Awful Warning

Metropolis (Lang, 1927) explores the inter-war anxiety about the simultaneous rise of women and of science by linking them in the potent character of Maria, the beautifully evil cyborg who incites the unwitting men of Lang’s dystopia to violence against their rulers. This intertwining of the terrible, uncontrollable danger of growing feminine and scientific power is made manifest by Lang through the trope of the Monstrous-Feminine, a term coined by Barbara Creed in her seminal 1993 book:

The reasons why the monstrous-feminine horrifies her audience are quite different from the reasons why the male monster horrifies his audience. A new term is needed to specify these differences. As with all other stereotypes of the feminine, from virgin to whore, she is defined in terms of her sexuality. The phrase ‘monstrous-feminine’ emphasizes the importance of gender in the construction of her monstrosity. (Creed, 1993 p3)

Creed cites the tragic figure of Medusa as one of the prototype monstrous females, an avatar for the terror of female sexual power.  Greek mythology casts Medusa as a beautiful young girl seduced by Poseidon in the temple of Athena, much to the ire of the goddess.  Athena, enraged, cursed Medusa as punishment. Her hair is turned to serpents and she becomes so visually hideous that any person laying eyes on her is immediately turned to stone.  The reasoning behind Medusa’s monstrous metamorphosis follows traditional, patriarchal rules for feminine behaviour: When she was pure, she was beautiful; but when she allowed herself to be seduced by Poseidon she became a wicked temptress (it is important to note that it is Medusa who is punished for the violation of Athena’s temple, not Poseidon).  In Ovid’s Metamorphoses the injustice is even more explicit; Medusa is raped by Poseidon, yet her punishment is considered just:

She was a very lovely one, the hope of many

An envious suitor, and of all her beauties

Her hair most beautiful – at least I heard so

From one who claimed he had seen her. One day Neptune

Found her and raped her, in Minerva’s temple,

And the goddess turned away, and hid her eyes

Behind her shield, and punishing the outrage

As it deserved, she changed her hair to serpents

And even now, to frighten evil doers

She carries on her breastplate metal vipers

To serve as awful warning of her vengeance.

(Ovid trans. Humphires, 1972 p106)

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Medusa’s tragedy is to be branded as evil and to be cursed for defying traditional expectations of ladylike behaviour. Is her egregious treatment perhaps a result of the male fears that Sigmund Freud inferred she represents? Freud argued that “Medusa’s head takes the place of a representation of the female genitals” (Freud, (1955 [1922]). He theorises that the horror of the mother’s genitals is represented by this hideous monster crowned with a mass of writhing snakes.  And he equates the entire myth of Perseus and Medusa to the threat of castration, because to decapitate is to castrate.  In Freud’s analysis, the character of Medusa depicts the male fear of female sexuality (and the consequent fear of castration) in a monstrously horrifying form.


Medusa and the cyborg Maria both represent aspects of this monstrous femininity in opposite, but complementary ways. As Medusa could be considered to represent an archaic and antiquated personification of male fears of feminine power, Maria represents the future (or more accurately, what man thinks a woman of the future will be).  I wrote about the representation of women in Metropolis in my previous post about the film.  I won’t repeat it all here, but the contrast between the delicate, real Maria and the wild, robot Maria is of particular interest in relation to discussion of the monstrous female.  The mechanical woman is the woman of the future, but her effect on society is to destabilise it; a reflection of patriarchal societies’ fear of the emancipated woman.


Creed, B., (1993) The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Abingdon: Routledge

Freud, S., (1955 [1922]) ‘Medusa’s Head’ in Freud, S., The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 18, ed. and trans. Strachey, J. et al., pp. 273-275

Lang, F., (1927) Metropolis, Kino Lorber

Ovid, (1972) Metamorphoses trans. Humphires, R., Bloomington: Indiana University Press


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