Women from Emily Bronte to Taylor Swift have lamented about the loss of the wildness of their childhood. In a society with rigid beliefs about gender and its presentation, girlhood is the last time in a woman’s life that she is not seen as a capital-w Woman and is allowed the freedoms of someone who is not yet seen as a person. Ironically, being a girl may be the only time in a woman’s life that she is actually seen as a person who is allowed to act as she wants, but because personhood is often linked socially to adulthood, women often instead compare this time in their life to feeling more animalistic or proto-human.
Emily Bronte states in her novel Wuthering Heights, “I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free… Why am I so changed?” mirrored two-hundred years later by Taylor Swift in her song “seven”, “please, picture me / in the weeds / before I learned civility / I used to scream, ferociously / any time I wanted.” Both women long not for the idealistic, candy-coated, bright pink version of girlhood many may think of, but the feeling of being feral and ugly and not yet aware that their bodies would ever be viewed as anything but a vessel to play and move and get dirty.
The memories of my girlhood are all wrapped up in an animalistic simplicity. I remember running around from the moment the sun came up until it went down, coming inside with my feet blackened from dirt and road and crusted with blood from the plight of spending days barefoot and exploring. I remember crying as my mom had to comb through days worth of knots, hair tangled from days spent in the lake, out in the grass, rolling on the ground and somersaulting my way through the world. I will never meet more loyal people than the girls I surrounded myself with in that time, bound together by the line between creature and girl.
It was always boys anyway who seemed to be allowed the title of child. More than likely because the line between boy and man stretches out farther than girl and woman. I was cat-called for the first time when I was twelve years old, no longer a girl but an object of fleeting desire. Yet, at twelve years old, boys are still firmly planted in their childhood. There is no desire to return to a state of savagery or the feeling of being able to scream as loud as one wants as men — in particular, white men — are allowed the freedom to say whatever they want as loud as they want for the rest of their lives. As their bodies grow, the knowledge that those bodies no longer belong to them, but for public consumption, does not have to hang over their heads. It makes sense for women to view their childhood through an animalistic, inhuman lens, as the entirety of their personhood during and after puberty is wrapped up in the lack of control over their own body. It is only in childhood that the body belongs to her. The only purpose of the body is to run and stretch and grow and exist. Childhood is the only reprieve from womanhood.
During puberty, then, the changing of the body from the freedom of childhood to the confines of womanhood, it only makes sense that this is more often than not shown through the lens of the monstrous rather than the animalistic.
The difference between monsters and animals comes down to the level of innocence that both parties are awarded. Animals may appear vicious or partake in acts that would be horrific if humans performed them, but they do not have the ability to think through their own actions. They act on survival and basic instinct, and therefore cannot be blamed for the havoc they cause. Monsters, on the other hand, tend to blend some element of human intelligence with pure animal danger. Monsters are usually not fully, or even mostly, human, yet they have the capacity for human evil. Interestingly, the most popular monsters are almost always male. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Thing, The Creature From The Black Lagoon and often werewolves and mummies are all coded as male figures. When there is a female counterpart to these or other monsters, they often pervert what is typically expected or allowed of women, such as The Bride of Frankenstein or Nancy in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. However, in modern-day monster stories, the monstrous women tends to be both the sympathetic figure and the villain of her own story.
The coming of age movies that come to mind when I think of media for boys consists of works like Boyhood, Stand by Me and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. However, the coming of age movies that were far more influential to me were films such as Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body, and Carrie. All centering around teenage girls and the monsters that exist within them.
Carrie was a movie that struck a nerve within me at a young age. Luckily, the period experience shown in the first scene was not anything like my own first experience with my menstrual cycle, but it spoke to me either way. Carrie is both victim and villain, her story marked more by her isolation than her telekinesis. In the novel Carrie, Stephen King writes of her that “the elusive stamp of hurt was already marked clearly in her eyes” placed there by her inability to form relationships with girls her age and the abusive home life she endures with her religious mother. Carrie’s telekinesis appears the moment she gets her first period. At sixteen, she is definitely a late bloomer, and so sheltered and full of shame that she has no idea she is even supposed to get her period and instead believes she is dying. While Carrie’s reaction is treated as bizarre — which, for her age, it is — she is not incorrect that there is a part of her that is dying. At least figuratively.
A girl’s period is believed culturally to be her first step into womanhood. Though there is no set age for this to happen — and may not even be a part of a woman’s coming of age story at all — the message is clear every time: childhood is over. Carrie’s entrance into womanhood is marked by an entrance into monsterhood, finding the ability to move things with her mind, the ability often being used for violence against her will. Carrie’s use of telekinesis often occurs either with the appearance of blood or with a focus on her nakedness and changing body — most notably in the shower or at prom, where she is covered in pig’s blood by her primarily female bullies.
This again shows the difference between the animal and the monster; animals are often associated with their packs, monsters are more often seen as solitary creatures, either alone or faced with tormentors. Carrie then suggests that maybe not all women are monsters, rather just women faced with loneliness or ostracization. The other girls in Carrie’s class have also gotten their period, but they are not othered by that act. They are allowed to slip into womanhood while retaining a sense of personhood, whereas Carrie, detached from the other women in her life, is given the status of villain and monster. While Carrie is never fully painted as the true villain of the film, order is still restored by her death. She takes out her entire high school, save for the one girl who is ever truly kind to her, and dies the same night. Her punishment for what her body can do.
Carrie is not the only film that presents the link between menstruation and a changing into something more sinister. In the film Ginger Snaps, is the blood from Ginger Fitzgerald’s first period that attracts a werewolf to her, changing her into a monster as well. While Carrie’s changes prove more mental, as her powers exist solely in her mind, Ginger Snaps takes the fear of the changing female body and provides a more physically monstrous appearance. In this film, it is still the fault of the transition from girlhood to womanhood that causes Ginger to turn into a monster, but her transition further pushes the horror of puberty.
While Carrie White continues to prove herself naive and unprepared for adulthood, the transition into a werewolf makes Ginger Fitzgerald much more aggressive and sexual. She attacks her bully physically, has sex with a boy in her grade, and can sense and feed off of insecurity. Not only this, but the transformation causes Ginger to have a heavier period and grow hair. These physical and mental attributes are all associated with puberty, but all discouraged in women. Periods are often considered taboo for young women to discuss, despite the fact that they are part of so many young girl’s transition into womanhood. Women are encouraged to shave any body hair, refrain from sex or any sexual desire, and remain soft and gentle to save violence for boys.
Truthfully, puberty is not extremely different for male bodies or female bodies, the differences really just coming down to various processes of the body depending on the genitalia one has. However, despite the fact that people of all genders get increasingly hungry as they go through puberty and their body changes, only boys are encouraged to eat more or expected to have an increasing appetite while girls are encouraged to shrink further. I didn’t even know that girls could masturbate until well into my teenage years, as that topic was never even breached, while for teenage boys, it seemed to barely even be taboo. I started shaving my legs the summer between fifth and sixth grade after a girl pointed out my blonde leg hair while I was wearing a skirt. My friends who had darker leg hair tended to wear jeans in hot weather while school was in session. I once babysat for a girl who told me her mom bought her a razor and shaving cream and told her she had to start shaving her legs because they were too hairy, despite the girl being afraid to do so. She was going into fifth grade in the fall.
Despite this, teenage boys are expected to be as hairy, smelly, and promiscuous — a word seemingly reserved for girls — as they want to be, well into their college life. The appearance of the exact same natural bodily functions when it appears from a female body is instead treated as grotesque and unnatural. Ginger Snaps takes this and turns the fear of pubescent, unattractive women into a physical monster, possessing the fears of a woman outside of what is meant to be her natural place.
While this film depicts Ginger as both a villain as well as someone to be sympathized with, someone who never asked for what happened to her, she is still punished with death by the end of the movie. Her sister, Brigitte, attempts to save her with an antidote to her illness, yet Ginger runs into the knife she is carrying instead, dying in her sister’s arm who is still a girl, not yet marred by the horror of womanhood. Ironically, Ginger dies of a knife wound in their childhood bedroom, perverting the place that once held the innocence of girlhood with her own blood.
Both Carrie and Ginger Snaps center their monster story around a character’s first period, tying their status as outcasts to the beginning of their menstruation. Jennifer’s Body, however, focuses on another ostracizing identity a girl can possess in high school: queerness.
In Jennifer’s Body, Jennifer Check is a popular, pretty girl in high school whose far less popular best friend Needy Lesnicki is completely obsessed with her. Needy and Jennifer go to see a band perform when Jennifer is taken to the woods by the band after the show, believed by them to be a virgin, and sacrificed to further their fame. Because Jennifer is not a virgin, she is turned into a succubus, a female demon who feeds off of sex with men. Jennifer grows more beautiful every time she eats a man and has an intense craving that cannot be satisfied until she does. Needy, in a scene only present in the trailer, scolds Jennifer for her behavior, insisting, “you’re killing people!” Jennifer replies dismissively, “no, I’m killing boys.”
Jennifer represents many different fears revolving around attractive teenage girls. On the side of the boys, it’s the fear of girls actually ruining their lives, devouring them. Or, their actions having repercussions. On the side of the girls, it’s the fear of being already past your prime by the time you have reached high school. Already losing your beauty and appeal and needing to worry about aging before your brain has fully developed. It’s the fear of strange men and what they can do. Not only what they are capable of doing to you, but to your friends, and how powerless you are to help. But at its core, Jennifer’s Body is a film about being a queer teenage girl, and the monster it creates inside of you.
Not all teenage girls experience homophobia in the same way. Not all teenage girls are out of the closet or in the closet or have the same relationship at all with the closet that other girls do. Many queer girls are doubly impacted by other intersecting marginalized identities that continue to make their queerness complicated. The experience I have had as a queer woman is a white, cis experience of queerness. One where I did not come out publicly until college, spent middle school reading Brittana fanfiction at Catholic school, and asserted over and over in high school that while even though I got a pixie cut, that did not make me a lesbian. I was an overactive ally who also partook in speculating which of the girls in my grade was a lesbian with my friends who were disgusted by it, half relieved that my confusion regarding my own sexuality had not registered with them and half terrified that if I ever came to the conclusion that I wasn’t straight, this would be the reaction had behind my back. I was like a creature living undercover amongst them, a girl with the ability to be a predator.
There was a feeling in the pit of my stomach when I finally began to accept my own queerness, like I was killing the girl I was supposed to end up being. I knew that no one would ever look at me the same way again, I knew I was the monster in my own closet. Impossible to kill, nearly impossible to repress. While later in life, it can be a little funny to discover little by little that your entire friend group growing up was gay the whole time, the time in between is spent in isolation. When your secret is your entire identity, there is no room to breathe.
Jennifer the man-eating monster may appear to be a warning about female sexuality, but it also represents the way queer girls are made to feel. For Needy, Jennifer appears to be her first love and most enduring crush. Her boyfriend cannot get any time alone with her that does not involve Jennifer, and Needy is the first person Jennifer finds her way to when she is first turned into a demon. For Needy, the unpopular girl who is not open about her sexuality, the presence of men gets in the way of her relationship with Jennifer. At the same time, Jennifer is the only one who reminds Needy that she is not actually straight, a fact she tries to ignore with the presence of her boyfriend. Thus, Jennifer is both the love of Needy’s life as well as the demon that haunts her, the reminder that her sexuality is not what she projects to everyone else.
By definition, a succubus is meant to only go after and kill men. However, Needy often appears to be both someone who Jennifer both attempts to protect as well as the main object of her torment. She does not simply seduce Needy and kill her to get it over with, but taunts her with the reminder of her queerness. Jennifer taunts Needy with the suggestion of playing “boyfriend-girlfriend like we used to” and calls her butch when she finally kills her with a box-cutter.
Though Jennifer appears to be canonically bisexual as she tells Needy that she “goes both ways” in reference to her willingness to kill any gender, her apparent threat to men while having men as her biggest threat to her safety is a consistent trope in the life of lesbians. At the end of her life, it is Needy who finally slays Jennifer, in Jennifer’s own bed. A bed they have been intimate in together before. Similar to how Ginger was killed in her childhood bedroom after perverting it with her monster-woman form, Jennifer is punished in her own bedroom after perverting it with her monstrous sexuality. Because Needy partakes in this as well, she is punished at the end as well, lying beside Jennifer in her bed and discovered by Jennifer’s mother. If Jennifer was not dead, the scene could be placed in too many queer films. Needy has killed Jennifer, penetrating her in a way, and after being discovered by Jennifer’s mother, is institutionalized.
While this film is often seen as a feminist masterpiece ahead of its time — which it is, by the way — it offers a rather bleak take of the lives of women and the monsters they are. In Carrie, Ginger Snaps, and Jennifer’s Body, the story ends with the monster-woman being murdered because of the monster that womanhood has turned her into. There is no happy ending, there is no life for a girl who has committed the crime of womanhood. As stated earlier, the animal-girl is dead, and she can never come back. I believed this to be true until I picked up Nightbitch by Rachel Yoder.
Nightbitch covers many of the topics already addressed in the films mentioned above. The titular Nightbitch, who is given no other name, is a mother who spends five days a week alone with her toddler son as her husband goes on various work trips, then comes home too tired to do housework. She once worked in a gallery and was a graduate student in art, having big dreams of being an independent artist until she became pregnant. Now, she has lost her dreams and identity due to the combination of her new identity as a mother as well as her lack of sleep. On top of all of this, she believes she is turning into a dog.
Nightbitch believes she is growing a tail as well as a patch of fur that begins at her neck then covers her back. She is growing increasingly aggressive at night, yelling at her husband as well as her toddler son, and develops a craving for raw meat. To anyone, this would appear as a straightforward werewolf story. Even more straightforward than the story of Ginger Snaps, following the beat of timeless werewolf stories combined with horror stories of horrific events happening to mothers as their husbands deny their reality.
Throughout the beginning of the novel, the story feels monotonous and depressing. Nightbitch is treated poorly and disrespected by her husband, which she puts up with because he really is a great guy, right? She experiences excruciating loneliness and depression due to her life with her son, who cannot empathize with her due to being a toddler and can only demand more of her. She is too smart for the mindless day-to-day of having a toddler, she has no time to talk to adults, and she has no support from anyone. However, after finding a book at the library titled, “A Field Guide to Magical Women: A Mythical Ethnography,” she begins to feel less alone. The book outlines various types of magical women, mostly combinations of various animals and human women as well as various types of mothers who possess some sort of magic. It is when Nightbitch stumbles upon a chapter about “weremothers” that the reader believes they see where the novel is going. Clearly, this is a straightforward werewolf story. But Nightbitch is never fully called a weremother, nor does she appear to fully be a monster. Rather, Nightbitch really is just a dog, her son just her puppy.
Rather than deciding to make Nightbitch a werewolf, an already existing and easily identifiable monster, Yoder instead chooses to maintain that she is just a dog. Nothing truly special about her. Not only this, but when Nightbitch leans into her identity as a dog, she finally becomes happy not only with herself but with her life as a mother. She took away so much of her life that she hated, the monotony of being a mother, the loneliness of having a human son, and leaned back into the animal instincts that mothers and children appear to share across the human and animal line. Nightbitch is not a monster. She is an animal. She is savage, she is free, she can make as much noise as she wants, she screams, she howls, and she loves her son.
Upon seeing her husband, deep into her transition into Nightbitch, she thinks, “I am your wife. I am a woman. I am this animal. I have become everything. I am new and also ancient. I have been ashamed but will be no more.” Though she never fully is able to share this identity with her husband, only able to bond with her child in this way. This again suggests the divide between men and women. The way that women are never fully allotted the personhood that men are, despite being made of the same material. While in every way, there is very little that differs between people of various genders biologically, there is never room for women in humanity socially.
While again and again, the transition from girlhood into womanhood feels like a transformation into a monster, a being that is denied both personhood as well as the innocence of the animal, Nightbitch shows that that does not have to be the case. Womanhood does not have to be a life of bleeding and repressing and dying. Rather, there is a way to lean back into the animal. There is a way to look at one’s own body and what it can do and exist back in the space between human and monster. The innocent space where the only urges are to bond and survive. Or, maybe, a woman will always be a blur between animal and monster. There will always be a lack of humanity given to women, but there is some amount of power in deciding how far to take it, and how to survive with it.