The Buxom and the Beasts

Behold! The BIG Other!

or, Why I Need Monsters as a Feminist

By Kaitlin Tremblay

Growing up with older brothers meant two things for me: one, I had Marvel action figures instead of Barbies, and two, I was always the helper, the sidekick, Player Two. Here’s what I quickly realized: if I was fighting my brother with our action figures, my best bet was usually with the Thing instead of Jean Grey. Not to say Jeannie wasn’t tough — but the Thing was intimidating. If, by chance, I threw him at my brother, Ben Grimm’s four pounds of plastic hurt a lot more than Jeannie’s one pound.  In the end, I came to monsters through a desire to be a girl, but not the girl I was expected to be.

It was the same story with Sega’s side-scroller Golden Axe: you had your three choices of character, the hunky macho He-man, the sexy and fierce woman, and the dwarf with the immense axe. Growing up a tom-boy, I fiercely over-reacted against anything too overtly feminine. I chose the dwarf, Gilius Thunderhead, because neither of the other two characters felt right. I was never the hunky leader, nor did I feel overly drawn to  the bra-and-panties wearing woman. It was self-identification with the character designed for those who did not want the stereotypical masculine or feminine. While Gilius Thunderhead is in no way a monster, I choose him for the same reason I adore monsters: the non-human are the third option, the last resort after the brazen male hero and buxom female.

Bear in mind, of course, that this is not to say that all depictions of females in games and geek culture are stereotypical, or that I suffer from intense penis envy. For me, monsters represent a part of my feminism that shouts for there to be another option – one separate from the expected roles that are presented again and again in popular culture. Monsters become integral to my feminism in their disruption of normal social codes.

In their own right, monsters have always been appropriate vehicles for social commentary. For my purposes, monsters are the non-human figure which is cast in opposition to normative society. Take Romero’s Dawn of the Dead with the undead flocking to the mall as a symbol of Western culture’s unfaltering entrenchment in consumerism (even after death, we cannot help ourselves). Take Godzilla: his thematic function is to take revenge for uncontrolled nuclear testing. Godzilla is reactionary and revolutionary. As Barbara Creed suggests in “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine,” horror, monsters and feminism are intimately bound in that both function as disruptions to the normative world. She argues that “the function of the monstrous remains the same — to bring about an encounter between the symbolic order and that which threatens its stability.” They are the visible disruptions. And for me, monsters — all that is non-human and set in opposition to a stereotypical humanity — represent this stance in my own ideology.

In his article “Why We Crave Horror Movies,” Stephen King states that we, as a Western society, need to view horror and monster movies because they “re-establish our feelings of essential normality; the horror movie is innately conservative, even reactionary. Freda Jackson as the horrible melting woman in Die, Monster, Die! confirms for us that no matter how far we may be removed from the beauty of a Robert Redford or a Diana Ross, we are still light-years from true ugliness.” Monsters are normalizing in that they visibly illustrate the far-end of the pendulum and operate as a sign of our own normality. But what happens when you identify with the monster? What happens when rather than reinforcing normality, these monsters in turn breed an altogether new normality?

So for me, I want Godzilla, the giant spiders, the zombies and all the fierce non-humans because they reflect a childhood that was spent trying to be a girl, but not wanting to be type-casted. I especially didn’t want to be represented only by the scantily-clad love interest. This is not to deny the positive aspects of depictions of female sexuality. I am the first to support positive images of sexuality in feminism. It’s just to say that there is and should be more to it. And I’m quite content to allow monsters to represent this for me.

Recently, I was introduced to Magic the Gathering with the release of the Core 2012 set. Immediately I was drawn to the Green deck, with its giant spiders, hybridized beasts and Bloodthirst-y monsters. Even before I learned anything about deck-building, I had one thought: get my giant spiders and Tangle Mantis out there to do their worst. Because while my love of monsters does strike a feminist chord in me, sometimes monsters are just too much fun not to love.

Kaitlin Tremblay recently received her Master’s in English Literature from Wilfrid Laurier University, where she studied Canadian literature, gender theory and all-things grotesque. She will be moving on to the Creative Book Publishing program at Humber College in the summer.

About Kaitlin Tremblay

Kaitlin Tremblay is a Master's graduate in English and Film, Specialization in Gender and Genre and has a BA in Creative Writing. She is a writer, a painter, a gamer, with a love for all things horror. Read more from Kaitlin at ThatMonster or follow her on Twitter. Kaitlin's work has also appeared on The Border House, Gamasutra, NerdSpan, and Comics Should Be Good.
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  • Chelsea Hash

    I just want to say as a female gamer – and avid league player – I play the monster champs for just that reason. Cho’Gath, Rammus, Fizz, Alistar – the female characters feel awkward to me, and the male characters definitely just definitely aren’t me. The monsters however are just interesting and powerful and not defined by a social role they must acknowledge.

  • Valerie V

    It’s interesting to consider this issue in the context of the discussion Bob opens with in his LA Noire article, regarding how game developers approach protagonist creation. As more customization options become available, will we see an increase in “monster” protagonists or will people still tend to gravitate toward crafting physically attractive characters to serve as their surrogates? And if the developer is creating a more static protagonist, will that character continue to err on the side of beauty rather than the beast?

    A couple of controversies to consider: the negative perceptions of the character design for Faith in Mirror’s Edge, and the recent DC Comics reboot of Amanda Waller from full-figured to stereotypical sexpot.

  • Christopher Ingle

    I’m a man. I don’t think there has been one male character in any video game (Mario excluded) who I have identified with in any way. It seems to me that a great deal of character design is based on what is considered stereotypical. As such, whilst the majority of female characters in games are very poor representations of what it is to be female, I would argue that the same can be said for male characters.

    Hence, I also chose the green deck.

  • YourMessageHere

    Perhaps I lack imagination or something, but here’s the thing: Generally, I play female characters if I can. I’m male, I’m a feminist, and I primarily play games because they let me do things I can’t otherwise do. So, I get to fly and drive stupidly fast and shoot people. I also get to be female. I don’t know, I suppose I try and create equality and raise expectations for women in unreal worlds, since it’s lacking in the real one and, being male, I can’t really do anything towards this end that I don’t already do.

    I read an interview with a Bioware writer recently. He said one thing he always tried to do when working on Mass Effect was avoid referring to a player’s chosen gender in speech: never “She said” or “He said”, always “Shepard said”, and so on. This really disappointed me; I made a deliberate choice in line with my personal politics to be female in this game, but the game and its designers are actively trying to negate that. I wanted the game to give me a gender role so I could react to it. I wanted that to contribute to my character, and her relationship with her crew. Particularly galling in a game that lets me not only design a heroine that’s not like typical female game characters, so that I go in feeling I can approach the game in my own way, but also in that it’s from a developer who seems to embrace equality (c.f. Dragon Age II and the disregarding of player gender in romances) at the same time as letting players choose who they are and who they aren’t. I suppose they like equality so much they don’t want to acknowledge the existence of gender difference at all. I can be an icon representing humanity to the rest of the galaxy, fighting for the rights of all living things to continue existing, but I can’t be any more gendered than my appearance and voice while I do it.

    I must admit I’d never really considered the idea of male/female/monster, since monsters tend, in my view, to be gendered anyway. Godzilla is (traditionally) male, even if he doesn’t really show it, he’s still ‘he’. Anything with giant spiders or insects inevitably involves a queen, eggs, dozens of small young attacking in waves; and let’s not forget that the female spiders tend to be the giants, while males of the same species are often a fraction of their size, and get eaten after mating unless they’re particularly nimble. Then you’ve got the humanoid monsters that are sort of mocking parodies of the sexualised female: everything from medusa, sirens and mermaids up to that giant boss in House of the Dead for PS3 Move, with the swinging, sagging breasts the size of cars. Are these still monsters to identify with?

    That said, I recall playing Quake II. That had male and female players, with a gender selector. Then I got the expansion, which added another gender to the selector: cyborg. It counted as another gender due to that being the variable that decided player sound effects, and cyborgs had their own set, but the idea that the (clearly male, pre-augmentation) cyborg counted as a third gender intrigued me at the time.

    That’s just it, though. Language itself is unprepared for this sort of avenue of thought. We automatically label things as one gender unless they are explicitly another, that’s how our brains are trained to work by the words we use. So perhaps I’m just being unimaginitive when I automatically assign a gender to any given monster.

  • Durandal4532

    This is pretty interesting. I find that I frequently prefer having some sort of AI or vaguely immaterial avatar in a game, robotic or monstrous but usually faceless. I think it is that sense of not quite identifying

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