Culture & Art / Feminism / Society

The Iron Maiden and the Walking Wounded

Understanding female dismemberment in pop culture and the media

by Marie Baleo

Sweet Kill poster
Sweet Kill poster

In 1991, Naomi Wolf published “The Beauty Myth”, wherein she introduced the Iron Maiden concept, an “unattainable standard that is (…) used to punish women physically and psychologically for their failure to achieve and conform to it.” We see the Iron Maiden everyday, on billboards, in TV commercials, on the Internet: she is tall, white, extremely thin yet busty, long-haired and long-legged, alluring, has full lips, perfect skin, not a shred of body hair, a tan in the dead of winter, and shows no signs of being over 20 years of age. Mostly, she is not human. The Iron Maiden is a pile of plastic body parts, a scarecrow which only barely resembles a woman from afar. The Iron Maiden is a monster, the product of a deep societal illness. Yet, somehow, most women aspire to be her.

The Maiden provides women of all ages and origins with a detailed and unquestionable image of female physical perfection, leading them to embark on a costly, painful quest for an imaginary Grail. This is Wolf’s “beauty myth”, which causes female bodies to be viewed as perfectible creations, objects to be constantly remodeled. No woman is immune to this perverse illusion. What strays from this ideal must be cause for shame; where the small child once had no self-consciousness, the grown woman has learned to resent and be embarrassed by her normal features. The functional miracle that is the human body is ignored, while our attention turns to the female body’s failure to resemble a piece of art, a marble statue, a man-made object.

Wolf ventures that the Beauty Myth emerged when women started breaching the power structure: “images that turn women into objects or eroticize the degradation of women have arisen to counterbalance women’s recent self assertion”. Others, such as John Lyden, note that “psychological interpretations have been wedded to feminist analyses in suggesting that male castration anxiety is at the root of the need to see women be dismembered and destroyed[1].

But rather than engaging in an endless quest to elucidate the origins of the Beauty Myth, let us take a look at how the image of the female body is dismembered[2], cut, objectified for the benefit of some and to the detriment of all women – or, as Jules Michelet once called them, the “walking wounded”.

What do horror movies and the beauty and fashion industries have in common?

Horror cinema and women have a contentious history: feminists have often described horror as a violently misogynist genre taking great pleasure in torturing and murdering fictional women. Just consider the 1973 B-movie Sweet Kill: a psychologically-unbalanced man finds himself unable to perform sexually and, after accidentally killing a woman while trying to have sex with her, discovers that he is able to get aroused by the corpse, which quite logically leads him on a quest to lure and kill women. With a plot like this, can you really blame feminists for accusing horror cinema of misogyny?

However, many fans of the genre have rejected the feminist analysis, arguing that more men die in horror movies than women. I believe that the common perception of a particularly violent treatment of women in horror stems not from the number of murdered female characters but from the characteristics of violence towards women in horror movies, for horror is yet another field in which dismemberment has become very apparent. Surely, the legendary “slasher film” trend which emerged with Halloween and entered its golden age with Scream is not particularly tender with either gender. But there is something especially fishy about the way female characters are treated in horror.

In fact, instead of being leading ladies like Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween or Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Alien, an overwhelming majority of them are not characters at all: they are tropes (the dumb blonde, the pure and perfect virgin, …), graphically murdered before they ever get the chance to develop a personality and willpower of their own. Add to this a layer of sexual symbolism born from the fact that many of these female characters are barely dressed at all, and you get symbolic dismemberment of the female body, and a movie that does not quite pass the Bechdel test[3].

In addition, the female corpse in horror cinema has become an aesthetic object. This is not horror cinema’s prerogative: just look at the mythical Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, the object of every man’s affection and attraction, the center of the town’s attention, a perfect blonde prom queen, raped, murdered and “wrapped in plastic”.

Laura Palmer as we first see her in the Twin Peaks pilot

Laura Palmer as we first see her in the Twin Peaks pilot

In horror movies as in every other genre, women’s bodies are sexualized and objectified; nothing new here. However, in a world where violence against female bodies is a form of (repressed yet delightful) entertainment, horror is perhaps the only genre in which this is accepted and honestly displayed in plain sight. In playing this dangerous game, horror has a responsibility in the general dehumanization of the female body. Some horror films are quite aware of this phenomenon: for example, in The Silence of the Lambs, Senator Martin, the mother of a young woman abducted by a serial killer, addresses the psychopath in a broadcast message, and the film’s protagonist, agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) notes that the Senator “is trying to make the killer see her daughter ‘as a person and not as an object’” (Lyden).

Why, then, do women appear to enjoy horror movies just as much as men? Women love to watch their fictional counterparts suffer so much because they have internalized the objectification of their body. In a world where your body is a combination of imperfect parts and where you are confronted daily with dozens of visions of the Iron Maiden, it is just as fun watching women be killed and dismembered as it is to watch someone bash a pinata at a birthday party. Fun little mental exercise: try to replace a victimized woman in a horror movie (run after, cut open, murdered, her clothes torn and her body exposed), with a victimized child, and suddenly you, as a viewer, will find yourself shocked beyond words. That is because society does a much better job of respecting and protecting children and their safety than it does women and their physical integrity. This explains why producers ever thought the torture of and murder of Sylvia Likens by Gertrude Baniszeski, her children, and other neighborhood kids could be turned into a successful horror film (The Girl Next Door, 2007), noting again that horror’s aim is to entertain.

John Lyden offers a parallel explanation: “such screen violence and blood allow the audience to deal with their own fears of bodily violation and mutilation in a ‘safe’ way”. Women, then, turn to horror movies to exorcise what has become an oft-ignored but integral part of the experience of womanhood: a near-constant fear of physical and sexual aggression. Conversely and logically, some women’s taste for horror movies in which a female protagonist proceeds to outlive all other characters and outsmart the murderer/monster (like Laurie in Halloween or Nancy in Nightmare on Elm Street) can serve as “as an expression of female rage against male aggression, as the female refuses to be made a victim and is able to fight back effectively in the end” (Lyden).

Finally, I would argue that the pleasure we derive from watching perfect Iron Maidens being brutally killed is due partly to our profound exhaustion at being constantly demanded to (and constantly failing to) resemble her.

Not a still from “The Human Centipede”.

Not a still from “The Human Centipede”.

But the best is yet to come: what if I told you of an area of pop culture/the media that is even better than horror movies at dismembering and violating women’s bodies? Something that is visible every day, in papers and on TV, in the metro and on billboards, and generally anywhere you look? Did I hear someone say advertisements? Correct.

Terri D. Conley and Laura R. Ramsay write that “compared to men, women (are) portrayed as more flawless, passive and dismembered, particularly in women’s fashion and men’s magazines[4]

Classic dismemberment: the faceless vixen.

Classic dismemberment: the faceless vixen.

Though no product is safe from being advertised by a naked woman’s body parts, I’d like us to focus on a specifically despicable type of advertisement: the beauty ad. In fact, the entire beauty industry is built on a house of cards: the illusion that women have a duty to be beautiful and remain young forever. Selling the Iron Maiden to millions of frustrated women who have lost touch with their bodies is an immensely profitable line of business: the anti-age industry was worth $261.9 billion globally in 2013[5], while makeup sales amounted to $932 million in 2012[6]. Many companies in Europe, America, but also increasingly in emergent markets are cashing in on women’s insecure attempts at resembling a teenage wax figure. The idea here is not to blame the corporations in a deluded anti-capitalist rant: no one is forcing millions to buy these products. Yet we all are.

Let’s take a look at the damage this has done.

The pervasive effects of dismemberment: objectification, dehumanization, alienation

Old school advertising: at least this one has a face?

Old school advertising: at least this one has a face?

The Iron Maiden, reinforced by the beauty industry and its toxic ads, and by the media’s unrealistic representation of female bodies, has achieved the ultimate stage in dehumanizing and objectifying women’s bodies: to alienate women from their own bodies.

In the beginning was the infant, who had yet to learn whether he was male or female, what those words mean, and which gender roles society had in store for him or her. Then comes the child, free to be perfectly him- or herself. Take a second to remember your childhood, what it felt like being comfortable with your body: children aren’t afraid of being covered in dirt, children are aware of their physical sensations, children know their bodies are the interface between them and the world, with which they discover sensations, tastes, objects. But somewhere along the way, at an undefined point in time, the young girl becomes aware of the Iron Maiden, and her healthy rapport to her body disappears.

Subject to constant scrutiny, sold on the idea that her body is perfectible and is something she should work on in a kind of neverending Pygmalion complex, the young woman falls into a terrible trap: the evaluation of her own body. This is evidently something men partake in as well, but it reaches great heights when it comes to the female body, who lies broken and hurt under a web of dictates (“be thin! be muscular!”). This can cause depression, and is currently causing the number of eating disorders to rise spectacularly, as women deprive themselves of vital energy and nutrients in order to feel more beautiful, more likeable, more loved, while our society reinforces the idea that every woman should be thin (interestingly, some observers have noted that this may be connected to the fact that being thin often precludes being physically strong). Additionally, for a woman suffering from an eating disorder, starving herself has the direct effect of removing the more saliently feminine aspects of her body (curves, breasts, periods). Thus, it allows her to escape society’s sexualization of her body and to regain control on her life by focusing her mind on one goal: physical survival.

The scrutiny directed at each and every part of the woman’s body is dismemberment at its very best. The emphasis laid by the beauty industry on each of those body parts (anti cellulite products for your butt and thighs, diet pills for your stomach, chemical straighteners for your unruly hair, etc.) is the great trigger of dismemberment.

I don’t need to tell you that we all fall victims to the most elementary principle of marketing: create a need for your product where there once was none[7]. If by chance women stop feeling self-conscious about, say, the size of their stomach, make them self-conscious about the size of their labia and launch a new profitable surgical specialty, or perhaps create a desperate desire for a thigh gap and force thousands of middle schoolers down the path to starvation. The sky’s the limit!

In this regard, Naomi Wolf writes that “(men) look at women’s bodies, evaluate, move on; their own bodies are not looked at, evaluated, and taken or passed over (…) Critical sexual comparison is a direct anaphrodisiac when applied to men; either we do not yet recognize that it has exactly the same effect on women, or we do not care, or we understand on some level that right now that effect is desirable and appropriate”.

Self-inflicted violence

If suffering is beauty and beauty is love, she cannot be sure she will be loved if she does not suffer” (N. Wolf).

The effects of this terrible process of self-inflicted dehumanization are multiple and heartbreaking: by becoming disconnected from their unsatisfactory bodies, young girls are separated from their physical perceptions. Feelings of bodily pleasure and pain fade, sexual satisfaction dwindles, and girls lose touch with the rich array of their physical sensations. Paralyzed by the idea that they will never look (and thus be) good enough, they are unable to build self confidence. Many young and old women hate their bodies; they are ashamed of it, they hide it, despise it, disallow it from feeling.

Worse even: many take a step beyond self-hating and fantasizing about perfect bodies and proceed to actually alter their appearance. Cue cosmetic surgery, the ultimate manifestation of the idea that the female body is a man-made creation, perfectible, to be handled by swarms of Pygmalions. “Cosmetic surgery processes the bodies of woman-made woman, who make up the vast majority of its patient pool, into man-made woman”, writes Naomi Wolf.

But you certainly don’t need to look as far as surgery to get the idea. Open any woman’s magazine and you will find skincare ads showcasing pore-less, inhuman Photoshopped images and using pseudo-scientific language to legitimize their offer. These ads play on women’s fear of aging and losing what they have been led to view as their only asset, but it also obviously plays on what the age symbol stands for: the perspective of death. These implicit promises (immortality and youth) are the main drivers of the skin care industry: hundreds of anti-aging products of all kinds are currently available for sale, and the sales are certainly not decreasing, while none of these products produce any kind of tangible result. How could they? They’re built on a lie, the claim that women’s lost youth can be restored, something which I think you’ll agree with me is simply not possible.

Pseudo-science at its finest

Pseudo-science at its finest

What would we not do to alter the way we look? Women have themselves cut open and stuffed with silicon, many dark-skinned women in emerging countries attempt to resemble the fair Iron Maiden by applying bleach to their faces (and vaginas!), Asian women have their eyes surgically altered to resemble the Western beauty standard, while droves of African-American women burn their scalps with chemicals in an effort to resemble the straight-haired Iron Maiden.

Women cut, burn and starve their bodies: if we did this to anyone else, it would be called torture, but self-inflicted violence wrongly labeled as “taking care of oneself” is perfectly legitimate. In fact, it is an expectation. Having your face injected with Botox to get rid of any sign of aging is a natural reaction in a world where women are criticized and ridiculed for exhibiting the same wrinkles that men are celebrated for (no one ever complained about Robert Redford’s wrinkles, as far as I know).

Down with the Iron Maiden: it’s our turn

We need to understand that women have no duty to be attractive, no obligation to be pretty. Women don’t owe beauty to anyone.

Men and women alike need to reconnect with the purpose of the human body: to function. There is no other purpose. Being pleasing to the eye is certainly not a purpose. That’s what art is for.

Young girls need to be taught how to locate their value in areas other than their physical appearance, to understand that self-confidence can be derived from other things than “good looks”.

We need to make violence against women as shocking as violence against people… not a source of entertainment or aesthetic pleasure. As Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch: The universal sway of the feminine stereotype is the single most important factor in male and female woman-hatred. Until woman as she is can drive the plastic specter out of her own and her man’s imagination she will continue to apologize and disguise herself”.

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[1] “Film as Religion: Myths, Morals and Rituals”, John Lyden, NYU Press, 2003.

[2] To dismember: to cut or tear (a body) into pieces / to separate (something) into smaller parts (Merriam Webster).


[4] “Killing us softly? Investigating Portrayals of men and women in contemporary magazine advertisements”, Terri D. Conley, Laura R. Ramsay, Psychology of Women Quarterly, 2011.



[7] Who could have ever foreseen the demand for the selfie stick?

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