~ Jordan Phillips
Abstract: It has been said that we live in a time of monsters. Within the horror genre, these monsters commonly take the form of the creatures you would find in ancient mythologies or Gothic literatures; however, they have also been allegorically aligned with LGBT or Queer persons. John Logan’s queer horror series Penny Dreadful (2014-present) presents a nuanced and somewhat paradoxical portrayal of queer bodies within a horror text. The main characters are predominantly based on those of nineteenth-century Gothic fiction (Victor Frankenstein and his Monster, Dorian Gray, among others), and thus act both as a contemporary commentary on socio-cultural attitudes towards queerness, and a retrospective commentary on the state of queer politics within Victorian-era London. While the series does examine queer anxieties within Victorian times, it is my contention that the series is principally concerned with anxieties within the gay community from the last thirty years or so (1980s onwards). These points of unease are largely explored through the queer desires and monstrous bodies of its non-heterosexual characters, with their monstrously queer bodies acting as sites of transformative evolution or devolution. Within Penny Dreadful, queerness and monstrosity are often conflated (both literally and symbolically), meaning that the cultural categories of man/monster and human/non-human are unfixed. By close textual analysis of characters such as Ethan Chandler, AKA the Wolfman, and Dorian Gray, this paper will attempt to pinpoint these rhetorical slippages and analyse their meaning in relation to issues of cultural unease regarding queerness within both contemporary society and the Victorian era.
Since the earliest days of the moving image, the figure of the monster has been implemented as a way in which to mobilise ideological tensions and socio-cultural anxieties connected to particular time periods and historical moments. Within the horror genre (the monster’s native milieu), these ideological messages are mainly constructed and transmitted through the performance of the abject body and its sexually transgressive desires, both of which have been critically understood by some as an allegorical conduit for queerness – that is, non-heterosexual or non-normative desire (Benshoff 1997). As marginalised social groups fought arduously for social recognition, the fictional monster was on a parallel path, prowling in the shadows, acting as a narrative locum tenens for the depoliticised and the demonised. Harry M. Benshoff (1997) postulates that some of the most sociologically and cinematically significant readings of the monstrous body are coterminous with that of the queer body – that is, those which consider themselves to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise non-heterosexual or non-normative. Benshoff historicises queer monstrosity as a largely disparaging paradigm, with queer bodies and desires being either symbolically annihilated or manifested metaphorically through the monster, ultimately resulting in heterosexist and phobic depictions of queerness. More recently, however, the queer monster has found a more nuanced and progressive domicile in the form of John Logan’s Neo-Victorian horror television series Penny Dreadful (2014-2016). Throughout this paper, I will interrogate the series’ depictions of performative queer desires and monstrous bodies by making use of Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s (1996) monster theory in conjunction with Judith Butler’s (1990; 1993) theories of gendered performance, in order to analyse the extratextual and intratextual positioning of Penny Dreadful’s queer characters. By doing so, I aim to examine issues of cultural unease regarding queerness within the Victorian era, and how Logan’s series utilises its period setting in order to narrativise queer anxieties in the 21st century.
Theories of Queerness and Monstrosity
The horror genre can be broadly defined by the structural relationship between normality and abnormality – or, the normative and the monstrous (Wood 2002). The rhetorical slippages between the ontology of the human and that of the monster has fostered scholastic attention in relation to the monstrous body as a conceit for postmodern racial, gender, and sexual politics. Within Penny Dreadful, the interstice between normality and abnormality, between humanity and monstrosity, is performative. On the whole, horror is inherently performative in nature. Just when we think we have become inoculated to the virus-like popularity of horror, another strain presents itself and performs the social, political, and cultural dread imbricated within its particular time period. In this sense, horror is concerned with “dressing up” – that is, wearing the disguise of cultural terror in order to play out ghastly narratives within the creative quarantine of the often fantastical horror genre. To use Judith Butler’s (1990) example of identity-as-performance, horror is akin to the concept of drag – that is, performing gender identity through the reversal of gendered social roles i.e., hair, clothing, make-up. Horror, however, dresses up social unease and anxiety through the artifice of monstrosity and fear.
The unfixed, grotesque nature of these anti-normative bodies and desires invites a queer reading – that is, one which aims to deconstruct and dislocate culturally prescribed binarisms such as man/woman, heterosexual/homosexual from their hegemonic, heteronormative positioning (Turner 2000). Butler defines the concept of “performativity” as a tool in the study of identity formation and ritual-making in society. For Butler, “Performativity cannot be understood outside of a process of iterability, a regularised and constrained repetition of norms… This iterability implies that ‘performance’ is not a singular ‘act’ or event, but a ritualised production…” (1993 95). While Butler refers to identity (chiefly through the construct of gender), I instrument her theories as a way in which to anatomise the performance of queer monstrosity within Penny Dreadful i.e., how monstrosity may be concealed by performing as something else (human), and how the series literalises the performance of uncontrollable, transformative monstrosity to queer identity. Moreover, in his book Monster Theory: Reading Culture (1996), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen posits the monstrous body as a potent metaphor for the so-called “cultural body,” suggesting that monsters are a way in which to read the culture from which they antecede: “The monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment – of a time, a feeling, and a place” (1996 vii). It is my contention that the monstrous bodies within Penny Dreadful act as totems for socio-cultural anxiety and unease within contemporary society, under the guise of moralistic and puritanical Victorian belief systems and ideologies.
Penny Dreadful and its Queer Characters
Penny Dreadful is predominantly based on characters and plots adapted from nineteenth-century Gothic fiction, most notably Victor Frankenstein and his monster from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), Dorian Gray from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and Mina Harker from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). The series also features cinematic characters which were directly inspired from the works of Gothic literature i.e., the Bride of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man from the 1935 and 1941 films of the same names. The series is inherently anachronistic in nature, being produced in the second decade of the 21st century and set during Victorian era London circa 1891. This dichotomy works to actualise the series’ political potential, giving voices to marginalised characters who have been historically disenfranchised – both in Gothic literature and the society which it mirrors. Logan’s Neo-Victorian series breathes new life into real-world issues which were embryotic in the Victorian era e.g., the deconstruction of socially entrenched gender binaries. Industrialisation brought about a crisis of masculinity due to the new working woman. Anxieties began to emerge over male feminisation and the perception of effeminacy being equated with homosexuality (McGunnigle 2005). While original Gothic tales have their villains embody the repressed anxieties and undesirable sexualities of the heroes and their society, Neo-Victorian texts emphasise the dual role of both the hero and the villain within their characters. This slippage of roles (both gender and character roles) is the creative and queer nexus of Penny Dreadful.
Scholars of teratology commonly examine the monster through its relationship with bodies that are seen as non-monstrous or normative. The monstrous Other is a liminal figure who represents the disruption of socially administered categories and the destruction of culturally constructed boundaries such as man/woman, good/evil, and heterosexual/homosexual (Halberstam 1995 27). However, as scholars such as Miller (2011) and Elliott-Smith (2016) have elucidated, the figure of the queer monster has undergone a cultural evolution since its conception as a totem of essentialising Otherness, and now has the potential to symbolise universalising Sameness. It is within this incongruous space where the reimagined Gothic characters of Penny Dreadful are narratively situated.
Penny Dreadful’s protagonists are a motley band of supernaturally-endowed deviants who ostensibly protect those they love from even more monstrous threats than themselves. The “heroes” in this series are monsters themselves. Monstrosity, including queer monstrosity, is not explicitly synonymous with evil. The series’ creator and sole writer, John Logan, is no stranger to queer, camp, or horror. His writing credits include cult films such as Bats (1999) and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). Logan, has commented upon the series’ queer inflection, articulating that his own experiences growing up as a gay man in 1970s New York served as an impetus for this correlation. Logan expresses that he always felt a connection to the closeted monster, and that the ways in which the series’ characters address the secrets within themselves ultimately defines who they are. Logan embraces this Otherness and implements its queer charge in order to narrativise the struggles and anxieties he has felt within his own life through the textual lens of these reimagined Gothic characters. Logan articulates that, “… the thing that made me alien and different and monstrous to some people is also the thing that empowered me…” (Thomas 2014). Logan also comments that he does not believe in the Manichean binaries of good and evil or hero and villain, opting instead for a more ontologically and moralistically fluid approach to his monsters. While I do not wish to predicate the entirety of my argument on the, widely contested, concept of auteur theory, I do in fact suggest that Logan’s own personal alignment with monstrosity and Otherness informs the series’ queer sensibility, and that his authorial intent is perhaps too potent to be overlooked entirely.
Textual and Extratextual Analysis
One of the key narrative drivers in Logan’s series is that of desire (or, to be more concise, queer desire). Many of the characters are portrayed as polysexual and do not conform to the compulsory heterosexuality commonly associated with traditional horror texts. Equating queerness with monstrosity creates a complex dialogue in regards to the historicity of Otherness. On one hand, queerness is intrinsically Other. There are those, like Logan, who welcome the association with the abnormal, the divergent, and the monstrous. However, there are those who would repel such associations, avowing that queerness and Otherness are socially constructed and are only as non-normative and as monstrous as the dominant social position (in this case, white, male heterosexuality) recognises them to be. Although this discursive polarity may seemingly convolute Penny Dreadful’s status as a queer artefact, it is within this very polarity wherein queer readings find their discursive power. Queer is fundamentally mobile. To conflate queerness with one particular genre, ideology, or any fixed positionality would undermine and destabilise the mutability and fluidity of queerness.
Logan’s series deploys a rhetorically ambiguous stance in relation to queerness. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1990) speaks of two views in relation to sexual identity and desire: the minoritising view and the universalising view. Queer people, like monsters, can exist in the minoritising shadows and seek to accrue political power through the solidification of Otherness; or, they can present their monstrosity unashamedly and reject their secretive, closeted existence, thereby harnessing the discursive power of universal Sameness. For Wood (2002 27), Otherness is representative of what white, heterosexual bourgeois ideology, “… cannot recognise or accept but must deal with… by rejecting and if possible annihilating it, or by rendering it safe and assimilating it, converting it as far as possible into a replica of itself.” Otherness can be projected as essentially different, or it may be converted into an assimilatory production of Sameness. Through both extratextual materials and intratextual characterisations, Logan creates an ambiguous dialogue in regards to queer bodies and desire by simultaneously suggesting that these characters’ bodies and desires are both monstrous and normative, Other and Same, hero and villain. Extratextual (in this case, any text that is not strictly within the episodic diegesis of Penny Dreadful) conditions greatly affect the rhetorical positioning of a text and its characters. In the case of Penny Dreadful, its status as an artifact of queerness is affected by its extratextual and paratextual scaffolding. Cultural theorists such as Stuart Hall (cited in Benshoff 1997) have indicated, discourses do not exist vacuously and are subject to multiple sites of reception which, in turn, allows for the active negotiation of textual subjectivities. In terms of the so-called “New Golden Age of Television” (2000-present), digital extratextual materials are a key component of television programming, with some suggesting that these texts are significant in the manufacturing of characterisation within the intratextual diegesis (Brookey and Westerfelhaus cited in King 2010). While I do not wish to imply that these extratextual materials (the series’ opening credit sequence and the promotional materials used to market the series) are unitarily responsible for the monstrous and queer positioning of the series’ characters, I would ascertain that they operate in tandem with Penny Dreadful’s intratextual narrative in order to establish an omnipresent sense of Otherness and monstrosity, and that this was a conscious decision by the series creator which moves beyond the realm of authorial expressivity.
The contrast between monstrosity and humanity is made consciously evident in the series’ opening credits sequence, with the characters being juxtaposed with images of animals and other deathly signifiers. Ethan Chandler AKA the Wolf Man (portrayed by Josh Hartnett) is analogised with the wolf and the serpent, whereas Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) is compared with the spider and its prey. This first image suggests darkness over light, alluding to the characters’ dark, unholy desires. The last shot, however, sees the creature of the bat going forth into the light, implying a more virtuous side to the night-dwellers. The sequence plays with chiaroscuro as a way of symbolising the balance between Otherness and Sameness, a boundary which Logan’s monsters tread lightly between. The fear of humanity and monstrosity coinciding had taken root in Victorian society after the release of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. The post-Darwinian panic of ontological miscegenation is represented here though the performance of queer monstrosity, most notably through the desires of Ethan Chandler and Dorian Gray. This binary is also strongly present in the promotional materials for the series, in which the characters (some of whom are distinctly human) are positioned as intrinsically monstrous and Other. While these extratextual characterisations are consistent with Logan’s personal adoption of Otherness, they simultaneously carry a charge of Sameness in relation to monstrous bodies and queer desires.
“There is some thing within us all.” This ominous slogan played a significant part in the paratextual promotional posters (and was later introduced into the narrative proper) of Penny Dreadful’s first season. However, the ideology lurking behind this refrain is one which undulates ubiquitously throughout the series’ story and character arcs. The idea that there is some thing, something Other, something monstrous, is the thematic lynchpin of Penny Dreadful’s intradiegetic narrative. This ideology paradoxically suggests that we all have the potential to be the minoritising queer monster, but also positions Logan’s series as a more universalising narrative of queer monstrosity. These extratextual materials blur the boundaries between monster and human, normative and non-normative, and hero and villain. The monster-human duality of these characters is a preconceived paradigm, it is not one which they have thrust upon them by outside forces decoding their behaviours and actions. The promotional slogan for Penny Dreadful’s second season (“The Devil is in all of us”) is decidedly less runic in terms of the characters’ moral compasses and transgressive desires. The unidentified “thing” which resides within the characters has now been given a satanic marker, further solidifying their resonance with monstrosity and Otherness.
The promotional trailer for the series’ second season is a frenetic and lubricious sequence which displays the human-monster duality of the characters and alludes to the monstrous desires festering beneath their human exteriors. For example, Ethan performs his Sameness, his human side, until the frame dramatically shifts to a distorted image of his Otherness, his monstrous side, the Wolf Man. There is a kind of pageantry tied to these characters, a performative veneer of normativity and humanity. Queer theorists such as Judith Butler reject stable categories and address how human subjects “perform” gender and sexual identity, claiming that gender and sexuality is socially constructed and performative. The culturally constructed categories of monster and queer coalesce as oppositional categories to that of normativity: the abnormal which gives the normal its discursive meaning. The monster is the abject body which is used in order to support the hegemony of the non-monstrous bodies in society, much the same as queer bodies bolster the dominance of heterosexual bodies. Queer monstrosity, then, like gender and sexuality, can be considered to be constructed and performative. While some of Penny Dreadful’s characters reject and entomb their monstrously queer natures, others embrace their Otherness as a fundamental part of who they are. This idea is problematic, however, as the series’ characters represent both the human and the monster in one disruptive, queer body.
As Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) elucidates in the fifth episode of the first season, “There are things within us all that can never be unleashed.” Again, the thing within these characters, their Otherness, is continuously highlighted and carries a queer charge. Ethan is a lycanthrope (à la the Wolf Man) and Vanessa has powerful magical abilities. Both shape-shifters and witches have long been associated with queerness, and their coupling results in a queer reading. Their desires for a relationship, on several occasions, has been deemed infeasible due to their monstrous circumstances. They openly discuss their feelings for one another, but these moments quickly dissolve into discussions of their monstrous Otherness. In episode ten of the second season, Vanessa is shown a vision of an untenable future of normalcy with Ethan. In this alternate history, one without their monstrous conditions, the two live happily in their opulent Victorian home. Dressed all in white, the pair speak adoringly of their two children and bask in the contented glow of their “normal” life. Vanessa understands, however, that this illusion is just that: A mirage of normalcy she will never attain. The children, the human signifier of procreational hetero-normalcy, are the most impracticable in Vanessa’s eyes. It is unknown within the mythos of the series if Ethan’s or Vanessa’s supernatural capabilities would be hereditary, but the inclusion of the two children in the dream sequence heavily implies that Vanessa not only once craved a traditional familial life, but also that she fears that her possible offspring would be genetically predisposed to monstrosity.
Ethan and Vanessa are situationally queered in the sense that they are non-normative and have monstrous bodies, their desires carrying a queer charge in the process. The “thing” which was alluded to in the tagline of the promotional materials yearns to be released. The characters’ monstrous desires build up inside of them until they cannot be contained any longer (Ethan’s lycanthropy and Vanessa’s witch-like powers, respectively). According to Rigby (2006 70-71), within the male-dominated narrative worlds of Gothic literature, “… The women seem to mean the same ‘thing’: They act as conduits through which unacceptable male desires are routed… and, appropriately enough, most of the women suffer the same fate: death”. For Rigby, the thing within Penny Dreadful’s narrative is locatable as femininity or femaleness (which have long been aligned with male homosexuality and queerness). Women are not divorced from their ill-fates within Logan’s Neo-Victorian series, however, with both central female characters meeting their demise at the hands of male characters at various points within the series. The “thing”, whether it be representative of femininity, femaleness, queerness, or a triad of all three, is ultimately banished or eradicated.
Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) is another character whose fluid sexuality creates queer sensibilities within Penny Dreadful. As in the original novel, Dr. Frankenstein creates his “monster” (later dubbed Proteus, portrayed by Alex Price) from parts of other bodies and brings him to life by using electrical power generated by a storm. In Penny Dreadful, the virginal doctor creates life by using both nature and science, without the use of a woman or any kind of “natural” methods of procreation. This parthenogenic, monstrous body symbolises both the uncertainty of modernity and medicine/technology, as well as the doctor’s own queer sexuality. Upon his “birth,” the doctor holds his monster in a caring caress, as a mother does her child. While there are moments of intimacy between the two men, they are often interrupted by the presence of women. For example, Dr. Frankenstein takes the newly born Proteus walking around the streets of Victorian London for the first time. Here they are encountered by Ethan and Brona Croft (Billy Piper) – a prostitute dying of consumption and Ethan’s initial love interest – another non-normative couple. Brona insouciantly flirts with Proteus, much to the chagrin of both Ethan and Dr. Frankenstein. This exchange is indicative of the fragile homosocial/homosexual continuum, a popular trope in Gothic fiction (Sedgwick 1985). Whenever male homosociality verges too close to the homosexual, female characters are interpolated into the narrative in order to diffuse any homosexual signifiers. For Young (cited in Elliott-Smith 2016 106), who draws upon Sedgwick’s work in her analysis of James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the female exists as a, “desperate cover-up” and displacement of homoeroticism. While this may seemingly undercut Penny Dreadful’s queer aesthetics, this triangulation of queer desire works to supplement the series’ queer readings rather than hinder them.
As aforementioned, queer is inherently mobile and subversive. If Victor and his monster were in an illicit homosexual union, they would undeniably be a queer couple. However, as soon as their same-sex relationship encroaches the realms of possible exploitation, then their coupling would become problematic. Texts which exploit or sensationalise same-sex partnerships or aesthetics undermine the subversive and political potential of queer, effectively “de-queering” and depoliticising the characters and the social situations which they represent. Later, in a Pygmalion fashion, Victor falls in love with another one of his creations, Lily – a reanimated and renamed Brona. The two eventually consummate their relationship on a stormy night (season 2, episode 5), much like the ones which permitted the births of Frankenstein’s creatures. In this sequence, Victor’s queer sexuality is anthropomorphised by the storm. By engaging in a sexual union with one of his female creations, Victor is succumbing to his compulsory heterosexuality (despite Lily’s body being a decidedly queer one, she is still female). The next day, the storm has passed and Lily has cooked breakfast for her lover in the morning sunlight; their heterosexual coupling is textually reinforced by the ironically domestic mise-en-scene. The “thing” within Frankenstein appears to be his latent heterosexual urges and desires. By presenting Frankenstein’s sexuality as a kind of “queer heterosexuality” (Smith 2000), Penny Dreadful preserves the transgressive and fluid nature of queer. Earlier in the series, Brona articles the in impracticable nature of her sexual relations with men by stating: “You’re fucking a skeleton every night. There’s no future in it for either of us!” Brona’s words here are suggestive of Lee Edelman’s polemical analysis of queer theory, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004). For Edelman, queerness disrupts the social Order and derives pleasure in anti-procreative desire (that is, non-heterosexual sex). Due to Brona’s infected, and later monstrous, body, she too is representative of the anti-procreative queer, despite being heterosexual. It is this precise lack of hetero-procreative futurity which positions these reimagined Gothic characters as agents of queer monstrosity.
Early on in the series, the characters are introduced to the concept of the “demimonde,” a midpoint between heaven and hell where dark souls are contained. Etymologically, the term comes from 19th century France and refers to a group of hedonistic people who live on the fringes of respectable society. Vanessa explains to Ethan that the demimonde is, “a half world between what we know and what we fear,” a shadowy realm where some cursed souls are doomed to dwell forever. Ethan, who hitherto believed he was alone in his monstrosity, asks her what would happen if the monsters within them were to be unleashed, to which Vanessa replies, “[then]…, we are most who we are. Unrestrained. Ourselves.” Semantically, demi-monde is a fitting term for our band of sexually transgressive deviants whose supernatural natures Other them from respectable Victorian society. At a syntactic level, however, Logan’s re-appropriation of the supernatural demimonde is symptomatic of the queer monsters’ purgatorial desires. These characters, particularly Ethan and Dorian, are a living personification of the demimonde. Both Ethan’s and Dorian’s literary and cinematic counterparts have been historically aligned with queer monstrosity. Both have a dark and monstrous secret: Ethan’s is his lycanthropy, his monstrosity presenting itself cyclically every full moon, whereas Dorian’s is his portrait where he has stored his monstrous soul, preserving his youthful beauty.
Both Ethan and Dorian go through transformations (symbolic and somatic) which are representative of their monstrously queer performativity. Ethan Chandler performs as the quintessential Southern man. He’s tall, tough, muscular, and slips comfortably into the male protector role within the first few episodes of season 1. Ethan soon begins a relationship with Brona, who later becomes Lily Frankenstein. During this relationship, we begin to see moments of tenderness and femininity in Ethan; he is just as loving and gentle as he is masculine and aggressive. The characters’ monstrous desires build up inside of them until they cannot be contained any longer, in Ethan’s case, the monster within; the burgeoning, bestial presence he so desperately tries to banish. Ethan oscillates between the performance of the Southern gentleman and the monstrous Wolf Man. The latter side haunts Ethan; he knows he cannot control his monstrous body and, when he is transformed, he hunts and kills people across London uncontrollably. In episode 4 of the 1st season, Ethan takes Brona to see a stage play named “The Transformed Man,” a tale that involves lycanthropes and death, both of which resonate deeply with Ethan’s tortured soul, the living demimonde. Ethan later rebukes her company and retires to Dorian Gray’s excessively lavish manor. Dorian regales Ethan of the climactic music from the German operatic drama Tristan and Isolde. Liebestod (which, translated from German literally means “love death”) acts here as a musical signifier of the demimonde, and also the duo’s transgressive, purgatorial desires. In this scene, Ethan’s trauma over his divided Self presents itself by way of mental images tied to his monstrous nature: the cryptic symbols associated to the demimonde, the bloodied bodies of the people he has killed, and his fellow animal: the wolf. Here, Ethan and Dorian’s monstrous bodies are conflated with their queer desires.
Earlier in the episode, Ethan somberly asks Dorian if he wishes he could be someone else, to which Dorian replies, “all the time.” These words carry different inflections to these two men, however. Ethan loathes who he is, his monstrous body, seeing it as a curse he cannot be rid of. He hides his secret to the best of his ability and performs as a regular member of Victorian society, wishing he could be like everyone else. He clings to a universalising view of his monstrosity, hoping to acclimate into the very society that scorns him. Dorian, on the other hand, embraces his monstrous body and queer desires, opting instead for a minoritising viewpoint. Dorian remarks to Ethan: “I suppose we all play parts.” Ethan enquires as to which “part” Dorian plays, to which he replies: “human.” Ethan performs as human because he wishes to be normal, whereas Dorian performs as such simply because he has to, relishing his true nature of difference. Both of their performances are suggestive of the concept of “passing” i.e., a non-heterosexual person trying to pass as heterosexual out of fear of censure. Despite agreeing with Ethan that he too would like to be someone else, he relishes the idea of not being like everyone else. He pontificates, “to be different, to be powerful, is that not a divine gift?”
Over the last few decades or so, there has been a fiercely contested dichotomy raging within the gay community: the homomasculine or “straight-acting” discourse. There are many within the gay community who prescribe to the culturally constructed notion of “manliness” – that is, hard, stoic masculinity that attempts to emulate the dominant heteronormative codes of masculinity, thereby performing as the very systems which dominate them. They reject notions of homoeffeminacy or “femme-acting,” instead choosing to champion a universal discourse of power rather than a minority one (Clarkson 2006). This discourse is reflected within the performance of queer monstrosity within Penny Dreadful, with Ethan epitomising the homomasculine Same, whereas Dorian is totemic of the homoeffeminate Other. Other male characters who embody facets of these dichotomies are Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale), a fey Egyptologist and informant to Ethan and co, and Angelique (Jonny Beauchamp), a transgender courtesan and love interest to Dorian.
The effeminate Lyle enacts the stereotype of the “sissy”, often fawning over Ethan’s charm and muscularity. He has a wife, however, one which we later find out he has implemented as part of his closeted, heterosexual performance. Lyle cryptically speaks of his “condition” (his homosexuality) and harbors a great deal of shame because of this. He and Ethan are two sides of the same coin: One femme-acting, one straight-acting, but both queer and unsure how to channel their non-normative desires. Angelique, on the other hand, is anatomically male but prefers to dress and identify as a woman. The situation is, again, complicated by the presence of Lily. Dorian is attracted to her otherworldly presence and begins to court her, quickly forgetting about the lovelorn Angelique. At a cursory glance, it seems that Dorian is attracted to Lily because he senses the monstrous being within her. However, the fact remains that he leaves (and actually kills) Angelique to be with a biological female companion. As a reanimated creature, Lily is obviously monstrous. Towards the end of the second season, she reveals a demonic demeanour and vows to destroy humanity with Dorian by her side. These two immortal monsters are a problematic couple in terms of queer politics. Dorian killed his queer lover Angelique to be with Lily instead; however, his desire to be with Lily seems to stem from her monstrosity, not her innate femaleness. In this sense, as with Frankenstein and Lily, the heterosexual pairing is equally as queer as the non-heterosexual one.
In summation, Penny Dreadful is somewhat paradoxical and problematic in terms of its depiction of queer desire and monstrous bodies. Logan’s Neo-Victorian series plays with queer monstrosity in ways in which its Victorian progenitors could only have hoped to. Many of the characters are portrayed as polysexual and do not conform to the compulsory heterosexuality widely attributed to their fin de siècle counterparts, creating a rich, yet ambiguous, dialogue in relation to queerness, both within the Victorian society on which it is based and the contemporary society within which it is created. Some of the series’ characters, such as Ethan Chandler, are representative of universalising queerness, performing as normative in the hopes that he can one day escape his perdition as the living demimonde, his bestial side, his transformative body. Others, like Dorian Gray, however, adopt a more minoritising position, embracing his queer desires, his monstrous body, and his place within the shadowy demimonde. The series as a whole is reflective of the homophobic and heterocentric ideals upheld by Victorian society, but is also emblematic of contemporary discourses surrounding queerness and discursive models of power. The series presents its characters as sexually and morally ambiguous, and are a way of reading the Victorian culture from which they were originally bred, and also the contemporaneous one which has seen them adapted them in Logan’s series. Most of Penny Dreadful’s characters have elements of Otherness and Sameness embedded within their extratextual and intratextual DNA, inasmuch that they have both heroic and villainous characteristics, heterosexual and homosexual tendencies, and very human and monstrous desires.
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Bio: Jordan Phillips is a postgraduate researcher, teaching associate, and academic support tutor at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. His main areas of interest are sexuality and queerness within the horror genre; fan performance culture and audience reception; and gender and sexual politics within contemporary superhero texts. Jordan is a regular contributor to Critical Studies in Television (Online) and The Big Picture Magazine, and has co-organised/presented queer horror-specific screenings at film festivals.