SOAN2400 Ch. 10 The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity (Susan Bordo)
Reconstructing Feminist Discourse on the Body
- a powerful symbolic form, a surface on which the central rules, hierarchies, and even
metaphysical commitments of a culture are inscribed and thus reinforced through the
concrete language of the body. (Mary Douglas)
- Operate as a metaphor for culture.
- Not only a text of culture, a practical, direct locus of social control (Philosopher Michel
- Our conscious politics, social commitments, and strivings for change may be undermined
and betrayed by the life of our bodies.
- Through the organization and regulation of the time, space, and movements of our daily
lives, our bodies are trained, shaped, and impressed with the stamp of prevailing
historical forms of selfhood, desire, masculinity and femininity.
- There is a pursuit of an ever-changing homogenizing, elusive ideal of femininity
o Ex. Requirement to minute and whimsical changes in fashion: female bodies
become docile bodies
o Normalizing discipline of diet, makeup, and dress
- Docile bodies: bodies whose forces and energies are habituated to external regulation,
subjection, transformation, and ‘improvement’
- Women are rendered less socially oriented and more centripetally focused on self-
- Practices of femininity may lead us to utter demoralization, debilitation, and death
because we continue to memorize on our bodies, the feel and conviction of lack, of
insufficiency, of never being good enough. Cynthia Chen
- Normalization of the female body – perhaps the only gender oppression that exercises
itself: across age, race, class and sexual orientation
Backlash phenomenon – reasserting existing gender configurations against any attempts to shift
or transform power relations in our narcissistic and visually-oriented culture.
Ex. Dominant visual theme in teenage magazines involving women hiding in the
shadows of men, seeking solace in their arms.
Ex. The contemporary aesthetic ideal of women
Developing a discourse of the female body
Philosopher Michel Foucault on developing a female body discourse
1. Abandon the idea of power as something possessed by one group and levelled against
another: must think of the network of practices, institutions, and technologies that
sustain positions of dominance and subordination in a particular domain
2. Analytics to describe a power whose central mechanisms are not repressive, but
constitutive: to generate and grow forces rather than to impede and submit/destroy
3. Need a discourse that will account for potential rebellion, to confront the mechanisms
by which the subject is in collusion with forces that sustain her own oppression
The body as a Text of Femininity
- There is a continuum between female disorder and ‘normal’feminine practice
- Disorders have varied historically
o Ex. Neurasthenia and hysteria in the second half of the 19 century
o Agoraphobia, anorexia nervosa and bulimia in second half of the 20 century
- Symptomatology of disorders reveals itself as textuality Cynthia Chen
o Ex. Symptoms such as loss of mobility, inability to leave the home, starving
oneself…etc. – all have symbolic meaning
- The ideological construction of femininity is always homogenizing and normalizing,
erasing racial, class, and other differences and insisting that all women aspire to a
coercive, standardized ideal.
- Construction of femininity is also written in disturbingly concrete, hyperbolic terms:
exaggerated, extremely literal, at times virtually caricatured presentations of the ruling
- The 19 century ‘lady’was idealized in terms of delicacy and dreaminess, sexual
passivity, and a charmingly labile and capricious emotionality.
- With the advent of movies and television, the rules for femininity have come to be
culturally transmitted more and more through standardized visual images.
o As a result, femininity itself has come to be largely a matter of constructing