Kerry Mallan, 2000
Mallan describes the concept of ‘female grotesque’ as a destabalising visual/narrative device that explores and challenges limitations of the female body’s representation - the female body becomes a vehicle for transgressive behaviours that subvert feminine norms, but bring representations closer to actual realities of female bodily experience. (she discusses in the context of children’s films)
“By transgressing the norms of femininity, the female grotesque refuses the limits
imposed on her body and embraces the ambivalent possibilities such transgressions offer.”
Archetypes such as femme fatale, tom boy, bitch, nymphomaniac etc. are phrases which seek to control excessive displays of transgression, or the ‘grotesque’.
despite these social and sexual controls, women and girls continue to transgress the bounds of
‘proper’ femininity and feminine decorum. Their bodies then become the sites of personal
pleasure as well as offering a sight for other women and girls to engage in a voyeuristic
delight in seeing the un/sightly; that is, in seeing female bodies performing in ways which are
denied to them.”
Mallan says the female grotesque is a way to deny the traditional male gaze and create for the enjoyment of the female gaze.
“The relationship between the viewer and the viewed is
not a simple matter of a subject-object dialectic. Rather, the relation of the female viewer to
the female on the screen is one of double vision – of seeing the other as the same, familiar
and known, yet at the same time, different, unfamiliar and unknown. In real life, women who
make a spectacle, through their over-the-top or over-display of actions or costume, transform
the female body from a site/sight as object to be looked at, to one of ‘looking-at-being-
Mallan is referring to difference between a relationship of looking in which viewed is passive, and one which is controlled by the viewed (and performed with intent). though the grotesque is generally viewed negatively, “the transgressive female body has been appropriated into some
feminist theories as a positive symbol of female subversiveness and rebelliousness against
‘transgressive bodies’ - I think this can be thought of as ones which sit outside the boundaries of perfection, or the ‘norm’ - Mallan considers how female power is expressed as an exaggeration and emphasis of female physicality, and so “beauty becomes an interesting construct which offers
different interpretations of conventional and unconventional physical attractiveness.”
artifice and sensuality - “They are also women who delight in their bodies as sensual and transgressive objects
of desire which demand the kind of ‘looking-at-being-looked-at-ness’.” the characters “exaggerate their version of femininity and in
doing so reveal feminine identity as always a masquerade…Another source of pleasure that can be derived from the femme fatale lies partly in the
woman’s uninhibited displays of sexuality and the power this generates…[the women] are clearly aware of their power of appeal, and provide a subversive alternative.”
my understanding of the female grotesque includes transgressive the accepted form and function of the female body - therefore you could argue that a depiction of a ‘real’ authentic female body (unperfected) is transgressive as it defies society’s construction of female beauty and physicality and rejects the shame of non conformity by unapologetically exposing itself. You could also argue that the body involved in acts like peeing etc. also fits this model of the grotesque; such acts are normal but nonsexual, therefore undermining the female body’s primary conventional role as sexual object and undermining the viewer’s enjoyment of it.
Mallan, K. 2000 ‘Witches, bitches and femmes fatales: viewing the female grotesque in children’s film’,
Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 26-35.