Stories are everywhere. They help you make sense of what’s happening, like when TV news makes heroes out of Olympic athletes. They tell you how to behave morally, in religious texts like the Bible. Your friends tell you stories about their lives. Advertisers tell you stories to get you to buy their stuff. We are a culture awash in stories.
Every culture is steeped in stories – stories make sense of past and present, foretell what’s to come, showcase a culture’s values, and tell you how to live. So it’s more than worth taking the time to examine what they are telling you.
Jess Zimmerman’s Women and Other Monsters is part analysis of Greek mythology, part memoir, part rallying cry, and an instant feminist classic. Her book landed on The New York Times’ best 100 books of 2021 and is lauded by none other than Carmen Maria Machado – another powerfully subversive feminist writer – on the cover.
Why the focus on female monsters? Because half the human population is trying to hide her spiky tail, Zimmerman writes in the introduction:
“For women, the boundaries of acceptability are strict, and they are many. We must be seductive but pure, quiet but not aloof, fragile but industrious, and always, always small. We must not be too successful, too independent, too self-centered – and when we can’t manage all the contradictory outcomes, we are turned into grotesques. Women have been monsters, monsters have been women, in centuries’ worth of stories, because stories are a way to encode these expectations and pass them on.
“We’ve built a culture on the backs of these monstrous women, letting them prop up tired morals about safety and normalcy and feminine propriety. But the traits they represent – aspiration, knowledge, strength, desire – are not hideous. In men’s hands, they have always been heroic.”
Each chapter centers on one lady monster and the big lady sin she represents. Medusa was so ugly that simply looking at her turned men to stone. The Sirens are dangerously sexy, luring men to their death with their sweet songs and beautiful bodies. The Sphinx with her unsolvable riddle “is the story of a woman with questions a man can’t answer. Men didn’t take that any better in the fifth century BCE than they do now,” Zimmerman explains.
But the book goes way beyond an academic critique and instead serve as a springboard for us to understand how they resonate today. Zimmerman also shares with us her own highly vulnerable experiences in dismantling the deeply ingrained patriarchal mindfucks that plague all women, liberal or conservative, proclaimed feminist or not. I was at first shocked and then, well, impressed that she dares to go there, such as divulging her experiences being gaslit in relationships, grappling with her ambivalence about motherhood, and dealing with feelings of jealousy and rage.
It’s the kind of confessional and constructive examination that even the best of friends only dare to share with each other. Because it’s just not comfortable to admit our own deep insecurities about being an imperfect woman – and we are all imperfect women against the impossible standards created for us. Even women who claim pride in their own strength, women who dare to call themselves feminists, have a hard time admitting these things to themselves, much less each other.
Because in a culture that puts enormous pressure on women to fit into a very narrow ideal, the shame of failing to fit – that runs deep. But if you’re a woman, you will find Zimmerman’s honesty and struggles both illuminating and validating. I found myself grateful that she put into words several things I’ve personally struggled with but didn’t even know how to articulate, particularly the whole “because I’m a woman I’m tasked with the detailed care of my partner’s overall well-being, but he sure as hell doesn’t do that for me” thing. That’s not, uh, me quoting Zimmerman – that’s something I realized has plagued all of my relationships, every single one since high school, and thanks to her book, I now know my experience is not at all unique.
“But what about goddesses?” I can see some “not-all-men” man asking. “Those were powerful female figures in the Greek myths.” Yes, they were, and they often used that power for vengeance, especially against mortal women. Ugly Medusa was once beautiful with famously gorgeous hair; when the sea god raped her in Athena’s temple, Athena took her revenge on Medusa and turned her crown of luscious locks into snakes.
Women are not always great about sticking together under the patriarchy, and fittingly, Zimmerman addresses this in the last chapter. Sticking together is not only about not turning on each other for the shit put on us by the patriarchy (ahem, Athena), but it’s also about telling each other our own stories, building a new mythology – the tagline of the book. Zimmerman has illustrated this beautifully by being so honest and personal throughout, detailing how she has struggled and continues to struggle herself. It’s not easy feeling like the wrong kind of woman, especially when trying to be the right kind of woman is how you can find success in this world. It can leave you feeling deeply flawed, ashamed and alone, like a monster banished to a cave.
But what happens when you bring that shame to light and find that your flaws are not so shameful after all?
That’s what makes this book so transformative, and an instant feminist classic. Because of Zimmerman, I know I am not alone in my struggles as a woman – no, scratch that: I know WE are not alone, and if we start to speak honestly with each other and support one another, it is then we will realize our true power. The vast majority of the stories we’ve been told about women have been created by men. It’s way past time we start building a new mythology, one that celebrates and elevates us instead of relegating us to caves.