Harpies, sirens, and other ‘nasty’ women: Going beneath misogyny.

Mythology is rife with female monsters. Essayist Jess Zimmerman sees their stories not as cautionary tales, but as inspiration for powerful women.

Beacon Press
“Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology” by Jess Zimmerman, Beacon Press, 224 pp.

In high school, one of author Jess Zimmerman’s Internet usernames was Medusa. A self-described mythology nerd, her childhood copy of “D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths” was well-worn. But as she recalls in her scorching collection of essays, “Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology,” she particularly identified with the snake-haired creature whose power originated in ugliness: The mere sight of Medusa could turn a man to stone. As a teenager who was profoundly insecure about her looks, Zimmerman writes that calling herself Medusa was “an attempt to recuse myself from the game of human attraction before anyone pointed out that I’d already lost.”

Mythology is rife with hideous female creatures. Many of them, like Medusa, have the face of a woman but other grotesque, unnatural body parts. The Sirens are half bird, half woman; Scylla’s lower half is a mass of snarling dogs; the Sphinx has the body of a lion and the wings of a bird. All of them pose grave dangers to male heroes.

That’s not the only thing they have in common. “All the stories about monstrous women, about creatures who are too gross, too angry, too devious, too grasping, too smart for their own good, are stories told by men,” Zimmerman notes, citing Ovid, Homer, Virgil, and Sophocles. They were intended to be cautionary tales, warning women not to overreach, but the author wonders what would happen if women were to stop reading them as warnings and instead embrace them as aspirations.

Each essay in the collection centers around a different female monster of Greek antiquity. Zimmerman, the editor-in-chief of Electric Literature, combines the stories of the monsters with episodes from her own life and with sharp cultural criticism.

Take the chapter on the harpy, another half-human, half-bird creature, which is especially odious. (One translation of Virgil describes harpies as having “virgin faces, but with wombs obscene.”) The Greek word for harpy translates as “snatcher.” In Virgil’s “Aeneid,” Aeneas and his men arrive on an island and plunder its supply of cattle, but before they can feast on their kill, the Harpies swoop in and grab it, contaminating it with their foul talons. Zimmerman points out that the cattle didn’t belong to the men to begin with. “A man who lays claim to unguarded property is a hero,” she writes. “A woman who grasps for her share is an abomination.”

Zimmerman pairs this reading with an analysis of female ambition. “Harpy,” of course, has become a slur for a particular type of ambitious woman. A figure like Hillary Clinton or Elizabeth Warren will be called a harpy, Zimmerman observes, “not only because she’s [considered] vicious and shrill, but because she viciously and shrilly seeks to rise above her station.” The term is shorthand for telling someone that her success amounts to trespassing, that she is snatching at something that doesn’t belong to her.

Other entries are more personal. The piece on the Sphinx, for instance, includes Zimmerman’s wrenching account of a poisonous relationship with her college professor. “The story of the Sphinx is the story of a woman with questions men can’t answer,” she writes – that is, a woman with knowledge and experience. Older men, who have little power over those “grown and glossy” creatures, instead “employ so many tricks to let themselves stay intellectually superior” to younger women “who aren’t yet fully equipped to challenge them.” To Zimmerman, then, Sphinxhood is a desirable escape from the unequal power dynamics of relationships rooted in misogyny. 

The collection’s mashup of ancient archetypes, memoir, and cultural critique works because Zimmerman is such a great writer. She’s fierce, funny, and erudite. Whether she’s offering painful reminiscences of her life, breaking down each frame of Aerosmith’s 1994 “Crazy” video, or synthesizing social science research on differing perceptions of ambition in women and men, her prose is incredibly engaging.

It’s likely that many readers will feel the truth of this book in their bones as Zimmerman dissects the mythologies that still constrain women. “If the expectations are too narrow, nearly anything can become monstrous,” she observes. “If you are only allowed to be tiny, it is grotesque to be medium. If you are only allowed to be quiet, it is freakish to be loud.” They’re equally likely to find inspiration in the powerful, expansive feminism that Zimmerman proposes, in her exhortation that women “find small ways ... to nurse and nurture the things that are supposed to be wrong with us until they grow into something great.”

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