Academic Conference Asks: What Makes Women Monstrous?

Monstrous Women Conference webpage

Women are often called monsters. Even before the internet made trolling a favorite misogynist past time, women’s bodies, functions, and perceptions have been fair game for name calling. I joined a wonderful group of scholars to discuss what after all is so “monstrous” about women at the Monstrous Women Conference this last May in at the University of North Texas in Denton (UNT).  Samantha Langsdale, editor-in-chief of GEEKED magazine and lecturer in Philosophy and Religion at UNT, was excited to see what feminists and comics scholars would make of the topic of monstrous women at a conference. Says Sam:

So, to be perfectly honest, the focus of this particular conference was conceived of for pretty self-serving reasons; I, as a feminist scholar, am fascinated by the figure of the monster, and I love comics—particularly comics by and about women—so why not combine the two?

Sam and I met during the Sacred Texts and Comics Symposium last year at Haverford College. That meeting was designed to pull together scholars around religion and religious texts to talk through their work-in-progress around the topic. The idea was to use treat the process of creating a book together as a more collaborative process. She was inspired to create the Monstrous Women conference by our work there. At the Haverford conference, we had no trouble thinking of many examples of monstrous women in comics. As Sam says:

This was both encouraging (hooray! academic friends to geek out with) and mildly discouraging (oh man, why do women so often get called monsters?). I sent out a call for papers that would bring scholars from all different disciplines, from different countries, and who were interested in comics from different cultures to help me think through this coupling in productive, creative ways.

My hopes and dreams for this conference are pale in comparison to the brilliance and intellectual playfulness that actually unfolded! The scholarship was of such high quality and everyone who came to present had such an obvious and deep love for comics, whilst also always maintaining a critical feminist perspective. Despite some snafus (we got kicked out of our first venue, and then wound up in a venue that smelled like Swamp Thing’s living room), I don’t think I’ve ever attended a conference that was more sparkly, engaging, convivial and full of laughter. Women + monsters + comics = winning!

We really did all win. Women, men, and genderqueer/nonbinary people together were there to discuss and discover the meaning of the monsters in comics, monsters that are women, and women that are monstrous.

Keynote speaker Dr. Carol Tilley (@AnUncivilPhD) was the headliner of a whole group of winning presentations. Her work on Dr. Fredric Wertham and Dr. Hilde Mosse was just fascinating. Dr. Tilley has been featured around the internet for her work exposing Wertham’s defaming lies about comics, but it was wonderful to have to her go in-depth for us about aspects of the case. (Find a quick sample of her other work on comics here.)

Everyone wrote some great papers on the topic before the conference. We had some stirring conversations during, and we hope to put together a book for afters. But, you don’t have to take my word for it! I’ve put together a brief list of some of the papers that we heard. I tried to summarize, but it’s hard when everyone’s ideas are so rich:

The body played an important role in our thinking through how women are perceived as monsters.

  • Stephanie Snider started us off with a talk about the silence about Zephyr/Faith’s fatness in “The Unremarkable Fatness of Valiant’s Faith.”
  • Charlotte Johanne Frabricius gave us the culmination of much work on disability theory and comics in “How to Build a Bat-girl: Post-crip Monstrosity in Gail Simone’s Batgirl.”
  • Pauline Reynolds and Sara Durazo-DeMoss did a team presentation on their work with comic character that reveals the complexity of navigating the college campus as an international student in “Beauty and her b(r)easts: Monstrosity and college women in The Jaguar (1992).”

It’s not just bodies that are the center of monstrosity, though: what female bodies can sometimes do (that is, bear children) was another central topic.

  • Jeannie Ludlow presented the problems around realism in narratives about abortion, miscarriage, and cataclysmic birthing that treat the subject in a variety of ways in “Inappropropriate/d Generations: Artifactual Pregnancy and Defracted Choice in Comic Narratives.”
  • Marcella Murillo gave us a glimpse into the world of a particular Bolivian type of mother-figure and the changes in her perception in “The Monstrous Maternal Portrayal of the Bolivian Chola in Contemporary Comics.”
  • Tomoko Kuribayashi introduced us to a world where female reproduction is a rarity and showed us what this means when the uterus is separated from the female body in “Monstrous Women in Moto Hagio’s Graphic Fiction: An Analysis of the Maternal/Monstrous in Marginal.”

Female superheroes and villains offered another window into what the monstrous woman might be.

  • My (Elizabeth Coody’s) paper “Rewriting to Control: How the Origins of Harley Quinn, Wonder Woman, and Mary Magdalene Matter to Women’s Perceived Power” argued that each of these women’s origin offers us a way to fight past a perception of monstrosity and on to a more real, “multi-vocal” origin story.
  • Kodi Mayer’s “The Contentions and Complexities of Harley Quinn” drilled down into this character and her history to find the appeal in her agency to make choices.
  • Rick Stevens showed the paradoxes of female agency in a hyper-masculine sphere via various portrayals of She-Hulk in his “Exploring the Monstrous Feminist Frame: Marvel’s She-Hulk as Male-centric Feminist Discourse.”

Turning the to monsters of children and childhood afforded us another—sometimes rather mature—area for discussion.

  • Daniel Yezbick selected a fascinating duck-masked character to highlight an usual sexual tension in “SeDUCKtress!: Magica De Spell, Scrooge McDuck, and the Antropo-patriarchal Sorcery of Carl Barks’ Midcentury Disney Comics.”
  • Novia Shih-Shan Chen and Sho Ogawa gave us a wonderful team study of the social struggles around female sexualty set in the context of the economical struggles 1990s Japan as played out through a fascinating manga writer’s career in “On the Edge of 1990s Japan: Kyoko Okazaki and the Horror of Adolescence.”
  • Samantha Langsdale—the coordinator of the conference—posed critical questions about the way white audiences consume the image of Black girls in a comparison of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur comics and the Beasts of the Southern Wild film in “Between Lunella Lafayette and Quvenzhané Wallis: Examining the Progress and Challenges in Monstrous Black Girl Narratives.”

Women’s transgressive relationship with roles and identity figured in this final set of papers.

  • Justin Cook took at look at the positions of bugs and women on the “great chain of being” as related to “‘The hope of every creeping thing’: The Posthuman Female Monster, Ectopic Enthomology, and Maternal Necro-Rhetorics in Aftershock’s InSexts Comic.”
  • Keri Crist Wagner gave the same comic a run through her own “Diamond of Violence” and a “Queerness Score” tools to study how the violence against queer folk works in “Horrible Victorians: Interrogating Power, Sex, and Gender within InSexts.
  • Justin Wigard turned us even further back in time and finding monsters there in his “Monochromatic Teeth, Tongues, and Tentacles: Grendel’s Mother as a Monster Perpetuating Female Gender Roles in Stephen L. Stern’s Beowulf: the Graphic Novel.”
  • Ayanni Hanna analyzed the use of liminality that forces readers to identify with the transgressive ‘other’ in “‘There is More to Me than Just Hunger’: Female Monsters and Liminal Spaces in Monstress and Pretty Deadly.”
  • Christina Knopf showed us how a strong female lead might resist monstrosity for political power in “UFO (Unusual Female Others) Sightings in Saucer Country: Metaphors of Identity and Politics.”

That’s not even every paper! Anyone who’s ever tried to write a tweet about something complicated knows how much I struggled with writing these brief descriptions. Apologies to any author who feels under-represented. I know: there’s so much more. And, you’re in all in luck. These forays into the monstrous are as we speak being collected into a book project! Stay tuned for more details on that as it happens at the conference website.

We’ll also be taking the show on the road with presentations at the upcoming PCA/ACA Conference in Indianapolis in March 2018 in the Women’s Studies Area. See us in both:

“Monstrous Women in Comics: Lurking in a Third Space”

Stefanie Snider, Marcela Murillo, Sam Langsdale, Jeannie Ludlow

“Monstrous Women in Comics: Disciplining the Monstrous”

An Sasala, Justin Wigard, Dan Yezbick, Elizabeth Coody

Yes, women are often called monsters. With this conference, we used comics to figure out what it means and what on earth we should and could do about it. Search #monstrouswomen17 on Twitter to track some of the great (and ongoing) conversations.

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Elizabeth Coody

Elizabeth Coody

Elizabeth has a PhD in religion and a snarky sense of humor. She writes about religion(s), comics, and the Bible and can be tweeted @ecoody and tumblr'd /ecoody. She posts pictures of food she makes only slightly ironically.

One thought on “Academic Conference Asks: What Makes Women Monstrous?

  1. I was so sad I missed this. I was recovering from giving birth last year and missed the deadline. It’s pretty much exactly what I’m currently working on as my thesis. I hope they do something like that again in the future! I’m applying for WonderCon instead of PCA next year but I’ve been before and the comics people were awesome. Good luck!

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