I am, it seems, destined to reading Insexts volumes at oddly apropos times. I read the first volume, about monstrously feminine interiority that bursts outward into horrifying beauty, intense love, and righteous wrath, mere days before realizing I was a woman. Now I find myself having read the second volume within hours of being catcalled for the first time–treated, in other words, as an object that exists for the pleasure and entertainment of a strange man.
Insexts vol. 2 is, pretty explicitly, about the goddess/monster binary, which is of course the infamous Madonna/whore binary. It is about a cult of men who objectify women, literally, feeding them into a gaping maw in the form of a mirror so that they are transformed into works of art–static, passive, depicted by and for men as victims, monsters, or perfect goddesses upon pedestals, but never with any interiority of their own.
This is as subtle as the first volume, which is to say not at all, but again, the opposite of “subtle” is “gross” and a synonym for that is “grotesque.” Horror, and especially body horror, is so well-suited to morality tales because it is so rarely anything approaching subtle. And there is, in truth, nothing subtle about patriarchy; like the smell of garbage fifteen minutes into a visit to the dump, it turns invisible from familiarity, not because it is at all hard to notice to begin with.
The book’s epilogue is particularly trenchant here: it follows the first-person perspective of a voyeur as he pursues Mariah and the Lady onto a ship, and peeps into their cabin to watch them having sex. Previous sexual encounters between them always involved some degree of monstrosity, such as a passionate embrace while the Lady had the jaws and limbs of a preying mantis, but here we get nearly a full-page spread of the two lovers in fully human form, their bodies positioned so as to hide neither of them. But running down the side of the page are the panels in which they spot the voyeur and–still depicted from his first-person perspective–berate him for thinking they existed for his pleasure, then stab him in the eyes.
The whole comic, in other words, is about the male gaze in media. By transporting it into the belle epoque–the so-called “golden age” before World War I, which is of course also the era of robber barons, colonial genocides, and industrialization, but also the height of first-wave feminism–the comic reminds us that the male gaze is not only or even primarily a problem of popular media; it is endemic to art. For much of our history, women were actively erased from creative roles in the arts; they could only be models or muses, depicted but forbidden from depicting. History itself gazes with a male gaze, because almost all other stories were deliberately erased.
And, simply put, representation matters on both ends. First, because, as Phoebe laments at length, you cannot be what you cannot see: the deliberate erasure of trans women from history and the arts led her to question if she is alone, and ultimately even whether she existed at all. But the comic is more concerned with the other end: ultimately, a man can tell a story about women, but he cannot tell a story of women. Nor can a white person tell the stories of people of color. You must know a story before you can tell it, and so the stories that are never told can only be learned by living them.
As witness the cis women who write and draw Insexts trying to tell the story of a trans woman. What they end up telling is the version that gets told: Phoebe always knew she was a woman, and said so from early childhood, but at the same time she was originally “one of” the cult of men who objectify women into art, for which she has repented. To put it in terms endemic to cis accounts of transition, she “lived as a man” and “had male privilege” before she transitioned. Her transition is thus framed as an act of repentance; her happy ending is to magically become a cis woman, killed by a goddess-turned-monster and reborn into a conventionally female body crafted from stone by her mother. She is thus thematically connected to Pygmalion’s “perfect woman”; but because she is created by a mother seeking a daughter rather than a man seeking a perfect object, she is alive and vibrant, her own person.
It is not, so far as it goes, a bad story; but it is not the story of this or many other trans women. Ironically, the story of Lady and Mariah feels more like mine than Phoebe’s does. I, too, was repelled by and constrained within my body my entire life, feeling constantly on the verge of erupting into something horrific and grotesque. I, too, discovered that, once I let it out, it was both monstrous and divine, wonderful and powerful, full of rage and beauty and love.
And yet today I met a man, a stranger, who looked at me and saw an object for his enjoyment. He called out in appreciation, yes, but not appreciation of me–he does not know me and therefore cannot appreciate me. He didn’t even appreciate my body. The comic suggests that that is what men want from the women they objectify, but it’s not really true in the comic or in real life: the men here rob women of their bodies as well as their personalities, minds, and lives, transforming them into paint on canvas or stone. And the truth is, no catcaller expects the women he accosts to touch him.
Instead, as the comic notes, what patriarchy appreciates about women isn’t even their bodies. Bodies are real, and patriarchy doesn’t value the reality of women, only the simulation thereof: images and ideas unconnected to women themselves. What patriarchy appreciates about women is its power over us, and key to that power is the power to define us, as goddesses when we submit and conform and keep quite, and as monsters when we fight back.
This happens to all the women in the story, but especially to the unnamed Indonesian goddess that manifests for most of the volume as Medusa, and ultimately leads the other women in vengeance against the men who stole her from her home and imprisoned the others in art. Fighting back violently against the oppressors of women, she soon turns her gaze to Phoebe–and now it is the cis gaze rather than the male one, which looks at a trans woman and sees a man trying to hide in femininity. The goddess is, essentially, a TERF, convinced that trans women are really men and therefore to be attacked and driven from female spaces. Phoebe’s return as a cis woman places her in a position to be listened to by the TERF goddess, as she persuades her that she must be more than a monster–and so she must be, able to temper her rage and direct it at the targets that deserve it.
But to be more than a monster, a monster-plus, one must be partially a monster, and so we circle back to the comic’s epilogue. We are our bodies, but those bodies are ours; they are as dread and as powerful, as monstrous and divine, as grotesque and beautiful, as we are. We are more than monsters, more than goddesses, more than bodies, and yet we are all those things at once. We are people. We are not perfect.
We’re better than that.
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