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Seaxy Beast: Grendel’s Mother and Responses to Third-Wave Feminism in Beowulf Adaptations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 May 2024

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Summary

About a decade after the end of second-wave feminism, precipitated by the intra-feminist sex wars of the 1980s, feminism rose again in the 1990s, this time in its third iteration. Third-wave feminism's emergence is bound up with the Riot Grrrl punk bands in Washington – and the feminist “zines” associated with them – and Anita Hill's accusations against judge Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, which resulted in a wider discussion on the representation of women in leadership roles. Unlike second-wave feminism, third-wave feminism (and postfeminism) have been subject to a commercial uptake that has arguably been both damaging and advantageous for the cause. At the same time as feminism's recovery, the Old English poem Beowulf was witnessing a re-emergence in popularity, most notably in the 2000 translation by Seamus Heaney, and the numerous literary, televisual, and cinematic approaches to the poem in the 2000s. As with feminism, the 1990s and 2000s saw the Hollywood-ification of the poem, and thus, a complex variety of takes on the early medieval text.

This essay explores the intersections of these trends and argues that a number of contemporary Beowulf adaptations are bound up with both the championing of and resistance to third-wave feminism. This dialectic is further contextualized against the cyclical nature of feminism's “waves,” the characteristic peaks that signal a new wave, and the troughs that signal the backlash to it, as seen in the 1950s/1960s, 1970s/1980s, and, in this case, the 1990s/2000s. In a significant departure from Victorian portrayals of Grendel's mother as solely monstrous, each of the four adaptations discussed in this chapter is influenced by and responds to third-wave feminism, as evidenced by their similar depictions of Grendel's mother. All four of these texts depict her character as a shapeshifting being, both as a conventionally beautiful woman, and as horribly monstrous in her appearance. While these more recent adaptations depict Grendel's mother as a dichotomous figure, they do so to very different effect. Although she becomes a more significant character, I argue that some of the ostensibly more “empowering” depictions are nuanced attacks on women and female sexuality. Moreover, this oscillating representation of Grendel's mother can be understood as representative of the complex striations of third-wave feminism and postfeminism explored in this study, wherein female sexuality and its manifestation are often sites of contention.

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Studies in Medievalism
(En)gendering Medievalism
, pp. 57 - 82
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2024

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