Why Female Monsters In Fiction Are Always Single — And What It Says About How Society Views Unattached Women
She lives deep in the woods of the human subconscious, or on the jagged rocks far out to sea. She haunts the attics of old mansions and the bottoms of murky lakes. She's old and ugly with lined, sallow skin, or she's beautiful beyond all reckoning, or she has serpents twining in her hair and to look upon her would be death.
Whoever she is, she's probably single.
Monsters have, since time immemorial, expressed our most human anxieties. Dragons are going to gobble us up, like the soft, meaty mammals we are. Dead things are going to come back to drink our blood, or civilized men are going to turn into flesh-tearing wolves. Scientists are going to go too far with their science, or serial killers are going to invade our safe suburban neighborhoods, or an atomic bomb is going to drop on our cities with all the force of a giant, destructive lizard.
For lady monsters, though, the anxiety is nearly always the same: she's a woman without a man.
From witches to gorgons, the scary ladies of literature are usually dried up old spinsters. Or they're single and sexual, but too sexual, and they're going to use their womanly wiles to devour men whole. Or they're going to prey on children, because any woman without children of her own is apparently a threat to the entire concept. Even the wicked stepmother only shows her true colors once her husband is out of the picture. What makes these ladies terrifying is not merely that they're sharp-toothed or half-dead or evil, it's that they're living outside the cultural norm. A woman functioning without male supervision is, it seems, the scariest thing of all.
"For lady monsters, though, the anxiety is nearly always the same: she's a woman without a man."
We may think that our fear of the traditional witch archetype is safely in the past, and yet single, older women in possession of cats are still fair game for public derision. Childless women and queer women and gender non-conforming people who have "failed" to "find a man" still face judgment for living outside of the norm. The dried up witch-woman and her sister, the sultry siren, are still alive, lurking around in the back of our minds, where they've managed to survive for the last several thousand years.
Let's go back to the beginning — the Greek classics: Medusa was once beautiful, or so the story goes, and of all her beauties, none was more admired than her hair. But, according to Ovid's Metamorphoses, the god Poseidon caught sight of her beauty, and raped her in the temple of Athena. The goddess Athena then punished Medusa by turning her into a gorgon, with her curls transformed to twisting snakes.
Ovid gets some (very minor) credit in that he doesn't blame Medusa for her own assault. The verb he uses means "to violate," "injure," or "defile," and Poseidon violently injures her. But this "defilement" still makes Medusa unclean and therefore unmarriagable, and she is turned into a snake-haired monster as a result of her own assault. Even her petrifying gaze doesn't protect her from men, because Medusa is later murdered by Perseus for being generally ugly and living alone in a cave.
Greek Mythology is full of woman monsters. The beautiful sirens lure men to their deaths at sea with their seductive song, the cruel harpies swoop down from the sky to snatch food and punish wrongdoers, the grotesque Lamia devours children out of grief for losing her own. In The Odyssey, the sorceress Circe lives alone on an island and turns men into pigs. Odysseus (with some generous help from the gods) overpowers Circe and becomes her lover, but he is warned that she may do something horrific with his manhood if he doesn't carefully control her every move:
"Tell her to swear an oath by all the gods
that she will not plot further harm for you—
or while you have your clothes off, she may hurt you,
The Odyssey is a common ancestor to the whole of Western literature, and it's riddled with male fear of unattached women. Athena is an independent force of nature, sure, but Circe must be threatened and conquered before it's safe to sleep with her. Odysseus' other lover, Calypso, entraps him on her island against his will. When Zeus demands she let him go, she complains that goddesses are held to a much stricter standard than gods when it comes to taking lovers.
Even the hideous sea monster Scylla and the all-consuming whirlpool Charybdis are referred to by female pronouns. As Emily Wilson put it in an interview with Bustle about her recent translation of Homer's epic, “There’s Charybdis, the whirlpool, that is going to engulf, going to eat up the men — there’s a fear of femininity that’s going to devour you... but also they’re presented in ways that are powerful and very attractive and seductive."
The uncontrolled woman is terrifying, gross, and enticing all at once. And the Greeks are far from alone in their anxiety.
In the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, there's the villain Grendel's Mother, who might be the first recorded instance of society demonizing single mothers. She's somewhere between a troll and a river monster, a hideous warrior woman who seeks revenge for her murdered son, and must naturally be killed by our brave hero. She's played by a damp, nude Angelina Jolie in the 2007 film adaptation, trading in one stereotype of female monstrosity for another.
"The uncontrolled woman is terrifying, gross, and enticing all at once. And the Greeks are far from alone in their anxiety."
Then, of course, there's the classic, Macbeth-style witch, bent over her bubbling cauldron, old and not nearly feminine enough, and perhaps interested in the company of other woman (the "singleness" of these witches is, of course, defined under heterosexual norms). She has a broom, but instead of using it to clean for her husband, she uses it to fly around and create mayhem. She leads men astray and copulates with the devil himself.
She also has cousins in folklore all across the world: the child-eating Dzunuḵ̓wa from the Kwakwaka'wakw group of Indigenous nations in Canada, the Slavic Baba Yaga flying about in a pestle and wielding a mortar, the kalku witch from Chile who kills babies and sterilizes their fathers, the fetus-eating manananggal from the Philippines, to name just a few. The ugly old Yama Uba from Japan will pose as a pretty young woman to lure people in, and then turn into an ugly hag and eat them in a deeply satisfying subversion of that sexist "take her swimming" meme.
It seems to be a nearly universal fear that if a woman lives alone, she'll inevitably want to devour men, to destroy the natural order by killing children, and to use household utensils in an unconventional manner.
But of course, fear of baby-eating she-demons and lady whirlpools have become a little subtler over the years.
In the world of English literature, the witch or monstrous woman eventually begins to take on a slightly more "realistic" appearance. Instead of the snake-haired gorgon in her secluded liar, we have Miss Havisham, Charles Dickens' wealthy spinster who was jilted at the altar. She still wears her rotting wedding dress from all those years ago, holed up in her ruined mansion as she plots her revenge on the young men of the world. She's described as "the witch of the place."
Instead of a murderess cannibal demon, we have Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre. She was a beautiful Creole woman from Jamaica who married Mr. Rochester, began showing symptoms of mental illness, and was subsequently locked up in the attic for the rest of her life. As an ex-wife and "madwoman," she has no place in society, and the conventional love story cannot move forward until she is killed.
Neither woman is responsible for her respective failed marriage, but both are hidden away in fetid rooms until they're eventually burned to death, because both have failed to become adequate wives.
Victorian literature also brings us the more inhuman, monstrous creations of mad scientists. The more medical science advanced, the more the general public began to worry that technology had gone to far, that dissections and electricity were going to give us reanimated corpses and animal-human hybrids.
The lady creations of these scientists tend to be destroyed by their own creators, rather than allowing them to wreak their unnatural havoc on society. In the novel Frankenstein, the titular doctor goes as far as constructing a bride for his monster, before he chickens out and dumps her dismembered body into the sea.
To have a woman who is both monstrous and a bride is too unnatural, even for Dr. Frankenstein.
World Fantasy Award–winning novelist Theodora Goss is well versed in the subject of Victorian monster women; her novels The Strange Case of the Alchemist's Daughter and European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman explore the "monstrous gentlewoman" who so rarely get equal billing with their male counterparts. Here we meet the feminine creations of Dr. Jekyll, Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, and the other mad scientists of literature, whose stories go on even without their famous "fathers."
"To have a woman who is both monstrous and a bride is too unnatural, even for Dr. Frankenstein."
In these books, single female monsters find sisterhood and support in each other. But when it comes to gendered monsters in general, Goss sees two fundamental differences in how women are treated. “The first is that male monsters are allowed to be ugly,” Goss tells Bustle. “Frankenstein’s monster is the paradigmatic example: he is hideous to everyone who sees him. Mr. Hyde is unattractive in the book and usually hideous in the movies. Dracula, in the book, is neither sexy nor a romantic hero, although Frank Langella made him one on screen. But female monsters are often beautiful; their beauty and sensuality are part of the danger they pose.”
Part of the fear with female monsters is that men will be enticed by their beauty — until it's too late. "Carmilla, Countess Karnstein and Beatrice Rappaccini are both beautiful," says Goss, "You don’t realize, until you are already involved with them, that they are, in Carmilla’s case, a vampire, and in Beatrice’s, poisonous."
The second difference is that female monsters, particularly in the Victorian Era, keep their mouths shut. Female monsters are usually silenced, "Whereas male monsters get to speak. In Frankenstein, it’s the male monster who gets to tell his story — the female monster is destroyed before she has a story to tell. In Interview with a Vampire, it’s Louis who is interviewed — the girl vampire Claudia does not get her own narrative, and she is eventually destroyed," says Goss. "Female monsters are almost always destroyed, often in graphic, gruesome ways. Helen Vaughan from The Great God Pan is forced to hang herself, for example, and we get a detailed description of how her body transforms, crossing gender and species boundaries, before she dies."
"Whereas male monsters get to speak. In Frankenstein, it’s the male monster who gets to tell his story — the female monster is destroyed before she has a story to tell."
A creature who is both beautiful and deadly, who looks like an alluring woman but wields power like a man, crosses far too many boundaries already. "For example, Frankenstein says he destroys his female monster because, first, she might prefer human males to the male monster he created, since they’re just so much prettier," says Goss, "And second, she might mate with the male monster and produce superhuman offspring who would outcompete mankind." The very idea of her having a choice in her sexual partners is too horrific to be considered.
The vampire Carmilla can turn human women into vampires, "Which means they will be as strong and deadly as she is," says Goss. "You think, there’s the loveliest, daintiest girl I’ve ever seen, and the next thing you know, she’s sucking your blood. But there’s something more—Vampire Lucy in Dracula is killed because she poses a sort of existential threat to the idea of womanhood. She feeds off children, instead of feeding children as good Victorian mothers should. Victorian wives are supposed to make a home, but her home is a tomb. And yet, she is even more beautiful and alluring than she was when alive. Basically, she challenges the boundaries and definition of the feminine. And so, of course, she has to die."
A pretty, bloodsucking lady poses a threat to the men she might seduce. But moreover, she is an unmarried and therefore uncontained woman. "In Victorian literature, especially, marriage is supposed to domesticate a woman," says Goss. "That said, Helen Vaughan does marry, and her husband dies of something Victorian — fright, horror, the corruption of his soul, something of that sort. When the female monster is associated with marriage, she corrupts that marriage in some way." The vampire Lucy is also said to "marry" her victims, but in "marrying" more than one man she is, again, swinging a blood-soaked wrecking ball through the institution of Victorian marriage.
"But yes, being single makes one extra monstrous — and not just if one is a female monster," says Goss. "If you’re single, you don’t have a husband to curtail your movements or opinions, you don’t have childrearing responsibilities—so you have time to do things that are dangerous and subversive, like getting a university education or agitating for the vote!"
"But yes, being single makes one extra monstrous — and not just if one is a female monster."
The Victorians were bundles of anxiety, living in an increasingly global and technologically advanced society, and it's reflected in their monsters. "Seriously, if you look at the Victorian literary monsters closely, you realize that they expressed anxieties about (a) the crossing of gender boundaries, (b) the collapse of traditional social classes, (c) threats to the British Empire and the colonial enterprise, (d) the rising power of science and technology, (e) cultural, moral, and physical degeneration... I could go on!" says Goss. "The most important way in which our monsters are different is that we have tamed a lot of them: Cookie Monster, Count Von Count, Shrek."
Our vampires and creatures from the Black Lagoon are much friendlier (or at least, sexier) than they used to be. Our villains are much more human than ever before. "It’s human cruelty, ignorance, and greed that we distrust—rightly, I think," says Goss.
But that doesn't mean that we've made our peace with the female monsters of yore. "I’m going to give a shout out to Medusa and Lilith, the great female monsters of fin-de-siècle art and iconography. They were both beautiful and deadly," says Goss. Lilith was the biblical Adam's first wife, who was punished by God for wanting to be on top during sex. "In a sense, they are two sides of the same coin: they are both about the destructive power of patriarchy and resistance to it. The Victorian era, in particular, was obsessed with them, but again, they rarely get to speak. It would be interesting to hear more from them, to let them write their own stories."
Ancient Greek enchantresses and Victorian madwomen are all very well, but if we've "tamed" most of our modern monsters, what's become of our monstrous ladies? We still have wicked witches like, say, the Wicked Witch of the West, who is ugly and mean and (presumably) single. And we have the Gregory Maguire novel Wicked, which gives a more nuanced backstory to Baum's witch, renamed Elphaba: she's single, wicked, and widely considered ugly, but she gets to have her own fears and desires, even if she is still the "other woman" in her love affair. It's step towards making wicked witches into fully realized people.
But we have good witches, too, who are almost always more conventionally attractive. As Glinda reminds us, "only bad witches are ugly."
The trouble with the "good" witch is that she can still be used to defend the most rigid of social norms. The popular 1960's and '70s sitcom Bewitched ,for example, is about a witch, Samantha, who has given up her magic to be an ordinary housewife at the insistence of her human husband, Darrin. Clearly, witches can be acceptable — if they trade in their powers for a man.
Also in the '70s and '80s, though, we saw writers like Octavia E. Butler, who devoted much of her career to writing nuanced "monsters": ancient vampire girls, African shape-shifters, alien "hybrids" who exist between species, race, and gender. Fully formed "monstrous" characters who do not need to settle down in a split-level home in order to be granted full humanity. The tri-gendered, many tentacled Oankali aliens of her book Lilith's Brood are some of the most understanding "monsters" in literature, despite being feared by most humans for their appearance and unconventional family structure:
“Human beings fear difference,” Lilith had told him once. “Oankali crave difference. Humans persecute their different ones, yet they need them to give themselves definition and status. Oankali seek difference and collect it. They need it to keep themselves from stagnation and overspecialization... When you feel a conflict, try to go the Oankali way. Embrace difference.”
Living at an intersection of identities, at a time when there weren't many black women writing sci-fi, Butler understood what it felt like to be Othered. "I'm black. I'm solitary. I've always been an outsider," as she once put it. Rather than try to bring the monsters into the mainstream, Butler brought us to the monsters, in all their anger and empathy.
And then, of course, we can't talk about monstrous woman and witches without talking about Hermione Granger.
When it comes to Harry Potter, McGregor sees a departure from the classic old crone. "The archetypal witch is old and ugly and a spinster to distinguish her from the expected norms of femininity, which of course includes heterosexual desirability and reproduction," McGregor tells Bustle. "The big difference in the world Rowling has created is that the witch goes from being the Other — a social outcast, a threat characterized by her difference and distance from cultural norms — to being 'just like us.' Witches in the Harry Potter world are recognizable, relatable, human in all the ways that matter."
The witches and wizards of Harry Potter are still "Other" in that they're magical, but most of them are Good Witches, and therefore not ugly. They're also fairly mainstream when it comes to dating. Hence why we're stuck with that epilogue to The Deathly Hallows, which neatly marries off our heroes and proves all the witches to be fertile.
"If failure to marry signifies Otherness, difference, danger, then marriage is a comforting sign of normalcy, the status quo," says McGregor. "In the classical definition of comedies, the story always ends with a wedding or five, because a wedding means the reinstatement of normalcy and order. Happy ending = marriage and babies. The only other option is tragedy!"
That doesn't mean that J.K. Rowling is entirely retrograde in her treatment of single women—just that they're still not the norm. "I actually think, for the most part, the books make room for childless and unmarried women as heroic and admirable figures via the women professors, especially Professor McGonagall," says McGregor. "These are women defined by their jobs and their power, and they aren't scary or dangerous. There's a great scene that furthers this in The Cursed Child where Harry tells McGonagall she wouldn't understand what it's like to be a parent, and it's obviously written to make us see that Harry is being cruel and unreasonable."
Cursed Child also gives us a "Sliding Doors" glimpse of Hermione's life without Ron... and it's none too pretty. "That said, in the same play, Hermione's spinsterhood is synonymous with her life being a failure, so there's that. The books ultimately support a dominant social script in which marriage and reproduction are the highest goods, to the point that they literally save the world from literal evil," says McGregor. "To go back to the witch-as-ugly-spinster—well, her job isn't to return the world to order, it's to question and undermine the status quo. Where would she fit in a happy-ever-after narrative?"
The overwhelming popularity of Rowling's witches, and Hermione's status as a feminist icon have done a lot to shift the archetype of witch as an old, ugly, spinster, but that's not uniformly a good thing. "I think we lose something when we make witches sympathetic by simply bringing them more in line with acceptable cultural norms of femininity. If every woman needs to be sexually desirable and reproductively viable in order to count, then we've failed to learn what the witch has to teach us."
McGregor names McGonagall as one of her all-time favorite literary spinsters, up there with The Hairpin's take on Baba Yaga and the (somewhat less literary) social-norm-destroying Ursula from The Little Mermiad. "I love McGonagall because she's not young, she's not (stereotypically) sexy, she's not a mother, and yet she has an important role in the community of Hogwarts," says McGregor. "I want to see more witch stories that think in serious ways about the lessons witches, crones, and spinsters have to teach us by refusing the status quo."
"I think we lose something when we make witches sympathetic by simply bringing them more in line with acceptable cultural norms of femininity. If every woman needs to be sexually desirable and reproductively viable in order to count, then we've failed to learn what the witch has to teach us."
That's the problem with witches, and with gorgons and sirens and attic-dwelling madwomen. We've seen them re-shaped and re-booted to be "just like us," to neatly fit our cultural norms. We have Hermione and Elphaba and Angelina Jolie's Maleficent. But we have fewer mainstream stories that invite us to step outside of our comfort zone, to celebrate the crone and her power without giving her a more palatable makeover.
Those stories are out there, the stories that give us single, monstrous women in all their Otherness, in their uncontrolled sexuality or their ugliness or both at the very same time. We have some lady monsters beginning to turn the tide, from Butler's aliens to Professor McGonagall to the reinvented creations of dead male scientists. It's a sign of changing times that these stories are being written at all.
But if we're even going to truly accept the spinster witch in her hut, deep in the darkest part of the woods, we need to write a whole lot more.