Book Review:

Subversive Spirits: The Female Ghost in British and American Popular Culture, by Robin Roberts

Reviewed by Natalie Grove

Review of Robin Roberts's Subversive Spirits: The Female Ghost in British and American Popular Culture, The UP of Mississippi, 2018. 186 pp. Hardcover (ISBN: 978-1496815569).

In Subversive Spirits: The Female Ghost in British and American Popular Culture, Robin Roberts argues that literary, dramatic, and filmic female ghosts are given special powers and mobility because they have, through death, separated from the shackles of patriarchy. They do not immediately come into these powers but have to believe that they deserve them and claim them, which is often not intuitive for a woman who has been sidelined and spoken for by men most of her life. However, once this transformation is accomplished, the specters are disruptive to the living world. Often, they choose to use violence against those who have silenced or abused them, thereby enacting a feminine justice that insists on an interconnectedness between people and between people and the natural world. 

In chapter one, Roberts outlines the role of the comedic female ghost as she appears in the Topper novels and subsequent films, as well as the play and then film adaption of Blithe Spirit. Roberts shows how this version of the female character, operating in the realm of the supernatural, is able to subvert the strict gender molds of the time. Because the female ghost is disembodied in the afterlife, and the possibility for sexual union with the male character is out of the question, she now can affect the lives of the living positively through re-education of a gender dynamic and therefore liberation. 

Men, too, once they have died, can access the catharsis that comes with traversing the strict gender divides of the living world. For example, in the film Topper, only through death can the main male character experience, with the help of his two former lovers who are also ghosts, a loosening and shedding of some masculinity. The ghosts of chapter one are unique in that they use their unique abilities as spirits to engage in physical comedy to critique the gender restrictions that entangle the living. 

Chapter two focuses on the female ghost in The Woman in Black, an English novella turned play, who is a wholly different breed. This ghost enacts violence in her quest to retaliate for the abuse that she and her children suffered in the living world. Roberts claims that motherhood defines a woman’s life; either the presence or absence of children determines her actions and orientations. In the case of the women who were mothers, their maternal instincts follow them into the afterlife: “The maternal female ghost is engaged in a deadly struggle for the control of children. She wants to save them from patriarchal society, but in doing so, the children die” (41). 

Roberts moves focus to La Llorona, the female ghost from Hispanic folklore, in chapter three. While Roberts stresses La Llorona’s presence in stories over many decades and regions, this chapter examines most closely the recent iterations of her story in the novel Bless me, Ultima and the TV shows Grimm and Supernatural. Even though La Llorona shares qualities with the ghosts of both chapters one and two, her depiction is often given moments of levity, and she appears much more sympathetic than the Woman in Black. This chapter explores La Llorona’s kinship with the natural world and her tendency to exist in water, emphasizing water’s connection to the female spirit. Resisting a narrow role for women, “La Llorona and her natural haunting space, a creek or river, by their very nature are mobile and changing, even powerful and dangerous at times” (70). 

Chapter four offers analyses of female ghosts from history in the novels-turned-films Beloved, by Toni Morrison, and The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, by Maxine Hong Kingston. These novels both deal with mothers who commit infanticide to save their children from what they believe to be greater evils of the living world. Both authors are, like their protagonists, women of color, and, also like their protagonists, act as feminine disruptors to a white male society, using their books to rewrite and give new understanding to the specific histories that they unbury. 

In chapter five, Roberts discusses the “ghosts” or holographic renderings of them in heritage sites populated with tourists, such as old castles in both England and New Orleans. It is through these ghosts, old inhabitants of the castles who now serve as the tour guides, that we see how sidelined the stories of these women were at the time of their lives and still are today. The ghosts are situated in a liminal position, one accessible to the tourists who come to listen to them, and also as “insiders” to the historical happenings of their respective castles. But the main content of their reporting, which takes the tone of enthusiastic gossip, is about those in power who lived in these castles, insinuating that these are the people worth talking and learning about and that the women themselves are not. 

Roberts examines both the UK and American versions of the TV series Being Human in her final chapter. As the main character in both, a female ghost undergoes a transformation from timid and insecure to all-powerful. While the main character is female, the other leads are men, and they too, along with the wider world of the show, are affected by her personal journey and what it shows about “being human.” Roberts argues, “The show reveals the importance of expressing and understanding emotion. The female ghosts’ deaths serve as a warning about violence against women, but their ghostly lives present a path to justice and knowledge” (133). 

Subversive Spirits shows women still colored by their gender after they die, an indication of the inescapability of this identity category. At first, the ghosts struggle to find a voice and an authority, but once they do, they help living women and even some men to see a different, female-centric route to knowledge. Roberts repeatedly emphasizes that the realm of the dead is a new arena where masculine rules, tools, and knowledge do not advance their user but render them handicapped. Tracing the female ghost across British and American media over decades, Subversive Spirits convincingly makes the case that she deserves the thorough examinations that the werewolf or male ghost have received. The female ghost’s lingering presence reveals a cultural fascination and anxiety over this figure's significance. It serves to make manifest, Roberts painstakingly shows, the sometimes-invisible and ever-lurking gender disparity that haunts us. 

-1 May 2020