Deviant Women

Cultural, Linguistic and Literary Approaches to Narratives of Femininity

by Tiina Mäntymäki (Volume editor) Marinella Rodi-Risberg (Volume editor) Anna Foka (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection 240 Pages
Open Access


This multidisciplinary collection of articles illuminates the ways in which the concept of female deviance is represented, appropriated, re-inscribed and refigured in a wide range of texts across time, cultures and genres. Such a choice of variety shows that representations of deviance accommodate meaning-making spaces and possibilities for resistance in different socio-cultural and literary contexts. The construct of the deviant woman is analysed from literary, sociolinguistic and historical-cultural perspectives, revealing insights about cultures and societies. Furthermore, the studies recognise and explain the significance of the concept of deviance in relation to gender that bespeaks a contemporary cultural concern about narratives of femininity.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • Acknowledgements
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • I. Deviance: Historical and Cultural Perspectives
  • Beyond Deviant: Theodora as the Other in Byzantine Imperial Historiography
  • Ghosts and Spirits as the objet a in Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from Make-Do Studio
  • Deviant Will to Knowledge: The Pandora Myth and Its Feminist Revisions
  • II. Contemporaneity, Deviance, Subjectivity and Violence
  • Carnivalesque Masquerade. Lisbeth Salander and Her Trickster Agency
  • Trauma and Contextual Factors in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees: Incest, Race and Gendered Subjectivities
  • ‘Baby Killer!’ – Media Constructions of a Culturally Congruent Identity for Casey Anthony as Mother and Female Offender
  • III. Deviance and/as (In)visibility
  • The Absent Female Rotarian in Finland: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Rotary Norden
  • A Deviant in the Arctic
  • ‘Foremost in Violence and Ferocity’: Women Singing at Work in Britain
  • ‘Threshing in the Haggard to her Heart’s Delight’: Women and Erotic Expression in Irish Traditional Song
  • Contributors
  • Index

← 8 | 9 → Tiina Mäntymäki, Marinella Rodi-Risberg, Anna Foka


You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Maya Angelou: I’ll Rise

Deviant Women: Socio-Cultural Perspectives

This collection of articles is about women who deviate from socially constructed norms of femininity. It is about actual or fictional women who, in their narrative portrayals, shake up their contemporary social order through their acts and life choices. The contributors to this volume show the insistence of these women, portrayed in sources from different times and cultures, to claim visibility and recognition in contexts where ‘woman’ denotes marginalisation and otherness. Thus, it is also about the production of knowledge beyond established and often male norms.

This volume embraces a revisionist project in that the contributions included in it produce (re)readings of narratives of femininities that highlight women’s strategies for navigating the world by way of subtle negotiation or violent refusal to conform to social requirements. The authors of this volume trace the cultural and societal backgrounds of how women become defined as deviant through discussions of gender, power, ideology, context and tradition. In their chapters, they (re)construct both readings of seemingly conformist femininity as narratives of deviance and break down existing, often well-established and influential narratives of deviant femininity. Thus, the contributions provide readers with a glimpse into a number of cultural and social practices and spheres where women have been and still are rendered deviant. In this process, they flag out intelligence, courage and persistence as parts of the female construction of identity.

In patriarchal societies, women who deviate from their culturally and situationally ascribed gender norms are almost invariably depicted in terms of negativity. They are accused of behaving in an unfeminine way, mimicking or attempting to control male behaviour, as well as labelled violent and aggressive. This kind of failure – or refusal – to conform to the culturally ascribed norms of femininity not only highlights the norm itself and reveals its centrality in society, ← 9 | 10 → but also lifts into visibility the trespassing woman as a special case. The sexual voracity and moral corruption often associated with the deviant woman are interpreted as subversive efforts to question the status quo.

Since a great majority of the evidence of troublesome women has been and is filtered through male viewpoints, women tend to be spoken of instead of speaking for themselves. For this reason, the cultural fascination with female deviance, can, in the same breath, reflect not only the male preoccupation with concepts of power, hierarchies, hegemony and control, as well as the insecurities underlying these concepts; it can also be interpreted as a recognition of female power. As Alicia Gaspar de Alba (2014: 33) notes on the representation of deviant women, or what she terms the ‘“bad woman” stereotype’, it ‘is not an objet d’art created by an artist, but an artifice of patriarchy created to oppress women and at the same time promote the interests of men’.

This will to define women as the ‘other’, as well as label those who refuse to follow a culturally ascribed norm, has produced a substantial body of primary sources, both material and textual, to elaborate (on) women’s deviance: archives and inscriptions as well as art, music and literature contain disapproving depictions of women who abandon the pervasive norms of femininity. In narratives that have set the paradigm for the western conceptualisation of femininity, such as the Biblical stories of Eve, Delilah and Herodia, deviant women are depicted as harbingers of destruction, not only for the heroic male protagonists of the stories but the whole of mankind. In Roman literature, the scheming, sexually aggressive and uncontrollable woman is often used as a negative paradigm to illustrate the corruption of society. Tacitus, among others, used Messalina’s sexual voracity to illuminate the corruption and decay of the Roman Empire rather than accurately representing historical womanhood in Rome. Consequently, the idea of women’s behaviour and deviation from societal norms has become a common device for representations of social decay in both ancient and contemporary portrayals. The hegemonic, shrewish behaviour and perceived lack of chastity in women are (re)presented as symptomatic of, or interrelated to this societal corruption.

The strong tradition of negative portrayals of deviant women in patriarchy, alternately called wicked or unruly shrews or madwomen, was addressed by the early second wave feminist critics, who in the 1960s started to produce studies that analysed the association of women with evil, the non-normative or the other from a feminist perspective. Rather than associating these women with lack, original sin or inherent evil, these studies pay attention to the social constructions of femininity in society and representation, and interpret the negative female paradigms as a consequence of the binary patriarchal order. Simone de ← 10 | 11 → Beauvoir in Le Deuxième Sexe (1949) and Hélène Cixous in Le Rire de la Meduse (1975) traced the oppression of women back to Graeco-Roman antiquity, specifically the classical Greek literature, performance and oral tradition, as a way for phallocentric societies to control women. Cixous argued that by projecting the Greek myths of Medusa and Abyss, even comic portrayals of mythical women-monsters in the past was a means to cast them away and to alienate them from civic processes. Further, in their now classic studies, feminist literary critics Mary Ellman (1970/1968) and Kate Millet (1977/1969) engage in resisting readings of male-authored representations of women, a practice that has become known as feminist re-vision, with the aim of revealing the ways in which misrepresentations of women in texts authored by men produce and maintain male hegemony.

Witches and bitches, or deviant women as we call them in this volume, largely vanished from the literary scene in the context of second wave feminism toward the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s because of the effort by feminist authors to eliminate ‘false stereotypes’ and create positive ‘role models’ for women (Aguiar, 2001: 2). This effort to banish, in particular, the conventional stereotyping of women in fiction as monstrous and demonic in turn resulted in a literature that, as Sarah Appleton Aguiar astutely notes, ‘may seem equally as biased in its promotion of female nobility’ (2001: 3). The gradual re-emergence of fresh variants of the bitch in contemporary fiction toward the end of the twentieth century, such as Toni Morrison’s eponymous character in Sula (1973) and Ginny in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991), on the other hand, represents protagonists who are, as Aguiar suggests, less one-dimensional.

When the recognition of women as agents of narrative production as well as in representation began to emerge in feminist scholarship during the 1970s and 1980s, critical attention was turned to cultural depictions of women who made things happen. Mythology, epic and different forms of folklore have certainly always displayed the ability of female heroines to scheme against others (women or their patriarchs), exercise power behind the scenes, use their sexuality and manipulate their surroundings (Gilgamesh, Kalevala, Icelandic Sagas, Homeric Epic, to name but some examples). In literature as well as in popular representation, an increase of strong agentive and often violent female protagonists, brought about by the rise of second wave feminism, was evidenced from the 1970s onwards. This was followed by a boom of scholarly work on the strong and agentive woman (see Aguiar, 2001; McCaughey and King, 2001; Schubart, 2007), whose femininity is reiterated in terms of ambiguity – ‘borrowing’ from masculinity – within the regulative framework of gender which Judith Butler (1990) termed the ‘heterosexual matrix’.

← 11 | 12 → Beyond first and second wave theoretical approaches, feminist theory proves to be a powerful tool for a stark socio-cultural analysis of depictions of transgressive women at any given time and context (Zajko and Leonard, 2006). Against this backdrop, the present volume explores how portrayals of women who deviate from the acknowledged norms of femininity have influenced the development of feminist thought, and correspondingly how narratives of female deviance can be interpreted within a feminist framework. Thus, Deviant Women: Cultural, Linguistic and Literary Approaches to Narratives of Femininity, by offering a multidisciplinary approach to reading deviance in texts in which women occupy central positions, aims to make a significant contribution to gender and women’s studies. The volume does not simply attempt a universalising gesture of subsuming all (exceptional) women under the category of ‘deviant’ women; rather it aims to demonstrate that the women represented in the material analysed in its chapters have been constructed as deviant due to normalisation by dominant patriarchal forces.

Towards a Definition of Deviance

Deviance as a sociological concept was introduced in the 1950s and remains a vigorous hermeneutic tool. Sociologist Stuart Henry (2009, 2–3) emphasises both the social and the processual dynamic of deviance, and defines it as a social process characterised by contextual, cultural, social and historical factors in relation to either psychological, behavioural or physical normality. Through this process, an individual or a group of people become defined as radically different, or as outsiders (Becker 1973: 8, 10).

Social processes always involve groups of people, and as Henry (2009: 4) points out, deviance is not a characteristic of an individual; no one can be deviant as such. Being defined in terms of deviance requires a collective recognition of ‘an identified difference that the members of a society regard as morally offensive or threatening’. Deviance, thus, always requires a certain understanding of norms and a collective idea of what counts as their violation (Henry 2009: 4, 5, 10). Moreover, deviance embodies the idea of negativity as produced through a divergence from norms: deviance is not mere difference but a radical difference in relation to the norms that are experienced as vital enough from the collective’s point of view to induce deviance.

Difference always refers to the ideology, system or narrative in relation to which the difference is produced. Thus, deviance should be assessed as deeply embedded in its socio-cultural context. The representations of people written about in this volume who seek a position outside the dominant ideology are ← 12 | 13 → bound to be deeply marked by this ideology. As subversion is only imaginable as a negation of social norms, even outsiders will carry the marks of these norms that she rejects. Her attempts to challenge or totally abandon the system are, in the words of Stephen Greenblatt (1980: 209, 9), ‘exposed as unwitting tributes to that social construction of identity against which they struggle’ and lead to the deviant as being ‘constructed as a distorted image of [the] authority’ she rebels against.

Defined by what is regarded as normal, the deviant appears as the other in relation to the norm of ‘socially normal’. However, this model is by no means straightforward and requires further clarification, because the relation between deviant other and norm(al) appears to be more complex than simple binary polarities. The other arises as part of the self-rationalisation by the ruling (or more accurately, hegemonic) class, which constructs this category as the repository for qualities that are the inverse of those ideal(s) it ascribes to itself. The norm is thus the fruit of social convention and ordering, while the other is a by-product of social spacing – a leftover. The otherness of the other and the security of the social space (also, therefore, the security of its own identity) are intimately related and support one another (Bauman 1993: 237).

Norms of sexuality and sexual behaviour have the tendency to arouse hectic debates in patriarchal societies. These norms, although not monolithic, always address the basic questions regarding the range of ‘normal’ sexuality, acceptable sexual practices and the borders between appropriate, deplorable and prohibited sexuality. As Alicia Gaspar de Alba (2014: 161) puts it: ‘Sex empowers the body, sex is agency, the enactment of desire, and in patriarchy, the only ones permitted to enact their desires are men; women’s sexuality has to be scrutinized, proscribed, protected, or punished at all times’. The ‘problem’ of female sexuality has been – and remains – the topic of countless narratives, as illustrated by Bram Dijkstra in his well-known work Idols of Perversity (1986), in which he traces widespread misogynist representations of women in nineteenth century European culture, all circling around the mystery of women and ‘deviant’ sexuality. The representations analysed by Dijkstra are telling examples of knowledge production about women by men: they systematically link evil with female sexuality and show that women narrativised as sexually alluring, as well as women who choose to embrace culturally deviant sexuality, risk being condemned, marginalised and rendered other.

When it comes to gendered concepts of what is norm(al) and what is other, there are further implications. Normal and conventional femininity in culturally and chronologically remote societies, as discussed in some of the contributions to this volume, is a multi-layered issue that goes beyond conventional white ← 13 | 14 → femininity and normative heterosexuality. These contributions are not simply limited to exploring the representations of white European heterosexual women, but also involve women of colour as well as women of other sexualities in their respective contexts (see, in this present volume, Karkulehto and Leppihalme; Porter; Rodi-Risberg; Wang).

Although negativity, as incorporated in pronounced difference, resides at the heart of the definition of deviance, this kind of divergence from normative behaviour may, despite the denial, marginalisation or abandonment it denotes, also prove empowering from the perspective of individual identities. It is precisely this kind of narrative, in which marginalisation and repression turned resistance function as places for the deviant women to dwell on their pronounced difference, that this volume analyses and produces. The authors of the contributions to this edited collection offer ways of bringing together a number of approaches to narratives of women living and acting against the grain.

Narrative as a Conceptual Starting Point/Perspective

Narrative is one of the important conceptual tools in this volume. When analysing the narrative of the deviant woman, it is important to understand the cultural role of narrative. Through narrative, we organise reality. Therefore, narratives play important roles in the structuring of reality as well as the construction of identities and representations (see Currie, 1998). Gender can be seen as a narrative that aims at coherence; thus, it is, following French cultural critic Jean-François Lyotard (2004/1979), one of the Grand Narratives, which realises the narrative of gender difference as defined by the hegemonic ideology. Lyotard also emphasises fragmentation as one of the characteristics of postmodern society, which, in regard to gender, means the emergence of different, constantly renewing mini-narratives about gender and desire, as described, for example, by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies that Matter (1993).


ISBN (Softcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2014 (December)
Gewalt Sexualität Frauen Geschlecht pervers
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 240 pp., 14 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Tiina Mäntymäki (Volume editor) Marinella Rodi-Risberg (Volume editor) Anna Foka (Volume editor)

Tiina Mäntymäki holds a PhD in Language and Culture from the University of Linköping (Sweden). Marinella Rodi-Risberg holds a PhD in Literary and Cultural Studies (English) from the University of Vaasa (Finland). Anna Foka holds a PhD in Classical Studies and Ancient History from the University of Liverpool (United Kingdom).


Title: Deviant Women
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