Thursday, September 2, 2010

Bodies That Matter


This afternoon when we met for tea we were both feeling a bit at odds with the world around us. This feeling, which occasionally can seem to slide toward a sort of misanthropy, or even more specifically a misandry, devastates. And of course it doesn’t really become misanthropy or misandry—instead we do what women so often do and turn this feeling inward: what’s wrong with me? I must not be pretty enough, smart enough, thin enough, what-have-you. Neither of these solutions—hating people (particularly men) or hating ourselves does anything to solve the problem, of course. In fact, neither of these solutions states the problem accurately. Because the problem isn’t really in any of us so much as it is in the air we breathe, the space we inhabit.

But that seems hopelessly vague, doesn’t it. Let’s take the question of the body, since we spoke of that today and it’s been very much in the air lately. You mentioned in your last post the experience of walking past the men on the corner near the luncheonette. The cat-calls, the comments, the groping. Most women I know have had this experience. So what gives birth to an experience like that one? What makes men believe that it’s ok to treat women this way? As a young girl I experienced this kind of thing with boys my age or slightly older. I remember C and M offering me a ride home from rollerblading when I was ten or eleven, a ride I spent fending off wandering hands. I remember C trying to put his hand up my skirt at lunchtime. And I remember learning to place this kind of thing in the context of flirtation. Becoming amenable to it, even flattered by it. Even as children we all believe it’s ok for boys to objectify girls.

But it’s generally a much subtler thing than this for adults. Sure, there are still cat-calls, but the really tricky thing is that even in the best male-female relationships, sex is on the table. Or under the table. In some perplexing proximity to the table. Meanwhile, those attitudes toward women, which have been cultivated and developed for both men and women over the course of their lifetimes, compel us to treat women like objects. The men we love objectify us. We objectify ourselves. For me this quickly becomes a question of trust, with sex at the center of it. I have trouble trusting men where sex is involved, in part because I have trouble trusting myself where sex is involved. And sex is always involved.

Even in the best of relationships, where men are taking women seriously, not approaching them like sex objects, we are still embodied. And we, men and women both, still experience bodies, particularly female bodies (given the way the culture treats them), as objects. Talking with you today, I felt distant and distinct from my body, looking at it solely through a critical lens. You, on the other hand, seemed buried inside your body, feeling the pain of inhabiting a body quite acutely. We each have these unhappy relationships to our bodies. We don’t know what to do about them. And we particularly don’t know what to do about them where men are involved. Because men don’t know what to do with them either. They maybe desire our bodies, they maybe don’t. They maybe fear their own desire, or consider it an obstacle, or feel embarrassed by it. Meanwhile, we are trying to figure out how to feel about how they feel about our bodies. It’s a conundrum.

I guess I want to begin where I feel I must begin: with my own relationship to my body. Much of the time I’m comfortable enough in it. I don’t have the same desire to change it that you’ve expressed. Sure, I could take better care of my body—quit smoking, start exercising—but for the most part I find my body livable. Take that as a starting point. I’m still obviously disconnected from my body. I talk about it as something that I’m tending to, or worse safeguarding, rather than something that I am. Because for all the ways that some feminists argue we are not our bodies, we are. I am not some “thing” independent of this body, I’m not the spiritual caretaker for the material edifice. My body is my being in a profound way, and to be at odds with it, whether by feeling indifference towards the body or by feeling hatred of it, is to be in despair.

How to get out of despair? This is the question we were asking today, and the one we had such difficulty answering. I think back to your statement that you have trouble believing me when I tell you I find you beautiful. You know that I mean it, but you also believe that I can’t mean it. And I don’t mean it in some drippy I-see-the-person-on-the-inside kind of way. I mean I look at you and see a beautiful woman. I get pleasure from seeing you—I experience you as beautiful. You asked in your last post, “Are you experienced?” I experience you. And I feel experienced by you. When you look at me, I believe you see me as I am. I feel whole. Now, why can’t I have this experience—this pure, uncomplicated experience—when being looked at by a man?

There are men I’m incredibly close with: for instance, S. When we are having a conversation I feel recognized. But how do I feel about being seen by S? Or by any man, for that matter? I worry about the nature of their interest in me. Even the men who recognize me. I worry about what role my body plays in our relationship. And I think this is a common experience for women. To feel like we’re being seen in terms of our bodies. Which, because our bodies are imbricated with our being, we are. What’s a girl to do?

I think the only response we can make is to engage in more open, honest conversations about bodies, about objectification, about desire. That’s what we’re trying, both of us, to accomplish here and in our writing. I’ve been puzzling something out in my dissertation, in relation to the film Basic Instinct, and I want to share it with you:

The central irony of the film is that the good girl gets killed, and the bad girl gets the guy. Critics such as Helen Hanson have pointed to a danger inherent in films of this model, stating:

The explicit, and active, sexual scenarios in which the neo-femme fatale is shown in the neo-noir thriller mark these films’ complex address. The visualizations of the sexually liberated woman, who is unapologetic about the often aggressive pursuit of her desire, coincide with the “new femininities” […] in which capital is constituted by the female body and sexual expertise which she exchanges as a “free” agent. The extent of this liberation, though, is precariously dependent upon sexual action, and upon a shifting mediascape in which the meanings of female sexual liberation and commodifications of it anxiously collide. (169)

Hanson’s analysis points to two key issues for Basic Instinct. The first is the sexual liberation of Catherine Tramell, and the way in which the film figures that liberation as potential for a radical remapping of the sexual relationship. The second, equally important issue, concerns the anxiety to which Hanson alludes. The simple fact of Basic Instinct is that in order for the bad, sexually liberated girl to survive, the good, sexually repressed girl had to die. In other words, the absence of an option to withhold sex still persists in the film, meaning that women’s control over sexuality remains limited.

That said, Basic Instinct still offers the most ethically tenable position for the femme fatale that we’ve encountered thus far. Because, although Beth’s frigidity is punished by the film, this seems to have less to do with gender per se than with sexuality and the need for a disruptive excess within the realm of sexuality. The film situates Beth as a woman deeply, personally disapproving of excess of all sorts: early on in the film she questions Nick about his drinking and drug use and shows obvious pleasure when she hears he’s been abstaining from both. Even more pleasing to her is the fact that Nick quit smoking. Obviously there are good, common sense reasons to be on the side of Beth here. However, the film offers up a critique of precisely the kind of good, common sense reasoning that has constricted sexual identity and gender relationships.

I’m suggesting, I guess, that we need to find methods to disrupt the sexual relationship as it exists in our society. (I’m not even going to get into the issue of the non-existence of the sexual relationship here. Let’s save that for another day.) Now, I’m not suggesting that we all follow the path of the film’s heroine and grab our icepicks. But I am suggesting that we, men and women both, need to look closely at the kind of “good, common sense reasoning” that governs our interactions with each other.

I think part of what happens, in polite society, is that we don’t talk about these things. Rather than a disruptive excess we wind up with repression. The potential that I see in Basic Instinct—the excessive sexuality of Catherine, one that knows no boundaries (particularly gender boundaries)—is perhaps one model for change in the sexual relationship—and I’m working on the assumption, as I intimated above, that sex is always involved when two human beings are in conversation. By this I don’t mean that I want to have sex indiscriminately, all the time, with everyone I’m involved with. Rather, I mean that I want to approach sex, to put it right on the table, to talk about it, to make it part of the conversation. But that means I’ll have to get comfortable with talking about it. I’ll have to overcome my anxiety about it. I’ll have to go back in time to that moment in the pickup with M and C and say what I wanted to say then. “Don’t touch me, damn it. But I’d be happy to talk about why you think you should.” What would they have said to that, I wonder?