Monstress and the Problem of Women in Pain

Cover to Monstress #18, Art by Sana

Please note this post contains discussion of violence against women. Also, spoiler alert for Monstress.

Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s Monstress has—justifiably—been on fire lately. It won heaps of accolades at the 2018 Eisner Awards and major love and respect from readers. Liu was the first woman to win the Best Writer award (about time), while Takeda earned Best Cover Artist and Best Painter/Multimedia Artist and the series itself also took home two awards. Their success as women comics creators stands out in an industry that, while changing, still faces misogynistic debacles like the 2016 Angoulême comics festival. No women were included on the shortlist for the esteemed lifetime comics achievement award, because apparently there were no important women candidates to be found. (See Maddy Myers’ article in The Mary Sue for a great takedown of the festival’s response.)

What’s remarkable to me is how Liu and Takeda have gained this level of attention precisely because they tackle issues of sexism, homophobia, and racism. The series builds a matriarchal, queer world that deliberately explores what it means to be a monstrous woman. It turns out there’s a lot to say about it, but I want to focus on the ways in which the series considers how bodily pain, experiences of violence, and trauma are all too often considered monstrous.

The series’ title itself foregrounds how the main character, Maika Halfwolf, is constructed and policed as a monster. Maika has an old god named Zinn sealed inside her, and Zinn hungers for human flesh, frequently overwhelming Maika to prey on others. Because of Zinn, everyone around Maika views her as the monster. They simultaneously fear her and want to exploit her as a weapon. And if that plan doesn’t work, they’ll kill her.

Health psychologist Jane Ussher writes, “Women who fail … to perform femininity within the tight boundaries within which it is prescribed … are at risk of being positioned as mad or bad, and subjected to discipline or punishment” (4). Maika’s story demonstrates this idea through her monstrousness and her unwillingness to conform to other characters’ expectations. If someone isn’t trying to destroy Maika because of the threat she represents to their social order, then Zinn’s trying to escape to consume everyone else. The constant danger is enough to wear anyone down, but as the series progresses, it becomes clear that Maika’s suffered a lot throughout her life. She’s experienced violence, hardship, and starvation on the run with her mother and also when she lived in refugee camps as a child with her friend Tuya. Consequently, she has withdrawn into herself as a mechanism for self-protection, distrusting everyone.

Panel from Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Image Comics
Pg. 22, Vol. 2

Is it surprising that she’s in a lot of pain? Her pain overwhelms her relationships with Kippa and Ren, even with her own body. It often bursts over the gutters to take up much of the page space. I’d ordinarily be wary that female pain drives such a large part of the story, but I think that Liu and Takeda are deliberately questioning how women in pain are so often portrayed as mad, bad, and monstrous.

Mihaela Precup, a scholar who studies graphic narratives and trauma, brings this issue up in talking about Noelle Stevenson’s fantastic comic Nimona. She mentions the large number of recent comics that feature female teenagers who “have experienced traumatic events” and are jaded or cynical. Precup suggests that “what brings them together is the fact they are all outsiders in worlds that have either betrayed, disappointed, or simply cannot contain them.”

These female characters have been othered, experimented on, and portrayed as mad and bad by their societies when they react out of pain at how they are being treated. Their monstrosity often emerges in response to others’ attempts to discipline them, which happens with both Nimona and Maika. (Be sure to read Tiffany Babb’s fabulous piece on Nimona as monster.) They have few valid ways to express their hurt, and are punished and reviled for expressing their anger. Monstress as a series focuses on Maika’s emotional responses and how she deals with her own monstrosity.

Novelist and essayist Leslie Jamison talks about how women’s pain—physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual—often gets put on a pedestal in literature, but ignored in actual medical situations, be it in hospitals or in therapy. (Check out Lady Science’s awesome blog series on women’s pain, or Dr. Jaipreet Virdi’s blog posts on medical trauma for first-hand experiences.) At the same time, the lived realities of such pain all too often get belittled or even rendered monstrous. The woman in pain must either ignore that pain entirely or manage it appropriately. No matter what, she can’t let it overflow her wounds to touch others and disrupt their lives. Self-regulation and containment become more important than medically or therapeutically dealing with that pain.

Kristen Lopez points out how pop culture has been complicit in this regulation and containment, particularly in the character Ava from Ant-Man and the Wasp. Lopez writes that Ava is a woman of color who ends up getting her chronic pain “fixed” by a white savior. This focus on a cure rather than Ava’s experience with disability further props up the ableism of the film and the desire to render Ava and her pain controllable.

The difference with Monstress lies in how Liu and Takeda foreground Maika as an Asian character struggling with containing her own monstrosity. She tries to control Zinn, the monster sealed inside her. She’s not very successful, though. She’s an outsider in her own body, and her pain and her own struggles in dealing with it make her think of her own self as monstrous.

Panel from Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Image Comics
Pg.7, Vol. 2

She literally tries to dig Zinn out from her body after one night when Zinn awakes in order to feed on sheep. Maika conceals what happens, but feels disgusting and ashamed, because she is complicit in Zinn’s actions.

Monstress creates space for Maika’s pain. It doesn’t make her get over it according to someone else’s ideas or timeline. There is no cure. Instead, the series shows her exploring her own psychological trauma with the help of her many female ancestors. At the end of the third arc, she makes a choice to put herself in danger for everyone else. It’s been a long journey, however, one only made possible because her relationships with Tuya, Kippa, Ren, and Zinn give her the support she needs to process her pain. Kippa especially never gives up Maika, and that helps Maika imagine new possibilities for herself.

Panel from Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Image Comics
Pg. 40, Vol. 2; Pg. 15, Issue 18

Liu and Takeda take women’s pain seriously, and they ask us as readers to re-think our ideas of the monstrous feminine. It’s an important question for pop culture generally, which, as Kristen Lopez notes, has had problems portraying women in pain.

As someone who continues to struggle with mental health issues, I’m interested in how Maika will continue reflecting on her past pain, and how she will act in the future. How will she rethink her own monstrous self? The next arc of Monstress begins with Issue 19 on January 23, 2019, and I can’t wait to see what happens with Maika’s character.

My thanks to Elizabeth Coody and Ayanni Cooper. They participated in the 2017 conference on Monstrous Women in Comics and were exceptionally generous in their comments to me on women in comics and Monstress. Samantha Langsdale and Elizabeth Coody are also editors of the Monstrous Women in Comics book forthcoming in 2019. Ayanni has a chapter in it!

Works Cited

Jamison, Leslie. “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 90, No. 2, 2014, pp. 114-128.

Lopez, Kristen. “Marvel’s ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ and Hollywood’s Misunderstanding of Disability.” The Daily Beast, 6 July 2018.

Precup, Mihaela. “To ‘All the Monster Girls’: Violence and Non-Normativity in Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona.Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Vol. 8, No. 6, 2017, pp. 550-559.

Ussher, Jane. Managing the Monstrous Feminine. Routledge, 2006.

photo fo Brandi Estey-Burtt provided by herselfBrandi Estey-Burtt is a PhD candidate who writes about literature, comics, and postsecularism.  She lives with her partner and cats Calvin & Hobbes in New Brunswick.
Follow her on Twitter at @brandi_eb.
Series Navigation<< Comics Academe: The Evolution of Comics in Education EducatorsLooking at Suffering: A Review of Ethics in the Gutter >>
Brandi Estey-Burtt

Brandi Estey-Burtt

Brandi is a PhD candidate who writes about literature, comics, and religion. She lives with her partner and cats Calvin & Hobbes in New Brunswick.