Review: Women and Other Monsters – Building a New Mythology by Jess Zimmermann

Verdict: Interesting framing, worked best in the more personal moments and less in the more political ones.

Published by Beacon Press, March 9th 2021

Find it on Goodreads.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A fresh cultural analysis of female monsters from Greek mythology, and an invitation for all women to reclaim these stories as inspiration for a more wild, more monstrous version of feminism

The folklore that has shaped our dominant culture teems with frightening female creatures. In our language, in our stories (many written by men), we underline the idea that women who step out of bounds–who are angry or greedy or ambitious, who are overtly sexual or not sexy enough–aren’t just outside the norm. They’re unnatural. Monstrous. But maybe, the traits we’ve been told make us dangerous and undesirable are actually our greatest strengths.

Through fresh analysis of eleven female monsters, including Medusa, the Harpies, the Furies, and the Sphinx, Jess Zimmerman takes us on an illuminating feminist journey through mythology. She guides women (and others) to reexamine their relationships with traits like hunger, anger, ugliness, and ambition, teaching readers to embrace a new image of the female hero: one that looks a lot like a monster, with the agency and power to match.

Often, women try to avoid the feeling of monstrousness, of being grotesquely alien, by tamping down those qualities that we’re told fall outside the bounds of natural femininity. But monsters also get to do what other female characters–damsels, love interests, and even most heroines–do not. Monsters get to be complete, unrestrained, and larger than life. Today, women are becoming increasingly aware of the ways rules and socially constructed expectations have diminished us. After seeing where compliance gets us–harassed, shut out, and ruled by predators–women have never been more ready to become repellent, fearsome, and ravenous.

I don’t really have much to say about this. I did in fact enjoy my time with this and I thought the framework Zimmermann uses – speaking about different female monster from Greek/ Roman mythology and using that as a jumping point to write more generally about sexism – was really well chosen. I just do not think it was as great as it could have been and that is such a shame. This book sits squarely in an intersection of two of my great loves: feminism and mythology. I should have adored this. I think what makes this such a difficult review for me to write is that there is nothing wrong with this book – but I was not the right reader.

I like my non-fiction either highly introspective and navel-gazing, or perfectly structured and researched. This was somehow neither. As such, I vastly prefered the parts where Zimmermann was close to her own life, using mythology to make sense of her experiences. These parts worked extremely well and gave me much to think about. On the other hand, the more general political points did not always convince me, probably because this was not really the focus of the book or because I found them very narrow in their application while Zimmermann made them sound universal. I am, however, not from the US – so your milage may absolutely vary here.

Content warnings: discussions of sexism and racism, (mythical) rape, (mythical) miscarriage, abortion, emotional abuse

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Edelweiss and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.