Some Points On Prostitution

While there are many radical feminists whose lives and work I deeply admire, Ti-Grace Atkinson is near the top of the list. I respect her ideology and praxis for numerous reasons, including the fact that she shares the anti-power outlook that I personally advocate and advance through my own writings. Reading her words has really helped me understand that there is no “right” way to “rule,” and recognizing this reality functions as the rationale for abolishing the patriarchal power over model that legitimates (and in some cases legislates) the system of male/domination, female/submission which currently abrades female agency and identity. As of late, my personal consciousness-raising habit has involved learning more about the horrors of prostitution and the integral role that men all over the world play in ruining the lives of women by normalizing this imperial institution and the “power over” modality that metabolizes it. While researching yesterday, I stumbled across a quote from Ti-Grace Atkinson which, at first glance, might appear unrelated to the issue of prostitution. Yet when one considers the philosophical underpinnings of the institution, the assessments made by Atkinson are indeed relevant. The quote, which I found in “An ‘Oppressed’ Minority Demands Its Rights,” reads thus:

“The more I understand what’s going on with men,” Ti-Grace said, “the less I miss male companionship and sex. Men brag about domination, conquest, trickery, exploitation. It gets so I can’t even respond. Male chauvinism comes out in waves–every gesture, every word.”

I agree with the assertion that male chauvinism is an ongoing reality which works its way through speech acts and bodily movements, and I would go on to point out that this recognition of the male/dominant, female/subordinate pattern that becomes prevalent within the imperial project of heterosexuality is replicated within the sphere of prostitution. Thus while the realms of “marriage” and “prostitution” are deemed two social practices which reflect the operation of antithetical ideologies regarding women, this is not the case. The ongoing sexualized objectification which transpires in prostitution is replicated within the heterosexual spheres of marriage. Spousal rape, for example, is still permitted in some countries. And as noted by Hayley Fox, the practice wasn’t challenged in America until the 1970s. In commenting on this reality, Fox notes that “Prior to that, criminal codes contained an exemption for the prosecution of spousal rape. This legal protection was furthered by a widely held notion that forced sex between a married couple was just the woman doing her “wifely duty,” and the only legitimate type of rape was that committed by a stranger.” Thus as in prostitution, the realm where money is the force which is used to coerce women into having unwanted sex, women operating within the marital sphere are frequently subjected to forced intercourse. The similarity is that the “sex” is unwanted, with the ostensible difference being that prostitutes “work” for money whereas wives are present within marriage willingly rather than for financial gain. Yet the frequently fictive nature of this latter explanation has been obvious to many for, in a society which ensures that men have greater access to capital, women are often forced to marry for the purpose of ensuring economic stability. Moreover, the reality of “sex” within marriage being frequently referred to as a “wifely duty” reorients intercourse as a site of grudging work rather than sought-out pleasure, thereby making the presence of a sex-for-money paradigm and praxis prevalent in the lives of both prostitutes and wives. While the two patriarchal regimes have different underpinnings and outcomes, the principles of domination and exploitation that Atkinson references when discussing male modes of interacting with women are prevalent within each imperial project.

As one might have gathered from the previous paragraph, I think that enumerating ideological and experiential similarities of women who occupy disparate identity positions within patriarchy should not work to elide the real differences that materialize when androcentric authorities enact caste systems in which one’s official, operative title is “wife” or “prostitute.” Thus it need be stated that there are substantive differences between being a wife and being a prostitute. I looked the word “prostitute” up yesterday and discovered that one of its meanings is “to expose publicly.” This distinguishes prostitutes from women who, in enduring patriarchy, experience its ugliness behind closed doors as the property of one man. While wives are privately appropriated within the imperial sphere of marriage, prostitutes are displayed publicly and deemed the potential property of any man rather than a specific male. This unique form of subordination (collective ownership) creates a sphere of difference between wives and prostitutes while simultaneously conveying a point of convergence or similitude between prostitutes and lesbians for, as Monique Wittig noted in discussing Tabet’s summations, “…there is a continuum between so-called prostitutes and lesbians as a class of women who are not privately appropriated but are still collectively the object of heterosexual oppression” (xv). I appreciate the use of the indicting adjective “so-called” here, because it demonstrates that the signifier “prostitute” is a word used by patriarchal powers to give specific identity to a woman who can exist beyond the limiting sphere of sexualized object created by the androcentric authorities. Indeed, the women trapped in the imperial web of prostitution are called prostitutes, but the name should be viewed with substantive skepticism and suspicion. As should the system of domination and conquest which makes prostitution a prevalent, permissible institution in the world.

Some Points On Prostitution

Naming The Problem: Prostitution, Not Prostitutes.

One aspect of the feminist consciousness-raising process that I find particularly important is recognizing the power of naming. Many astute feminists have contributed to existing commentary and criticism regarding what the names women are given says about the role that patriarchal societies play in distorting and displacing female identity. For example, Joyce Trebilcot notes that men use multiple mechanisms to control women/wimmin and then explains that “two of the most effective are erasure and false naming. In erasure, men make us invisible either by claiming that we are included when we are not (as in terms such as “mankind” or by simply ignoring us, in false naming, they define us and then enforce their definitions upon us (as in their concept of woman)” (2). Here, we can see how the patriarchal appropriation of language as a medium through which to construct and contort personhood works to define women in a relational schema such that they only exist in context of, and subordinate to, men.

Once I became conscious of the patriarchal phenomenon of linguistically erasing women through false naming, I began paying more attention to how women identify themselves in terms of names. Thus when I started reading Rachel Moran’s brilliant book Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution, I was compelled to note that she chose to use her real name upon documenting the perverse particularities she experienced within the patriarchal regime of prostitution. In discussing this issue, Moran stated that she had originally planned to use a surname but could never get comfortable with the idea of sharing information anonymously (9). In elaborating on this concept, Moran noted that while she wanted to share the truth about her experience, she felt that using a name that was not her own would be less than honest (9). Eventually, she abandoned the project of coming up with a pseudonym and chose to use her own name. In explaining why, Moran stated that she envisions shame as wearing a mask and also understands that using her own name is a way that she can confront it.

I agree with Moran, and I would go on to argue that the use of one’s real name might annihilate shame by functioning as a means through which one linguistically affirms an identity that is distinct from the subject position (prostitute) that other individuals (Johns) or oppressive institutions (patriarchy) have imposed on one. In this case, prostitution is the institution through which both the patriarchal structure and the individual men who purport it as “Johns” work to reduce female identity to that of shamed, nonthinking sex object. Yet Moran’s use of her real name in writing the book situates her personhood outside the realm of nonthinking sex object by establishing her identity in the sphere of thinking subject. In writing, one asserts her ability to conceptualize and articulate reality independently as opposed to being subjected to external forces (in this case, the patriarchal regime which reduces women to nonthinking sexualized objects in prostitution) which define and dictate the lens through which one experiences and interprets the world. Maybe the ability to operate as a cognitive subject rather than corporeal object doesn’t mediate shame. I’m not sure. If the shame of prostitution is rooted in the role the institution plays in reducing a person to a thing, it seems that the reclamation of subjectivity through writing might mute its ugly power.

With all this being said, I think it’s important that discourse regarding prostitution involve naming the real problem. The real problem is the individuals who metabolize the institution with their money: men. When this idea becomes an integral component of discourse about prostitution, I think the prostitute’s shame might undergo a spatial metamorphosis in which it is (rightfully) transported from the victim to the perpetrator of the crime.

Naming The Problem: Prostitution, Not Prostitutes.

Quick Note On Monique Wittig And The Prostitute/Lesbian Continuum

Although Monique Wittig discusses numerous important feminist issues in her important book The Straight Mind and Other Essays, one topic that she briefly mentioned has captured my attention: prostitution. In one stunning sentence which demonstrates the role that patriarchal societies play in reducing women from multiple, disparate identity positions to figures of appropriation for male abuse, Wittig references another writer’s (Tabet) assertion that “there is a continuum between so-called prostitutes and lesbians as a class of women who are not privately appropriated but are still collectively the object of heterosexual oppression” (xv). I find this quote important because it addresses how patriarchal societies construct reality such that women exist on a continuum in which they are subject to male abuse in some way.

One idea I find important regarding Wittig’s recitation of Tabet’s point is the role that the heterosexual regime plays in constructing reality such that women exist as objects. Having just begun reading Rachel Moran’s important book Paid For: My Journey Through ProstitutionI am finally at the point in my own feminist consciousness-raising experience where I realize how horrific and degrading prostitution really is. Perhaps because we live in a profoundly patriarchal world, prostitution is (for the most part) an under-rug-swept reality which innumerable men can attain perverse profit from while simultaneously ensuring that their engagement in depravity is anonymous and unmonitored. Because I do not live in an environment where prostitution is discussed openly and continually, it was not until I chose to begin studying this androcentric institution on my own that I became aware of Moran’s accuracy in noting that it presents the viewer with “a horribly ugly image.” The ugliness of prostitution is multi-faceted and, as Wittig accurately notes in quoting Tabet, the institution has its roots in heterosexual oppression. Specifically, the male desire to reduce women to objects whom they can commodify and consume sexually is an integral, acceptable aspect of the heterosexual regime. The presence and power of the heterosexual regime becomes plain when the reader considers social realities such as the clothes that heterosexual women are subtly and overtly encouraged to adorn themselves with when outside. In discussing this reality, Monique Wittig notes that “Wherever they are, whatever they do (including working in the public sector), they are seen (and made) sexually available to men, and they, breasts, buttocks, costume, must be visible” (7). Here, the feminist reader can see how the heterosexual regime continually creates a reality in which women exist as primarily corporeal, not cognitive, beings. In this schema, the feminist observer can note the heterosexual regime’s ongoing attempt to appropriate the female corporeal form for the purpose of male titillation.

Prostitution is another, and more ugly, aspect of the heterosexual regime and its ongoing attempt to objectify women in a sexual manner. In this domain, women become objects whom men can purchase for their sexual consumption. While Wittig is right in drawing attention to the contiguities that exist between the subject positions “prostitute” and “lesbian,” it is important to note that numerous divergences exist. Perhaps the most salient and unfortunate difference is that prostitutes, unlike lesbians, can be purchased for heterosexual “sex.” (I put sex in quotes because I think what passes for sex in prostitution is actually rape, and I would cite arguments such as the ones presented in “Why Consent Is Not Enough” to legitimate this claim.) This differentiates them from lesbians who can escape the heterosexual regime by consciously choosing not to have sex with men, whether the rationale for avoiding this mode of sexuality is political or personal. The prostitute differs from the lesbian in that her social ostracization is rooted in the fact that she participates in the heterosexual regime rather than avoiding it, with her mode of participation constituting an aberration from cultural norms regarding how women are to operate as sexual beings. The absence of choice is also a factor which demonstrates the divergences that exist between prostitutes and lesbians given that many if not most members of the former group are coerced into the patriarchal regime due to the ugly, interlocking systems of patriarchy and capitalism. These political regimes work together to produce ideological systems that legitimate the objectification of women as well as the idea that people can be purchased.

I am looking forward to learning more about both lesbianism and prostitution as I continue my studies in feminism. While reading today, I came across a particularly powerful quote regarding lesbianism from Janice G. Raymond. It reads:

“Lesbianism, informed by feminism, is much more than just a sexual choice. It is a total perspective on life in a patriarchal society representing a primal commitment to women on all levels of existence and challenging the bulwark of a sexist society-that is, heterosexism. Thus it is not a mere sexual alternative to men, which is characterized simply by sexually relating to women instead of men, but a way of being in the world that challenges the male possession of women at perhaps its most intimate and sensitive level.”

One of the many things I find empowering and desirable about lesbianism is its presenting the possibility of operating within the world in a manner that consciously and continually snubs the patriarchy by avoiding what Marilyn Frye has referred to as the Patriarchal Imperative. This Imperative insists that men always have access to women’s bodies, and lesbians refuse to acquiesce the demand. Yet prostitutes cannot. This is a problem that feminists need to keep discussing until it is no longer a problem. As noted by Ti-Grace Atkinson, prostitution is an institution that stabilizes the class system in which categories of Oppressor/Oppressed are artificially created for the purpose of dichotimiznig the human race on various pretexts. In this case, sex (male/female) is the pretext which is used to legitimate and perpetuate an unequal, binaried system in which women can be bought and sold by men. Let’s keep talking about why this is all very wrong and what can be done to bring the ugly system to its rightful end.

 

 

Quick Note On Monique Wittig And The Prostitute/Lesbian Continuum

Synthesizing Gender Ideas: Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” and Kahlo’s The Broken Column

Although there are numerous ways readers can view Angela Carter’s important short story “The Bloody Chamber,” analyzing the work through an artistic lens can be uniquely insightful. Specifically, juxtaposing the narrative to feminist works of art can provide key insights into the scope and signification of the story. While there are several artistic pieces which illustrate major themes found in Carter’s narrative, Kahlo’s The Broken Column shares a distinct affinity to the text. In juxtaposing the two works of art, the similarities become plain. Each piece centralizes the themes of contradictory sexuality and the perpetuity of pain as realities that are intrinsically connected to the gender-based sociocultural and political status of “woman.” In so doing, the works demonstrate how convoluted and complex womanhood can be.

One of the primary similarities between Kahlo’s The Broken Column and Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” is the reference to contradictory modes of sexuality. Specifically, each artistic work incorporates representations of sexuality that reflect the presence of both sexual purity and perversion. In Carter’s narrative, the protagonist spends much time analyzing the onset of her sexual relationship with her husband. This analysis functions as a means through which her sexual purity becomes plain to the reader. For example, the protagonist references her former life as “sheltered” (11). She also notes that her mother had told her “what it was that lovers did. I was innocent but not naïve” (14). The protagonist’s sense of sexual purity begins to disintegrate during preparation for her first conjugal act with her husband. This loss of purity is continually represented as entry into a world of perversion. For example, the protagonist notes that he has filled the room of their matrimonial bed with mirrors. In commenting on the fact that the mirrors produce multiple images of her, the young woman’s husband says “See…I have acquired a whole harem for myself” (11). The term “harem” carries with it the allusion to perversion insomuch as it can reference multiple women operating in a position of sexual servitude to one man. The protagonist’s representation of her forthcoming sex life in terms of perversion is reemphasized when she describes her feelings as he undresses her. In addition to noting that his movements seemed “deliberately coarse” and “vulgar,” she goes on to note that the disrobing paralleled “a ritual from the brothel” (11). In juxtaposing her virginity to entry into the world of sexuality parallel to prostitution, the protagonist demonstrates an interplay of sexual purity and perversion which makes intercourse a complex and contradictory sphere for the woman to engage.

Just as “The Bloody Chamber” contains representations of female sexuality containing both pure and perverse elements, Kahlo’s “The Broken Column” includes images which illustrate the same theme. Specifically, the painting depicts Kahlo in a white dress with breasts bared for the observer. In terms of color symbolism, the white dress emphasizes the idea of purity. Yet this allusion to purity is contradicted by the fact that her breasts (and much of her torso) are visible to the viewer. This representation complicates hypersimplistic ideas about female sexuality which would confine a woman to the sphere of either Madonna or whore. In this case, the both/and paradigm is apparently in play as the subject’s garments symbolize her purity even as her half nude form indicates that she somehow exists as an object of titillation or a subject willing to display her sexuality. Moreover, the nails that are thrust through Kahlo’s body complicate the representation of sexuality by indicating that her subjective sexuality and/or objectification exists in context of pain, thereby constituting a form of perversion. This artistic representation of female sexuality as a site for both purity and perversion parallels the depictions of sexual womanhood delineated in Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber.”

Another sphere of similarity that can be noted upon juxtaposing “The Bloody Chamber” and The Broken Column is the perpetuity of pain experienced by the two female subjects. As made plain by the nails that pierce Kahlo’s flesh in the painting, the subject is in a state of profound pain. This pain is exacerbated by the broken column that runs from her torso to her chin. As noted by Conaty, “Her self-portrait, Broken Column, demonstrates both the physical and psychological pain she endured. Her spinal column was replaced with a cracked and damaged Ionic column, the most slender and delicate of the Greek order of columns” (2). The spinal complications and health issues that generated Kahlo’s mental and physical pain followed her throughout the course of her life. Just as the iconography of The Broken Column underscores Kahlo’s ongoing afflictions, the narrative that unfolds in Carter’s short story depicts a protagonist whose pain is perpetual. This idea becomes clear at the story’s onset. In describing her transition from a daughter to adult, the protagonist notes that she feels “a pang of loss as if, when he put the gold band on my finger, I had, in some way, ceased to be her child in becoming his wife” (1). This sense of pain is replicated when the protagonist references the fact that the death of her father left her “a legacy of tears that never quite dried” (2). Additionally, the protagonist’s loss of virginity is described as producing pain (15). The theme of ongoing pain continues as the protagonist learns that her husband plans to decapitate her (39). Thus like The Broken Column, “The Bloody Chamber” is an artistic narrative depicting a female figure immersed in psychosomatic affliction.

In comparing and contrasting Frida Kahlo’s The Broken Column and Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” the similarities become evident. Each work depicts a woman whose complex, contradictory mode of sexual existence and agency contains elements of purity and perversion. Additionally, both works represent women who must exist within a world where pain is primary and ongoing in their lives. The artful depiction of these important themes proves effective in demonstrating how complex and convoluted female existence and identity can be.

Works Cited

Carter, Angela. “The Bloody Chamber.” New York: Penguin Group, 2011.

Conaty, Siobhan. “Frida Kahlo’s Body: Confronting Trauma in Art.” The Journal of    Humanities in Rehabiliation. 1-5. Web. 8 July 2015.

Kahlo, Frida. The Broken Column. 1943. Oil on Canvas. Collection of Jacques and Natasha  Gelman. Mexico City, Mexico. WikiArt Visual Art Encyclopedia. Web Accessed 28 Jan 2016.

Synthesizing Gender Ideas: Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” and Kahlo’s The Broken Column

Undermining Subjectivity and Emphasizing the Somatic Self: Representations of Female Bodies in Bride Wars

 

While there are many subjects that have gained primacy within the world of contemporary feminist discourse, the representation of female bodies in film has become a particularly primary topic. Feminist critics have explored the depiction of women’s somatic form in movies ranging from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet to Otto Preminger’s The River of No Return, and each analysis provides viewers/readers with new insights regarding the way these representations affirm or challenge conventional gender ideologies and praxis. In considering which films affirm gender norms, one could easily argue that Bride Wars does so. By representing central character Liv Lerner’s (Kate Hudson) body as a site of shame and imperfection that she is perpetually preoccupied with, the film may affirm the idea that women tend to define themselves in context of their figures and view their physical form as a problematic sphere capable of limiting their value.

In considering how Bride Wars represents gender norms such as the female tendency to define self in terms of the body, it is important to understand which sociocultural and political factors give rise to this modality. As noted by many theorists, the female construction/deconstruction of self in terms of the body is largely rooted in the prevalence of patriarchal paradigms which reduce women to somatic entities designed to exist as aesthetically appealing and/or erotic objects. For example, Conaty notes that “the standard pose for women in the history of art” is that of “a passive object to be “looked at”” (2). Feminist theorist Laura Mulvey sheds further light on this sociocultural reality upon noting that “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly” (346). Mulvey goes on to point out that “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-atness” (346). This patriarchal construction of the universe within the arts and other sectors of society results in a form of female consciousness in which excessive primacy is placed upon critiquing and perfecting one’s body. This paradigm is prevalent in Bride Wars and becomes uniquely salient through central character Liv Lerner. Throughout the film, Lerner’s body is represented as a problem she must solve in an effort to maintain self-esteem and appear “attractive” for her wedding. That Lerner’s somatic form constitutes a problematic site becomes plain during the scene in which she and former best friend Emma Allan (Anne Hathaway) get in an argument over the fact that their weddings are being held on the same day. To insult Lerner, Allan says “Your wedding will be huge. Just like your ass at prom” (“Bride Wars”). While the two have exchanged several verbal blows up until this point, it is this elocution that most deeply insults Lerner, evidenced by the fact that she ends the friendship at this point. Through this scene, the viewer/reader learns that insults rooted in bodily criticism have the power to upset Lerner. Moreover, the fact that the insult places primacy on how Lerner will look at her wedding demonstrates the central role that bodily representation has in the psyche of both women.

While the aforementioned scene demonstrates how Lerner’s body exists as a problematic sphere that complicates her sense of self and value, it is not the only textual representation of this central theme. The theme resurfaces as Emma Allan attempts to mar Lerner’s appearance so she will not look ideal on her wedding day. To accomplish this objective, Allan changes the chemicals used on Lerner’s hair when she goes into a salon for blonde highlights. As a result, Lerner’s hair is dyed blue. Upon seeing herself with blue hair, Lerner screams: “My hair’s blue! It’s blue! I have blue hair! I’m getting married in a week!” (“Bride Wars (3/5) Movie CLIP – Bridal Sabotage (2009) HD”). In yelling these statements, Lerner demonstrates her anxiety about her appearance and how she will look during her wedding ceremony. The scene reinforces the viewer/reader’s awareness that the ability to represent the self as an aesthetically appealing body retains substantive primacy in Lerner’s mind.

It is important to note that Liv Lerner is not the only woman in the film whose somatic form exists as a perpetuation of prototypical patriarchal paradigms about the female body. Like Lerner, central character Emma Allan locates her body as a realm through which her identity and value can be defined and compromised. This idea becomes plain when, in an attempt to sabotage Allan’s appearance at her wedding, Lerner alters the chemicals used in the former woman’s tanning session so that her skin turns a conspicuous shade of orange which constitutes a deviation from the subtle glow she requested. Allan becomes anxious about her appearance following this event, and she seeks feedback and support from her maid of honor by stating/asking: “Is it that bad? Fletch…said he didn’t think it was that bad” (“Bride Wars (3/5) Movie CLIP – Bridal Sabotage (2009) HD”). Marion St. Claire (Candice Bergen) responds: “Oh, honey, Fletch is your fiancé. He probably told you you had nice hair, too” (“Bride Wars (3/5) Movie CLIP – Bridal Sabotage (2009) HD.”). In making this statement, Marion St. Claire informs Allan that both her skin and her hair look lackluster. That this statement induces substantive anxiety on Allan’s part becomes plain when she responds to the elocution with a quizzical, angry facial expression. This scene reinforces the reader’s understanding of the primary role that bodily features such as skin and hair play in negatively impacting Allan’s self-esteem and self-certitude.

As made plain by the representations of the female body in Bride Wars, the film world exists as a sphere through which gender norms are represented. Specifically, the film represents women as individuals whose sense of self and value is deeply connected to their bodies. While the viewer/reader can only speculate about filmmaker Gary Scott Winick’s purpose in depicting women this way, it could be argued that he sought to present the public with a conventional representation of female bodies for the purpose of generating critical discourse rather than merely reinforcing gender norms created by the patriarchal powers. Irrespective of Winick’s intent, the film exists as one of numerous cultural artifacts which demonstrate how sexist systems of thought and praxis reduce women to bodies and thereby precipitate a female consciousness marked by ongoing preoccupation with and criticism of the somatic form. Ultimately then, the film’s representation of female bodies demonstrates the patriarchy’s power in rendering the female body a problematic realm through which her value is derived and/or diminished.

Works Cited

Conaty, Siobhan. “Frida Kahlo’s Body: Confronting Trauma in Art.” The Journal of       Humanities in Rehabilitation. 1-5. Web. 8 July 2015.

FHEfoxconnect. “Bride Wars.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 14 June 2012. Web.  4     February 2016.

Movieclips. “Bride Wars (3/5) Movie CLIP – Bridal Sabotage (2009) HD.” Online video    clip.  YouTube. YouTube, 25 September 2015. Web. 4 February 2016.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Media and Cultural Studies.        Durham, Meenakshi Gigi and Douglas M. Kellner. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.  342-352. PDF file. 4 Feburary 2016.

Undermining Subjectivity and Emphasizing the Somatic Self: Representations of Female Bodies in Bride Wars

Postmodern Gender Ideas in Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black

 

While Susan Hill’s novel The Woman in Black is replete with postmodern themes, gender motifs are particularly salient within the text. This idea becomes plain when the reader considers the woman in black, Jennet Humfrye. In analyzing the actions and attitudes of this female ghost, it becomes plain that her character exists as a manifestation of postmodern gender ideas. Although defined broadly, the postmodern concept of gender incorporates the idea that women can embody and utilize attributes associated with men. These realities unfold in Hill’s text as the woman in black embodies and demonstrates characteristics that are oftentimes perceived as representative of maleness. By maintaining a position of power and authority through her ongoing activity and violence, the woman in black emerges as a female figure who, in transcending normative behavioral patterns prescribed for women, comes to represent postmodern ideas of gender.

As numerous feminist scholars have pointed out, the sexist processes of socialization have resulted in a gender schema which advocates and enforces female passivity in conjunction with male activity. Toril Moi draws attention to this sociocultural reality upon noting Ellmann’s list of major stereotypes of femininity presented by male writers, three of which include formlessness, passivity, and confinement (33). Feminist theorists Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar also draw attention to the role socialization processes play in producing female beings who operate in a passive rather than active way when they note that “from the eighteenth century on, conduct books for ladies had proliferated, enjoining young girls to submissiveness” (816). The theorists go on to point out that the creation of “eternal feminine” virtues includes characteristics such as compliancy and reticence (816). While these paradigms of womanhood remain prevalent, it is important to note that the principle of female passivity is frequently undermined and inverted in the postmodern world. This idea becomes plain upon consideration of Hill’s central female figure, the woman in black. Throughout the text, it becomes plain that she disrupts gender norms by adopting an active modality that involves haunting the story’s narrator. This haunting involves the production of a mist that “played tricks with sound as well as sight” (72). Specifically, the mist enables the male narrator to hear the “terrified sobbing” of a young child and the “shrill neighing and whinnying of a horse in panic” (73). The narrator’s sense of fear and anxiety rises as he realizes that these sounds were the “appalling last noises of a pony and trap” that was “being dragged under by the quicksand and the pull of the incoming tide” (73). The woman in black continues her haunting by attempting to drown the narrator and his dog in quicksand (132-134). The narrator realizes that the woman in black is responsible for this haunting activity when he catches a glimpse of her nearby and describes the observation thus: “A woman. That woman. She was looking directly toward me” (134). The depth of the woman in black’s activity and aggression becomes plain when the reader considers that the narrator felt haunted enough to flee the premises. He conveys this plot development upon informing the reader that “A man may be accused of cowardice for fleeing away from all manner of physical dangers but when things supernatural, insubstantial and inexplicable threaten not only his safety and well-being but his sanity, his innermost soul, then retreat is not a sign of weakness but the most prudent course” (144). As made plain by each of these textual developments, the woman in black plays a very active role in the text, thereby defying gender constructs which prescribe passivity as the appropriate modality for women. Insomuch as the woman in black inverts this prescribed modality and adopts a mode of being associated with men and masculinity rather than conforming to the identity assigned to her, her character becomes representative of postmodern gender ideas.

While the woman in black’s active haunting of the narrator functions as a salient representation of postmodern gender ideas, this is not the only characteristic which demonstrates her deviation from prototypical male/female binaries and identity constructs. In addition to transcending gender norms by adopting an active modality which involves haunting, the woman in black inverts the conventional reality of men acting violently and exacting violence against women. As the narrative comes to conclusion, she—as a female ghost—exacts violence against the male protagonist. This fact becomes plain when the protagonist informs the reader that the woman in black, Jennet Humfrye, orchestrates the death of his family. Specifically, Humfrye makes movements to distract and scare the pony trap on which his wife and son ride. This activity causes the animal to swerve violently and careen into a nearby tree. As a result, his baby son “had been thrown clear, clear against another tree” (164). The son dies and, after grappling with horrific injuries for ten months, his wife Stella passes away. In narrating these events, the narrator points to the female ghost as the source of this violent activity upon noting “I had seen the ghost of Jennet Humfrye and she had had her revenge” (164). The fact that the woman in black transcends the sphere of peaceful passivity associated with femaleness and steps into the sphere of violent aggression associated with masculinity clearly demonstrates the presence of postmodern gender ideas. In his own discourse regarding how representations of women capable of violence has become increasingly common in the modern world, Gary J. Acquaviva notes that “The recognition that women have the potential to be aggressive and violent has begun to be institutionalized” (101). He goes on to note that “the idea of woman as capable of violence must be fully accepted to undermine the aggressive/passive, male/female stereotypes” (101). As made plain by Hill’s construction of the woman in black, the female character exists as a textual representation of the undermining of gender stereotypes Acquaviva advocates.

In a postmodern world, essentialist gender identity constructs are challenged and inverted in inventive ways which reveal the mutability of conventional behavioral patterns assigned and/or attributed to women and men. This postmodern ideology and praxis is present and prevalent in Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. As a female character who exhibits the prototypically masculine traits of activity and violence, the woman in black complicates traditional male/female paradigms in a manner that demonstrates substantive gender fluidity. In so doing, the female ghost exists as a postmodern literary character whose activity effectively questions and contradicts conventional conceptions of how women can and should behave.

Works Cited

Acquaviva, Gary J. Values, Violence, and our Future. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000.

Gilbert, Sandra and Susan Gubar. “The Madwoman in the Attic.” Literary Theory: An    Anthology. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.

Hill, Susan. The Woman in Black. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. New York: Routledge, 2002.

 

 

Postmodern Gender Ideas in Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black

What Is A Lesbian?

One issue I have noted since pursuing feminism as both an academic enterprise and life praxis is the irritation many feminists experience when analyzing or discussing a concept presented within a postmodern framework. Within this realm, words are oftentimes perceived as fluid rather than fixed, thereby making it difficult to attain clear definitions that can then be used to construct arguments for or against any given idea. For example, gender is oftentimes now thought of as an abstract concept that exists in the head rather than constituting a material reality. Words like “she” or “woman” can then be construed as signifiers indicating the epistemological framework within which an individual conceptualizes female personhood rather than a reference to concrete actualities such as whether a person has a “vagina.” The fact that these gender-related terms frequently appear within quotation marks demonstrates the role that postmodern ideology and praxis plays in abrading the idea that there is a universal, incontrovertible meaning for which words stand. Rather than advocating this view, postmodernism has led to the idea that one word can mean multiple and disparate things, with the meaning oftentimes being subject to ongoing evolution based on whose mind is contemplating or using the given term.

While I think there is validity to the postmodern mode of using and interpreting language, it is problematic in the sense that advocating a polysemic approach to interpreting reality can foreclose the development of understanding and consensus regarding what a word references and whether the idea it pertains to is something that feminists should advocate or abhor. The most salient example of this in my mind is the word (and reality behind) rape. In the hetero-reality constructed by the phallus, rape and sex exist in confluence such that men sexually assaulting women is not rape but rather sex. This (re)construction of “reality” works because hetero-reality creates a world in which male domination and female submission is sex. Yet as feminists, many women understand that a woman saying “no” to a male’s sexual advances means that the “sex” that subsequently transpires is not sex but rape.

The aforementioned example is just one of many that can be cited to demonstrate how postmodern and/or phallic thought is capable of obscuring or convoluting reality such that feminists experience difficulties when attempting to understand or explain concepts for the purpose of advancing women’s rights. Like rape, the term “lesbian” is one to which many meanings have been applied. The multiple and often disparate meanings applied to (or derived from) the term have given rise to much contention regarding who is a “real” lesbian and which form of lesbianism is most conducive to female emancipation from-or at least the problematizing of-phallic power. Since this is the case, I think it is important to enumerate and explicate some of the more prevalent definitions for the word.

Because I find Monique Wittig’s discourse on lesbianism to be particularly profound and powerful, I will begin with her suggestion that lesbians are those who have escaped the political regime of heterosexuality “which rests on the submission and appropriation of women” (xiii). As such, the lesbian can be viewed as “an escapee” or “a fugitive slave” (xiii). Yet this rejection of and ongoing resistance to the political regime does not entail immunity from its subjugating power for, as Wittig argues in juxtaposing the sociocultural situation of so-called prostitutes and lesbians (xv), members of both groups are the object of heterosexual oppression even though they are not privately appropriated by it in the way that married women are. Wittig further distinguishes and defines lesbians by noting that they are not women. Specifically, she notes that a lesbian is a “not-woman” (13) given that she refuses to be heterosexual. As Wittig notes, “The refusal to become (or to remain) heterosexual always meant to refuse to become a man or a woman, consciously or not” (13). Lesbians thus refuse to activate and energize hetero-reality by becoming “women” who are such because they make themselves available to men for sexual and reproductive purposes. (Many feminists have made this point about the ultimate signification of the signifier “woman” within hetero-reality. For example, the Radicalesbians accurately argue that “…in popular thinking, there is really only one essential difference between a lesbian and other women: that of sexual orientation-which is to say, when you strip off all the packaging, you must finally realize that the essence of being a “woman” is to get fucked by men.”)

I like Wittig’s definition and have no qualms with it, particularly because she does not reduce lesbianism to a sexual practice/orientation and rather centers the politically revolutionary import of the subject position. I think her argument also has the effect of revealing that a heterosexual woman’s identity position within patriarchy is that of object given that personhood is defined in terms of what the woman must allow to be done to her body. (Of course, women are not really objects at all in my mind. They are subjects-turned-into-objects within hetero-reality. Thus I suppose they occupy the paradoxical position of subject-object when operating in context of a heterosexual relationship. Their essential, immutable position is that of subject, but their identity is continually perverted into the object realm for the purpose of energizing the patriarchal regime.)

Like Monique Wittig, Marilyn Frye’s discourse on lesbianism provides the reader with important insights regarding the contiguities and disparities that exist between heterosexual and homosexual women. For example, Frye discusses the way that lesbianism is defined as a divergence from the heterosexual “norm” upon noting that “Popular images of the lesbian and the gay man are images of people who do not fit the patterns of gender imposed on the sexes. She is seen as a female who is not feminine and he as a male who is not masculine.” In detailing what this divergence from the “norm” involves, Frye notes that the lesbian woman “does not love men; she does not preserve all passion and significant exchange for men. She does not hate women. She presupposes the equality of the female and male bodies, or even the superiority or normativeness of the female body.” Frye goes on to point out that the lesbian “has no interest in penises beyond some reasonable concern about how men use them against women. She claims civil rights for women without arguing that women are really men with different plumbing. She does not live as the complement to the rule of heterosexuality for men.” To crystallize the reader’s awareness of how being a lesbian distinguishes homosexual women from heterosexual women, Frye notes that “She is not accessible to the penis; she does not view herself as a natural object of fucking and denies that men have either the right or the duty to fuck her.”

As with Wittig’s analysis, Frye’s interpretation of lesbianism centers the role that rejecting heterosexuality-which is ultimately a euphemism for female sexual submission-plays in giving shape and substance to the identity position/praxis. However, Frye’s explication offers a more explicit, unequivocal explanation of lesbian sexuality insomuch as she openly explains that the literal penis (and the abstract system of phallic power it represents) is absent from the woman’s emotional/erotic life. Another key insight that Frye draws attention to is that the feminist lesbian does not hate woman. Woman-hating is common amongst heterosexual women for many reasons, including the fact that heterosexuality forces women to compete with other women for the attention of men. Yet lesbianism oftentimes emerges or exists within feminist contexts where women grow conscious of how patriarchal regimes pervert their perceptions of themselves and other women. This consciousness may enable them to relate to one another in more humane, egalitarian ways. The practice of a woman loving another woman might also contribute to the reality of lesbian women not hating members of their own sex. Irrespective of the cause and outcome of the stance, Frye’s assertion that lesbians don’t hate women underscores how the regime of compulsory heterosexuality can induce the opposite (and unwanted) effect.

Just as Marilyn Frye’s discourse on lesbianism provides the reader with important insights regarding how women relate to self and other women as well as how lesbianism empowers them to mitigate or abrade the self-deprecating realities that result from phallic ideologies and praxis, the Radicalesbians provide readers with radical commentary that contributes to the consciousness-raising process that can demobilize patriarchy. In defining the term “lesbian,” the Radicalesbians argue that she “is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.” They go on to note that she is oftentimes the woman who grows painstakingly conscious of how patriarchy operates during adolescence and, in rejecting the imperial and self-alienating impositions of the regime, pursues autonomy and independence. This attempt to operate from a position of subjectivity entails a war with the outside world because the social system is grounded on the belief that women are slaves to men.

In addition to pointing out that the lesbian is oftentimes the woman who experienced substantive alienation in adolescence due to her unwillingness to embody patriarchal norms, the Radicalesbians go on to point out that the term “lesbian” is used as an accusatory signifier which “holds women in line.” Specifically, they argue that the term indicates that a woman has abandoned her sex role and has dared to be the equal of a Man by extricating herself from the system which reduces women to objects of exchange amongst men. They also argue that sexist societies construct reality such that “for a woman to be independent means she can’t be a woman-she must be a dyke.” This explanation leads to their understanding that, within hetero-reality, “women and person are contradictory terms.” Another important insight provided by the Radicalesbians is that lesbianism is not a side issue that can be dismissed as feminists concern themselves with other activities designed to thwart the imperial project. Rather, lesbianism is a central issue which must play an integral role in feminist discourse if one is serious about the success and fulfillment of the women’s liberation movement. As they accurately argue, “As long as the label “dyke” can be used to frighten a woman into a less militant stand, keep her separate from her sisters, keep her from giving primacy to anything other than men and family-then to that extent she is controlled by the male culture.” In other words, if women are afraid of being called lesbians or actually being lesbians, then the woman-to-woman system of relations designed to thwart patriarchy and empower women as independent agents who do not need men to survive or thrive will always be in peril. The rightfully legendary Gloria Steinem drew attention to this reality when she pointed out how one woman being accused by the patriarchy of being a lesbian generated the following consciousness-raising experience amongst other women: “Women who hadn’t seen lesbianism as a feminist issue before wrote to say they now understood that all women could be stopped or divided by this accusation until we all succeeded in taking the sting out of it by making lesbianism an honorable choice” (26). Here, both feminists and lesbian feminists can see the value in ridding “lesbian” of the scatological import it acquired in hetero-reality.

While the Radicalesbians make numerous important points about what it means to be a lesbian and how this identity position can be used to metabolize the woman-identified modality which destablizes the patriarchy, I disagree with their assertion that a woman has to consider her commitment to other women as involving a sexual love. Specifically, I don’t think women have to have erotic interactions with one another to maintain strong, committed relationships which preclude them from falling back into the slave status of male-identified woman. (Nor do I believe that women have to interact erotically with other women to be a lesbian, because one can adopt the identity position of an asexual lesbian.) Emotive and/or intellectual woman-woman interactions can carry the same unifying weight as erotic modes of relating, thereby making the latter schema an unnecessary (yet indeed desirable) element of woman-identified experience.

Conclusion

The ongoing discussions and debates regarding what a lesbian is are important. While some argue that an individual must be born lesbian to identify as one, others (including me) believe that the identity position can be acquired through the course of time and experience or consciously adopted for the purpose of rejecting compulsory heterosexuality. Any of the aforementioned explanations could be viewed as offensive or somehow off-putting to individuals within and outside the lesbian community, and it is not clear to me whose opinions and ideas regarding lesbianism are ultimately authoritative. However, I think the fact that lesbianism is being openly discussed in the fields of feminist theory and within consciousness-raising circles is important and advantageous.

 

What Is A Lesbian?