In March I had the opportunity to practice my public speaking skills at our literary agency’s retreat by giving a short lecture to my agency siblings. I chose to cover a topic I was already familiar with: how the patriarchy has shaped our understanding of narrative structure (a philosophical tributary from my critical thesis from grad school). This led me to more research than was probably necessary for a casual 30 minute lecture, which has also led me to knowing way more about Aristotle than I ever needed to/cared to know.
A (not-actually-surprising) surprise was discovering the father of narratology and one of the “great minds” of ancient times was wildly misogynistic. He believed, as I think some men still do, that women are “unfinished” men (penis envy, anyone?). Of course, he was a product of his time yadda yadda yadda…but this “great mind” actually thought men had more teeth than women and didn’t think to find an adult woman and count her damn teeth (and he was married to a woman, so it’s not like it was hard to find one; the other implication of this is that he/Greek society believed girls who might not yet have their wisdom teeth were full adults, and that’s a whole other serving of no-thank-you).
And then, there’s my favorite misogynistic quote of his:
Compared to men, women are immature, deficient, deformed; they are even a bit monstrous.Aristotle
I don’t know why, but this quote actually made me giggle when I first read it. Maybe because of the absurdity of it. Maybe because it reveals so much more about the man who said it rather than the subjects of the sentence. It was a standout favorite at the lecture (that and the bit about teeth) and it has stuck with me in the weeks since. Something about it makes me smile.
I think I finally know what it is. Forget misogyny–Aristotle had gynophobia: a fear of women. And he wasn’t alone in his fear. If you take even a cursory glance at Greek and Roman mythology, you will find a plethora of female monsters: Medusa, Lamia, Chimera, the Sphinx, sirens, harpies, Scylla, and her sister Charybdis (a personified whirlpool). It’s not surprising the Fates are depicted as female or that the Furies were women, just as it is not surprising that each and every “hero” who defeats these monsters is a man.
I’m positive there is some Freudian analysis out there that links this back to the mother’s genitalia and a man’s fragile sense of his own masculinity, but we don’t do Freud here except for laughs at his expense. What I do know is that, inevitably, human beings try to elevate themselves above the things they fear, which means oppression of those who are feared. Sure, the oppressor will try to justify their supremacy with pseudoscience and ethnocentricity, or philosophical dogmatic statements like “As regards the sexes, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, the male ruler and the female subject.” (Aristotle, again.) But it doesn’t change the fact that he is afraid.
And there is a giddy pleasure in that for me, as a woman. I am a prey animal under the patriarchy, made to feel unsafe walking alone at night or encountering male strangers, my movements and choices inhibited by a rational concern for my safety. Even alone in my body, I am not safe from patriarchal skull-natter telling me the role I should be playing in my relationships, how I’m falling short of societal expectations on appearance, desirability, combatting aging, even my health. That’s probably why every time I choose to not spend money on makeup I don’t want to wear or beauty creams to fight my natural signs of aging, I feel a little thrill of spiteful disobedience. Every time I wear clothes that make me feel comfortable even if they don’t make me look desirable, I feel a little more in control of my life and my identity.
The way the patriarchy–and let’s be honest, white supremacy–has traumatized women (really, everyone) over the centuries…you better believe I get a little pleasure from the idea of our oppressors being afraid of us. Maybe even finding us–me–women–repulsive.
For as long as I can recall, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the monstrous: what is it, who decides that, who gets to tell the monster’s story, and can the monster weigh in on any of this? In most of the manuscripts I have written, each protagonist has been at least a bit monstrous. In my space opera fantasy, my primary lead was a princess struggling with the fact that she secretly possessed the same powers as the sworn (monstrous) enemies of her people; in my WWII send up to child neglect my twin protagonists are probably murderers (I never really tell you) among other taboo things; in my original fairytale, the lead was a Frankenstein’s monster-esque creation with a DUNE-esque fatal flaw of inherited memory; in my unfinished YA paranormal fantasy trilogy the lead character kills someone without remorse, and it is the lack of remorse that haunts her, not the murder; in my post-apocalyptic ghost story my protagonist embraces the gore of killing, cleaning, and butchering animals as a beautiful, necessary horror of survival.
In fact, the only book I’ve written where the main character is not a little bit monstrous is the one that got me my agent (though the secondary characters grapple with the question of monstrosity at least a little bit, and the main character certainly struggles under the oppression of what the patriarchy deems monstrous).
But what do all of my monsters have in common? Healing. Redemption, even in death. Self acceptance and self love in spite of what others think. Owning their monstrosity and finding the strengths within it. My monsters do not shed their monstrosity to become more human, but embrace their humanity by embracing their monstrosity.
It’s a familiar journey for any woman who has begun the journey of deconstructing her internalized misogyny and healing the thousands of wounds, both tiny and profound, collected over a lifetime of living under patriarchy. We are both shedding the labels put on us by a male-dominated world and reclaiming the labels that make us feel empowered. How else do you explain our gender proudly claiming the title of “nasty woman” after a certain ex-president’s use of the phrase? How else do you explain our awe and respect for the disobedient woman being chided with, “nevertheless, she persisted”? Or the huge swathes of women proudly proclaiming they are entering their “swamp witch era”?
So thank you, I guess, Aristotle, for giving me a new, and yet ancient, version of the “nasty woman.” It is an inspiring banner to fly, and a guiding light to hold in mind as I move through the world.
I am, proudly, a bit monstrous.