This installment previews the concepts and ideas to be explored in this blog series, and critically addresses constructions of monolithic identities, especially problematic notion of a singular, normative, Irish identity.

Horror, like any other genre of cultural production, encompasses its own particular set of tropes, archetypes, patterns that recur in the character types that emerge most often and in the methods of characterization employed. Considered in a vacuum, these patterns and tropes are useful tools, functioning as narrative shorthand, reprising familiar characters that the audience is familiar with in order to save time and space developing new characters. Considered within the complicated, socio-politically-imbued media landscape in which cultural production is situated, however, these tropes become less the “useful tools” of theoretical narrative analysis and more flat, one-dimensional analogs for the complex real life people that they represent. While other genres certainly have similar problems, horror is unique in its mandate to work against mainstream media tendencies, so that its primary characters are more often already members of marginalized identity groups. This increased representation has led to multiple approaches to the genre especially from the sectors of feminist, critical race, and queer theories. While initial analyses of horror may have balked at the negative representation of marginal groups—the consistency and detail with which women are brutally tortured and killed, for example—others have argued that while horror reinscribes violence against subjugated bodies, it also gives those bodies more attention than other mainstream media and makes the violence that is so often invisible to that same media hyper-visible, legible, and most importantly visceral. This is, in many respects, a half-measure, a step towards better political formations in cultural production, but not necessarily an end goal. Considering 21st century horror literature and film, however, through the lens of decolonial theory, feminist theory, and queer theory, presents us with two examples of the possible next step from simply making visible to combating negative, violent representation. Caitlín R. Kiernan’s novel The Drowning Girl and Bing Bailey’s film Portrait of a Zombie each engage formally and narratively with horror, borrowing some aesthetic conventions and experimenting with others, putting them to use in constructing complex personhood for their characters rather than relying on flat, familiar character types. Both texts can be classified as “Irish” (although to varying degrees) and both are concerned with distinct representations of identity. The Drowning Girl is the self-reflexive narrative of a young, queer, schizophrenic woman attempting to understand and unravel the recent events of her life immediately preceding and following her latest suicide attempt. Portrait of a Zombie, is a mockumentary about a (fictional) documentary crew attempting to shoot a lucrative human-interest story about the family of the first zombie in the ongoing, although mundane, zombie apocalypse. While Bailey’s film is decidedly more concerned with de/constructing monolithic “Irishness,” Kiernan’s novel is also situated within the discourse of Irish neocolonialism and the particular ideological formations surrounding identity politics in decolonial work. Both texts, in their explicit and deliberate deployment of complex personhood and, in turn, humanity for their subjects, work to deconstruct normative constructions of identity both within the Irish decolonial context and in the broader global neocolonial context.

The notion that Irish identity is multifaceted is neither new nor particularly profound. According to Michael Gillespie, “Just as Irish cinema stands as a term too often accepted without question, many film scholars still generate criticism based on the conception of Irish identity as a monolithic temperament, even when Irishness as a stable category finds itself under assault.”[1]. While national classifications are sometimes helpful in considering cinema, or literature, with some link to a particular geographical location, they simultaneously contribute to a sense that a national identity can be summarized and described in the most general terms. These general terms, in the case of neocolonial Ireland, tend to categorize Irishness within existing hierarchies of white, heteropatriarchal, able-bodied, neurotypical, identity. Within this context, when individuals who do exist outside of normative Irish identity are represented, they remain flat, unexamined, and divested of their claim to Irish culture, history, and decolonial struggle. In film this takes the form of representing queer and transgender women as aberrant, deviant, and deserving of ridicule, people with disabilities or mental illnesses as conflict-motivators within the plot rather than proper Irish people, and impoverished, homeless people as one-dimension criminals and vagrants detracting from global perceptions of upstanding Irish citizens. These formations are not limited to cultural production; popular imagery of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Provisional IRA, and Sinn Féin are decidedly normative white and straight, and predominantly male, and the women’s section of the IRA, Cumann na mBan, was ideologically conservative in terms of normative femininity and sexual discretion. Further, as Elizabeth Butler Cullingford explains, “The trope of the unfaithful prisoner’s wife is closely related to the figure of the soldier’s whore […] in both cases, female sexual transgression threatens the masculinity of the colonised native, who has no reciprocal access to the coloniser’s women.”[2] Cullingford situates the role of punishment for female infidelity historically, drawing on reports of women being shaved bald, tarred, and feathered for their unfaithfulness (either to their husbands or to their nationality) in the early 1971s, but notes that due to the influence of feminism on the IRA and Sinn Féin, by the 1980s actual accounts of tar-and-feathering dropped off significantly. Nonetheless, Cullingford explains that “the tar-and-featherings of the early 1970s persisted in the popular imagination precisely because they were so extreme and so symbolic”[3] and, “the analogy between humiliating a woman who is fraternising with the enemy and punishing an errant prisoner’s wife is obvious: in both cases the community intervenes to restore ‘tribal’ or ‘family’ values that have been threatened by unsanctioned female desire.”[4] Within these articulations of why the historical image of the shorn woman tarred and feathered remains prevalent in the filmic imaginary since the practice was effectively phased out is an acknowledgment of how normative concepts of identity in cinema work both against the represented marginal group and the larger national decolonial movement to which that group belongs. The image of the punished woman simultaneously provides Irish women with a visual reminder of the (imagined) consequences of acting on sexual desire, and classifies the anti-colonial, native activism of the IRA as primitive, tribal, and uncivilized. In this way, by opening and deliberately rejecting the notion that women who are sexually unfaithful in their relationships with men deserve violent punishment, The Drowning Girl negates both the normative construction of female sexuality and the subsequent classification of colonized men as primitive or tribal.

[1] Gillespie, Michael Patrick. The Myth of an Irish Cinema: Approaching Irish-Themed Films. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 2008. Xii.

[2] Cullingford, Elizabeth Butler. “The Prisoner’s Wife and the Soldier’s Whore: Female Punishment in Irish History and Culture.” in Barton, Ruth, and Harvey O’Brien, Keeping it Real: Irish Film and Television. London: Wallflower Press, 2004. 9.

[3] ibid 12

[4] ibid 13

Image Credit: Colman Doyle  © 1970s



Author: Geneveive Newman