are capable of.

Some important steps forward are evident in current media representations of female vampires.  For example, there is no longer such a strict division between human and monster, and the vampire has begun to inhabit regular society rather than stay in the borderlands. This is most obvious in True Blood, the HBO series based on Charlaine Harris’s The Southern Vampire Mysteries. The series takes place two years after vampires “came out of the coffin” and revealed their presence to the world at large. While the vampires become less monstrous as they begin to “mainstream,” Pamela Swynford De Beaufort, one of the main characters, is still portrayed as a lusty, voracious bisexual. As a former brothel owner, her vampiric change stems from her desire to not die as a pariah and a whore, even though being a vampire would make her a different kind of pariah. Her sexuality comes into play in the series more than once, with different characters offering her sexual favors in return for her help. Sophie-Anne, the vampire queen of Louisiana, is also a bisexual vampire, but she is portrayed as a spoiled child with little to no power, and is forced into an arranged marriage and used as a pawn by a stronger, male vampire. Lorena Krasiki epitomizes the female predator, pretending to be a lonely widow to lure men into her bed so she can feed on them. Even in a contemporary setting, and in a world where vampires are commonly accepted, the same tropes still appear; the women are weaker than their male counterparts, they are hyper-sexualized, and they tend to end up dead.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer did not deal with vampires being a part of open society, but because of the content of the show, vampire characters were a constant fixture. The two most prominent female vampires were Drusilla and Darla.  Drusilla was insane and almost completely dependent on her lover Spike, but her sexuality has an uncomfortable quality for the viewer. The discomfort stems from her childishness, as she spends most of her time playing with her dolls. Her insanity may contribute to her ruthlessness, but it may have had more to do with her lack of a soul. She is also offered up as a mere token of Spike’s love for Buffy when he offers to kill Drusilla to prove himself, marking Drusilla as disposable. Drusilla then disappears from the series, no longer useful in her role as Spike’s lover. As for Darla, she was another former prostitute-turned-vampire that used her sexual wiles to lure her prey, even going so far as to dress in a schoolgirl’s uniform to project innocence. Both characters are villains and follow in the footsteps of their Victorian counterparts. They are sexual, they are dangerous, and they do not live to the end of the narrative. Their narratives are a contrast to Spike’s, who begins as a villain and later, through his love for Buffy, redeems himself and gains a soul by going through the demon trials. There is no analogous redemption arc for any other Buffy character, and such redemption arcs rarely exist for women.

Twilight seems to be the outlier of the vampire narratives in the 21st century. Most of the vampires central to the series are “vegetarian,” meaning that they only feed on animal blood. This may be because the author, Stephenie Meyer, is a Mormon, and some of her religious beliefs made their way into the novels. In an interview with The Times, Meyer says that she does not consciously intend her novels to be Mormon-influenced, or to promote the virtues of sexual abstinence and spiritual purity, but admits that her writing is shaped by her values (Mills). This seems to have saved the female vampires in the novel from being overly sexual and killed off at the end. At the same time, this apparent restraint creates an atmosphere in which Bella’s sexuality is controlled by Edward’s refusal to have sex with her until they are married, and then not again until she is made into a vampire. Meyer is not the only author to project her religious beliefs into her works, but while others have used their religious beliefs to portray the vampire negatively, Meyer uses her beliefs to “keep it light” (Mills). The damsel in distress is always rescued by her prince, and every danger is quickly vanquished.

Penny Dreadful, one of the works discussed in this thesis, is a contemporary series, but does not have the same ”progressive” features of vampire assimilation and trendiness as these others. This is because while the show was written in 2014, it is set in the Victorian era. The series stays true to other Victorian depictions of vampires, which treat the vampire as monstrous and abject. In today’s culture, we seem to have made friends with the monsters in the shadows, even as we hobble them with the same archetypes that have always existed. While some steps were made to re-vamp the female vampire narrative in the earlier texts that this thesis examines, for example, Mina’s rescue at the end of Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Vanessa’s agency in Penny Dreadful, the problems remain. Too often, the female vampire is depicted as sexy, bloodthirsty, and disposable. My point is not that writers should stop portraying female vampires as villainous characters altogether, since erasing acknowledgment of women’s capacity for evil is more regressive than progressive. But portraying all female vampires as evil is reductive and destroys the complexity of desire and motivation that exists in any viable characterization. My exploration perhaps should not be read as a call for gender equality on behalf of female vampires but for better endings. Rather than relying on cheap devices and turning women into bloodthirsty harem girls into whom the male hero can thrust his stake without remorse or a second thought, it would be refreshing to see more tales of redemption or even tales where the vampire wins. Better storytelling and better endings might lead to better acceptance of female sexuality and less phobic treatment of the things that society wants to sanitize. The formulaic retellings of Lilith’s “sins” have haunted the literary canon as much as Eve’s: the predatory woman, the archaic mother, the fallen woman. We arm them with teeth and then defang them by cutting off their heads in the end. Give them a fighting chance to show their so-called deviance, their homosexuality, their lustfulness, to let the reader examine them for what they really are: women exhibiting behaviors that society must thrust aside to maintain order.


This thesis could not have happened without so many important people in my life. I’d like to take the time to thank some of them for their love, support, and advice, and dedicate this work to them.

To Professor Julie Carlson, my beloved thesis advisor. Without your advice, direction, and enthusiasm, I could never have finished this. Thank you for giving me a love of the Romantics and for embarking on this journey with me.

To Alanna Bartolini, for taking the time to tear apart my thesis with me, word by word, until I was able to give it blood and life. Thank you for all of your encouragement and support, and for pushing me to be better.

To my parents, for not batting a lash when I told them I wanted to write a thesis on vampires, and for supporting me throughout the writing process.

To James McFeely and Danielle Greer, for your unending love and support.

To Amy Chase and Matthew Santos; thanks for coming on this crazy journey with me. We’re officially thesis writers, and I wouldn’t have picked anyone else to do this with me.

To Professor Christopher Newfield and Baron Haber, for brow-beating me into the thesis program and helping me make one of the best decisions of my college career.

To Brian Ernst, John Arnhold, Scott Kneece, and the rest of the English department, for their support of the Honors Program and the Arnhold Research Fellowship.

To Libba Bray, for being the novelist you are and inspiring young women to write, and to Laurence Rickels, for showing that humor and high academia can mix.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Nina. “The Rise of the Fallen Woman.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, vol. 35, no. 1, 1980, pp. 29–52.

Baudelaire, Charles. Les Fleurs Du Mal: The Complete Text of The Flowers of Evil. Trans. Richard Howard. D.R. Godine, 1983.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Winona Ryder, Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins. Columbia Pictures, 1992.

Bruce-Mitford, Miranda, and Chuck Wilkinson. Signs & Symbols: An Illustrated Guide to Their Origins and Meanings. Dorling Kindersley Limited, 2008. 

Carter, Angela. “The Lady of the House of Love.” The Bloody Chamber, and Other Stories. Penguin, 1993.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture. University of Minnesota, 1997, pp. 3-25.

Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous-feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Routledge, 1993.

Duncker, Patricia. “Re-imagining the Fairy Tales: Angela Carter’s Bloody Chambers.” Literature and History 10.1 (1984): 3. ProQuest, search.proquest.com/docview/1303922694?accountid=14522. Accessed 1 Nov. 2016

“Fallen, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016, oed.com/view/Entry/67853. Accessed 28 Jan. 2017.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Columbia University Press, 1982.

LeFanu, J. Sheridan. Carmilla. Lexington, KY: n.p., 2015.

Logan, John, creator. Penny Dreadful. Showtime, 2014.

Mills, Tony Allen. “News Review Interview: Stephenie Meyer”. The Times. London, August 10, 2008.

Patai, Raphael. “Lilith”. The Journal of American Folklore 77.306 (1964): 295–314.

Patai, Raphael, and Haya Bar-Itzhak. Encyclopedia Of Jewish Folklore And Traditions. Armonk: Routledge, 2013. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=552331&site=ehost-live. Accessed 31 Jan. 2017.

Rickels, Laurence A. The Vampire Lectures. University of Minnesota, 1999. 

Sceats, Sarah. “Oral Sex: Vampiric Transgression and the Writing of Angela Carter.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 20, no. 1, 2001, pp. 107–121.

Silver, Alain, and James Ursini. “The Female Vampire: II: Carmilla Karnstein.” The Vampire Film: From Nosferatu to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. New York: Limelight Editions, 1993.

Stephanou, Aspasia. Reading Vampire Gothic Through Blood. N.p.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Weiss, Andrea. “The Vampire Lovers.” Vampires & Violets: Lesbians in Film. Penguin, 1993.

Defined by a Test Score: America’s Troubling Education System

By Christopher Chen

The dreadful, horrifying 8AM: the time when millions of high school juniors and seniors go to high schools around America to take the SAT. Tired, caffeine-addicted teens take the SAT in hopes that the score will give them acceptance to their dream college. The students start their test and begin bubbling in their scantrons. One question at a time, students frantically answer as many questions as they can. Several students stop and ponder the countless number of questions. Others don’t think; they guess. “5 minutes left.” The sound of the students frantically trying to bubble in their answer, double-checking their answers, the sound of kids trying to survive the cut to get into the best college surrounds the room; it is this sound that makes millions of young Americans anxious about whether they get into a good college, will have a good-paying job or even be competent enough. The sound is you, your score; it is your score that determines your future and fate.

The SAT is one of the most important tests that most Americans take in their lifetime. It is an entrance exam used by most colleges and universities to make admissions decisions, to give special individuals their coveted acceptance letter in the mail. It determines aspects of our everyday lives: the ranking of high schools and colleges, the housing market and the indication of a “good school district,” the determination of whether a student will be competent in his or her first year of college or even his or her future. The standardized test has played a very important role in our lives, especially for our education system. The test has changed a lot over the past few years.  Before, the test was out of 2400, a lauded score that few students could ever achieve in their high school careers. A slight change was made on March 2016 when the SAT was changed again to reflect  “the knowledge, skills and understandings that research has identified as most important for college and career readiness and success,” whereas in the past, it only emphasized reasoning and analytical thinking (Compare SAT). The test procedures changed significantly, in that, each wrong answer doesn’t penalize you, and you can earn a score up to 1600, a score similar to the SAT version up to 2005. The test takes three hours with a writing section, an optional section in the SAT that most universities and colleges require students to take in order to apply for that college. The SAT has become one of the most important standardized tests in America; however, it gives the disadvantaged an unfair chance at getting into a college and to earn quality education. Many critics disparage the SAT for its material, bias and racism in the test content. Studies have shown that the material inside the SAT might affect students’ scores by the wording of the problems and the various cultural interpretations of words. Thus, it is necessary to address issues that arise from standardized testing, such as the built-in bias, which results in several groups scoring lower than others, and the limited opportunities for higher education that results from testing. In this Literature Review, it is essential to discuss several important topics: the bad and the good of SAT, the solution that can eliminate disparity among groups, and the implications for the future.

There are many problems with the SAT that affect students of different backgrounds such as cultural and income bias. These problems are critical to a student’s future in that they can potentially impact college admissions, potential scholarships and jobs. The article, The SAT and Admission: Racial Bias and Economic Inequality by Ethan Biamonte, gives an overview of how colleges implement the SAT into their application process and how it is “unethical for the SAT to be used in college admission because it has cultural and economic biases that oppress low-income groups, racial minorities and females” (Biamonte 1). Biamonte believes that the SAT has different kinds of biases that affect many groups of people. For example, he presents evidence that there is such economic bias in the SAT, given that, as the numerical value of family income increases, the test scores of three different SAT sections go up as well, suggesting a correlation between family wealth and educational success (Biamonte 2). It doesn’t necessarily mean that being rich would automatically give you a higher score, but that the concept of money that can buy coaching programs, which help the child to get a good SAT score. The income bias is to reflect the ability to have a tutor access to many test-preparation books available in the market today. Furthermore, we must consider that income bias should also reflect the ability to buy test-preparation books and online services that offer SAT guides and lessons, which are costly to certain individuals.

But it is not only income bias that increases the score gap disparity affecting the millions of low-income, underprivileged students who are trying to change their future for the better, but also gender bias that encourages the score gap disparity. Biamonte suggests that there is gender bias because “females with similar ability levels to males tend to perform worse than males on the math section of the test” (Biamonte 8). He concludes that “females’ abilities are underestimated” (Biamonte 8). However, why do females tend to underperform males? One possible explanation for this is that “females are less confident in their answers” (Biamonte 9). In a study, Ellen Lenney claims that women “display lower self-confidence than men across almost all achievement situations” and double-checking answers on the SAT gives a significant disadvantage, as women are more likely to doubt their answer with the time putting pressure on them (Lenney 1) . To add to Lenney’s claim, an article written by Anemona Hartocollis of New York Times reported that one recent SAT test sitting in May 2016 reveals that several people, more specifically ‘tutors’, found two items to be disturbing and discriminating, one in the verbal portion and the other in the Math portion. The items “posed what some test-prep experts considered a textbook example of a ‘stereotype threat’” (Hartocollis 1).  The questions were evident: one math question involved “showing more boys than girls in math classes overall” and the other was a verbal passage that students had to read and analyze “a 19th-century polemic arguing that women’s place was in the home” (Hartocollis 4).  When people are reminded in the test of a negative stereotype about a race or ethnicity that they relate to, psychologists say that, “It creates a kind of test anxiety that leads them to underperform” (Hartocollis 3). What was interesting was that the essay included Christian references in the passage, which were edited out for ‘length and focus’, although adding Christian references would rather discriminate or disturb certain audiences, not really to focus on the complexity and difficulty of the passages (Hartocollis 4). What stands out is that these passages “argued that women have a lower status than men and wield their influences through the domestic sphere” (Hartocollis 4). It is a classic example of bias, more specifically gender bias, in the SAT. Biamonte’s and Hartocollis’s articles give us different point of views. They critique the SAT and give us a point of view of the problems of America’s education system. Biamonte’s article gives us an in-depth look at what kinds of biases exist in the SAT and explains why these occurrences happen. Hartocollis’s article supports Biamonte’s claim by proving the discrimination, proving that there exist inequalities in our society. These two articles are crucial in a way that they show us the disparity of the SAT, the reliance of the admission tests and the effects of the disadvantaged. College has become the way to the path of success and with admission test as a barrier to the disadvantage, it tells us something about life and America: not everything is fair or equal.

However, there seems to be a strong necessity for testing in the world, and we cannot survive without it. Testing gives students focus on essential content and skills that are useful for the future. It motivates students to excel and to improve. Harvey S. Leviton published an article in 1967 about A Critical Analysis of Standardized Testing. Leviton addresses the criticisms that standardized testing has changed our school to follow a curriculum, to follow guidelines and to not innovate or ameliorate the system. As Leviton says, “Test producers are more followers than leaders of the curriculum,” but what people fail to realize is that standardized testing “is a natural outgrowth from the teacher’s natural evaluatory procedures” (Leviton 394). Testing is never perfect; most tests are imperfect and we cannot expect “perfection in any other product” (Leviton 394). Without the implementation of tests into our school system, we would have to rely more on “less adequate facilities and faculties” (Leviton 394); and if we didn’t implement the standardized testing, is there anything better? Thus, with this article by Leviton regarding standardized testing, we can apply the SAT to Leviton’s idea. The SAT is essential. As Leviton said, “There is really no alternative that can achieve what the SAT can do.” Additionally, the College Board has done a lot to make the new version “profoundly transparent” (Rosner 1). There is really no “instrument” that can achieve the concept of equating the public school curriculum. There are no such options left to achieve a perfect test where there exists gender bias, ethnic bias, income bias and other types of bias, but the SAT. The SAT is the only way for standardized testing and America’s educational system to remain as one. As David Z. Hambrick, an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, said, “the SAT works well” and “works for its intended purpose — predicting success in college” (Hambrick). He suggests that if the “intelligence test” concerns “the question of whether it is fair to use people’s scores to make decisions that profoundly affect their lives,” he said “that’s just too bad” (Hambrick). When there are so many applicants who have the desire to apply to College X, you are bound to encounter several problems of the variance of grade-point averages and curriculum from different schools across America.

Nonetheless, if many critics disparage the SAT for its biasness, then are there any solutions to fix this problem that currently affects the millions of Americans on whether they are attending a college or having a prosperous future? Freedle has found one solution. Roy E. Freedle, a research psychologist for the Education Testing Service, the world’s largest private nonprofit educational testing and assessment organization that manages the SAT and other standardized tests such as the GRE, wrote one of the most important academic articles that considered the disparity in the SAT and offered a solution to solving this problem. He wrote Correcting the SAT’s Ethnic and Social-Class Bias: A Method for Reesstimating SAT Scores that describes a problem: SAT is both “culturally and statistically biased,” which he adapted from Stephen Jay Gould who mentioned that “a test can be biased in at least two ways, culturally and statistically” (Freedle 1). Freedle expands on Gould’s idea that a test can be culturally biased when “one group performs consistently lower than some reference population” (Freedle 2). A test can be “culturally biased if individuals from different ethnic groups interpret critical terms in many of the test items differently” (Freedle 2). Freedle used the concept of DIF or differential item functioning to examine minorities and White responses to each test item. With this method, Freedle found out that “Whites tend to score better on easy items and African Americans on hard items” (Freedle 3). The most possible reason as to why this phenomenon happens is that “easy analogy items tend to contain high-frequency vocabulary words while hard analogy items tend to contain low-frequency vocabulary words” (Freedle 6). Thus, individuals of different cultural backgrounds “may well differ in their definitions of common [easy analogy] words” (Freedle 6). He applied his concept of DIF to multiple testing platforms like several Advanced Placement tests and found similar results that “Hispanics, Asian Americans and disadvantaged Whites perform differentially better on hard verbal and quantitative items” (Freedle 28). He claims that “cultural familiarity and semantic ambiguity play an important role in determining the relatively poor performance of minority groups on essentially the easiest test items” (Freedle 29); with these findings, Freedle proposed the R-SAT, or the Revised SAT. The revised version focuses “on hard-item performance”, which can “remove a large part of [the SAT’s] cultural and statistical bias” (Freedle 7). He claims that his solution reduces “ethnic bias and therefore has the potential to increase dramatically the number of minority individuals who might qualify for admission into our nation’s select colleges and universities” (Freedle 28). Indeed, his results show that with his model, minority groups like African Americans score better with the R-SAT than the SAT, and the difference of performance between White and African American examinees “is shown to be substantially reduced” (Freedle 23).

The idea of implementing the R-SAT into our current American education system is a sound idea as it could potentially solve many societal problems that exist today. However, how did Freedle propose the idea that many scholars today consider to be a model to potentially solve the disparities in the SAT? Jay Mathews of The Atlantic wrote The Bias Question covered Freedle’s solution to ending the bias in the SAT. In his article, Mathews examines Freedle’s contribution in exposing the biasness of the SAT. Mathews claims that “if minorities are at a disadvantage in taking the SAT, their choice of colleges will be significantly limited, with the important implications for their financial, professional and social future” (Mathews 2). Freedle noticed this trend when he worked for ETS. He found that by “analyzing various linguistic aspects of the questions, he could predict the ones test takers in Seoul or Shanghai or Sarajevo would find easy and which would make them chew their pencils and look at the clock” (Mathews 7). He found out that “simple word repetition” could lead to test makers choosing an answer if the context of the answer is similar to the context of the question (Mathews 8). He eventually compiled his results into one report and handed his report to his supervisors, but they kept rejecting him. After the 11th revision, the report was accepted, but little was done to implement his analysis and findings into the SAT. Freedle “wrote several reports on the subjects” but all his research proposals were “being turned down” (Mathews 9). Freedle retired and sent his proposals to Harvard Educational Review. There, his report, Correcting the SAT’s Ethnic and Social-Class Bias: A Method for Reesstimating SAT Scores was published. Regardless, Freedle’s study received attention, in that, “this study further evoked distrust in the test and warned the colleges and universities who continued using SAT.” His study remains one of the most controversial, but most valuable studies that addresses the concerns of the SAT and provides a solution that many scholars analyze and research today.

Freedle’s study emphasized an important idea: the SAT is not a predictable and reliable admission test, as there exist biases that can make certain applicants’ score higher, and it is utterly disparate and unfair to use the “biased” score to evaluate students on college admissions, scholarships and many other applications of the SAT. Freedle proposed the R-SAT to eliminate biases and to be a more reliable testing platform.  However, his solution does draw new questions: does the R-SAT have validity and reliability? Can it potentially solve the massive problem that has existed for years? Is the R-SAT trustworthy and dependable to be implemented into America’s education system? A follow-up on Freedle’s research was done by Maria Veronica Santelices, an assistant professor at the Department of Education at the Catholic University of Chile, and Mark Wilson, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. The academic article, Unfair Treatment? The Case of Freedle, the SAT, and the Standardization Approach to Differential Item Functioning, presented the results of the experiment that  Santelices and Wilson replicated Freedle’s experiment and compared the results of the experiment from that of Freedle’s. The article aims to see if “Freedle’s phenomenon and results hold across different ethnic groups” and to verify Freedle’s results (Santelices and Wilson 112). Like Freedle’s research, Santelices and Wilson used the concept of DIF to see if Freedle’s claim is applicable for the present. The academic article concludes that Freedle’s research “confirm the relationship between item difficulty and DIF estimates reported by Freedle for the African American/White comparison of verbal items” (Santelices and Wilson 127). The research, however, “did not find evidence to suggest that this issue applies to Hispanic students, nor did it find evidence to suggest that the issue applies to questions other than verbal items” (Santelices and Wilson 126).  In other words, this experiment wouldn’t necessarily apply to certain ethnic minorities such as “Hispanic students” (Santelices and Wilson 127). This means other ethnic groups like Asian Americans cannot necessarily apply to this data and we must continuously research if these ethnic groups can apply to Freedle’s phenomenon. Santelices and Wilson concluded that the “SAT continues to be one of the most influential tests in the United States” and “fairness of its results should be of utmost importance” in giving everyone a fair chance to get a desirable score without any bias in the test (Santelices and Wilson 128).

If universities took away the requirement to add one’s SAT score in one’s application, what will happen? Rebecca Zwick wrote a book Fair Game?: The Use of Standardized Admissions Tests in Higher Education that evaluates a study that found that “only 46 percent of four-year colleges considered test scores to be a ‘very important’ factor in admissions decisions” while “87 percent rated high school achievement as very important” (Zwick 35). Nonetheless, if we took out the SAT score in a regular application, will it do harm or bring benefits? In Howard Wainer’s book, Uneducated Guesses: Using Evidence to Uncover Misguided Education Policies, Wainer analyzes one’s college choice to eliminate the SAT requirement in its college application and its result from this drastic measure. Wainer analyzes Bowdoin College, a “small, selective, liberal arts college located in Brunswick, Maine” (Wainer 9). The college eliminated the requirement of the SAT for its applicants in 1969, but the students do have a choice of submitting one if they desire. A table shows that for the Class of 1999, 106 out of the 379 students did not submit their scores (Wainer 10). One could assume that these 106 students did not submit their scores because they were lazy to take the SAT, but it was intriguing that these 106 students “did, in fact, take the SAT” (Wainer 10). In a special data-gathering investigation, the 106 students’ scores were retrieved and the mean score of the 106 students who didn’t submit their SAT score was 1201 versus those who submitted their score, which the average was 1323. So we know that a large percentage of students didn’t report their scores in college, but one must, so as to know how well these students perform in their studies at this small, liberal-arts college. Results show that the students “not only did 120 points worse on the SAT, but also received [a GPA] 0.2 points lower than those who did submit their score in [their college application]” (Wainer 11). Wainer provides a dot graph showing the college performance of students by comparing their first year GPA with their SAT score, or their combined score on the Verbal and Mathematics part of the SAT (Wainer 19). Each dot on the graph represents a student, with the x-axis alignment representing the student’s SAT score and the y-axis alignment representing the student’s GPA. Through this graph, we see dots that represented students who did and did not submit their SAT score and by analyzing the graph, there is no trend in the graph that exists to prove that a student who did not an submit SAT score who get a lower GPA than that of a student who did submit an SAT score. The results are simply scattered; there is no trend to prove an student that submitted an SAT score is generally better off in college and would result in a better first-year college GPA. From this, we cannot assume that students who didn’t submit a SAT score are not smart or academic-driven. We cannot assume that students who didn’t submit a SAT score are people who are not good enough for college. What this graph emphasizes is the unpredictability of students. Though students who didn’t submitted a SAT score might have a low SAT score, a student can have a higher first-year GPA than a student who did submit a score. It is absolutely absurd to think a student’s grades are in correlation to one’s SAT score. Every student is different, but we cannot place heavy emphasis on these scores. We need to place less emphasis on these score in order to allow people of different backgrounds to have access to higher education.

In the future, we must find a way to solve this disparate problem that is affecting America greatly. It has been a big problem for many students to get into the college of their choice, to be closer to fulfilling their dreams, to become successful one day as well as to innovate the world for the better. The test is treated as a barrier for many low-income, minority students who cannot afford the $54 SAT test and test-preparation materials. It is treated as a restriction for students of a different culture who have different interpretations of words. It is treated as a limitation to the many diverse ethnicities, backgrounds to get that high score they need to go to college. Thus, America’s education system is in a critical and crucial position. A reform must take place to educate our society for the better, in order to flourish with academia all around. It is the path towards success and we must continue the generational trend of influencing students to go to college and pursuing their dreams, the American Dream. We cannot wait. We cannot ignore. We cannot disregard this issue, as this problem concerns a great majority of Americans. In order to make a better place and a better future, we must act now before it’s too late.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Heather Steffen for the insightful comments, critiques, and suggestions she provided for the completion of this comprehensive Literature Review that took time and dedication to finish. I would like to also thank Lyna Moreno and the additional peers who have also helped me in enhancing this Literature Review. I would also like to thank the University of California, Santa Barbara for providing the helpful resources to find academic articles and helpful sources.

Works Cited

Biamonte, Ethan. “The SAT and Admission: Racial Bias and Economic Inequality.” The People, Ideas, and Things Journal, 15 Nov. 2013, pitjournal.unc.edu/fall2013/sites/default/files/satinequality.pdf.

“Compare SAT Specifications.” SAT Suite of Assessments, The College Board, 11 Feb. 2016, collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sat/inside-the-test/compare-old-new-specifications.

Freedle, Roy O. “Correcting the SAT’s Ethnic and Social-Class Bias: A Method for Reestimating SAT Scores.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 73, no. 1, 2003, pp. 1–43. doi:10.17763/haer.73.1.8465k88616hn4757.

Hambrick, David Z. “The SAT Is a Good Intelligence Test.” The New York Times, 16 Dec. 2011, nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/12/04/why-should-sats-matter/the-sat-is-a-good-intelligence-test.

Hartocollis, Anemona. “Tutors See Stereotypes and Gender Bias in SAT. Testers See None of the Above.” The New York Times, 26 June 2016, nytimes.com/2016/06/27/us/tutors-see-stereotypes-and-gender-bias-in-sat-testers-see-none-of-the-above.html.

Lenney, Ellen. “Women’s Self-Confidence in Achievement Settings.” Psychological Bulletin, vol. 84, no. 1, Jan. 1977, pp. 1–13. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.84.1.1.

Leviton, Harvey S. “A Critical Analysis of Standardized Testing.” The Clearing House, vol. 41, no. 7, 1 Mar. 1967, pp. 391–395. JSTOR, jstor.org/stable/10.2307/30183090?ref=search-gateway:79433eb38e8bfe2053a3202d28f778e3.

Mathews, Jay. “The Bias Question.” The Atlantic, Nov. 2003, theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/11/the-bias-question/302825/.

Rather, Dan. “Stress Test: Getting Into College.” YouTube, uploaded by Dan Rather Reports, 27 November 2011, youtube.com/watch?v=Lzyj4HELxgY.

Rosner, Jay. “Why the New SAT Isn’t as Transparent as the College Board Wants You to Believe.” Los Angeles Times, 29 Apr. 2016, latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0501-rosner-sat-transparency-20160501-story.html.

Santelices, Maria Veronica, and Mark Wilson. “Unfair Treatment? The Case of Freedle, the SAT, and the Standardization Approach to Differential Item Functioning.” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 80, no. 1, 2010, pp. 106–134. doi:10.17763/haer.80.1.j94675w001329270.

“The Perfect Score: Cheating on the SAT.” YouTube, uploaded by CBS News, 1 Jan. 2012, youtube.com/watch?v=dfqFEiP10_E.

Wainer, Howard. Uneducated Guesses: Using Evidence to Uncover Misguided Education Policies. Princeton University Press, 2011.

Woollen, Susan. “Test Bias: The SAT in the College Admissions Process.” What Kids Can Do, 2008, www.whatkidscando.org/featurestories/2008/03_scoring_well/pdf/24-4-woollen.pdf.

Zwick, Rebecca. Fair Game?: The Use of Standardized Admissions Tests in Higher Education. Routledge Falmer, 2002.