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A tale of two women: the female grotesque in Showtime’s Penny Dreadful

Germaine Buckley, Chloé (2019) A tale of two women: the female grotesque in Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. Feminist Media Studies. pp. 1-20. ISSN 1468-0777

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Abstract

The television series, Penny Dreadful (2014–2016) exemplifies a particular form of post-feminist media, one that reimagines supernatural gothic fiction for twenty-first-century audiences. This article examines the gothic representation of two female characters in the series, both marked as “grotesques,” deliberately mobilising their bodies to resist patriarchal control. However, the women are separated according to differently classed models of femininity: one represents idealised upper-class femininity whilst the other is made abject. Following Mary Russo’s seminal work (1995), I read these characters as “female grotesques” to reveal the ambivalence with which postfeminist gothic reproduces female bodies. The female grotesque creates risky opportunities for women to break out of patriarchal control, but it can also confirm the association of “woman” with monstrosity. This article reflects on Penny Dreadful’s ambivalent grotesquerie, highlighting the show’s efforts to subvert representational systems that continue to objectify and punish women. However, I also reveal the show’s blind spots and its abjection of lower-class femininity. I argue that Penny Dreadful exemplifies the ascendance of the female grotesque in post-feminist media, an ascendancy that suggests conflict: As feminist ideals gain traction, they meet resistance in the form of representational systems that continue to be mired in misogyny.

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