Review of Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film: Gynaehorror by Erin Harrington. Routledge. 2016. [HB/eBook]. 288pp.
Review by Sarah Arnold, Maynooth University, Ireland.
In this illuminating and fascinating book, Erin Harrington offers an interpretive framework for a body of films that are representative of what she has termed ‘gynaehorror’. Gynaehorror here refers to a category or paradigm of films that situate the female maternal and reproductive body in relation to monstrosity and horror. The films under discussion are largely contained within western-Anglophone and post-1960s cinema and, although this excludes a wide number of non-western genres and modes from discussion, the gynaehorrific framework would certainly prove useful for researchers interested in expanding the scope of investigation further afield.
Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film: Gynaehorror is situated within and extends upon the feminist literature that addresses femininity, maternity and reproduction within cinema. The book is indebted to feminist film theorists such as Barbara Creed and E. Ann Kaplan particularly in terms of accounting for the complexities of representation which, as Harrington suggests, seldom function as wholly regressive or progressive. This approach allows for an understanding of horror film as negotiated and negotiable as well as contradictory and in tension with the socio-cultural formations and expressions of the female and maternal body. Unlike Creed’s The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis and Kaplan’s Motherhood and Representation: The Mother in Popular Culture and Melodrama, Harrington’s Women, Monstrosity and Horror Film: Gynaehorror moves beyond psychoanalytic accounts of femininity and maternity to include theoretical frameworks that draw upon cultural studies and philosophy. While it never rejects the cine-psychoanalysis of other scholars, it refuses to prioritise it as the only interpretive framework available.
At times, this broad framework result in some unnecessary deviations that seem to stall rather than contribute to the film analysis. The chapter ‘Not of Woman Born: Mad Science, Reproductive Technology and the Reconfiguration of the Subject’ includes a section on the work of VNS Matrix, an Australian feminist art collective, where the specific practices of the group are situated within a discussion of cyberfeminism. However, while the example serves to demonstrate the emancipatory potentials of technology, it does not map as neatly into the overall chapter’s theoretical and analytical approach. Similarly, sections on animal mothering in the chapter ‘The Monstrous-Maternal: Negotiating Discourses of Motherhood’ and digital distribution in ‘Living Deaths, Menstrual Monsters and Hagsploitation: Horror and/of the Abject Barren Body’ seem too brief to warrant their mention in what is otherwise effective analysis.
The chapter ‘Roses and Thorns: Virgins, vagina dentata and the Monstrosity of Female Sexuality’ offers a sophisticated reading of the female virgin that draws upon philosophical, historical and cultural definitions and meanings of virginity that support Harrington’s interpretation of female virgin heroes as problematic. Equally, the book includes subjects and topics often neglected in the existing literature on women in horror film. The chapter ‘The Lady Vanishes: Pregnancy, Abortion and Subjectivity,’ while addressing oft-referred to films such as Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski 1968), also includes a rich and original discussion of the representation of abortion. As Harrington notes, despite the availability of abortion among the nation states of the films discussed, horror films rarely represent it. In those few cases where it does form part of the narrative, it is embedded within a distinctly moralising and/or political context. Harrington also gives due attention to the figure of the older woman, often neglected in the literature on women in horror film. While Harrington notes the absence of these women within the general corpus of horror, she draws attention to the representational tendencies that have aligned women’s aging with disease and illness and, in turn, monstrosity.
While film is the primary locus through which gynaehorror is articulated and defined, the final chapter ‘Living Deaths, Menstrual Monsters and Hagsploitation’ looks to television drama for more recent examples of aging women in horror. The discussion is, unfortunately, limited to American Horror Story (Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy 2011-). Nevertheless, Harrington makes a strong case that the more complex representations of older women are to be found in television horror. Indeed, television horror — and I would include Hemlock Grove (Brian McGreevy and Lee Shipman 2013-2015) and The Walking Dead (Frank Darabont and Angela Kang 2010-) — arguably offers further spaces of resistance and subversion since the temporality and duration of a television series is more accommodating towards nuance and internal contradiction, as Harrington claims of American Horror Story. Although she justifies the inclusion of television here by noting the absence of older women in horror film, it may have been useful to incorporate discussion of television drama — for example Charmed (Constance M Burge 2991-2006) or True Blood (Alan Ball 2008-2014) — throughout. Nonetheless, the reference to television drama leaves scope for others to develop the gynaehorror framework in relation to it.
Sarah Arnold is Lecturer in Media at Maynooth University, Ireland. She is currently preparing the book Television, Technology and Gender: New Platforms and New Audiences. Her previous books include Maternal Horror Film: Melodrama and Motherhood and the co-authored The Film Handbook. Her research focuses on viewing spaces and environments of television and film, particularly in the context of gender and emergent technologies. She is also a regular contributor at CST Online.