Embodied female experience through the lens of imagination
Sharon R. Green, Seattle, USA
Abstract: In 1971, I made a film entitled Self Portrait of a Nude Model Turned Cinematographer in which I explore the objectifying ‘male’ gaze on my body in contrast to the subjective lived experience of my body. The film was a radical challenge to the gaze that objectifies woman – and thus imprisons her – which had hitherto dominated narrative cinema.
Since the objectification of women has largely excluded us from the privileged phallogocentric discourses, in this paper I hope to bring into the psychoanalytic dialogue a woman’s lived experience. I will approach this by exploring how remembering this film has become a personally transformative experience as I look back on it through the lens of postmodern and feminist discourses that have emerged since it was made. In addition, I will explore how this process of imaginatively looking back on an artistic creation to generate new discourses in the present is similar to the transformative process of analysis. Lastly, I will present a clinical example, where my embodied countertransference response to a patient’s subjection to the objectifying male gaze opens space for a new discourse about her body to emerge.
Keywords: feminist, film, gaze, identity, naturalization, phallogocentric
But who, if it comes to that, has fully realized that history is not contained in thick books but lives in our very blood? So long as a woman lives the life of the past she can never come into conflict with history. But no sooner does she begin to deviate, however slightly, from a cultural trend that has dominated the past than she encounters the full weight of historical inertia, and this unexpected shock may injure her, perhaps fatally.
(C.G. Jung 1964, p. 130)
In 1971, when I was a 19 year-old university student, I made a four-minute, black and white, silent, non-narrative film entitled Self Portrait of a Nude Model Turned Cinematographer. Remembering this film – reflecting upon the making of it, the reaction to it by my student peers in 1971, the resurrection of it 33 years later by the National Endowment for the Arts – continues to be a transformative experience for me. Similar to the process of analysis, the stories that I tell myself about the impact of this film on ‘me’ and ‘others’ continue to change as I imaginatively reflect on these memories through the lens of my current experiences and understandings about the self, the body, gender and identity. In contemplating this 38 year old film, and in the process of writing this paper, I am struggling with questions about what it means to be an embodied female in a culture of still predominantly phallocentric discourse and I am linking this to my clinical work.
I am interested in questions about un-examined or under-examined concepts that shape psychoanalytic discourse about embodied female experience: What is the body? What is a sexed body (male vs. female, man vs. woman)? What is gender (masculinity vs. femininity)? What is the relationship between the sexed body and gender? For example, the term ‘femininity’ is often deployed in a self-evident manner as if everyone knows and agrees upon what this means. Some analytical psychological discourses use ‘the feminine’ as a concept that implies an ahistorical, universal essence, with a consensual meaning. However, whenever ideas are taken out of their embedded historical context, they become naturalized in a way that hides underlying assumptions, values, and power structures. Thus, ‘naturalized’ ideas1 have the potential to be oppressive if employed with an aura of certainty and authority in the analytic encounter or in cultural discourse. When the concepts of the body, gender, and sexual difference are no longer defined in terms of biological reductionism or foundational essentialism, they remain exceedingly complex and problematic and have yet to be adequately thought (Grosz 1994; Butler 1990, 1997, 2005; Laplanche 2007; Stein 2007).
My opening quote from Jung illustrates that for a woman to deviate even slightly from the prevailing cultural discourse invites ‘shock that may injure her fatally’. Jung grasped that to transgress the normative2 – naturalized – discourses on woman, especially on their bodies, by opening spaces for new discourses to emerge is dangerous business! Since the history of women is largely a history of exclusion from the privileged cultural discourses, it is vitally important to bring into the psychoanalytic dialogue a woman’s lived experience in order to question the ideologies that structure female identity.3 And although both men and women have suffered from the oppressions of patriarchal discourse that have dictated how we can live our bodies and identities, I am going to focus on my own experience of this oppression.4 But before telling the story of my film, I will try to set the scene within which it continues to unfold.
1‘Naturalization’ occurs when we assert that we have determined the context that provides the final explanation for the characteristics of particular individuals or groups. The result of any ‘naturalization’ process is the creation of the ‘natural’, and the corresponding ‘unnatural’ individual or group. Those deemed ‘unnatural’ are seen as ‘things’ or non-persons by those in the ‘natural’ group who claim to have established ‘normality’ (Horne 2008).
2Naturalization is a power move that takes an historical discourse and by giving it foundational status makes it invisible and thus impervious to change or challenge (Barthes 1972; Horne 2008). Once a discourse is naturalized, what is signified as ‘natural’ constitutes the ‘normal’ (Foucault 1965 & 1975; Horne 2008).
3After I had written my personal story as a means to reflect on cultural discourse about embodied female experience, I discovered that I am engaging in ‘autoethnography’. Autoethnography is a qualitative research method that uses highly evocative self-reflective response and embodied storytelling to confront dominant forms of representation and power in an attempt to reclaim representational spaces by marginalized groups (Holt 2003; Ellis 2008; Sparkes 1996).
4For a very sensitive autoethnographic account of the oppressive impact of hegemonic discourse on the available masculine identities for men and boys see Sparkes (1996), The Fatal Flaw: A Narrative of the Fragile Body-Self.
Setting the scene
For the practice of analysis, what matters is how we appear in our own stories as persons in relationship to other persons, occurrences, and objects in our worlds, rather than how we appear, for example, as biological organisms when we go to the medical doctor for a specific complaint (Heidegger 1962; Horne 2004; Hinton 2007 & 2009; Brooke 2009). The various ‘identities’ we claim for ourselves are the multiple and densely particular characters with whom we identify in the ongoing and dialogically unfolding storylines of our lives. Identity5 comes from the Latin term ‘idem et idem’ which literally means ‘the same and the same’, or ‘repeatedly, over and over’. The notion of ‘identity’ is only understood in opposition to ‘otherness’; for example, we recognize the identity of a character in a story by setting it off against the ‘otherness’ of other characters (Martin & Ringham 2006). A sense of identity protects one from the anxiety generated by the disturbing ‘otherness’ of others (Horne 2008) and results in efforts to generate ‘the same and the same’ ‘repeatedly, over and over’ in order to avoid this anxiety. Through analysis, we learn that this feeling of identity permanence is actually defensive and illusory and can be transformed in a variety of ways (Austin 2009; Hinton 2009; Horne 2009). Although our ‘ego complex’ (Jung 1934) or our ‘narrative consciousness’ (Damasio 1999) maintains an ongoing ‘sense of self’ over time, this temporal sense of self remains multiple, decentred, and fragmented (Austin 2009; Hinton 2009; Horne 2009) and appears as moods that are the signifiers of self-states, i.e. the various characters with whom we identify in our stories (Heidegger 1962; Oliver 2002; Horne 2004).
Sometimes we are consciously aware of the characters in our stories and some- times we are not. The stories in which we are unaware of the characters with whom we unconsciously identify are brought into the analytic dialogue through the emotional impact they have on the analyst, that is, through the embodied countertransference (Moody 1955; Bion 1977; Fordham 1993). As Michael Horne (2004) explains in his paper ‘The universe of our concerns’, when our various stories are brought to light in analysis and found to be incompatible, personhood collapses into an intensely frightening and sad process. At this point, it is possible for a new and unique story with new characters (identities) to emerge, as long as the tendency to return to the old story is resisted (ibid., p. 44; Hinton 2009). One of our most enduring ‘identities’ is revealed in the story we tell ourselves about being a ‘masculine’ or a ‘feminine’ person.
5Identity. (n.d.). Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Retrieved September 20, 2009, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/identity.
In our current historical milieu, we as persons always only appear as gendered identities (Butler 1990, 1997; Laplanche 2007). When men and women are conceptualized only from the point of view of their adult reproductive capacities, then the binary categories6 of man/woman and masculine/feminine become ‘essentialized’ as though they were a part of ‘nature’. As a result, the power structures inherent in the discourses that create these foundationalist categories cannot be illuminated (Butler 1990, 1997; Jagose 1996; Dean 2006). Judith Butler explains that ‘the’ body is only known through its gendered appearance and inevitably is transformed into ‘his’ body or ‘her’ body (1997, p. 406). For her, gender is not a stable identity from which agency proceeds, but rather gender identity is a strategy instituted through a stylized repetition of performative acts that are culturally and historically situated. She emphasizes ‘strategy’ because one can be punished for failing to ‘perform’ the possibilities considered appropriate for one’s gendered body. Gender is an idea, not an essential fact: ‘The historical possibilities materialized through various corporeal styles are nothing other than those punitively regulated cultural fictions that are alternately embodied and disguised under duress’ (ibid., p. 405). Butler emphasizes that our ‘performance’ of gender identity is not a conscious choice that we make, but rather the result of the sedimentation of the ways in which we are gazed upon, handled and assumed to be from the moment of our birth (ibid.).
6Binary pairs of signifiers are problematic because they appear to be neutral; however there is an inequality between the ‘marked’ and ‘unmarked’ terms, which make up the pair. The ‘unmarked’ term (e.g. in man/woman the unmarked term is ‘man’) is more generalizable (mankind, chairman, spokesman) than the marked term, giving it more power and establishing the binary as a hierarchy. Also, binaries are constructed not as opposites but as ‘A’ and ‘not-A’ for example, man and not- man, i.e. ‘woman’ is defined only in terms of ‘man’ the more open signifier of the pair (Derrida 1976; Foster et al 2004, p. 45; Mulvey 2009, p. 33).
This bears a similarity to Jean Laplanche’s idea of the transmission of enigmatic messages from adult caregivers to the helpless infant. He emphasizes the primacy of the particular others (mother, father, sister, brother) who assign gender to the infant through the bombardment of the infant with prescriptive messages (Laplanche 2007, p. 213; Stein 2007; Hinton 2009). This results in ‘the infant being gender identified by others, not in the infant autonomously identifying with a particular gender’ (Laplanche 2007, p. 214; italics in the original). Laplanche demonstrates how the recently constructed binary sex/gender – where sex is equated with biological destiny and gender with sociocultural construction – is an ‘adultocentric’ fiction that thinks of sexuality only in terms of the individual person who has progressed from child to adult, and ignores ‘the child in the presence of the adult and receiving from him messages that are not raw givens but “material to be translated”’ (ibid., p. 212). The ‘adultocentric’ view ignores the power differential between little people and adult caregivers, who are trapped in their own cultural imperatives (ibid., p. 210). Laplanche adds a third term to the binary gender/sex – ‘le sexual’ – a French neologism that refers to the fantasy-linked polymorphously- expressed sexuality of the infant. ‘Infantile sexuality is what remains after gender has been ‘organized’ or repressed (repression is a kind of organization) by sex. It is the unending residue that escapes regulatory cultural discourse’ (Stein 2007, p. 191). It is ‘le sexual’ which becomes unconsciously re- activated in the adult caregiver in the presence of the little person resulting in the transmission of enigmatic messages (ibid.). With the addition of ‘le sexual’ as a third term, Laplanche moves beyond the reified binary thinking of sex/gender and emphasizes the particularity and traumatic, unsignifiable enigmatic core of sexuality. Queer theory also resists reified binary thinking. Queer theory problematizes the naturalized assumptions that consolidate the binary categories that organize sex, gender and sexuality (Jagose 1996). ‘Queer’ does not signify a binary opposed to ‘straight’; queer theory rejects binary thinking and resists ideas of ‘the normal’ whether in categories of gender, sexual orientation, race, physical abilities, etc. Queer theory questions any identity that claims to be fixed, coherent or ‘normal’ and emphasizes the contingent, arbitrary and ideologically motivated status of ‘identity’ (Dean 2006).
In this paper, however, I am not attempting to address the formation and structure of ‘gender’ (since it has no unitary discourse) nor am I denying biological sexual difference (although this is also a problematic term as demonstrated by Laplanche and queer theorists). But rather, having set the scene, I want to share the story of my struggles with the oppressive discourses regarding ‘gender’ and ‘sexual difference’ that have been projected upon my female body. Through my story and in this paper, I am contending that one of the ways that my ‘gendered identity’ has been maintained and my ‘body’ policed into compliance with normative ideals of passive eroticized femininity is through ‘the objectifying male gaze’.