Women are monsters, according to the patriarchy. That’s the thesis of Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power, Sady Doyle’s follow-up to her 2016 Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why. To elaborate a bit more, Doyle argues that the portrayal of women (and femininity) in our media and culture overlaps with our understanding of the monstrous, the Other, the unnatural or unholy, and in this way patriarchal structures encourage people of all genders to view “male” as normal and default and “female” as deviant. It’s one of those theses that seems obvious once you sit and think about it, if you’re of a feminist bent like myself, but what makes this book special is the consummate skill Doyle brings to synthesizing all these various real life and fictional portrayals of women-as-the-monster. The research and thought on display here is impressive.
Doyle divides the book into three parts: daughters, wives, and mothers. Each part has two or three chapters devoted to social structures or cultural constructs (puberty, virginity, seduction, marriage, birth, family, and bad mothers, respectively) that Doyle then analyzes through a feminist lens and through the intertextuality of horror and true crime. She references historical materials from the nineteenth century as well as fictional works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; she references modern movies and TV shows. Thus spanning several centuries of culture, the book seeks to establish that these phenomena are not limited to any one time or place. They are inherent in the fabric of any patriarchy, this need to oppress women (and influence the behaviour of men) by portraying them as monstrous.
Why only 3 stars? Honestly, the book doesn’t live up to what I was expecting to find. That’s not a criticism: this is a good book. I just had a wildly inaccurate idea of what it would be in my head, something that didn’t involve such a detailed tour through the landscape of horror fiction—a genre that just isn’t something I tend to enjoy watching or thinking about. If you are a fan of horror and of horror criticism, you will like this book a lot more than I do, I hope; the subject matter that Doyle uses just doesn’t quite align with my interests, as interesting as her writing and ideas remain. I enjoyed this book and found it thought-provoking, but it doesn’t sing to me, much in the way that a book about math might teach someone else something but not stir the same type of love it will for me.
That was a long-winded way of saying “your mileage may vary,” I know!
But I needed to put that out there, because my other difficulty in this review is trying to decide what I’ve learned from this book versus what I already knew but just enjoyed hearing someone else say. By this I mean, everything in here basically makes sense to me. I’ve read other texts that examine the portrayal of women and women’s bodies as monstrous (Doyle cites Ginger Snaps, which is 19 years old at this point, oh wow, and is a horror movie I actually did enjoy). Now, Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers has a broader scope and deeper analysis than most of those texts, which tended either to be fiction or shorter articles. So I do think Doyle is making a valuable contribution to this field. It’s just tough for me to get excited about any of her particular ideas. One of the most significant feelings I have coming out of this book is a desire for some writing along these lines specifically about Supernatural, a fantasy/horror show which I absolutely adore but which I have to admit, when examined from a feminist lens, is problematic as all-get-out.
Here’s one specific piece of praise: Doyle articulates why TERFs are not actually feminists quite well. She points out that the long-held historical need to marginalize and demonize trans people (particularly trans women) serves the patriarchy’s agenda: “Though the hatred for trans and queer women is louder and more intense … it nevertheless stems from the same basic patriarchal need for control.” (This comes from a much longer section discussing trans people and their exclusion/othering.) Well said! TERFs claim that trans women are not, somehow, as “real” women as cis women are. Yet this need to control what defines a woman (and as the Virginia Woolf epigraph of this book explains, that is a nearly impossible task) stems itself from patriarchal ideas about sex and gender roles in our society, grounded firmly in the idea of male access and control over reproduction. Doyle discusses and generally attempts to make as much space for trans people in this book as she can, given her own identity as a cis women—she points out that trans people can and should write books along these lines using their own perspectives to guide the analysis, and as she says, I would totally read those books too.
I think the best audience for this book would be people who have a bit more interest in horror or true crime stuff than I do. Don’t let this pronouncement dissuade you from reading this if you’re at all intrigued, mind you—but this is ultimately a book of feminist literary criticism grounded within an early 21st-century awareness of cultural commentary. It would make an excellent textbook for a university class analyzing the modern horror genre. And it is fit for general reading consumption too. It didn’t wow me quite as much as Trainwreck or, indeed, some of the other feminist writing I’ve read recently. But that’s ok! It still left me with lots to think about, and that alone is an excellent thing for a book to do.