Bounded by our Bodies: A Theoretical Essay on Female Identity and Gender Deconstruction

Jill Kestenberg

The feminist movement has advanced at a quick pace over the past one hundred years, challenging a once socially acceptable male way of thinking. This way of thinking rationalized the male sex as being a dominant force in society based on notions of gender. Gender, as a social structure, goes hand-in-hand with femininity as a form of repression. Feminist artist Kiki Smith has expressed her social commentary visually through the discussion of body-related works.  Smith feels deeply that gender is of a socially structured nature. In her works Mary Magdalene (Figure 1) and Untitled (Figure 2) Smith uses the body as the medium, revealing it as fragmented, dismembered and distorted in anticipation of deconstructing the gender hierarchy society implies.[1] She attempts to move towards the ideal feminist philosophy of the equality of the sexes.  For her, the body is merely a casing that facilitates the decoding of the socially structured notion of gender; it converts a basic biological form into a contaminated, socially binding and tainted product.

At the end of the twentieth century, Kiki Smith felt that she had a calling to radically alter the conventional image of the female form in Western art.  She focused her art almost exclusively on exposing the female body in numerous highly instinctual and emotional works that vary from the beautiful to the grotesque.[2] Mary Russo, author of Female Grotesques: Carnival and Theory, writes,

The grotesque body is the open, protruding, extended, secreting body, the body of becoming, process and change.  The grotesque body is opposed to the classical body, which is monumental, static, closed and sleek, corresponding to the aspirations of bourgeois individualism; the grotesque body is connected to the rest of the world.[3]

The representation of the female body in an always-patriarchal society has for the most part remained in the hands of male artists.  In itself, the female form has usually been depicted as the idealized entity of male fantasy, a form to be gazed upon and desired.[4]

Smith attempts to reconfigure the body as the site of women’s lived experiences.  Her work is not the restricted and contained body of classical art. Instead, by reclaiming the body from patriarchy, she portrays a “fragmented but almost obsessively tangible and fragile body; a body shaped and marked by its inner functions as well as the social world.”[5]  Smith’s pieces insinuate a step towards the slow elimination process of contemporary gender roles built by a patriarchal society, gender roles that are trapped beneath the most fragile barrier, the skin.  The body has progressively and increasingly figured as a “prison of flesh.”[6]  The body leaks, stains, defecates and otherwise exposes its interior to the fouled world.[7]  In the words of Nicholas Mirzoeff, “Our bodies, far from presenting a defensive wall to the outside world are all too open and vulnerable.”[8]

A body is a body, be it male or female. In Smith’s piece Untitled, she exhibits the differing and common features on the torsos of the female and male bodies.  There are five paper sculptures each showing a single body part.  One is of male nipples, one shows the penis, another is of female breasts, and directly beside, there is another paper figure of the vagina.  In the centre of the installation there is one part of the body that is common to both sexes, the bellybutton.  This piece implies that the female body can do what the male body can do despite the gender roles that society has prescribed for her, and regardless of innate qualities.

The male and female bodies have been superficially constructed as different, with the woman’s body seen as inferior since the beginning of recorded history; a history created and written by man. Caroline Walker Bynumdiscusses biblical ideas, stating that, “women mystics often simply became the flesh of Christ, because their flesh could do what his could do: bleed, feed, die and give life to others.”[9] Bynum realizes as well that although the body functions in the same manner on behalf of both sexes, women (mystics in this case) are inferior. The fluidity of the body in Smith’s Untitled, which is seen as the escape of the internal, can also signify the slippage of bodies from their boundaries.  The bodily boundaries Smith creates lie on either side of a border (flesh) where ‘leakage’ is released from the internal to the external world, (blood, semen, urine, etc.).  The body is deprived of having the capabilities of resistance, just as society deprives us of order and individuality.[10]

Biological sexuality is transformed by society into products of human activity.[11]  It is distorted into a system that favors inequality.  The gendering of bodies can be attributed to the reproductive capability of women to generate a life form, which, by extension, in a patriarchal society, is the basis for the differentiation of what is female and male.  The female body has always been seen as an inferior version of this ‘male’ body and although dynamically it is separate, the socially ideal gender overrules, polluting our minds.  If natural gender can be set apart from the gender ideal by taking the incorporeal and subjecting it to gender classification in the way that femininity is coded on the female form, it follows that gender can be reconsidered and thus transformed. The idea that women “remain rooted within their bodies, held back by their supposedly natural biological processes (and identities)” must be changed.[12]

In 1972, sexologists Anke Ehrhardt and John Money spread the idea that gender and sex are of separate categories.  In their argument, they claimed that ‘sex’ refers to physical attributes and is determined anatomically and physiologically.  They saw gender as a psychological transformation of the self and that one is either male or female and expresses behaviorally a given gender identity.  Second wave feminists also stood by the argument that sex certainly differs from gender.  It is the social institutions designed by men that perpetuate gender inequality, thus producing most of the differences between men and women.[13] The presence of reproductive powers creates the vital differentiation in the boundaries between being male and female.[14]  Sex determines the way we are labeled, at least superficially, and individuality is something that develops through self-representation, not by gender identity.  Gender is simply one of the social forces that behavior is modeled on.[15]

The body is the site through which gender is mediated.  In terms of the collective of social expectations one delivers through the body, and by means of representation, femininity and masculinity are not essentially of the body; but rather of the state of mind with which society has conditioned us.  The gendered body, within a system of representation, is therefore recognized not as ‘just’ a functioning biological being, but as a female or a male, and then as masculine or feminine.[16]  The body is created, represented, given meaning, interpreted and then given a gender.  Gender in this sense is not only being based on the grounds that one sex has a reproductive system; it is codified according to the power structures of society.[17]

In another one of Smith’s works, she attempts to reconfigure the female body as the site of women’s lived experiences and not as inferior.  In Mary Magdalene, the standing figure with a chain around her foot glares into space with an almost blank yet unbound look.  The female figure appears to be almost primitive; she is curvaceous and portrayed as anything but the current male idealization of the female form.  Jesus was a respected and loved man with many followers, whereas Mary represented a threat, so Jesus’ disciples and other members of society stigmatized her and turned her into a whore to destabilize her.  This kind of gendering goes back as far as the biblical days.  Had she been a man, like the rest of his disciples, Mary would not have been perceived as such a detrimental factor to the movement.[18]

In historical beliefs, the portrait of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, repentant of her label, is not the reality of her role.  In Western society, this idea of Mary as whore would never alarm a Christian, whereas in Eastern Christianity, Mary has never been represented as anything but a respectable witness to the resurrection of Christ.  The creation of the myth of Mary’s whoredom begins with the story in John 12:1-8, in which Mary of Bethany, along with an unnamed female sinner (from Luke 7:36-50) anoints Jesus.  From this moment, the identification of Mary of Magdala was associated with Mary of Bethany and then identified with the unnamed sinner who anointed Jesus’ feet.  With Mary Magdalene associated with the unnamed sinner, she would now be identified with every unnamed sinful woman in the gospels including Syrophoenician, a woman with her five and more “husbands” in John 4:7-30, and the adulteress in John 8:11.  Mary was no longer known as teacher and apostle. Instead, she became known as Mary the repentant whore, an inspiration for an ongoing myth throughout history.[19]

The story of how Mary Magdalene came to be a whore is not simply a historical text but in fact, a demonstration of how women’s roles and the construction of gender is not a new obsession. Gender has its labels, just like Mary did.  Powerless against the forces around her, she became a prisoner to labeling, just like the labels society puts on people today.  The broken chain in Smith’s depiction of Mary illustrates the breaking free from these labels, and the reclaiming of femininity from patriarchy marked by the prejudices of the social world.  With this in mind, it changes the sense of her gaze into an almost triumphant one, one of relief rather than loss.[20]

In the case of both of the works discussed, Kiki Smith shows us two things: that gendering is a practice that has been going on for many years with many adverse effects, and that the body is shaped and marked by its inner functions as well as by the social world.[21]  Jessica Bradley writes, “The body is the existential condition that marks and limits experience and conversely, in itself is marked (no less defined) by the ways in which it is perceived, interpreted and socially contained.”[22]  How is it possible that a small biological difference between sexes is considered groundwork for one’s role in society?  In the end we are all just coded flesh created alike, but programmed with different software.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bradley, Jessica.  Kiki Smith.  Toronto: The Power Plant- Contemporary Art Gallery at Harbourfront Centre (1995): 20-34

Fausto-Sterling, Anne.  Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and The Construction of Sexuality.  New York: Basic Books (2003):3-4

“Gayle Rubin.” Wikipedia.  17 Jan.  2008.  19 Feb.  2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gayle_Rubin>.

King, Karen L.  Ray. Rev. of The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament, by Jane Schaberg.  The Women’s Review of Books. 20.6. JSTOR [February 25, 2008]

Mirzoeff, Nicholas.  Bodyscape: Art, Modernity and The Ideal Figure.  New York: Routledge (1995): 27

Posner, Helaine.  Kiki Smith.  Chris Lyone on Kiki Smith.  New York: The Monacelli Press (2005): 20-21  Chris Lyone on Kiki Smith

Price, Janet and Margrit Shildrick.  Feminist Theory and The Body.  United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press (1999)

Robinson, Hillary.  “Border Crossings: Womanliness, Body, Representation.”  New Feminist Art Criticism.  Ed. Katy Deepwell.  New York: Manchester University Press (1995)

Sanders, Shelley Schoeplin.  “Women and Christianity: Can Two Walk Together, except They Be Agreed?” Nimble Turtle. Aug. 1997. 15 Apr. 2008 <http://nimbleturtle.com/theology/feministtheology/>.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] Jessica Bradley.  Kiki Smith.  Toronto: The Power Plant- Contemporary Art Gallery at Harbourfront Centre (1995): 20

[2] Helaine Posner.  Kiki Smith.  Chris Lyone on Kiki Smith.  New York: The Monacelli Press (2005): 20-21

[3] Bradley, 20

[4] Posner, 20-21

[5] Bradley, 20

[6] Bradley, 20

[7] Posner, 20-21

[8] Nicholas Mirzoeff.  Bodyscape: Art, Modernity and The Ideal Figure.  New York: Routledge (1995): 27

[9] Shelley Schoeplin Sanders.  “Women and Christianity: Can Two Walk Together, except They Be Agreed?” Nimble Turtle. Aug. 1997. 15 Apr. 2008 <http://nimbleturtle.com/theology/feministtheology/>.

[10] Bradley, 20

[11] “Gayle Rubin.” Wikipedia.  17 Jan.  2008.  19 Feb.  2008 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gayle_Rubin>.

[12] Janet Price and Margrit Shildrick.  Feminist Theory and The Body.  United Kingdom: Edinburgh University Press (1999)

[13] Anne Fausto-Sterling.  Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and The Construction of Sexuality.  New York: Basic Books (2003):3

[14] Bradley, 34

[15] Fausto-Sterling, 4

[16] Hillary Robinson.  “Border Crossings: Womanliness, Body, Representation.”  New Feminist Art Criticism.  Ed. Katy Deepwell.  New York: Manchester University Press (1995)

[17] Posner, 138

[18] Karen L.  Ray King. Rev. of The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament,by Jane Schaberg.  The Women’s Review of Books. 20.6. JSTOR [February 25, 2008]

[19] King

[20] King

[21] Bradley, 29

[22] Bradley, 26