In his essay “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”, Jeffery Jerome Cohen argues in his fourth thesis that monsters are created by the fear of “cultural, political, racial, economic, [and] sexual” differences (Cohen 7). He argues leaving outsiders at the “gates of difference”, is a cultural hierarchy’s anxious attempt at preserving the status quo (Cohen 7). The dehumanization of those lying outside cultural norms is seen in the historic and modern-day marginalization of the LGBTQ community by the heteronormative belief system. Joel Edgerton’s film “Boy Erased” and Karen Russell’s short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” together exemplify how cultural hierarchies enforce gender and sexuality norms by preaching uniformity.
Cultural hierarchies are imposed by first creating an environment of superiority. For example, the girls raised by wolves represent complete cultural difference at a fundamental level. They are unable to speak or even walk on their hind legs like humans do. Instead the girls “growl”, dig holes, and gnaw on the bones of “unfortunate squirrels” in a barbarous, inhuman manner (Russell 269). The animalistic and seemingly backwards nature of the girls highlights not only the stark contrast between them and human society, but also how cultural hierarchies foist their self-asserted “better culture” (Russell 268). This is further reinforced by the imagery of the girls walking on all fours, low to the ground, while the nuns at St. Lucy’s are bipedal. This aspect of verticality, paints how the dominant culture both literally and figuratively looks down upon the girls raised by wolves.
In the film “Boy Erased”, the young protagonist Jared experiences the similar difficulty of lying beyond the normal cultural paradigm. Jared is born and raised within an evangelical Christian home. After revealing that he is gay, Jared agrees to be sent to gay conversion therapy. Once there, he is repeatedly demeaned and is forced to look at his homosexuality as a sinful sickness. At one point, the counselor Jon calls him a derogatory gay slur. Because the counselors portray themselves as righteous and wiser men of God, Jared is unable to say anything in return. Akin to Mirabella being forced to wear a “muzzle”, Jared is powerless against his counselor’s authority (Russell 276).
In both contexts, one of the primary enforcers of cultural and gender conformity is the restriction of personal freedoms. In order to cast, form, and mold a serialized normative identity, the girls’ sense of autonomy is replaced with the required need to “Know Your Place” (Russell 270). This requirement for uniformity restricts self-ownership. The girls are limited in movement, losing their own physical freedom when they are forced to walk using “two square-toed shoes” instead of on all fours (Russell 270). This same lack of physical freedom is apparent in “Boy Erased”, when Jared is forced to act in a masculine fashion. He is told not to cross his legs or slouch. Instead, he has to subscribe to the archaic notions of traditional masculinity.
The girls raised by wolves are also confined in their speech, such as when Claudette tries to have a human conversation but is limited to the confines of what she learned in her textbook’s “Unit 7: Party Dialogue” (Russell 276). The girls’ loss of autonomy is manifested in their inability to communicate. Similarly, Jared symbolically loses his own capability for expression when his notebook, containing short stories he wrote, is taken away from him by a counselor. These restrictions slowly start to destroy both Claudette’s and Jared’s personhood, as the individual aspects of themselves that make them who they are, are erased.
The final aspect of erasing and replacing an individual’s identity, is manufacturing their own thoughts and beliefs. Russell’s story is divided by the four stages of the education process. At one point, Claudette wonders “How can people live like they do?”, before congratulating herself for having a “stage 3 thought” (Russell 273). Claudette’s own thoughts, the last bastion of self-possession is actually a product of the school’s own teachings. Unlike Claudette who adapts to the new human culture and “graduate[s] from St. Lucy’s, Jared refuses to lose his sense of self (Russell 278). At one point, Jared is asked to share a personal testimony of sexual deviance by his head counselor, Victor. When Jared reveals that he has never had consensual sex, Victor pushes him to admit his own sexual perversion and to “tell the truth”, when indeed, he was. Furthermore, Victor urges Jared to confess his hatred for his own father. Like Claudette, Jared’s thoughts are being manufactured so that he will be more easily controlled. Furthermore, when ideas are seemingly created by the individual, they give the illusion of self-possession. While Claudette fails to maintain her autonomy, Jared liberates himself from the enforced norm, and refuses to admit he hates his father.
Part of being human means being capable of deciding your own choices. Hence, cultural hierarchies inhumanly destroy individual personhood by requiring conformity. When we advocate cultural norms by labeling and dehumanizing groups of people, we fail to realize that the monsters are not those at the boundary of difference, but the ones guarding the gates.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: reading culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. University of Minnesota Press, 1996. 3-25. eBook Collection (ProQuest).
Edgerton, Joel, director. Boy Erased. Performed by Lucas Hedges, Focus Features. 2018.
Russell, Karen. “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves” 2006. The Norton Introduction to Literature, compiled by Kelly J. Mays, Shorter Twelfth ed., Norton, 2016, pp. 267-278.