Barbara Creed’s (1993) concept of the monstrous-feminine is widely used to explore sexism in speculative media. Creed’s focus on reproduction and sexual desire means explorations of the monstrous-feminine have centred on attitudes to young women and adults, even in children’s fiction. However, Wilkie-Stibbs (2006) notes children are also abjected in children’s literature, while Daniel (2006) finds this is particularly marked in representations of disorderly eating. Garland’s (2008) analysis of the Alice books locates the monstrous-feminine, specifically the vagina dentata as a symbol of sexual power, in disorderly eating by girls. Can a similar association between eating and female empowerment be detected in recent children’s literature?
In this paper, I explore the monstrous-feminine in Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song (2014), where a young girl, Triss, discovers that she is a changeling created to replace an abducted child. Many signs that Triss is in fact ‘Not-Triss’ focus on her body: for example, Not-Triss is only full if she eats Triss’s possessions, consuming the psychic remains of the self she replaces. This recalls Garland’s identification of the vagina dentata in children’s literature; but while bodily control is a key theme in Hardinge’s book, sexual power is not her central concern. Instead, Not-Triss’s changeling body is a metaphor for her fragile sense of self, and reflects the unsustaining, doll-like treatment of Not-Triss by adults. Her eating therefore echoes Daniel’s concept of cannibalism as expressing a yearning for integrity – but in children, not adults. I argue Not-Triss’s body is abjected and must be reclaimed by the heroine in a struggle for agency, but Hardinge’s text resists narratives of sexualization. Instead she provides a counter-narrative to the monstrous-feminine in children’s literature, replacing female agency over reproductive function with agency over the whole body.
About the speaker
Ruth Booth is a Creative Writing doctoral candidate at the University of Glasgow, examining uses of speculative adaptations in exploring toxic masculinity. She co-organized the first three Glasgow International Fantasy Conversations (GIFCon). An award-winning author, her column for Shoreline of Infinity was shortlisted for the BSFA Best Non-fiction Award (2018).