Welcome to the Dollhouse

She sits there calmly, looking down upon the squalling infant in her arms with the serene expression of the Buddha. One wonders how she maintains her composure amidst the apparent cacophony that surrounds her. At her feet, six monstrous children sit. They have the soft, chubby limbs of toddlers and the featherless heads of baby birds. All are impeccably dressed: the boy children sport Victorian-era sailor suits with ruffled collars, while the girls wear dresses with short, puffed sleeves and a ribbon trim. Arms thrust upwards and heads tilted back, their beaks appear perpetually open in anticipation of sustenance. Or perhaps they are just squawking to attract their mother’s attention? With so many hungry, needy mouths, how does she continue to gaze serenely at her swaddled bird-baby? Even the ornate wallpaper that covers the wall behind her is patterned with the repeated motif of open, screaming mouths. The scene is strange, grotesque, and difficult to decipher.

She sits there calmly, looking down upon the squalling infant in her arms with the serene expression of the Buddha. One wonders how she maintains her composure amidst the apparent cacophony that surrounds her. At her feet, six monstrous children sit. They have the soft, chubby limbs of toddlers and the featherless heads of baby birds. All are impeccably dressed: the boy children sport Victorian-era sailor suits with ruffled collars, while the girls wear dresses with short, puffed sleeves and a ribbon trim. Arms thrust upwards and heads tilted back, their beaks appear perpetually open in anticipation of sustenance. Or perhaps they are just squawking to attract their mother’s attention? With so many hungry, needy mouths, how does she continue to gaze serenely at her swaddled bird-baby? Even the ornate wallpaper that covers the wall behind her is patterned with the repeated motif of open, screaming mouths. The scene is strange, grotesque, and difficult to decipher.

The above scene does not, as one might expect, hail from a David Lynch film nor a nightmarish fever-dream. Rather, it is a description of the nursery room belonging to my art installation entitled The Disobedient Dollhouse, an installation created as a component of my Master of Fine Art thesis at York University. In 2008, I had returned to the hallowed halls of academia after birthing two children and a ten-year stint as a graphic designer by day, visual artist by night. After three years of breastfeeding, diaper-changing, nap schedules and trips to the local playgrounds, I was more than eager to engage with higher learning and the art studio when classes began that September. It comes as little surprise, then, that the body of work I created during my graduate studies would include a dollhouse, that tiny emblem of domestic perfection.  Constructing a dollhouse offered a sense of control that my hectic life as a student and parent rarely granted. The daily negotiations between self, career, and parental responsibilities can often render the home a site of friction. This conflict between different roles, in addition to the ambivalence I sometimes felt towards my role as primary caregiver, informed the design and contents of my Disobedient Dollhouse.

Jennifer Linton, The Disobedient Dollhouse, stone lithography and mixed media installation, 2009-10. Photograph by Tom Blanchard. Image courtesy the artist.

My fascination with dollhouses began, predictably, in childhood. Though I was never fortunate enough to own a dollhouse, I did possess several pieces of plastic miniature furniture that I would meticulously arrange into rooms. These rooms provided the setting for the domestic scenes myself and my playmates would enact with our dolls — scenes that mimicked the day-to-day household routines of our mothers. This form of play amongst young girls —where we would ‘play house’ and pretend to be ‘the Mommy’ — was not only an imitation of the maternal role as we observed it, but, presumably, constituted a type of practice for our future lives as women and mothers. Our imaginary homes possessed all the pink perfection and bubbly enthusiasm as television toy commercials targeted at young girls.

In contrast to the idealized view of domesticity that shaped my childhood dollhouse, the Disobedient Dollhouse was conceived as a place shaded much darker, even sinister in nature. Wild, tangled vines grow out from the furniture and creep up the walls, the same walls on which reside swarms of giant insects. Twisted bed sheets transform into snakes that slither across the wooden floorboards while, in the downstairs parlor room, a bird-headed lady sits at an upright piano. These hybrid monsters, giant insects and tangled vines interrupt the carefully staged interior of the dollhouse and propose a dark fantasy world that churns just beneath the veneer of domestic perfection. The word “disobedient” used in the title of my installation summons the image of a stubbornly defiant child who refuses to submit to a higher authority. Against which authoritative structure does my dollhouse rebel? To a large degree, it is my impulse towards nostalgia — the urge to construct a sentimentalized view of domesticity as shaped in my childhood – that compels my dollhouse and, by extension, myself, to revolt. Wherever these fantastical creatures hail from, be they insect or monster, they’re definitely not here to “mind their manners” and play nice.

A dollhouse is a gendered space, one specifically codified as feminine. Literary critic Susan Stewart, writing in On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, defines the dollhouse as a “discourse of the ‘petite feminine’” (Stewart 62) that yearns to see itself replicated in a tiny, precious model of perfect domesticity. Developed in the 17th century as an amusement solely intended for adults, it served as a trophy of the wealthy European woman. Given the rise in popularity of dollhouses in 18th century Europe, at a time in history when women’s roles were increasingly confined to the home, it is tempting to draw a correlation between this change in gender-based codes of conduct and the miniature toy house that reinforced a woman’s role as being solely defined by her place within the house. Her fantasy of a microcosm over which she held complete control — in a world in which she held little or no political control — played out through the choreography of furnishings in her miniature rooms. Unlike the traditional toy object, the staged interiors of the dollhouse were not meant to be manually played with but rather to be “consumed by the eye”(Stewart 62) as an object of display. As such, the dollhouse was modeled as a shrine to an idealized domesticity, forever unsoiled by the grimy reality of daily living.

Nostalgia is characterized by a sense of yearning, either for one’s own past or for an imaginary past located somewhere in history. Yearning constructs a view of the past that is sentimental in nature, and the dollhouse is a manifestation of this essentially romantic construction. There are no shoeless Dickensian street urchins haunting the perimeters of this Victorian-themed dollhouse; these are sumptuous interiors fueled by fantasy and free of social critique.

While a trace of nostalgia is discernible in my Disobedient Dollhouse by way of the Victorian-era styling, a tension also exists that simultaneously disrupts the easy consumption of these nostalgic images. For instance, although the parlor room prominently features an upright piano —  an entertainment staple in many wealthy Victorian households — the woman sat at the piano is a hybrid creature with the head of a bird. In the nursery, a brood of bird-headed monster children collectively squawk at the feet of the beleaguered nanny. These scenes of grotesquerie function as a tactic of subversion, undercutting the inherent sentimentality of nostalgia with large doses of dark humour and absurdity.

Grotesque art revels in the absurd, championing a fantasy world over the rigid conventions of realism. The term grotesque originated in the ancient Roman period and relates to fanciful, decorative flourishes in art and architecture (Williams 14). Grotesque art involves the fantastic, ugly and bizarre, and its subjects are frequently mythological creatures and other strange, malformed monsters. The bizarre, anthropomorphic creatures that populate Lewis Carroll’s children’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland are a primary example of ‘the grotesque’ in literature. Carroll’s novel also proved a valuable source of inspiration for the fantastic hybrid creatures that inhabit my Disobedient Dollhouse. In fact, the only human figure that appears in my Dollhouse is a character loosely based on an illustration of Carroll’s Alice. This character — ostensibly a self-portrait, as I served as the model — appears in the image of the nanny in the nursery cradling the monstrous baby in her arms. This image is an homage to a 19th century wood engraving for Carroll’s novel created by British illustrator John Tenniel, depicting Alice holding a bonneted baby pig. Alice first encounters this strange infant crying inconsolably in the arms of the Duchess, a loud and loutish character who epitomizes the “monstrous mother” in every way. The Duchess violently shakes the child in an effort to cease its crying, and then literally flings the child at Alice as she abruptly announces her plans to play croquet with the Red Queen:

Alice caught the baby with some difficulty, as it was a queer-shaped little creature, and held out its arms and legs in all directions […] “If I don’t take this child away with me,” thought Alice, “they’re sure to kill it in a day or two. Wouldn’t it be murder to leave it behind?” She said the last words out loud, and the little thing grunted in reply […] “Don’t grunt,” said Alice; “that’s not at all a proper way of expressing yourself.” The baby grunted again, and Alice looked very anxiously into its face to see what was the matter with it. There could be no doubt that it had a very turn-up nose, much more like a snout than a real nose: also its eyes were getting extremely small for a baby: altogether Alice did not like the look of the thing at all.

(Carroll 45-46)

At this point in the narrative, the baby fully transforms into a pig and trots off into the nearby woods. For her part, Alice expresses relief at being freed from the burden of care for this “monstrous” child.

Jennifer Linton, detail from The Disobedient Dollhouse, stone lithography and mixed media installation, 2009-10. Photograph by Tom Blanchard. Image courtesy the artist.

The monstrous brood housed inside my nursery — heads tilted up with beaks wide, their arms thrust outwards in a gesture of relentless need — represent every parent’s nightmare of overwhelming responsibility. Much like the crying infant in Carroll’s novel, these bird-children appear inconsolable in their need or distress. Unlike the Duchess, fortunately, the nanny in my Dollhouse (me) opts not to toss her crying baby across the room. Rather, she sits gazing downwards, unflappable, at the squalling bird-baby (an image, incidentally, that is more idealized than it is an accurate reflection of my parenting style under stress). This scene of grotesquerie has been tempered by an element of the absurd. Much like the ridiculously grotesque image of the bonneted pig held by Alice, my bird-headed children are designed to elicit equal measures of pathos, humour and horror. We, the viewers, are moved to pity at the plight of the children, while simultaneously cringing in horror at the thought of all those screaming children, and the insurmountable responsibility of care on the part of the nanny. All the same, the scene is meant to be relatable in a humorous way. My nursery most assuredly conveys parental anxiety and stress, but it does so with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

With their very survival wholly dependent on the actions of others, babies are capable of eliciting horror at their state of complete helplessness. In this regard, babies can enter the realm of the grotesque. Envision a bird’s nest, populated with a brood of chirping chicks. Eyes still unopened, they sit with beaks perpetually open, waiting for their mother to return to provide them with sustenance. When the mother bird does return with a wad of insect in her beak, her chicks wobble their pink, featherless bodies about in a frenzied dance, straining to catch her attention and be the recipient of the food she offers. There is something of the abject and the grotesque in this scenario: the pink nakedness of the chicks, their blindness, and the desperate urgency with which they wobble about. It is their vulnerability that unnerves us, and it was a scene such as this that shaped the design of the nursery room in the Disobedient Dollhouse, with the constantly open beaks of its hybrid bird-children. In addition to the chicks in the nest, another image has sat nestled in my consciousness for years — a wonderfully grotesque image manifested from the writing of Canadian author Alice Munro. It is this image, too, that informs my understanding of the monstrous baby. 

In her short story entitled “My Mother’s Dream”, Munro digs deep into the grotesque, her text mining the rich vein of maternal anxiety surrounding an infant’s vulnerability. I have a long, personal history with this particular story. I first encountered it many years ago — prior to being a mother myself — whilst working in my home art studio. I would frequently sit at my drawing table in the evenings, working away to the sound of CBC Radio One. A program that aired at that time was “Between the Covers”, a show that featured a series of book and poetry readings. One night, an excerpt from Munro’s “My Mother’s Dream” was read. Owing to the fact that my first encounter with Munro’s short story was auditory, an image of the baby described in the text below was indelibly drawn in my mind – an image that remains with me until this very day. It is the haunting image of maternal failure:

When she got outside she remembered. She remembered that she had left the baby out there somewhere, before the snow had fallen. Quite a while before the snow had fallen. This memory, this certainty, came over her with horror. It was as if she was awakening from a dream. Within her dream she awakened from a dream, to a knowledge of her responsibility and mistake. She had left her baby out overnight, she had forgotten about it. Left it exposed somewhere as if it was a doll she tired of. And perhaps it was not last night but a week or a month ago that she had done this. […]

She went around looking under hedges and broad-leaved plants. She foresaw how the baby would be shrivelled up. It would be dead, shrivelled and brown, its head like a nut, and on its tiny shut-up face there would be an expression not of distress but of bereavement, an old patient grief. There would not be any accusation of her, its mother – just the look of patience and helplessness with which it waited for its rescue or its fate.

(Munro 341-42) 

As hinted at by the title of Munro’s story, this revelation of accidental infanticide is, of course, a dream of the baby’s mother — the baby having survived childhood to later serve as the narrator of the story. 

Nevertheless, it accurately captures the horror and anxiety that new mothers often experience regarding the complete helplessness of their offspring: leaving the baby perched on a stack of laundry atop the dryer, or momentarily forgetting a sleeping infant strapped inside a car seat in the backseat of your car, or a dream in which you trip down the stairs while holding a baby, your body crashing to the ground and inadvertently flattening the hapless child like a deflated balloon. These are the bizarre nightmares and real-life mistakes that mothers relay to each other in hushed voices over coffee at the local parenting centre, confessions punctuated with the occasional, nervous laughter. While the idea of a flattened baby is certainly ridiculous, a residual horror still clings to this image hours after you’ve awakened from the dream.

The narrator of “My Mother’s Dream”, the now-adult baby, tells of the fraught relationship between herself and her mother. Jill, the soon-to-be mother who finds herself suddenly widowed shortly after marriage, scarcely has time to process her grief when her squalling infant arrives. The child proves colicky, and cries night and day. She refuses her mother’s breast, and will only be soothed in the arms of her aunt Iona. “We were monsters to each other. Jill and I” (Munro, p. 373), the narrator admits. Parents who’ve had a baby with colic – one of my children definitely suffered from this – will have no issue recalling the head-splitting, stress-inducing experience:

What is it about an infant’s crying that makes it so powerful, able to break down the order you depend on, inside and outside of yourself? It is like a storm—insistent, theatrical, yet in a way pure and uncontrived. It is reproachful rather than supplicating—it comes out of a rage that can’t be dealt with, a birthright rage free of love and pity, ready to crush your brains inside your skull.

(Munro 374)

Munro’s use of phrases such as “like a storm” and “birthright rage” conjures the raw, primal intensity of a baby’s cry and its awful power, capable of pushing caregivers to the very brink of their sanity. There is a revelation offered by the narrator at the end of “My Mother’s Dream” of a past transgression, one enacted upon herself by her mother, that nearly had dire consequences for them both. An overtired and beleaguered Jill, left alone for hours with the constant onslaught of her daughter’s crying, makes an impulsive decision to add powerful painkillers to her baby’s milk: 

It’s almost time for the last bottle of the day. […] While it’s warming, Jill thinks she’ll dose herself with a couple more 222’s. Then she thinks maybe that won’t do; she needs something stronger. […] [S]he knows that Ailsa takes something strong for her menstrual cramps, and she goes into Ailsa’s room and looks through her bureau drawers until she finds a bottle of pain pills lying, logically, on top of a pile of sanitary pads. These are prescription pills, too, but the label says clearly what they’re for. She removes two of them and goes back to the kitchen and finds the water in the pan around the milk boiling, the milk too hot. 

She holds the bottle under the tap to cool it — my cries coming down at her like the clamor of birds of prey over a gurgling river — and she looks at the pills waiting on the counter and she thinks, Yes. She gets out a knife and shaves a few grains off one of the pills, takes the nipple off the bottle, picks up the shaved grains on the blade of the knife, and sprinkles them — just a sprinkle of white dust — over the milk.

(Munro 379-80)

As with the dream of accidental infanticide that begins “My Mother’s Dream”, this real-life transgression ultimately ends well, with both baby and mother alive, healthy, and reinvigorated by a newly forged bond of acceptance towards each other. What this dramatic episode revealed, of course, was the truest, darkest depths of Jill’s desperation. After a relatively brief romance with her baby’s father George, she found herself impregnated shortly after marriage, then widowed after George dies in combat during World War II. With few options available to her, Jill is pressured by her in-laws to live with them just prior to, and then after, the birth of her daughter. The arrival of her baby, plus her new living arrangement with her well-meaning but overly controlling sisters-in-law, effectively quells Jill’s plan of graduating from the Royal Conservatory of Music and pursuing a career as a classical musician.  In one notable segment of the story, she defiantly practices her violin despite the shrieks of protest from her infant and, a short while later, her in-laws. Thwarted in her efforts to maintain a sense of self separate from her newfound role of mother — a role towards which she was ambivalent from the start, and is now confronted with a baby that appears to reject her — Jill has become trapped by circumstances into a domestic situation she never chose. It is within this context of domestic entrapment that she commits the desperate act of dosing her infant daughter with “shaved grains” (Munro 379) of adult prescription painkillers. 

The walls of the house — warm, secure, and protective though they may seem — can just as equally represent a cage to mothers who lack societal support. Such was the case with Jill shortly after the birth of her daughter, and a sense of confinement can be projected onto the nanny of the Disobedient Dollhouse, surrounded as she is by a large brood of squawking children. A similar domestic prison entrapped thirty-eight-year-old mother of eight Joanne Michulski who, on July 11, 1974, took a butcher knife and, in a state of psychosis, decapitated and dismembered the bodies of her two youngest children, a real-life tragedy closely examined and contextualized by Adrienne Rich in her book Of Woman Born. From her lengthy struggles with depression, to her lack of agency with regards to contraception, to the societal expectations that she solely perform her domestic duties of childrearing despite the mounting evidence that she could not, Rich traces the sad history of Michulski that ultimately ended with the deaths of her infant and toddler. 

Alternately described by her neighbours as “a mother bear where [the] safety [of her children] was concerned” but also “withdrawn” and “quietly desperate from the moment the family moved into the home” (Rich 257), the signs were present early on that Joanne Michulski was overwhelmed by her full-time responsibilities of homemaking and childcare. According to Rich, Michulski would enter a “deep depression” (Rich 257) after the birth of each child. After the birth of her third child, she discussed contraception with her husband, including vasectomy or her possible use of oral contraceptives. Neither of these options were adopted, however, and she birthed five additional children. Between 1961 and 1966, Michulski was voluntarily admitted to mental hospitals on three separate occasions for severe depression and delusions that “X-rays or laser beams were being projected into her home.” (Rich 258). And yet, once she would return home from the hospital, she would again be burdened with the sole care of her eight children, her husband being absent from home for long periods of time. 

Rich asserts that it would be a “naïve proposition” to suggest that birth control or the occasional baby-sitter “could have ‘solved’ Joanne Michulski’s ‘problems’” (Rich 264). Nor was it simply a matter of mental health, though that clearly was a factor. Rather, the overarching narrative that Rich presents is one in which Michulski’s identity as a mother meant that she was expected — by herself, by her husband, by the neighbours — to perform her prescribed role as homemaker and caregiver regardless of the damage it caused, to herself or to others. To do otherwise would be considered “unnatural” within the confines of what Rich terms “the institution of motherhood” (Rich 275). This is her function within society, whether she is broken or not. Given her lack of autonomy and seemingly hopeless predicament, one can imagine her urge to slip into madness:

What woman, in the solitary confinement of a life at home enclosed with young children, or in the struggle to mother them while providing for them single-handedly, or in the conflict of weighing her own personhood against the dogma that says she is a mother, first, last, and always — what woman has not dreamed of “going over the edge,” of simply letting go, relinquishing what is termed her sanity, so that she can be taken care of for once, or can simply find a way to take care of herself? […] [T]he mothers, if we could look into their fantasies […] we would see the embodiment of rage, of tragedy, of the overcharged energy of love, of inventive desperation, we would see the machinery of institutional violence wrenching at the experience of motherhood.

(Rich 279-80) 

Beyond mental health issues and the overburden of childcare, what Joanne Michulski fell victim to was the cultural mythology surrounding motherhood. This is what Rich characterized as the “institution of motherhood” (Rich 275), a system of rules and laws that govern and control how a woman is expected to fulfill her role as mother. The control this institution exerts is insidious, and is communicated through a barrage of media that casts motherhood in an idealized, sentimental light. “When we think of motherhood,” Rich writes, “we are supposed to think of Renoir’s blooming women with rosy children at their knees, Raphael’s ecstatic madonnas, some Jewish mother lighting the candles in a scrubbed kitchen on Shabbos, her braided loaf lying beneath a freshly ironed napkin” (Rich 275). One can easily imagine these scenes of domestic bliss being staged within the carefully curated interiors of a dollhouse: the aproned mother, smiling the beatific smile of a saint, holds the freshly-baked bread just removed from her spotless oven while her cherubic children sit patiently at the perfectly-set kitchen table. There is no screaming, no dirty dishes, no disorder of any kind. The scene has been composed with meticulous detail, right down to the tiny folded napkins that coordinate exactly with the tablecloth in this miniature shrine to idealized domesticity. 

The sound of a newborn’s cry, thin and vaguely animalistic, pierces our senses. It draws us away from this imagined dollhouse of gleaming perfection and back towards that grotesque dollhouse of insects, tangled vines and bird-headed monsters. My Disobedient Dollhouse. We follow the sound down a miniature hallway, and it returns us to the nursery room, where we once again encounter the nanny and her screaming brood of bird-children. Like all tableaux, this scene is permanently frozen in time: the bird-children will always scream, and the nanny always sit in the rocking chair, comforting the swaddled monster baby. The sound, of course, exists only in our minds. The one element that this art installation lacked was an audio component. While I had created a scene of monsters and countless screaming mouths, in order to truly appreciate its horror, one needed to hear it, too.

That is why, two years after the completion of my Disobedient Dollhouse thesis project — and my subsequent graduation from the MFA program at York — I returned to the same subject matter with a new artistic medium. Returned, in fact, to hear the sound of the nursery. I created an animation of it.

Jennifer Linton, video still from Domestikia: The Incident in the Nursery, stop-motion animation, 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Having taught myself the basics of 2D stop-motion animation, I revisited the nursery armed with a small number of hand-drawn, articulated paper puppets, a digitally printed background, and a very rudimentary, home-built camera stand. My early efforts in animation were, to say the least, humble. Through a combination of perseverance and sheer stubbornness, I managed to shoot a two-minute stop-motion animation which I entitled Domestikia: The Incident in the Nursery (2012). The nanny character from the Disobedient Dollhouse reappears, only now we watch her mechanically rocking the swaddled bird-baby as it sleeps. Rather than six toddler bird-children sitting at the nanny’s feet, we have two (it would have proved too daunting a task for me to animate six puppets at this point in time). What they lack in numbers, however, these two monster children more than make up for in volume when the screaming starts. And scream they certainly do, when a gigantic butterfly suddenly flutters into the nursery, frightening its young occupants. For her part, all the nanny can do is stare out at the viewer with a shocked expression as we fade to black, the screams continuing until the end credits appear. 

With its snakes, vines, insects, hybrid creatures and other forms of grotesquerie, my Disobedient Dollhouse allowed me to revisit the dollhouses of my childhood on new terms. Gone are the pastel pinks and saccharine sentimentality of my 1970’s girlhood, or the carefully curated interiors of an adult collector’s dollhouse, replaced instead by the darker shadings of fear, doubt and ambivalence. While my use of grotesquery was tactical, subverting the nostalgia of my youth, it also provided room in which I could, as an adult and mother, reinvent the rules of the game and ‘play Mommy’ in a nuanced space that allowed for conflicted feelings. The presence of absurdity, in the guise of children with the heads of birds, reminds us that — like waking from a strange dream in which you’ve misplaced the baby — everything will, in all likelihood, work out fine. 


Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; and, Through the looking-glass and what Alice found there. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984).

Munro, Alice. “My Mother’s Dream”, in the collection of short stories entitled The Love of a Good Woman. (Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, 1999). 

Rich, Adrienne. “Violence: The Heart of Maternal Darkness” in Of Woman Born. (Toronto: Penguin Books Canada, Ltd., 1986).

Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection. (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993).

Williams, Gilda (ed.). The Gothic. (London: Whitechapel Ventures Limited, 2007).

“My Alphabet Of Anxieties & Desires” — Christmas book sale!

Just in time for Christmas: My Alphabet Of Anxieties & Desires depicts all twenty-six letters of the Roman alphabet in original, highly-rendered illustrations. While based on the format of a child’s alphabet book, this book is most assuredly for adults. If you prefer a book that you can actually touch, then you’ll appreciate the high-quality paper and printing. Ships directly to your doorstep, no matter where you are. Sweet.

The book is 40 full-colour pages, printed on a premium matte paper with a perfect-bound softcover. There’s a short preface written by myself, and a thought-provoking foreword by Judith Mintz.

Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: ‘Pushing Boundaries.’

This is the follow-up post to Lady Lazarus’s 2011 Halloween Party Movie Night: ‘Ghoulish Delights.’

Pushing Boundaries.

Something you don’t want coming at you in the dark (and with that hammer) in REC and REC2.

1. The Spanish horror films [REC] (2007) and [REC]2 (2009) have proven to be a potent one-two punch in recent horror cinema. The second film is less of a sequel as a continuation of the first, with the action literally picking up where the first film ended. This is a very good thing, indeed, as the final third of [REC] set-up an unanticipated and fairly novel plot twist involving the Vatican, some dubious medical experiments, and a solitary priest living in the penthouse of the sealed-off, ‘zombie’-infested Madrid apartment building. It is this unique mashup of zombie-meets-supernatural thriller that makes the [REC] films standout from the recent overabundance of shaky-camera, faux found-footage style horror films. From what I’ve read, the shot-for-shot English language remake Quarantine (which I have not seen) altered the heavy Catholicism of the original Spanish film, replacing all those Virgin Marys with more generic, non-denominational Christian iconography. While the Catholicism would not have the same resonance for the multicultural, multi-faith English-speaking world as it would for the Latin, an easier and more obvious correlation exists between the flesh-eating ‘zombies’ and the characteristically morbid, blood-drenched imagery of Spanish Catholicism than it does for the more ‘sanitized’ versions of Christianity. The only disappointment I had with these films was the ending of [REC]2 which, as soon as a certain character reappears on the scene, is pretty much spelled out.

Catherine Begin as the diabolical Mademoiselle in “Martyrs” (2008).

2. I had purposely avoided Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs (2008) after reading the synopsis and questioning whether a plot that hinged upon the brutal and systematic abuse, torture and murder of young women was something I wanted to witness. After relenting and watching the film, I must admit that it pleasantly surprised me. Now, make no mistake — this is a troubling, violent, and gory film that boldly underscores the word extreme in the phrase ‘New French Extremity’, a category of recent French films in which Martyrs is often included. Much like the [REC] films above, Laugier’s Martyrs veers off in an unexpected and fascinating direction towards the end of the film, revealing a secret society of privileged individuals determined to discover — at any cost — the existence of an afterlife. The enigmatic ending will have you scratching your head for years to come.

3. Any film that re-imagines and updates the ‘slasher’ genre immediately gets my attention, as did Alexandre Aja’s superlative Haute Tension (2003). While some horror fans argue that the ‘big reveal’ in the film didn’t work, I give Aja credit for playing with the conventions of gender in the rigidly formulaic slasher genre. In one of my earlier posts, entitled Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, I wrote extensively on this film.

Nothing quite says “revenge” like a fish hook in the eyelid. Jennifer Hills is more of a badass in the 2010 remake of “I Spit On Your Grave.”

4. Like the dated sexual politics of the slasher film, the rape-revenge film is an exploitation subgenre also in need of an update. Much has changed in gender roles and equality since Meir Zarchi made his controversial 1978 cult film I Spit On Your Grave. The 2010 remake, which credits Zarchi as one of its producers, attempts to address some of the shortfalls of the original — at least, shortfalls in the eyes of this contemporary horror fan. In my earlier post Rape-Revenge Girl, I criticized Zarchi’s film for the rather unsatisfying revenge sequences. “The quotient of rape-to-revenge in Zarchi’s film is too much rape, not enough revenge,” I wrote, and “…the deaths of Jennifer’s rapists were not violent and/or gory enough for my — admittedly, gruesome — taste.” As if in direct response to my criticism, the 2010 remake offers up grisly and sickly-twisted revenge killings reminiscent of the stuff you’d find in “torture porn” films like Saw and Hostel. Admittedly, the whole transformation of Jennifer Hills from cheerful girl-next-door, to rape victim, to psychopathic and sadistic killer doesn’t work in any realm other than extreme, cathartic fantasy. Then again, if you’re opting to watch a film entitled I Spit On Your Grave, then you probably know what you’re in store for and will suspend your disbelief long enough to see the blood spill.

The Rape-Revenge Girl, part deux.

Baise-moi, si vous plaît.

The sex-club massacre scene from "Baise-moi" (2000). In English, the film's title would be correctly translated as "Fuck me", and not "Rape me" under which it was originally released in North America.

When the French film Baise-moi was released in 2000, it garnered a great deal of media attention for its highly graphic violence and depictions of unsimulated sex. The film was banned in Ontario, initially because it was deemed too pornographic. The producers asked for it to be re-rated with a pornographic rating, only for it to be banned because there was too much violence for a pornographic film. It was finally passed with an “18A license” after — one assumes — some strategic edits being made. I caught up with the film on DVD that year, and have recently rewatched it online — you can find most of the film on Youtube, but hurry as it’s likely to be removed due to its content and copyright infringement. I came away from my recent viewing with these two impressions: firstly, that it is a far better film than I remember, and second, that I still don’t know what all the hullabaloo was about.

Here’s a quick synopsis: the main characters Nadine (Karen Bach) and Manu (Raffaëla Anderson) are women who live on the precarious fringe of a very disenfranchised lower-class in contemporary France. Nadine is a part-time prostitute involved with some very shady individuals, while the perpetually unemployed Manu spends much of her time trying to get stoned. When Manu is gang raped by a group of thugs, her brother — with whom she has a strangely complex and conflicted relationship — accuses her of “enjoying” the rape and calls her a “slut.” A physical struggle ensues, during which Manu grabs her brother’s handgun and shoots him dead. Meanwhile, Nadine has a violent scuffle with her female roommate that ends with her friend’s demise. So, a bad day for all parties involved. The women meet up at a railway station by pure coincidence, and the two decide to “go on the lamb” from the police that will soon pursue them. And thus famously begins their violent, drug-addled, pornographic and completely nihilistic crime spree.

Nadine pays homage to Travis Bickle's famous "Are you talking to me?" scene from Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver." No, seriously. Compare both scenes.

In my previous post on The Rape-Revenge Girl I discussed Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave (1978) and how that film ultimately failed as a satisfying Rape-Revenge film. Where Zarchi’s film falters and, conversely, Baise-moi succeeds is in the depiction of rape. The protracted and rather gratuitous rape scenes in I Spit On Your Grave offer up much screaming, nakedness, and salacious close-ups of Jennifer Hill’s anguished face and bloodied body. While the audience understands that bloody vengeance will come before the credits roll, it’s not until after we all get a good, long look at Jennifer’s breasts. The whole deal feels exploitative. While the rape scene in Baise-moi is undeniably graphic — as it involves actual penetration — the filmmakers Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi simultaneously reject the sadism inherent in a rape scene. Much to the dismay of one of her rapists, Manu stares ahead in a detached manner during her attack. She has recognized that although she’s powerless to prevent the assault, she can assert power through her refusal to “play” the role of the victim. The fact that her lack of response clearly annoys her rapist underscores the politics that inform the scene: that rape is about power, not sex.

Once Nadine and Manu are on the road, the film becomes a sort of X-rated buddy-flick. The sex is graphic, true, but no more so than anything you’ve seen in a standard, mainstream pornographic film. Much like films of that ilk, it’s also completely mechanical and nonerotic. The violence of the main characters is sudden, impulsive and seemingly fueled by a rage against society as a whole, which is partly the reason it all works so well. The scene of the bloody massacre that takes place within a sex club is positively operatic in its excessive violence. For no other reason, you should watch this film for that scene.

OK, I believe I’ve finished with my “female tropes in horror films” series of posts. Next up, I’ll write about the latest release from Pixar. No, not really.

Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part IV.

The Rape-Revenge Girl.

Jennifer (Camille Keaton) exacts revenge on one of her rapists in ‘I Spit On Your Grave’ (1978).

Horror fiction tends to narrowly focus on two main themes: sex and death. (In fact, an argument can be made that most art is preoccupied with these two topics). A corollary subject that often arises from this thematic pairing is the violent cruelty of mankind that ultimately leads to sex and/or death. The writings of the Marquis de Sade and films of both Pasolini and Hanneke are almost entirely devoted to the examination of power dynamics and the innate viciousness of humanity. The reader/audience is also strongly implicated as willing participants in this parade of cruelty served up for our (presumably) voyeuristic consumption.

The Rape-Revenge scenario is the perfect encapsulation of this sex + death equation: a young, beautiful woman is sexually and physically brutalized, but survives to exact bloody vengeance upon her tormentor/s. This scenario is one that is strongly favoured by the various subgenres of exploitation cinema because its, well, basically lurid and exploitative. The most famous (or infamous, depending on your point-of-view) of the Rape-Revenge subgenre is Meir Zarchi’s Day of the Woman (1978), better known by its re-release title, I Spit on Your Grave. Now, let’s place this film in it’s proper context. Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave is a base, low-budget, and poorly acted film. It’s pure exploitation cinema, and a far cry from the critically-lauded work of Sade, Pasolini and Hanneke. That being said, it has been the subject of a great deal of feminist critical discourse since its release, with academics such as Carol Clover and Julie Bindel championing its “feminist” viewpoint.

The plot is threadbare. Jennifer Hills, an aspiring writer from “the big city”, seeks solitude in a rental cottage so that she may focus on her craft. The local country bumpkins have different plans for Ms. Hills, however, for no apparent reason other than the fact that she’s young, pretty and unaccompanied. They systematically terrorize, gang rape, and then murder their victim. Or so they believe. Jennifer survives her attack, and returns for revenge. One by one, her former tormentors are dispatched in ever increasingly gruesome ways and we, the audience, cheer her on through this exercise in catharsis.

Dude, rape victims don’t generally seduce their rapists into bathtubs after the attack. Darwinism claims yet another deserved victim.

I had two major misgivings with Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave. I’ll list them in point form.

1. One is forced to sit through a protracted series of rapes before we arrive at the satisfaction of revenge. This is the ‘Faustian bargain’ to which we females tacitly agree when viewing such films: howls of naked protest from the heroine in Act One, to be followed by bloody vengeance. The quotient of rape-to-revenge in Zarchi’s film is too much rape, not enough revenge. At least, the deaths of Jennifer’s rapists were not violent and/or gory enough for my — admittedly, gruesome — taste. The only death scene that worked for me was the castration-in-the-bathtub scene. Gallons of fake blood, off-screen howls and much left to the imagination of the viewer make this scene an effective one.

2. The rapists are portrayed as complete imbeciles, with one of them a mildly retarded, Gomer Pyle-like character. Did Zarchi intend this as a further insult-to-injury for poor Jennifer Hills? That an independent, educated woman like her could be bested by this group of inbreds? The convincing performance of Camille Keaton in the infamous ‘sodomy scene’ is completely undercut by the spastic gyrations of her attacker. What the hell is the actor doing back there? Was he directed to look that ridiculous? Even during a scene as horrendous as this, I could not suppress my laughter.

Where is the ‘deviance’ and the ‘aberrant female’ in all this, you ask? Carol Clover wrote in the third chapter of her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chainsaws that she can “appreciate, however grudgingly, the way in which [the movie’s] brutal simplicity exposes a mainspring of popular culture.” Women are typically cast as victims in exploitation films, and their suffering has become a form of sadistic entertainment. Zarchi’s film attempts to address this issue. Rather than rely on the sporadic justice of the judiciary system, Jennifer Hills takes matters into her own hands. She embodies the rage we feel against the cruel reality of rape, and we sit through her violation in order to experience the vicarious thrill of revenge without ever getting our hands bloodied.

While Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave doesn’t entirely work for me as a satisfying Rape-Revenge film, my next post will focus on a film in this genre that does work: the equally controversial French film Baise-moi (2000).

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Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part III.

The Lesbian Vampire.

Theodora: Is this another one of your crazy ideas?
Eleanor: I’m not crazy!
Theodora: Crazy as a loon! You really expect me to believe that you’re sane and the rest of the world is mad?
Eleanor: Well why not? The world is full of inconsistencies. Full of unnatural beings, nature’s mistakes they call you for instance!

The text above is dialogue from Robert Wise’s film The Haunting (1963) in which Dr. Markway, a researcher into paranormal activity, has assembled a group to investigate the reputed haunting of the gothic New England mansion Hill House. Amongst the group are the clairvoyant Theodora, a bold, outspoken woman who exudes worldly sophistication, and Eleanor, an awkward spinster who’s spent most of her adult life caring for her sick mother. In spite of their differences, Theodora befriends the mousy Eleanor, and there’s even the hint of romantic interest — however unlikely — emanating from Theodora. Director Robert Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding conceived of the Theodora character as lesbian, which would be one of the earliest appearances of a queer character in cinematic horror. Of course, the social climate of the early 1960’s meant that references to Theodora’s sexual orientation were all very codified and subtle, but Eleanor’s accusation of  “…unnatural beings…” and “nature’s mistakes…” allude not only to Theo’s preference in romantic partners, but they clearly establish homosexuality as an indication of deviance and ‘unnaturalness’.

Claire Bloom stars as Theodora (far left), Julie Harris as Eleanor (centre) and Rosalie Crutchley as the stony and gloriously creepy groundskeeper Mrs. Dudley in Robert Wise’s “The Haunting” (1963).

As was discussed in my earlier post on gender & the slasher film, queerness and the fluidity of gender identity in horror fiction is frequently a sign of mental illness. The cross-dressing serial killer — Norman Bates, for instance — and the homicidal, lovesick lesbian from Aja’s Haute Tension are examples of blurred gender boundaries being symptomatic of mental instability. While the character of Theodora in Wise’s The Haunting is not portrayed as violent nor mentally ill, her lesbianism marks her as ‘unnatural’ as the haunted Hill House in which the drama unfolds. This notion is certainly ironic given that it is the socially-awkward Eleanor, and not Theodora, who stands out as “the one who doesn’t belong” within the group.

“Hey! That’s not my neck!” Vampire love bite from “Twins of Evil” (1971).

This takes us to the third most common female trope in horror fiction: the Lesbian, and specifically the Lesbian Vampire. Why vampire, you ask? Simple. This trope has its roots in Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s novella Carmilla (1872) about the predatory love of a female vampire for a young woman. Le Fanu’s novella was influential not only on Bram Stoker’s Dracula — which it predated by 25 years — but serves to this day as the source chiefly consulted for the female vampire. (See my post on The Vampiress for more on this topic). The reason for the popularity of the Lesbian Vampire seems fairly straightforward: titillation, pure and simple. Wikipedia sums this up neatly:

This was a way to hint at or titillate with the taboo idea of lesbianism in a fantasy context outside the heavily censored realm of social realism (Weiss 1993). Also, the conventions of the vampire genre — specifically, the mind control exhibited in many such films — allow for a kind of forced seduction of presumably straight women or girls by lesbian vampires.

In the early 1970’s, Britian’s Hammer Studios created the much beloved Karnstein Trilogy, a series of lesbian vampire films very loosely based on Le Fanu’s novella: The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971) and Twins of Evil (1971). I’ve only seen the first film, which stars the iconic ‘Hammer Girl’ Ingrid Pitt and is quite giggle-worthy. File under ‘guilty pleasure.’

For the most part, the Lesbian Vampire is more softcore than horror, and bears little resemblance to the gender-bending serial killers mentioned earlier. What they do have in common, however, is the demarcation of Otherness — even the racy, breast-biting vampire of Twins of Evil is ultimately portrayed as ‘aberrant’ and ‘deviant.’

In Part IV of this series of posts, I’ll address the Rape-Revenge Girl.

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Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part II.

The Final Girl and The Slut.

Cécile De France as the chainsaw-wielding Marie in “Haute Tension” (2003).

SPOILER ALERT: Major plot points of Aja’s Haute Tension are discussed, so if you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it first.

In my previous post on Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’, part I, I identified two of the most common female tropes in horror cinema: the Final Girl and her counterpoint, the Slut. These two form a polarity necessary to the moral undertone of the ‘slasher’ horror film: the virtuous Final Girl survives to confront and (usually) destroy her tormentor, while the Slut provides titillation by disrobing and being sexual, offering up a canvas of eroticized female flesh that the (invariably) male serial killer can cut, slash, mutilate and otherwise penetrate. American film theorist Carol Clover, who coined the term ‘Final Girl’ in her 1992 book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, writes on the integral role the Final Girl plays in the slasher genre:

The image of the distressed female most likely to linger in memory is the image of the one who did not die: the survivor, or Final Girl. She is the one who encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends and perceives the full extent of the preceding horror and of her own peril; who is chased, cornered, wounded; whom we see scream, stagger, fall, rise, and scream again. She is abject terror personified. If her friend knew they were about to die only seconds before the event, the Final Girl lives with this knowledge for long minutes or hours. She alone looks death in the face, but she alone must also find the strength either to stay the killer long enough to be rescued (ending A) or to kill him herself (ending B). — Carol Clover, from Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, 1992.

The psychopathic urge that drives the serial killer to commit his atrocities is often imbued with a sexual energy. The killer is simultaneously attracted to, and repulsed by, the sexual desirability of his young female victims. As Clover points out, he is often depicted as “…a male whose masculinity, and sexuality more generally, are in crisis…”, with prime examples being the cross-dressing of Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), or Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). The serial killer’s fluid gender identity marks him as a sexual deviant — and deviance in horror fiction is indicative of that which causes fear and anxiety.

Marie hides from her Serial Killer Cliché in “Haute Tension” (2003).

This point brings us back to Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension, in which one of the main female characters, Marie, is identified as lesbian. Her sexual orientation is relevant to the plot, as it supplies the motivation behind her actions. She harbours a secret passion for her friend Alexa who, evidently, is completely oblivious to Marie’s romantic feelings. When her friend’s family is brutally murdered and Alexa kidnapped by a male psychopathic killer, Marie quickly adopts the Final Girl role and leaps to her friend’s rescue. From the outset, Marie’s short, boyish hair, androgynous clothing and slim, tautly muscled body appears to conform to the masculinized tradition of the Final Girl. As the plot progresses, Marie is poised for her final confrontation with the killer: a large, stout middle-aged man dressed in grimy overalls, his physical appearance every bit a slasher film cliché as hers.

And then comes the Big Reveal. The clichéd male serial killer is exactly that. He is a creation of Marie’s imbalanced mind, as the surveillance camera at the gas station films Marie — and not the stout, grimy man — as she sinks an axe into the back of the unsuspecting male attendant. The Final Girl and the Serial Killer conflate into one: the homicidal, mentally-unstable lesbian. Is this depiction of a queer woman homophobic? There is, arguably, a trace of homophobia in Haute Tension, as Marie’s sexual orientation serves not only as a plot device, but clearly distinguishes her as ‘the Other’, the deviant that is to be feared. Of course, there is a well-established tradition of LGBT themes in horror fiction and the use of ‘queerness’ as a demarcation of Otherness, and this will be the topic of my next post…

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Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, part I.

The Final Girl and The Slut.

Unrequited lesbian love gone terribly, terribly wrong in Alexandre Aja’s “Haute Tension” (2003).

Recently, I settled down to watch Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension (2003), a masterpiece of ‘New French Extremity‘ which had eluded me until now. Like many films of its pedigree, Haute Tension features sadistic sexuality, extreme violence, and generous amounts of gore. Without spoiling the end — as the real strength of this film lies near the end — there was also a clever plot twist that plays with gender and the roles typically associated with female characters in the genre. Women are still traditionally cast as victims in horror, and most particularly in the ‘slasher’ or serial-killer subgenre, so it is considered subversive when they are portrayed as the perpetrators of violence. In fact, it is so outside of the ‘norm’ that an additional reason is frequently given for the violent woman’s aberrant behaviour. In the 1978 ‘exploitation’ film I Spit On Your Grave, the motivation behind the female lead’s murderous rampage is revenge for her brutal gang rape. The homicidal intruder in À l’intérieur (2007) has been driven insane by her obsessive desire for a child. In Haute Tension, unrequited lesbian love factors into the killer’s actions. These various reasons — trauma, mental instability, and homosexuality — firmly place the behaviour of these women outside of ‘normal’ and in the realm of the deviant.

The depiction of deviance, women & gender in horror cinema is a big, big topic indeed — one that warrants more than one blog post. Let’s start by looking at two of the most common tropes in the horror genre:

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in the Ridley Scott sci-fi/horror classic “Alien” (1979).

1. The ‘Final Girl’ or ‘The Virgin.’ She’s that pretty, but not too sexy, girl-next-door who just might have a boyfriend, but he’s never gotten passed First Base. In the formulaic ‘slasher’ film — a subgenre of horror that dominated the late 70’s and the decade of the 1980’s — she’s the only girl left standing at the finale. The slasher film is a modern-day cautionary tale, and the Final Girl is spared the violent deaths visited upon her sexier classmates by reason of her virtue. She is frequently characterized as tom-boyish, even androgynous. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) from the Alien series is a prime example of the masculinized Final Girl. Recent horror cinema has reconfigured and, at times, even subverted the Final Girl: an argument can be made that Marie in Aja’s Haute Tension is a subversion of this trope (her very short boyish hair, her extreme athleticism, apparent heroism, and her sexual orientation).

Margot Kidder plays Barb, the drinking, smoking, sexually active Slut in Bob Clark’s “Black Christmas” (1974).

2. The Slut. She’s the counterpoint to the Final Girl, the girl in the film who engages in all sorts of nasty vice and most likely has a nasty attitude to match. According to the morality play/slasher film, she’s destined to meet a grisly end, probably twitching at the end of a pitchfork. A big, rigid pitchfork. The chain-smoking Barb (Margot Kidder) from Bob Clark’s genre-defining Black Christmas (1974) fits this role perfectly. While her lifestyle has her marked for an untimely death, she’s also the sororiety sister with the most moxy. (You can read more about Black Christmas in my earlier post on the film.)

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Classical mythology revisited: the shrewd ecofeminism of Shary Boyle.

The last (I promise) of the grad school essays I shall inflict upon you. In this one, my task was to compare my work with that of another contemporary visual artist. I chose Shary Boyle. The astute among you will recognize a passage or two from my Master’s thesis in this essay. Hey, it’s not plagarism when you cannibalize your own writing.

Fig. 1. Shary Boyle, "Untitled", pencil and gouache on paper, size unknown, 2003.

Throughout history, visual artists have fleshed out mythological subjects and generated images based on traditional, time-honoured stories. Myths supply an accessible and universal narrative to which the artist can attach a personal story. Renowned scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell describes one of the goals of myth as “…effecting a reconciliation of the individual consciousness with the universal will.” Similarly, in his essay “The Expressive Fallacy” Hal Foster cites Nietzsche’s discussion of an artist’s use of myth to express an interior world: “The whole notion of an ‘inner experience’ enters our consciousness only after it has found a language that the individual understands – i.e., a translation of a situation into a familiar situation…” The “language” to which Nietzsche refers can be interpreted as “mythology” which provides a universal narrative to which all cultures, no matter how disparate, have access. The “inner experience” may be read as the personal, psychological or emotional world that the artist seeks to materialize through the use of myth. In short, myths connect us to each other by anchoring the idiosyncrasy of the individual to a universally shared point of reference.

In my own art practice, I frequently make use of myths and archetypes as cultural ready-mades into which I insert my own personal history and meanings. Myths are reinterpreted in my work from a feminist perspective that considers gender representation in these mythological narratives. Another contemporary Canadian artist who employs a similar creative, feminist tactic is Shary Boyle. A commonality in our work is the use of female mythological subjects that evoke the traditional, allegorical link between women and nature. Rather than simply offer a critique of the feminized concept of nature, however, both Boyle and myself use motifs derived from nature in a subversive manner that transform our female subjects in strange, fantastic ways. The transformations and mutations that our mythological heroines experience provide the visible, external evidence of their inner psychological and emotional world.

In her work prior to 2008, Boyle’s use of fairytales and mythological subjects tended to be global rather than specific. Her phantasmagoric imagery suggested the realm of dreams and myths without representing a particular legend or cultural tradition. Her two pencil and gouache drawings that we shall examine, both dating from 2003 and simply called Untitled, are evidence of her generalized incorporation of myth. Both drawings involve remarkable incidents in which a single female figure, isolated on the white void of the paper, quietly experiences a magical transformation. In Untitled (fig. 1) we are confronted with a woman in a bright red dress sitting contentedly in the grass, hands resting peacefully in her lap. The drawing is linear and economical; the grass on which the woman sits is minimally drawn. Two long, yellow plant stalks topped with white blossoms grow outwards from the eye sockets of the woman, a strange phenomenon that has not managed to disturb her serenity. The very fact that the woman appears unconcerned by this fantastic event seems to suggest that this transformation is metaphoric as the flowers are a manifestation of an interior psychological state. Equally, the woman may have simply acquiesced to the inevitability of this strange transformation. The subject of Boyle’s second drawing Untitled (fig. 2), a prepubescent girl whose rigid stance and sideways glance suggests that she’s somewhat more alarmed by the tangled bush growing out from her mouth, nevertheless seems to accept the strangeness of this event as normative.

Fig. 2. Shary Boyle, "Untitled", pencil and gouache on paper, 30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, 2003.

In her essay entitled “Ornamental Impulse”, art writer Josée Drouin-Brisebois comments on Boyle’s surreal transformations as a manifestation of the emotional and psychological worlds of her subjects. “Boyle’s [figures]”, says Drouin-Brisebois, “express the inner life of the emotions materially.” Drouin-Brisebois cites the review of art critic Robin Laurence for Boyle’s paintings Companions (2004), wherein Laurence states: “Boyle’s portraits suggest that what looks outwardly freakish in others is the metaphorical equivalent of inward aspects of all our characteristics and circumstances.” Thus, the plant life that blooms from the bodily orifices of these female subjects is emblematic of their interior states, though what precisely those states would be remain vague and mysterious.

The mythology to which Boyle attaches her idiosyncratic narratives serves to anchor the work in tradition and provide the viewer with visual clues as to how one might interpret her dream-like imagery. For instance, the otherworldly flora of these drawings reference allegorical and mythological associations of women to nature. Rather than challenge the traditional dichotomy of women and nature, Boyle embraces it in a subversive manner. According to Drouin-Brisebois, Boyle’s women “become…nature in unsettling ways – verdancy out of control or a parasite that takes over the body…” Boyle acknowledges the allegorical tradition while at the same time engaging a sinister playfulness that alters it.

Fig. 3. Jennifer Linton, "An Abundant Supply of Milk", drypoint and etching, 38 cm x 30 cm, 2006.

Similar to Boyle, otherworldly flora plays a prominent role in my 2006 intaglio print entitled An Abundant Supply of Milk (fig. 3). Whereas Boyle rarely identifies her female subjects as aspects of herself, my work makes frequent use of self-portraiture and is characterized by an autobiographical content. This particular self-portrait shows myself standing in profile, naked save for a pair of underwear. With my hands I squeeze my breasts and produce an exaggeratedly large spray of breast milk. This cloud-like spray of breast milk, in turn, blossoms into a soggy mass of flowers. Like the drawings of Boyle discussed earlier, this print recognizes the mythic association between women and nature, and in particular the concept of a nurturing “mother nature”, while at the same time subverting it. The nourishing food that is breast milk has transformed into a bizarre floral mass that, rather than natural, appears inexorably alien. Created in the months that followed becoming a first-time mother, this image addressed my response to the strange transformations enacted upon my body as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. The milk-flowers that spring forth from my breasts represent an externalization of the estrangement I felt from my own body.

A second, earlier self-portrait speaks not to a feeling of estrangement but to the human impulse towards creation, both in art as well as in procreation. The coloured pencil drawing entitled Genesis (fig.4) illustrates the growth of a leafy, magenta and orange plant stalk out of my opened mouth. This fanciful stalk terminates in a perfectly round, ripe pomegranate fruit. Similar to the heroines of Boyle’s drawings, my visage appears untroubled by the unconventional growth of this fruit as if this were the result of a natural, internal process. In contrast to Boyle’s 2003 Untitled drawings, however, the magical vegetation of Genesis recalls a very specific mythological story while at the same time evoking the women-nature dichotomy. The appearance of the pomegranate in this drawing is highly significant as it is a direct quotation from an earlier body of work in which I assumed the role of Persephone, a tragic heroine from Greco-Roman mythology. This role-playing allowed for the insertion of personalized content within the larger context of a universal narrative. Or, as Nietzsche expressed, the myth of Persephone provided “…a translation of a situation into a familiar situation.” We will return to this discussion of Persephone after an introduction to Boyle’s latest works, one of which, coincidentally, deals directly with this same myth.

Fig. 4. Jennifer Linton, "Genesis", coloured pencil on Mylar, 38 cm x 28 cm, 2004.

As previously stated, Boyle’s work is frequently characterized by a global adoption of mythology, her imagery an amalgam of different mythic traditions synthesized with her own idiosyncratic symbolism. The recent unveiling of Boyle’s latest porcelain sculptures at the 2008 grand reopening of the Art Gallery of Ontario, however, provides an exciting and atypical exception to this aspect of her work. Boyle was commissioned by the AGO to create work that responded to the gallery’s permanent collection. She selected two 18th-century Italian bronze statuettes by Giovanni Battista Foggini with which to engage in a conversation across history. The subjects of Foggini’s sculptures are two commonly depicted Greco-Roman myths: Perseus slaying Medusa and The Rape of Proserpine. Boyle’s porcelains offer feminist reinterpretations of these myths while simultaneously maintaining her characteristic surreal imagery that hints at the internal, psychological world of her subjects.

Boyle’s response to Foggini’s The Rape of Proserpine re-imagines the Greco-Roman myth upon which it is based and addresses the violent and sexually problematic subject matter of the original Baroque bronze. Her delicate porcelain sculpture entitled The Rejection of Pluto (fig. 5) casts the titular deity as a hideously yawning monster and not the sinewy, handsome abductor of Foggini’s statuette. In her 2008 interview with art critic Sarah Milroy featured in The Globe and Mail, Boyle discussed the responsibility she felt as a feminist artist in rendering an alternate version of this classical myth: “I guess I just felt that this subject matter had to be engaged. I had been asked inside the museum, and I felt a kind of responsibility to interrupt some of those narratives, to propose some other kinds of stories.”

Proserpine is the Roman goddess of springtime, wife of Pluto and mythological equivalent of the Greek goddess Persephone. Her story is one of great emotional power: an innocent maiden abducted by the lustful god of the Underworld and forced to become his bride. In the Globe and Mail interview, Boyle related the version of this Greco-Roman myth that inspired her reinterpretation:

“…Pluto, the Lord of the Underworld, fell in love with Proserpine, the beautiful daughter of the harvest goddess. Lust incarnate, he emerges from Hades through a pond in the glade of the water nymph Cyane, wreaking havoc on this sacred sylvan spot and seizing Proserpine by force, making her his bride in Hell. Cyane, who protects the natural realms, weeps tears over this loss, so much so that her tears replenish the landscape Pluto has devastated.”

Fig. 5. Shary Boyle, "The Rejection of Pluto", mixed media porcelain sculpture, 2008.

The scene of Boyle’s The Rejection of Pluto is the idyllic glade of the water nymph Cyane, decorated with exotic flowers, seashells and fairytale toadstools. The monstrous head of Pluto emerges from the water, his cavernous mouth yawning open as if to swallow his intended victim. Bright red-orange light, suggestive of the flames of Hell, flickers inside the mouth and eyes of the hollow, chasmal head. The water that immediately surrounds Pluto’s head appears brown and putrid and the vegetation bleached white, all vitality having been drained out by its proximity to the god of the Underworld. The female characters of this story – the girl-child Proserpine, her mother Demeter, and the nymph Cyane – are all gathered in a group at the opposite end of the glade. The amphibious water nymph Cyane glowers fiercely at Pluto, defending Proserpine whom Boyle has cast as a small child wounded by mirrored shards. According to Boyle, these three female figures “represent emotional, mental and physical resistance under siege.”

The crucial role that nature plays in The Rejection of Pluto can be likened to that of Boyle’s 2003 Untitled drawings, although the correlation between women and nature in the sculpture have been further strengthened. The landscape of The Rejection of Pluto reflects the violation suffered by Proserpine through its transformation from lush verdancy to polluted wasteland. This transformation of the landscape symbolizes Proserpine’s psychological and emotional turmoil in much the same manner as the mirrored shards that have pierced her flesh represent her physical violation. Boyle’s shrewd interpretation of the Proserpine/Persephone myth emphasizes the allegorical link between women and nature in her analysis of the mistreatment of both women and nature in the world.

The tragic heroine Persephone has also been depicted as a prepubescent girl in my 2000 mixed-media drawing entitled The Bitter Seed. In this drawing, I combine an image of myself as a child with the myth of Persephone as a means to address the difficult territory of childhood sexual abuse. By adopting the role of the mythological heroine, I translate and universalize my personal experience. Through the use of this metaphor, I strive to make an emotional state palatable and thus more easily approachable by the viewer.

The Bitter Seed takes its name from the pomegranate seed that Persephone was forced to eat, thus sealing her fate as the goddess whose annual death and rebirth would usher in the changing seasons:

“Persephone was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of agriculture. Hades, the lord of the Underworld, surprised Persephone one day while she was picking flowers and carried her off to be his bride. Demeter, the distraught mother, threatens to destroy all mortal men by causing an endless drought unless her daughter is returned. Zeus, who is the king of the gods at Olympus, commands Hermes to fetch Persephone from the realm of Hades. The wise Hades chooses to obey the command of Zeus; however, before Persephone is returned, he tricks her into eating a seed from a pomegranate. This deception is later revealed when Demeter asks her daughter “…have you eaten any food while you were below? If you have not, even though you have been in the company of loathsome Hades, you will live with me and your father…but if you have…you will return again beneath the depths of the earth and live there a third of the year; the other two-thirds of the time you will spend with me…”

To the ancient Greeks, the myth of Demeter and Persephone served to explain the death and regeneration of plant life each year. The metaphoric link between women and nature is quite overt: Persephone personifies the cycle of the seasons through her annual sacrifice.

In The Bitter Seed, my childhood self stands thickly outlined in black against a brightly coloured background reminiscent of a stained-glass window. One of my hands holds aloft a pomegranate, above which hangs the phrase “dirty girl.” I stare quizzically at both the fruit and the phrase, my child mind unable to fully grasp their meaning. Like the pomegranate in the Persephone myth, the fruit I hold represents violation and entrapment. Similar to the girl-child Proserpine in Boyle’s sculpture, who displays her wounded arms for the consideration of the viewer, my child-self in The Bitter Seed holds the pomegranate up as a symbolic manifestation of inner “wounds”.

Fig. 6. Jennifer Linton, "St. Ursula and the Gorgon’s Head", coloured pencil and drawing ink on Mylar, 62 cm x 80 cm, 2002.

The victimization of the girl-child Persephone in The Bitter Seed is later redressed in my 2002 drawing St. Ursula and the Gorgon’s Head (fig. 6) in which I assumed the role of the Catholic Saint Ursula, the patron saint of schoolgirls. In a manner similar to The Bitter Seed, this drawing blended autobiographical elements with mythological role-playing in order to universalize personal experience. The heroine of St. Ursula and the Gorgon’s Head assimilates two divergent mythological traditions: the hagiography of the Catholic saint with the Greco-Roman myth of the Gorgon Medusa. More avenging angel than saint, St. Ursula is shown adorned with angel wings and holding aloft a sword and the severed head of Medusa. The mouth of the snake-haired Medusa gapes open in a silent scream while a magical bloom of red flowers bleed from the wound of the severed neck. In the background, graphic and highly stylized red flowers also appear to bleed. Much like the strange, sinister flowers of Boyle’s 2003 Untitled drawings, these violent blossoms subvert the traditional woman-nature dichotomy and the association of women with a passive and nurturing feminine principle.

Women are frequently cast as the prize at the end of the hero’s quest but are seldom depicted as the active, adventurous hero themselves in mythology. This gender-biased tradition was best summarized by Joseph Campbell in his 1982 interview with Rozanne Zucchet from his collected writings entitled “The Hero’s Journey”:

“I was teaching these courses on mythology and at the end of my last year there this woman comes in and sits down and says, ‘Well, Mr. Campbell, you’ve been talking about the hero. But what about the woman?’ I said, ‘The woman’s the mother of the hero; she’s the goal of the hero’s achieving; she’s the protectress of the hero; she is this, she is that. What more do you want?’ She said, ‘I want to be the hero!’ So I was glad that I was retiring that year and not going to teach any more [audience laughter].”

While Campbell’s anecdote evidently amused his audience, it also underscores the gender discrimination inherent in mythological models. The sword-wielding heroine of St. Ursula and the Gorgon’s Head constitutes my feminist response to Campbell and this gender-biased tradition. My heroine adopts the stance traditionally occupied by the male hero Perseus who, as the Greek myth tells us, beheaded the female monster Medusa. Additionally, the gender of Medusa in my drawing has been switched from female to male as the image of the severed gorgon’s head my heroine holds is, in fact, a direct visual quotation of a painting by Caravaggio where Medusa is uncharacteristically portrayed as male.

Fig. 7. Shary Boyle. "To Colonize the Moon", mixed media porcelain sculpture, size unknown, 2008.

The representation of gender also plays a crucial role in Boyle’s second porcelain sculpture commissioned by the Art Gallery of Ontario. Entitled To Colonize the Moon (fig. 7), this sculpture encapsulates her response to Foggini’s bronze statuette Perseus Slaying Medusa as well as to the traditional Greco-Roman myth that she “has interpreted in light of both her environmentalist and feminist ideas.” Boyle’s reinterpretation of the myth views Medusa as a “very misunderstood monster” who suffers a number of indignities and violations resulting from the capricious cruelty of the Olympian gods. The severed head of Medusa lies atop a funeral pyre comprised of dead bats and bees, the expression on her lifeless face one of sad resignation to her tragic fate. In stark contrast to the heroic romanticism of Foggini’s Perseus, Boyle’s version of the Greek hero is a lily-skinned, rosy-cheeked effeminate boy who sits in quiet repose while he wipes the blood from his sword. This traditionally triumphal moment has been undercut by the calmness of the scene and soft, unheroic body of Boyle’s Perseus. The violence of the story is not celebrated, but merely represented in an anticlimactic manner. The death of the monster Medusa and the death of Nature – embodied by the dead bats and bees – are seen as being synonymous. There is a mournful aspect to this sculpture, as Boyle challenges the viewer to consider the violence enacted both upon women as well as upon the natural world.

Contemporary feminist artists such as Shary Boyle and myself are mining the past, revisiting the universal narratives of mythology and, as Boyle succinctly stated, “propos[ing] some other kinds of stories.” Inspired by the second wave feminists, who coined the phrase the personal is political, we disrupt the problematic, gender-biased narratives of traditional myths by inserting our own personal, idiosyncratic content into the larger framework of these universal stories. This personalized content adopts the symbolic vocabulary of myth and, through creative tactics such as role-playing, re-imagines these stories from contemporary feminist perspectives. Mythological motifs traditionally associated with women – namely the allegorical link made between women and nature – is wielded as a deconstructive weapon that knowingly acknowledges this association while at the same time playfully subverting it. The female subjects that populate our work ache, bleed, bloom and otherwise manifest their interior worlds in a number of strange and wondrously magical ways.

Some girls are more lethal than others: that deadly ‘vagina dentata’ grin.

The wonderful closing shot of an empowered Dawn from Mitchell Lichtenstein's "Teeth." Incidentally, Mitchell is the son of famed American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.

The vagina dentata is the myth of a woman that possesses a castrating ‘toothed vagina‘. This myth exists across many different cultures and seems to address a global anxiety amongst men over the ‘otherness’ of women’s bodies and sexuality. In the Freudian psychoanalytic model, the vagina dentata is emblematic of castration anxiety amongst very young boys who, upon their awareness of the biological difference between male and female genitalia, develop an unconscious and irrational fear that their own penis will be ‘removed.’ Of course, Freud’s theories have fallen out of favour in therapeutic practice over the past decades, owing to the fact that his views of both women and homosexuality are antiquated and obviously problematic. And yet, the myth of the vagina dentata continues to be pervasive in contemporary culture, albeit in a much more symbolic manner.

Mitchell Lichtenstein’s 2007 horror-comedy film Teeth employs the vagina dentata myth as a mischievously playful plot device. The main character Dawn unknowingly possesses a ‘toothed vagina.’ The reason for her biological abnormality is never explicitly given, although several panning camera shots of a power plant looming in the distance behind Dawn’s house — not to mention the cancer that plagues her sick mother —  suggest a mutation due to environmental pollutants. An unfortunate succession of events, including date rape and sexual abuse by a gynaecologist, transform the teenage Dawn from a virginal spokesperson for Christian abstinence to a sexual vigilante who wields her vagina dentata as a weapon of revenge. Although the premise feels a bit weak to carry a feature-length film, there’s still gory-fun to be had as the number of severed body parts predictably rise. Men will find this film squirm-inducing, for obvious reasons. Cross your legs and enjoy.

Kate Kretz. "Vagina Dentata Purse", 2002, hand sewn, hand dyed velvet, wire, thread, shaped shells, purse frame, 10 x 14 x 7".

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