March 17, 2011

IconAre you a monster?

Lesbian and bisexual women have long been regarded as threatening moral deviants by the suspicious and close-minded.

With ‘queer’ identity arguably reclaimed, is it maybe time for us to abandon all claims of normality, fix our collective gaze firmly into the abyss and describe ourselves as monsters?

The Fame Monster

Lady Gaga certainly seems to think so. The extravagant bisexual pop icon has gleefully embraced monstrousity, a theme is present in many of her songs and live performances (what kind of human hatches from an egg, after all?) She even refers to her fans as “little monsters”.

Gaga has a particularly close relationship with her LGBT followers. Her hits are pretty much guaranteed to fill the dancefloor at any given gay club, whilst a parade of tribute acts are on standby to perform her songs at every Pride festival going.

This queer connection is much more than some shrewd marketing decision. Gaga has spoken out in favour of LGBT liberation on many occasions and centred her latest hit around our community. Born This Way makes a passing reference to just about every oppressed minority group going, but the song’s overarching message is pretty transparent even before the good Lady insists “No matter gay, straight or bi / lesbian, transgendered life / I’m on the right track, baby”.

Born This Way makes explicit the link between LGBT people and the Gaga monster theme. The song refers to queer lives with Gaga’s language of monsters: “just put your paws up”, she sings, before emploring the listener to embrace their identity.

A brief history of horror

radclyffe_hall_-_sunday_expressLady Gaga’s joyful embrace of monstrosity seems at odds with the ways in which the idea has long been used to oppress women throughout history.

Moreover, lesbian and bisexual women in particular were especially likely to be construed as monstrous during the 20th century.

For millenia, so-called wise men believed that the default sex was male. Women represented some kind of strange mutation that lacked in penis but had the freakish ability to bear children. Aristotle claimed that women are monstrous before they “stray” from the “generic type”: that is, the male body.

This idea remained in vogue even during the 19th century, when trainee surgeons would practice their trade almost exclusively on male bodies. Understanding the female body simply wasn’t seen as important.

The 16th century protestant reformer John Knox argued against female rulers in ‘The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regimen of Women’ (what a mouthful: get an editor, John!) “For who can denie but it repugneth to nature, that the blind shal be appointed to leade and conduct such as do see?” he implored.

Women who dare to gain an education have also long been regarded as especially dangerous. Friedrich Nietzsche took this a step further and implied that female students might (shock, horror) be lesbians: “When a woman has scholarly inclinations there is generally something wrong with her sexual nature,” he warned.

Great strides towards gender equality took place during the first part of the 20th century, but lesbianism remained utterly monstrous. In 1928, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness was banned in the UK for daring to depict relationships between women. “I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acide than this novel,” declared Daily Express editor James Douglas, who clearly preferred homocide to homosexuality. “Poison kills the body, but moral poison kills the soul,” he helpfully clarified.

With both womanhood and queerness traditionally regarded as monstrous, early feminists and gay activists aimed to emphasise their “normality”. The sedate suffragists hosted polite talks and lobbied parliamentarians well before the more exciting suffragettes turned up.

Similarly, some of the earliest gay rights groups sought to propagate the idea that lesbians might be respectable, white members of the middle class. ‘Homophile’ groups in the United States held a number of well-dressed demonstrations that gently requested equal rights during the 1950s.

Queering the monstrous

frankensteinsmonster-200In contrast, some have chosen to embrace freakishness. This has become increasingly popular during the last two or three decades as queers and feminists reinvent the language of monstrosity.

Queer theory enables the blurring of identity boundaries and a celebration of diversity. Self-declared queers tend to value individuality over confirmity, reinventing the myths of monstrous difference that are projected onto them.

An alternative approach is taken by Donna Haraway, who implies that almost everyone is a monster. She argues that modern technology has changed us to the point that we are “theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs”. We have therefore already moved beyond the human and become monstrous, regardless of our gender and sexual orientation.

Arguably the most radical perspective is that which embraces queer monstrosity. An number of lesbian, bisexual and trans women explicitly describe themselves as monstrous in a radical rejection of societal norms. This position is summed up beautifully in the seam of skin and scales, a prose poem by trans dyke writer Elena Rose:

“It is time to look the monstrous in the eye. It is time. It is time to say that we are beautiful in our fierceness, and that we are our own. We are not the rejected of what we can never be. We are what we were meant to be. We are not pieces of wholes thrown together incorrectly. We are not mistakes.”

Born this way?

I’m not sure how Rose would feel about being compared to Lady Gaga, but the sentiments of her piece are certainly mirrored in Born This Way. Granted, Gaga’s song is aimed at a mainstream audience and her message is therefore a great deal more tame, but both women paint queer monstrosity as an essential and worthy part of the self.

Many feel that the normalisation of LGBT identities is the best way for us to gain equality and end bigotry. The language of monsters is, after all, pretty scary. It may be, however, that we only become truely liberated through embracing our own monstrosity.

1 Response to Are you a monster?

  1. Louise says:

    Avoid mainstreaming with passion, as that means becoming something palatable to a dominant heterosexual’centre’e.g. use of the word normalisation in the context of identities. No need to create the monstrous, simply reconstruct difference and uniqueness of lesbianism. Deconstruct the negative male/lesbophobic descriptions of ‘us’ Fight against our identtities being framed in hetero terms, indeed, reduced to heterosexual male titillation at best, perversion at worst. Call me old fashioned, being me has nothing to do with heterosexuality and nothing to do with men!

Milly Shaw

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