Woman as body

Abstract: Woman as Body’ interrogates the body/ mind divide in all Western thinking and the hierarchical binaries relegating the body to the female and the mind to the male. The subversion of this traditional hierarchy is effected in feminist theory by the valorisation of the female body, the demystification of the phallus and the deconstruction of heterosexuality as the norm. Issues of racism and subalternity are seen to make women’s bodies a site for exploitation and oppression whereas gender theories that deny the materiality of the body are seen as alienating women from their bodies and issues related to oppression.

Every mind resides in a body

Adrienne Rich

Whatever else we are or may pretend to be, we are our bodies

Germaine Greer.

Keywords: female/women’s body, phallus, discrimination, pioneering feminist theorists, literary representation, subaltern, female body constructed, metaethics of radical feminism, feminism, linguistic theory, gender equality, woman’s body objectification, men domination

At the heart of all traditional Western thought there lies the separation between mind and body, forming a hierarchy. As in all oppositional or binary divisions, here too one term gets historically privileged at the expense of the other. The privileged term, the mind, is associated with the male and the other, the body is linked to the female. The body traditionally associated with the female rather than the male, was considered antithetical to thinking and writing which are designated as pure intellectual activities of the mind, strictly under the control and guidance of the mental faculty. Much of subversive feminist thinking challenged this traditional opposition by a celebration or valorisation of the female body and challenged the subordination of the body to the mind. There was also the powerful challenge posed by ‘writing the body’ or ‘letting the body be heard’ (Cixous in Warhol and Herndl 350) and the refusal to separate the body and mind in the concept of l´ecriture feminine—where writing is no longer restricted to the mental faculty.

Feminist theory had imbibed from mainstream philosophical thought many assumptions regarding the role of the body in social, cultural, political, psychical and sexual life, including the misogyny inherent in these ‘universal’ assumptions. Elizabeth Grosz in her Volatile Bodies: Towards A Corporeal Feminism (1994) elaborates on the idea that the body becomes what is not mind, what is distinct from and other than the privileged term (3). Thus the body gets coded in terms that are traditionally devalued and comes to stand for a ‘brute givenness’ connected with animality and with ‘nature’ that needs transcendence (3).

The received history of philosophy makes us aware of the profound somatophobia inherent in philosophical thought from the time of its inception as a separate discipline in ancient Greece. Platonic philosophy had identified the body as antithetical to reason and as a prison house of the soul. Plato felt that it was imperative that the body with its unruly and irrational appetites be controlled and ruled over by reason/ mind/ soul. Aristotle went on to designate the maternal body as a mere receptacle for reproduction, a provider of formless, passive, shapeless matter which through the father attains shape, form, contour and specific features and attributes (5). Grosz seems to view this as the basis of the binarisation of the sexes. Within the Christian tradition, the hierarchical nature of the mind/ body divide is intensified as the mind or soul is associated with the immortal and the god-given and the body becomes the embodiment of mortality, lust and carnality. Until the coming of Christ who became the incarnation of the Word, there could be found nowhere in Christian theology, a reconciliation between the immortal and the mortal bodies. To Descartes is ascribed the concept of dualism which has influenced philosophical thought for over three centuries. According to the concept of Cartesian dualism the mind and body inhabit exclusive and self-contained spheres and are made up of two kinds of substances: a thinking substance (res cogitans, mind) and an extended substance (res extensa, body).

According to Descartes only the latter is considered part of nature and governed by its physical laws whereas the former is placed above the natural order. This was the basis for the elevation of the soul or consciousness above corporeality.

The body is primarily regarded as an object for the natural sciences, biology and medicine. The biologistic view of the body implies a fundamental connection between the human and animal life. In Christian theology also the body is part of the lower or mundane order and the activities, experiences, sensations and appetites of the body are seen to belong to a lower order (8). This also reinforces the idea of the essentialism of the body and the refusal to see the body as part of social constructivism.

The social devaluation of the body is also due to the concept of viewing the body as a receptacle for the mind/ will/ consciousness. The inherent misogyny in patriarchal thought finds self-justification for relegating women to a secondary social position by identifying women with the body. In patriarchal philosophies, the body as an instrument or tool is to be possessed and mastered, conditioned, disciplined and trained and the universal male appropriation of female bodies is seen as natural. As a passive object, woman’s body is seen to justify subduing and occupation. The colonisation of female bodies, sexuality and fertility are ongoing feminist concerns today and the interrogations started with pioneering feminist theorists like Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, Andrea Dworkin and Mary Daly.

In all patriarchal societies, woman’s social and economic roles are subordinated to the biological-sexual and maternal. Biological essentialism confers on women a biological universality unchanged by historical or cultural factors. While men are defined in non-corporeal or extra-corporeal terms, women are seen to be more often than not defined culturally in terms of their sexuality and their reproductive capacity.

The first chapter of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is entitled ‘The Data of Biology’ and it begins with the patriarchal definition of woman: ‘WOMAN? Very simple, say the fanciers of simple formulas: She is a womb, an ovary. She is female—this word is sufficient to define her’ (SS, 32). De Beauvoir goes on to elaborate that:

Everywhere at all times, the males have displayed their satisfaction in feeling that they are the lords of creation. ‘Blessed be God that he did not make me a woman’ say the Jews in their morning prayers [. . .] The first among the blessings for which Plato thanked the Gods was that he had been created free, not enslaved: the second, a man, not a woman. (21-22)

By identifying woman with the body, men re-enacted the myths of creation. Susan Gubar, in her ‘The Blank Page and the Issues of Female Creativity maintains that Pygmalion’s bringing to life a female body is really an evasion of the acknowledgement of the fact that ‘it is he who is really created out of and from the female body (Showalter, 1986, 292). The Female Eunuch (1970) by Germaine Greer is one of the pioneering works dealing with the patriarchal conditioning of the female body. She agrees with de Beauvoir that the appropriation and objectification of the female body can be seen as instrumental in reducing the female body to pure flesh so that it becomes mere physical property to be possessed by the male. ‘When a woman is given over to man as his property, he demands that she represent the flesh purely for its own sake. Her body [. . .] is perceived as a thing sunk deeply in its own immanence’ (SS, 190).

The reduction of woman to an erotic object propagates fetishisation of parts of the female body. Women are made to feel inadequate and insecure and capitulate to the patriarchal demand upon their bodies. Subjected to a controlling and evaluative male gaze, women continue to strive to measure up to exacting physical standards which are often physically impossible and culturally inappropriate. Michel Foucault’s theory of panopticism is made use of, in recent feminist theory, as an example of the mechanics of power exerted over women in patriarchal society. Enclosed within the ‘panopticon,’ the prison which is seemingly unenclosed but provided with a central surveillance system that keeps you subjected to an evaluative gaze, you are aware of the controlling gaze and consequently groom yourself for approval (Foucault, 138). Sandra Bartky, in her ‘Foucault, Femininity and the Modernisation of Patriarchal Power’ tries to analyze how the concept of femininity is constructed through disciplinary practices in order to suit media images of ideal feminine beauty. The easiest victim of consumer-culture, woman uses make-up and disguise to make her ‘deficient’ body attractive. All beauty-related advertising and the culture of beauty pageants thrive on this notion. According to Bartky, ‘In contemporary patriarchal culture, a panoptical male connoisseur resides within the consciousness of most women. They stand perpetually before his gaze and under his judgement. Woman lives her body as seen by another, an anonymous patriarchal other’ (Jackson et.al. 228). In this culture, women subject themselves to obsessive feminine preoccupations in trying to compete and measure up to cultural icons of femininity created through images or representations. However, the attention and admiration conferred on a sexy female body or a beautiful face fail to confer equality, social power, respect and dignity on women. For all the strict regime of self-discipline undertaken by women, their obsession with appearance and dress and grooming is trivialised by men. In the hierarchy of gender, beauty queens are rarely admired for anything other than their appearance and sex symbols are rarely considered actress-artists on the screen (229).

Bartky’s most fundamental thesis is that within the enduring legacy of patriarchy there is a modernisation of power and control exerted on women. Older forms of domination get replaced by newer ones. With the growing power of the image, ‘normative femininity is coming more to be centred on woman’s body—not its duties and obligations or even its capacity to bear children, but its sexuality, more precisely its presumed heterosexuality and its appearance’ (229). The woman who checks her make-up and hair-do half a dozen times a day and monitors everything she eats, according to Bartky, ‘has become an inmate of Panopticon, a self-policing subject, a self committed to relentless self-surveillance.’ This is seen as a form of obedience to patriarchy and woman becomes ‘a body designed to please or to excite’ (230). In patriarchal cultures, women thus come to internalise the ‘normative’ images of femininity and the inferior status conferred on them. Women have been conditioned to live their bodies as seen by another and in the process, lie with their bodies. According to Adrienne Rich:

We have been expected to lie with our bodies: to bleach, redden, unkink or curl our hair, pluck our eyebrows [. . .] glaze our finger and toe nails, wear clothes that emphasised our helplessness [. . .]

We have been required to tell different lies at different times depending on what the men of the time needed to hear. (On lies, 45)

A commercial enslavement of all categories of women to a transcultural consumerist culture is inevitably a consequence of this.

African-American feminist theorists show how black female criteria of aesthetic beauty are related to American bourgeoise value systems. Toni Morrison, in her first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), presents the tragedy of Pecola who pines for the blue eyes of Shirley Temple. In her Song of Solomon (1977), Hagar adopts the patriarchal society’s figuration of woman as object. She is quick and eager to attribute the indifference of her lover towards her to her deficient grooming and appearance. Gasing into the mirror she declares, ‘No wonder [. . .] Look at how I look. No wonder he didn’t want me. I look terrible’ (Morrison, 1977, 312). Hagar tries to purchase the American bourgeoise image of feminine beauty by spending an entire day shopping for items that would provide glamour and seductive charm—‘Playtex garter belt, Fruit of the loom panties, nylon slips, peachy powders, milky lotions and perfumes that promised temptation, intoxication and seduction’ (315). Hagar knows only too well that she cannot possess the physical attributes fetishised by her lover—‘silky penny-coloured hair,’ ‘lemon-coloured skin,’ ‘grey-blue eyes’ and a ‘thin nose’ (215). Her attempts to substitute and compensate for the lack of these by a cosmetic transformation ends in a grotesque parody.

The idea of feminine beauty as a measurable commodity further encourages the legitimisation of evaluative processes like beauty pageants. Woman’s inferiority is reinforced in being reduced to a fetishised object whose human value is assessed in terms of aesthetic self-presentation. Michael Awkward points out that beauty pageants serve as sites for the projection of many of masculinity’s seemingly contradictory versions of feminine beauty—virginal, yet sexually alluring, intelligent, yet naïve, simple and amiable, dependent, yet self-confident and poised. Patriarchy is very well able to disguise contradictory aspects of male desire as objective aesthetic appreciation and women are only too willing to collude in their own objectification (108). In her powerfully incisive work, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women (1990), Naomi Wolf maintains that we are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of feminine beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement. She stresses that ‘the ideology of beauty is the last one remaining of the feminine ideologies that still has the power to control women’ (10). It has taken over the work of social coercion that myths about motherhood, domesticity, chastity and passivity no longer can manage and remains ‘the last best belief system that keeps male dominance intact’ (12).

The internalisation of the fetishisation of the female body leads to tragic consequences including the commercialisation and exploitation of the female. Greer notes that ‘the treatment of women’s bodies as aesthetic bodies without function’ ceases at some point (24) and Simone de Beauvoir insists that woman ‘weighed down by maternities, loses her erotic attraction. Infirm, homely, old, woman is repellent’ (192). She feels that decrepitude in man too is terrifying but ‘it is upon woman’s body—this body which is destined for him—that man really encounters the deterioration of the flesh’ (192). It seems to be a transcultural phenomenon that the old woman, the homely woman and the diseased woman become objects of hatred mingled with fear. This is quite graphically illustrated in Mahasweta Devi’s short story ‘Stanadayini,’ translated as ‘Breast Giver’ by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Jashoda, the protagonist, is a subaltern whose husband Kangalicharan saw his wife merely as an instrumen of sexual pleasure and fetishised her ‘capacious bosom’ (Spivak, 223). When Kangali, lazy and irresponsible by nature, is crippled due to an accident caused by the youngest son of the wealthy household of the Haldars of Harisal, the mistress of the house employs Jashoda as a wet nurse for her grandchildren. Thus Jashoda becomes by profession Mother and her breasts assume a different role as her milk assumes surplus value or exchange value. Kangali happily fulfilled his duties as professional father as Jashoda could have milk in her breasts only if she had a child in her belly (228). Jashoda however fails to keep her prime forever and her fortunes decline. Jashoda, with her ‘aging milkless capacious breasts’ understood that her ‘usefulness had ended not only for the Haldar household but also for Kangali’ (232). The final blow comes when she is diagnosed as having breast cancer.

With the steady progress of the disease, Jashoda’s body manifested all the vulnerability of the flesh. Those who lusted after her now philosophised ‘on the end of that intoxicating bosom’ and maintained that man’s body is a zero. ‘To be crazy for that is to be crazy’ (239). Finally, forsaken by all, Jashoda dies alone. Spivak in ‘A Literary Representation of the Subaltern: A woman’s text from the Third World,’ subjects this text to multiple readings like the Marxist-Feminist, Liberal feminist and the French theories of the body. In her effort to focus on ‘the loneliness of the gendered subaltern,’ Spivak points out the dissimulations that contribute to the exploitation of woman’s body (253). Jashoda’s elevation into a ‘sort of living icon of the mythic Jashoda, the divine (foster) mother suckling the Holy Child’ is used to dissimulate her exploitation (265). Jashoda herself becomes the victim of the tragedy of self-deception. In the beginning of the narrative, she is objectified and eroticised as a sexual object. Later she is mystified and elevated into an icon of divine (foster) motherhood. Finally she is reduced to her body seen in terms of mere flesh. It is seen that fetishisation and idealisation of the female body do not in any way redeem woman from being ultimately identified with her ‘copulative and reproductive body’ (258). This is what Germaine Greer proclaims in her Female Eunuch: ‘Whatever else we are or may pretend to be, we are certainly our bodies’ (19).

In recent feminist theories of the body, the notion of ‘uncleanness’ associated with the female body is seen to be linked to the body secretions. Grosz points out that this may be due to the ‘common coding of the female body as a body which leaks, which bleeds, which is at the mercy of hormonal and reproductive functions’ (204). In her Powers of Horror: An essay on Abjection (1982), Julia Kristeva interrogates the issue of how and why some bodies or bodily processes have the power to horrify, to produce a physical shudder, a sense of both fascination and disgust. At the root of such responses, she identifies what she calls the abject. The abject is that which is of the body and which falls away from it and hence it cannot be identified either with the subject or the object. The abject can be taken as something that challenges boundaries, order and system and even identity (Kristeva, 1982, 4). Kristeva’s theory of abjection has been reworked in her theory of corporeality by Elizabeth Grosz especially with regard to the powers and dangers of body fluids. The body fluids are seen to be an inevitable condition of the corporeal nature of the body—‘necessary but embarrassing’ (194). It is however understood that there is a kind of hierarchy of property governing body fluids. Blood, sweat, vomit, saliva, phlegm, tears, menstrual blood, seminal fluids and other body secretions have different indices of control and inspire different degrees of disgust.

Mary Douglas in her Purity and Danger (1980) maintains that the fluids that are viscous, cloudy and sticky which infiltrate and seep are horrifying and deemed polluting. It is the production of these that render female sexuality and corporeality marginal.

These fluids being culturally unrepresentable have their implicit association with femininity and maternity. Douglas investigates the psychological and sociological status of different body fluids and feels that tears which are the ‘stuff of romantic poetry’ are elevated over the other body fluids because they are not related to the bodily functions of digestion and procreation (Douglas 125).

Grosz addresses the issue of hierarchisation of body fluids based on gender. She maintains that the seminal fluid is valued for ‘its capacity to fertilise, to father, to produce an object’ (199). Female bodies are however conceived of as receptacles of men’s body fluids, the nesting place of their product—the foetus. Finally asserting that women’s corporeality is ‘inscribed as a mode of seepage,’ Grosz investigates the manner in which the female body is constructed:

Can it be that, in the west, in our time, the female body has been constructed not only as a lack or absence but with more complexity as a leaking uncontrollable, seeping liquid: as a formless flow [. . .] a formlessness that engulfs all form, a disorder that threatens all order? (203)

Kristeva while distinguishing non-polluting body fluids from those that pollute and defile relegate excrement and menstrual blood to the latter category. Hence menstrual blood becomes associated with the characteristics of decay, infection, disease, corpse etc (206). This gets extended to the notion of the female body as the source of contamination and infection.

These cultural and psychical interpretations of the female body have become part of the contemporary AIDS discourse. Women are targeted by medical groups and community and social workers as the site and source of HIV infection. Diane Richardson in her article, ‘The Challenge of AIDS’ has suggested that not even the AIDS crises, has made men think of the consequences of their sexual behaviour in any serious manner, while women had always had to do so, whether in terms of the risk of pregnancy, health risks associated with the use of contraceptives or loss of reputation (Jackson et al 232). Richardson acknowledges that perhaps for the first time in human history, men started experiencing what women had been experiencing for centuries—the association between sex and danger (232). The association between death and desire was also nothing new for women who even now continue to face the danger of death in childbirth, in abortion, in sexual violence. The fear of death through disease was only an addition to these for women. As long as men consider aggressive, penetrative and unprotected sex only as erotic and masculine, the entire responsibility for safe-sex practices will fall on women and their survival as that of their partners will depend on them. The social stigma that surrounds AIDS has more tragic consequences for women than for men. Distinctions between clean and unclean women add a new dimension to women’s oppression.

History reveals that early gynaecology was entirely in the hands of men and that women were ignorant of their bodies. As Rich puts it, ‘we have had the truth of our bodies withheld from us or distorted. We have been kept in ignorance of our most intimate places’ (1979, 189). In the past, the invisibility of the female body coupled with its devaluation had assigned to it a deviant status. With the development of new medical imaging technologies, and the development of the medical speciality of endocrinology, the female body and its natural functions are pathologised further. In masculine scientific discourse, women are objectified and their bodies and minds are defined and controlled. Women’s bodies have become sites of medical practice in a way men’s have not. Every natural process in the body—menarche, conception, pregnancy, childbirth, menopause and ageing—is seen as a state of ill health requiring treatment. Women have now become mere consumers of healthcare systems.

Emily Martin in her ‘Woman in the Body’ explores the ways in which menstruation has been represented as debilitating and in control of women’s behaviour. Similarly, Sophie Laws in ‘Who Needs PMT?’ identifies the concept of pre-menstrual tension as an extension of nineteenth century medical attitudes to women. She warns women of the danger of comprehending the cyclical changes in their bodies in terms of illness and letting men use PMT as a political weapon for putting women in their place (Jackson et.al., 385). Jane Ussher argues convincingly that PMT is a political category that ties women down to their biology, providing reductionist explanations for women’s distress or discontent. In The Psychology of the Female Body (1989) Ussher addresses this issue: ‘The medicalisation, re-naming and general mystification of cyclical phenomena have served to isolate women from their own experiences, placing control in the hands of self-proclaimed experts—the doctors and drug companies—who attempt to define reality’ (46). Women’s experiences often do not concur with medical definitions of their reality. The institutionalised power of the medical profession undermines the alternate versions provided by women’s own experiences. It is made to appear that women are always destined to think through their bodies. Laws sums up this issue brilliantly: ‘PMT is a political construct. It is part of our oppression as women that if we are feeling bad, we are encouraged to blame it on our female bodies’ (387). With no such analogues in men, syndromes like PMT connected with the female body add a new dimension to the oppression of women.

The pathologisation of the female body as deviant leads to low self-esteem in women and institutionalised medical practice offers cures and therapies in abundance. New technologies of invasive and potentially dangerous ‘cosmetic’ surgeries developed in order to re-exert the old medical control of women. Susan Faludi in her Backlash (1991) analyzes how plastic and reconstructive surgeons in the US during the 1980s launched their campaign for practice enhancement, marketing their services as self-image enhancers for women. Women were made to feel that the opportunity had finally arrived for them to take control of their bodies and their lives. Faludi however points out that breast augmentation surgeries and liposuction which are still popular to a great extent today carry accompanying risks. Failure rates are high with possible dangers of infection, blood clots, implant ruptures, scarring and toxicity. In her path-breaking work Gyn/ Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978), Mary Daly traces the beginnings of ‘American Gynocidal Gynaecology’ in the age-old ritual atrocities against women—Chinese foot binding, Indian suttee and African genital mutilation. Daly explains that it is primarily an obsession with sexual purity that legitimises these rites. The ritualisation of such practices ensure that they are often desired and continued even after their official/ legal termination (Daly 132). Daly sees an extension of these primordial gynocidal acts into the twentieth century and beyond, in the myths and rituals of ‘American Gynocidal Gynaecology’ (224). Women are now hypnotised into the belief that ‘the doctor knows best.’ Normality is defined as an elusive state that must be constantly confirmed by regular check-ups and preventive measures and perpetual therapy (231). What Daly mainly criticises is ‘therapy as a way of life, as an institutionalised system of creating and perpetuating false needs’ (281) which keep women obsessed and preoccupied with their bodies.

Germaine Greer maintains that the implication of the imperfection of the female body and its need to undergo mutations and mutilations contribute greatly to its cultural devaluation. She argues that ‘the universal lack of esteem for the female organ becomes a deficiency in woman’s self-esteem’ (256). Women are filled with disgust for their own bodies and are often masochistic in their attitudes exhibiting a compulsive self-abasement. Woman herself as well as her sex-organ is ‘belittled by terms like meat, pussy, snatch, slit, crack…’ (261). Ellen Moers in the concluding chapter of her Literary Women entitled ‘Metaphors: A Postlude’ comments on the non-availability of an equivalent female term to the Greek ‘phallus.’ The phallus being iconographic is least focused on the anatomical aspect and less embarrassing than the Latin ‘penis.’ The phallus is thus the image of the male organ, an object of veneration in many lands and serves a symbolic function in ritual and art (256).

Linguistic meanings, however, are greatly determined by the dominant culture’s social values and attitudes and hardly any term can be designated neutral. As Deborah Cameron puts it in Feminism and Linguistic Theory (1985):

in the interests of accuracy we should strive to include the female half of the human race by replacing male terms with neutral terms. But the ‘reality’ to which language relates is a sexist one and in it there are no neutral terms

[. . .]. In the mouth of sexists, language can always be sexist (51).

Moreover it is the masculine that is read as representative in cultures where women are under-represented and devalued. The semantically derogatory terms used to signify woman and her sexual/ reproductive organs add further to their negative connotations and devaluation.

The devaluation of woman is however paralleled by the primacy of the phallus, an idea that forms the cornerstone of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic theories. The pioneering feminist theorists like Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Kate Millet and Shulamith Firestone repudiated what they understood to be the fundamentals of Freudian theory—the conviction that woman is a castrated man. Lacan, however, in developing his theories, reinterprets Freud’s observations and hypotheses symbolically.

Whereas Freud saw the biological penis, its presence, absence and threatened loss as the determining factor in any human subject’s ontology, Lacan’s emphasis was on the phallus as a signifier. Since the phallus is a transcendental signifier, regardless of the anatomical difference between the sexes, there exists a relation of the subject to the phallus. The pre-Oedipal state of oneness and the status of non-entity which the infant enjoys, a blissful state of total identification with the pre-Oedipal mother is followed by a ‘fall’ into consciousness, language and the realm of the symbolic which is a patriarchal state (Donovan, 1992, 112). From the state of being a total subject, the self now undergoes a split and becomes constituted as the object that is nameable (me). It is through absence or lack that one comes to know one’s self as separate from another [. . .] and develops a desire for another or for the mother’ (112). Entry into language and consciousness would bring forth the awareness of difference and separation from another and between the sexes. Jane Gallop in The Daughter’s Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis explains: ‘the man is “castrated” by not being total, just as the woman is “castrated” by not being a man. The man’s lack of wholeness is projected on to woman’s lack of phallus, lack of maleness. Woman is then the figuration of a phallic “lack”: she is a hole’ (22).

The cultural representation of woman as ‘lack’ follows the symbolic equation of the phallus with wholeness and ‘with a totality that represents a state in which all is union and nothing is differentiated’ (95). Lacan and his followers persistently claim that the phallus is not the penis and that both the sexes define themselves in relation to this third term. However, it is seen that the value given to the penis in patriarchal culture allows the penis to stand for the ideally neutral phallus. Drucilla L. Cornell in her ‘Gender, Sex and Equivalent Rights’ argues that the equation of the penis with the phallus ‘establishes the illusion that having the penis is having the phallus with all its symbolic power… the woman who lacks the penis is also seen as lacking the affirmative qualities associated with the phallus. As a result, woman is devalorised’ (Butler and Scot, 1992, 284-5). Though the phallus, the transcendental signifier, cannot really be the penis, any effort to conceptualise its function is inseparable from an imaging of the body and is represented in terms of the bodily organ. As Lacan himself puts it in Erics: A Selection:

The phallus is the privileged signifier of that mark in which the role of the logos is joined with the advent of desire. It can be said that this signifier is chosen because it is the most tangible element in the real of sexual copulation and also the most symbolic in the literal (typographical) sense of the term, since it is equivalent there to the (logical) copula… by virtue of its turgidity it is the image of the vital flow as it is transmitted in generation. (Trans. Alan Sheridan, 1977, 287)

Deprived of the phallic symbol and culturally designated as a castrate, woman is seen to live a life of basic dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction gets theorised into an envy for the male organ and its symbolic equivalents. Maria Torok, while analysing ‘The Meaning of Penis Envy in Women,’ attributes this envy to an idealisation of the penis. According to her, ‘many a woman has fantastic ideas about the male organ’s extraordinary qualities: Infinite power

[. . .] a power that brings him pleasure, love and the fulfillment of all his wishes’ (Saguaro 82). Kate Millet, in Sexual Politics depicts D.H. Lawrence as a sexual politician who represents woman as a devoted phallus worshipper. Millet quotes passages from Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and turns them to ridicule showing the absurd valorisation of the male organ in a passage which Millet has entitled ‘Devotional.’ Lady Chatterley is seen to be struck with fear and awe at the sight of the ‘phallus’—Millet calls the phallic cult ‘the apotheosis of the Lawrentian man’ (238).

The awe, fear and the intimidation inspired by the phallus can be seen as instrumental in the male perversion of violence. Greer sees this as an essential condition of the degradation of woman. She elaborates that ‘the penis is conceived as a weapon and its action upon women is understood to be somehow destructive and hurtful. It has become a gun’ (315). She sees rape as an act of ‘murderous aggression,’ a manifestation of male sexual violence, meted out as a punishment. ‘The act is one of murderous aggression spawned in self-loathing and enacted upon the hated other’ (247). One of the pioneering critics to explore the ideology of rape, Susan Brownmiller, in Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (1975) expounds the biological factors that contribute to this act of male aggression upon the female body. According to Brownmiller, ‘Man’s structural capacity to rape and woman’s corresponding structural vulnerability are basic to the physiology of both our sexes as the primal act of sex itself ’ (13-4). The possibility as well as the actuality of rape serves as an agent of the ‘perpetuation of male domination over women by force’ (209). Brownmiller advances the view that pornography, prostitution and rape promote the ideology that sees sexual access as an adjunct of male power and privilege’ (393). She identified men who commit rape as ‘frontline masculine shock troops, terrorist guerrillas in the longest sustained battle the world has ever known’ (209). Adrienne Rich, in ‘Caryatid: Two Columns,’ sees war as phallic violence and she condemns its pornographic celebration. She equates the rape of Bangladeshi women by Pakistani soldiers and that of Vietnamese women by American troops with the bombing of civilian populations and with ‘coercion heaped on the vulnerable, carried to the most ruthless degree of sadism’ (On Lies 114). She goes on to explicate, ‘Rape is a part of war: but it may be more accurate to say that the capacity for dehumanising another which so corrodes male sexuality is carried over from sex into war’ (114).

Actual as well as potential rape amounts to the ultimate physical act of coercion and depersonalisation practised on women by men. Rich identifies ‘the equation of manhood—potency—with the objectification of another’s person and the domination of another’s body’ (110).

The demythologisation of the phallus into the anatomical organ, the penis, can be seen as part of the feminist theoretical attempt at valorising the female body. Greer insists that ‘women must humanise the penis and take the steel out of it and make it flesh again [. . .] The emphasis should be taken off male genitality and replaced upon human sexuality’ (315). The phallic superiority assumed by men in devaluing and exploiting women is challenged in feminist writings and becomes part of the subversive feminine strategies. In Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Milkman, the only son and heir of the family, is confronted by his two elder sisters who question the male prerogatives which are taken for granted.

You have been laughing at us all your life [. . .] using us, ordering us and judging us: how we cook your food, how we keep your house [. . .] And to this day you have never asked one of us if we were tired or sad or wanted a cup of coffee. Where do you get the right to decide our lives?

I’ll tell you where. From that hog’s gut that hangs down between your legs. (1977: 216-17)

The process of humanising the penis (phallus) involves a refiguring of the notions that contribute to the cultural construct of masculinity. If masculinity depends on the presence of the penis/ phallus and its symbolic attributes like power, domination, aggression and violence, it has to be demystified. The equation of manhood and potency with the objectification and conquest of the female body has to be deconstructed. Nowhere is this equation more powerfully challenged than in Mahasweta Devi’s short story ‘Draupadi,’ translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Draupadi, the central character (the tribal version of her name is Dopdi) is a tribal Naxalite who is on the list of wanted persons. Mahasweta Devi places Draupadi ‘first in a comradely, activist monogamous marriage and then in a situation of multiple rape’ (Spivak, 183). Spivak demonstrates that Mahasweta Devi is rewriting in her story the episode of the public humiliation and disrobing of the mythological Draupadi of the Mahabharata. The Draupadi of the great epic is saved from dishonour by the divine intervention of Lord Krishna who sees to it that Draupadi is ‘infinitely clothed and cannot be publicly stripped’ (183). The tribal Dopdi’s ultimate political punishment is disrobing and gang rape by the representatives of the law. Dopdi, however, seeks no intervention, human or divine, demolishing the idea of dependency on male leadership and chooses to remain publicly naked. Spivak identifies this critical moment in the life of Dopdi: ‘It is when she crosses the sexual differential into the field of what could “only happen to woman” that she emerges as the most powerful “subject” ’ (184).

Draupadi Mehjen, aged twenty-seven, wife of a Naxalite killed in army encounter, is finally apprehended. After the routine questioning at the camp, the Senanayak’s orders, ‘Make her. Do the needful’ are carried out to perfection. This woman, who had a heavy price put on her head, is subjected to brutal gang rape. In the morning she was taken to the tent and thrown on the straw.

At this point, however, male leadership and initiative cease. Draupadi is now ordered to be led to the Burra Sahib’s tent. From now on Draupadi’s utterances and actions present the greatest challenge to the patriarchal notions of manhood. She is seen to walk naked with her head held high in the bright sunlight towards the Senanayak, with nervous guards trailing behind her. She communicates in a string of challenging interrogatives and resists all attempts by the Senanayak to get her clothed again. In a voice that is ‘terrifying’ and ‘sky-splitting’ (196), she asks:

What’s the use of clothes?

You can strip me, but how can you clothe me again? Are you a man? (196)

She feels that there isn’t a man around her that she should feel ashamed of being naked. Her words are uttered with the utmost contempt for the ‘politico-sexual’ enemy who can easily hide behind the anonymity of the mass terrorism of gang rape. The Senanayak however does not respond to the provocation thrown at him. He stands terrified before the ultimate horror of the wordless articulation of the female body. ‘Draupadi pushes Senanayak with two mangled breasts and for the first time Senanayak is afraid to stand before an unarmed target, terribly afraid’ (196). The phallus has lost its symbolic status and has become merely ‘a piston of flesh’ that fails to carry with it the symbolic attributes of manliness, courage and potency (171).

One of the most powerful feminist activist/ theorists of all time, Adrienne Rich, has succeeded in dealing exclusively with the institutionalisation of the female body. She dedicates the tenth anniversary issue of her Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976) to ‘the activists working to free women’s bodies from archaic and unnecessary bonds’ (Rich 1986: 10). She identifies heterosexuality and motherhood as the most pernicious institutions of patriarchy.

The institutionalisation of the female body is seen to alienate women from their experiences of the body. Motherhood is seen as an institution of patriarchy that ensures the control of women by their imprisonment in domesticity. It is seen to relegate women to the private world of child-bearing and rearing apart from the public world of wage-earning and decision-making and the intellectual and academic world of creative thinking and writing. Woman’s status as child-bearer having ‘been made into a major fact of her life and terms like “barren” or “childless” serving as markers of negation with no male analogue like “non-father”, ’ the bodies of women become sites for hi-tech reproductive technology (1986, 11). Rich defends her book against anti-feminist attackers: ‘This book is not an attack on the family or on mothering except as defined and restricted under patriarchy’ (14). She concludes that the ‘patriarchal institution of motherhood is not the “human condition” any more than rape, prostitution and slavery are’ (33).

The idealisation of women as mothers, the romanticisation of motherhood and the attribution of normative quality to motherhood are seen to be dictated by patriarchal power relations. Anything that disrupts these power relations such as ‘illegitimacy, abortion or lesbianism is considered deviant or criminal’ (42). Rich denounces the principle of foetal personhood which legitimates an artificial split between woman and her body part, the embryo. This principle is strongly upheld by those who vehemently oppose woman’s right to abortion. Rich however exposes the fact that abortion is often an act of desperation under conditions like rape, sexual betrayal, incest, poverty, failure of birth control measures or ignorance of these and leaves woman with painful choices like ‘suicide, abandonment of the child, infanticide, the rearing of a child branded illegitimate usually in poverty, always outside the law’ (12). The conflict between foetal and maternal rights is thus an artificial one and women inevitably become the losers. It is recognised today that the Right-to-life and Pro-life movements often tend to create imbalance between concern for women and concern for the foetus, leading an invisibility of the female reproductive body. Rosalind Pollack Petchesky in ‘Foetal Images:

The Power of Visual Culture in the Politics of Reproduction’ notes that in the powerful visual rhetoric of the pro-life film ‘The Silent Scream,’ the foetus is projected independent of the visual context of the mother’s body that sustains it (40). The vulnerability of the foetus is thus often highlighted at the expense of the vulnerability of the female body that nurtures it.

Adrienne Rich highlights ‘compulsory’ heterosexuality as a political institution that disempowers women in the same way that patriarchal motherhood does. In her path-breaking essay ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,’ (1980) Rich advocates a feminist critique of heterosexuality which pathologises lesbianism as ‘deviant’ and ‘abhorrent’ (26). She identifies lesbianism as a ‘politically motivating impulse’ which leads to ‘woman bonding and woman identification essential for female survival’ (24).

Perhaps the most disturbing issue connected with woman’s body is the colonisation of female reproductive processes. The medical (mis)management of childbirth is paralleled by new developments in reproductive technology. The cult of motherhood makes women eager consumers of new reproductive technologies (NRT) in spite of their lack of affordability and limited success rates. Feminist researchers found that NRT were propagated as innovative techniques enabling all women to achieve the self-selected goal of motherhood while they served the covert patriarchal interests of medical researchers having business links with multinational drug companies. IVF and other reproductive technologies are seen to be dominated by commercial interests. Economically deprived women are commercially exploited as egg-donors and surrogate mothers. The development of new contraceptives does not often have the interests of women at heart. Jalna Hanmer in her well-researched article ‘Women and Reproduction’ demonstrates how patriarchal and colonial interests are served in research on new contraceptives and related hormonal products (Robinson and Richardson 353). The hormonal contraceptive pill and injections were, according to Hanmer, developed through experimentation on black women and women in the Third World. Hormonal implants that last for five years were tested on women in Latin America and Asia and then withdrawn. Judith Richter points out that vaccination against pregnancy through immuno-contraceptives is under research in Third world countries and these are directed against women’s bodies though they could be aimed at the bodies of men (1996: 64).

The ‘extra-uterine experiments’ that were mentioned by Rich including cloning (OWB 76) and ectogenesis which involves conception and pregnancy in an artificial womb have become the most alarming realities of today. Though sometimes justified on medical grounds, the ethical and social implications of many techniques remain problematic. Amniocentesis has led to the decrease in the number of female children in many developing countries. The future potential of many of these techniques is alarming when combined with the science of genetics and eugenics. The possibilities for the genetic manipulation of the embryo are increasing and the Human Genome Project may transform human reproduction altogether. This multinational, multi-billion dollar project begun in 1990 to sequence human DNA and to identify all human genes by the year 2005 is to be seen as a step in the science of new eugenics. The old eugenics had based itself on the biological superiority and inferiority of races and had resulted in mass extermination of Jews in Germany and compulsory sterilisation of poor or Black or disabled women (356). It is feared that new developments in genetic engineering would decide which embryo should be preserved and which women should mother. This would, as women fear, restrict women’s personal reproductive control and autonomy. As Hanmer warns, ‘eugenics embody value judgements about which type of people and which characteristics are to be preserved and promoted and which are to be eliminated. In societies dominated by social inequalities, it is inevitable that women, black people, the disabled and the poor will be less valued and that certain physical, mental, personal or social characteristics will be classified as undesirable’ (361). Women may become reduced to their body parts with the dissociation of eggs, embryos and foetuses from their bodies. Women may even become redundant if ectogenesis through maturation of foetal eggs becomes a reality. A gynaecological dystopia of the kind presented in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is not merely a fictional nightmare any longer in the light of new developments. Reducing women to their biology may facilitate their social disappearance while reducing them to their dismembered body parts may result in their complete invisibility.

In the light of the efforts at the biological manufacture of human beings to exact specifications, it is seen that technology is fast replacing biology. Feminist International Network of Resistance to Reproductive and Genetic Engineering (FINRRAGE), which emerged in 1984 has succeeded in raising challenges to the vested interests in reproductive technology and genetic engineering, which pose as neutral and benign. Adrienne Rich had reminded women that ‘control of our bodies is a pre-requisite for a fully human life’ and had looked forward to a world in which ‘every woman is the presiding genius of her own body’ (OWB 285).

She reacts strongly against the reduction of women’s creativity to (pro)creativity. She has contended that ‘the awe and dread of the male for the female capacity to create life has repeatedly taken the form of hatred for every other aspect of female creativity’ (40). The creative woman, rising above the disabilities of her body, had been a constant threat to male hegemony in creative thinking and writing.

The concept of writing the body which originated in French psychoanalytical and linguistic theories has been the most powerful challenge to the patriarchal devaluation of the female body. Ann Rosalind Jones highlights the theoretical concepts of Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Helene Cixous and Monique Wittig in ‘Writing the Body: Toward an Understanding of l´ecriture feminine’ (1981). Opposing western phallogocentrism, these critics identify language as a means by which ‘man objectifies the world, reduces it to his own terms, speaks in place of everything and everyone else—including women.’ The French feminist critics are seen to subvert the patriarchal institution of language through ‘jouissance’—the direct re-experiencing of the pleasures of infancy and of later sexuality; repressed, not totally obliterated by the Law of the Father’. (Warhol & Herndl 371), Ecriture feminine becomes the expression of female sexuality and pleasure outside the male libidinal economy. Helene Cixous in her manifesto of feminist writing, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa,’ advocates that women return to their bodies through writing. Cixous, with her separatism and bodily metaphors, is seen as contributing to the celebration of what had been denigrated for centuries—the female body. Luce Irigaray, in her ‘This Sex Which is Not One,’ challenges the traditional psychoanalytical notion of male sexuality as the norm and sees female sexuality not marked by lack (of the penis, the singular sexual organ) but by multiplicity and abundance. The primacy of the phallus, which is traditionally the signifier of presence, the one visible thing that must be there to allow positive definition of gendered identity and positive definition of meaning in language, is deconstructed. It is seen as restrictive, monolithic, limitedly singular and fixed, while Irigaray argues that ‘woman has sex organs everywhere [. . .] the geography of her pleasure is far more diversified, more multiple in its differences, more complex, more subtle’ (366). Irigaray uses the female body as a counter strategy to the ubiquitous use of the male body (Green and Le Bihan 247). Julia Kristeva uses the term ‘semiotic’ to represent the repressed aspect of language which forever disrupts and subverts the symbolic order representing phallogocentrism.

The fundamental premises regarding ‘writing the body,’ whether it be Cixous’s ‘ecriture feminine’ or Irigaray’s ‘parler femme’ or Kristeva’s celebration of the semiotic, all appeal to the creation of a distinct female aesthetic of the body. This however paradoxically makes women victims of the ‘body trap’ (OWB 40). The emphasis on the female body and its association with language have been criticised as essentialist relying on biology to define woman’s relation to language. There is also the accusation that women are reduced to their bodies with all the value placed on their genitals. Considering women’s inherent difficulties with language, these theories are also denounced as obscure and elitist.

Charges of biological determinism and essentialism have been answered in the development of gender theories of disembodied subjectivity. In her cyber feminist essay which has become a landmark, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1990s’ (1985) and the subsequent elaboration Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991), Donna Haraway puts forth her abstruse account of the Cyborg as a model for feminism. The Cyborg, ‘a hybrid of machine and organism,’ serves as a metaphor for ‘imagining a world without gender’ (Haraway, 1991, 149-50). As hybrids on the margins, Cyborgs pose a challenge to thinking in grand theories and metanarratives. They threaten the troubling dualisms at the heart of western culture such as nature/ culture, self/ other, male/ female. However, the cyber-feminist postmodern fragmentation of the body is met with a lot of critical scepticism. It is also contended that for those who are still struggling to be recognised as human by political organisations and states, an anti-human, post-gendered identity may not be actually liberating (Glover and Kaplan 55).

A gender-bound identity has also been playfully destabilised by the concept of transvestism expounded by critics like Marjorie Garber in Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (1992). She explores the ways in which clothing constructs (and deconstructs) gender. Garber’s transvestism, where one assumes the cloaked surface of the sexual other, destabilises the notion of fixed identity by introducing a destabilising third term into the system of binary oppositions. The third term is ‘the disruptive element that intervenes and produces not just a category crisis of male and female, but the crisis of category itself ’ (Garber, 1992, 17). Garber’s illustrations range over the Shakespearean stage and the Elvis impersonators where clothing serves as a marker of gender or identity, making both as provisional as clothing that can be changed. Michael Awkward, in his Negotiating Difference makes use of the ‘space of possibility’ provided by Garber’s third term (15). Awkward, investigating the phenomenon Michael Jackson, examines Jackson’s surgical and cosmetic assaults on the American construction of race and gender. Jackson’s combination of ‘effeminate speaking voice, long processed hair, make-up and surgically feminised features’ which contribute to his transvestite appearance are seen to be counter-hegemonic interrogations of the essentialist constructions of race and gender (Awkward 188). Visual representation of racial and gender crossings open up the creative possibility of crossing boundaries in terms of race, gender and class.

Perhaps the most persuasive of theoretical critiques of essentialist notions of gender has been offered by Judith Butler in her Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990) and Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex (1993). Cultural and sexual identity, Butler argues, is something that we perform. Gender becomes the inscription of discursive imperatives, an elaborate socially constructed fabrication, and cultural rather than biological imperatives govern its enactment on the surface of bodies. Butler’s theoretical premises—exploding the common assumption that sex and gender are eternal and immutable—pose challenges to feminist theorising. Robbins sums up the complex arguments of Butler in this manner—‘Bodies do not intrinsically have sexes. Sexes like genders are imposed upon them in language and culture because of the preconceived necessity in language and culture to taxonomise—to put everything into categories’ (Robbins 211). This amounts to a total negation of the existence of identity, gender and sex anywhere outside language. The postmodern, poststructuralist concepts of the body lead to disappearance and invisibility of the gendered body. In Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and

The Body (1993), Susan Bordo expresses the anxiety that “the postmodern body is no body at all’ (229). In spite of the realisation of the need to do away with totalising categories, feminist theorists are trying to bring the disappearing body centre stage again. A disembodied and unlocated (geographically and culturally) subjectivity is interrogated in favour of bodily materiality and physicality of subjects. A diagnosis of the politics of the body needs an investigation into the ways in which body is inscribed within particular sets of power relations making it a marker of difference in terms of race, class and sexuality. The plethora of feminist writing on the body in the last decade bears witness to the fact that the last word on the body is necessarily an impossibility.

The poststructuralist theories, however emancipatory they claim to be, find themselves deeply unsettled when confronted with issues like trafficking in women’s bodies, the objectification of women’s bodies through visual and graphic representations and the commercialisation of motherhood. It remains that the awareness of an embodied subjectivity need not necessarily be an acceptance of the status quo. As we see in the words of Simone de Beauvoir set down more than half a century ago:

Biological facts are one of the keys to the understanding of woman. But I deny that they establish for her a fixed and inevitable destiny. They are insufficient for setting up a hierarchy of the sexes. They fail to explain why woman is the other: they do not condemn her to remain in this subordinate role forever. (SS 65)

Andrea Dworkin in Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1981), quotes suffragist Lucy Stone who as early as 1855 protested, ‘It is very little to me to have the right to vote, to own property et cetera if I may not keep my body and its uses in my absolute right’ (qtd in Dworkin, 1981, 11). As Germaine Greer and Adrienne Rich predicted, bodies do ‘matter’ and a constructive dialogue is yet to evolve between opposing theories so that women are not driven away from their last, and perhaps, their only refuge.


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