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Being and Becoming Visible

Women, Performance and Visual Culture


Edited by Olga M. Mesropova & Stacey Weber-Fève


A Feminist Formations Reader

Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010

Paperback. 264p. ISBN 978-0801894954. $35.00


Reviewed by Margaret Gillespie

Université de Franche-Comté (Besançon)


Being and Becoming Visible, which its editors set out as a “celebration of feminist scholarship on performance and visual culture”, brings together a selection of twelve articles which first appeared in the interdisciplinary, multicultural National Women's Studies Association Journal, from 1999 to 2008. Formal cohesion is provided by the overarching trope of the museum exhibition to which the anthology is explicitly compared in the introduction and opening chapter: readers are thus invited to apprehend a “space for critical reflection” as they might the “unified framework” of a museum display. But this aestheticizing (and arguably reductive) conceit belies the critical and political engagement of the anthology's intrinsic agenda, grounded as the essays broadly are in the feminist materialist tradition. Specifically targeting the “feminist scholar or teacher” (though my sense is that many of the essays would prove of interest to students and the general reader too), the collection aims both to inspire further research into aspects of female (self-)representation and more generally to champion the merits of a cross-disciplinary approach to gender studies.

“Spanning geographical, cultural and methodological boundaries” as the back cover blurb has it, Being and Becoming Visible encompasses not only new readings of the work of individual female visual artists from across the last century, (German-Jewish Weimar photographer Yva; the American portraitist Alice Neel), but also assesses the achievements of a number of recent collective, performance-based initiatives that have set out to increase the visibility of those commonly shunned by mainstream culture and society: theatrical representations of gender-specific cancer by four feminist playwrights; the Philani Project, a contemporary art-making women's cooperative from the South African township of Crossroads; The Missing Story of Ourselves, a traveling exhibit retelling women ACCESS students' personal narratives of empowerment from welfare queue to campus; Women of the Storm, an all-female campaign group whose eye-catching demonstrations raised awareness at national level of the plight of the citizens of New Orleans in the destructive wake of Hurricane Katrina. These last three contributions, perhaps the least overtly theoretical and thus the most readily accessible for the general reader, are significant too in that they take feminist scholarship back to its activist grassroots and recall its continued relevance both within and without the academy in addressing gender, class and race inequality.

The essays on Neel and Yva effectively combine biographical mapping and feminist visual art theory to argue for a critical re-assessment of their respective artists. Neel's long-neglected representations of maternity (one of which, “Mother and Child” [1967], forms the cover illustration of the anthology) are the primary focus of Denise Bauer's “Alice Neel's Portraits of Mother Work” (chapter 3). Neel's often uncompromisingly hyperrealistic portraits are of obvious interest to the feminist scholar: at once transgressing, parodying and critiquing Western art's idealizing Madonna tradition, they simultaneously herald what feminist critic E. Ann Kaplan, quoted by Bauer, terms the “com[ing] into subjectivity” of the mother in the decades following World War II, and the challenge to the androcentric aesthetic view occasioned by the rise of second-wave feminism.

The images of women produced by professional photographer Yva during the 1920s and 1930s are similarly held to engage with the artistic and ideological conventions of the period, embodied above all by the emergent figure of the New Woman, defined by Ganeva as both “mass-produced image and sociological phenomenon” (“Fashion Photography and Women's Modernity in Weimar Germany”: the case of Yva”, Mila Ganeva, chapter 9) . A New Woman of sorts herself, Yva's rich but little-known output, much of which the author locates “on the cryptic borderline” between genres—“still-life, fashion photography and female portrait”—is presented here as a “critical commentary” on Germany's nascent consumer culture and advertising's attendant fetishization of the female body. Applying film theorist Mary-Anne Doane's notion of the masquerade to Yva's work, Ganeva convincingly argues that by foregrounding the artifice at play in her fashion photographs (through the use of overtly modernistic techniques for instance), the artist installs an alienating distance between staged femininity and female gaze, thereby precluding the dangers of unconditional identification.

It is the suffering female body that lies at the heart of the radical women's performance narratives discussed by Mary K. DeShazer in “Fractured Borders: Women's Cancer and Feminist Theater”. Informed by postmodern and “French feminist” theories of the body, DeShazer's essay focusses on four theatrical representations of breast, ovarian and uterine cancer: Margaret Edsons' Wit (1999), Susan Miller's My Left Breast (1995), Maxine Bailey and Sharon M. Lewis's Sistahs (1998) and Lisa Loomer's The Waiting Room (1998). Described as offering “trenchant feminist perspectives on cancer and embodiment”, the plays are situated in continuum with earlier writings by Audrey Lorde and Susan Sontag, and held as salient examples of “the explicit body in performance” (Rebecca Schneider). DeShazer compellingly argues how, in a superlatively personal-is-political move, the resolutely un-erotic, cancerous body is deployed in the plays to publicly enact its suffering on stage in a gesture of self-empowerment whose aim is neither to elicit desire nor pity but to “call spectators to awareness and action”.

As such, the volume offers proof enough of bell hooks' contention, cited in the proemial essay, that “art constitutes one of the rare locations where acts of transcendence can take place and have a wide-ranging, transformative impact” (“Art on My Mind”, 1995). Yet Being and Becoming Visible's aim is not simply to showcase women as active performers and “producers of images”, crucial though this imperative certainly is: a number of contributions to the volume also offer an ever-timely reminder that “woman” continues to persist as ideological construct, a commodified spectacle produced by and for the mass media's prismatic gaze. Thus in Jill R. Chancey's “Diana Doubled”, evolutions in the image of Princess Diana in accordance with the sales-boosting dictates of the tabloid press on both sides of the Atlantic, are shown to evidence the artifice of celebrity iconography: as Chancey cogently argues, upon her death, Diana the scandalous socialite was seamlessly erased by a prim and proper “folklore heroine”, whose newly blameless reputation was swiftly secured by a “canon of appropriate images” (a contention which recalls Blair's famous sobriquet for Diana, the “people's princess”).

Anne McLeer's essay “Practical Perfection?” for its part reads into the foreign and seemingly anachronistic locales of Hollywood blockbusters The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins an ideological allegory of America at the time of the two movies' 1960s production. Functioning as exemplars of Frederic Jameson's “political unconscious”, both films for McLeer would voice the anxieties of a white, male, middle-class ascendancy that had found itself, and the nuclear family model it financially supported, increasingly under threat—notably from an evermore feminized workforce. By championing the persona of the nanny, posited by McLeer as both nostalgically redolent of a bygone era when women knew their nurturing place, yet still expertly versed in the latest “Dr Spock” style of childrearing, the movies, she convincingly argues, not only work to assuage contemporary tensions and contradictions surrounding gender roles in the private sphere but also, through the conflation of nation and domestic narration, promote the nuclear-family configuration as the “exclusively correct structure on which to model [American] public policies and institutions” at a time when both were coming under attack from within and without.

Chapter 5 further complicates the post-war picture to highlight the paradoxes at the heart of an example of popular culture co-produced by a woman. Thus, in “Millions 'Love Lucy': Commodification and the Lucy phenomenon”, Lori Landar underlines how the cult US television sitcom I love Lucy (starring and produced by the “real-life” couple Lucile Ball and Desi Arnaz) at once celebrated and yet challenged the 1950s commodity fetishistic credo that equated acquisition and contented, passive womanhood. For if at one level, “consummate consumer” Lucy Ricardo's identity and self-motivation seem uniquely dictated by the promise of material gain, the “Trickster figure” tactics she actively deploys in its pursuit—and which form the comic bedrock of the series' diegetic thrust—, actually work to sabotage her husband's patriarchal authority. In this sense then, as Lander argues, I Love Lucy enacts “an attempt to circumvent the 'feminine mystique' of postwar America” and invites viewers to do likewise.

The exploration of the post-war public/private dichotomy also informs Chapter 7, “Representing Domestic Violence: Ambivalence and Difference in What's Love Got to Do With It”, a critical reading by Diane Shoos of Brian Gibson's 1993 screen adaptation of pop icon Tina Turner's autobiography. Shoos assesses the film's portrayal of domestic violence in the light both of recent scholarly research into domestic violence and its increasingly widespread mainstream portrayal in the US media and movie industries. The author questions to what extent Gibson's bio-pic may be deemed as engaging with the “complexities and contradictions of abuse”—the commonly-held belief for instance, that “despite its apparent ubiquity, domestic violence is an aberration”, a perception that designates batterers and victims as Other. What's Love is significant, argues Shoos, not only as one of the first films to actually render visible domestic violence on screen but also because it debunks the notion that abuse is an “individual pathology” for which the pariah-victim may be partially held responsible (a similar point is also compellingly made by Vivyan C. Adair in chapter 8, “The Missing Story of Ourselves”). Abuse in the film is rather portrayed as the product of culturally-sanctioned gender norms—such as those articulated in the song lyrics inserted in ironical counterpoint to the main narrative. At the same time however, contends the author, the foregrounding of Tina's African-American working-class credentials in this rags-to-riches Hollywood narrative functions to distance her from the (largely) white and / or bourgeois viewing public, limiting possible audience identification and consolidating rather than subverting existing societal stereotypes.

Taking Laura Mulvey's cinematic paradigm of the male gaze and Gayatri Spivak's discussion of the subaltern as its theoretical starting points, the anthology's concluding essay, “The Representation of the Indigenous Other in Daughters of the Dust and The Piano” by Caroline Brown considers two seemingly disparate films, the former (written and directed by Julie Dash in 1993), centering on African-American women from South Carolina's Gullah communities in the early 1900s and the latter (directed by Jane Campion in 1992) charting the trials and tribulations of a white woman newly arrived in mid-nineteenth century New Zealand from her native Scotland. But these woman-centered period dramas are noteworthy, contends Brown, in that both subvert Hollywood's racial and gender conventions by according their female protagonists narrative agency and placing them center stage against a backdrop of aboriginal culture represented by native American and Maori populations. Can it be inferred, then, that these innovative and complex films manage to do away with subordination entirely? Brown's tight and sophisticated reading of these examples of cinematic “sentimental progressivism” refuses the easy conclusion. If the movies work to empower the feminine, it is ultimately at the expense of the mute indigenous Other, eroticized object of the nonnative female protagonists' gaze, also deployed (in a typically “feminine” move) to figure the timeless essence of the nation. Spivak's subaltern, then, is still denied a voice in the films, couched as they are in a certain Orientalism. Less convincing perhaps is her claim that despite all this, Dust and The Piano do still offer the beginnings of a valid alternative to traditional western representations of indigenous groups.

Not entirely devoid of reductive essentialism—chapter 11's discussion around women's “traditional role of building and maintaining familial relationships” as deployed by Women of the Storm being a case in point— and sometimes overly bio-critical in approach, Being and Becoming Visible is not always as “fresh and provocative” as it claims to be. The anthology may nevertheless be soundly lauded for its breadth of ambition, both in terms of thematic diversity and theoretical perspective, and is also to be highly recommended for the quality of its scholarship.


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