The Monster Returns | Thesis Extract

Note: This post’s feature image is a still from “If Found…”, an Irish video game from dreamfeel that includes a trans protagonist, as well as many other LGBTQ+ characters!

It has been a great many months since I have posted here, but I have returned to share a sample of the fruits of my labour! Yes, it’s true; the dissertation has been written, submitted, and graded (first class honours, baby!). I am incredibly proud of it, and will definitely post the full paper somewhere, but I do feel a blog post is not the place for that! Still, this blog was made to document the progression of my research, so it’s only fitting that I would post even just a little bit of the culmination of all that work.

There has also been a seemingly endless spew of invective and ignorant pieces about trans people, both in Ireland and the world beyond. But why get into fights on Twitter with people who do not want to learn, only attack those they do not understand?

Instead I want to post this extract from the introduction of my dissertation, as an indirect counter to the misinformation and fear-mongering that has been spread recently.

So please, enjoy!

Of Monsters and Thems: Problematising Cis-Heteronormativity in Old Norse and Old English Scholarship.

“[C]riticism worthy of its name arises from commitments deeper than professionalism.”

(Lawrence Buell, quoted in Postcolonial Ecocriticism, 11)

Allow me to preface this dissertation by stating clearly that I am a transgender, non-binary, queer individual.  That is to say, I am not cisgender, and I am not heterosexual. I feel it is important to make clear that I am not speaking over trans or queer voices – I am one. I by no means have any authority to speak on behalf of any other member of the LGBTQ+ community, but the fact remains that there are not enough trans voices in Old Norse and Old English scholarship, and, as I have been handed a megaphone (that is, the opportunity to write a thesis) it seems unwise to let the moment pass in silence. There is, inevitably, a personal element to this thesis, disguised only thinly by the passive voice, but the issue of prejudice against transgender, non-binary, and even intersex people is larger than any one individual and impacts not only our view of the world in the twenty-first century, but, as it pertains to this thesis, our perception of pre-Christian Scandinavia and early medieval England. 

The queer theory and subsequently, criticism, that does exist in Old Norse and Old English academic spaces1 is largely limited to the heterosexual/homosexual binary, and some discussion of (implicitly cisgender) gender transgression, the most radical of which I have seen is the proposal that the valkyries are a distinct gender outside of the male/female binary2 (see Self’s “The Valkyrie’s Gender: Old Norse Shield-Maidens and Valkyries as a Third Gender”). Queer theory itself possesses gaps and silences that need to be filled; namely a neglect of transgender issues, non-binary genders, and intersexuality. Old Norse and Old English scholars have, like much of the modern Western world, assumed that the male/female gender and sexual binary system is ‘natural’, and thus a historically and geographically universal truth. Unsurprisingly, this presupposition has influenced interpretations and criticism of Old Norse and Old English texts and figures. The aim of my dissertation is to bring transgender and non-binary perspectives to the fore by examining cissexist attitudes and prejudice against trans and non-binary people within theoretical and critical approaches. Subsequently, through close reading, I will illustrate how our perception of Old Norse and Old English texts and figures changes when re-examined through a more trans-inclusive lens.

  1. I do, of course, stand on the shoulders of giants while shouting into my megaphone. Incredible scholars applying a queer perspective to Old Norse and Old English literature include, but are not limited to: Amy Jefford Franks, Rebecca Merkelbach, Richard E. Zeikowitz, Kathleen M. Self, David Clark, Gareth Lloyd-Evans, Brit Solli, Glenn Burger, and Stephen Kruger.
  2. Self refers to the valkyries’ gender as a ‘third’ gender rather than using the non-binary umbrella. The issue with the language around ‘third’ genders is that “by framing variations of gender productions as dismissable deviants, we ignore the nature of personhood” (Jefford Franks, “Óðinn as a queer deity…”, 33).

Queer and Related Terminology

It is important to note at this point that when using the term ‘queer’ in academic discourse, it does not necessarily hold the same meaning as it does in the vernacular of LGBTQ+ spaces. In fact, ‘queer’ is widely considered to be a homophobic and transphobic slur. Many LGBTQ+ people have reclaimed slurs, that is, subverted their negative connotations and remade them into something empowering instead. However, in much the same way that white people cannot reclaim racial slurs, non-LGBTQ+ individuals cannot reclaim slurs used specifically to disempower, Otherise, or vilify LGBTQ+ people.

According to Eric Savoy in his essay “You Can’t Go Homo Again”, the term ‘queer’ entered the academic sphere in the early 1990s; he specifically cites the Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference held at Rutgers University in 1991 (129). ‘Queer’, Savoy explains, was a term borrowed from a political activist group called Queer Nation. They had broken away from the New York branch of ACT UP (“the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power”) in the early months of 1990, and were committed to “acknowledg[ing] and deploy[ing] gay and lesbian anger in specific, highly volatile, antihomophobic demonstrations” (141).  In its inchoate state at that time, ‘queer’ “slipped frequently, often in the same performance, between synonymity with gay or lesbian positionalities and an anxious marking of distance from those critical perspectives” (129). In fact, by the time the MLA Convention in New York rolled around in 1992, queerness in academia had taken on a defiant hue and had “an oppositional relation to the gay and the lesbian” (emphasis in original, 130). The contention between gay and lesbian studies and queer theory is difficult to reconcile. Many people dedicated years of their lives to fighting for a legitimate space for gay and lesbian studies in academic spaces, and unsurprisingly, wanted to remain being taken seriously. Thus, they were hesitant when queer theorists began to demand the focus be shifted to queer theory instead of gay and lesbian studies. On the other hand, the frustration of queer theorists in the nineties is difficult to dismiss.  It is exhausting to constantly contort yourself in order to remain palatable to those who would deny you a voice, representation, and basic human rights.

While keeping its history and some of its more negative connotations in mind, ‘queer’ still remains a fitting term for its eponymous theoretical and critical approach. Richard E. Zeikowitz, in his essay “Befriending the Medieval Queer”, asserts that ‘queer’ can “signify any nonnormative behavior, relationship, or identity occurring at a specific moment”, and also “describe an alternative form of desire that threatens the stability of the dominant norm” (67). Jefford Franks3 translates Solli’s poetic definition in which “queer is not defined as an essence, but as a position that implies resistance to the prevailing norm of power” (“Óðinn as a queer deity…”, 32). It should also be stressed that queer is intended to be an umbrella term. There are a myriad of far more specific terms found in the vernacular of the LGBTQ+ community that have as yet not found their way into academic spaces. For instance, what is meant by the term ‘non-binary’, in the context of a discussion on gender? The Transgender Equality Network of Ireland (TENI) defines non-binary as:

“An umbrella term for gender identities that fall outside the gender binary of male or female. This includes individuals whose gender identity is neither exclusively male nor female, a combination of male and female or between or beyond genders. Similar to the usage of transgender, people under the non-binary umbrella may describe themselves using one or more of a wide variety of terms.”

Helpful Terms and Definitions

It is important to keep in mind this idea of non-binary as another one of these umbrella terms, rather than a third gender. There are countless gender identities that fall under the category of non-binary; gender fluid individuals, for example, “experience different gender identities at different times” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). This thesis will demonstrate how, say, Loki can be interpreted as a non-binary figure, but will not delve into more specific identities. Loki could arguably be labelled as genderfluid, or androgyne – such discussion can become tedious, however, if one is unfamiliar with modern queer jargon. Thus for the sake of simplicity, the remainder of the dissertation will use broader umbrella terms like ‘transgender’ and ‘non-binary’.

3. It should be noted that Amy Jefford Franks uses they/them pronouns.

Another term which will be useful to keep in mind is ‘cisgender’. A person who is cisgender is simply someone who is not transgender, i.e. “a person whose gender identity and gender expression is aligned with the sex assigned at birth” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). Cisgender is an important term because it “acknowledges that everyone has a gender identity” and so “a non-trans identity is not presented as normal or natural which stigmatises a trans identity as abnormal or unnatural” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). In a similar vein is the term ‘cissexism’, which is the “assumption that a cisgender identity is more authentic or natural than a trans identity” and that “a person’s sex assigned at birth always remains their real gender” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). The system under which modern Western society functions is what is known as a cis-heteropatriarchy, a “society in which men are an oppressive force over women, and within which cisgender and heterosexual identities are assumed as the default” (Jefford Franks, “Óðinn as a queer deity…”, 31). This system or model is “seen as a colonial force in both historic and modern concepts” (32). Literatures of the past have been colonised by reading them through the lens of cis-heteronormative contructs. Chapter One, in particular, will examine the ways in which the cis-heteropatriarchy has been naturalised, and how this affects our interpretations and criticisms of Old English and Old Norse texts.

People who are intersex are “individuals who are born with sex characteristics (such as chromosomes, genitals, and/or hormonal structure) that do not belong strictly to male or female categories, or that belong to both at the same time” (“Helpful Terms and Definitions”). Many intersex individuals do not identify themselves as being members of the LGBTQ+ community (InterACT, “FAQ: Intersex, Gender, and LGBTQIA+”). I will, however, be including issues surrounding intersexuality, because cissexist and cisnormative attitudes also affect intersex people. Doctors can use language to describe intersex bodies (such as ‘disorder of sex development’) which is rejected by intersex people because it often “supports the idea that their bodies are wrong, or up to doctors to ‘fix’” (InterACT, “FAQ: What is intersex?”). Intersex people assert that they are not ‘disordered’ or ‘broken’, but simply have different bodies that do not fit in neatly with the male/female sexual binary system. The language used by medical institutions to discuss intersex people is reminiscent of the language historically used to describe queer and transgender people4.  Feminist psychology has produced many works based on the gender/sex distinction (that is, gender as cultural and sex as biological or ‘natural’), but intersexuality “poses a fundamental challenge to the assumed ‘naturalness’ of biological sex” and insists that we should “see ‘sex’ (as much as ‘gender’) as socially constructed” (Kitzinger, 494). A more detailed conversation about intersex issues can be found both in this introductory chapter, and in Chapter One.

4. It was not until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association ceased to consider homosexuality as a mental disorder (Lyons, “Psychiatrists, in a Shift, Declare Homosexuality No Mental Illness”). The WHO only announced in 2019 that it no longer classified being transgender a mental or behavioural disorder (BBC, “Transgender no longer recognised as ‘disorder’ by WHO”). The WHO have given countries globally until  January 2022 to implement changes for transgender healthcare.

A more recent but important term to know is ‘TERF’, an acronym that stands for ‘trans exclusionary radical feminist’ (Pearce et al., 677). Thanks to technological phenomena like the Internet and social media, trans people have become more and more visible in feminist activism, “prompting a concurrent rise in discrimination, most notably from within the radical feminist movement” (Munro, 23). Many TERFs do not refer to themselves as such, however, instead preferring to label themselves as ‘gender critical’. This is a misleading term as it denotes “less a critical approach to gender, and more an emphasis on claiming ‘biologically defined’ notions of femaleness and womanhood over gender identity and social concepts of gender” (681). Trans-exclusionary radical feminists argue that allowing people to self-determine their gender will give ‘men’ – which, it should be noted, “is a category frequently presumed to encompass trans women and non-binary people assigned male at birth” – an opportunity to invade women-only spaces (Pearce et al., 680). The extent to which TERF rhetoric and attitudes affect trans activists and perpetuate harmful cissexist prejudice will be explored in greater detail in Chapter One.

January 2021 update: Find the full dissertation here.

How to Love Your Monstrous Mom: Thoughts on Acker’s “Horror and the Maternal in Beowulf”

I love monsters.

I have a soft spot for the creatures that skulk about on the periphery of society, casting menacing glances at the odd passerby. I do enjoy a good skulk myself every so often. But I am not supposed to love monsters; rather, I am supposed to hate them, fear them, reject them. So why am I not afraid?

Well, what are you afraid of? What do you check for under your bed at night? Gender? Your mom? These might seem like silly questions at first, but our society has been fixated, in fascinated horror, on notions of gender construction and discrepancies between these constructions and our reality. Moreover, it isn’t just Freud who believes we have weird psychological relationships with our mothers;  a whole host of critics have explored the terrors of our dear maternal figures. Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian-French literary critic (who really is very much worth researching), unearthed an image of the maternal in the work of Ferdinand Céline that left chills running down my spine: “[T]he mother gives us life, but since she does not give us immortality, she gives us death as well” (704).

Isn’t that a delightfully awful thought? I can’t decide if this is a genuine anxiety, or deliberately pessimistic and just scrambling for more reasons why women are awful and can’t do anything right. Sure, they’re life-givers, but what’s the point if they’re not immortality-givers? To me, that appears to make mothers twice as monstrous; not only are they women, but all of their offspring will eventually die. It’s just unprofessional. 

In “Horror and the Maternal”, Acker faces the most monstrous mother of all: Grendel’s Mother. For those unfamiliar with her, Grendel’s Mother is one of the three monsters Beowulf battles in one of the most important Old English epic poems, (yep, you guessed it) Beowulf. Her son, Grendel, appears as a sort of disfigured, clawed monster that terrorises the mead-hall of Heorot until our great hero swoops in to save the day and do away with the foul beast. Grendel’s Mother is, understandably, not super thrilled about this. She emerges from her mere to exact revenge on the men of the hall, killing one of them, Aeschere, in his bed while he sleeps – an eye for an eye, as is customary in the heroic/feudal society in which the poem is set. Women aren’t really supposed to be the ones exacting revenge, but Grendel’s Mother is the last surviving member of her family, so the role of avenger falls to her.

Here’s the thing: I don’t find Grendel’s Mother monstrous. I’m not scared of her. But I think she makes men anxious.

Arrested Development, Season 3 Episode 1, “The Cabin Show”. GIF made by KaitlynRochelle on tenor.com

Acker calls Grendel’s Mother a “feminine antitype”, but doesn’t expand on what he means by ‘feminine’ in the first place. We could assume that Acker is referring to the construct of femininity of the time, but even that is an unclear concept; does he mean the femininity of the time in which the poem is set, or the femininity of the time in which the poem was written? But really, the impression I get is that Acker is speaking about femininity as something ubiquitous, timeless, unchanging –  when in reality constructs of femininity and masculinity have evolved hugely, and continue to transform now.  

I believe this prompts us to ask whether Grendel’s Mother is categorised as monstrous simply because she does not strive to achieve the feminine ideal (be that the ideal of her culture/time/society, or ours today). I do not believe it is unfair to say that the feminine ideal is an impossible goal, often full of contradictions; no woman ever actually reaches it, though they are expected to try regardless. Hildeburh, for example, with whom Grendel’s Mother is often compared, fails in her role as peace-weaver; she does not reach the feminine ideal, but since she tries, that does not make her a total monster.

(As a side-note, my peer John Buttimer wrote a wonderful blog post on the ‘bad’ queen Modthryth, which I think may be relevant here – she is another female character in Beowulf who is condemned for refusing to reach for the feminine ideal, and instead inflicts physical violence on those who attack her with the psychological violence of the male gaze. Needless to say, I love her.)

When Acker uses the term “feminine antitype” to describe Grendel’s Mother, what he appears to mean, in my opinion at least, is “aggressive”. To Acker, as well as many other critics both male and female, aggression is never feminine; that is to say, aggression is masculine, and passivity is feminine. He even goes so far as to state that Grendel’s Mother’s aggression is “arguably in a fashion reserved for men” (705, italics mine). Note that he does not qualify this with a time period, or with a particular culture or society. 

The only response I have is why? Why is aggression never feminine, and why is passivity never masculine? Moreover, is it even useful to gender attributes like aggression and passivity? If you are not going to refer to constructs of gender at particular points in history and in specific parts of the world, thus contextualising social/cultural values/anxieties/norms, then your ideas of gender constructs become far too ambiguous, broad, inaccurate. Linking the feminine with passivity and the masculine with aggression just feels lazy. Should we instead turn our focus towards expanding what the feminine and masculine can encompass, or even delve into the world of the non-binary? A discussion for another post, maybe.

So what makes Grendel’s Mother monstrous? Well, Acker explains that in Old English as well as Old Norse texts, “a mother, expected to be empowered chiefly through her son, was too horrible to consider in the destructive role of an avenger” (707). (My first thought when reading this was: Are you not considered a mother until you have a son?) It’s interesting that the destructive nature of revenge is acknowledged, considering how detrimental its cyclical nature was on heroic society, but it is only horrible when a woman, worse, a mother takes part. Thus Grendel’s Mother is a monster because 1) she is a mother, and mothers don’t provide immortality,  2) she is aggressive, which is not associated with the feminine ideal of her culture  and 3) she abides by the feudal code of the society in which she lives, which again, isn’t very womanly. 

That doesn’t make her very monstrous to me at all.

Works Cited

Acker, Paul. “Horror and the Maternal in ‘Beowulf.’” PMLA, vol. 121, no. 3, 2006, pp. 702–716. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25486349.

Note: This post’s feature image is by J.R. Skelton from Stories of Beowulf (1908). Taken from Wikipedia.