Saturday 5 February 2011

She-Wolf of the Mere vs. She-Wolf in the Closet

When I first decided to start researching female werewolves, I christened my project 'She-Wolf', as I enjoy the many resonances of this term. At the time I came up with the idea, Shakira was making waves with her lycanthropy-inspired 'She-Wolf':

As a bit of Shakira fan, I'll admit that I enjoyed the way my conference and book caused a lot of my friends and colleagues to have that song running through their heads on a regular basis.

But when I pitched the idea to my department, one of my colleagues in medieval studies, Professor Gale Owen-Crocker, was more insistent that I gave some consideration to Grendel's mother in Beowulf. After all, Professor Owen-Crocker said, she is the 'She-Wolf of the mere'.

This was not that long after Robert Zemeckis' performance capture version of Beowulf hit the big screens, which featured a truly memorable performance by Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother:

Watching those two videos, the parallels between Shakira's 'She-Wolf in your closet' and Jolie's 'She-Wolf of the mere' are striking. Lithe, nude, contorting female flesh both demands and threatens the male gaze. Hints of violence are offered and diffused by sexual, vibrant femininity. I think it's no coincidence that these visual depictions of the 'She-Wolf' appeared within a year or so of one another, and signalled the start of an onslaught of 'She-Wolf' imagery in popular culture.

However, today's blog post is less concerned with Jolie's depiction of Grendel's mother - interesting though it is - than with the parallels between Shakira's 'She-Wolf' and the depiction of Grendel's mother in the poem Beowulf. These texts are created near enough 1000 years apart (depending on the date we give for the composition of Beowulf), and yet there are some striking similarities in the way the 'She-Wolf' is portrayed.

While Grendel's mother is never actually described as a female werewolf, her association with the wolf is underlined at several points in the poem. She is the 'brimwylf [water-wolf]' (l. 1506) who lives in a 'wulfhleothu [wolf-haunted]' land (l. 1358), with her monstrous son. The multiplicity of the threat this wolf-like creature poses to the heroic male is made clear in her initial introduction: 'Grendles modor,/ ides, aglaecwif [Grendel's mother, woman, she-monster]' (ll. 1258-59). The repetition of 'ides' and 'wif', both Old English words for '[human] woman', along side terminology of the monster, is telling; the constant focus on her maternity is also significant. Wolf - woman - mother - outcast - enemy. This imagery is resonant with the presentation of female werewolves from the Victorian era to the present day. Indeed, Shakira's video makes references to this connection between the female werewolf and monstrous maternity by having the singer dance around in a red-lined cave-like set, which is highly suggestive of a womb (see. 1:39-1:49, for example).

In her influential 1980 article, 'The Structual Unity of Beowulf: The Problem of Grendel's Mother', Jane Chance hints at a way of reading the monstrousness of Grendel's mother as a specifically sexual threat to the hero. Certainly if one takes a Freudian view of the poem, it is hard to ignore the fact that when Beowulf attacks the 'brimwylf', 'sweord aer gemealt,/ forbarn brodenmael [the sword melted, its blade burned away]' (ll. 1615-6). So, here is a woman that can liquidize the ultimate token of masculinity. This is an image that is played out to the extreme in Zemeckis' 2007 film.

But is this enough to connect Shakira's 'She-Wolf' to Grendel's mother? I'd suggest not. In fact, the parallels between the two millenium-separated she-wolves lies in a different, though not wholly unrelated, aspect of their presentation.

Consider the opening lines to Shakira's song: 'A domesticated girl, that's all you ask of me./ Darling it's no joke, this is lycanthropy.' Thus, 'domestication' stands in sharp contrast to 'lycanthropy'. The video plays on this; the 'domesticated' (may I say, 'wifely'?) woman, lying in a pristine white double bed with her unaware male partner, rises and enters the closet. This unleashes a side of the woman which stands in stark distinction to the 'homely'. The song continues: 'I've been devoting myself to you Monday to Monday, Friday to Friday./ Not getting enough retribution or incentives to keep me at it.' The frame of reference here is the workplace, underlined by the female voice likening herself to a 'coffee machine' that has been 'abused'. So, 'lycanthropy' is an alternative to the patriarchal control of both 'domesticity' (literally, 'the home') and the contemporary workplace.

Grendel's mother also represents a threat to patriarchal structures. Her attack on 'Heorot' (literally, 'the deer hall'), the symbolic centre of the Danish comitatus, hits heroic masculinity right where it hurts, so to speak. Her decapitation of Aeschere is a feminine assault on the warrior world. Elsewhere in the poem, women are the tools by which the masculine realm functions; Wealtheow and Hildeburgh are devices to lubricate the wheels of the male domain (much like abused coffee machines, if you will). Grendel's mother bursts into this, and literally slices it to pieces.

The 'brimwylf' also challenges hegemony by dint of her position as 'mother'. She is a 'wyf', but of no man; she is a 'modor', but there is no father. Grendel's heritage is presented as purely matrilineal, which stands at a threatening remove to the patrilineal world of the rest of the poem. Even the reference to his biblical forebear, Cain, is dangerously feminine. 'Cain's kin' is likely a reference to Genesis 6:4, and the mating of the 'Sons of God' with the 'Daughters of Man'. Cain's kin, in the medieval world, carried with it the understanding that it was Cain's daughters than begot the race of giants. In the world of Beowulf, remnants of this female line were powerful enough to even, apparently, survive the flood sent by God to destroy them.

So, to return to my comparison with Shakira's 'She-Wolf', both texts present a dangerous and predatory female. In Shakira's song, this potential for violence is played out in a 'closet' fantasy; for Grendel's mother, it manifests in physical acts of revenge. Nevertheless, both attack the 'home' (be it domesticity or the mead hall) and the 'work-place' (whether the office or the comitatus). The smooth-running of the masculine world is disrupted by the intrusion of the She-Wolf: claws, teeth, sexuality, monstrosity, maternity, corporeality.

In the end, though, Shakira's She-Wolf leaves the closet. She writhes and fantasizes, but eventually comes home. At the close of the video, she returns to the clean white sheets of the marital bed and forgets her lycanthropy. Grendel's mother, on the other hand, is ultimately slain by Beowulf. Again, we see parallels. Both she-wolves are, eventually, 'put to bed'; they cease to threaten and are brought back into the hegemonic scheme of masculine control.

And yet, the transgressive potential of the lycanthropic woman remains. Beowulf's sword melts; Shakira's she-wolf gives a knowing full-moon-framed glance to the camera. Whatever opportunities are offered for feminine destruction of male-centred hegemonic structures are curtailed by the reinstating of the warrior's sword and the husband's bed - but these opportunities can not be truly forgotten.

One thousand year apart, and yet the She-Wolf of the Mere and the She-Wolf in the Closet bear striking similarities. Neither one fully delivers on her promise, but the threat to domesticity, the family and patriarchy is there. As Shakira says, the She-Wolf is 'coming out, coming out, coming out'. What does she does when she gets there still remains to be seen.

Quotes from Beowulf are taken from Michael Swanton's edition (Manchester University Press, 1997). Due to the limitations of, I've modernized orthography.

1 comment:

  1. brilliant. knowing shakira's bio it certain that she means it - it's an intellectual song besides being incredibly entertaining