This podcast is part of the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Symposium.
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Podcast by: Rebecca Gault
‘I Hunger. It Consumes Me’:
Hunger and Desire as Feminine Affliction
Content Warning: discussion of cannibalism, disordered eating, food, flesh, murder, gore.
Eve took the apple from the tree and humanity was doomed to fall from Eden. Persephone ate the pomegranate seeds and so, the winter came to ravage her mother’s work. Hunger is a feminine affliction. There has been a surge in theory about the female body and the meanings inscribed upon it, from Atwood to Ellmann, and yet these theories remain rather squarely in the field of the real. When women’s bodies – and indeed their hungers – are placed into a fantastical setting to allow for exaggeration and extremes, what does this do to the politics behind it? In examining figures such as the female werewolf, the female cosmic force, and the female cannibal, this paper seeks to explore the ways in which fantastika allows for female hunger to transcend conventional boundaries and allow for excessive consumption in ways that become both freeing and horrific. The discussion of female werewolves will centre the hunger and desire for freedom through bestial natures and the idea of letting go of humanity to fulfil this freedom. This leads into a discussion of elevation of the human into the deific and the cosmic hunger exhibited by Marvel’s Phoenix Force and her subsequent consumption of entire stars as an emotional need going unfulfilled, ultimately leading into a final discussion of the most transgressive type of feeding of them all; that of the female cannibal who consumes human flesh as an act of rebellion and horror. By utilising Barbara Creed’s theory of the monstrous-feminine and sociological frameworks of women’s relationship with both food and hunger, this paper will seek to analyse and examine exactly what is transgressive about female hunger and how fantastika seeks to elevate this phenomenon in such a way that it becomes a significant commentary on femininity and its intersection with desire.
About the Author: Rebecca Gault is an early-career academic from Glasgow, Scotland. She has a MA in English Literature from the University of Glasgow and is a current MLitt student on the Fantasy Literature program at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests include monstrosity, gender and sexuality studies, and modes of fantasy.
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This podcast is part of Panel 8: Cannibalizing Femininity, which will take place at 6:50pm GMT time.
This podcast is presented by Rebecca Gault, who is an early-career academic from Glasgow, Scotland. She has a MA in English Literature from the University of Glasgow and is a current MLitt student on the Fantasy Literature program at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests include monstrosity, gender and sexuality studies, and modes of fantasy.
Hi, my name is Rebecca and today I’m presenting “I Hunger, It Consumes Me: Hunger and Desire as Feminine Affliction.” Before we go any further, I just want to state that this paper will contain some light discussion of disordered eating, anorexia, gore, and cannibalism. So, just as a warning.
Hunger is a feminine affliction. Images of food permeate the historical and mythological stories of women that we have come to be familiar with. These images are so common that they have even started to infect common parlance and thus, our everyday speech; all of us seem to have a ‘forbidden fruit’ of some kind. Eve and the apple have become a monolith in popular culture, both villanised and deified for her acts in Eden. The so-called ‘first woman’ transgresses the norms put upon her by God and does so by consuming - Eve’s consumption of the ‘forbidden fruit’ exiles her from Eden but, as according to Genesis, gives her ‘knowledge of good and evil’. She is far from the only woman to consume in such a way.
Persephone consumes pomegranate seeds and thus, dooms her world to a constant, recurring winter - all for indulging in a taboo she did not know existed. Persephone complicates Eve’s desire for knowledge - she was abducted, despite recent revisions of the myth to become a more romantic tale - and thus, her desire becomes for something simpler, for sustenance and for home.
When you tie these physical manifestations of food from biblical and mythological stories into a coherent image of what food and femininity mean to one another, what does it start to become? For me, the obvious answer here is that desire.
Hunger and desire are inextricably linked in many spheres but, when femininity and fantastika enter the conversation, it’s likely that we see these hungers move to a state of extremity, not seen often in other types of fiction. In this respect, the genre of the fantastic allows for a much greater exaggeration of the notion of hunger, leading to the expression of hunger and desire in the monstrous woman.
And the first of the monstrous-feminine archetypes that I want to talk about today is that of the female werewolf. The female werewolf is more popular in folkloric tradition than a lot of current discourses would have you believe. They even sort of feature in some early werewolf fiction such as The Were-Wolf by Clemence Housman, and the 1938 short story "Werewoman" by C. L. Moore. Contemporary fiction has sought to not only villainise the female werewolf but also to erase her significance. The female werewolf is relegated to the side, and is very rarely seen in a transformative capability compared to her male counterparts purely because of the fact that her mere existence disrupts patriarchal ideals. Part of this comes from her appearance - the female werewolf by virtue of her very existence bucks patriarchal norms. She is hairy, and ugly, and her body distorts uncomfortably as she transforms - meaning that she refuses to be kept in the easy categorisation of the archetypically beautiful woman.
But this physical aspect of the female werewolf is most likely a manifestation of the true cultural fear associated with her - that of feminine hunger and consumption. Aviva Briefel in her article ‘Monster Pains: Masochism, Menstruation, and Identification in the Horror Film’ explains that the masculinised horror monster acts out of masochism and a desire to enact punishment on himself, whereas the female monster either acts out of revenge for her past abuses or acts masochistically but without any intentionality.
The starving werewolf brings this to mind. Often, the werewolf denies her own monstrosity, afraid of what she has become and the fact that it will Other her in the eyes of society and so, she begins to starve the beast out of her. Maud Ellmann writes that “the anorectic, starving in the midst of plenty, has become the enigmatic icon of our times, half heroine, half horror”. When the female werewolf is to be seen as a villain by her society, it only makes sense that she would reach for self-starvation in order to become a half-heroic martyr.
An example of this experience lives in the pages of Marvel comic book. Rahne Sinclair, a mutant from Marvel’s X-Men line, possesses the ability to change into a wolf form, along with a half wolf/half human form. Raised in an evangelical environment where her every desire was seen as a slight from God, Rahne Sinclair fears the worst about herself every time she wants anything - she fears that she is in fact a demon. She claims that she fears the part of her that wants to remain as the wolf forever and so, she starves herself of her true impulses in order to view herself as someone who is attempting to be heroic. These often are violent ones, a notion that is very often punished in feminine presenting people - seen instead as a transgression of gender norms. Rahne self-punishes for these urges but cannot help but give into her hunger, although she justifies this through a feminized martyr lens. The wolf only deserves to be fed if it can be of use.
And she may be starving her own desires in order to make a moral justification to herself but this is far from the only type of self-starvation that manifests in female werewolves. In the BBC TV show ‘Being Human’, we see the turning and first transformation of Nina, a nurse at the local hospital. She struggles to come to terms with her newfound identity as a wolf and with the hungers that come with it. On the morning following her first transformation, Nina exhibits disgust at the mere thought of consuming an animal while in wolf form - something that her boyfriend George (who is also a werewolf) does. She would rather see herself starve than become animalistic in this way.
Furthermore, she intends to starve the wolf out of herself entirely by undergoing medical procedures to excise the wolf - starving it to death within her own healthy and human body.. Ellmann writes that “her hunger was a form of speech; and speech is necessarily a dialogue whose meanings do not end with the intentions of the speaker.” In Nina’s case, her speech is one of desire for normality. Unlike Rahne, Nina is pragmatic and not prone to self martyrdom in the same way - but she still rejects this animal part of her in hopes that taking control of her consumption will help her tame her basest animal needs.
The wolf is inherently a creature of the earth however. It is very grounded and, while the concept of the werewolf operates in the realm of fantastika, it’s a very tangible mode of fantasy that, for all intents and purposes, may well occupy the dark corners of our own world. However, media takes the feminine hunger to cosmic scales too. In this respect, I turn back to Marvel Comics but this time, to Jean Grey, or more specifically, to Jean Grey as the Phoenix. As the Phoenix, Jean ultimately consumes an entire star - a hunger seen on a far more extreme scale than that of the wolf. Yet this comes from desire too. In the Dark Phoenix Saga, written by Chris Claremont, she says “I…hunger, Scott – for a joy, a rapture, beyond all comprehension. That need is a part of me, too. It…consumes me.”
The Phoenix Force that is within her then comes to be representative of feminine hunger on a cosmic level - all it knows how to do is consume and yet, this comes to be a very complex experience for Jean, simultaneously leading her to do horrendous things while also liberating her. If self-starvation is to make a martyr out of one’s own self - to start a conversation without words - then Jean Grey’s excessive consumption as Dark Phoenix is a grab for power. Consumption is so heavily regulated for feminine presenting people, particularly in contemporary culture, that the notion of endless, boundless consumption becomes a power fantasy.
Much like the female werewolf, violence becomes the outlet for these hungering urges. Jean attempts to starve herself of the power that came with the Phoenix but finds that she cannot move past that hunger. Kieron Gillen, in his Judgment Day: X-Men tie-in comic, writes that her husband “sleeps in the lair of a red dragon” and that she “can never make up” for what she has done. Simone Weil argued that starving is equivalent to renouncing the past, and that it is "the first of all renunciations," because it is to void the body of its stored anteriority, as said by Ellmann. Jean allows her hunger to lead to excessive consumption - of stars, of power, of desire, and thus she cannot ever quite make up for or renounce her transgressions in the eyes of wider society.
If the cosmic deity cannot make up for horrors committed through consumption then she is doomed to either live in guilt or self-starve in the martyrdom space I have previously outlined. But, there is a third option; total liberation from the normative ideals of self-starvation and hunger as a mode of self-actualisation and improvement. This liberation is best typified by one figure; the female cannibal.
The female cannibal holds her hunger as a weapon. According to Jennifer Brown’s text on cannibals, the cannibal is a ‘mutable figure’ which recurs in ‘various guises at times when popular culture needs to express very real fears and anxieties’. Consumption is central to the fear elucidated by the female cannibal - in traditional practices, women are often responsible for food preparation and family food practices. By retooling these practices to be an expression of monstrosity, female cannibalism allows for liberation from practices that a contemporary woman may find very shackling. In the 2013 film Compulsion, the female cannibal is a food blogger and chef, enthusiastic to the end about her food practices and one who chooses to retool these experiences into something that she finds a lot of power in. However, in the 2016 film Raw by Julia Ducournau, the female cannibal is a vegetarian who is repulsed by her own incessant desire for human meat.
The main character, Amy, in Compulsion uses her experience with food as a method of control - over her ex-husband and then, over her neighbour who she becomes fixated upon. This control is her ultimate desire - food and the hunger of others is the method through which she exerts it. However, it is also of interest to note that her neighbour who ultimately comes to conflict with her and defeat her, if you’d like to put it that way, is prone to self-starvation. Here, we see hunger and food come into direct conflict.
Justine in Raw wants nothing more than to ignore her hungers. More so than Amy from Compulsion, Justine has more in common with the self-starving martyrs of the female werewolf. However, Justine’s hungers are, in fact, inevitable. This consumption of human flesh becomes addictive to her and means that she abandons her principles of vegetarianism. Despite this, there is a liberatory aspect here. Justine ultimately is liberated from the traditional nuclear family structure she believed she was originally part of - she is the youngest daughter of a white cisheterosexual married couple which is a fairly standard structure for a family. However, the truth of it is that her hunger for human flesh is matrilineal. Her sister exhibits it, just as her mother does. The fear elucidated within Raw is the fear of female consumption and desire being able to take precedence over male strength in the home. The final shot of the film reveals that her father is nothing more than a meat farm for the women around him.
Ultimately, the hunger of the female cannibal is one that cannot be easily sated - and thus liberates everyone who takes part in it from traditional structures. These hungers likely will never be sated for as long as these same cultural fears persist.