Men who regard their egos as more important than women’s autonomy are common as dirt, but it’s rare for such a man to so thoroughly make an ass of himself in public as the author of “How to Talk to a Woman Who is Wearing Headphones” did. He got thoroughly heckled and mocked, as he entirely deserved. One response, though, stood out for me: Alexandra Petri’s “So, You Must Talk to the Woman Who Is Wearing Headphones.”1 It took a very literary approach to its critique, using a conceit of women as dangerous, wild, and fierce, to reflect and expose the How To Talk author’s unspoken conception of women as a monstrous Other. It’s a conception much older than him, and Petri’s response deftly invoked older examples of feminine monsters, re-appropriating them to celebrate the idea of women’s danger, wildness, and ferocity. In addition to Petri’s work, Lucian Clark of Gender Terror recently published “Monsters Of Our Own: Monster Symbolism in the Trans Community,” which examines the intersection of monster narratives and trans narratives by way of several volunteers' personal accounts of monstrosity.2 I believe there’s a tremendous power in re-appropriating those monstrous images and narratives.3 We can use them to build selves better equipped to survive and resist marginalization. I’m going to explain my personal connection to monsters and to spend some time talking about how they connect to experiences of marginalization, in hopes of showing you that you have the ability to conceptualize yourself as a strong, beautiful monster. Like the women in Petri’s poem, you can be dangerous, wild, and fierce.4
I have monsters in me. As a woman, my navigating the world requires me to be aware of how heteronormative femininity is a very specific narrative that very many people are willing and able to violently enforce, even though those people generally regard women who depart from heteronormative femininity as unnatural, bizarre, or fearful: as monstrous. As a trans woman, my surviving in the world requires me to be aware of how many people regard my selfhood as unnatural and my body as something to be punished: again, as monstrous. I’m confronted with people, media, and structures in the world (lots of them!) that either treat my personhood as debatable and optional or outright take for granted that I am some kind of lesser being. Sometimes I have the energy and desire to demand to be treated as a peer, as a full person, as a normal person instead of as the Other. It’s impossible for me (or anyone else in marginalized communities) to sustain that desire and energy all the time, though.
Even when we do have the desire and the energy, sometimes the mechanisms that enforce marginalization coerce us into compliance — yet coercion, however violent, cannot force us to regard ourselves in our hearts as fundamentally unworthy, as not being full people, as deserving only the scraps of dignity and justice that they choose to allow us. Brief digression: structures of marginalization often inflict trauma and mental health problems on us that can make us hate ourselves like that, but despite bearing scars and pain, we have good days and flashes of strength in which we can once again perceive clearly that we are just as fundamentally worthy of health, happiness, safety, and kindness as everyone else in the world. I send my solidarity and love to everyone bearing those scars. You have that strength, you are worthy, and the system is what’s broken, not you.
When we’re in those situations, though, whether we’re coerced or weary or simply don’t give a fuck today, we’re presented with another question: “who am I, then?” We can’t just assert “I really am a person!” directly because it’d require the energy, desire, or freedom that we don’t have in those situations. At the same time, we do know in our hearts that the situation that denies our personhood, is doing us an injustice. How, then, do we express to ourselves a resolution between the external situation that demands suppression of our selfhood and our internal knowledge of its reality and importance? There are many tactics for resistance that focus on cultivating the energy and desire to assert ourselves more often, or on helping us muster resistance against coercion. Such tactics are good and important, but there are limits to the help they can give us. Beyond those limits dwell monsters who can lend us their strength.
We can answer the question “who am I?” with “I am a monster,” with a self-image that neither requires us to externally demand acknowledgement nor to internally regard ourselves as unworthy and abject. The way we are treated as Other can become an affirmation of monster-ness, rather than a sign of unworthiness. Even when we can’t escape mistreatment, a monstrous narrative of self lets us resist the demand that we think of ourself as deserving mistreatment. Building our own monstrous narrative of self lets us choose alternate explanations, instead of being forced into the explanation offered by those who mistreat us.5
The explanation that Monsters Of Our Own offers, about monsters and trans-ness, is a good place to start:
For some trans people, monsters represent the way society sees them. It is a reclamation of a title given to their existence, forced on them for being who they are. For others, they represent the factors of their bodies and the conflict they experience. They may also represent the escape, the strength, needed to deal with a society that views you as other, grotesque, terrifying, horrific. Monsters represent how society sees trans people [and reflect trans people’s] own experiences of violence, rejection, and exclusion, [creating] an empathetic tie to monsters.
As a furry, I’ve spent a lot of time using nonhuman images of self as a way to ask “who am I?” and “who do I want and need to be?” as well as using those images as tools with which to build answers. The furry subculture not only cultivates conversations about nonhuman images of self, but also creates spaces where participants can adopt those selves as primary and expect to be treated accordingly even if a participant’s embodied-world presence diverges widely from the self they adopt. After years of participating in the conversations and the spaces, the selves that I now use for almost everything are the anthropomorphic tigress who is my avatar-self, together with werewolf, space alien, and gorgon layers on top of that core self (visual reference: here we are together). I’m going to talk about how these identities6 are important tools for me, about the monster archetypes they embody, and about how they co-habit with the rest of my selfhood. My personal usage of these tools is only a fraction of what’s possible, but I hope that its example can point you towards ways of using the tools that will be most productive for you.
The werewolf version of me is a combination of tiger and wolf, outrageous and Dionysian (visual reference: in this photoset, right-hand column, light green swimsuit). I draw my idiom of werewolves less from Universal horror movies and more from the sexualized werewolves that Internet-mediated fandom communities have made prominent: there’s a specific experience that the latter are helpful for taking on. Part of the experience of living in a marginalized community, is the experience of the dominant community’s willingness to coercively regulate your sexuality. For women, especially trans women, this coercion is a central feature of our experience.7 The dominant culture regards mass-media broadcasts, individual conversations, and everything in between as appropriate venues to speculate about our appearances, our sexual tastes, and our fuckability. Taking on this monstrous aspect lets me reverse heteronormativity’s demand that women be sexually submissive, meek, and undemanding of our own pleasure: when I’m in tigerwolf mode, I am sexually dominant, I assert my autonomy, I gleefully enjoy sexual pleasure. Because I am a trans woman, the dominant culture considers my genitals dangerous and unnatural despite that the idea of penetrating someone with them makes me flinch with discomfort and revulsion. When I’m in tigerwolf mode, I proudly have and take pleasure from monstrous, non-cisnormative genitals, unconcerned with disguising them or with passing as a cis person. My tigerwolf self has the privilege of universal acceptance when I assert that my body is feminine and enjoys the luxury of only having conversations about my appearance, my sexual tastes, and my fuckability when they’re conducted on my terms.
The tigerwolf also incorporates some elements from the Maenads. Werewolf narrative skews towards being male-coded, but it also overlaps with accounts of the Maenads, who are somewhat more obscure. For all that the Maenads are definitely human women, they are still portrayed as monstrous: like werewolves, they’re stereotypically bloodthirsty, irrational, and dangerous. However, when we notice that our knowledge of this group of women is entirely mediated through writing by men (not very much of it, either), we have to question the accuracy of our “knowledge”. What would they have to say for themselves? Given that there are many feminine monsters (especially ones from the ancient Mediterranean like the Maenads) where our knowledge of them comes only from accounts by men, this is a question that we should ask often. It’s certainly not good that other accounts didn’t survive (or never existed), but at the same time it’s an opportunity.
The Maenads' voicelessness is an overwhelmingly common experience of marginalized communities. We are required to understand the dominant group in order to survive, but dominance lets them shirk the emotional labor of understanding us on our own terms; further, others know us not by what we’d like to say about ourselves, but by what’s said about us by the dominant group.8 Because of this shared experience, members of marginalized communities in the present are well-qualified to reconstruct alternate accounts of such monsters9 by asking “what did the dominant group say about us when we were kept from speaking in our own voices?” In answering this question, we triangulate from the known accounts and approach the missing ones: once in their neighborhood, we reconstruct what the monsters might tell us about themselves if given the chance to speak with their own voices. Even though it’s impossible to forensically or archaeologically verify the accounts that we reconstruct, we can verify immediately whether or not they resonate with our experience of being made voiceless, whether they have the same relationship to the dominant group’s descriptions as our accounts of ourselves do. Accounts that resonate, are ones we can use when we become monsters. Personally, I’m guided by the way that both werewolves and Maenads are beings of the wild, outside of and feared by the “civilized” world (presumed to be ruled by men). When I inhabit my tigerwolf self, I am enlisting these monsters' help in resisting the way that today’s “civilized” world treats me.
The space alien version of me is a xenokitty, a mix of familiar and unfamiliar (visual reference: this picture, (exposed breasts, login required)). Like E.T., Ford Prefect, and similar aliens in media, she’s a friendly, curious outsider.10 Where the tigerwolf embodies a pointed rejection of the “civilized” world by someone from a neighboring area who’s capable of complying with its demands despite rejecting them, the xenokitty is from far, far outside that world. She explores, confidently and actively seeking new experiences even in distant and unfamiliar surroundings. She takes it for granted that she is dramatically different from the people around her, and is thoroughly comfortable with that status. It leads her to value her differences with others as things to be learned from, as opportunities to explore, and as entertainment.
Sometimes, people enacting marginalization aren’t so much aggressive as they are uncomprehending. Members of the dominant group may be unaware of even extremely basic parameters of our lives. When this lack of understanding surfaces, we sometimes can take the opportunity to teach, to explain our experience in our own voices to someone who may be open to hearing something other than the dominant group’s account of us. Teaching takes significant effort and the expectation that we will exert ourselves happily is also part of marginalization, but the opportunity is real. When these opportunities come along, it’s a good time for me to be a space alien. When I’m in xenokitty mode, I’m eager to explore difference and novelty. I am okay with others not understanding my experience: it’s not theirs, and they don’t need to understand it for it to be healthy, good, and valid. This reduces the pressure that comes with the teaching: it’s stressful to be a de facto representative of your entire community, especially on short notice. Being a space alien gives me the confidence to fluently explain myself and to teach people about my experience without apologizing for it. It also helps me defer the anger that comes from how explaining one’s experience of marginalization inevitably calls to mind the injustice of that experience: the anger is a valid and relevant response, but it’s very difficult to use it helpfully for the work of teaching. Finally, being in xenokitty mode is helpful specifically in trans and queer contexts: I delight in finding siblings and other explorers. Some of them need reassurance that their homeworlds are okay places to which it is possible to return, that there exist places that are safe for them, and that there are other voyagers out there who know what it’s like to be far from home.
The gorgon version of me is both feline and ophidian, a creature of earth and stone (visual reference: this picture). Gnomic and obscure, she’s focused on her creative and investigative work, avoiding the dominant culture because interacting with it would be a time-consuming tedium unworthy of her attention. Unlike the xenokitty, she is uninterested in explaining herself. Instead of an explorer, she is a hermit — like the gorgons or their siblings the Graeae, not a particularly safe one to seek out. She can be found, but the kind of person capable of finding her is already halfway outside of the orthodox world. Finding her may result in the seeker’s transformation.
The triangulation mentioned earlier with the Maenads is particularly fruitful with the Gorgons of Greek myth. As with the Maenads, the various accounts we have come to us through men, but unlike them, one account is distinctly strongest and foremost: the Perseus myth. In it, Perseus feuds with King Polydectes, who sends him to dispatch Medusa in the expectation that the Gorgons' petrifying abilities will result in Perseus' death: instead, with help from Athena, Perseus shields himself from petrification, beheads Medusa, and uses her severed head to petrify several other men in various tales. What would Medusa and her sisters have to say for themselves?
To me, the Perseus story has some very familiar elements. I can read the Gorgons as women whose appearances stunned the men of their world, leaving them unable to process what they beheld, paralyzed by something about these women that they were deeply afraid of: a metaphorical petrification. These men reacted with violence. Perseus' story includes not only his aid from Athena, but his coercing aid from the Graeae and the Hesperides. He seeks out the Gorgons, inflicts deadly violence on them, and uses the result of this violence to raise his status among other men. Even in death, Medusa is denied her own account: Perseus' account goes unchallenged and gives him much glory. It is a very small extrapolation to say that Perseus exploits the Gorgons: instead of having their own voices, Perseus' voice is substituted for theirs in a way that gains Perseus great worldly profit (on top of the harm he inflicted in his encounter with them).
When we look at the story this way, trans people, women, and queer people can’t help but recognize our own collective experiences. Many are the men who have reacted to our appearance with violence, and then sought to justify the violence by claiming that we are a danger to them. Many are the men who have sought us out and then interposed themselves between us and others, silencing us by claiming to speak for us and collecting profits for their speech. Many are the men who have done us harm without even acknowledging us, like Perseus and the Graeae/Hesperides, on their way to work some harm on our siblings. Many, too, are the men who regard their desires as more important than our autonomy: even though the author of How To Talk does a smaller harm than the deadly violence Perseus used, they are on the same continuum.
In gorgon mode, I turn my face from the world that calls me dangerous and worthy of deadly aggression. I am a calm recluse, focused on my creative work: I am unconcerned with being understood by the “civilized” world. I expect that my body, my desires, and my self will be incomprehensible to them, and I proudly become an enigma. When people receptive to my work find me, I welcome them, but I make no effort to be easy to understand or find (rather, the opposite). Keeping in solidarity with Medusa, a tragically slain sibling, I stay mindful of the violence that may be enacted against me based on my appearance, and do what work I can to shield myself against it.
Like anyone else in a marginalized community, I sometimes resist the mechanisms of marginalization in ways the external world can see, but I don’t always have the energy, desire, or freedom to do so. Together, these three alternate selves are extremely helpful to my internal resistance. They give me strength to reject the demand that I internally submit to marginalization by regarding myself as deserving to be treated as less than a person. Importantly, the archetypes that work for me aren’t the only ones. I’m acquainted with genies (tapping into the juxtaposition of power and powerlessness as a way to grapple with heteronormativity’s paradoxical accounts of women’s sexuality), with fae (alien creatures, beautiful and dangerous), and with robots (extending the idea of our bodies as artificial to explore the possibilities of truly being able to choose an embodiment). There are many, many monsters to choose from. Go, and become monstrous.
They generously invited me to contribute, but “meet a deadline” is by a pretty wide margin my worst skill as a writer. Sorry, Lucian!↩
My favorite example of these narratives' strength comes from a post by Fred Clark: “Ask most people, ‘Do you believe in vampires?’ and they will answer No. But ask those same people if vampires can be killed with a wooden stake and they’ll tell you Yes.” Even when we deny the literal truth of stories, they have important effects on us.↩
I am a trans woman and I’m writing this piece primarily for women (for every kind of woman). If your life experience is something else, I unfortunately can’t promise that this piece will be helpful, but I send my well-wishing and solidarity for any monster-narrative-reappropriating work of yours and also encourage you to notice and support others when they’re using the tools I’m writing about.↩
I’m not an academic and I don’t know of any scholarly/Theoryville work about marginalization and monster identity — but I’d be completely shocked if none exists. If you know of work like that, please do tell me about it.↩
These three identities are ways of being that I actively put on and take off. They’re part of me, but they’re much closer to being the kind of self-extension that an actor who plays the same part many times develops than to being part of a multiple system. For more information about what multiple systems are and aren’t, I recommend listening to what they have to say for themselves.↩
To reinforce, though, it’s a universal aspect of marginalization. For example, black men are portrayed as sexual predators, physically disabled people as sexless, and poor people as sexually irresponsible.↩
Here I’m leaning on the discussion of “interpretive labor” in David Graeber’s Dead Zones of the Imagination.↩
Consider Creature From The Black Lagoon and its portrayal of a monstrous Other with no voice, present in body but narrativized only by statements from the emissaries of the orthodox world.↩
Jon Carroll’s “Near Life Experiences” also has an excellent story about a space alien: “She has considered the matter carefully; she has talked it over with a few trusted friends. And her conclusion: I am not crazy. I am only a space alien.” It is a compassionate story.↩