Dolan, J. (1987). The Dynamics of Desire: Sexuality and Gender in Pornography and Performance. Theatre Journal, 39(2), 156–174. http://doi.org/10.2307/3207686
Acknowledging that the role sexuality plays in performance and the visual representation of women as sexual subjects of objects is a hotly contested issue within feminist criticism, Dolan gives a comparison of two main views of the function of pornography within culture.
The first is “Cultural Feminists” whose tradition stems from Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. These theorists posit that all male sexuality is aggressive and violent, and that power creates hierarchies, which lead to violence against women (p. 157). Cultural feminists attempt to emphasize biological differences between men and women, and to put forth the idea that women are superior as well as essentially the same — that there is a common female experience. They locate that “sameness” in the female body; female bodies are capable of procreation (and male bodies are not), and that a female body “stripped to its ‘essential femaleness’ communicates an essential meaning recognizable by all women” (P. 159). Dolan remarks that if one subscribes to this view of feminism, then one is anti-pornography, as the power hierarchies of the production of the media as well as the objectification of the female body within it make it problematic. However, this then removes sexuality and desire from female representation and relegates representation to a supposedly more pure level of spiritual, dispassionate space that is somehow naturalized or idealized. Dolan describes some female performance artists who attempt to reverse these power hierarchies that lead to female objectification by either adopting a masculinized role of sexuality or being deliberately perverse or disgusting in order to remove “her body off this representational commodities market by refusing to appear as a consumable object” (p. 163).
In the second part of her article, Dolan discusses lesbian theatrical performances as reimagining gender roles along an expanded continuum (p. 170) and bringing sexuality and desire to the foreforent as opposed to banishing as a problematic taboo. Lesbian performativity, done primarily for lesbian audiences, imagines a different type of desire and deliberately manipulates traditional gender-coded performances. Their attempt is to point out the “contradictions in and limits to the traditional construction of polarized gender choices” (p. 170). However, within these performances, Dolan does continue to describe a continuum of “butch” to “femme”, which seems to me to reinforce binaries of male/female.
This article will be helpful to me as I look to consider other ways of gender and sexual representation than the heteronormative male gaze, and to note the tension within the feminist criticism community.
Fields, J. (1999). “Fighting the Corsetless Evil”: Shaping Corsets and Culture, 1900-1930. Journal of Social History, 33(2), 355–384.
Fields focuses on the rhetoric that the corset industry used to redefine corsets and position them as essential items for all American women to own at the beginning of the 20th century. She connects the corseted body to medical and scientific rhetoric, changing conceptions of female beauty, the rise of feminism, morality arguments stating the importance of containing female bodies and sexuality as necessary for social stability, and to capitalism and economic gain from the sale of corsets to women as they attempt to conform to these norms and negotiate these rhetorics.
Importantly, Fields notes that “the corset became the locus for a number of competing significations” (p. 356) as scholars such as Steele, Roberts, Kunzle, and Banner all demonstrate that the corset has long-lasting and iconic power as a conveyor of social meaning, but disagree about what that meaning is, even in the Victorian period. Arguably, the corset’s meaning has become even more contentious and varied in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Fields looks at the “altered shape” of the corsets as a parallel trajectory to women struggling to “alter the shape of femininity and gender relations” (p. 357). There is a discursive relationship between the way that corset manufacturers used rhetoric about female bodies and social norms and the way that “women viewed, imagined, and experienced their own bodies” (p. 357). In addition, the changes that women demanded regarding their social status and mobility affected the types of corsets made and the language used to describe them. This discourse shaped and reshaped gender structures and identities as it also demonstrated changing body shapes under various corsets or — gasp — without a corset at all. The latter was something that corset manufacturers were heavily invested in preventing.
Fields notes that fashion is a codified system of of constraints that both signifies and represents a set of regulatory practices. Fashion is something people work within and against to “fashion” identities in such categories as “gender, personality, sexual preference, class, social status” and one works to express one’s individuality within this set of constraints that determine these categories and what is considered acceptable within them. She notes a significant change in the discourse about corsets due to industrialization: the arguments about moral turpitude and questionable respectability (which could be contained by a corseted body) were replaced by arguments about science and modernity. Uncorseted women went from being “loose” to being “imperfect, imperfect, unfashionable, and unscientific” as manufacturers preyed on fears of aging and connected the fears of unrestrained women to a fear of diminishing profits (p. 357). These discourses were bolstered by new science such as that of Havelock Ellis, which claimed that female humans required corseting because of evolutionary reasons that female bodies had more difficulty making the transition from horizontal to vertical. Corset manufacturers used such scientific studies to demonstrate both the safety and necessity of corseting.
Women had more access to sports and physical exercise in the 1920s and demanded less restrictive garments. This prompted manufacturers to develop and market “sports corsets made of lighter and more flexible materials” ( p. 358). Dancing, especially the tango, also affected corset use. As women began taking off stiff corsets at parties, manufacturers responded by making “dance corsets” (p. 359-360). This had the added bonus of requiring women to purchase not just one or two corsets, but many, for various occasions and needs. Fields notes that corsetlessness had been “long identified with radical feminist and utopian movements” and the idea that woman could decide to “support herself” by going without the support of a corset. Throwing aside the corset was seen by many as a sign of radicalism and manufacturers enlisted the help of scientific studies to demonstrate that corsetlessness was a threatening menace for such reasons as: “dissipation of muscular strength, injury to internal organs, corruption of standards of beauty, damage to moral fiber, contimination of race pride and purity, and destruction of American sovereignty” (p. 363). These themes emerged from discourse analysis of trade journal articles about corsets in US publications in the 1920s. She categorizes the tactics of corset panic articles as “denial, attack, and incorporation” and demonstrates that the proscriptive discourses were used to “infuse corset use with ideologies of domination” and “panic about losing control over their female market” being eased by reasserting control over the female body (p. 364). During this time between 1920 and 1950, corsets were renamed girdles, and the junior department was born to train up young women to wearing foundational garments despite their generally slim figures not needing them. One of the most insidious and ingenious discourses was the naturalization of the corset, making the corseted body more natural than an uncorseted one. Wearing a natural corset produced a natural female form; to be natural was to wear one of the new corsets that conformed the body to what was deemed natural by society.
Manufacturers also used racial rhetoric that appealed to fears of looking like a “squaw” or having a “wayback” ancestor that had passed on the “mattress-tied-in-the-middle’ proportions” (p. 366-367). They also attempted to show that uncorseted women would never marry well, since they would be perceived as too domineering and of the “Amazon variation” (p. 367). Women who dared to go uncorseted would also then be subjugated by a new master: the exercise regimen necessary to maintain the female form once muscles began to inevitably sag. Thus to go corsetless was to be constrained by other norms, and to be seen as unfeminine … “the woman with a tight-muscled tense abdominal wall, flat hips, mannish chest, is usually to be pitied … the number of biological mistakes among females are [sic] increasing” (Schoemaker, qtd. in Fields, p. 367).
This piece will be interesting to use as I look at the changing meaning of the corset, and how the corset is used as a way to enforce and control female bodies while at the same time women embrace and re-perform the corseted female body in subversive ways. It seems to me this dynamic is played out on the corseted female action hero’s body. She represents at once the dominant ideology of performed femininity, and a subversive ideology of female power. What is also interesting to me is that corseted female action heroes would fall into the category of women who do not “need” corsets because they are the smaller bodied, physically fit women who have the strength and agility to perform action-based scenes and acrobatics. Indeed I am wondering if the corset is used to promote and accentuate femininity so that they do not appear too “mannish.” I am also wondering if the constraint of the corset represents a dominant ideology continuing to control the female action hero. I’m considering comparing the corseted torso to a bullet-proof vest. Or Selene’s costume to Batman’s.
In this entry I evaluate three fairly short articles: one conference proceeding, one first-person ethnography, and one newspaper article.
Proctor, G. (2008). Structure, constraint and sexual provocation. In E. Rouse (Ed.), Extreme Fashion: Pushing the Boundaries of Design, Technology and Business: Conference Proceedings 2007 (pp. 70–84). Centre for Learning and Teaching in Art and Design (CLTAD).
Proctor traces the development of “foundation wear,” specifically corsets, as ways to remold the body to a preferred silhouette. She gives some historical background about the rise of corsetry as linked to the industrial revolution, moving from hand sewn items to the introduction of the Singer sewing machine and steam power allowing for mass production. Differentiation by the Symington’s corset company, the largest producer of corsets founded in 1830 and mass producing them beginning in 1880, allowed for women of every class to afford a corset. The company also marketed its corsets worldwide and acknowledges that the corset design was changed to conform to the culture’s ideals of beauty and the common physical size/shape of the native women (71). She also traces the “shifting errogenous zone and resulting silhouette” as one that morphed from ample stomachs to narrow waists, a focus on the breasts and the bottoms, calling for the development of bustles and other padding with horsehair and the “stays” of whalebone and then steel (73). She makes a quick reference to Elizabethan fetishization of the codpiece as a “sexual power source” and then discusses the concept of the “Phallic Woman,” or a woman sporting a fake phallus, which has Freudian and psychoanalytical theory implications. One interesting development she highlights is the “busk” or a “rigid strip of carved bone or ivory worn between the breasts” under the funnel-shaped bodice in the Elizabethan era, something she notes was “a useful place to carry a dagger” (p. 75). She discusses how the shape of the corset changed over time with the S-Bend corsets popular at the turn of the century with Gibson Girls and the tubular corset called “The Spat” that came to the knees and worked well with the “hobble skirt”; the combination of the two items several restricted a woman’s ability to walk naturally, only “tottering” with small steps (79).
Proctor reiterates Corsetiere Pearl’s three types of corset wearers as remaining relevant even to modern corset design as done by fashion designers Gaultier, LaCroix, Mugler for celebrities such as Posh Spice, Kylie Minogue, Lady GaGa, Beyonce and Madonna. These three types are: ‘corset nonconformists’ who want to change the shape of the body for an ‘aesthetic ideal’; second, ‘corset identificationists’ who associate corsets with femininity; third ‘corset masochists’ who find erotic discomfort in the tight lacing. Significantly, Proctor points out that there is not only pleasure in gazing upon a woman in a corset, but that the corset wearer derives pleasure in seeing herself transformed: “seduced by teh contouring potential of the corset” and obtaining “that immediate rush of pleasure at seeing their waists reduced, their breasts lifted and their hips emphasized, all without breaking a sweat on a treadmill” (p. 83). In this way, the corset is a kind of empowering shortcut to the pleasure of portraying an idealized form of the female body, of mastering the culturally normalized silhouette of the time using a piece of technology. It is a body enhancer or modification that is not permanent like surgery, but an available accoutrement that can be used by choice.
Chabon, M. (2008). Secret Skin. New Yorker, 84(4), 64.
Chabon’s main premise is that the superhero costume, like the superhero him or her self, is fictitious. The costume is not like a fashion designer’s sketch, a prototype found in the comic book and awaiting being brought to life by the wearing, by the physical embodiment on an actual human form. Chabon believes that the costumes for superheroes are impossible and are a sign without a real world referent. They do not exist in reality and indeed cannot exist in reality; it is “a replica with no original, a model built on a scale of x: 1” (p. 4). He states that when a person attempts to create and embody a superhero costume, one is instead reminded of all the ways that one is not a superhero: the “superhero costume betrays its nonexistence” (p. 4). This is because the superhero costume is not constructed of “fabric, foam rubber, or adamantium but of halftone dots, Pantone color values, inked containment lines and all the cartoonist’s sleight of hand” (p. 4). It is a drawing and to attempt to take it out of the context and into a new media, the realm of embodiment is like “one of those deep-sea creatures which evolved to thrive in the crushing darkness of the seabed” and “when you haul them up to the dazzling surface they burst” (p. 4).
Edwards, D. (2012). Widow Weaves a Wicked Web: Profile Squeezing into a Tight Catsuit, Scarlett Johansson Joins the Superheroes in Avengers Assemble. The Mirror (London, England). Retrieved from http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-287777985.html
In this short newspaper article, the author interviews actor Scarlett Johansson, who plays the female superhero Natasha Romanoff, or Black Widow, in the Iron Man and Avengers movies. As is often the case with female action heroes (see Anne Hathaway or Michelle Pfieffer as Catwoman, Kate Beckinsale as Selene, etc.) the focus in the headline and as part of the interview is the skin-tight leather or PVC suit: how to fit into it, what it was like to wear it, or how good the actress looks in it. In this interview, Johansson makes some interesting observations about sex appeal and the embodiment of portraying a female action hero. She acknowledges that she did not want to part of being one of the “superheroine characters [who] are relying on their sexuality and being posy and sexy as opposed to being badass” (p. 5). She also states that when she met with Marvel, she understood the intention to be to “get away from that overly sexy superheroine thing” (p. 5). She also speaks about the physicality of the role, both in terms of its empowerment and its limitations: the physical part was “one of the most challenging things” and she discovered she needed “an ice pack too for all of [her] injuries” (p. 5) However after months training to get in shape both for the action nature of the role and “to ensure she could squeeze into her character’s trademark catsuit” Johansson admits that she discovered the fun and power of what she was capable of physically, something she had not known previously as she “wasn’t an athlete growing up” (p. 5). After fielding yet another question about her “striking good looks” and figure, Johansson dismisses it with “I think that’s just a by-product of being curvy. I never think about it, except when I get constant questions in interviews about sexuality. I really have nothing to say about any of that stuff because it’s so boring” (p. 5)
Yet, Black Widow’s superhero uniform is a skin-tight leather suit and high-heeled boots, one that demonstrates her curves and has ties to the fetish community. Although Johansson claims that her and Marvel’s intentions are not to portray the overly sexy superheroine, clearly the costume is designed to be sexy. So the idea of what is “overly sexy” or how the sexuality is used is called into question. Black Widow never exploits her sexuality as a superpower or a ploy, something that Charlie’s Angels or Foxy Brown did. It is also clear that the appeal of the actor in the catsuit is part of what markets the movie, but that is something that the actor herself finds tiresome.
I intend to bring in some of these mainstream media examples of fetishizing the female action hero costume in my analysis of the corset and catsuit as a commodity.