I read Women and Other Monsters by Jess Zimmerman recently. My decision to pick it up was simple—I have always been, to some extent, intrigued by the specter of monsters. Monsters are, for all extents and purposes, creatures that are rejected and ridiculed by society. They are the ultimate outsiders. And as a child, I found something so oddly comfortable about monsters, about non-human creatures in general. It wasn’t a conscious thing. It wasn’t even something I interrogated until my senior of high school when I watched “My Monster Boyfriend”, a video essay by Lindsay Ellis.
It’s focused mostly on the reaction of cishet white women to the Shape of Water. (note: Ellis is not a straight woman but that’s still the focus of the video.) It talks about the history of monster movies, about the racism of the genre, but also the reaction of women to it, about the women who celebrate monsters and even are attracted to them.
I, admittedly, have never seen the Shape of Water. I’m really just not a movie person. But Ellis has gone to write and have published Axiom’s End, a book where the monster is an alien without so much of a hint at being humanoid and the romance is barely there. I adored it.
Ellis touches on it briefly in her video but for me it was a bit more than being attracted to monsters (though, to be clear, I am incredibly attracted to monsters. If there are any biblical multi-eyed, multi-limbed angel reading this, please hit me up.), it was related to the monster.
By the time I realized this connections to monsters within myself, I had already realized I was a lesbian. If you know anything about what it’s like to realize that you are a lesbian, it is a process. If you don’t, I touched on it here. I had to pick apart that I wasn’t actually attracted to men. I had to read theory, and I had to interrogate myself about a million other things. It was hard to learn how to decenter men.
In the way society views women (or those that society reads as women because I am not a woman.) to decenter men is a monstrous thing. It is saying no to the entire role that you’ve been socialized to fill. When I realized I was a lesbian, I stopped caring about men. It no longer mattered that what beauty standards I filled or did not fill (though, I am not perfect and find sometimes that I falter in that.) and it no longer mattered if I were a little quiet thing for men to like.
And this, I think, is why Women and Other Monsters fell so flat for me. There was no discussion of this almost inherent monsterhood placed upon lesbians, of any woman who tries to decenter men in their lives more broadly. In many ways, the books is focused on the ways that men make monsters into women and thus women into monsters. It is the quiet march into monstrosity. It is the slow acceptance of that.
It is not the brash and loud acceptance of otherness that I’ve grown used. As true as many of the things in the book are, as vital as I think it could be, it rang hollow in that one particular way, in it’s reluctance to explore the women that have loudly and proudly declared that they are the harpies that society calls them in an effort to demean them.