Expunging the Bogeyman: Sady Doyle’s Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers

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Dare I say that 2019 is the year of righteous female anger? This year, I’ve observed that the power of women’s rage is finally taking center stage: two years after the resurgence of the #MeToo movement, people are talking about it, writing about it, reporting on it. This past year was the first in my lifetime in which I have seen the anger of women trending in popular media, and it’s a welcome surprise, with books out there to pave the way such as Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad, Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her, and Lilly Dancyger’s Burn It Down anthology.

So I picked up Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power thinking that it would be yet another book about women’s anger. I was wrong: Sady Doyle’s powerful work does more than celebrate female rage. Instead, it charts the history of how women have been depicted by American culture as victims, sluts, witches, femme fatales, shrew-like wives, and bad mothers. Doyle offers a cultural road map for the way that patriarchal forces have turned women into monsters in our cultural imagination, from figures in Greek mythology like Helen of Troy and Circe to those in popular movies like Scream and The Craft. In doing so, Doyle creates a powerful argument that the only way for women to take back their power is to shatter the monstrous versions of themselves created to constrain women at every life stage, as daughters and wives and mothers.

The root of these imagined, monstrous versions of women, Doyle argues, is fear. And yet, that fear of “sexualities that elude patriarchal control” is also what spurs men to violence against women in reality. “For every imaginary femme fatale using her sexuality as a weapon of male destruction, there is a real woman who’s been raped by a boyfriend or groped by her boss,” Doyle writes. “For every heartless mermaid drowning her lover or deceptive siren luring him to crash on the rocks, there is a woman whose life has been stalled or limited or ended by a man.” By highlighting the dichotomy between our cultural fantasies of fear and the actual violence wrought upon women in retaliation, Doyle shows that an awareness of these origins can help women understand the dangers they face when operating outside of patriarchal norms.

One of the most dangerous places a woman could possibly find herself is in a horror movie, and the most fatal casting is as “the dead blonde.” In particular, “slashers are the place where sex becomes death becomes sex, where a knife is never just a knife, and a two-foot iron hook is only a two-foot iron hook until someone gets creative,” Doyle writes. She explores the tropes of horror movies by analyzing the gendered paradigm of the victims of heroes of movies like Psycho, The Mutilator, Halloween, Final Destination 3, and the Scream films, showing us the difference between the protagonist “Final Girl” who survives and all of the young girls who are murdered as victims in “leering, gratuitous topless shots; the contemptuous, dim-bimbo characterization of the girls; the camera’s focus on mutilated breasts and lacerated faces and melting, bubbling female skin. It feels like watching a little boy tear the head off his sister’s Barbie—like watching something valuable get destroyed just to prove a point.”

Since the “Final Girl” in a horror movie, like Neve Campbell in Scream, who “resists penetration both sexual and chainsaw related, who outwits and penetrates the killer in the end,” is the exception to the rule of how every other girl and woman is treated by the film, Doyle observes that “she can’t be our avatar. Most of us, by definition, are not exceptional.” She also points out that young women became the primary viewing audience of horror movies from the 1990s onward, since “the slasher film is not (just) an illicit way for teenage girls to satiate their rage, but a confrontation with the worst possible outcomes of their newly fledged sex lives; it’s ritual catharsis, which exposes and acknowledges the vulnerability of female bodies in a male-dominated world. It gives us an excuse to scream.”

I can’t stand horror movies, and Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers helped me understand why. What was fascinating for me, even as a non-horror movie buff, was Doyle’s analysis of the cultural impact of some of these representations of women as monsters, especially in The Exorcist. Through an impeccably researched analysis of both the film and its cultural impact worldwide, Doyle shows us how a single movie depicting the monstrosity of an adolescent girl actually produced a notable rise in Catholic exorcisms, from just “a handful into the thousands.” This is especially chilling when you consider that in so many cases, “exorcisms” were extreme religious rituals that led to a number of preventable deaths—including those of young girls suffering from seizure disorders, mental illness, or responses to sexual abuse or other trauma, and not the influence of “demonic” forces. It’s a terrifying commentary on how popular media can infiltrate the public imagination.

This fear isn’t just reserved for the young. Doyle later turns her attention to the way wives are turned into monsters. In the case of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, her analysis of du Maurier’s ambition, desire, and unhappy marriage informs a lovely critique of the character of Rebecca, “a woman whose personality looms so large that even a story set after her death still bears her name on the cover… she was unfaithful, bisexual, glamorous, seductive.” And for this, Rebecca is punished—she must be killed for her sins to her husband and to the institution of marriage itself—yet her dominant spirit haunts the rest of the novel. “When we look at the woman who does behave like a good wife… clinging to her husband and making excuses for him while he describes how he, literally, got away with murder—we’re forced to wonder if wifeliness is really such a wonderful thing after all,” Doyle writes.

In her section on motherhood, Doyle also employs a powerful mix of historical research, literary analysis, and gender criticism to illuminate the genesis of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein after the death of her premature baby and two other young children. She explains that the creation of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster is a dramatization of the effects of the patriarchy “gone haywire,” about the “terror, which every mother must someday face, of creating a new person with no way of knowing what havoc you may have unleashed upon the world.” According to Doyle, Shelley was also critiquing the idea of a man trying to create life without women—the creation of life by animating a dead corpse. “Shelley was the daughter of two philosophers,” Doyle writes. “There’s every reason to believe she knew she was being subversive. Her masterwork argues that it’s male arrogance, not female weakness, which creates monsters.”

Ultimately, I felt that Doyle succeeded at creating a fine balance in her writing, walking the tightrope of female outrage, calling out the patriarchy at every turn, and exposing the mechanisms that have created monsters from women throughout the history of Western civilization. And yet, the tone of Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers is upbeat: by understanding the creation of these structures in art, cinema, literature, and cultural norms, the book argues, perhaps we can rise above them, change them, or at the very least, know what we are dealing with. If you can open the closet and turn on the lights, maybe the bogeyman can be expeditiously expunged.

In her final section, Doyle looks at women in the Trump era, and the rise of the witch as a powerful figure to combat patriarchal assaults. “The witch has always been the feminist monster of choice,” she notes. Doyle explains that “in the story that [the] patriarchy told about itself, we were always going to be the villains. And if that was the case, we might as well make some magic out of it.” As a possibility for redemption, Doyle suggests the following:

We must make another journey from dark to dark, give up our certainty once again. The witch always brings an element of choice into the equation. Most monsters simply are monsters, but you have to become a witch. Women simply are outcasts, under the terms of patriarchy. But we can become outcasts with meaning and purpose; we can work wonders from the edges of the world… We can use our exclusion, our rage, and even our trauma as a way of seeing more deeply into the world.

Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers is a triumphant book, one worthy of sitting on the shelf next to—and informing—the many empowering books championing women this year.

Kim Liao’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Lit Hub, Salon, Catapult, The Millions, River Teeth, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Grandmother Project, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and others. She teaches writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and is seeking a home for her hybrid family memoir about the Taiwanese Independence Movement. More from this author →