Be the MonsterSady Doyle Draws a Macabre Road Map of Female Monstrosity

Sady Doyle (Photo credit: Michael Payne)

Sady Doyle wants you to know it’s okay to be a monster. In Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power, her follow-up to 2017’s Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear … and Why, Doyle unpacks the many tropes that box women in from adolescence to adulthood. The taboo of menstruation and the sanctity of virginity; the lawlessness and danger of unbridled female sexuality; and the castrating and all-powerful mother. Doyle argues that throughout history, patriarchal social norms have dictated an acceptable set of standards—mental, physical, relational, sexual—that non-cisgender men must conform to. Diverging from these subservient, effacing, purity-obsessed standards causes women to be perceived and portrayed as a temptress, villain, or monster.

But, as Doyle argues in the book, even women who choose to live within these narrow confines fall victim to the very same accusations. Patriarchy creates a system of traps and Catch-22s: We have to be pure, but not so pure as to displease men. We have to give ourselves to our children, but not so much that we smother them. We have to be sexual, but not so sexual that it threatens men—and certainly not sexual in a way that excludes them. We have to be aware at all times that our bodies are not our own, but not so vigilant that we seem dramatic or paranoid. We cannot have both power and agency because the things patriarchy tells us we need in order to gain power strip us of our agency.

Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers draws a macabre, validating, and empowering roadmap of the origins and manifestations of female monstrosity, from gothic literature and exorcisms to the mothers of serial killers and the catharsis of watching horror movies. I talked to Doyle about who gets to be a monster, the challenge of changing our approach to discussing gendered violence, and the power of leaning into the darkness of it all.

 

In the book, you write about the dichotomy between the “lethally beautiful and unbearably ugly.” Women aren’t given room for nuance, which is something that a lot of women struggle with. We only get to be a “career woman” or a “sexy temptress” or a “mom.”

That’s a dynamic you see a lot in patriarchy: Every woman is ugly unless she’s beautiful, but if she’s beautiful, she’s untrustworthy because of that. There’s so much mythology [around] that. There’s the fairy-bride mythology about dangerous women from another world who might steal your soul or trap you underground. There are [also] mermaids and sirens singing you onto the rocks.

And that’s what [we] think of when we think [about] women who have sexual agency. The assumption is that we need to keep women under control and restrained from their own sexuality because otherwise they’ll use it to hurt men. It’s a projection. It’s something that men think will happen because historically, men have used sexuality as a weapon against women. Mothers are feared for a different reason: As [women] get older and start to accumulate more power within the world, [they’re viewed as] ugly, formidable, and castrating.

Most men and women have been under the authority of a woman at [some] point. We all fear our mothers’ anger, and adults can be really terrifying to children. But even when they’re not, that sense of growing up under the control of or the authority of a woman who’s much bigger than you, can make decisions [for you], and is more competent than you, gets transmuted into an overall sense of, “What’s going to happen to me if a woman has economic power? What’s going to happen if a woman [becomes] president? What’s going to happen to me if, once again, there’s a woman who’s so much bigger than I am, and I can’t do anything about it?”

It’s the same with the topic of periods. It took me until I was I diagnosed with endometriosis in my mid-20s to realize there’s power in making people uncomfortable. A school administrator was giving me a hard time about missing classes after I’d had surgery, so I scanned full-color pictures of my surgery and sent them to her. I was like, “Here you go. You wanted more information. Here it is.” There’s power in that attitude.

When you go back to really old texts, it’s literally elderly cis men who are perplexed, puzzled, and terrified by the fact that not all bodies are cis men bodies. I want to be really careful because a lot of women’s bodies bleed, but it doesn’t mean that men’s bodies don’t bleed. Some women have never menstruated in their lives. The idea [was] “women’s bodies” were innately monstrous, [and] that they were, [as] Aristotle said, “mutilated men.” These are bodies that have failed to be male, that are not quite human, [and] that just don’t work right. It’s not a figurative thing. It’s not like I’m having fun metaphor time with the idea that women are monsters. Lots of men have literally believed that we were.

I want to talk about the section in your book that focuses on the power of being able to get pregnant. I’ve had a lot of conversations about my ability to have kids, so that looming weight really resonates with me. We use fertility, socially and institutionally, as a means of defining women. And it’s not just cis women; these conversations are used to otherize trans women too.

It was really interesting to discover how much [of] our medical system is set up around penalizing and controlling these bodies, and it’s not only pregnant and childbearing bodies. [Some of the] witches [who were] burned were midwives who knew how to administer birth control. It wasn’t until about 100 years ago [that] you [went] to the doctor to have a baby. [Back then], you went to a midwife. And in America, a midwife would usually be a Black woman. When white males took over, maternal mortality rates went up.

The part where cis men get to pick who has the baby, keep that person in a house, keep them in a monogamous relationship, and keep them under control is [an artificial system]. The part where cis men are in charge of reproduction, in charge as doctors in the operating room, [in charge] as fathers giving their names to the family line, [and in charge] as the lawmakers, judges, and authorities determining whether or not they think rape is a big enough deal [is] an artificial system.

It’s dangerous to [assume] a super-optimistic “sex is power” or “reproduction is power” attitude. I don’t want to define myself purely that way. But there’s a really profound subversive power in women’s reproductive agency, and we have lived in a society that’s built around controlling, shaming, demeaning, hurting, raping, and killing [women] for so long that we’ve lost sight of the fact that there are powerful things about being able to make a person.

Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power by Sady Doyle (Photo credit: Marina Drukman/Melville House)

And these patriarchal confines apply not only to reproduction but to sexuality, and they set women up for punishment. There’s this idea that women are temptresses, and then they become victims of violence. It circles back completely to the idea that “she was asking for it.”

It continually loops around on itself. Sex is supposed to be something that’s put out there so you can get into a heterosexual relationship and get married. But if you put it out there and somebody decides to shit on it, then that’s your fault. Why were you at that party? Why were you dressed up? Why did you look that way if you didn’t want his attention? 

Every time there’s some major scandal about a politician or a celebrity having an affair, there’s always this shaming of the other woman. That never sits right with me.

[There is this idea that] this is how cishetero reproduction has always worked. The idea is that men are supposed to be free to sleep with women because that’s how you continue your family line. Women must not be free to sleep with men. Women must be kept in one specific relationship that we know they’re in. Because otherwise, outside of raising a newborn baby and saying, “Maybe I see a little bit of red in his hair,” you don’t really know who the father is. Patrilineal arrangements are awkward, weird, and socially constructed in [such] a tenuous way that you really have to be in control of another person’s sexuality and body in order to be absolutely sure that things are working as intended.

This also ties into the way that mothers are forbidden from being sexual beings. Once you’ve had a baby, you’ve graduated from the phase of sexy temptress, and now you’re the castrating mother. It made me think about how a mother is her daughter’s eyes into the world; that relationship influences the next generation living in this weird paradigm.

[That’s] when all that stuff starts to meld together. The book is split into daughters, wives, and mothers, and [I’m] really specific [about how I] split all of those things up. The child who’s supposed to be under our protection and the child who’s afforded a degree of humanity before she grows up and becomes a woman has to be kept separate from the sexual woman—the seductress—or the wife—the woman who’s there for us to look at through that [sexualized] lens. [The wife] has to be split off from the mother who’s simultaneously really sentimentalized and really devalued and feared. When you start to Frankenstein all those bits together, you get someone who has sexual agency, sexual pleasure, reproductive agency, [and] who, despite what children she has and when, has control over that process. When you start to forge all those things together, you [have] an image of a self-determined person whose life is not guided by patriarchy, who cannot be held down, who will not be split off in fragments of herself, and [who will not be] turned into a subject or a second-class person by these very limiting goals.

When you manage to undo your own fragmentation, you [develop] an image of your own humanity [and] your own agency—what decisions you might make if you weren’t making the decisions you’re “supposed” to make as a woman.

Why not be what they’re afraid of? Why not be the monster?

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You write about the ways in which women engage with true crime and horror as an escape of sorts. But it’s also a somewhat safe manifestation of the things that we have always been taught to fear.

It’s purifying for some reason. There’s a lot of evidence [that shows] women watch horror way more than men. Women read and watch true crime way more than men. It’s not that women are murdered more than men; men will get in bar fights and kill each other pretty often. But women are living in a culture that constantly subjects them to violence for the [sake] of violence. There’s also an idea that you don’t talk about it because you will be blamed. You will be told that you are being oversensitive or paranoid, or you will just have it written off in this way that’s really invalidating and destabilizing. [The] first worst thing is to have the crime happen. The second worst thing is to say it has and no one cares.

The opposite of what we used to think [about] the demographics is true: Women are the ones who see these movies about serial killers. It has always been the case that women go to these really dark places, from gothic literature [to] true crime.

It’s a weird dichotomy: We shield girls and young women from so much because the world is so predatory. Yet true crime can be empowering because it validates all of those little twinges in the back of your head. There’s a dark comfort in realizing we’re not loopy.

I’m glad you [used the word] “validating” because women have to ignore and downplay the extent of the violence in [our] lives and the extent of the violence around [us] for so much of [our] lives. When you go to horror, it’s not even always an escalation. It’s a place where you don’t have to pretend that your life isn’t scary.

 

That brings me to infamous serial killers, including Ed Gein and Edmund Kemper, whose  mothers are given this looming, consequential role in their violence and their brutality. You make the point that these men can be radicalized elsewhere; they have abusive fathers who they learn from or a fascination with Nazis. It’s akin to what we see in online communities like Reddit. That was such an important way to counter this narrative of the “bad mom” causing men to turn to crime.

We love to blame mothers; it’s easy to blame a mother. But the patriarchy that’s all around you is constantly sending [the] message that violence is good, purifying, [and] righteous. [Patriarchy] is constantly telling [men] that women need to be controlled, kept in line, and taken down to size through violence. Cruelty and violence are what power is, and women in particular need to be subdued and put in line through sexual and other forms of gendered violence.

When a guy murders and rapes a bunch of coeds, lures women into his car to rape and kill them, or decapitates them like Edmund Kemper, why would you [pinpoint] one person to be mad at when you’ve got a whole society telling him that he’s not that far out of line? It only takes this one guy [who’s] willing to take the joke a little too far, and you’ve got an Ed Gein. He wasn’t distinct from his father’s violence. He saw his father constantly beating up his mother, [so] when he got a little older and got to a place where he felt powerless, he knew [exactly] what to do. When we blame mothers, we’re ultimately victim blaming.

These patriarchal confines set us up to fail. The rules aren’t written down anywhere, so if you don’t follow them it might be really tough. But if you do follow them, you’re screwed anyway, so why bother?

That’s the thing. You can’t [live in] a way that allows you to evade punishment, and you [still won’t be] safe. Look at Laci Peterson. This was a woman who fulfilled every bourgeois domestic ideal, and everyone loved her. She did everything right, and her husband [still] got up one day and decided to throw her in the river. You can warp your life into being what other people need you to be—and it still is not going to protect you. If you’re going to be targeted no matter what they do; they’re not going to like what you say no matter how you say it because you’re talking; they’re coming at you; [and] this is a war, then why not charge? Why not be what they’re afraid of? Why not be the monster?

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by Caroline Reilly
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Caroline Reilly is a student at Boston College Law School and a reproductive justice advocate. She has also written for Bust and Frontline (PBS). You can follower her on Twitter @ms_creilly, where she tweets about abortion rights, social justice, and being a feminist killjoy.