(Book Review) Gillian M. E. Alban’s The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction by Glenys Livingstone

Beginning with some quotes from this ovarian book The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction: Petrifying, Maternal and Redemptive by Gillian M.E. Alban:

Alban reflects throughout this book on the myriad ways women and girls are gazed upon within patriarchal cultures as well as examples of how women assert their right to look, stare, or claim an apotropaic gaze of power and anger …”. from the Foreword by Margaret Merisante, Ph.D., Feminist Comparative Mythologist.

Women are by no means merely the passive object of the other’s gaze; these writings show them asserting agency … I thus reclaim the gaze for women as active agents in their own right.” page 6.

… women are now defiantly asserting their independent scopic force under the banner of Medusa, staring down any attempts to diminish them.” page 22.

The dominant social gaze in our societies is male … which objectifies them as sexual beings, whether admired, or dismissed as unworthy of observation and lacking the dignity of complete human beings. Objectified through such looks, women are evaluated as merely female rather than appreciated as human.” page 24.

Devouring mothers cause their daughters trauma, as do those who abandon and fail to care for their child, leaving the child longing for her mother; … Most mothers fall between these two extremes. They are neither devouring or monstrous, nor abandoning or negligent, but as fallible humans, they often fall short of the high standards required in the task of mothering remaining condemned as not-enough for their demanding task. Mothers may embody the monstrosity of Medusa, or they may simply be inadequate in fulfilling their arduous mothering role, however desperately they do their utmost …” page 201

***

Some decades ago I reflected on my childhood experience of being observed:

A strong part of the cultural milieu in which I grew, was that I felt identified as sex object … with no subjectivity, no space to Be. Pornographic magazines of the day depicted women being constantly pursued by salivating men – either there was an assumption that she desired this, or they did not care to ask her. And Christian cosmology appeared to condone the imposition of a dominant will upon another – at the very heart of it is “the sacrifice of the lamb”. Women have been especially vulnerable, with their submission openly advocated.

“Marilyn”, they sometimes called me, simply because of my babyhood waved platinum hair … Marilyn was suggested to me by this naming, as someone I could model myself after. … I don’t remember any other significant famous women in the first decade of my life. As a child I was very conscious of being looked at, and perhaps on reflection, it was because I was female. I felt transparent and vacuous. I remember believing that others (particularly adults) could see my thoughts. The Great Male Metaphors of the day – God and Santa – knew everything about me. The male humans imitated the Deity with constant Gazing, in magazines, movies, wall calendars. I could only hope to be chosen to be worthy of his desire, yet at the same time it was known that he could be dangerous.

I felt acutely the identification of myself with the “inanimate” world, as it was understood to be – dead and inert.[1]

I remember the first time that I consciously felt being seen/heard as human rather than sex object. I was forty-two years old, and speaking on the phone to the organiser of the Dalai Lama’s visit to Australia, about volunteering to assist; I got off the phone and contemplated this novel vision of myself … human being.

I love the Table of Contents of this book: this table in itself could bend a few brains, give cause for pause. Here is just a sample, though you may select others as alluring.[2]

The Self in the Petrifying Gaze of the Other

The Gaze of the Double in the Mirror–My Sister!

Mother as Monstrous

Medea: the Mother’s Devouring Love.

Gaia and Demeter: Mother Earth

Sacrifice in Mothering

Birth and Mothering: The Thing Itself

Matriarchal Survivors

Demeter/Persephone; Mother-Daughter Longing

Medusa’s Redemptive Evil Eye

This book offers many insights as the reader is taken through multiple literary works. It could be a journey through hellish places you have been, or quandaries you have known, and how your spirit intuitively coped, put strategies in place to ensure your survival. In the section “Medusa’s Redemptive Evil Eye”, the author describes how Elaine in Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye “creates a Madonna for herself in the shape of an apotropaic Medusa eye in her moment of direst need, and this force rescues her by fortifying her against the hostility of so-called friends.”[3] The journey could also be into the hellish places of other women you may have heard about in popular press and opinion, who have been harshly judged; and there may be evocation of another vision from within her frame, and compassion – a rethinking of popular judgements. In “Devouring Clytemnestra and Electra”, Alban notes: “Domineering, interfering, or infanticidal mothers do suggest the monstrosity inherent in mothering. The commonest cause of maternal infanticide has been illegitimacy; …”[4] wherein a woman remains “helplessly trapped within sexual and moral mores, …”.[5]And another wherein the mother is “caught in the terrible dilemma of exerting Medea power over her daughter by killing her in order to prevent her return to slavery.”[6]

In a patriarchal, androcentric context, even everyday choices for women, such as, about how to raise a child in a hostile environment, whether it is safe to go out, how to dress, how to exercise authority, take the lead – have had to be considered more carefully and strategically, often defensively. As woman (again) cloaks herself, situates herself,[7] regains vision of herself from within her own skin, she is able to take action with greater clarity and integrity, and confidence that she can hold her own. This book The Medusa Gaze is an empowering reflection on the complexities of woman’s situation, across diverse cultural experiences and personal particularities, gazing as it is from within female eyes, thus speaking a truth – which could change the world, as small particles may.

Gillian M.E.(dusa) Alban is a contributor to the anthology Re-visioning Medusa: From Monster to Divine Wisdom

NOTES:

[1] Glenys Livingstone. PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion, p. 74-75.

[2] The full Table of Contents as well as an excerpt is available here: http://www.cambridgescholars.com/download/sample/64006

[3] Gillian M.E. Alban, The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction, p. 221-222.

[4] Gillian M.E. Alban, The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction, p. 121.

[5] Gillian M.E. Alban, The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction, p. 122.

[6] Gillian M.E. Alban, The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction, p. 121.

[7] As Luce Irigaray says woman must, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, p.10-11.

REFERENCES:

Alban, Gillian M.E., The Medusa Gaze in Contemporary Women’s Fiction: Petrifying, Maternal and Redemptive. UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017.

Irigaray, Luce. An Ethics of Sexual Difference. (trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill) NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Livingstone, Glenys. PaGaian Cosmology: Re-inventing Earth-based Goddess Religion. Lincoln NE: iUniverse, 2005.