The idea of the monstrous female is a pervasive, but relatively recent concept. It’s really only since the days of the conquering, semi-nomadic Indo-European warriors that the female form has been perceived as a monster. The wonder and beauty of reproduction, revered as sacred by many early civilizations, became twisted and seen as deviating from a male norm. From this women became deviant beings capable of hiding things, of being two (or possibly more) people at once, of being recombined. Thus was born the female monster, twisting pre-existing myths into distorted mirror images that have left their mark on our culture well into the twenty-first century.
Bastard Out of Carolina
… is a semi-autobiographical novel set in Greenville, South Carolina. It is narrated by Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright, and examines the expectations of gender and mother-child relationships; it also explores how those roles and relationships evolve and conflict. Class, race, sexuality and gender play out in Bone’s life and in her relationships with others. The obvious primary conflict of the story is between Bone and her mother’s husband, Glen, but the less obvious conflict is between Bone and her mother.
It is also a novel full of monsters. Some are obvious, some are not. Some are male, some female.
Some of the female monsters are archetypes — the monstrous mother, the silent but knowing opposition and the independent woman.
The Monstrous Mother
Anney Boatwright is one the biggest monsters of the novel. She is the mother of two girls and loves them deeply. However, her love for the girls — and especially her oldest, Bone — pales in comparison to the passion she feels for Glen Waddel. This inevitably leads to conflict, in her marriage, with her daughter and within herself.
When Glen beats Bone, Anney rails and screams but never interferes; she even goes as far as to ask Bone “what did you do?” Even when the rest of the Boatwright clan discovers the extent of Bone’s beatings, Anney does very little. She moves out, but then goes back. And after the explosive final encounter between Glen and Bone, she still chooses her lover over her daughter, even after having witnessed him rape the thirteen-year-old. Despite her motherly love, Anney abandons her daughter to leave with her abusive husband, an act many interpret as wholly monstrous. After all, what kind of woman puts her lover above her children? And yet, Anney is not an entirely terrible person; she is, in some ways, as much a victim as her daughter.
The Silent Opposition
Bone represents a completely different type of female monster. The story is told through her eyes, making her silent observer, the one who watches and listens and gathers information in order to draw her own conclusions. While it’s clear she internalizes messages from her family and society, she still manages to keep her own counsel and form her own opinions.
It is likely her knowledgeable silence, as much as anything else, that enrages Glen — he can’t control her mind and he never really knows what she is thinking. This allows her to read Glen, to decide what she thinks of him, regardless of what he does. He fears this ability of hers could be his undoing, which might explain why he seeks to force Bone into the typical female mold. As long as the dangerous ability is loose and uncontrolled, she has the power to destroy Glen … if only within her own mind.
The Independent Woman
Bone’s Aunt Raylene is another woman who does not fit the mold and is partially demonized. Unlike her sisters, Raylene never married or had children, lived in the same house while her brothers and sisters moved around and has always kept her own counsel. In some respects she could be seen as an older version of Bone, but not entirely. She recognizes that she could easily have become Glen had a past relationship continued; Raylene, more than any other character in the novel, actually recognizes a good many things about herself and others.
Her main monstrosity, however, is her independence. She has no need of a man to protect her and she can take care of herself. As readers we respect Raylene, but we also acknowledge that the independent, unattached, child-free woman is a source of confusion to many in our society. Because she does not fit the mold she is Other – and Other easily crosses the line into monstrosity.
Although we can define monster in many ways — disfigured, recombinant and malformed — in the end it all boils down to Other. And as a society, we tend to see Other as monstrous. Despite inclusivity politics and increased understanding, we still find the Other in those who disagree with our politics, religion, lifestyle and sexuality, to name just a few. Too many still fail to see that we are all Other. Everyone on this planet is recombinant, made of many facets and genes; taken that way, we are all monsters.
And if we are all monsters, then perhaps it’s time we reevaluate what a monster really is.