Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, Part One

Susan Bordo's landmark text of feminist body theory begins with the gendering of the Cartesian mind/body split, saying that society in general associates the (privileged) mind with the male sphere and the (marginalized) body with the female one. This tracks with the work of body-centered French feminists like Kristeva, Cixous, and Irigaray. From there, she covers a number of things that affect the way we view female bodies, such as plastic surgery, advertisements, psychoanalysis, food, eating disorders, and "postfeminist" thought. This book has informed my own work a great deal, and it's as readable a collection of feminist theory as I've ever come across. I use Bordo's excerpts and ideas a great deal in my own lower-level classes, particularly her stuff on advertising analysis. Because of all these things, I don't think it would be feasible or appropriate to summarize her very readable, incredibly personal, anecdotal book the way I have some of the others on my reading list. Instead, I'm going to offer ten passages I love from Unbearable Weight, along with my responses to them. For now, the first three:
  1. On shopping for bedding for her young daughter: "The designated boy's room is all in primary colors, the bedspread dotted with bats, balls, and catching mitts. The caption reads: 'I play so many sports that it's hard to pick my favorite.' Sounds like my daughter. On the opposite page, the girl's room is pictured, a pastel planetary design. The caption reads: 'I like stars because they are shiny.' That too sounds like my daughter. But Pottery Barn doesn't think a child can inhabit both worlds. If their catalogues were as segregated and stereotyped racially as they are by gender, people would boycott."YES. Stuff like this is why I frame my composition classes around cultural literacy, why we do things like examine arguments of pop songs and television commercials. These social constructions are fed to us so frequently and from so young an age that they become universals. Children should be able to do both "boy stuff" and "girl stuff" if they want. I'm also troubled by the active male/passive female binary in these ads, as well as the correspondingly gendered function/fashion split.
  2. Responding to author Sharon Lamb, who says that young girls in heavy makeup and revealing clothes are " silly and adorable, sexy and marvelous all at once," that they are "playing out male fantasies, but without risk": "22 to 29 percent of rapes against girls occur when they are eleven or younger. We might like to think that these rapes are the work of deranged madmen, so disconnected from reality as to be oblivious to the culture around them...The reality is, however, that these girls are much more likely to be raped by friends and family than by strangers, and that very few men, whether strangers or acquaintances, are unaffected by having a visual culture of nymphets prancing before their eyes, exuding a sexual knowledge and experience that they don't really have. Feminists used to call this 'rape culture.' We never hear that phrase anymore, do we?" I agree with Bordo's criticisms of Lamb, but some of this feels a tad close to victim blaming in that it doesn't hold rapists as responsible (or as explicitly responsible) as I think it should. As for the "rape culture" thing, that is an ever-present term in young feminist circles nowadays; I suspect we have Bordo to thank for its return to prominence.
  3. "The extremes to which the anoretic takes the denial of appetite (that is, to the point of starvation) suggest the dualistic nature of her construction of reality; either she transcends body totally, becoming pure 'male' will, or she capitulates utterly to the degraded female body and its disgusting hungers. She sees no other possibilities, no middle ground" (8) It shocks me how much this sounds like the 16th and 17thc views on the female body that Lisa Jardine talks about. Hunger, whether it be physical or sexual, is a complex place for female power. The more things change...

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