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Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture coverClassical monsters such as Medusa and the Minotaur abound in modern stories [1].

What makes them so appealing, and how has representation of these creatures changed as they enter our contemporary era? In Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture, Liz Gloyn sets out to answer these questions by creating a framework that identifies monsters and unpacks their cultural significance.

Unfortunately, the answers Gloyn presents are vague and poorly argued, leaving me dissatisfied: I was unsure even by the end of the book what the main thesis was supposed to be. Gloyn, a senior lecturer in classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, seems more interested in reciting fannish knowledge than in using scenes from pop culture to support a clearly delineated argument. The only thing I really took away from Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture was the desire to create my own monster studies framework to account for the gaps I found in Gloyn’s.

Tracking Classical Monsters is divided into eight chapters that span three arcs. The introduction and first two chapters, “What Makes a Monster?” and “Classical Monsters and Where to Find Them,” set out to define “monster,” provide context for their original depictions, and trace their journey to modern adaptations. Chapters 3 and 4, “Monsters on Film in the Harryhausen Era” and “Muscles and Imagination: The Modern Peplum and Beyond,” outline broad trends in reimagining antiquity and the classical period through two eras of cinema. Finally, Chapters 5 through 8 are case studies of specific series and monsters: “Monsters and Mythologies in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys,” “Tripping the Telefantastic in Xena: Warrior Princess and Doctor Who,” “Thoroughly Modern Medusa,” and “Lost in the Minotaur’s Maze.” The epilogue serves as a footnote to the piece.

According to Gloyn, most theorists assume that monsters from Greco-Roman myth are bound to one setting. That is, unlike vampires, which may appear in various time periods and narratives ranging from Dracula to Twilight, a classical monster like the Chimera can only appear in antiquity. Gloyn, however, argues that classical monsters are not bound to one setting, but appear in modern media as cultural touchstones that are meant to be recognizable. Rather than being defined by the time and place where they are found, classical monsters can be identified by their hybridity, their coexistence with humanity, and their dependence on being part of a hero’s narrative journey.

Gloyn acknowledges that she is biased in her approach:

 

My case study selections inevitably draw on areas in which I have more analytical expertise and, yes, the things that I like. […] I can’t claim objectivity in this selection. I am embedded in the culture from which I am selecting my examples, and it would be wrong to claim that my preferences have not affected my choice of evidence. (pp. 2–3)

Yet I found it odd that Gloyn describes her focus as “Anglo-American popular culture” (p. 1). First of all, Doctor Who is a British TV show. Second, there is nothing in the marketing of any of the intellectual property cited that suggests an inclination toward an “Anglo-American” audience exclusive of other groups. Gloyn pays lip service to including cultural context, then, while not deconstructing her own background, lenses, or analytical decisions.

Still, I can accept Gloyn’s overall argument. It seems pretty obvious that new takes on classical monsters show up regularly in modern pop culture. A brief list off the top of my head:

  • Mannish Man, a Minotaur introduced in Adventure Time season 1, episode 5, “The Enchiridion!”, first aired on April 19, 2010.
  • The Manotaurs, a group of hypermasculine Minotaurs introduced in Gravity Falls season 1, episode 6, “Dipper vs. Manliness,” first aired on July 20, 2012.
  • Celia Mae, described on the Pixar Wiki as “Mike Wazowski’s Gorgon-Cyclops-Medusa-like girlfriend” in Monsters, Inc., first released on November 2, 2001.
  • A Minotaur, griffin, satyr, cyclops, and Medusa, among other monsters, appear in South Park’s three-episode movie “Imaginationland,” first aired from October 17, 2007 to October 31, 2007.

But I couldn’t locate the “new model for interpreting the extraordinary vitality that classical monsters have shown,” as the copy on the back of the book boasts, is present here. There is lengthy summary of other scholars’ work on monsters, including anthropological, psychoanalytical, Foucaultian, and feminist frameworks for understanding monsters and what they represent. Later on, there are lengthy summaries of movies and TV episodes, but, as with her summaries of analytical frameworks, there is little of Gloyn’s own analysis throughout. I’m left with many data points but no guidance from Gloyn on how I’m meant to connect them to a broader framework that I can extrapolate to other classical monsters I encounter in media. Even when Gloyn touches on a compelling concept, like Kristeva’s concept of “abjection”—the animalistic tendencies we choose to repress to be “human” [2] —she doesn’t tie the framework to later examples that would be wonderfully appropriate.

I also found myself frustrated with claims that weren’t backed up with evidence. Gloyn cites Ray Harryhausen as the dominating influence on the second wave of classical films, spanning the 1950s through the 1970s. Perhaps it’s a generational difference, but I had absolutely no idea who Ray Harryhausen was before reading this thesis; even so, my ignorance would have easily been remedied by Gloyn providing, for example, what percentage of all genre releases in that era Harryhausen’s films constituted, or a list of subsequent creators citing Harryhausen as an influence—anything to give me a cultural grounding in Harryhausen’s importance. Instead, I’m asked to assume the claim is true and move on without further context. Gloyn’s vehement anti-CGI stance is also jarring and unsubstantiated, seeming to reflect only Gloyn’s own likes and dislikes rather than a common trend among viewers.

As I moved on to more and more disparate case studies, I was left wondering what the scope of Gloyn’s thesis truly was: Where are the boundaries around the terms “antiquity” and “classical”? Should humans be included as monsters? If not, which monsters are more paradigmatic, and why? The notion of the book’s scope became particularly problematic when I reached Gloyn’s commentary on centaurs. Despite being classical creatures, centaurs are not usually represented as monsters. I kept waiting for Gloyn to outline the difference between a non-human species and monsters, but none of that commentary came. This is a pity, since delineating their differences would have helped me to better understand how to identify something as a monster instead of simply a creature.

The biggest gap in Gloyn’s analysis, however, was the lack of commentary on coloniality. Throughout Tracking Classical Monsters, Gloyn assumes Western binaries, particularly about hybridity, as her foundation. The absence of colonialism as a transit point from the classical period to today is a major flaw in her analysis. Colonialism changed everything about the way we relate to the world, and we are much closer temporally to the peak of colonialism than we are to the classical era. For example, Gloyn cites Donna Haraway’s “heliotropic gaze” [3] as a model for deconstructing why light takes away much of a monster’s power by removing ambiguity:

This version of history, told from a perspective in which we are always advancing, has a fixed beginning and a definite sense that where we are, right now, is the best place mankind has ever been. The moment at which man really becomes man is the European Enlightenment, the bringing of light through the application of rational thought, the use of the (supposedly infallible and impartial) scientific method, the ever-closer scrutiny and examination of the world around us. Haraway sees this as the moment that creates the heliotropic gaze, a way of looking which turns toward the light of the Enlightenment, and prioritises the Enlightenment’s rationalist ideology and the idea that everything can somehow be measured, observed, described, understood through supposedly neutral scientific practices. […] The glare of that patriarchal heliotropic gaze, the idea that we always look towards the light and that the light is where we ought to look, takes away the darkness in which the monster lurks, and thus takes away a crucial part of the monster itself. (p. 39)

The entire mechanism of coloniality underlying such a heliotropic gaze, including the myth of a single timeline of modernity, is invisible throughout Gloyn’s analysis. This failure to address coloniality leads to an analysis that feels shallow in its applicability to other monsters and narratives. For example, a more nuanced survey that decenters the West would have strengthened Gloyn’s analysis of the plasticity of myth by more broadly examining how myth manifests in other folkloric traditions and how folk tales also get adapted into the modern day. Perhaps the book could then have constructed a stronger framework for how classical monsters are distinct from other legendary figures.

The invisibility of coloniality also leads to egregious misreads of centaurs, the Minotaur, and Rihanna’s depiction of Medusa. Much of the danger of hybridity as represented by centaurs and the Minotaur in Gloyn’s analysis stems from modern readings of their narratives as allegories for sexual transgression—“miscegenation” (pp. 91, 124) for centaurs and bestiality for the Minotaur. Centaurs in Hercules and Xena, for example, are seen as stand-ins for people of color in allegories about racism (p. 90). The union between centaurs and humans, then, is presented as a solution to racial conflict, symbolized most obviously by their offspring:

The newborn baby, shown precariously teetering on its hooves at the end of the episode, symbolises that move from hate to love; Marmax too is able to put down his anger after attending the literal birth of a new hope. […] Belach’s sense of the centaur as monstrous, predicated on the belief that his daughter had been ‘stolen’ and that his legacy had been thwarted, is replaced by a model of the integration of the ‘monster’ into the family. New birth once again signals hope, and, in turn, questions the parameters for defining the monster: where Xenan met Belach’s fixed criteria, his infant centaur grandson destabilises them. (pp. 123–124)

I found myself very disturbed by the implications of this analysis when seen through a racial lens. Gloyn fixates on the racial Other as monstrous and requiring “integration” (really?); the burden of dismantling racism is then put on the shoulders of a literal newborn by merit of their very existence rather than on the shoulders of oppressors. At the same time, hybridity, as epitomized by creatures such as the centaurs or the Minotaur, is the crux of being a monster, according to Gloyn’s earlier definition. Unwittingly or not, Gloyn’s framework positions hybridity as a catch-22 that simultaneously creates the monstrous while shifting responsibility for dismantling monstrousness back onto the monster. Gloyn may make asides noting that racism is an institution that needs to be dismantled rather than a problem that can be solved by personal action (p. 90), yet her framework lets oppressors escape every time as unburdened heroes.

This set-up—of the centaur as a symbol of hope born of a relationship considered sexually transgressive—falls apart when applied (or not applied, as in this case) to the Minotaur. The question of what bestiality in the Minotaur’s origin story could symbolize never comes up, even as the centaurs’ origin story is afforded flexibility. From his origin as a product of deception and assault, the Minotaur can easily be read as a manifestation of fear of sexual violation and hypermasculinity—fears that are commonly present in White supremacist envisionings of men of color. Gloyn highlights the Minotaur’s hypermasculinity but doesn’t touch on the Minotaur’s potential as a vehicle for racial commentary. Even a basic understanding of coloniality and respectability politics would have greatly deepened Gloyn’s analysis by offering closer parallels to compare and contrast how different monsters are rendered and how creatures are or are not classified as monsters. For instance, are centaurs often not considered monstrous because their hybrid existence is utopian and harmonious? Does the Minotaur need to be contained in a literal maze because he represents a dangerous form of hybridity? There is otherwise little here to distinguish centaurs and Minotaurs.

Acknowledging coloniality would have deepened Gloyn’s analysis of Medusa as well. Medusa’s existence, like the Minotaur, is a consequence of sexual violation. Yet while discussing feminist representations of Medusa, Gloyn doesn’t consider the idea of gaze, whether male or Western—a deep disappointment, considering that Medusa is such a strong symbol for representing and subverting the oppressive gaze, as well as reclaiming agency over how the Other is perceived [4].

Gloyn’s oversights when it comes to coloniality and the White, Western, male gaze are most egregious when she deconstructs Rihanna’s December 2013 Medusa photo shoot for British GQ. Gloyn begins by stating that the photo shoot appears, on the surface, to be “profoundly uninteresting and wearily predictable in its misogyny” (p. 163). Then, Gloyn’s analysis takes a sharp swerve:

The photos also draw on the tradition of seeing the racialised other as a symbol of the exotic. This colonial habit goes back as far as the public exhibition of Saartjie Baartman as the ‘Hottentot Venus’ in various European capitals during the early 1800s, where the viewers’ primary interest was the size of Baartman’s buttocks. The display of black bodies for the visual pleasure of white viewers, often using the excuse of scientific observation to justify sexual abuse, constructed inhabitants of colonised countries as aberrations from the norm and thus acceptable objects for objectification. While Rihanna’s appearance on the front of GQ presents her as beautiful in a way that was barred to Baartman, the increased presence of racialised bodies presented positively in popular culture does not remove historic racist assumptions about those bodies and their behaviour. For Rihanna to appear as an actual monster adds a layer of historically informed racism to the sexism already on display. (p. 163)

I am frankly appalled that Gloyn chose to invoke Saartjie Baartman in conjunction with Rihanna’s Medusa photoshoot. While Rihanna is considered a sex symbol, the basis for that status is not any one of her physical features in particular. There are therefore better touchstones and deeper reads on racialized sexualization that do not invoke such a violently racist example, especially one that has little connection to Rihanna’s photo shoot other than the subjects both being Black women. The decision to choose Saartjie Baartman as a touchstone for discussing a White gaze reveals more about the author’s approach to seeing Rihanna, I think, than a summary of common reactions from a general populace to seeing the photo shoot.

Later on, Gloyn comments on how photos of Rihanna’s “badly bruised face” circulated in March 2009 following Chris Brown’s assault. I put the description in quotations because I find it to be an attempt at titillation and shock when something like “post-assault photos” would have done just as well. Furthermore, in invoking Chris Brown’s violence, Gloyn centers Rihanna’s decisions about her image around the timeline of his abuse:

Rihanna cultivated a public persona which acknowledged her past abuse whilst linking it to erotic violence as a sexual preference, in particular in her albums Rated R (2009) and Loud (2010), the latter of which began with a song titled ‘S&M’. The couple seemed to be reconsidering their relationship throughout 2012, with Rihanna confirming to Rolling Stone in January 2013 that they had started dating again. […] Rihanna had spent the four years before the shoot at the centre of a highly visible discussion about domestic violence[.] (p. 166)

I would willingly and easily accept that the Medusa photo shoot is Rihanna’s response to the various gazes she has been subjected to, including being in the public spotlight after intimate partner violence. What I do not accept is Gloyn completely glossing over the possibility that Rihanna gravitates to BDSM themes and the character of Medusa, defined and yet not defined by sexual violence, because they are cultural touchstones for how sexual power and agency can be subverted and reclaimed. Instead, Gloyn seems to present Rihanna’s choices as some kind of misguided consequence of her personal life. Furthermore, equating BDSM with sexual violence also belies a shallow understanding of the power exchange and negotiation within BDSM—relationships that are not available within the power imbalances inherent in sexual violence and abuse. I am also deeply uncomfortable with Gloyn’s fixation on highlighting violence committed by a Black man toward a Black woman in a lone example of actual people of color in “Anglo-American pop culture.”

I was very excited to read Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture, as the topic is fascinating to me, and I am always curious to see how far a monster can be divorced from its original context before losing its iconicity. But Gloyn’s disjointed lists of examples and sparse analysis left me severely disappointed and looking for a thread of cogent argument, perhaps from Ariadne herself, to help find my way out. Gloyn’s reading of Rihanna is emblematic of the overall shortcomings of Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture. Ultimately, I found Gloyn’s analysis to be unaware of its own limitations. Consciously or not, Gloyn replicates a common pitfall of academia: assuming that the White, Western gaze is the default understanding for narratives—and often the only understanding of narratives. The resulting analytical framework feels shallow, as it does not interrogate its own foundational assumptions and creates a form of tunnel-vision that blocks out other potential readings of such monsters and archetypes. Some very cursory digging on television and movie representations of hybridity, or on race in general, would have revealed responses from people of other perspectives about how they read the narrative differently, and might have provided another understanding beyond the hegemonic default.

Even more fascinating, though, is how marginalized people reclaim monstrosity. The transformation of monstrosity from an object of horror to a badge of pride is particularly apparent in queer and disabled communities, as well as among people of color—absent of other representations of ourselves, we often view monsters as symbols that more closely mirror the difficulties of our existence. Reading Rihanna’s Medusa performance as one that symbolizes agency and femininity in the specific context of misogynoir is the type of analysis precluded by the limitations of Gloyn’s framework. Likewise, the deeper, more racially sensitive understandings of centaurs and Minotaurs that could explain their enduring popularity as symbols of hybridity are absent because Gloyn never questions the foundational assumption of her thesis: that all of the pop culture she references is “Anglo-American” at all. The audience, in fact, has always included people of color. By assuming her examples are “Anglo-American,” Gloyn has already cut out our perspectives as people of color by rendering us invisible among the spectators.

The White gaze is not the only one: those on the margins see the same symbols, but often interpret and reproduce them in different ways. A deeper understanding of that transformation and reclamation would have only helped Gloyn’s analysis, creating richer contextual frameworks for understanding symbols across even more contexts.

Endnotes

[1] I myself have written an erotica retelling of the Minotaur myth, under the pen name December Seas. [return]

[2] Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press. [return]

[3] Haraway, Donna. 1992. “The promises of monsters: A regenerative politics for inappropriate/d others,” in Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler (eds.), Cultural Studies, 295–337, New York: Routledge. [return]

[4] I also have an urban fantasy erotica take on Medusa that explores the concept of gaze. [return]



S. Qiouyi Lu writes, translates, and edits between two coasts of the Pacific. Their fiction and poetry has appeared in Asimov’s, F&SF, and Strange Horizons, and their translations have appeared in Clarkesworld. They edit the flash fiction and poetry magazine Arsenika. You can find out more about S. at their website, s.qiouyi.lu.
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