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The Archetype Of Female Power As Evil English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1998 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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In Stephen King’s portrayal of female characters, particularly females as monsters, killers, etc., you can clearly see in this use of psychology society’s fears, anxieties, and feminine obsessions. His writing in “Gramma” and other short stories and novels often utilizes the themes of female power versus male authority, the association of female with evil, and monster imagery associated with mother-figure characters. In a typical horror novel, you might expect to find the only women in the piece shrieking as they are about to be mutilated, murdered, or otherwise menaced by monsters far beyond human taste and decency. In fact, the horror genre has been accused of sexism at times (Wisker 2005). Stephen King, on the other hand, often portrays his female characters quite differently. In his works, especially when they are viewed as a monstrous “other,” as in “Gramma,” women have seemingly unlimited and terrifying power.

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According to the political, economical and social structures of gender in history, and therefore in early fiction, women do not, and cannot, perform power without appropriating masculine traits of violence and domination (Driscoll 2002). By enforcing the definition of a virtuous woman as passive and domestic, the traits of violence, political ambition and greed must necessarily be viewed as masculine, and therefore unnatural and evil, in females. If we look at Elizabeth I, arguably one of the most powerful women in history, she appropriated the virtuous, virginal persona associated with the Virgin Mary; to conform to the accepted definition of femininity, while simultaneously asserting her image as powerful and ruthless through her “continual references to herself as king and prince” (Driscoll 2002). Therefore, for Elizabeth as a female to successfully rule, she was compelled to assume a male persona, as female power was seen as an abomination; a reversal of natural and moral order.

Although Stephen King does give a great deal of power to his female characters, he also tends to portray them as an abomination, perhaps of nature, as a human or simply as a female. His “evil” female characters are often overweight, unattractive and in other ways repulsive, and frightening to others. In his novel The Dead Zone, the main character, a rapist and serial killer named Frank Dodd, is provided an excuse for his heinous ways.

While awaiting a young victim to walk into his trap, Dodd’s mind is momentarily obsessed with an embarrassing childhood memory: a lesson in sexual education given by his abusive mother. When Frank was innocently playing with his penis, his mother, a huge woman, caught him in the act and began to shake him back and forth. Here King emphasizes parental responsibility for aberrant personality development, arguing that Frank “was not the killer then, he was not slick then, he was a little boy blubbering with fear” (Strengell, Heidi; King, 1980, 65).

We can clearly see the insinuation that Dodd’s huge, frightening atrocity of a mother was responsible for creating a monster out of him. That is an enormous amount of power wielded.

King creates similar characters in Carrie that strongly suggest feminine power as being evil. Carrie’s monstrous power is ultimately borne of her anger over her treatment by the people of Chamberlain. Her anger is represented as monstrous rather than a justifiable response to external stimuli because doing otherwise would force people to re-examine their role in the deaths and violence. If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to make a monster. Mrs. White isn’t the only one responsible for her daughter’s explosion of rage.  Also culpable are the kids who picked on her and the parents and school administrators who did little to stop that teasing, and the neighbors who did nothing to stop Mrs. White’s abuse of her daughter. Because Carrie isn’t simply born a monster as is the case with earlier horror texts, there is also leaves open the possibility that more monsters like her can be made. Carrie is an example of a type of horror where we actually see the creation of the other; it doesn’t just exist (King, 1974).

In Carrie we also see elements of a fear of female sexuality. Carrie’s extraordinary powers wax and wane with her development as a sexual being. At age five, she expresses interest in the neighbor’s “dirty pillows” (breasts), which enrages her mother and causes her to nearly kill her. In older horror texts, female sexuality is something to be feared and repressed at all costs (Grant, 1996). Yet in this novel, part of the reason Carrie becomes this monstrous character is because of her parents’ extreme repression of their own sexuality. Her mother especially fears her own sexuality. It is significant that Carrie’s powers re-surface with the onset of menstruation, the ultimate outward representation of female sexuality. It is at this time that Carrie also begins to see herself as a woman and find her body attractive. Carrie was born with her powers, which became dormant on the day she spied the neighbor’s sunbathing daughter and expressed curiosity about her mature female body, also wondering about the potential development of her own body. Mrs. White, of course, felt intensely threatened at this moment, since her daughter was demonstrating an interest in her own sexuality through her questions (Lant & Thompson, 1998).

In “Gramma,” although we are dealing with a female character far beyond her years as a sexual being in the physical sense, the themes of power and female sexuality are strongly felt. The reader is presented with a very weak female character and an otherworldly powerful female character. George’s mother Ruth is presented as almost entirely submissive and at times frail. She becomes tipsy, giggly and gossipy from one glass of wine. The only description she is ever really given in the story is of “a woman of just past fifty with two late sons, one thirteen, one eleven, and no man” (King, 1985, 465). Even the name Ruth is benign, meaning friend or compassionate.

The title character, Gramma, is on the opposite side of the female character spectrum in nearly every sense. While Ruth is a caretaker, Gramma is a stranger, an “other,” a monster. While the reader does not understand Gramma’s true nature until the end of the story, King’s description of her characteristics through George’s eyes reveal enough to show that Gramma is anything but benign. From the very first page of the story we are made aware that for some reason, George is terrified of his grandmother. Like many of King’s evil female characters, Gramma is described as being extremely unattractive, even frightening looking, with “flabby, wrinkled skin…white-elephant arms…huge and heavy old white-elephant body” (King, 1985, 464). In other parts of the story Gramma is also described as being huge, fat, blind, hypertensive, senile and “a fat slug wearing rubber pants and diapers under her flannel nightgown, her face runneled with cracks and wrinkles, her eyes empty and blind – faded blue irises floating atop yellowed corneas” (King, 1985, 468).

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George’s intense fear even while Gramma is asleep shows the enormous amount of power that she wields over him. He tries to deny his fear, telling himself that “[s]he was an old lady stuck in bed, it wasn’t as if she could get up and hurt him, and she was 83 years-old” (King, 1985, 470). The terror of Gramma, the old lady, the witch, the monster in female form, cannot be denied however. King is masterful in his creation of Gramma as a monster rich with evil female power. He uses very effective imagery, describing Gramma as “dangerous – like an ancient she-bear that might have one more good swipe left in her claws” (King, 1985, 471). King imbues Gramma with a sense of strong feminine power in several ways. After utilizing the power of black magic, Gramma is able to give birth to nine children, all of whom lived past infancy. In historical or in modern times, this is a great feat of womanhood. The reader is never allowed to forget Gramma’s femininity, even as she attacks George in the final terrifying scenes. Not only does Gramma enter the kitchen in a “pink nightie” (492), but we are also presented with the imagery of her enormous thighs, her long hair blowing in the wind and one of her hair combs, hanging “against her wrinkled neck” (492).

Through the use of fantastical elements, normal masculinity and femininity are similarly revealed as constructed subject positions rather than boundaries that are the “natural” consequence of biological sex. In mainstream horror, the monstrous “other” is the embodiment of the abject. It crosses or threatens to cross the border between human and Other, precipitating an encounter between the symbolic order and that which threatens its stability such as those who are not conventionally masculine or feminine (Grant 1996). The monstrous is produced at the border which separates those who take up their proper gender roles from those who do not. In a patriarchal culture, females are already often seen to occupy the position of Other, even when they are conventionally feminine (Grant 1996).

Ever since the publication of Carrie King has been blamed for depicting his women characters as stereotypes (Lant & Thompson, 1998). However, King’s portraits of women differ throughout his various works. Lant and Thompson (1998) note that King has been struggling throughout his fiction to present a fully developed female character, to depict female existence in our culture, and to speak with an authentic female voice. Although King has made an effort since the very beginning of his career to avoid female stereotypes, he has consciously concentrated on women, the emphasis shifting from child characters to the women characters. In horror fiction female protagonists often have supernatural abilities. These abilities are horrifying because they dramatize what is normally “unthinkable, unnameable, indefinable, and repressed” (Tropp, 1990, 166).

A defining quality of the horror genre has been its emphasis on difference, specifically sexual difference. For example, the werewolf as a type of monster is masculine in that the creature’s hirsutism and appetites for sex, food and violence are all extreme versions of normative masculinity (Grant 1996). The witch as type of monster, on the other hand, is feminine in that her connection to the natural world links her to some traits of stereotypical femininity. The genre of horror presents the possibility for resistance to the seemingly untraceable institutional forces that oppress girls and women. The genre’s conventions permit it to reveal the genealogy of gender by exposing what is most disturbing about femininity to prevailing culture.

If iterations of the monstrous feminine can be understood as a purification of the horrible that breaks down boundaries and calls their naturalness into question rather than reinforcing boundaries, then horror is rife with subversive potential. Horror can thwart the ability of various institutional discourses about sex and gender to individualize and totalize subjects in order to more easily control them. Monsters were originally thought of as divine warnings: “the word ‘monster’ derives from the Latin monstere, meaning ‘to show’. In horror fiction, the monstrous Other reveals that gender, and even sex, are constructed categories rather than immutable biological truths.


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