Tag Archives: objectification

Her Body and Other Parties

Stories by Carmen Maria Machado
Reviewed by Anna Bottrell

Immersing myself in this book took a sharp adjustment of expectations, as at first I almost slipped into mistaking Carmen Maria Machado’s surreal style for a play on the absurd, a beautiful and precise craft where the meaning lies more in the sensation of the sentences than in their larger sum. However, almost violently, at the end of every story a clear vision sets itself into place. Additionally, the stories build throughout the book with their shared theme: women’s bodies. Who has them, who wants them, and what is it like to live in such prime real estate?

The stories cover topics such as dehumanization, objectification, sexual assault, queer and lesbian relationships, and body shame.

Instead of writing women’s experiences through dialogue, Machado paints a vivid portrait with her imaginative descriptions of a world that seems inside out. Its beating heart lies in scenery. Significance is revealed through physical manifestations, and so the body and mind express themselves as one — open to the senses for observation.

It struck me as interesting that few of these stories have an exact setting, in time or in space. They seem to emanate from an archive of common culture, rather than from the manifest world. The stories take familiar elements and setups, and they bind them into Machado’s psychologically thrilling surrealism. However, this borrowing does not make them predictable. When Machado manipulates a familiar scenario, she makes it her own. She does this with a folktale in her story “The Husband Stitch”, post-apocalyptic survival in “Inventory’, and even Law & Order: SVU in “Especially Heinous”. Machado’s voice feels like something that is filling gaps in perspective, something that was always necessary to add.

After reading Her Body and Other Parties , I can re-examine the bits and pieces of common culture that Maghado wove into her stories. As they were untouched, they seem off. Stale, surface level. When Machado writes, she sees her subject matter with a sense of refreshing clarity. A folktale I heard in my childhood may appear to me through her warped vision with a new grain of truth, and suddenly feel urgent and contemporary. It may suddenly feel important.

This book is important. Machado appears to agree. She writes as if to say, “This is the world underneath your world, the world you’ve been told to ignore; but, it exists”.

She drives this point home in the book’s first passage, with a wake-up slap of reverse psychology:

(If you read this story out loud, please use the following voices:
Me: as a child, high-pitched, forgettable; as a woman, the same.
The boy who will grow into a man, and be my spouse: robust with serendipity.

My father: kind, booming; like your father, or the man you wish was your father.
My son: as a small child, gentle, sounding with the faintest of lisps; as a man, like my husband. All other women: interchangeable with my own.)

She has my attention.

See this post in the Clarion magazine as well at bu.edu/clarion

Beauty in Vain

By Alice Elbakian

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The above painting by John William Waterhouse is titled Vanity (1910) and, I am sure, has been the subject of many angry feminist rants. Waterhouse must have thought her intriguing or beautiful or enchanting, at least enough to want to paint and capture her. He paints her with a mirror in hand, she is dressed in white, wearing makeup, and is fixing her hair with a flower (an obvious symbol of femininity). She’s near jewelry and more background flowers, femininity all around. He seems to laud her as she lauds her femininity. None of this is problematic. Until he titles it. Vanity. He doesn’t mean furniture. It’s not a compliment. It’s the perfect example of Marilyn Frye’s double bind, and it is the earlier, Victorian version of slut shaming or duck-face-selfie shaming (I can only assume).

The subject in the painting appears to do everything she is “supposed to do” in Victorian society. She walks the walk and silences her talk. She is shrouded in femininity. She is femininity. She occupies space in a man’s world, abiding, of course, by man’s rules. She wears a sign that says “I’m not a threat”. Waterhouse presumably saw a perfect woman and wanted to paint her. But he doesn’t reward her or her perfect womanity, the very things that drew him to her. Instead he immortalizes a shameful conception of this woman. He labels his subject ‘vain’ even though if she were not doing what she is doing in the painting, he would hardly have found her muse-worthy, in fact he likely would have looked down on her. Social standards tell the subject to do one thing. She’s rewarded for this in the only way she can be – she’s objectified but even this doesn’t happen positively.

She’s given a new name. Vain. Excessively proud. Or, worthless and futile. Depending on the definition. She does what she’s told. She’s good maybe too good. A woman getting too comfortable with

herself, growing too comfortably in the skin she’s been prescribed to wear. Maybe she’s beginning to see herself, as beautiful, in that little mirror? Like a Victorian selfie. She already seems to be celebrating herself, maybe she wants to document the moment on her own, form her own conception of self, with her own eyes. With eyes that might see her the way she wants to be seen. With eyes that might know her full story. Like a selfie.

No. The moment she does this is the moment that Waterhouse captures and criticizes. In the title he returns to his role of oppressor and “looker”. Decider. He reminds the subject and every viewer that it’s offensive and devaluing for women to love themselves, to see themselves, to honor the parts of themselves that are at once most natural and contrived. Because the point isn’t just following the rules. It’s occupying the space you’re allotted in the way you’re supposed to.

Click for more about the “revolutionary potential of your own face” in relation to the selfie.

Shocking Gender Inequality in Film

In light of the record-breaking opening of the female-led action film Hunger Games: Catching Fire this past weekend, the New York Film Academy decided to take a closer look at women in film and what, if any, advancements women are making. After reviewing the data, it is clear that Hollywood remains stuck in its gender bias.
Image

via the New York Film Academy

When I perform …

When I perform my poetry — and I purposely say perform instead of read -– I understand that I’m going to be measured against my looks no matter what, and I want that to be part of the critical discourse around my poetry. I know full well that my validity as an artist is undermined if I seem attractive, or worse, aware of my attractiveness, so I try to do my own beating to the punch by playing the target and the archer, thus hopefully making the audience aware of the patriarchy inside them.

The truth is, patriarchy is an insidious discourse, and both men and women tend not to expect much from a youthful, female body. I have to resist that kind of, um, resistance to a pretty genius all the time. It was so refreshing to read it confessed in Stephanie Young’s Ursula or University, which acknowledges the culpability of men and women in poetry “scenes” in reducing young women poets to bodies. I think my performances would like to dare the audience to do try.

The New York Daily News last month ran a piece profiling the careers of several young poems, female all, who “bring new energy to [the] world of words.” The article was accompanied by photos which provoked a strong response online. The response, no surprise, had to do with the appearance of the women pictured.

Lara Glenum of the multi-author Montevidayo blog reached out to the profile subjects, asking to interview them about the relative controversy. She asked each of the subjects the same five questions; the quote excerpted here comes from poet Monica McClure’s response to the question: “Do you consciously cultivate a public image that refracts, troubles, or adds to your poetry in some way?”

Click here to read McClure’s answers to all five of Glenum’s questions, or see the responses from the other poets profile in the article: Lisa Marie BasileAna Božičević, Camille Rankine, Trisha Low.

I’m Back with Some Breasts in a Box!

Hoochies, I’m back!

I’m working on a longer post, but I actually just wanted to share with you a wonderful performance art piece from 1968. Valie Export, a Viennese artist, created what she called “Tap and Touch Cinema,” where she wore a box “theater” around her middle and invited passersby to reach in and touch her naked breasts… as she forced them into direct eye contact. I thought I’d draw this to your attention because I really think it confronted the objectification of women and was extremely socially provocative.  In a way she was saying, “you can fantasize about an anonymous body as much as you want, but can you look into a real woman’s eyes while you do it?” Incredible…

Matchmaker, Matchmaker… DON’T make me a match!

Hoochies, I really don’t want to admit this, but I will. I watch The Millionaire Matchmaker.  Now, on many counts, this show is pretty despicable. The premise is addictive: Patti Stanger, a 3rd generation matchmaker in LA, sets up rich men through her Millionaire’s Club, the website of which looks like an advertisement for a brothel. These millionaires are allowed to handpick women who are usually a) way too nice or b) way too young.  Criticizing this show is like shooting fish in a barrel, but I’ll give you the highlights:

1)  If you want to marry a millionaire, and you’re above a size 6, good luck. Patti reserves “bigger” (i.e. a size 10) women for her “chubby chasing” clients. Now, I take offense at this on a couple of levels. First, the idea that a woman should be telling other women that they are fat and unworthy to compete for male attention is disgraceful. This kind of attitude teaches men that only the slimmest of women are worthy of love, and it teaches women that in the competition for rich men, their bodies are the greatest weapons.  Insidious female on female attack is destructive and demeaning.  If we tell men that they should only be attracted to certain body types and that the rest are undesirable, it feeds right back into a damaging sizist cycle that we need to end.

2) I guess money trumps idiot? These men are often rude, strange, misogynistic, witless and boring. And yes, many of them are pretty ugly. But millions of dollars seems to give them a free pass on many qualities one might look for in a mate. However, the few woman millionaires on the show have no such luck. They are still judged for their looks and admonished to let the man take control. It would appear that money only makes things harder for women because they have to prove that they are still “feminine.” Hoochies, I ask you: why does “feminine” have to mean docile and simpering? Unfortunately, in the Millionaire’s Club, women do not have power unless expressly allowed. In her 10 Dating Rules for Single Ladies, Stanger writes, “do not offer to outright pay for something: once a woman touches money/credit card in front of a male she becomes masculine energy, which is undesirable.” Basically, according to this line of thought, men are not attracted to women who are remotely self-sufficient – in Patti’s words, the penis will definitely not get off the couch.

3) Patti Stanger gives matchmaking a bad name. The whole point of matchmaking should be to make a match, but these women are never asked what they want in a man. Granted, it’s their choice to turn up for the vomit inducing “casting sessions” (really an appropriate name when you think about it, eh?), but the only criteria on their lists is “loaded.”  The Millionaire’s Club does not take into account what both sides are looking for, or even considers that a woman might want more than a rich husband. It is merely a vehicle for spoiled, rich and awkward men to sample the never-ending bounty of the LA babe buffet, and perpetuates the ever gaping gender divide.

“Boobquake” – Liberating or Limiting?

As most of you probably know by now, boobs can cause earthquakes. No, really. During Friday prayers in Tehran, Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, a senior cleric, stated that “many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes.”

Sedighi’s claim, naturally, has brought an outcry from the feminist community. In turn, yesterday “Boobquake,” created by Jen McCreight of BlagHag, took on Sedighi’s accusation full force. The concept was simple – by wearing cleavage baring shirts, women would be able to show that breasts don’t have a great cosmic power over the earth. At first glance, Boobquake seems liberating, and clearly a deep v-neck is not going cause a natural disaster. But I have to wonder: is baring cleavage a constructive way to combat Sedighi’s claim?

I’d have to agree with Beth Mann at Salon when she writes that she “appreciate[s] McCreight’s intentions behind this; she meant it as a feminist response to a ridiculous statement. Unfortunately, it seems to be turning into something else, with many men chiming in, with their “show us your tits” camera-ready attitude.” Society is constantly telling woman that we are only as good as our bodies, whether they are baby makers or eye candy. “Boobquake”, though well-meaning, feeds right into this limiting concept.

I think that whatever you choose to wear, you should be able to feel proud and happy. If baring cleavage accomplishes that for someone, then that is terrific. But by showing a lot of boob, you are inviting people to look. I’m not saying that’s necessarily negative, but I think it’s a fact. Dressing a little more modestly is not always a bad thing; in fact, I believe that it’s ultimately more productive than a low-cut shirt. Of course, showing a little less skin has nothing to do with earthquake prevention – only with changing the dialogues from women’s bodies to women themselves. A woman does not have to resort to using her body to get attention, even if it’s to take on sexism. By fighting a ridiculous and chauvinist statement by exposing our bodies I think we ultimately miss the point. Next time, let’s lead with our minds instead of our chests.

Oh it’s sooo serious.

When asked about his involvement with super-sexy-super-witty-super-model-super-singer Carla Bruni, President Sarkozy responded: “It’s serious”, according to a CNN sound byte during NH primary coverage.

However, a little YouTube digging revealed his ACTUAL answer: a five-minute response that ranged widely through the historical precedents for asking a president such a question, the difficulties of human relationships in general, and the ludicrousness of the media caring so much about the personal life of a man who is fundamentally like any other… which goes hand-in-hand with the contemporary media misconception that being covert about one’s private life somehow corresponds to corrupt and nontransparent leadership (COUGH Bill Clinton).

I wish the current U.S. Presidential candidates could give this kind of response to media badgering. It was bitingly sarcastic, well-informed, and evinced a level of sophisticated contemplation beyond mere pre-press-conference maneuvering (“Being the President of the Republic doesn’t guarantee one the right to happiness–no more happiness than anyone else has. But no less, either”), and it certainly wasn’t cut into slogans meant for endless replay in news commercials. He reminisced about the days when “A chacun sa vie” (“to each his own”) was the reigning philosophy when it came to personal presidential matters, and it made me miss those days, too.

Ironically, carrying on about this for so long–even though he was criticizing the nature of the question–actually lowered his approval ratings, since citizens complained he was spending too much time talking about his relationship and not about real politics… imagine THAT public response in OUR country…

Sarkozy’s tone and perspective remind me of Hillary’s sarcastic response to the fact that people don’t find her “likable”: “That hurts my feelings! …but… I guess I’ll just have to carry on, somehow…” And, to reference the over-played Hillary-tears-up tape, her message that behind the rehearsed responses to debate questions, beyond the stark polling numbers, she is deeply and personally invested in making our country a better place and in pointing it away from what she sees as a darkening future is… refreshing (and sounds a little like that guy who just won the peace prize). As much as I don’t like Sarkozy, and though I am reluctant to vote for Hilary, that kind of meta-level perspective is what we’ve been sorely missing in the presidency lately; without it America has gotten into serious trouble.

These little glimpses of politicos’ evolution States-side and abroad give me at least a little hope. But if I have to go through a whole election year watching CNN cut rich, challenging rhetoric down to “It’s serious,” and furthermore have to watch candidates cater to that simple-minded standard, I’ll have trouble believing my vote is in any way ‘informed,’ or that our election process is anything more than a tabloid-triggered shot in the dark.


[This cutting diagnosis of media’s preference for sound bites over reasoned responses — and for sexual gossip rather than political intelligence — comes from Julie Johnson, editor of Clarion at Boston University. When she told me how CNN had chopped President Sarkozy’s responses, I shook my head first not at the infantilitzation of our public discourse, but rather at the sad fact that media outlets find it profitable to fix their cameras on the face and body of politicians’ partners like Carla Bruni or Camilla Parker Bowles. How offensive that mascara should play any role in a campaign plan; that it can and does speaks to the pervasive view of female companions as possessions owned by men in power. Are the male companions of female candidates subjected to this scrutiny? I don’t believe they are, since that deep-rooted tradition of political dimorphism lodged in our media psyche favors men, demeans women, and altogether ignores those outside the heteronormative groove. –CivilizeMe ]