Are ‘Monsters’ a Manifestation of Social and Political Power?

CW // mention of sexual violence; discussion of antisemitism; discussion of queer-/transphobia

The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those held by The Hysteria Collective as a whole.

‘Monsters’ are figures born out of human imagination. Often evoked through language or pictures, and ever-so present in movies or books, monsters inhabit features that aid in the production of fear, fascination, intensity or power. Monsters have been an intrinsic part to childhood imaginaries — children are socialised into being well accustomed to mythical or monstrous creatures —  especially the ones that live under their beds. 

However, language or imagery relating to ‘monstrosity’ doesn’t end within childhood. Monsters have become an intrinsic part in the maintenance of nation-states and their political apparatuses. Whilst monsters have often manifested as tools of social or political power historically, they continue to persist within the contemporary era.

In her research concerning the noun ‘Monster’, Natalie Lawrence has discussed how ‘Monsters’ are created by societies to cognitively displace or work through social and political anxieties. For instance, monsters have been central to religious imaginaries of the Catholic Church, which have drawn upon the imagery or language of monstrosity to outwardly project fears about potential ‘unorthodoxy’. Japanese Shunga artists used monsters or ‘beast-like’ creatures within their artwork which solicited various cultural or erotic affects. 

Monsters are frequently invoked to describe or condemn those who ‘abuse’ their political or social status. For instance, sex offender Harvey Weinstein, has often been described as a “Hollywood feral pig” or “Harvey Swinestein” and this construction of his sexuality as being ‘beast-like’ has been central to his cultural condemnation. However, as Rebecca Saunders argues, the framing of his sexuality as being ‘monstrous’ is somewhat problematic, since it situates his abuse of power as existing outside the remits of ‘normative’ male sexuality, which fails to recognise how it is often a central component to its very functioning.

As Saunders argues, by “defining these men as monsters, the infallible rightness of normative masculinity can be preserved.” Essentially, so long as we frame sex offenders as ‘monsters,’ the culture that actually permits gender violence remains unaddressed. We will continue to see abusers framed as ‘exceptions’ to normative masculinity, not as those who subscribe to the toxic tendencies it enshrines. 

Furthermore, monsters often appear to comprise online conspiracy theories which redress global elitism, oligarchies, or secret societies. Discourse online about the so-called “Illuminati” or “Skull and Bones Committee” regularly offers up ‘monsters’ or satanic beings as a means to wrestle with the consequences of globalisation and late-stage capitalism.

 When contentions are made about ‘sacrificial rituals’ or the idea that ‘souls’ are being ‘sold’ to secret elite circles, these discourses seem inane. Yet, I would argue that they seemingly wrestle with the prospect that corporate interests are beginning to corrupt and infiltrate the operation of both domestic and transnational politics in a manner that fails to put the interests of ‘ordinary’ people first. 

These discourses also appear to project fears about the value of human experience and life being ‘lost’ through an human existence that only facilitates the furthering of capitalism. In this way, monsters appear as manifestations of a cognitive dissonance that enables us to grapple with how power operates, but without ever directly confronting it.

It must be noted that these conspiracy theories hold a different function too. They often draw upon monstrosity tropes which perpetuate antisemitic beliefs, ones which seemingly acclaim that Jewish people are in ‘control’ of global financial flows. Those who subscribe to such beliefs demonstrate an ideological adherence to strands of Neo-Nazism, which frequently evokes ‘monsters’ in their propaganda to demonise Jewish people. 

This often occurs through imagery which depicts Jewish people as goblin-like creatures to be feared and these antisemitic tropes are not just limited to conspiracy theorists. J.K. Rowling’s infamous Harry Potter series has been noted depicting goblin-like bankers, which appear concomitant with the monstrosity tropes that have been used historically to ostracise and discriminate against Jewish people.

However, ‘monsters’ are often created to wield social or political power in a way that constructs this category of an ‘other’. Monsters can become absent references which are used to ostracise any individuals or groups – who depart from social or political ‘normativity.’ Xenophobic nation states routinely engage in the de-humanisation of refugees through appropriating words related too ‘monstrosity.’ 

In an attempt to ‘otherise’ refugees as not ‘belonging’ or being deserving of human rights or emergency refuge – state actors often posit refugees as ‘non-natural’ citizens because of the way they transgress dominant (and therefore normative) conceptions about borders or challenge primarily white nationalistic imaginaries.  In doing so, the ‘supernatural’ is intended to be the absent referent and the labelling of refugees, migrants or immigrants becomes a universalised category that is almost always racialised: ‘illegal ‘aliens’

By absently locating an imagined ‘monster,’ refugees can be constructed as individuals or groups that pose a threat to the social and political ordering of the nation state in question. Severely misinformed and illegitimate fears about refugees taking up the heath or economic ‘resources’ of nation states – particularly those situated within the Global North – become asymmetric with racialised fears and often inane conspiracies about white racial degeneracy, which treats refugee influxes as a kind of apocalypticism. 

Paradoxically, since ‘monsters’ are not real, nor do they have a particular fixed essence, we may label individuals, state actors or mainstream media outlets as ‘monsters’ to express disavowals with their apparent lack of empathy or the lackadaisical responses they have towards ensuring adequate emergency refuge programmes.

Indeed, since Russian president Vladimir Putin waged a war of aggression upon Ukraine, the media has been quick to draw upon the language of ‘monsters’ as a means to confront the catastrophe occurring, whilst also discerning who to hold accountable. In a recent Guardian article, “Western values? They enthroned the monster who is shelling Ukrainians today,” Aditya Chakrabortty argued that Putin is not the only state actor that should be considered as ‘Monstrous.’ Here, we are reminded that the United Kingdom and United States have not only “hosted oligarchs,” but facilitated the very creation of the Russian oligarchy.

In a different vein, language relating to ‘monsters’ has historically been central to the political, legal or social apparatuses of many colonial nation states. For instance, Martha Few has discussed how language relating to ‘monstrosity’ in late Colonial Guatemala was weaponized by Spanish colonists. She demonstrates how language surrounding monstrosity was used to enforce colonial comprehensions about gender, sex, or (sexual) morality. Few refers to a legal case of a woman named “Juana Aguilar” who had been placed on trial for sexual relations with both men and women. 

Pointing to how a physician named “Narciso Esparragosa” had been appointed to study her body, Few describes how his ‘interpretation’ of Aguilar’s ‘enlarged clitoris’ involved a medicalisation and fetishisation of Aguilar’s body which centralised racist and pseudoscientific logics.  Few describes how upon the physician concluding that her body was not “intersex,” he had acclaimed that her enlarged clitoris was expository of her being a “Woman of the East.”

Here, the legal eroticisation of Aguilar, rested upon an appropriation of language which attributed her as a kind of ‘monster’ and which became a colonial mechanism of power that permitted colonists to recast black women and their bodies as being “excessive.” This upheld colonial, pseudoscientific beliefs about white men and women being both the most ‘naturalised’ and ‘civilised’. 

Thus, casting black women as being more ‘prone’ to sexual deviancy. Black women were constructed as a threat to the social and political order of Colonial Guatemala, who therefore required policing. Whilst ‘Monsters’ were used figuratively, they became bio-political tools that were used to subjugate black women and this framing of black women as being in ‘excess’ or ‘exotic’ remains central to white supremacist logics today. 

Furthermore, language concerning ‘monsters’ seemingly has many social and political resonances with LGBTQ+ people. ‘Monsters’ are frequently weaponised in homophobic or transphobic attacks, and are arguably central to the queer experience.

In an article reflecting upon the Terfism present within a Scottish political party – ‘Abla’ – Jennifer Finney Boylan describes anti-trans rhetoric and fears about transness – as being made to feel like the “Loch Ness monster.” Central to Scottish Folklore, Boylan makes no mistake invoking the absent referent of the Loch Ness Monster as a means to express how trans people are frequently de-humanised or made to feel forced into a social abjection; wherein only monsters exist.

Nonetheless, there has arguably been a queer reclamation of monstrosity in recent years. ‘Monsters’ are increasingly being used in subversive ways within the LGBTQ+ community, as a means to flirt with social and political ignorance. In 2017, ‘Babadook’ and ‘Pennywise’ went viral on Twitter and were acclaimed as LGBTQ+ icons, who became an intrinsic part to relationships and queer humour online.

 In 2021, Lil Nas X’s music video, ‘Montero,’ induced an epic moral panic within conservative and far-right circles due to the video’s ‘satanic imagery,’ or inherent queerness. Here, he had reclaimed the ‘devil’ as a queer-figurehead. Reversing the cultural narrative that queer people are ’monsters’, he rendered the homophobia that underpins most conservative logics as being derived from the devil. 

Thus, whilst they are mere products of human imagination, monsters are often overlooked in their ability to wield social and political power. In the same way monsters are employed to regulate social boundaries, when dominant modes of power are threatened with transgression, monsters can reverse this power and hold it to account. 

Photo courtesy of Donovan Reeves

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