Lady Macbeth, the Pontianak, and the Compulsive Power of the Monstrous Feminine

The female ghost is a particularly enduring image, one that crosses borders and has spawned icons of horror films. These ghosts are usually long-haired, slender, and wearing dresses—their horror is practically hinged on these classic symbols of femininity, as though that in itself is shorthand: this is a woman with fury and bloodlust but none of the propriety to hold her back. Run.

These figures have always been striking, but we seem to be amidst a particular reclamation of the monstrous feminine: one in which they are not only deeply sympathetic but—in a coy way—aspirational. I support women’s rights, but more than that, I support women’s wrongs. Jennifer Check’s renaissance is rearing its gorgeous, lighter-tongued head. Harley Quinn, Wanda Maximoff, Jinx from Arcane, Iron Widow’s Wu Zetian, Joy Wang from Everything Everywhere All At Once, and even the Cool Girl herself, Amy Dunne, have all struck particular chords as unhinged feminine warpaths against systems that have wronged them. There is nothing, indeed, like a mad woman.

I grew up largely comfortable in femininity and feminine spaces. I attended all-girls’ schools until I was seventeen, and in my childhood media I particularly latched onto girl groups (Totally Spies, Winx Club, W.I.T.C.H) or the smart, competent, long-suffering girls that spoke to my oldest daughter complex (Katara, Sam from Danny Phantom, Raven from Teen Titans, Princess Leia, Gwen from Ben 10). My teenage introduction to YA brought me books I loved, but no particular characters I remember strongly identifying with. The first character after that period that stood out to me, somehow, was Lady Macbeth.

Lady Macbeth is one of literature’s most enduring ruthless women, who called upon dark powers to help manipulate and murder her husband’s way to the throne—a figure so archetypal that there are trope pages named after her. She was, in that sense, a long jump from Katara.

The school I studied Macbeth in was an old-boys’-club kind of institution, a seismic shift from ten years of girls’ schools. Amidst everyone trying to figure out teenage dating and desire, I quickly learned two things: boys wanted me, and boys found me intimidating. Without really knowing why, I shored up all my defenses behind “intimidating”. I felt safe being scary. I liked being untouchable and unknown, something they couldn’t quite get. Even then, I struggled with femininity in that environment, on the axes of wanting the desire—and hence worthiness—it conferred and fearing the objectification it invited.

By that point, noble, respectable, righteous female characters weren’t quite cutting it for me. That brand of Girl wasn’t messy enough for my turbulent renegotiation of femininity. So when I came across Joanna Levin’s “Lady Macbeth and the Daemonologie of Hysteria”, something clicked. At the time, I’d been taught that Lady Macbeth was conniving, sacrificing and transgressing her femininity in exchange for unnatural magic and power, before going mad as the natural consequence of going against the world order. Here, I was offered a different interpretation: of hysteria as patriarchal, madness and monstrosity as empowering, and witches as abject. I was told the history of mad women as a history of dark magic and hauntings. I realized Lady Macbeth was a little bit insane and she seized the power to overturn the hierarchy of things: of kings, of succession, of submissive wives, of the delineations between natural and unnatural. She wanted, she ruined, and eventually she was turned mad for it. In that, a teenage girl found a way of contextualizing herself.

That, of all things, was baby’s first step into thinking about femininity and gender in real critical terms. Almost predictably, it was also a first step into other things: it’s probably not a coincidence that I latched onto Lady Macbeth a short while before realizing I was also queer.

The feminine finding power in monstrosity feels like an inherently queer act. It’s queer in the colloquial sense to me, but I think the same can be said in the broadest understanding of the term as being outside of normative standards. (But there’s an obvious reason why people who specifically identify as part of the LGBT community constantly gravitate towards villains and the abject.) I would go on that year to be strangely compelled by queer readings of both Macbeth’s witches and Gatsby’s Jordan Baker (and then, years after the inevitable plot twist, thrilled by Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful). Stereotypically, I also flirted with reinterpretations of Medusa. But it wasn’t until I attached to something closer to home—in folklore that lurked in the plumeria trees on our streets and not in ancient European epics—that scattered interest grew into something like a theme.

***

Its characters have existed for millennia, but when it was conceptualized in the late 20th century, Barbara Creed described a prototype of the monstrous feminine: that their monstrosity is constructed around warped female sexuality and abject motherhood.

Reproductive functions, and the womb, have long been used as metonymic not only for women but femininity, a correct kind of womanhood. (Unfortunately, we still see that rhetoric used in harmful ways.) The understanding of the non-conforming woman in Shakespeare’s Jacobean England shifted from accusations of witchcraft to rationalist diagnoses of hysterica passio: a disorder of women located in a dysfunction of their womb, i.e. the prefix hyster-, i.e. what one will obviously recognize as the root of “hysterical”. So the witch became a mad woman—an arc Lady Macbeth incidentally enacts, culminating in her suicide—and in doing so firmly tied the mythos of the abject woman to the cultural fear of transgressive female sexuality.

Lady Macbeth is childless and a (hypothetical) child-killer. The specter of the Macbeths’ lack of heirs flits about in the background, and in her iconic monologue, Lady Macbeth bids the powers of darkness to “Come to my woman’s breasts,/And take my milk for gall”; to transmute her milk and fill her not with child but with power. Later, while questioning Macbeth’s resolve, she says she would have dashed out her baby’s brains without hesitation, if that was what she had promised to do. A core mechanism of horror is the fundamental and natural made wrong, and infanticidal mothers go against every notion of the feminine as nurturing.

While we can’t transcribe English cultural and medical discourses onto other myths, it says something about the universality of these fears that so many ghosts are women who sprung from some kind of poisoned female sexuality or maternity. The langsuir, La Llorona, the South Asian churel, even Medusa: all cursed by their infanticide or their sexual transgressions, made mythic in their terrible grief. They represent the pervasive, evidently cross-cultural anxiety about the destructive power of the unfettered feminine. In Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, we have the pontianak.

The image of the classic female ghost, the pontianak is devastatingly beautiful, at least until she disembowels you, and (in most versions) she is the specter of a woman who died in childbirth, losing both herself and the baby. It’s impossible to grow up here and never have heard of her. It was only later, when I started taking more interest in our local folklore from a speculative point of view, that I rediscovered the pontianak as a quasi-feminist icon. She is seductive and provocative without shame; she acts completely of her own autonomy; she is far more dangerous than any men who might think of her as beautiful prey, and she can enact her vengeance without fearing consequence. The difference between Lady Macbeth and Ponti, for me, was embodiment. Ponti spoke the languages I spoke, had the features I had, lived in the shadows and flowers and banana trees on the streets where I’d grown up. We inhabited each other so easily.

Lady Macbeth is monstrous in spirit, but to identify with culture’s literal monsters is also to identify with—and learn to embrace—the grotesque. For all her murder, Lady Macbeth is primarily still a queen, envisioned in actresses like Marion Cotillard and Florence Pugh. Google images of the pontianak, however, show snarling, red-eyed, clawed nightmares. Beauty standards and gender norms go hand in neat hand. I had harmed myself for them as a child, struggled to embody things that didn’t actually feel right for me. Yet to let go of that is terrifying, and so perhaps it takes a terrifying thing to represent it. I wouldn’t go around looking for actual pontianaks—I didn’t let go of common sense. But as a symbol, a myth through which to filter the world, identifying with my culture’s most monstrous woman somehow brought me closer to a healthier version of myself, and one more rooted in my own folklore. One might call it self-possession.

Women are already treated like they have a shadow self, a corrupting force that needs to be tamed. It’s little wonder that these haunted female characters, transformed by actual dark magic, might be compelling. After all, this is a counter-fantasy in which the darkness is, in fact, empowering. It is liberating. And there is a tension even in the act of taming: why are we so afraid of something controlled, unless we know that control is only a trigger away from snapping? What do we recognize in these characters, then, if not the act of looking over the edge of a cliff, just to see how far you could fall if you tried?

***

These women are ultimately punished for transgressing normative femininity—made grotesque, shunned, or otherwise made to be exorcised. Yet, there’s a subversive power in exploiting assumptions of femininity for your own ends. Upon the discovery of the king’s body, Lady Macbeth feigns horror. “O gentle lady,” Macduff tells her, “‘Tis not for you to hear what I can speak:/The repetition, in a woman’s ear,/Would murder as it fell.”

The conversation develops, unveiling more grisly details about Duncan’s death, and she continues her pearl-clutching charade:

LADY MACBETH: Help me hence, ho!
MACDUFF: Look to the lady.

In this way, Lady Macbeth—who stabbed the king, planted the daggers and smeared blood over the guards, the original gaslight gatekeep girlboss—is carried out, presumed too fragile and agitated to be subjected to such a terrible conversation. Macbeth, who just last night was wringing his hands about the whole business, is left to put on his “manly readiness” and bluff through the rest of the convocation.

Similarly, the pontianak appears as a beautiful woman: long black hair, pale skin, flowing dress, smelling like flowers. Men are lured in by her beauty and stop their cars for her, upon which they are torn apart. While concealing bloody daggers and claws, Lady Macbeth and Ponti know how to perform femininity, and they know how to weaponize it.

In some ways, the femme fatale trope borders on reverting to misogynistic norms—that women are only afforded power if they look sexy doing it; that women’s strength relies on sensuality and sleek, silent weapons; often, it only maintains the prescription that stereotypically masculine power can only go to women who have rejected femininity, maligning women who make either choice. But done right, and in other ways, it is still an aspiration—that femininity and power are not mutually exclusive, and that one can be retained while still having the other. Or perhaps, if femininity is constricting, then that even from the confines of patriarchal femininity, there is space to draw blood.

Regardless, the black widow cannot be the endpoint of representing female anger. The key to the appeal of the monstrous feminine is ultimately the radical monstrosity—the allowance to be grotesque and ugly, messy and not in a sexy disheveled way. As Ana Božičević writes in “Casual Elegy for Luka Skračić”: “I want to be the kind of monster you/don’t want to fuck—”.

There are disagreements on whether witch statuses were ultimately empowering or not, although they’ve been retroactively co-opted as such for modern Western feminist movements. In a similar vein, as myths and literary figures, I think the historical treatment matters a little less than how we respond to the concept now. I find in these characters a certain liberation. They may be seemingly insane—that hysterica passio has us by the throat even now—but in that insanity, in Lady Macbeth’s exchange of her womb for dark magic ambitions and Ponti’s post-mortem haunting, they are free from the rules and standards that confined them before. They are no longer defined by their femininity, although they continue to draw power from it. Their end point and primary purpose is no longer reproduction; they are (unholy or not) forces of nature. In corrupting maternity, they transcend it. Perhaps that is the core horror; perhaps that’s the core dream.

In her recent, appropriately furious essay about the violence of men on Asian women, Elaine Hsieh Chou wrote that “Men have looked at me with many emotions: kindness, desire, annoyance… But one emotion I have never been looked at with is fear.” I read that essay one night while brainstorming for this one, and this quote struck the perfect thematic vein—of marginality, disenfranchisement and the allure of being terrifying. We ultimately just want to be treated equally, but right now, being intimidating is almost more achievable than equality. It’s not about whether one actually wants to be domineering; it’s about whether other people think you can be, and it’s about power, and it’s about respect. You’re not afraid of something you underestimate. Almost inherent in the state of being feared, for a fleeting moment, is a level playing field. And therein lies our deepest desires.

These are women who haunt, are haunted, and are all the better for it. They represent a certain kind of agency, power, and overt anger not usually afforded to femininity in narratives. For all the nuance, however, perhaps the core of these characters’ appeal is simpler: that women just desperately want the license to go batshit.

***

Then enter: the feminist reclamation of Southeast Asia’s most famous ghost.

I like the way that Malay film studies scholar Alicia Izharuddin puts it: the pontianak through the female gaze. In Lisabelle Tay’s “Surat Dari Hantu”, a pontianak grieves her son and forces her former lover to confront and give closure to their complicated relationship. Nin Harris’ trio of pontianaks in “What Cradles Us Will Not Set Us Free” both protect and compel a protagonist who has become ‘a monster aligned with the night and all its inequities’: a penanggalan, another famous female ghost, also mistreated lover and abject mother.

It is particularly significant when the pontianak is allowed all the relationships she never was in the original myth, or that powerful women aren’t in many stories: relationships with other women. Joyce Chng’s “When Nenek Disappeared”, for example, features a large family of pontianaks looking for their titular grandmother. A similar, beautifully bickering unit is at the heart of Zen Cho’s “The House of Aunts”, a story that was instrumental for me in figuring out how I wanted to weave local mythology into my writing. In Amanda Nell Eu’s short film It’s Easier To Raise Cattle, the girl doesn’t run away when she finds her abused friend has turned into a pontianak. Instead, as her friend continues to feed, she sits and strokes the pontianak’s hair.

Likewise, Sharlene Teo’s novel Ponti focuses on a mother, a daughter, and the daughter’s best friend. None of them are particularly nice to each other. Amisa Tan is the titular Ponti, but all three are pontianak figures in a way, outcast and draining each other in turn, inexplicably compulsive to each other yet grotesque all at once. (Even in “The House of Aunts”, said aunts attempt to eat Ah Lee’s boyfriend. Aunties are just like that, though.) But that’s part of what makes this reimagined monster compelling. She may be toxic, but she’s also capable of complicated, nuanced love. Scratch that—she’s capable of love at all, and able to be loved, in spite of its complications. That fact doesn’t forgive Amisa’s kleptomaniac and then emotionally abusive behavior; it’s more in the fact that the narrative cares less about what the men do than it does about how it shapes Amisa; it cares more to explore mother and daughter, girl and girl friend, the complex, self-destructive interlocking of these three women.

In original myths, feminine transgression takes the form of selfishness, of vicious campaigns with no sacrificial or noble motivation. Even as Lady Macbeth helps her husband claim the throne, she bullies him into playing along. Over and over, one is either mother or monster, and so part of the liberation of these unhinged women is how often they put themselves first—how often they are not defined by their capacity to accommodate everyone else at the expense of themselves. Yet, I think what strikes me about these empathetic pontianak stories is that not only do they often expose the complicity of male violence in the pontianak’s origins, but they also refuse the discompassion assigned to monstrous women. They assert—not the duty, perhaps, but the capacity to care. Lady Macbeth is ultimately undone by her latent guilt for her sins; compassion catches up with her, and ends her. In these stories our pontianaks may not be perfectly pleasant, but to varying extents, they care to care, right from the beginning, and that is part of their innate power. These stories explore their relationships, and that in itself refuses the core abjection of the original myth: where the pontianak lures people in only to destroy them; where her only relationships are poisoned mother/dead child and monster/hunter.

It seems like a low bar, multi-dimensionality, but that has always been the first and apparently difficult hurdle to clear in depictions of the Other.

In these reclamations, Ponti does not instantly eviscerate the only people she comes into contact with. Yes, perhaps she is prickly, overbearing, and perhaps even caustic. But in an era of classical retellings from historically underrepresented perspectives, these stories recenter the pontianak in her own story, focus on her grief, her injustices, and her rage. She is positioned in the context of her trauma, refracted through the lens of the experiences that made her this way, contextualized in her interiority. She becomes sympathetic, if not likable. She is allowed to dream, want more for herself, be dissatisfied, be a child. She is conferred the agency of being centered in the narrative rather than the thing that lurks in the shadows. She isn’t only a destructive force; she is also mother, daughter, aunt, friend, lover.

So often, these original myths end in death: death by guilt (the return of feminine empathy) or death by transformation (a nail in the neck to restore the pontianak into a beautiful wife). Be guilty or be prey. Agency or a happy ending. To remain powerful is to remain lonely, freed from the system but simultaneously alienated from community. So if monstrosity can be a way to find empowerment within marginality, then these new narratives are subversive in refusing the margins. The pontianaks have meaningful relationships. Harley Quinn gets a girl squad (and a girlfriend). Jinx’s sister never gives up on her, even when the whole world tells her to. Joy Wang’s mother decides to chase after her, even when Joy tells her not to. These stories say, here: you can be monstrous, you can be powerful, and you can also have love. The world can still treat you gently. Your grief is not your own to bear. You don’t have to be alone.

Wen-yi Lee is from Singapore and likes writing about girls with bite, feral nature, and ghosts. A member of the Clarion West class of 2022, her speculative fiction has appeared in Uncanny, Strange Horizons, Augur and Anathema, among others. She can be found on Twitter at @wenyilee_, and otherwise at her website.

Footnotes

citation

Back to the top of the page

5 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.