The bitter consolation of imitation

Melissa McCarthy channels Sean Spicer on NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Screenshot from YouTube

According to Politico, the Washington Post, the New Yorker and dozens of other sources, White House Press spokesman Sean Spicer is in trouble with the boss because he has been successfully parodied by Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live.

Were he to lose his job, it would be a rare win for the “satire makes things happen” argument. Mostly, being satirised burnishes your image of strength – that is basically what is happening to Donald Trump – and provides bitter consolation to your opponents.

If Spicer survives another couple of weeks of McCarthy, it will be a badge of honour for him. The wild card, according to some reports, is that being imitated by a woman makes him look “weak” in the eyes of the President. As “nobody has more respect for women” than Donald Trump, I cannot credit that. We will see.

More significant – certainly more common – than the rare possible victory of a satirist over the career of a public figure is the way McCarthy’s caricature is displacing Spicer’s own image in the public imagination. This happens much more often than satire-related career death.

Think back to Margaret Thatcher, and do you really have a photo in your head or the Spitting Image rubber puppet version?

In the Australian context, Prime Ministers Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke exist in my memory as, respectively, Ron Tandberg’s minimalist cartoon figure of an Easter Island statue and Max Gillies’ maximalist imitation of a hyper-active narcissist.

My guess is that now, when the millions of people who care to try to imagine Sean Spicer, they mostly have the McCarthy version in their heads.

What does this mean? That a great political caricature has great imaginative power, but is seldom lethal. Indeed, recognition in political caricature is a badge of honour that only a few public figures achieve, as witness the convention among cartoonists of labelling the suits or briefcases of marginal figures with names.

Some politicians are recognisable by props, and my advice to ambitious politicians would be to try to choose a prop they can live with. Alexander Downer certainly regrets the fishnet stocking episode that followed him for the rest of his career. I wonder how Tony Abbott feels about the red speedos.

Only those blessed with odd faces and substantial power are instantly recognisable from their faces alone. Trump has his hair done differently these days, but the strange comb-over he campaigned with will remain in the public memory long after he leaves office, even as his rather nondescript face fades.

For a public figure, a strong caricature presents as a risk because it is an act of aggression – a humorous expression of anger, disgust, or contempt. Certainly, dictators don’t have to put up with this sort of insolence. However, caricature in a democratic system is also an opportunity if the wound does not kill.

Surviving the slings and arrows of outrageous satire tends to strengthen public images in liberal democracies, as can be seen in a range of long-term leaders like Thatcher, Reagan, Blair, Hawke, and Howard.

The people who oppose them love to hate the caricatured and get a sort of cathartic release from it. The people who support them register the hostility of their opponents in the satirising classes, and figure their guy must be doing something right to get up their noses. Very few political careers die of shame.

It’s too early to tell, but this is probably what is happening in the Trump presidency. Were I Sean Spicer (which I’m not – that is Melissa McCarthy’s job) I’d advise him to have a thicker skin about Saturday Night Live. Whether Spicer is secure enough to survive on the same advice is still in play.

The Conversation

The Great Wall fails to bring down the barriers in a lacklustre Chinese-US epic

The Great Wall, an epic US-Chinese coproduction. Universal Pictures

Matt Damon was right to insist that commentators wait to see the finished film before making judgements about his role as a “white saviour of China” in the new Chinese-US coproduction, The Great Wall.

That being said, the initial outrage over the casting of a white American actor as the star of a China-based epic was certainly understandable given Hollywood’s long history of “whitewashing”.

Sparked by the prominent placement of Damon in the film’s US promotional poster and trailer, heated social media responses helped draw much-needed attention to an ugly and enduring industry practice.

Most notable amongst these was Taiwanese-American actress Constance Wu’s oft-cited Twitter post, passionately arguing that “our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon”. Ultimately though this particular controversy proved largely baseless, as the star takes a step back from full-blown heroics in the action-fantasy epic.

The plot of the film is straightforward enough, if a little nonsensical at times. Seeking “black powder” in 12th-century Northern China, European mercenaries Will (Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) escape from a vicious horde of bandits only to find themselves captured by an elite band of soldiers, the Nameless Order.

Caught up in a fierce siege, Will and Tovar quickly discover that their captors have been stationed on the Great Wall and charged with the mission of protecting the country from mythical beasts, known as the Taotie, who descend from their mountain lair to wreak havoc every 60 years.

During their first battle, Will, a talented archer, saves the life of a young soldier (Lu Han) and wins respect from Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) and Strategist Wang (Andy Lau). As the only members of the Nameless Order who speak English, Lin and Wang soon become Will’s guides – providing him with insight into the history and philosophy of the Order.

Commander Lin Mae (Jing Tian) in The Great Wall.
Universal Pictures

Eager to assist their cause and increasingly drawn into the mystery of the wall, Will resists the pleas of Tovar to plan an escape with fellow foreigner and long-time captive, Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe). Various acts of self-sacrifice and demonstrations of the value of trust and unity between Will and his small band of Chinese allies follow. Perhaps the only real twist in the entire film is when Will suddenly decides to take a backseat to his female colleague, Lin, in the rather anti-climactic, final battle.

Despite such gestures to the power of collectivism (as well as some blatant showcasing of Chinese philosophy and inventiveness), those who go looking for evidence will still find some solid examples of the “white man saviour narrative” in the film.

One cringe-worthy sequence shows Will patronisingly instructing some of the Imperial Army’s finest minds on the delicate art of how to harpoon a Taotie. Another has Will walking into a banquet hall after assisting in the first siege and being greeted with the rapturous applause of his captors.

Perhaps ironically, given the controversy it has generated, the film’s chief failing is the inability to show Will’s seemingly effortless transition from greedy mercenary to completely altruistic protagonist.

Former boy-band member and hearthrob Lu Han.
Universal Pictures

It was always going to be an ambitious project to team a celebrated Chinese director, Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers), with a cast with that has broad international appeal. Unfortunately, in trying to please so many, Zhang is unlikely to please many at all.

There are moments where Zhang’s signature grand flourishes of sweeping cinematography complement some colourful and beautifully choreographed action. But the film’s otherwise decent pace grinds to a halt as the story becomes bogged down in heavy-handed explanations when characters stop to translate dialogue for each other.

Fans of Zhang’s earlier works may be tempted by trailer clips that showcase a little of the director’s ability to tell stories in a visually arresting manner. But, for the most part, the film itself is too weighed down with a cliché of a plot, ineffectual editing, and poor characterisation.

As the largest film ever shot entirely in China – and the most expensive in the country’s history – there was much riding on the success of this production.

Chinese-US co-productions have been touted as the way of cinematic future and a way for Hollywood to finally get a piece of the Chinese film market (currently, the world’s second largest).

Expectations may have been high but The Great Wall is ultimately a disappointing and deeply flawed film. It opened well in China when it debuted there late last year but even the involvement of celebrated director, Zhang Yimou, industry veteran, Andy Lau, and hysteria-inducing heartthrob, Lu Han, couldn’t stop the less-than-glowing reviews.

It is also fortunate that the ultimate success of this film doesn’t rest entirely with Damon. He clearly isn’t up to the mammoth challenge this time. Slipping in and out of an awkward accent, Damon looks uncomfortable throughout and he struggles to make convincing connections with any of his co-stars except Game of Thrones’ Pascal, who plays Will’s mercenary partner.

The easy chemistry between these two outsiders – and Pascal’s few flashes of comic relief – seem out of step with the serious tone of the rest of the film. It leaves the impression of a missed opportunity.

If only the producers had asked Zhang to lead his Chinese cast through the large-scale historical fantasy while Damon and Pascal went off to do a buddy adventure by themselves, audiences may have been treated to two decent films instead of a single mediocre one.

When he tried to combat the “white saviour of China” backlash, Matt Damon alluded to his character as being just one of many heroes in The Great Wall. But the lacklustre response the film is likely to get on its release should demonstrate that he also is no saviour of the Chinese-Hollywood co-production experiment.

The Conversation

Joyleen Christensen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Flying Solo

Sorry this comic is a day late! In the very last minute before posting, I came up with an idea that made the comic a lot better.

(Patrons will get to see both versions with the upcoming February sketches & doodles pack!)


Shipwrecked wallpaper

Shot at sunset in Pafos, Cyprus, looking at the EDRO III shipwreck – resting mere meters away from the shore.

The Sierra Leone-flagged EDRO III ran aground off Pegeia on 8 December 2011 in heavy seas, during a voyage to Rhodes, from Limassol, Cyprus with a cargo of plasterboard. At the time of the accident, the ship had nine crew members – seven Albanians and two Egyptians. The crew were rescued and airlifted to the safety of Paphos by a local British Military helicopter.

The EDRO III weighs about 2,345 tons and is over 80 meters in length.

35mm at f5.6 with a CP filter attached, edited in Lightroom.

Sony Alpha 7R.

Photo Settings: 35mm, f/22, 1/2 second, ISO 100.

Mac users: download Macdrops the official InterfaceLIFT app for Mac OS X.

How to Compete to the Utmost

Battleship was a great game. It was fun, simple, portable, and inexpensive. Then they improved it.

I remember the first time I saw “Electronic Battleship.” The game board was a big, bulky, and heavy, and programming it to play a game was more challenging than the game itself.

On a more positive note, to this day, when trying to psyche myself up for things, I will still mutter “Eye of the tiger. Hungry like the wolf. Walk like an Egyptian.”


As always, thanks for using my Amazon Affiliate links (USUKCanada).

Words, Tweets and Stones in the “Political Correctness” Wars

Conservative critics accuse political correctness of promoting a censorious closure of public debate

Last year, a friend alerted me to an opinion article which included the unusual story of Tim Hunt, a Nobel-Prize winning chemist.

At a conference in Korea, Hunt ventured regrettably outside of his expertise. He complained that having young women in the lab was a distraction. Older men like himself tended to fall in love with them. Moreover, Hunt claimed that girls could not take criticism without crying.

For a great chemist, we see, Hunt makes an awful social commentator. What is striking about the story is what happened next.

The story, as they say, went “viral” on social media. Someone tweeted the remarks, or uploaded the video online. The next thing he knew, Hunt was being stood down from his role at UCL, Nobel-Prize-notwithstanding.

I found myself reminded as I read this of another unlikely story: the first novel of the Czech author Milan Kundera, The Joke. In this story, the main character vents his discontents with a Stalinist indoctrination camp in a mocking postcard to his girlfriend:

Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky! Ludvik.

The Party censors intercepted the postcard, and did not find it amusing. Instead, Ludvik gets expelled from university and forced into military service in the mines.

To be sure, the comparison of the two stories is not perfect. Hunt was not sent to a labor camp, and the position he lost was honorary. So, unlike Ludvik, his material wellbeing and that of his family was not directly affected—only his good name. Hunt was also not joking, as far as anyone could tell.

Tim Hunt, the chemist stood down by UCL for his comments about women and laboratories.

Nevertheless, Hunt’s story is far from singular in the age of social media.

All around the world, stories of academics, media figures or employees being stood down by their employers after having been subjected to a kind of instantaneous prosecution by social media seems to be one of the signs of the Neuzeit.

For critics on the Right, Hunt’s and comparable stories show the dark, illiberal heart of what they call “political correctness”: a censorious culture preventing people speaking their minds on anything to do with matters of race, religion or gender. Many of these same critics (and, on the other side, Bernie Sanders) have also pointed to Mr Trump’s ostentatious disregard for such “political correctness” as one explanation for his 2016 catapult to power.

So what’s going on behind the increasing frequency of cases like Hunt’s: of people losing their jobs for what they have said alone—even, as in Hunt’s case, when the words in question neither reflect his professional expertise, nor target any particular individual? Are we entering a new period of social censorship, with dark historical precedents and echoes?

And what is rumbling away beneath the deep sense of grievance that underlies conservative commentators’ strident charges of “political correctness” against their opponents?

One role philosophy can play in such divisive debates is to try to clearly show each warring side “the reasons of the adversary”, and the paradoxes and problems within their own. Such, at least, is what Albert Camus proposed in the midst of the Algerian war in 1956. Camus’ attempt “to restore a climate that could lead to healthy debate” might today be tweeted with the hashtag: #tell-him-he’s-dreaming.

But not all dreams are bad for being illusory.

All’s fair …

For people labelled by conservative commentators as “politically correct”, their position looks quite different than the polemical tag implies.

What the Right calls political correctness describes the championing of a series of positions associated with the New Left. These positions hinge on the observation that the modern ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity are imperfectly enshrined in countries like Australia, the UK or the US.

Behind the advertised equality of all to trade, real material inequalities are produced and perpetuated, leading to deep divisions of class.

Behind appeals to equality of opportunity, gender inequality hasn’t gone away. Its deep bases are revealed, amongst other places (continuing pay differentials also leap to mind) by the gendered nouns in public documents that for a long time simply excluded women from the franchise— as in “we hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal …”

Beneath the same language of equality, all-too-real inequalities exist between different ethnic and religious groups within pluralist societies like Australia. Lesbian and gay men and women for a long time faced laws that actively prohibited their forms of sexuality.

The New Left argument is that the cultural, economic and social discrimination against women, LGBT and non-anglosaxon members of our communities targeted them specifically on grounds of their belonging to those groups.

As such, it makes sense that a society which would redress these wrongs needs to legislate forms of “positive discrimination”, likewise targeting these groups specifically.

We should also educate for and enshrine new norms, attentive to the linguistic and other forms of discrimination that for far too long went without saying.

Given this reasoning, people of the New Left are likely to respond with outrage to the imputation that what they are promoting is a new form of waspish, quasi-Stalinist groupthink.

Their question is more likely to be: who could reasonably oppose these reforms, except people who still harbour older forms of prejudice, or feel threatened by the new forms of inclusivity the New Left has championed?

Camus held that philosophers could explain the reasons of adversaries in heated disputes, reopening possibilities of dialogue.

In love and war

There can be little doubt that many people who oppose progressive social reforms like marriage equality do so out of unavowed or avowed hostility to different minority groups.

Some of this group almost certainly are sympathetic to deeply illiberal political positions on the farther Right, and opposed to many of the social and immigration reforms that Australia has undertaken since the 1960s.

But not all people who contest these issues can fairly be so categorised. Many are deeply offended by any imputation that they are unreasonable, sexist, homophobic, racist or Islamophobic for defending conservative causes. Many base their positions on religious traditions with which they deeply identify.

And so we come to the first register of the “political correctness” charge. The argument goes something like this.

The impulses underlying forms of positive discrimination towards disadvantaged groups may be generous. Their flipside is a paradoxical intolerance towards everyone who disagrees with proposed policies or reforms.

This intolerance, critics allege, is manifest in a tendency to pathologise opponents: arguing as if they were all, equally and deeply flawed or bad people: racists, sexists, fascists, etc.

Rather than arguing the case against opponents of their positions, the “politically correct” silence them, critics claim. Or, in the age of social media, they spark campaigns that publicly shame them, even when their offences are not grave.

Enter Tim Hunt and company, if not Milan Kundera.

Certainly, there is a touch of the pot calling the kettle black about these complaints. For to call your opponents en bloc “politically correct” is hardly to celebrate their supple rationality and intrepid independence of spirit.

It remains true that any political sides’ demonising its opponents is a poor substitute for defeating them in open debate, predicated on a minimum of shared respect for the rules of the democratic game.

And so, the critics of “political correctness” point to cases on American campuses where activists have not let speakers from the Right speak at all, as opposed to engaging them in debate. For these critics, these shut-outs bespeak a “campus craziness” that threatens to close the universities to conservative viewpoints altogether.

Student rally against Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopolos’ scheduled talk at Berkeley earlier this year.

The same critics point to the idea which has currency on some American campuses of “trigger warnings” surrounding potentially upsetting content for different potential audiences. Such warnings, and the attempt to create “safe spaces” in which no one could be “triggered” by upsetting contents, do not promote the free and open exchange of ideas on divisive issues, the critics charge. Debate is not won (or lost) this way. It is shut down before it can begin.

And this, the critics continue, is to give way too much power to words—which are not sticks and stones, even in the culture wars. It is also to under-rate the capacity of people to confront and debate difficult content, instead encouraging a culture of victimisation and ultra-sensitivity to verbal and vicarious harm.

Supporters of trigger warnings reply that it is very easy for privileged white males to decide what should and should not be open to free and open debate. They’ve been doing this for centuries.

It is surely for the people whose identities are at stake in potentially disturbing material—for people of colour, for example, in a text on racial violences—to decide what is and is not disturbing to them.

Lefts and rifts, old and new

This last response points to the deeper philosophical fault-lines underlying the “political correctness” wars. The positions of the New Left can, and do, take two different kinds of justifications with very different philosophical credentials and histories.

For one, the defence of equal dignity for all persons, no matter from which ethnic, racial, class or gender they hail, is justified precisely by appeal to what is shared between them, regardless of their differences.

Martin Luther King’s famous line expressing the hope that one day, in America, his children will be judged by the content of their character, not the colour of their skin, is a powerful expression of this kind of justification of civil rights reform.

A second kind of justification for New Left positions is very different. This justification is not based in an appeal to common or putatively universal values.

It argues that the modern West’s ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity have, in their history, been used to justify such horrible intolerance and violences against Others that these ideals themselves can no longer be reasonably defended.

Indeed, it is to the extent that particular groups, different from the mainstream, have been unjustly excluded from the communities propounding these ideals that they should be celebrated, and their claims supported.

The preceding opposition, roughly, charts the difference between liberal or socialist, modernist forms of Leftist politics, and post-liberal, post-socialist forms of Leftist politics (roughly, “post-modernism”).

The modernist’s appeal to what different groups share is vulnerable to the charge of what Stanley Fish memorably called “boutique multiculturalism”. The boutique multiculturalist tolerates and defends the rights of minorities only insofar as their ways of living do not harm and discriminate against any others’.

The moment that this other culture asserts discriminatory claims or practices illiberal rites (like female circumcision, for instance), this kind of multiculturalist’s tolerance runs out, and turns into its opposite. Why any of this implies that proponents of this position are in a boutique, Fish does not argue.

The second, postmodernist form of multiculturalism, which defends difference for difference’s sake, also has its own endemic paradoxes. If we support all different or Other groups on grounds of their difference, without further conditions, we soon find ourselves committed to supporting groups who are different from us, truly—but who express their difference by deep hostility to the kinds of toleration we are extending to them.

Stanley Fish, who coined the contentious term ‘boutique multiculturalism’

At this point, we either recoil back into a modernist position, inconsistently; or consistently bite the bullet and end up by supporting deeply illiberal, difference-hostile cultures.

Needless to say, the conservative commentariat have made hay over the last several decades by pointing up examples of this latter paradox, and its potentially disturbing corollaries. They have pushed it at times into extremely contentious claims about the New Left’s supposed support for forms of Islamic fundamentalism, and the like.

This is also where sweeping neoconservative claims about the New Left enshrining an “adversary culture” opposed to the entire “Western civilization” have made their way into magazines and opinion pages around the globe.

Inter alia

Let me finish by squaring the circle, and by highlighting that all opponents of “political correctness” do not identify as on the Right, although almost everyone on the socially conservative Right today probably identities themselves as being opposed to “political correctness”.

In fact, leading Leftist philosophers Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek have both presented scathing criticisms of the postmodern valorisation of difference and Otherness as a dead end for the Left.

What differentiates Žižek’s criticisms of “political correctness” from those on the Right (I am going to be generous to him here) is that he thinks that, in several senses, political correctness doesn’t go far enough.

Political correctness, Žižek charges, puts the cart before the horse, when it promotes codes of speaking and a series of polite, symbolic gestures respecting the Other which are not matched by real social changes.

Before we attend so closely to what people say, Žižek contends, we should first redress the real living conditions of disadvantaged people. Only then will what critics call “politically correct” ways of speaking no longer seem artificial and constrictive (as he thinks they do seem), and become the natural reflection of an expanded social contract.

Liberal American critic Mark Lilla, in a recent piece, has differently called for a “post-identity liberalism”. To win majorities in democracies, Lilla argues, the Left has to appeal to shared values. To build a platform around celebrating differences ends by dividing without conquering. This is what Hilary Clinton’s Democrats learned the hard way last year.

If the Democrats are to win back power, after four or eight years of Donald Trump, the “politically correct” attention to differences sans phrase will need to give way to a new language of shared struggles and ideals.

Stanley Fish might see such an opposition to postmodernist identity politics as a reversion to “boutique” liberalism. For Lilla, it is a matter of mathematics and hard-minded realpolitik.

The Conversation


Matthew Sharpe works at Deakin University, which is holding a public debate on "Political correctness, free speech in the age of Social Media" on the evening of 23rd February, featuring Peter Baldwin, Adam Bandt, Edward Santow and Maria Rae.

There’s a new wave editor for Mac and Windows, and it looks promising

Most hardware and software for music making has generally gotten better, but not the dedicated audio editor. This once-proud genre of music software has fallen on hard times. Tools have been acquired, discontinued, received too-few updates. At best, the tools we’re left with look like they came from another decade.

And that’s too bad. Because having a tool devoted solely to day-to-day audio chores is a really good thing. Maybe you’ve got a set of samples you want to crop and clean up to load onto your drum machine or into a software sampler. Maybe you’re sorting through a big stack of field recordings. Maybe you’ve got a big set of cues for a video game or app project. Odds are just about everyone, no matter how basic, winds up with some grunt work converting and editing audio and applying effects and plug-ins.

I’m always up for some new entry to this market, and so I was glad to see ReSample pop into my inbox. It’s a Windows and Mac tool for audio editing. And it at least looks modern: it’s got a slick interface that looks at home on today’s high-density Mac and PC displays.

It’s also, at last, ready for your new hardware. So on both PC and Mac, you get multi-touch trackpad gestures and slick editing that makes browsing through waveforms easy. On the new MacBook Pro, you even get Touch Bar support – making this one of the first third-party apps to support Apple’s new input device.


There’s also a lot built-in: noise reduction, vocal removal, tons of effects, high-quality sample rate conversion, loads of file conversion options, and rich spectral views of everything so there’s visual feedback on what you’re doing. As for your own plug-in collection, this app acts as a VST and AU host, too.

The most essential feature to me is the one that’s missing in this very first release: there’s no batch conversion. But the developers do tell me this is a priority, and should be available in the near weeks.

A quick play of the program reveals it to be simple and effective. I’ll try to do a full review soon (I may wait for batch features to give it an in-depth go).

It’s US$89, and there’s a 25-day demo period.

Sample rate/depth conversion
Multiband Compressor
Engineering Filter
Simple Reverb
Stereo Enhancer
Time and Pitch
Pitch Correction
Noise Reduction
Vocal Removal
Doppler Effect
Phase Scope
Loudness Meter


The post There’s a new wave editor for Mac and Windows, and it looks promising appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

An Immersive Forest of 60,000 Rainbow Numbers by Emmanuelle Moureaux

In celebration of The National Art Center of Tokyo‘s 10th anniversary, French architect Emmanuelle Moureaux was commissioned to fill the institution’s 6500 square foot exhibition space with her vision of the decade to come. Unsurprisingly, Moureaux, whose practice often involves layering color within space, decided to transform the white cube into a rainbow forest filled with more than 60,000 multi-colored numbers arranged in three dimensional grids.

The installation, Forest of Numbers, is composed of 10 layers, each to represent the next 10 years. Figures 0 through 9 create the 4 digits needed for each year. The numbers are also divided into 100 shades to align with Moureaux’s 100 Colors installation series which she has installed around the world since 2013. You can see previous installations from this series on her website. (via My Modern Met)

Friday essay: the female werewolf and her shaggy suffragette sisters

As Melbourne lights up for tomorrow’s White Night Festival, the façade of RMIT’s Storey Hall annex will transform into an illuminated billboard of morphing lupine femmes. The portraits – my original linocuts of female werewolves – might seem curious bedfellows for a Melbourne icon of deconstructivism. However, there is a long connection between female werewolves and suffragettes – and this building has a feminist history.

In the early 19th century, Hibernian Hall (now Storey Hall) was leased to the Women’s Political Association, whose purple, green and white flag flew from the rooftop. Across the world, the Women’s Social and Political Union was also making its mark — literally — on London’s Suffrage Atelier. Founded in 1909 by Alfred Pearce and the Housman siblings, Clemence and Laurence, the atelier’s print workshop advanced feminist causes, making and circulating pro-suffrage publications, and providing employment for female illustrators.

The Houseman siblings are better known, however, for their collaborative novella of 1896, The Were-Wolf. Written by Clemence with illustrations by Laurence, The Were-Wolf sees its title heroine, White Fell, find her way into the hearts of a Swedish family — while they find their way into her belly.

White Fell is part of a groundswell of female werewolves who surfaced in Victorian gothic literature, fuelled by paranoia surrounding the suffragette movement. The hirsute sisterhood are notable for preying on families and upending the gendered status quo, recognisable by their supernaturally shining eyes, foreign accents and aristocratic penchant for white fur. Inverting contemporary werewolf conventions, these shaggy suffragettes also revert to wolves — not women — after death, thereby revealing their “true” lupine selves.

Cultural constructions of women as intrinsically lupine have existed throughout the centuries, whether as nurturing mothers (think Romulus and Remus), ravening man-eaters, or as inherently demonic.

The female werewolf has been far more prevalent than her relatively modest profile suggests, flourishing most conspicuously at times when the female gender came under attack. We see this not just in the suffragette era but also — with rather more dire consequences — during the Early Modern witch-hunts.

A severed head and rampant misogyny

The earliest record I have found of a reputed werewolf (male or female) being brought to trial is that of Catherine Simon of Andermatt in Switzerland. In 1459, Catherine confessed to having transformed into a wolf with the aid of a salve (ointment) and causing an avalanche.

Witch riding a wolf, woodcut in Ulrich Molitor, Von den Unholden oder Hexen, c. 1491.
Wikimedia Commons

Catherine’s crimes were considered so serious that her executioner was charged to “divide her into two pieces, of which one shall be her head and the other her body, which shall be so completely severed that a cartwheel can be rolled between them”.

Her remains were burned, and the ashes cast into the Reuss River as further insurance against her causing harm.

This climate of religious paranoia and misogyny is captured in a sensational German broadsheet by Georg Kress, Of 300 Witches and Their Pact with the Devil to Turn Themselves into She-Wolves at Jülich, 6 May 1591.

It depicts the destruction of men, boys and cattle by a horde of ravening she-wolves, complete with rhyming descriptions of brains being sucked and hearts being eaten.

Kress’ introductory proclamation that his broadsheet is “published in print for all pious women and maidens as a warning and example” makes it clear that women were considered in greatest need of the lessons in the text.

Even pious women, it seemed, needed to be mindful of their inherent bestial natures and moral susceptibility – a sentiment echoed in witch-hunting treatises of the day.

Georg Kress’s broadsheet depicting women werewolves.
Wikimedia Commons

Werewolves and vampires

As the witch craze subsided and society’s critical gaze turned instead towards the excesses of aristocratic depravity, werewolves were swept up in the vampire wave. This peaked in 1730s Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, with Austro-Hungarian Countess Erzsébet Báthory setting the template for the clichéd Eastern European lycanthrope (werewolf).

Jazmina Cininas, Erzsebet was frequently mistaken for a vampire (2011). Reduction linocut, 37 x 28 cm.

Rumoured to have butchered and bathed in the blood of 600 local virgins for cosmetic purposes, Erzsébet has since been claimed by the vampire “cause”. However, she first came to the attention of the popular imagination in Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Werewolves, published in 1865.

Her legend includes a she-wolf familiar (an animal spirit that accompanies her and helps bewitch enemies) and a family crest composed of wolf fangs, which, like her infamous bloodbaths, seem to have had little basis in fact.

Nevertheless, Erzsébet reflects the intimate link between werewolves and vampires, an intimacy that is also shared in medicine.

A medical foundation for the werewolf myth?

In the 1980s, biochemist David Dolphin suggested that porphyria, a hereditary blood disease that causes severe anaemia, might be treated with injections of blood products, thereby popularising the notion of a medical origin for vampirism.

Visible symptoms of congenital porphyria. W. Hausmann, Strahlentherapie, Suppl. 8, 1923.

Porphyria symptoms include severe phototoxicity, demanding its sufferers avoid sunlight or risk progressively “beastly” skin lesions, especially on the face and hands. Reddish teeth and urine and extreme hairiness (notably on the forehead) complete the litany of ailments that have also seen porphyria proposed as a medical foundation for the werewolf myth.

Porphyria is not alone in its medical claim on the werewolf legend. Congenital generalised hypertrichosis (hereditary full-body hairiness), commonly known as “werewolf syndrome”, has seen Mexico’s Gomez-Aceves family listed in the 2000 Guinness Book of Records as the world’s hairiest family. Some members have achieved further celebrity status as wolf children in local circuses.

Louisa Lilia Lira de Aceves is the best-known female family member. Her hirsutism has been proposed as a genetic atavism, a “throwback” to an earlier evolutionary stage. Such thinking perpetuates Social Darwinist anxieties in the face of humanity that does not conform to the norm. However, human difference was not always viewed in this light.

Hirsute marvels

When the hairy Gonsalvus sisters received public attention in 16th-century Europe, for instance, they did so as marvels rather than monsters. Seen as evidence of divine wit and inventiveness, they led privileged lives as members of royal retinues in France and Italy.

The sisters, whose equally hirsute father had been captured as a child on the Canary Islands and brought to the French court of Henry II, lived in an age of colonial expansion marked by conquest, discovery and wonder.

Lavinia Fontana Portrait of Antonietta Gonsalvus.
Wikimedia Commons

The family’s hirsutism was viewed in the same light as the other extraordinary flora, fauna and peoples being brought back to Europe from the New World. Their place in the royal entourage was seen to demonstrate the king’s erudition and power, rather than voyeurism as we understand it today.

The religious iconography of the age also provided a sympathetic model of the hairy woman. A hairy pelt symbolised saints’ and wild folk’s penitential rejection of society’s vanities, in favour of a more virtuous co-existence with the wilderness.

Contemporary readings

Similar sentiments have resurfaced in contemporary times. In fiction and film, the female werewolf has increasingly been presented as gaining virtue and empowerment from, rather than being corrupted by, her lupine self. Novelist Angela Carter opened the floodgate in 1979 with her feminist re-writings of fairy stories, The Bloody Chamber, notable for her re-imagined Little Red Riding Hood that borrows heavily from archaic versions of the tale.

Carter’s newly menstruating Red is more than happy to usurp her grandmother’s place in the bed, embracing the wolf and growing her own pelt by morning.

In breaking with taboo, Carter provides a template for Red Riding Hood as a coming of age tale. In Carter’s version, the onset of menses represents a pubescent girl’s sexual awakening, her transforming body and appetites signalling, and celebrating, her becoming one with the wolf.


This, in turn, has led to a uniquely feminine manifestation of lycanthropy (werewolfism) whereby a new generation of novelists and filmmakers draw on the correlations between the werewolf’s lunar cycle and a woman’s monthly cycle.

Independent filmmaker Jacqueline Garry employs this motif in her 1999 film, The Curse. Garry’s heroine, Frida Harris, was inspired by 1980’s news reports about Sandie Craddock, a UK barmaid who stabbed her co-worker to death.

Journal entries and psychiatric reports testified that Craddock was rational for most of the month. However, during her “moon time” (ie in the days surrounding her menstruation), she experienced uncharacteristic aggression. Craddock was released on the grounds of extreme PMS with a court order to take hormone replacements.

The menstrual-werewolf motif is also central to the cult Canadian film, Ginger Snaps (2000), in which suburban teenager Ginger Fitzgerald is attacked by a werewolf attracted to the smell of her first menses. Ginger’s alarming transformations include insatiable appetites and unwelcome body hair. This, in turn, causes increasing anxiety for her conflicted younger sister, Brigitte, who is forced to come to terms with her own nascent sexuality.

The third instalment in the trilogy, Ginger Snaps Back: the beginning comes full circle, returning the sisters to Canada’s pioneer past. There, Old World superstitions cast the sisters as inherently susceptible to demonic suggestion.

The nebulous figure of the female werewolf has encompassed different, often contradictory, identities over time, absorbing changing perceptions of women, wolves, morality and the monstrous.

The advent of menstrual lycanthropes and Red Riding Wolves is part of an ongoing evolution and revolution in werewolf lore. Borrowing from the past, it creates new imaginative possibilities for the lupine woman.

The Conversation

Jazmina Cininas is affiliated with RMIT University. Her projection work, What Big Teeth You Have has been commissioned by RMIT Gallery as part of their 2017 White Night programme of events.

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