Toni Morrison’s Sula & Feminism
Feminism, TONI MORRISON & SULA
Among the many themes that are woven so interestingly by Toni Morrison in her novel Sula, feminist themes will necessarily be the pivotal focus of this paper. Among the female themes so wonderfully presented in brush-strokes of humanity, ethnicity, culture and gender, the human body emerges again and again against a backdrop of what is happening to the body, within the body, and because of the body and its place in the culture of families and man-woman dynamics. Following a series of analyses of Sula, the paper will review several aspects of modern feminist theory through the positions taken by respected authors and feminists.
As to Sula, readers are not jerked suddenly into any heart-wrenching pathos or morbidity in Sula – nor are they coaxed into identifying with the underdog woman Eva and the other females in this cast of characters in Ohio (somewhere) in a pandering way through overpowering descriptive narrative. There is an intrinsic empathetic element to any believable character who has faced life-altering challenges, and that dynamic is certainly here as well.
Meanwhile, after Eva is abandoned by her husband BoyBoy, she is left with no identity and little else save her health, her heart and spirit, and her three children which she must now raise on her own. The empathetic part of this opening to Morrison’s book is not just that Eva has been left to fend for herself, but that she believed – as women do in her culture – that that being married meant that the husband would provide for all those things a woman needed. The women in her society have only one means of self-realization, and that is marriage.
The Explicator, Rose De Angelis: Her pride tells her “that she must journey elsewhere” if she hopes to build a new financial future for herself, writes Rose De Angelis in the Explicator (De Angeles 2002). So Eva leaves the Bottom, in search of survival tools, financial security and personal fulfillment; she has $1.65, “five eggs, three beets and no idea of what or how to feel,” Morrison writes (32). But she was woman enough to “postpone her anger for two years until she had both the time and the energy for it.”
And 18 months later, “with two crutches, a new black pocketbook, and one leg” (Morrison 35), Eva returns. During the next five years, she builds a house big enough for her children, occasional friends, the Deweys, and “a retinue of boarders” De Angelis writes.
At this point, it is clear that Morrison has created a fictional black woman with courage and resilience, with stamina and some business savvy too. The survivor Eva is transformed into feminist Eva, fighter Eva, entrepreneur Eva, because she has already transcended the cultural, social and historical restrictions on acceptable female behavior – not to mention the restrictions placed on her because of the tone of her ebony skin.
And so in her new life she rents her spare room to a “constant stream of borders” and to “newly married couples,” De Angelis continues. She is now also a woman who – instead of counting on an unreliable husband for sustenance and support – counts on herself, and is quite satisfied “holding court” (De Angeles).
Eva also becomes a storyteller, “inventing and reinventing the origins of her good fortune,” De Angeles explains. She also gains control over something that had been explicitly denied to her – and in the big picture, is denied to millions of women world-wide – and that is her “authorship of her ‘self’.” She is not just a woman, of course; she is a black woman, and the reality and regenerative flow of her revitalized being is now the subject being spewed forth in her many stories. Being a storyteller of course is the very epitome of exuding power. The power of knowledge and expression, so long denied to her, is now in her hands.
She tells stories of her past, her present, and always the theme of economic prosperity and her defining new moments as a provider, woman, lover and storyteller. How does her lost leg come into her journey out of poverty and bleakness? That is not directly addressed, and De Angelis writes that “no one confronts her with questions about it.”
Eva writes herself into the role of sexual object; “the Peace women simply loved maleness, for its own sake,” Morrison explains (41). Eva had a “regular flock of gentleman callers,” but did not have sexual relations with them; just “teasing and pecking and laughter.” But Eva’s daughter Hannah, following the death of her husband, certainly was engaging when it came to sexual relations with men, “mostly the husbands of her friends and neighbors.” She “rippled with sex” (42)
The author makes a very serious point about the difference between Eva, the mother, one generation, and Hannah, the daughter, another generation. The juxtaposition of the two women is stunning. While Eva “…tested and argued with her men” (p. 43) and left them feeling as though they had been “in combat with a worthy, if amiable foe,” Hanna made a man feel as though “he were complete and wonderful just as he was – he didn’t need fixing – and so he relaxed and swooned in the Hanna-light that shone on him simply because he was.” All this narrative explaining why Hanna had so many men, was so smooth and beautiful, and said “Hey sugar” like no other woman in the world, is by way of setting up the juxtaposition between the two women. Mom, with one leg and a new-found freedom to become a strong woman, an independent woman following the dumping by her BoyBoy husband.
Morrison is painting a picture here. Hannah sounds like a woman who can’t get by for five minutes without a man’s hands on her body. She would take the man down “into the cellar in the summer” (p. 43) back behind the coal bin where is was cool, and screw on the newspapers. In the winter, she and her lover have sex “up against shelves she had filled with canned goods, or lie on the flour sack just under the rows of tiny green peppers.”
And when those places to fornicate were not available, she and whoever she was having sex with would utilize the “seldom-used parlor” – or even go up to her bedroom; Sula slept in that room, but that wasn’t why Hannah preferred not to have sex there. It was that her lovers tended to fall asleep after sex, and sleeping with someone implied “…a measure of trust and a definite commitment.” This well-written passage is certainly intended to be both sensual and pathetic, both sexually provocative and socially troubling. And it achieved both those ends.
She would ***** practically anything…” And by Hannah fornicating around the house, in the pantry, mostly during the daytime, “Sula learned that sex was pleasant and frequent, but otherwise unremarkable.”
The local whores resented Hannah’s generosity; she was giving sex away for free, while they were “hard put to find trade among black men…” (which implies there wasn’t much money floating around to keep hookers financially secure). Here we have another Morrison juxtaposition, another irony, another kick in the teeth of feminism – or is it? Hannah had few female friends, and that is no surprise, considering that she was having quick sexual trysts with the husbands and boyfriends of her friends and neighbors. Even the “newly married couples” that Eva took in as boarders “soon learned what a hazard she was.” Why, Hannah could “break up a marriage before it had even become one – she would make love to the new groom and wash his wife’s dishes all in an afternoon” (p. 44).
Hannah wanted – and got – some “touching every day.” Doesn’t almost every woman want touching, loving, cuddling, warm conversation and intimate moments with her man, on a daily basis? But touching with any man? Letting a different man each day slide his fingers up Hanna’s dress? The husband of one’s neighbor? The man who is about to marry the woman down the street gets charmed into slipping into the pantry and having intercourse on a flour sack for a six-minute tryst?
What’s the message here from Morrison? This is fiction of course, but she is Toni Morrison, writer of meaningful and critically acclaimed material that is the subject of late night literary discussions from Boston to Bangkok. Literature this sexy and involving women in such a stimulating genre of course is the straw that stirs discussion about women and sex, feminism, the role of men and women in American historical contexts, and of course African-Americans and sex.
One of Morrison’s powerful themes in this novel is the strength of friendships (not lesbian friendships) between female characters, which leads to a sense that women have more power than they give themselves credit for when considering confrontations with men. It is a sense that bonding builds better women, and always there is the sensuality within the building of that bond (and isn’t sensuality a pivotal ace in the hands of women who want to be feminine and also impervious to shallow, temporary pain?).
From girlhood,” Sula shows a natural gift for daring, Lorie Watkins Fulton writes in African-American Review (Fulton, 2006). Sula in fact persuades Nel to join up with her in order to confront the bullies on Carpenter’s Road; and when Sula shows the guts to pull her grandma’s paring knife from her pocket and slice a piece of her finger off, the boys star “open-mouthed at the wound” (Morrison 54).
If I can do that to myself, what you suppose I’ll do to you?” (54-55) Sula asks the shocked bullies. Nel is impressed, the boys back off, and a feminine-strengthening act by Sula helps build an even stronger friendship between Sula and Nel. On page 58 of the book, an important passage leaves alert readers with memorable imagery – for some it relates back to their youth, and for others it builds up something that was perhaps left out of their youth – to discuss in class or with a fellow student on the back patio.
Nel and Sula are playing together in a rather erotic but wholly innocent moment, and Fulton’s take on that scene is that Morrison is emulating Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, but only up to a point. In Woolf’s book, women do become involved in homosexual activities. Meanwhile, Nel and Sula stroke blades of grass “up and down, up and down,” which is an obvious sexual pantomime.
Nel finds a nice twig and strips the bark away so what’s left is “a smooth, creamy innocence.” Sula follows suit; and when both twigs were “undressed” Nel moved into the “next stage” (then joined by Sula) as both eventually began poking their bark-less (phallic-inspired) twigs “rhythmically and intensely into the earth.” Each started with a separate hole, but in the end, “…the two holes were one and the same.” That is a very erotic scene, one that can cause arousal in the reader, and yet at the same time, it is entirely innocent, and brings with it the theme of genuine feminine sweetness.
Nel’s twig breaks though, and she throws it into the hole; in order to move into a closer bond with her friend, Sula breaks hers on purpose, and throws it in. They both “replaced the soil and covered the entire grave with uprooted grass” (Sula 59). “Neither had spoken a word,” the author added. So very kind and warm though that child-driven scene was, Morrison did not let the two continue on such a soft path later in life. When Sula returned to Medallion, and jump-started her friendship with Nel, the two are put to the ultimate female test.
Nel stumbles upon an incident with her husband and Sula “down on all fours naked, not touching except their lips right down there on the floor” (Sula, 105). Nel narrates to her husband Jude, saying that she expected Sula to “…say one of those lovely college words like aesthetic or rapport, which I never understood but which I loved because they sounded so comfortable and firm” (Sula, 105). As Sula sat naked on the bed, “not even bothering to put on her clothes” because in reality she didn’t need to; “she didn’t look naked to me, only you did.” This embarrassing scene would keep the two women from being as close as they once were, and Morrison “deconstructs the affair in light of Sula and Nel’s friendship.” Clearly, Sula marches to an “alternative morality,” as Fulton puts it; Sula has “no affection for money, property, or things, no greed, no desire to command attention or compliments – no ego” (Sula 119). And along with that morality Sula had “no thought at all of causing Nel pain when she bedded down with Jude.” Jude, of course, left Nel – in the same manner as BoyBoy left Eva earlier in the novel – and with Nel now living alone, she had plenty of time to reflect on how Sula had hurt her.
As for Sula, she had grown up in a house “with women who thought all men available” (Sula 119) so why wouldn’t she just take what was there when it was available, as Jude obviously was? Here is a lesson in the fact that people are products of their environments; they are not necessarily products of their cultures, but of their immediate environments. Hannah had sex, casual quick sex, with men all the time, and Sula saw that and figured, hey, that’s how it works. And Nel, meantime got hurt, while Sula “was ill prepared for the possessiveness of the one person she felt close to” (Sula 119).
On this very subject, black sexuality (the myths and the reality) and the values that emerge from the environments in which people are raised, author Patricia Hill Collins in her book Black Feminist thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, writes that there is a “mythical norm” (Collins, 165) that while “financially independent, white middle-class families” are built around a “monogamous heterosexual couple,” the African-American family are “stigmatized” as “deviant people.” This “myth,” Collins continues, carries through and there are always allegations – though in the main they are false – about “black sexuality.” However, Collins quotes Cheryl Clark, while black folks “have expended much energy trying to debunk the racist mythology which says our sexuality is depraved,” there are “many of us” who, “unfortunately” (165), Clark continues, “have overcompensated and assimilated… [and as a result] black folk have to live with the contradictions…by repressing or closeting any other sexual/erotic urges, feelings or desires.” Those repressed urges notwithstanding, Collins asserts that “…all Black women are affected by the widespread controlling image that African-American women are promiscuous, potential prostitutes.”
Toni Morrison does little to debunk the myths mentioned above, but of course that is not the novelist’s job. On pages 145-146, with Sula apparently on her deathbed, “her face glisten[ing] with the dew of fever,” Sula launches into a nasty, albeit brilliantly twisted soliloquy:
After all the old women have lain with the teen-agers; when all the young girls have slept with their old drunken uncles; after all the black men ***** all the white ones; when all the white women kiss all the black ones; when all the guards have raped all the jailbirds and after all the whores make love to their grannies; after all the faggots get their mother’s trim; when Lindbergh sleeps with Bessie Smith and Norma Shearer makes it with Stepin Fetchit; after all the dogs have *****ed all the cats and every weathervane on every barn flies off the roof to mount the hogs…then there’ll be a little love left over for me.”
Critic Biman Basu, writing in College Literature (Basu, 1996), notes that that the paragraph above represents the language genius of Morrison, as the passage presents “a bizarre coupling of crime and punishment, of criminals and the custodians of culture, or of law and lawlessness.” These eight units, Basu asserts, “transgress sexual boundaries in their movement toward homosexuality and incest.” But the last unit is “most spectacular in its embodiment of the grotesque,” according to Basu’s interpretation. The weathervane that “flies off the roof to mount the hogs” is “unleashed from all referential burden,” Basu writes, “and strains toward an ontologically other embodied in the grotesque.”
But raw and even hideous though those images may be, they do “celebrate the sheer material abundance of the body and of language,” Basu continues, “one embedded in the other, one which both threatens and impels the other.”
The novel also portrays male sexuality and male gentility too, of course; older men are mostly gentlemen, as many men in the greater society surely are; and younger men are portrayed by Morrison as horny aggressive young studs, which many younger men certainly are. When women were walking to the ice cream parlor (Sula, 49), the wind pushed their dresses “into the creases of their behinds” and allowed those with good enough eyes to “peek at their cotton underwear.” And the men, old ones, “tipped their hats” as the ladies passed by, while young men “opened and closed their thighs.” Those are fairly universal themes, but written in believable narrative by Morrison, they add a social fullness to the plot.)
And always within this story, the message is not just about characters – it’s about bodies in the genre of feminism at work and feminism asleep, if you will. A great deal of discussion revolves around Toni Morrison and a feminism that questions the harmfulness of society’s obsessing over how a woman should look. But the pressure is real. And the discussion goes further than Morrison; much further than Morrison.
MODERN FEMINIST VIEWPOINTS & THEORY
To come to terms with the female body, Joan Jacobs Brumberg writes that “…the body…provides an important means of self-definition, a way to visibly announce who you are to the world” (the Body Project, 97). With only one leg, Eva is surely announcing to the world that she is different, radically, physically, femininely different from all other women. Eva has certainly crafted a new story for herself. it’s not about sex, about what a great storyteller Eva is, and what a great hostess and mother.
Legs come and go. But women’s hearts and personalities stay forever, once you meet someone thoroughly unique like Eva. Rosemarie Garland Thompson (Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature) commented on Morrison’s missing leg; “By flaunting rather than obscuring…physical differences, [Morrison] establish[es] the extraordinary body as a site of historical inscription rather than physical deviance and simultaneously repudiate[s] such cultural master narratives as normalcy, wholeness, and the feminine ideal” (Thompson 241-42).
Joan Jacobs Brumberg – the Body Project & Girl Culture: Indeed there is nothing deviant about the missing leg in Morrison’s narrative; it just isn’t there, and Eva never alludes to it. it’s Morrison’s way Brumberg, professor at Cornell University and well-known feminist author, wrote an essay called Girl Culture, (2002) that offered a positive critique on Lauren Greenfield’s photographic vision of contemporary girl culture. In the essay, Brumberg writes that “a century ago, the culture of girls was still rooted in family, school, and community.” Girls at the turn of the century knew about sewing, knitting, “generating homemade crafts” to decorate their room or give to friends. And when girls got together, they chatted about “new hair ribbons and dress styles” and when by themselves they “wrote earnestly in their diaries about how they wanted to improve themselves or become more serious people.”
But a hundred years later, girl culture is driven “largely by commercial forces outside the family and local community.” It is now a matter of “anxiety” where before it was “innocence.” And notwithstanding the significant gains women have made in “achieving greater access to education, power, and all forms of self-expression, including sexual,” Brumberg continues, “we have a sense of disquiet about what has happened to our girls.” In her book the Body Project, Brumberg explains, “I argued that our current cultural environment is especially ‘toxic’ for adolescent girls because of the anxieties it generates about the developing female body and sexuality.”
More and more young women are growing up, Brumberg asserts, “believing there ‘good looks’ – rather than ‘good works’ – were the highest form of female perfection.” Greenfield’s “arresting collection” of photos (Fast Forward – Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood) “deftly captures the exhibitionist nature of contemporary American femininity in garish images of glitzy porn stars and exotic dancers, ambitious models and edgy actresses.”
At this point it seems a pertinent juncture to jump in with what seems to be Morrison’s review of a feminine epoch that has passed by – an apt description of Eva. In unison with what Brumberg wrote about the young women of the early twentieth century who learned to make crafts (e.g., make do with homemade art), joined brownie scouts and gave homemade things to mom or dressed up their rooms with them, Morrison describes Eva on page 41 as a women of substance. Yes, the Peace women “simply loved maleness, for its own sake” and Eva had regular male visitors; and yes there was “teasing and pecking and laughter.”
But these were not necessarily sexual encounters for Eva. The men just wanted to hang out with and be close to Eva’s good female vibes; they wanted to see her “lovely calf” and witness the “joy in her face as they settled down to play checkers” (41). Checkers as a chosen activity by Morrison is certainly a throwback activity to an earlier time – a symbol of a time with less sexual tension in less commercialization of sex and women in American contemporary life. And though the men knew she would likely beat them (a smart woman should always beat an man since she pays closer attention and his mind drifts to thoughts of sex), “somehow, in her presence, it was they who had won something.”
And the men visiting her read the newspaper to her, and made comments about what it was they were reading; but if she disagreed, “she argued with them with such an absence of bile, such a concentration of manlove, that they felt their convictions solidified by her disagreement.” This is Morrison’s woman of substance, the woman who is feminine but Hannah on the other hand, definitely a member of the Peace household because like her mom, she “loved all men.” But this was a different love. Hannah’s sexually-saturated love was perhaps what Morrison the author and feminist sees as today’s commercially-driven pathological passion for looking pretty like the movie stars, and getting a lot of action, none of it with any meaning at all beyond coitus and superficial sensual satisfaction.
Hannah indeed seemed to be charmed – her beauty and sexuality certainly helped her – to be able to get sex whenever she wanted it. Morrison points out that men didn’t gossip about her – which is very unusual because men are known to tell stories “out of school” – partly because she was so kind and generous. The average sexpot, at least the image of the coquette who fools around a lot with a lot of men, gets a reputation for not only being an easy mark, but for being manipulative, conniving, “a *****” (in the male vernacular) perhaps as well. But not Hannah. She was a sweetie.
Moving back to Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s essay, she describes Greenfield’s photo essay as aptly depicting the real life and times of today’s girl; “With exhibitionism so much in vogue, sex without either privacy or intimacy seems an inevitable consequence.” Does that ring a bell? Does that sound a bit like Hannah – “without either privacy or intimacy”? At the age of four or five, even before today’s American “little girl” abandons her teddy bear she “embraces the erotic.” As the girls of today mature into adolescence – certainly Hannah fits in here -their “bodies dominate their emotional landscape more than anything else.”
One of Greenfield’s photos shows an “unhappy teenager, assessing her breasts in a dressing-room mirror while a girlfriend looks on”; and that portrait, Brumberg asserts, “stands as a powerful symbol of all the self-hate and ‘bad body fever’ that characterizes normal American women.” Yes, American women enjoy “consumption activities” like shopping, Brumberg goes on, but “many of us are plagued by a pervasive sense of not measuring up,” particularly in the dressing rooms where women spend substantial time picking out the right clothes to wear.
And while Hannah is thin, lithe and has a long neck, so too do today’s American girls “attach such a high value to being supremely thin.” Indeed, the anorectic, nowadays an iconic figure,” is well represented in Greenfield’s spread, as are women having breast implants and facial “lifts.” Even the familiar rites of passage such as graduation, Bat Mitzvah, prom and quinceanera, no longer carry “a great deal of emotional weight.” Rather, those are all about “frenetic forays into the marketplace,” severe worries about what should be worn, “and a preoccupation with the pictures that will document the event.” The bottom line of Brumberg’s essay is that yes, the “special psychological needs of adolescent girls and the superficial, narcissistic content of so much of what young people see in the popular media,” are disturbing.
But in the end it’s about bodies and trying (sometimes vainly) to live up to the hype of Hollywood and Revlon and Gucci. And in Greenfield’s much-heralded photographic presentation, while many of the girls and women are looking into mirrors and while most women “…understand this kind of hyper-concern because most of us have a love-hate relationship with out own full-length and magnifying mirrors,” the irony is that “in spite of how much American women and girls look at themselves, we are not a self-reflective society.”
And if we were, would American females be more like Eva and less like Hannah, charming and exotic and very sensually appealing though she surely is?
The Beauty Myth & the Silent Treatment – Naomi Wolf: this feminist author made quite a stir with her Beauty Myth book in 1991, which has as its basic thesis the following (according to Laura Bryannan): “The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us.” In the 1980s, the woman “breaches the power structure” (e.g., begins gaining political and corporate standing) and yet, Wolf groans, “eating disorders rose exponentially and cosmetic surgery became the fastest-growing specialty…”
There were archaic yet potent attitudes toward women a century ago, Wolf explains, in which “normal female activity, especially the kind that would lead women into power, was classified as ugly and sick.” In fact, there were whispers that if a woman engaged in too much reading, “her uterus would ‘atrophy.’” and if she went on reading her entire reproductive system would “collapse”; if she assertively pursued educational interests, she would become sterilized and surely become less sexually attractive. One can readily see that Victorian society – at least to some extent – embraced the idea that rather than lift herself up in the social milieu a woman was a womb to be busy producing offspring and having sex with a man. Her body was a factory, designed for action and at the pleasure of men.
Wolf doesn’t say it but Hannah would seem to be Morrison’s metaphor for the Victorian woman, not in the openly sexual promiscuousness that Hannah practiced, but in the use of a body for strictly sexual activity rather than intellectual pursuits. No doubt Morrison is acutely aware of the history of feminine struggles – and all the distasteful oppressive offerings of the past and present are likely reflected in some form through her characters and themes. During WWII women’s magazines emphasized that although “the war could not be won by lipstick” (Wolf) the bloodshed and raging fury in Europe and the Pacific did symbolize one of the reasons America was fighting, and that was for “the precious right of women to be feminine and lovely.”
So, the battle back home in women’s magazines was it was ok to work in the factories to be a productive part of the war effort, “so long as you stayed ‘feminine,’” Wolf recalls. But when the war ended, new attitudes and marketing campaigns hit the women’s magazines; Vogue “began to focus on the body as much as on the clothes,” Wolf writes in her book (reviewed by Bryannan).
In a stunning move,” Wolf continues, “an entire replacement culture was developed by naming a ‘problem’ where it had scarcely existed before, centering it on the women’s natural state.” And moreover, the marketing machine that dictated to women what was fashionably hip and sensually acceptable elevated that natural state to “the existential female dilemma… [and] the number of diet-related articles rose 70% from 1968 to 1972…the lucrative ‘transfer of guilt’ was resurrected just in time,” Wolf explains.
And today, Bryannan asserts that the “perfect” woman is pushed on society (and women in particular) as the gorgeous blonde, “sultry brunette…and exotic women of color” all of whom are tall and willowy, “weighing at least 20% less than what her height requires” and rarely looking over 25 years of age. So Wolf and other feminist writers pretty much line up and offer the identical view that the almighty Madison Avenue marketing machine has taught us what a female body should look like. But that’s only part of the ruse; the other more important part is that the American contemporary culture has signed on to the hype, bought into the myths, and helps perpetuate them.
The net effect of this advertising onslaught is that draws attention away from leadership issues, intellectual issues, and pays grand attention to the body; “if the public woman is stigmatized as too ‘pretty,’ she’s a threat, a rival,” Wolf insists, or she is simply not “serious” enough. And if she is deemed by public and her generation – through the lens of the probing media – as too “ugly,” she risks “tarring” herself as a person with a militant agenda, or simply not worthy of respect. It is indeed a pathetic reality that the female body is under such bright lights and scrutiny – all in the name of promoting what is thin, sexy and pretty, not that which is good and substantive.
Wolf’s assertion that a million American women fall prey to the ill effects of anorexia and bulimia annually – and that “one in five” female college students is anorexic – is based on 1999 data from the American Anorexia and Bulimia Association. Perhaps that 7-year-old information is outdated by now, along with the report that over 150,000 American women “die of anorexia” each year.
Wolf’s feature article in the New York Magazine – excerpted from her book the Silent Treatment – is a first person “tell-all” about a professor at Yale University who sexually harassed her when she was a student. The revelations she comes forward wouldn’t have received such notoriety had she not been a write of significance and success, but the entire ordeal she was put through – relating to a male in a position of power violating the dignity of a female body – wouldn’t have been such a negative event for Yale if the university hadn’t given her the runaround. Apparently Yale thought she was just go away; but after months of contacting high officials at Yale and being told they would “get back” to her – then being ignored – she decided to publish her story.
Once you have been sexually encroached upon by a professor, your faith in your work corrodes.” This is the pain females go through following an indecent advance such as professor Harold Bloom of Yale made to Wolf one night (when he had invited her to dinner ostensibly to review her poetry). And then when a woman is bureaucratically “stonewalled” while trying to get answers twenty years later, it just brings the pain back to the surface. Today’s feminist sees that women are expected to be pretty, thin, and bright; but when those attributes serve as a lure to the unconscionable advances of a lecherous person in a position of power, the unfairness and lack of civility one goes through to seek justice is almost too much to bear.
Wolf writes that “sexual encroachment in an educational context or a workplace is…a corruption of meritocracy”; and worse, when a person makes a legitimate, legal effort to address the wrongdoing (even out of the public eye), and is rebuked in that effort, something “terribly wrong” has occurred.
Hypatia, Susan Hekman: Meanwhile, Susan Bordo’s book – Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body – receives a scholarly critique by Susan Hekman in the journal Hypatia (Hekman, 1995). Hekman states that while Bordo has written a “feminist analysis of the body as it has been constructed in Western culture and language.” In the same article, Hekman reviews Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex; and though both of these books “challenge the gendered, hierarchicalized dualisms that have defined the body in that tradition,” they have very little in common. And that is because, according to Hekman, Bordo is carving out a “practical metaphysics of the body” while Butler is dealing with “theoretical metaphysics” of the body.
By saying that the body has “unbearable weight” Bordo is actually talking about that body as it appears in Western culture, albeit the bodies Bordo chooses to analyze have “weight and substance,” Hekman writes. Bordo has written a number of essays – including some in this book being reviewed – that embrace “the materiality” of the body, e.g., what most people would term the “real” body. She (Bordo) believes that the “real” body should be the focus of modern feminist theory and politics. Too many postmoderns tend to treat the body as “pure text,” and rather than admit to the materiality and locatedness of the body, they produce a “stylish nihilism” (Hekman quotes Bordo as saying).
Hekman goes on to say that in spite of her criticisms of postmodern tendencies towards seeing the body as “text,” Bordo herself has an “ambivalent” attitude towards postmodernism. It is worth looking at the definition of postmodernism apart from Bordo’s views. Dr. Mark Klages, Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of Colorado, first defines modernism as being about rationality and rationalization, “creating order out of chaos.” And postmodernism is “concerned with the question of the organization of knowledge”; you learn things, “not to know them, but to use that knowledge.” For example, the postmodernist’s question, “What will you actually do with your degree?” is more important than, say, “What did you learn in your major?”
And as for Bordo’s book, she uses the perspective of Michel Foucault (his theory of power) in weaving her theory into a structure and defining the “new scholarship” on the body. Bordo’s postmodernist insights on the body and on feminism are “grounded in experience,” Hekman writes, and yet Bordo insists that while the “central postmodern thesis” posits that feminists “must go beyond the dualisms that structure Western thought,” she clarifies that by saying that it can’t be done simply by defining the terms (“definitional fiat” as she puts it).
Bordo argues in her essay, “Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender Skepticism,” that if feminists try to incorporate “too many axes of analysis in their work,” the analytic focus might become “lost.” Despite the most “frantic attempt” to deconstruct gender “as an analytic category,” Bordo continues, very little effort has gone into deconstructing other analytic constructs – specifically, about “race and class.”
The problem with these deconstructions is that (Hekman paraphrases) “as women become subjects, subjectivity is deconstructed; as gender becomes a focus of analysis, it is likewise deconstructed.” And so, marching ahead with her own spin on what postmodern feminism must accomplish, Bordo she returns to the body; on the “cutting edge” of feminist theory should be analyses of “anorexia nervosa and bulimia,” she insists. These issues with the female body can’t be simply explained away by alluding to the “cult of slenderness” that is so prevalent in the contemporary Western culture, Bordo explains.
The problem of anorexia, hitherto theorized as either psychological or a medical issue, in Bordo’s view anorexia should be culturally defined as a “disease” – and she is quoted as saying “…the anorexic’s metaphysics makes explicit various elements, historically grounded in Plato and Augustine, that run deep in our culture.” As for bulimic woman, her problem is rooted in the “instant gratification of desire coupled with the demand for control, slenderness, and a taut body.” The bulimic “graphically illustrates the contradictory construction of self” in the American society, according to Hekman’s interpretation of Bordo’s essay.
While Hekman is clearly impressed with Bordo’s thesis that “gendered analyses” are in themselves “powerful tools of cultural critique”; she is also moved by Bordo’s belief that feminist analysis “grounded in the materiality of the female body yields fruitful results.”
As impressed with Bordo’s work as she may be, Hekman nonetheless senses an “unfinished quality” about the book inasmuch as Bordo doesn’t answer her own question: “How can we theorize the materiality of the body in relation to cultural constructions?”
In the book Revealing Male Bodies, Bordo writes about the “Cultural Perspective on the Matter of Size” (Bordo 19), and offers an ironic twist to the topic of female bodies, which will be addressed in the succeeding paragraphs. But first, Bordo describes a young girl, standing in front of her mirror, and though she has never been fat “to begin with,” she has been on a “no-fat” diet for two weeks and the 5′-4″ girl has reached her target weight of 115 pounds. “But goldsmith, she still looks dumpy,” Bordo explains. She is judging herself based on a Special K. TV commercial where a “really pretty woman” is charmed by her own attractiveness while wearing a “slinky, short, black dress.” This Special K. body has “long athletic legs, every curve perfect, lean-sexy, nothing to spare.”
When that commercial comes on the screen so tantalizingly, it brings out “self-hatred and shame” in the girl, Bordo continues (Bordo 19); the body in the commercial is “like a magnet for her eyes; she almost feels in love with her.” Still, the young girl in front of the mirror will never look like the Special K. specimen, no matter how many hours she sweats away on Stairmaster, the envy will always be there because its an unreachable goal for her. She looks at herself and sees thighs “that actually jiggle” and a butt that is “monstrous.” Face it girl, you’re “fat, gross, a dough girl.”
And so what is the upshot of all of this? It is depressing but true, Bordo explains, that when girls and women are “asked to draw their bodies, or indicate their body size with their hands, they almost always overestimate how much space they take up.” They see themselves as fat, too fat, no matter that they are actually thin. Once this phenomenon was known as a “body image distortion” only experienced by those women suffering from anorexia nervosa. But today, Bordo insists, “seeing ourselves as ‘too fat’ is a norm of female perception.”
What matters is not medically valid height and weight charts; what matters is “the gap between the self and the cultural images,” Bordo goes on. Women measure themselves (tragically) not against an “ideal of health, not even usually (although sometimes) against each other, but against created icons, fantasies-made-flesh.” And she is speaking flesh that is “designed to arouse admiration, envy, desire.”
In this essay, Bordo craftily compares a male “body-insecurity” issue (penis size) with the female body-insecurity issues she has previously discussed (Bordo 20). During her research on human bodies, Bordo read a 1996 study in which a pediatrician (Peter Lee) found that no matter what their actual dimensions, men “tend to underestimate their penis size.” This male phenomenon is, Bordo aptly states, “a mirror image of women’s perceptions of themselves as too big (even when they are at or below average weight)”; indeed, men often view their penises “as too small,” albeit doctors say four inches non-erect and six inches erect is “average.”
And Bordo (22) writes that in the same way that women fear they are not well-enough endowed as far as their breast size – to live up to media-promoted standards – men fear they may not be “well-hung”; hence, the breast implant industry thrives, and so does the penile augmentation industry is booming as well.
The quick lesson here from Bordo is, hey ladies, pay attention; you’re not alone in your obsessions. The men are right there with you, to a lesser degree, Bordo suggests; indeed men (although not mind-washed over the TV and movies to the extent that females are) have their own silly fears based on the image of “the magnificent male member” that men have gleaned from men’s magazines, the gymnasium (where well-hung dudes prevail), and other sources.
In Bordo’s book Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images from Plato to OJ, she zeros in on body issues; indeed, over a column and a half in the index is devoted to pages on the female body, from “acceptance of…alteration of…appearance of…” To “transcendence of…transformation of…use of…” And more. Any and all points-of-view on bodies and the culture that defines and demands certain physiology with reference to the female bodies are found within those dozens of indexed pages.
But meantime, the meat and potatoes of what Bordo believes should be studied with reference to the female body begins on page 183. Bordo asserts that her work on the body is “more ‘material’ than that of many other philosophers because I believe that the study of representations and cultural ‘discourse,’ while an important part of the cultural study of the body, cannot by itself stand as a history of the body.” Studies that fail to get “down and dirty with the body on the level of its practices – to look at what we are eating (or not eating), the lengths we will go to keep ourselves perpetually young, the practices that we engage in, our emulation of TV and pop icons,” miss the mark, Bordo concludes on page 184.
By “down and dirty” Bordo clearly means that high-tone studies of the cultural landscape with reference to women and the pressure to live up to a certain body image aren’t relevant, any more than the “most avant-garde images from Details or Interview magazine…” are relevant. In fact, speaking of Interview, Bordo (184) in discussing intellectual honesty – “intellectuals tend to grossly conflate the articulation of an idea or argument to their own satisfaction or excitement…with the ‘reality’ of things outside the domain of their own activity” – the author takes the gloves of with Interview’s editor, Ingrid Sischy.
In an editorial, Sischy remarked that we are living in an age in which “beauty has had ‘its chains taken off.’ Pardon me?” Bordo interjects. Sischy may look at the difference between “a skinny eighties model in a tailored suit and a skinny nineties model with a nose-ring as the difference between repression and liberation, but teenagers are still starving themselves, all the same.” As was noted earlier, Bordo likes it down and dirty in this genre, not lofty and vague.
Susan Bordo edits and contributes to the book Gender/Body/Knowledge: Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing; in her essay, “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity: A Feminist Appropriation of Foucault,” Bordo hits the nail on the proverbial literary head regarding the dual demands placed on today’s women. While young, “upwardly mobile women today continue to be taught traditionally ‘feminine’ virtues’” – to the extent that the professional market opens up for them – they are also expected to embrace “masculine” values and language, Bordo explains (Bordo, 19).
Self-control, determination, cool, emotional discipline, mastery,” and more are those masculine values today’s feminine woman is expected to fine-tune.
Our bodies, as we trudge to the gym every day and fiercely resist both our hungers and our desires to soothe an baby ourselves, are also becoming more and more practiced at the ‘male’ virtues of control and self-mastery. This, anyone buying into Bordo’s philosophy can clearly see, is an unreasonable set of demands on women, and it takes its toll (anorexia, etc.). And so, in the “pursuit of slenderness” and the denial of appetite that traditional, accepted construction of femininity “intersects with the new requirement for women to embody the ‘masculine’ values of the public arena,” Bordo offers. Such a construct – seen on TV through the series Aliens – is a “parody” of life in the real lanes of society, Bordo continues. but, somewhat cryptically, Bordo concludes that in our “image-bedazzled culture,” Americans have “increasing difficulty discriminating between parodies and possibilities for the self.”
Trying to be both masculine (to fit into the workplace and the cultural big picture) and feminine (keeping slim, pretty, desirable) – what Bordo calls the “androgynous” ideal – eventually reveals an “internal contradiction and becomes a war that tears the subject in two.”
In her book, Toni Morrison’s Developing Class Consciousness, author Doreatha Drummond Mbalia unfairly criticizes Morrison on page 28. Morrison’s belief that the primary cause of Sula’s demise is “gender oppression,” Mbalia asserts, is “incorrect and the solution – becoming an artist – a reflection of the author’s own immature consciousness.” Indeed, Morrison does stress gender oppression in Sula, but when Mbalia writes that the reality of “inferiority and superiority” in a society that is “inherently unjust” is “overshadowed” by Morrison’s emphasis on the gender oppression. Truth to tell, nothing is overshadowed by the characters and themes of Morrison’s Sula, except the lesser talent of other authors – African-American, Caucasian, Latino authors included – and the stumbling attempts of would-be scholars to figure it all out.
Basu, Biman. (1996). The Black voice and the language of the text: Toni Morrison’s “Sula.”
College Literature, 23(3), 88-104.
Bordo, Susan. (1992). Does Size Matter? In N. Tuana, W. Cowling, M. Hamington, G. Johnson,
T. MacMullan (Eds.), Revealing Male Bodies (pp. 19-37). Bloomington, in: Indiana
Bordo, Susan R. (1986). The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity: A Feminist
Appropriation of Foucault. In a.M. Jaggar & S.R. Bordo (Eds.), Gender/Body/Knowledge pp. 13-33). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Bordo, Susan. (1997). Twilight Zones: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images from Plato to OJ.
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Bryannan, Laura. (1991). The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf. Homestar. Retrieved 29 Nov. 2006 at http://homestar.org/bryannan/wolf.html.
Collins, Patricia Hill. (1990). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge.
Fulton, Lorie Watkins. (2006). “A Direction of one’s own”: alienation in Mrs. Dalloway and Sula. African-American Review, 40(1), 67-78.
Mbalia, Doreatha Drummond. (2004). Toni Morrison’s Developing Class Consciousness.
Cranbury, New Jersey: Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press.
Morrison, Toni. (1973). Sula. New York: Plume (Penguin) Books.
Wolf, Naomi. (2004). The Silent Treatment. New York Magazine. Retrieved 29 Nov. 2006 from http://www.nymag.com/nymetro/news/features/in_9932.