Category Archives: Monster Culture

Monster Culture

I thought Cohen’s Monster Culture was a really interesting analysis of culture in general, and I liked that he used the lens of monsters as a cultural product to talk about larger cultural ways of thinking. Although he brought in nuances, I felt like a lot of what he was talking about was concerned with the narratives we create both symbolizing and enforcing fear, whether it’s fear of the Other, of the unknown, of breaking boundaries, etc. I thought his use of the constructed monster as insight into the values and fears of a culture was interesting, especially thinking about the monsters he brings up that are more than folk tales and fictions, such as the monsterization of gay and trans folk during the first AIDS epidemic in the US, or the use of racial features as monstrous features to demonize the Other.

While I liked that he brought in so many examples and made a lot of connections to analyses of culture done by others like Said, I thought his perspective was really limited to narratives by and about Western culture, especially because his claim was one of universality, and because part of his argument talks about the alienation and Othering of those not in the ‘correct’ or dominant group but then participates in that process by only considering certain kinds of culture in his theses. Even the incorporation of non-Western cultures is only in a Western context, where the Other is made a monster of to justify colonization and dominion. One telling example is in his second thesis, where he claims that “vampiric figures are found almost worldwide from ancient Egypt to modern Hollywood”. He uses ancient Egypt as a claim to a global perspective, but the narrative arc of cultural history was constructed by the West, especially in art history, to connect ancient Egypt to Greece to Rome to the Renaissance. It was used to lend credibility and weight to a Western narrative; rather than serve Cohen’s point of universality, it highlights a limited scope. Incorporating myths and monsters from non-Western contexts would not only have better validated some of his points, but might have complicated some as well. For example, when he talks about (in thesis 3) the somatic body that is made up of various parts acting as a metaphor for the fear on non-hierachical or binary classification, he leaves out a lot of religious and mythical figure for whom the combination of diverse parts is a strength rather than something monstrous (such as Ganesha, whose elephant head that his mother gave him after his dad cut his first normal head off- long story- actually benefits from the qualities of the elephant). Also, Cohen’s theses are based off a baseline of ‘normal’ that is itself constructed; the fear that monsters cause is culturally situated, and some monsters aren’t feared by groups that may be outside the ‘norm’. A great example is Deer Woman, who must be terrifying to rapists but is a hero for the Native American or First Nations woman. The monsters that are born out of a fear of hierarchy are only monsters to the top of the hierarchy, not to those at the bottom.

In thinking about how Monstress fits into all of this, I think the idea that monsters are situational and rely on the fears of not only the whole culture but the fears of those in power, Maika’s monstrousness makes a little more sense to me. At first, it seemed like she didn’t fit neatly into an category, and she really isn’t considered a monster by the reader. But the idea of complicating a monster by adding nuance and character calls into question the constructed nature of the monster, so it kind of feels like Liu and Takeda are working to explore not only what makes monster, but what the power of a monster is.

Mixed-race identity and questioning monster culture

One thing I found interesting in this ex is sort of how it seems to hold people accountable for the monsters they and their cultures create. This is specifically addressed in the last thesis, where Cohen states that the monster’s bear self-knowledge, that they ask ourselves to “reevaluate our cultural assumptions.” Thought this, and the section on mixed-race relationships being represented as the monster, this text made me think about was how I situate myself within this sort of “monster culture,” I guess. Like, as a mixed race person, sort of seeing the monsters our culture has produced as both representing the background that I come from, representing myself as the Other, while at the same time, representing the things that have been culturally ingrained in me to fear or to think of as Other than myself. I hope that made sense. Or, in that I think it was interesting that, even as a mixed race person, I am still a apart of a culture, part of the group that created these monsters based on cultural assumptions about “…race gender, sexuality, our perception of difference..” etc, even if those things the monster is created from is about me. In this way, the last passage of Cohen’s text becomes increasingly important, especially the last line: [the monsters] ask us why we have created them. I thought that it was important to read this as a mixed race person and remember that it isn’t just the people traditionally in power who need to question why these monsters were made, question what their assumptions are, but mine as well, in sort of a way to deconstruct the harmful ideas intrinsically held about myself within myself.  Or, to acknowledge that that these harmful assumptions aren’t just restricted to those people who actively believe and act on them, but are rather sort of permeating undercurrents held by everyone, underlying ideas that require constant checking in and active questioning in order to overcome.

Monster Culture and American Progress

I think that, throughout Cohen’s Monster Culture presented an interesting lens on how we view history, and the creation of monsters through that lens provides a new way of understanding the history around us. His fourth thesis, titled The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference, focuses on the ways in which cultural difference has become constructed in such a way as to serve as justification for colonial empires.

Key to this understanding is the topic of the Native Americans, a topical subject given the location on which we sit in particular. The west was seen as a land of free land, ripe for the taking. However, there were people living there and so to make it seem ok these individuals were painted as barbarians who lacked the culture of the European settlers.

Another way to look at this is through an 1872 painting titled American Progress by John Gast. In this depiction of manifest destiny, colors are and placement are used to convey a sense of the monster that exists within the traditionally held ideals of Native Americans.

Monsters are often seen as the dark, while good is seen in the white, a trope that spans generations (and referenced by Cohen on page 20). The right of the subject is bathed in daylight, showing the wide range of the east and the good things that can come from it. Railroads, stagecoaches, cities and infrastructure, and the plow are all shown as civilizing narratives, pushing forwards thanks to the lady in white, who carries with her education in the form of a book.

Meanwhile the darkness, represented on the right of the page, shows a vision of what is to pushed out. The bear and the great herds of buffalo race away from the image. In addition, a group of Native Americans, wearing what appears to be the “expected” garb are forced to run away as progress kicks them out. Veiled in darkness, they are represented as moments of the past, and not of the future of the landscape.

There is an additional layer to this as well, that of the taboo monster. As Cohen mentions, the monster also represents a layer of the forbidden, and the way land itself becomes seen as an exotic, taboo feature. Look closely at the clothing choices the artist has made throughout the image. Progress is presented as wearing clothing, even the goddess of progress (and of note, one of the only women) is covered up in such a way that it removes any sense of impurity. Meanwhile most of the Native Americans are shown without clothing, and male and female figures have their chests exposed. In the wake of progress, these ideals are to be removed from the space.

Lastly, the land itself is tamed on the right, while the high mountain ranges on the right invite a sense of desire for knowledge and exploration. The west as a whole then is made to seem untamed, a landscape ripe for settlement.

As seen through all of this, Gast’s representations of the American West invite the viewer to imagine the people who lived there before as savage monsters in the ways that Cohen writes about, and the land requiring the saving grace of the White Europeans in order to achieve something greater.

Analyzing Cohens Thesises

In Cohens, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”, his vision of the meaning behind monsters and the place that they hold in our society today reflects well with the texts that we have been reading in class such as “Saga”, “Monstress”, and “Deer Woman”. The first comparison that I found in Cohen’s article is regarding his “Thesis I: The Monster’s Body Is a Cultural Body”. While reading, I was comparing this section to “Deer Woman” in the fact that the monster in the story, which is the Deer Woman is born and comes to life because of certain moments, which in this case is when women are being sexually assaulted or threatened. The Deer Woman’s purpose in the story is to rid of the fear that Native American women live with and constantly face of being sexually assaulted. Because, whenever they are in that situation, the Deer Woman appears and tramples the person that is threatening them to death in order to rid of the fear and anxiety that they live with. I feel as if when Cohen states that “the monstrous body is pure culture”, this also resonates with Deer Woman because Native American women have passed on this tale of this protector from generation to generation in order to protect and support Native American women.

In Cohens “Thesis II: The Monster Always Escapes”, I was reminded first of Frankenstein because at the end of the book, after the monster has caused so much damage and tragedy, it vanishes into the distance, never to be seen again. This relates to when Cohen states, “And so the monster’s body is both corporeal and incorporeal; its threat is its propensity to shift.” This section also reminds me of Izabel, the teenage ghost girl in Saga because even though she was killed in the war, she is able to come back as a helpful and friendly ghost that guides people to safety. This example can also contradict what Cohen is portraying because the way that I look at it, he is somewhat portraying all monsters in this aspect as bad, even though Izabel who is a monster that disappears and reappears, just as Cohen illustrates, I do not see her as a bad monster in any sort of way. I actually see her in a contrasting light of being like a guardian angel that leads them to safety and also watches over the child at night.

In “Thesis III: The Monster Is the Harbinger of Category Crisis”, Cohen states that monsters are “disturbing hybrids whose externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to include them in a systematic structuration. And so the monster is dangerous, a form suspended between forms that threaten to smash distinctions.” I agree that the stereotypical monsters seen in many movies and books may have incoherent bodies but regarding the books that we have read such as “Saga” and “Monstress”, I do not think that this statement rings true. In “Saga” and “Monstress”, most of the monsters seen in this book have very humanlike features that do not remind me of a dangerous life forms and although they may be suspended between two different life forms, I do not think that the end result is something horrifying or grotesque like Cohen describes but is instead just a different being with special body features such as wings or horns.

Monster Culture and Monstress

As I was reading Jeffery Jerome Cohen’s piece I was struck by how depictions of monsters in both Saga and Monstress aligned with his seven monster theses. While the Monstress is set in a fantasy world that is different from our own in many ways the monster demon that is within Maika does act as a cultural body. The tentacle monster acts to not only reflect the fears, desires and anxieties of the fantasy realm it also embodies those same feelings in our society. One way this is evident is in the general suspicion and othering of women’s bodies with the tentacle monster as an extension of Maika’s body. I also want to point out, as Cohen does at the beginning of his piece that monsters map onto general societal feelings and perceptions but none of this is a steadfast rule, for example, obviously many women have different feelings towards their bodies and even various groups and parts of society differ. However, for the sake of this analysis is is more practical to make broader assumptions.

In the first volume of Monstress there is what appears to be the beginning of a larger conflict that coincides with the the tentacle monster emerging. This is likely just a narrative device for the story to have a central conflict but it also symbolizes the larger issues between the different groups of people in Monstress. The tentacle monster also follows Cohen’s theses because it is able to always escape and come alive again because it can lay dormant in Maika’s body. Maika will never, at least in the time span of this volume, escape the monster because it is now a part of her. This mirrors other monsters in popular movies and books. The monster inhabiting Maika specifically is also an interesting choice because she is already a woman and an outsider. The tentacle monster makes her even more different from characters. One moment that demonstrates this is when the fox girl says that she is still scared of Maika. The Arcanics are feared and hated by the humans because they have special powers and the tentacle monster, though not one of those special powers heightens the fear and exclusion.

Maika’s interaction with her tentacle monster could be viewed as a sort of cautionary tale. I could imagine one of the professor cats explaining this story and using it as a way to get children to obey rules somewhat like a fairy tale. Monsters help define the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not for the culture they inhabit. One issue here is that from this part of Monstress we get a rather incomplete picture of the culture.

While Maika is not overly sexualized there are panels that show her shirtless which plays into the idea that fear of a monster can actually be a form of desire. As we discussed in class the tentacle monster is somewhat reminiscent of tentacle porn. Finally, Cohen’s last thesis, that a monster stands at the threshold of becoming. Maika and her monster have the dream conversation during the end of the comic and the monster gains more “human” knowledge which allows them to bargain with each other. In this way the tentacle monster is both representative and becoming a cultural body made up of fears, borders, difference, desire and crisis.

Monster Culture as a Monster

When I was reading through this article I couldn’t help but think about this in terms of a book called Grendel. This is a book, written by John Gardner, that focuses on the antagonist from the book Beowulf (actually I think it might be an epic, but I’m not so sure). In Beowulf, Grendel is this monster that is constantly attacking this Mead Hall, since he is a monster and that’s what monsters do. In Grendel however, we see how Grendel came to be and his reasons for attacking the humans over and over again.

It makes some very apparent points within it’s pages, talking about how Grendel never thought of himself as a monster until he met humans and they tried to kill him on sight. Grendel became ostracized from society, and didn’t have any other monster friends to hang out with. So, when he finally meets this nihilistic dragon, and the dragon tells him to attack the humans (spoilers by the way), Grendel does just that. (Grendel also thinks he is doing it to help the humans and to give them a common enemy so they stop killing each other, but…)

Anyway, now that you’ve read my book report on Grendel, I want to focus on how this initial argument touches on, or doesn’t touch on, monsters that are not really “monstrous” in their actions, but are in their looks. (Another example of this could be Kippa from Monstress, as she is a human-fox hybrid which is not natural or human, but acts like a normal child would)

Cohen says that these are ways of looking at the monsters that society makes in order to make sense of what society is trying to say. So, I look towards Cohen’s fourth point, on how monsters dwell at the gates of difference. Cohen focuses on how they are made of flesh and they have come to dwell among us, which is similar to the way the Grendel functions as an opposing viewpoint to Beowulf’s.

But what is that saying not about monsters, but about humans in the ways that we are treating these things that appear monstrous to us?

The power of society

In the piece “Monster Culture”, Jeffery Cohen asserts that those who embody differences from societal and cultural norms, inspire fear and certainty in others, and are labeled as such, “monsters”. This rebellious nature leads to the impossible task of categorizing these people, which further alienates these “monsters” in a categorically based society. My question is, what is the cause of this amount of control we give to those who abide by larger accepted societal standards? Obviously there are many factors at play throughout history, like evolution, technological advancements, and especially media, but literally, every facet of our entire lives are based out of societal standards. Every action or thought an individual has usually required thoughts about what others will think, and what others will think are usually based on societal standards. So everything we do as people is being juxtaposed to the gut reaction of the mass mobs of all of society, and therefore, creating the standard for it. Those who make those standards rarely make good decisions and also realize their power and seemingly never want to lose it. I feel like my question and concern comes from a cynicism in current societal standards, created partially by current people, fueled by an unstoppable force of media. These standards feel like they are only pushing people further apart (politically, socially, culturally, economically, etc.), as this system gloriously thrives on controversy. And it really seems like nothing will change that in the near future. Those in societal power seem to have the power to keep their power indefinitely, regardless of how much of a positive effect they have on members of our society, and with news, trends, corruption, and hate in a constant fickle cycle within our society, we really seem screwed. That’s the second part of my question if you agree there is a problem, what do we do? It seems pertinent to put people who hold a general societal appreciation into power, but as we can see from the U.S. political mess, we are sucking at that. Unless it all has to get worse before it gets better (WW3, Global warming, MutallyAssuredDestruction not working), it seems that through the general society’s poor judgment, we have failed to think of our fellow people as comrades and more like competition, and with every societal facet reinforcing this, the number of “monsters” seems like it will continue to grow, until the word “monster” has completely lost its meaning

Saga versus “Monster Culture”

“Monster Culture” by Jeffrey Cohen sheds new light on the subversive power of Sagagiven the history of monsters in storytelling as a form of “othering” and demonization. Cohen argues that there is much to be learned from the “monsters that cultures engender” (3). In particular, the way that monsters are used as a representative tool to express and fear and anxiety towards that which is not dominant in a given culture.

With this in mind, the power of Sagais profound given the number of ways in which tropes of comics and conventions of dominant American culture are subverted and called out. One of the ways Cohen explains that culture depicts monstrosity is in their threat to binaries, distinctions and categories (7). One of the many ways “Saga” subverts this is in the unconventional gender dynamic between the Alana and Marko. While Marko desires pacifism, Alana opts for aggression when confronted with danger. Alana also breaks gender norms in her explicit expression of her sexuality. Another notable moment is when Marko is unconscious and Alana saves the entire family from its demise. No longer is it man-saves-woman and children, but a single woman saving the whole family unit.

Another clear inversion of categorization is the ambiguity of the race of the characters. Not only are Alana and Marko unrecognizable races to its readership—not allowing for immediate associations and stereotypes to be jumped to for its readership—but the races of the different planets are fictional and often fantasy-based. Thus, as Cohen points out, the fear of monstrosity has traditionally been tied to the of the refusal to be easily categorized, however, in this instance the heroes and heroines of the story are themselves “monsters” and difficult to categorize.

Lastly, Cohen outlines the history of miscegenation as a form of monstrosity (17). This trope is addressed head on from the very first scene in which Alana is giving birth to a child born of two races, from parents who originated from two separate planets. Hazel comes to represent hope, a beacon of light in the world—she is a positive force in the novel, whereas she would have traditionally have been viewed as a monster.

Thus, Sagais meaningful in its inversion of the use of monstrosity as a divisive tool. In this story, using the terms of monster—as different from dominant representation, as not easily categorized, as the mixing of different races or social groups—is taken and subverted. The protagonists would qualify as “monsters.” They represent a threat to social norms in their defying of gender norms, their skin color, their relationship dynamics, the creation of a mixed race child etc. and yet we as readers are encouraged to identify or at least root for these characters as they navigate a world which seek to destroy them.

Monsters as Vulnerability

I want to take a look at the final thesis, that “Monsters are our children … they bear self-knowledge, human knowledge … [and] they ask us why we have created them” (20). I feel like it’s best to think it through in terms of a concrete example (Cohen’s statement by itself is interesting, but not very convincing to me – when does this actually happen? How? What is the effect?) I’d like to dig into the example of “miscegenation,” thinking about this final thesis.

I think it’s safe to say that what we fear reveals our weakness and vulnerability. Reading Cohen, I see that monsters are a kind of vehicle for fear, a vehicle in which what we fear can be rolled to the outskirts of society and beyond, made Other. But, because that fear ultimately comes from the self, there’s no escaping what a deeply personal thing it is. When the white patriarchy in, say, colonial Europe, creates monstrous tales about white women having sex with other races represented as monsters, this ultimately reveals more about the patriarchy than it would probably like to show. Although certainly the monstrous tales have normative, policing functions, they also inevitably point back at the creators, and say, “Why did you create this story? Is there something you’re afraid of?

I would argue that the presence of these monsters of miscegenation betrays the tenuous grasp the patriarchy holds. (Cohen’s article is very fluid in history, so I’m not sure which time period this speaks to, but perhaps it could be argued to be generally true?) The presence of miscegenation monsters suggests that members and perpetuators of the patriarchy recognize, in some deep corner of their subconscious, that their power is arbitrary. There is no inherent hierarchy of race and gender placing the patriarchy at the top, as much as they’d like to believe there to be, and as many stories as they have made claiming it to be so. Their fear, embodied in monsters, taps on the door saying there is nothing actually stopping ‘their own’ women and other races, the two groups they have subjugated, from banding together. There is the fear of being displaced, of becoming irrelevant. And as a result, a desperate grasp to hang on tighter to power.

The presence of such monsters reveals another thing about the psychology of the patriarchy, I think: even proponents of the patriarchal system sense that the women may well be unwilling participants in the dramatic gender production that is society. They see women going by the societal/cultural script they themselves produced (for instance, marrying a man of the same race and having children.) From the patriarchal perspective, though, who knows, who can know, what it is that women really want, or are really thinking? What would women do if they were free? The patriarchy can’t know. Women might well leave if given the chance – maybe they would go off to some other culture, and leave the patriarchy of their home society behind in a kind of defacto-castrated lurch.

As a result, the axiom of, ‘If you love something, let it go; if it loves you, it will come back,’ is too terrifying for the patriarchy to contemplate. The patriarchy recognizes, in the subconsciousness represented by these miscegenation monsters, that the force it has utilized up until now to press women into becoming their wives and mothering their children has created an excellent performance, but does not actually guarantee women’s desire to participate. I suppose it goes without saying, but if they have never created a space for women to say what they want, men in power have no way of knowing what women want. The woman’s true desire thus becomes a terrifying mystery – because the patriarchy needs women. That the horror stories they create show women leaving them for someone/somewhere/something else (the ‘monstrous’) ultimately speaks volumes about the patriarchy itself, its fears and vulnerabilities.

Monster Culture

After having read Jeffrey Cohen’s Monster Culture (Seven Theses), I felt that his fourth and fifth theses related best with the works we’ve read in this unit.  Cohen’s fourth thesis is entitled ‘The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference’ and suggests that monsters differ from the average person in ways that can be “cultural, political, racial, economic, sexual” (7).  Such an idea seemingly is based upon the notion that humans fear what is different from them, or simply what deviates from the socially-accepted norms.  We see this kind of abnormal behavior in Marjorie Liu’s Monstress.  Traditional norms for women tend to surround values of silence, nurturance, and agreeableness.  It is safe to say that none of Liu’s strong female characters are boxed into these norms, especially not her main character, Maika.  In fact, most of the women in Liu’s fantastical story are strong, vengeful warriors who are not afraid to cross one another or spill blood to seek justice.  As Cohen tells us, “the woman who oversteps the boundaries of her gender role… [or who exhibits a] deviant sexual identity is similarly susceptible to monsterization” (9).  It is obvious that Liu’s empowered and fierce female warrior characters do not fit within the boundaries of what is normal for women.  Thus, it is unsurprising that these characters can be seen as monsters.

Cohen’s fifth thesis is entitled ‘The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible’, suggesting that those who are deemed to be monsters act as examples of what deviance from the norm looks like and subsequently strengthen the pressure to conform.  As Cohen mentions, to go against these norms “is to risk attack by some monstrous border patrol or (worse) to become monstrous oneself” (12).  Such an idea is particularly problematic when considering that our world emphasizes white men as the norm.  Because of this, “women and nonwhites have found themselves repeatedly transformed into monsters” (15).  Even further, when deviant races and genders combine, further threat is caused to the norm.  We see examples of the intersection of women and nonwhite racial backgrounds in both Saga and Monstress.  In both of these works, a nonwhite, mixed race woman is featured as the protagonist, but also as the ‘monster’ of the piece.  These women are strong and fierce fighters, deviating from the norms of their gender but also acting as representatives of mixed racial backgrounds, which are heavily stigmatized in their worlds.  By deviating from norms sexually and racially, these women pose a threat to their worlds and are deemed monsters, subjected to being constantly attacked and criticized for their ways of being.

Overall, I felt that Cohen’s theories mapped onto our readings from the week quite well. It is unfortunate how individuals that deviate from a constructed norm are ultimately monsterized, subsequently reinforcing the norms that exist in the first place.  Such a notion appears even outside of a fictional context, leaving me to wonder: how can we stop this cycle? How can we begin to look at others who may be different from us without fear but rather with acceptance? How can move past our norms to the point of refusing to see ‘others’ as a threat?