Monstrous Queens: The Vagaries of Power

Today we are going to discuss the kind of Monster Girls (or Monster Women if you will) that the world seems to really love. Here’s an example from a popular primetime show:

Evil Queen

 

I am, of course, talking about the evil queens who have long populated the stories for children. Sometimes they are given the guise of a stepmother, a term that has come to be associated with everything except perhaps mothering. Sometimes they are not queens but have aspirations for becoming one or are on their way to achieving queendom. Whatever stage they are on in their journey, they all have ambition and crave power. I could call them evil but I don’t think evil is quite as easily defined so I’ll abstain.

Monstrous Queens are almost unanimously obsessed with beauty. Queen Levana from The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer is perhaps a more extreme example than others but she is in no way alone in her desire for an unfading youth.

Charlize

So why the focus on youth and beauty? I am going to get a bit analytical here but there is a tradition of women having to move out of the spotlight once youth and beauty has deserted them (in kinder words, once they have grown older) and what better way to paint a woman unnatural than to have her be unwilling to submit to the ravages of time and disappear to give the next nubile creature her turn on the stage? Take Red Riding Hood’s grandma for example. Once she’s old, she’s sent to live in the middle of woods infested by carnivorous wild animals (I bet you there were man-eating bears in there that Red had the good sense not to disturb). But that’s just a hypothesis of mien and I could be wrong.

What makes these women truly monstrous? I mean, apart from an apparent willingness to commit mass genocide and a complete lack of empathy.

Someone (I think it was Yash) mentioned to me that putting her moral choices aside, Levana is actually a good and capable queen. So is the Red Queen from The Queen of the Tearling series by Erika Johansen.

But back to the monstrous queens and beauty. Here is an excerpt from an essay I wrote a long time ago:

The conflict between Snow White and her stepmother  showcases the message artfully concealed within the romance: the stepmother is unable to achieve true beauty because she is a woman in power, and as such, her beauty is corroded by the power available to her. The true beauty is Snow White who lacks agency, is meek and docile, and quiescently endures everything that happens to her; content, instead, to wait for a prince to come rescue her in the end.  Marina Warner notes in her book, From the Beast to the Blonde, that “authentic power lies with the bad women (Warner 207).” In all the fairytales discussed, the villains exist because they crave beauty which belongs to the main character, thus putting beauty on a pedestal to be envied and coveted. By creating female villains who are in a position of power, fairytales catechize that power for women is deadly and will lead to endings similar to the ones suffered by the Ogress and Snow White’s stepmother. The relationship between ugliness and wickedness has been limned by visual artists such as Maurice Sendak and David Hockney who “created memorably warty, hook-nosed, crouchback horrors in their illustrations to Grimm (Warner 207).” This combination of unattractiveness with moral decrepitude not only discourages children from relating feminine power with good so that they may seek it for themselves; it also evokes a fear and reviling of any woman in their lives who may have power.

The point is, no matter how obsessed these monstrous queens are with beauty, it is not something they can achieve because they are in positions of power. Patriarchy, ya know?

But the modern writers, to give credit where it’s due, have given true back stories to monstrous queens. Levana has her horrible sister and well…the Red Queen is kinda pitiful but that would be spoiling things. It makes me wonder, too, how different Harry Potter would be if Voldemort was female. Or Bellatrix was the primary villain.

Often the monstrous queens are presented as foils to the protagonists who are more innocent, kinder and don’t have murderous inclinations. And I’m usually fine with that but once in a while it would be fun to read a book where the monstrous queen is the protagonist and we can follow her journey to redemption. I’m sure such books exist. I just have to find them.

Maleficent

 

 

  • “So why the focus on youth and beauty? I am going to get a bit analytical here but there is a tradition of women having to move out of the spotlight once youth and beauty has deserted them (in kinder words, once they have grown older) and what better way to paint a woman unnatural than to have her be unwilling to submit to the ravages of time and disappear to give the next nubile creature her turn on the stage?”

    You know, it’s interesting you point this out. One of history’s most remarkable villainesses, Livia Drusilla the third wife of Caesar Augustus, fits this to a T. And much like the wicked Queens in fairy tales, her weapon of choice was poison. She married into the imperial family and with beauty, guile and poison made her son (Augustus’ stepson) emperor and spent much of her long life as the old dowager witch plaguing the subsequent generations of Julio-Claudians.

  • I think you’ve hit the nail on the head right there. A powerful woman has typically been seen throughout history (with some notable exceptions) as an unsettling occurrence, and any such woman is likely to be belittled, dehumanized and ultimately destroyed. By giving a monstrous Queen mystical or magical powers she is dehumanized, and can then be destroyed without guilt or regret. Sadly too this literary tradition further perpetuates the belief that women must always be in competition with each other – one woman is always scheming to take from another, as both cannot be allowed to shine, and only by associating with a man can a woman defeat the evil forces against her. Great thoughts!

  • You could say that Irene, queen of Attolia, is an example of this.

    • It’ll be fun putting this to the test next month when we read Queen of Attolia. Can’t wait!

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