Female werewolves in pop culture, oh my
Female werewolves – what do they say about our culture? We talk to an academic about the she-wolf in medieval and modern times.
Dr Hannah Priest is an academic writer and lecturer based in Manchester, UK. Her work focuses on sex, violence and monsters in popular culture (medieval and contemporary). We collared her (awkward werewolf joke, just gonna own it) on the panel of The Curse play to talk LOTS AND LOTS ABOUT FEMALE WEREWOLVES, OH MY.
Female werewolves in pop culture – Dr Hannah Priest tells all
What first drew you to werewolf academia? As opposed to other monsters?
I think the werewolves just claimed me… I first became interested in medieval monsters when I did my MA at the University of Manchester, and I was really interested in the boundary between the human and the monstrous (I wrote my dissertation on ‘monstrous men’ in stories about Sir Gawain). This interest carried on into my PhD, which was on representations of sex, violence and monsters in Middle English and Anglo-Norman romances.
When I first started my PhD research, I thought I’d be looking more at medieval fairies – and I did do that a lot – but I found myself drawn to some of the werewolf texts as well. One of my favourite medieval narratives is William of Palerne, which is about a young prince who is rescued from his murderous uncle by a benevolent werewolf (who is also a prince). I think it was probably Alphons (the werewolf in William of Palerne) who really won me over to lycanthropy.
What led to your study of female werewolves?
In medieval literature, werewolves are almost exclusively male creatures, so I wrote about them in terms of masculinity in my thesis. Part way through, I casually added a footnote that read: ‘Generally speaking, werewolves in popular culture are male creatures. Notable exceptions include…’
And I listed a couple of examples of female werewolves.
Then I added a couple more.
Then a few more.
Then a few more.
When the footnote took up an entire side of A4, my PhD supervisor sat me down and said: ‘Hannah, you have to do something about the female werewolves.’ This was the point when I realised that female werewolves are much, much more than a footnote. I ended up organising an international conference on werewolves at the University of Manchester, and then putting together a book (published by MUP in 2015).
What’s the earliest recorded representation of a werewolf you’ve come across? Was it male or female?
The earliest werewolf in literature appears in the ancient Mesopotamian poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh (which is about 4000 years old). The Goddess Ishtar transforms one of her lovers, a shepherd, into a wolf as a punishment (Ishtar was rather prone to temper tantrums). The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest surviving pieces of literature – so werewolves are (at least) as old as literature.
The earliest female werewolf is (probably) in Gerald of Wales’ Topographia Hibernica (written c. 1188), in which there is a description of a married couple who must live in the form of wolves for a year as part of a local religious rite. The woman is dying, and a priest peels back the wolf-skin in order for the woman to receive communion.
Have werewolf tropes remained constant or have they changed over time?
Both! As you can see from the example above, some things have changed quite a lot over time. In older stories, it’s common to find long-term transformations into wolf, rather than the more modern temporary, but regular, transitions between human and wolf forms.
Some tropes, like the contagious bite and the association with the full moon, are quite new, becoming part of the werewolf story in the twentieth century. However, some things don’t change, and there are some tropes that are particularly long-lived.
The idea of the (male) werewolf as a ‘tragic’ figure, cursed by malice (or just bad luck) to become a monster, can be found in texts from the Epic of Gilgamesh to An American Werewolf in London.
Can werewolves be categorised into different types?
Absolutely! But there are many different ways to categorise them.
For instance, you can distinguish between ‘historical’ werewolves (i.e. real-life individuals who were put on trial and executed as werewolves) and ‘literary’ werewolves (i.e. the creatures that appear in stories).
You can distinguish between ‘born’ and ‘made’ werewolves, and between ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary’ transformation.
There are differences between werewolves who switch between human and wolf form, and werewolves who are more like hybrid human/wolf creatures.
You’ll also find werewolf fans who categorise creatures based on how they walk (the old digitigrade vs. plantigrade debate).
Of course, there are also differences between male and female werewolves, and in texts from different cultures and different time periods as well. However, for all that, I think I’m actually more interested in the similarities, rather than the differences. I’m interested in the cultural history of these ideas, and the ways texts relate to one another. I want to know what, for instance, the Epic of Gilgamesh has in common with a Shakira song, or how a medieval Irish law code relates to Oz in Buffy.
What areas of society does the representation of werewolves tend to reflect through history? Gender? Class?
That very much depends on the text and the context. For instance, in medieval romance, the werewolf is associated with nobility – texts such as Bisclavret, William of Palerne and Melion have knightly werewolves, whose chivalric identity is strong enough to survive a transformation into wolf form. In these stories, the wolf is a noble creature, associated with the hunt and the royal forest. But then, in other stories (particularly folklore), we find werewolves associated with the lower classes, peasants, outlaws and servants.
Colonial and post-colonial texts will often use werewolves as a way to represent or discuss race (e.g. in Henry Beaugrand’s ‘The Werewolves’, werewolves are associated with Native Americans, specifically the Iroquois), but also to represent resistance to colonisation and invasion. With the development of the European vampire in fiction (a relatively recent phenomenon, when compared with vampires), werewolves are more frequently being used to represent issues of class – they are the marginalised underdog to their toothy aristocratic opponent.
Have you made any especially surprising discoveries over the course of your research that you’d like to share?
It’s not my discovery, but I think the thing that surprised me most was learning about werewolf trials. It’s really hard now to imagine it, but people have been tried and executed for being werewolves.
During the Inquistion, along with the witch trials, hundreds of individuals were accused of being werewolves (i.e. they had communed with the devil and gained the ability to transform into wolf form), tortured and executed. These cases were localised, and took place over a short period of the Inquisition, but they captured popular imagination and appeared (in exaggerated form) in a number of popular broadsides. As I say, this isn’t something I’ve discovered (I’d recommend checking out the work of Caroline Oates, Rolf Schulte and Willem de Blécourt to learn more), but it’s something that I’ve found particularly surprising – and moving. There are real people with real lives (and deaths) behind these stories.
Are there any werewolves you’re particularly intrigued by or fond of?
I’m ridiculously eclectic with my werewolves! One minute I’ll be pondering the theological implications of a piece of medieval literature, the next I’m thinking about Mattel’s Monster High dolls (I love Clawdeen!).
At the moment, I’m quite intrigued by female werewolves in gaming, despite the fact that I don’t actually play any RPGs. I collaborated with my brother on the chapter in She-Wolf on Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and my friend has just sent me pics of her new Shadows over Innistrad Magic: The Gathering cards (or, at least, pics of the female werewolves).
In terms of werewolves that I’m particularly fond of, these tend to be in literature: I still love Alphons in William of Palerne, but Micah Wilkins in Justine Larbalestier’s Liar and Kalix in Martin Millar’s Lonely Werewolf Girl are also favourites.
In what ways does the representation of female werewolves differ from males in terms of things like skills, nature or appearance? What do you draw from that?
‘Skills’ and ‘appearance’ are things that vary over time, and are really dependent on genre, medium and style of text. So a werewolf in an early modern broadside will look and act very differently to one in, say, a twenty-first-century horror film. There may be differences between male and female werewolves within that genre/style, or an individual artist/designer might introduce gender differences, but it’s hard to make absolute distinctions for such an old and varied tradition.
Now… ‘nature’ is a different question. There are aspects of the werewolf (male and female) that don’t vary, which is why we can recognise certain creatures as ‘werewolves’ and talk about them as a group. It’s here that we can see the gender division more clearly: on the whole (and apologies for the generalisation) female werewolves are less angsty and tragic than male werewolves.Female werewolves – from Clemence Housman’s White Fell to Ginger Fitzgerald – are more comfortable in their wolf skin.
Compare Serafine in An American Werewolf in Paris to David in An American Werewolf in London, or compare Veruca to Oz in Buffy – the male werewolf suffers a victim of circumstance or unfair punishment; the female werewolf embraces her lycanthropic power.
While this may seem empowering (and who doesn’t love Veruca?), it stems from a very old association of ‘woman’ with ‘animal’. Men are the rational, civilised pinnacle of evolution; women are a little lower down the scale, and therefore ‘devolve’ into animalistic irrationality and savagery more easily.
This is especially notable in texts that address the intersections of race and gender – for instance, Beaugrand’s ‘The Werewolves’, Larbalestier’s Liar, and even Twilight – where the werewolves are not just othered by their gender, but also by their race.
In colonial European discourse, a white man inflicted with lycanthropy is the source of horror, but a non-white man or a woman becoming a werewolf is much more ‘natural’. Significantly, sexuality plays an important part in this: female werewolves (and, in many texts, racially ‘other’ and gay male werewolves) are hypersexualised creatures, straight white male werewolves aren’t. As with humans, so with werewolves…
Twilight. The film. The werewolves in particular. What are your thoughts?
I’ve written a lot about Twilight, both in terms of the werewolves and the vampires (and also an article about the conflict between the two). I didn’t really enjoy the books when I read them – there are better YA vampire series out there (Rachel Caine’s Morganville books, for instance) and better YA werewolves (e.g. the novels of Maggie Stiefvater, Andrea Cremer and Bree Despain) – and I really didn’t enjoy the first three films as I think they were quite weak adaptations (Breaking Dawn is a very different kettle of fish).
But the series is undoubtedly significant, and I think a lot of the criticism it has faced is down to knee-jerk reaction and cultural snobbery. People don’t like books produced for or by teenage girls – ask Mary Shelley. (And don’t even get me started on the ‘sparkly vampire’ thing – of course vampires can sparkle, they can do whatever the writer wants them to do.)
That said, there is something very problematic about the werewolves in Twilight, but this isn’t something unique to Meyer’s work. Pitting Native American werewolves against ‘civilised’ white vampires – most of whom were born either in Europe or in antebellum USA – without comment is pretty dodgy stuff. The story of the Quileute tribe that appears in Eclipse is undoubtedly an allegory of European invasion and genocide, and yet we’re supposed to root for the Cullens because Carlisle is a ‘good’ vampire. Hmmm…
As I say, this isn’t unique to Twilight; in vampires vs. werewolves narratives, there’s often an association of werewolves with the marginalised and the oppressed, and vampires with the colonising and dominant. While this sometimes makes werewolves the ‘plucky underdog’ (e.g. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans), it more often makes them the ‘inscrutable savage’ (e.g. Twilight and, in the third series, Being Human).
Interestingly, the only commentary found on this in Meyer’s work comes through female characters – Leah Clearwater and Rosalie Cullen. I love Leah and Rosalie, and the challenge they pose to the hyper-white, hyper-male world of Twilight. If the books had been written entirely from Leah and Rosalie’s perspectives, I think they’d be among my favourite novels.
If you were to compile a “female werewolves FAQ”, what kinds of things do you always get asked?
There are certain questions that crop up a lot – and I’m not even going to mention some of the downright filthy search terms that lead people to find my blog!
Female werewolves FAQ
The SFW female werewolves FAQ goes something like this:
- Are there any?
- Do you mean Ginger Snaps?
- But are there any others?
- Have you seen Ginger Snaps?
- Do you like Ginger Snaps?
- Isn’t there a female werewolf in Buffy?
- Isn’t it all just a metaphor for puberty?
- Isn’t it all just a metaphor for menstruation because of the full moon connection?
- Are you sure you don’t just mean Ginger Snaps?
The answers are:
- Yes there are.
- Yes I do, but also an awful lot of others.
- Yes, but I prefer the sequel.
- Yes there is.
- Not usually, but some texts have used it in that way.
- Not usually, but some texts have used it in that way, and the full moon connection is a relatively new thing.
- Yes, I’m absolutely sure.
You co-run a dark fiction micro-press called Hic Dragones. In what ways do the female werewolves in the Hic Dragones Wolf Girls anthology subvert the tropes?
In a way, Wolf-Girls wasn’t so much about subverting tropes as picking and choosing which tropes we brought to the fore. As the editor, I’ll admit that there was an element of personal preference in this, but I also wanted to give a broader sense of the tropes of female werewolf fiction. So some stories draw on ‘classic’ female werewolf tropes, such as female violence and resistance to patriarchal power, but also some things that don’t appear as often in modern fiction, such as infanticide.
I was also really keen to have stories that included body hair, non-straight sexualities and upfront portrayals of female corporeality – and the writers didn’t disappoint on this score! – because I think some female werewolf fiction is occasionally guilty of focusing more on the body of the wolf than the body of the woman, so we have lots of fangs, claws and muscles rippling under pelts, but no leg stubble, spit and sweaty skin.
I wanted all the Wolf-Girls to feel real – no matter what skin they were wearing.
Do you have any personal questions about werewolves you’re still seeking answers to through your research?
With the sort of research I do, there are different types of questions and different types of answers.
So, on the one hand, I’m still interested in finding out whether certain historical werewolves actually existed – for instance, is there any actual surviving evidence of Stubbe Peter’s trial? And one day, an answer to this question might be discovered.On the other hand, there are big nebulous questions – like, why is the werewolf most commonly associated with male/masculine identities? – that I will continue to explore and theorise, but where there will never just be one neat answer.
For me, that’s where the fun lies. It’s all about peeling away at layers of history, examining the complexities of culture, and trying to understand how and why certain ideas exist.
Are there additional fields of study you look forward to exploring, or are currently exploring?
In terms of werewolves? I’ve actually been looking more at male werewolves recently. I’m quite fond of saying that male werewolves are more angsty and whiny (and oh boy! they can be really whiny) than female werewolves – so I thought it was about time I thought about why this might be. I’ve got an article coming out later this year on contagious bites and painful transformations, which addresses some of the issues, and after that I’m going to be working on a book.
Becoming a ‘she-wolf’. If you had the choice – would you? What kind of werewolf would you be?
The good thing about being a ‘she-wolf’ is that you don’t have to actually turn into a wolf. The term has a long history of association with female power and determination (see Helen Castor’s book on She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth). ‘She-wolves’ are fierce, independent, challenging and protective – and they generally scare the hell out of men. You don’t have to be a werewolf to be a she-wolf.
Have you any exciting projects in the mix? Either upcoming or on-the-go?
I’m currently editing a couple of new short story anthologies. These aren’t specifically werewolf-related, though I wouldn’t say no to a lycanthropic submission! The themes are ‘Into the Woods’ and ‘Nothing’, and the details can be found on the Hic Dragones website (www.hic-dragones.co.uk). I’ve also been compiling some new eBook editions of Victorian penny dreadfuls, including George Reynolds’s Wagner the Wehr-Wolf , which is a must-read for any diehard werewolf fans!
About Dr Hannah Priest
Dr Hannah Priest is an academic writer and lecturer based in Manchester, UK. Her work focuses on sex, violence and monsters in popular culture (medieval and contemporary). She is the editor of She-Wolf: A Cultural History of Female Werewolves and The Female of the Species: Cultural Constructions of Evil, Women and the Feminine. As Hannah Kate , she writes weird fiction (often set in Manchester) and is the editor of Wolf-Girls: Dark Tales of Teeth, Claws and Lycogyny. Hannah runs Hic Dragones, a small press specialising in dark fiction and the Gothic, and presents a literature show on North Manchester FM.