Books

Sady Doyle Is a Witch. So What Are You Afraid Of?

Photo of Sady Doyle by © B. Michael Payne (courtesy of Melville House)

You'll want to share Sady Doyle's Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers, a #PMPick, with the rest of your coven and all the little girls in your orbit.

Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power
Sady Doyle

Melville House

August 2019

Other

People are going to say that Sady Doyle admits to being a witch. By "people" I mean men, and by "admits to" I mean "has published a new book", and by "is a witch" I mean "encourages women to claim their power". If the preceding two sentences caused you to laugh a little but did not whatsoever constitute breaking news, go pick up a copy of Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power—plus a few extra copies to share with the rest of your coven.

The book cover alone compels. I was reading it at school each morning before work and literally every 10th grade girl who saw the giant pink female symbol with devil horns on the cover said to me, "Ooooh, what are you reading?"

The book examines three roles that women are permitted to have in the world. Say them with me because you know them well: daughter, wife, mother. We know these roles well because all of culture—our artworks, our governments, our kinships—defines and polices these roles in the service of patriarchal maintenance. It's rather difficult to keep propping up the patriarchy because the truth is that women are so very powerful. Men fear us, and so in their various creative, legal and familial discourses, we are constructed as monsters.

Kudos to Doyle for her consistency throughout the text in reminding readers that that other word we are called, "woman" is definitionally complex. Heteronormativity is sliding around under the entire conversation, and intersectional differences between women mean that not all oppressions are created equal. And yet, at the root, this is a book that can pin down an image of us that all women can probably affirm exists as an essential quality when properly interrogated as a reversal: anything that is monstrous is a woman. The negative characterization of us operates in many diverse ways, yet we all feel at some point that the male gaze makes monsters out of us. We know the results, too: violence against us and shame upon us. Try this on for size:

"Not a single woman gets out unscathed; there is not one woman who reaches the end of her life without being sexually assaulted, or sexually harassed, or abused by a partner, or verbally demeaned and intimidated in public spaces, or simply made smaller than she is by our hatred of her, or our fear of her, or the fear and shame we have taught her to feel about herself in a world where there is nothing more horrifying than being female. Yet at the end of the line, we give these women not respite, or understanding, but the responsibility for recreating the social order that has done all this to them" (211-212).

That checks all my boxes. I thought that I might not be very into this book because most of the examples would be located in the literary genre of horror. When people ask me why I don't like scary movies or books, I reply that real life is scary enough. But that's kind of Doyle's point; she moves easily back and forth between scary movies and real-life events upon which these literary images are based, artfully tracing their infinite feedback loop.

Linda Blair as Regan in The Exorcist (1973) (IMDB)

Her choice of examples is not obscure. There's a big chunk on The Exorcist, another on serial killer Ed Gein, and some riffs on the sirens of Greek mythology. She always provides the necessary background detail for those unfamiliar with the specific references, and the appendix is organized in the manner of a proper resource guide that will be helpful to those wishing to look at her source material. For each chapter, she provides a list broken down by genre: film, television, literature, nonfiction, theory, and other media.

The theory is not complicated, especially as it will dovetail so clearly with the lived experiences of the women who will read it, and the entire book is jargon-free. A main thread is the image of blood—shedding it in puberty, at the end of virginity, in giving birth, and so on, alongside slashers, vampires, and so on. Another main idea is the see-saw of unmeetable expectations with virgin on one end and whore on the other, as usual.

Again, the chief delight of this book is not that it presents any new information, but that it aggregates a pile of information we already know into a package that is pleasing. It's pleasing because Doyle has an amusing voice. By "has an amusing voice" I mean "is possessed of a rage she has skillfully channeled into witty articulation".

There are a few sections of Doyle's commentary that especially delight me. One of these is on the gender identity of Godzilla and the awesome power of the T. rex in Jurassic Park. Another is on the possible virtues of Augusta Gein, mother to the man who would become an archetype to rival Hitler in the toxic masculine imagination. And finally, most gratifyingly, the author's conclusion about how we get out of this patriarchal blood bath is predicated on her astute reading of Andrew Fleming's supernatural horror film, The Craft.

Doyle is just a year younger than I, and any American woman who attended high school in the late '90s will tell you: The Craft launched a thousand covens. By "covens" I mean "small groups of teenage girls empowering each other through supportive friendships". And also empowering each other through murdering their abusers, which is why witches are so terrifying to a culture predicated on the privileges of abuse.

Doyle is right. You know it. Read Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers because you'll feel less alone to hear our story told in this way. By "you" I mean "women"—and students of gender studies, and listeners of true-crime podcasts, and parents who sometimes feels guilty, and so on.

And hey, probably men should read it, too. C'mon, men, what are you afraid of?

9
Music
Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Music

Coronavirus Tunes: A Brief Playlist for Our Times of Self-Isolation

As coronavirus spreads throughout the world and many of us hunker down with online media, we offer eight songs that share our feeling of seclusion.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Music

PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists

If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by the quality readership of PopMatters.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Books
Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Film
Film

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The character's in Claude Chabrol's The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored, reflecting and refracting their hunger for sex, love, money, and power.

Film

'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

Film

What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.

Film

'The Serpent's Egg' Marks One of Ingmar Bergman's Strangest Efforts

The Serpent's Egg bares many of the Bergman's trademark features – the suffocating auras of despair and an underdog's sense of triumph over tragedy – but falls short of a more intelligent rendering of human drama.

Recent
Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Music

Lilly Hiatt - "Some Kind of Drug" (Singles Going Steady)

Lilly Hiatt sings about a different kind of love on "Some Kind of Drug". Hers is for a city and the impact gentrification has had its soul.

Music

There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington

The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Music

Weeks Island's 'Droste' Is a New High Water Mark in Ambient Steel (EP stream) (premiere)

Lost Bayou Ramblers' Jonny Campos turns up as Weeks Island with Brian Eno/Cluster-inspired music straight from the bayou. Hear Droste in full ahead of its release on Friday.

Music

Ireland's Junk Drawer Share New Krautrock Meets Post-Punk Song, "Temporary Day" (premiere)

Junk Drawer's "Temporary Day" is a simple yet compelling video for a gripping song that shows why the band have earned such acclaim in their native Ireland.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Music

Miranda Lambert - "Bluebird" (Singles Going Steady)

Miranda Lambert sings her blues the way an artist paints with them on her latest single, "Bluebird".

Music

'Stone Crush' Proves (Again) That Memphis Is Ground Zero for Soul and R&B

Stone Crush shines a light on the forgotten -- or never known -- artists that passed through the doors of Memphis' most storied studios in an attempt at just one fleeting moment of fame.

Music

Circles Around the Sun Shoot for the Stars on New Album

Jamrockers Circles Around the Sun's self-titled third album finds the band transcending darkness after losing their founder in 2019 to chart a groovy new course.

Music

Jazz's Kandace Springs Pays Tribute to 'The Women Who Raised Me'

Singer and pianist Kandace Springs tackles a dozen songs associated with her jazz vocal heroes, and the combination of simplicity and sincerity is winning.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.