Commissioned post for Shane deNota Hoffman.
Note: This post was written three days before I realized, in fairly rapid succession, that I was (a) a trans woman, (b) a sub, and (c) a lesbian. In that light, I really ought to rewrite or expand it. Alas, I very much do not have the time–this is going up late as it is.
So, instead, please enjoy this snapshot of a mind on the cusp of life-altering revelation, somehow managing to write phrases like “infected with the knowledge that he is a body” and “all human bodies are equally disgusting” without recognizing them as blatantly obvious expressions of dysphoria.
Insexts lays out what it’s about right from writer Margeurite Bennett’s introduction to the collected first volume: “To be a woman is to live a life of body horror.”
It is hardly a new observation–neither culturally nor even within this series–that there is a relationship between marginalization and abjection. At its most literal and concrete, the abject is that which once was a part of the Self but has been rejected and separated into an Other–excrement, vomit, and the like. More abstractly, it is that which is of the Self but is rejected–reminders that we are made of meat, taboo impulses, actions of which we are ashamed. But go up another level of abstraction, so that even the Self dissolves from a Me into an Us, and then the abject becomes that which is part of Us, but gets pushed into being Other–women, people of color, LGBTQA+ people, religious minorities, the very poor.
And, too, it is hardly a new observation that the abject and the grotesque are closely related. The abject disrupts the social order in the same way that the grotesque disrupts the order of the body; the transformation of a woman into a bug-monster is a transgression of the physical boundaries of what we think of as a human being in much the same way that the socially abjectified–the marginalized–are treated as transgressing the social boundaries of human society.
Only not really, because to be a woman is, as Bennett says, to already live a life of body horror: most of the introduction is a laundry list of the ways in which women’s bodies are policed by society, treated as dangerous. “Authorities will make you cover your body… Your classmates cannot be expected to behave with respect or control–your body is to blame.” The bodies of women are treated as being both objects of desire and dangerous, destructive monstrosities. (And it is the bodies of women that are treated this way, not just cis women–fetishistic pornography of trans women abounds that treats them in exactly this way.)
This is the realm of carnival, of the grotesque, of that which both allures and disgusts–the train wreck from which we cannot turn our gaze, the freak show, and, of course, erotic horror. So, essentially, what Insexts does is simply lean into the way we already treat women’s bodies in media. The main character has a literal vagina dentata in several scenes–one even more blatant than Poison Ivy’s plant monster in “Pretty Poison.” She is a literal femme fatale, someone whose femininity–her abjectivity–is directly connected with her lethality. But where “Pretty Poison” positions Ivy as the villain, the Lady is a dark hero, killing those who prey upon women.
This is not a subtle story. The Lady–who has a name, but is stated to prefer her title–and Mariah are multiply abject: women, lesbians, a servant (in Mariah’s case), and mixed race (the Lady). They are both victims of an abusive man, the Lady’s husband, who is implied to have raped Mariah. Mariah passes an infection to the Lady from her mouth to the Lady’s, who then kills her husband with it and creates a child–a miracle or a monster, depending on how you look at it, a boy born from the genetic material of two mothers and birthed from the belly of a man.
But remember, to be a woman is already to be abject, just as to be a servant, a lesbian, or a person of color is to be abject. What passes from mouth to mouth is not monstrosity, but the awareness of monstrosity–Mariah infects the Lady with the knowledge that she is both abject and powerful, and the Lady infects her husband with the knowledge that he, too, is a body, which destroys him. (As it must, since unmarked identities are defined by the abjection of all other identities; a society which acknowledges that all human bodies are equally disgusting is one in which whiteness, masculinity, cisnormativity, heteronormativity, and class cannot exist, at least not as we know them.)
The main villain of the volume is an amorphous monster that feeds on pain, and takes the form of women who gain the approval of men and power over women by denigrating other women (in particular, the Lady’s highly conventional and judgmental sister-in-law, and a cruel brothel madame who caters to sadists and pedophiles). This is the first volume, so for “main villain” we should read “first villain”–and of course the first villain is the closest, the woman who oppresses other women. But note that Brother Asher–part of an apparently all-male order of monstrous monks that hunt other monsters–tries to opportunistically destroy the Lady and Mariah just as they defeat the Hag. Women oppress other women in an attempt to gain power within a structure that is itself patriarchal; the chief role of male allies like William or Brother Talal is not to lead the fight, but to either police their own (as Talal does when he kills Asher) or to act as shields (as William does when he throws himself in front of the Hag).
No, this isn’t subtle at all–but then, it really shouldn’t be. Some things should be said as loudly, as garishly, as spectacularly as possible. How better to spread an infection than by splattering it around everywhere? After all, the opposite of “subtle” is “gross”; and another word for “gross” is..?
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