What IS a Monster Anyway?

March 30, 2021

What makes someone monstrous? Why are female monsters so common? When do you graduate from troublesome to monster? Who gets to decide these things?

As we’ve been preparing for our upcoming course on Monstrous Women, we’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what that phrase, “Monstrous Woman,” actually even means.

It’s not as easy to define “monster” as you might think.

I went into graduate school knowing exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to write about the Gothic and fairy tales. I wanted to explore how those two seemingly totally different things actually fit together perfectly and how knowing that reveals so much about both of them. Day one, I had it all planned out.

Or so I thought.

My MA thesis was on the Gothic and sleeping maiden stories, and one of my big sections was all about how monstrous the two princess protagonists of these tales actually are. I looked at all kinds of modern texts that make this connection, from vampire stories like Angela Carter’s “The Lady of the House of Love” and Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples,” to explorations of the doppelgänger, ghosts, and even the monstrous merging of princess and nature in Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Maiden-Tree.”

When I had to produce a “Portfolio Project” (essentially a demonstration of my ability to produce an MA-level piece) upon getting to OSU for my PhD, I proudly reworked that section into a full essay and submitted it.

So picture this:

I come in to my portfolio meeting, nervous, but confident, not really sure what to expect but very excited about my piece. I had gotten dressed up in my favorite asymmetrical gray knit skirt and gothic-y black top with ribbons, I was ready. But one of the professors at the meeting starts the discussion by asking me: “Brittany, what is a monster?”

(Pretty sure my face looked something like this guy’s?)

She didn’t mean it to be a “gotcha” question, and she didn’t mean it in a bad way. She was just pointing out that, for all my talk of monsters in my essay, I had never actually stopped to think about what a monster really was. Monsters were monsters. I had assumed everyone would be on the same page about them… but why would they be? Why hadn’t I thought about this?

Reader, I totally cried after that meeting, feeling like the most undeserving-of-being-in grad-school person in the world.

Once my pity party was over though, I realized that this was a huge learning moment for me. The professor was pointing out how important it is to define your terms – and it’s a lesson I never forgot. That one question, that horrible moment, made me such a better scholar from that point on. But in the moment, I didn’t know the answer to her question, and hadn’t even considered it, which was terrifying… and here’s the thing: I’m still not sure I know.

“Monster” is one of those words that means something slightly different to everyone. If you look it up, you usually get something like “large, ugly, and frightening” being… but I can prove those descriptors wrong pretty much instantly. The monsters on Sesame Street aren’t frightening, sirens aren’t ugly, and lots of Pokémon (“pocket monsters”) are tiny! And yet the word “monster” can apply to all of them.

(v. smol)

Right before I graduated, I wound up TAing for that same professor’s course on Tolkien, a course she called “Tolkien’s Monsters.” It turns out this whole monster thing was a big fascination for her too! A great deal of the course was centered around this same question – what is a monster?

Here’s a screenshot of my notes from our first class:

And while we never got to a one true definition, a feat that might be impossible, I think what we ultimately settled on in that course is my favorite definition so far: monsters are things to think with. They can be used to explore horrible aspects of our world like “othering, dehumanization, contamination, race, evolution, disability, and more.” When talking about monsters, it’s more important to ask the questions than to have definitive answers to the questions.

It’s part of why monsters are so amazing… and so important.

In our class, we’ll talk about the ways that monsters have traditionally been used to other and dehumanize women and those who “smash the binary” distinctions of men and women, but I’m sure that many of those other “Others” will come up as well. We’ll also, of course, explore the inherent power of the monster… and how empowering it can be to take up such a mantle.

We hope you’ll join us as we continue to put together the fantastic puzzle of monstrosity – click here to read more about our course!


  1. Gina

    I am so wicked excited about this course! It just lights me up.

  2. Gayle F Cunningham

    Hi! I have (much to my surprise) spent most of the last couple of days contemplating what a monster is. And ending up …. uhm….pretty much more uncertain how to explain what I’m thinking than I was before I started thinking about it!

    Here’s to monsters and the defining thereof! 🙂

  3. Collette Cumella

    MONSTERS!!!! This is why I”m hooked on murder mysteries….do I see myself in the murderer?? Do I see myself in the victorious Chief Brenda Johnson??? ( who also has a REALY HOT lover..) Am I a monster when I fight with my kids? Sometimes the most fragile appearing women are (yes) the murderer. And then there are so many other crimes that hurt, scare and dehumanize a person.

  4. Jody Helme-Day

    This post reminded me of a fantastic graphic novel called “My Favorite Thing Is Monsters.” It is about a young girl in the 1960s who tries to solve the murder of her upstairs neighbor, who was a survivor of the Holocaust. She is obsessed with horror movies and pulp fiction, and is realizing that she identifies as queer. She draws herself as a baby werewolf, to express her feelings of being outside of society. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it for your monster theme.

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