Barbie Bardot and Reclaiming Womans Body
by Patricia Yongue
In an era when activist women are vigorously reclaiming a wholeness, an integrity, lost under patriarchal domination, the visual and verbal representation of woman as a sexual/maternal body part, at the most a peculiar assemblage or dissemination of such parts on a male-owned site, just as vigorously continues. Facing the threat to its privileged position of control over the female body and, of course, the cultural perceptions of it, patriarchy has intensified its practice of mutilating, abjecting, and fetishizing the female body, which becomes the mutilation, abjection, and fetishizing of woman herself. Facing the threat to a passive role with which they have become familiar and for which they are familiarly rewarded, passivist women continue to collude and to accept plasticity. In toy departments, "Barbie" doll has made herreappearance in life-size form as the visual and tactile testimony to what woman has become.
Despite their claims to political, intellectual, and technical radicalness, mainstream literature and the arts remain radically conservative in their treatment and positioning of women. Often they operate on the female no differently from lurid productions and hence cannot make claim to authentic rejection of oppression. Seldom naming or picturing the penis or testicles, they have always felt free to dismember and disburse the female in their texts and depictions, to name and use distinctly female body parts as objects of male lust, desire, aggression, and play.
Current examples are not difficult to locate. Philp Roth's The Breast immediately comes to mind. The latest edition of William Gass' 1968 book, Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, yet has as its front and back covers full size photographic images of female breasts and buttocks, respectively. The short text itself is liberally supplied with erotic photos of a nude young woman (often, just parts of her) and also with verbal images confining woman to a partial existence as a bodily part and the plaything of the man (not to mention of the text). During a plenary session at a recent scholarly literary conference I attended, the audience, at least half of it women, was treated to several minutes of one man reading, from another man's new novel, that singular passage describing a woman's buttocks. Nowhere at the conference is/was man's body so featured.
Since, in the dominating strains of Western philosophy, the female is but a fraction of the male to start with,— because she lacks the significant and signifying male part—to be a part/ apart from the male in a secondary way is her acceptable destiny and identity. The parts she has—rather, the parts that "count"—likewise define her. Either way, she loses. Without them she is the object of revulsion. She is unfeminine. She is unsightly. Invisible. With them, however, she is simultaneously the plaster, plastic goddess and the devouring monster. Venus (without arms). Medea. Medusa. Many post-structuralist theorists trace this oppressive practice to a culturally-mandated unhealthy passage through the pre-oedipal, mirror, and oedipal stages of psychological development—in Lancanian theory, the stages crucial to language and perception, thus to the production of textual and visual images. In "1/2 of a 1/2 of a 1/2," the artist Matuschka, whose body has been mutilated, organically by breast cancer, technologically by the surgical amputation of her right breast, and culturally, her work says, by being a woman in a world that desecrates the whole woman, reacts with an aggressive certification of her wholeness. This wholeness is a wholeness of self as an individual whose individuality is a fractal (rather than fraction) of daughter, granddaughter, citizen, artist, writer, speaker, reader, thinker, consumer, lover, patient, amputee, poser, environmentalist, technologist, etc. Matuschka pronounces her body, which, even in her photographic work before her mastectomy, is the primary physical object (photographic subject) of her camera lens and artistic, ideologicaleye. Despite the loss of breast, there is no minimizing or minimalizing of the body. It is there, it is focal, it is hers. Matuschka's exhibitions of photographic images and connective text— "1/2 of a 1/2 of a 1/2," have been outrightly called exhibitionism. Viewers have suggested that her work is largely insensitive to women who have had mastectomies. I agree with neither reaction, although I suspect 'that most of the images, separately and as a unified body, do not have mass audience appeal, even among those who have had mastectomies.' Matuschka's combination of overt and often flamboyant portrayal of the mutilated and nude female body with covert (her "veiled") foldings and unfoldings of postmodernist theory and technique would be generally intimidating, not to mention misconstrued. She neither emphasizes the tendency to ashamedness or self-disgust, feelings which women are culturally induced to emphasize; nor does she valorize mutilation, illness, or secondariness.
In technique as well as theory, Matuschka ruptures traditional lines of thinking and seeing. She may, with the textual narrative that dialogues with the images and viewers, try to abrogate what she clearly understands, even intends, as the elongation and deepening of the usual, meaningful distance between the viewing subject and the photographic image. But the images are so striking and so violate cultural sentiments about women's bodies and mastectomy that, by themselves, they will offend those primed to be offended and resentful.
With the exception of the second image, a 9x12" tinted photographic portrait of her mother (head and shoulders), the images (most 11x14") are indeed all of Matuschka herself, nude or partially nude. The mother's elevated photo, along with the text issuing from it that tells us she re-entered the hospital with breast cancer two days after she brought her newborn son home, strikes an immediate sentimental note, and we are grabbed (Matuschka's mother died at forty-one; Matuschkaherself was operated on for breast cancer in 1991, at thirty-seven). But then it is all Matuschka, and, save for two images that are surfacely, parodically traditional (Madonna and The New Deal), where she is holding a baby at the place that cannot provide milk, there is no old sentiment. Some of the poses are solemn and elegant (Pink Lady Classic Nude), some are whimsical (Mermaid), some are, shall we say, avant-garde (Arms Around Tou). All challenge the binary system and symmetrical doubling challenged by the woman without breast(s).
The central site of most of the images is the site of Matuschka's missing breast. A three-image, light-oriented series adjacent to the mother's photograph and to the viewer's left, entitled Two Weeks after the Mastectomy, depicts Matuschka holding her hand over the place where the breast once was. On her left and positioned between her knees and ankles, is aragged hole in the wall. The hole in the wall and the hand over the hole in the chest are veiled or revealed by a specular light depending upon the order in which the images are viewed. The wall symbolizes the barrier to her sense of wholeness created by real loss and constructed, worsened, by societal devaluation of the breastless woman. The hole, as much a womb image as of an amputated breast (and of a space where there is no "thing" for a camera to objectify), is where the whole of the story begins to take shape and she, like the camera and the viewer, must fill the space that is still her with herself.
After this series, the absence of the breast is profoundly recognized in most of the other images by the presence of a large, ragged scar. Geometrically, each image, and Matuschka's body itself, is divided in half and usually in half again, to represent the linear, Euclidean world of spatiality and shape privileged in the manmade world which also privileges man's vision. These halvings ironically mimic the natural body lines and mimic also the societal sectoring/mapping of the body according to certain meanings that are not biological ones. The scar, the seam literally fusing the separated skin and tissue after the excision of the breast, represents the seam that is the "seem" of Matuschka's one-eighth existence as a woman without a breast. That woman is virtually a non-human, in terms of how she is culturally perceived and treated and how she is taught to perceive herself. The scar is man's mark on her.
This monstrosizing makes Matuschka unappeasingly angry. Her anger appears most stridently in her larger poster and collage style images and in the conditional humor of her Hitler masque (I Am One Woman) At the same time, in her Foucauldian schema, where she resolves some of her anger, that seam makes her whole, not merely because a surgical incision has been sutured, but because now she represents—seems—the wholeness of humanity. She is the otherness we all fear and repress and yet are. She uses her own beautiful body, scarred but conditioned and cared for, to represent the whole beauty of woman. The fraction is subsumed by the fractal, perhaps the kaleidoscopic image, where privilege is universal. If one sector disappears, the others reform and there is never a hole, only a whole that is the site of an aesthetic and an ethic. The images as a cluster accomplish this (in part) by avoiding chronological and embracing carnivalesque arrangement. For me, personally, one of the most dramatically compelling of the images is compelling in itself and because of all the images that swirl around it, that integrate historic and historical, but especially Two Weeks After. This is Two Days Before My Mastectomy, which leaves the woman viewer no option but to observe it as if she were observing herself in a mirror and experiencing what it must feel like to know that one of those two uptiltcd, full breasts that are an authentic part of her and yet the part society inauthentically deems the most desirable was going to be cut off to save her life. Like myself, most of the women viewers I observed got very close to the image, closer than to any of the others. When we did, we saw the embryonic, blurred markings of disease, the theater where the biopsy was performed, the blueprint showing where the distinctive scar would be.
Technology, its positive and negative dimension, is a repeated theme. Matuschka shows and tells of the partitioning, immobilizing, and silencing of woman through the instrument of the camera—used in ads, fashion photography, porn, film, illustrations, etc.—until she herself is nothing more than another piece of technology (like Barbied and earlier Bardoted women) aimed to destroy other women, a concept poet Emily Dickinson expresses stunningly in "My Life had stood a Loaded Gun." Matuschka knows she walks a fine line in using the camera both to parody her own parody of technological invasive-ness, violation, and objectification of the person/female and to redress a grievance done to woman. But she does it, adventurously.
In The New Deal, one of her more obviously political and I think successful images, Matuschka stands in a rural, vaguely edenic setting, holding an infant who is grasping at the breast scar, hands forming a roundness where there is now only a jagged line. It is a deceptively poignant scene—the simple, beautiful peasant mother who cannot nurse, the baby who is unhappy— whose poignancy stems much more from the implicit threat to the environment, the woman, and the infant posed by the very chemicals, including those from traditional photography, and technologies that decimated the original"new deal," that may have been the carcinogens at the root of the breast cancer, the unhappiness of mother and infant, and the use of even more chemicals and technology to remove the cancer and the breast.
In the spirit of environmental and personal health, Matuschka says she moved to the use of electronic reproduction of earlier images and of digital photography of more recent images. She feels the distancing, since a neutral third party (re)produces the images, but she feels that by avoiding exposure to chemicals she is expressing and doing something obviously consistent with the themes of her work. With wry humor, she says she also likes the clearer resolution of an image digitally reduced or enlarged. For her the camera and the computer provide more illumination than the mammograms and tests which failed to detect her carcinomas in sufficient time to prevent the radical surgery doctors said was her only option for survival. They enable a breast reconstruction of the only sort she will allow. •
Patricia Yongue is a Professor of English at the University of Houston.