Monday, May 14, 2007

The Female Body, Dissected.

Here are a couple of images of body parts: one with a certain context, one without:

The first is the cover of Feministing blogger Jessica Valenti's new book.

The second is a picture of Keira Knightley's collarbone.

Yes, these images are related, and not just because they're both cross-sections of slender female bodies.

I am more troubled by the first image because it is more than visual: it is expressive. It is an image in the service of textual speech, and it is a confusing message. But before I get into that, I'll offer you some other people's thoughts on this cover.

From Blackademic:

im sorry. this is wack. for a number of reasons. why not just call it a
young WHITE womans guide to WHITE feminism?

why the WHITE NAKED torso of a woman? of course, i wouldn’t have prefered a black body, or any other woman of color either. my question is though, why the naked body of a woman at all? is it to sell more books? there are a number of other ways to visually depict an image of “feminism”–i am not sure why a naked body, reminiscent of the glossy images of tabloid trash had to be the way to go.

why does feminism have to be so overtly sexualized? (even the title is called “Full Frontal”–wow) is it because THE PATRIARCHY, which weyou are all so trying to defeat, really, has a stake in what books are being published on feminism? you know it’s true.

as feminists, we you guys are always up in arms about how women’s bodies are portrayed, and to go and reproduce those same images is ridiculous. is this what feminism is these days? is that what white feminism is these days?

From the Feminist Review by Ama Lee:
If you’re truly looking to find out why feminism matters, you’d be better served to flip to the booklist in the back of Full Frontal Feminism and read some of the titles listed there – including Colonize This!, Listen Up: Voices from the Next Generation, To Be Real, and The Fire This Time – because cool packaging is really great, but if there’s nothing of substance inside then what you are selling is just the packagings.

And what does the floating collarbone have to do with this? Well, read this article by the NY Times:

As the rest of women’s bodies recede in spring fashions, the clavicles, or collarbones, and the upper chest between them, is rising to prominence. Toned shoppers who want to show off their self-discipline in the face of dessert are choosing dresses with a low, but not plunging neckline, a look that is transforming the area above the breasts into an unlikely new subject for women to obsess over.

Some people think of it as an erogenous zone; others think it is noteworthy only as a barometer of whether a woman is at a healthy weight or has become too skinny.

This region has been emphasized by the skinny celebrity acolytes of the stylist Rachel Zoe, including Nicole Richie and Keira Knightley. Their ubiquitous deep V-neck tops show off sometimes skeletal frames, and other actresses have taken their cue and sized down as well, to the point that the Internet teems with fashion and celebrity bloggers and message board posters carping about protruding A-list clavicles.

Why the new emphasis on a body part most women — and more men — have paid little attention to in the past? Credit a swing of the fashion pendulum, and a malaise over “Girls Gone Wild” style.

Showing off your clavicle is “the opposite of showing your thong,” said Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan.

Courtney E. Martin, the author of “Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body” (Free Press, 2007), said that many of the girls and women she interviewed for her book “talked about how far their collarbone stuck out” with pride, as an indicator of their skinniness.

Ms. Martin contends that a generation of young women raised after Title IX and the women’s movement pursue slender figures with the same rigor as they pursue admission to an Ivy League university.

No, these two images aren't linked by the game of Six Degrees of Ann Althouse, although Althouse did blog about the both the clavicle article and Jessica Valenti's breasts (starting a small blog war of sorts).

Rather, it's the not-so-novel idea that women's bodies will be continued to be divided and dissected into parcels for commodification and sexualization, and this is done by women themselves. And it is supposed to be feminist or a repudiation of the fetishization of the overtly sexual body parts! Oh wait, but dysmorphia is the replacement for feminism in the wake of Title IX! Now that we have rights, we can start dieting again!

This ridiculousness not at all a new idea to those familiar with feminist theory. But it's strange to admit that it continually surprises me year after no-more-eating-disorder-year, how many different parts of the body I am invited to self-fetishize, and who is doing the inviting. And I'm kind of sick of this.

I'm not a huge fan nor detractor of Jessica Valenti, but has this women's studies major ever read Judith Butler or Helene Cixous? Elizabeth Grosz? Body Matters: Feminism, Textualism, Corporeality by Horne and Keane? Did she at least read Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs for the modern day Cliffnotes version?

If the cover is supposed to be subversive, it fails miserably. If it's supposed to be "cheeky," then the joke falls flat. I am not saying that women's bodies must be de-sexualized in order to be taken seriously. But the image seriously detracts from the message (which apparently is sexualized, being "full frontal" feminism). Moreover, the image undercuts the text the same way it cuts up the woman's body--it's such a divisive image that I don't know what to focus on, the killer abs or the word "feminism."

I no longer obsessively read literary critical theory. I don't even read much of Critical Race Theory anymore. But I do remember thinking of Sandra Gilbert's and Helene Cixous' work as being transformative, and central to my feminist intellectual development. I still self-identify as a feminist. I still read feminist legal theory. The body as text and the body in text is something that I'm continually reminded of, even if I read fewer novels than in the past. The body is everywhere in text. Read this product review by Michael Froomkin: I had forgotten that the USB flash drive's was called "the male plug." Read any law review article and try to pay attention to the uses of "he" vs. "she," or if you read any casebooks written before the PC movement, how many refer to the "reasonable man." I could just be one of those crazy feminists who fuss over the little things. But Cixous taught me at an early age that discourse mattters: image, text, and speech. I'm a female blogger and aspiring academic: I don't do much but read and write, and I don't have much power beyond my words. Even my degree has declarative power, giving me more authority and voice than I would have had a few years ago. I pay attention to words, and the images that words provoke or the images that accompany text.

Everyone should read Helene Cixous' "The Laugh of the Medusa." Cixous contends that texts inscribe gender, and "there is such a thing as marked writing." Texts encode "a libidinal and cultural--hence political, typically masculine--economy." These predominately masculine codes of writing form"a locus where the repression of women has been perpetuated, ... often hidden or adorned with the mystifying charms of fiction" (249). A woman's body "has been more than confiscated from her, ... has been turned into the uncanny stranger on display" (250).

Text is important but images can be even more powerful. The images above are representations of real women's body parts: they are digestible images ready for consumption at your nearest Barnes and Noble and within the pages of the most recent tabloid. The fragmentation of the body is inextricably linked to its fetishization. For more on this, read Leslie Sharp's excellent medical anthropology article on "The Commodification of the Body and Its Parts":

More particularly, and especially within medical anthropology, a relatively recent
theoretical interest in embodiment regularly questions or problematizes Cartesian
mind-body dualism. Here the body, self, and personhood emerge as inextricably linked...

A focus on embodiment thus ultimately foregrounds the dualistic separation
of body and self. This dualism, so rampant in medical practice, facilitates the depersonalization—and, thus, dehumanization—of persons-as-bodies, a process
that ultimately allows for the commodification of the body and its parts. As a result, commodification exposes the limitations of embodiment theory because this process inevitably brings to the foreground the objectification of the body over subjective experience...

The study of the commodified body is hardly a new proposition, given that the body in its entirety or fragmented form has long been an object of economic, social, and symbolic use in a host of societies...First, historically, the body frequently emerges as a site of production, where living persons may be valued solely for their labor power...Domestic service and child labor, for example, are frequently described as legalized forms of enslavement. In these and other contexts, the labor process may, in turn, fragment the body.

Of final concern is the far more literal—that is, physical—fragmentation of the body. Body fragments can harbor the ability to harm or heal, charged with powers that exceed those of the bodies from whence they came. As the intertwined realms of magic, sorcery, and healing attest, bodies are frequently targets of aggression,
fragmentation, and subsequent commodification. Certain categories of persons—whether strangers, children, virginal or fertilewomen, laborers, or others considered hardy or otherwise accomplished—may be viewed within their respective
societies as possessing more power than others in particular contexts, and thus their body parts may be highly prized...

Finally, body fragments are not simply sites of dangerous longing; they may also be cherished and publicly valued goods. In both senses they are inevitably emotionally charged objects of intense desire. The blurred boundaries of sorcery and healing underscore the magical—that is, transformative—properties of fetishized body fragments, where hair, nails, sputum, blood (including menstrual), and organs can harm in some contexts and heal in others.

And that is what links these two images: one, a book jacket, invites us to buy an idea and consume a point of view. It is expressive speech at the same time it is commercial. It probably posits itself as subversive, although it does nothing but remind me of the abs-of-steel craze of the '80s. The second is not speech, and is in and of itself context-less. But it is a body part that "embodies" the dictates of fashion and female body part fetishization, and is new "bony clavicle of protrusion" ideal. In a sense, both images are commercial and expressive. Both images convey a certain idea. The first, the inane idea that feminism is cloying and cheeky and subversive when it plays up to expectations. The second, that there remains no part of a woman's body that may not be sexualized and marketed to--that each part of a woman's body can convey conflicting messages: post-feminism (thank you, Title IX!), extreme thinness, or anti-sexualization (because a food-starved bony collarbone is better than cleavage).

Both of these images and all of these conflicting messages irritate me to no end. People wonder why I obsess over text idea, and image--why does it all matter when there are "real" problems out there? What about pluralism and why am I so divisive? Why can't I be communtarian?

Because there is always so much out there that reminds me that I am many things: a woman, a woman of color, a feminist woman of color, and a feminist woman of color academic. And next year, when I'm parsing the text of the Family and Medical Leave act and stacks of HR literature and the text of interviews of management and employees, I will remember that words matter a great deal. I will obssess over the image I convey when I have to figure out what to wear or do with my hair in order to be taken seriously at conferences and during my interviews with management. I will remember how important performative working identity is when I interview employees about why they don't take their entitled leave for fear of appearing to be a "slacker" or "too female." The body will be in the text: pregnant bodies, disabled bodies, female bodies.

I will think back to these images, and remember that the same way women are divided into their functions of worker, caretaker, and reproductive child-bearer, women's bodies are divided into objects of consumption and sexualization. That there is, as Sharp argues, little difference in the body as form and the body as function. You may commodify and consume both, and both may operate as speech whether commercial or expressive--and here are two examples.

(I was tempted to name this post "The Well-Tempered Clavicle" but likely no one would get the joke or worse, think it not funny.)