Posts tagged feminism
Posts tagged feminism
Jo Spence … the image troubles as it awakens a politics of cancer
Who’s breast is it now?
I am sad to read the news, that Adrienne Rich is dead at 82.
What a remarkable voice! As a woman, mother, poet, thinker: what intense wisdom, critical ability and imagination reside in her corpus and aura. See the image of this beautiful woman above, and read her work to feel her breath alive again.
To me, her work on articulating the institution and experience of mothering, although published in 1976 (the year before I was born), retains its force and urgency (1):
Many women see any appeal to the physical as a denial of mind. We have been perceived for too many centuries as pure Nature, exploited and raped like the earth and the solar system; small wonder if we now ling to become Culture: pure spirit, mind. Yet it is precisely this culture and its political institutions which have split us off from itself. In so doing it has also split itself off from life, becoming the death-culture of quantification, abstraction, and the will to power. which has reached its most refined destructiveness in this century. It is this culture and politics of abstraction which women are talking of changing, of bringing accountability in human terms.
The repossession by women of our bodies will bring far more essential change to human society than the seizing of the means of production by workers. The female body has been both territory and machine, virgin wilderness to be exploited and assembly-line turning out life. We need to imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body. In such a world women will truly create new life, bringing forth not only children (if and as we choose) but the visions, and the thinking, necessary to sustain, console, and alter human existence - a new relationship to the universe. Sexuality, politics, intelligence, power, motherhood, work, community, intimacy will develop new meanings; thinking itself will be transformed.
This is where we have to begin.
Rich was married to a man for 17 years. They had three children together. Some time after her husband´s death in 1970, she fell in love with another woman. These experiences make for an interesting autobiography, and form the foundation for Rich´s critical feminist discourse, a red thread that runs through all her work.
I have a special relationship with one of her texts, which formed an integral part of my thesis, in a chapter where I tried to generate an alternative poetic of/for breast loss. The poem, ‘A Woman Dead in her Forties’, was written between 1974-1977. Rich’s text, three years in the making, maps a life cycle: the becoming of breasts; of two women as they grow up together; of the other’s early death and the one who is left with the memories. It is a celebration of, and a memorial to, female friendship from girlhood to middle age and beyond. The breast cancer of a childhood-friend provokes a looking back for the poet-friend, a retrospective of both women´s lives. Rich’s writing in itself constitutes an act of solidarity – and it is true, that as a woman, it is hard not to identify with, not to feel the pain of the friend, sister, mother, or daughter with breast cancer. It is hard not to think: what if it were me instead of you? The poet is haunted by the silent inheritance left by the other woman (2):
Your breasts/ sliced off The scars
dimmed as they would have to be
You are every woman I ever loved
a bloody incandescent chord strung out
across years, tracts of space
Of all my dead it’s you
who come to me unfinished
You left me amber beads
strung with turquoise from an Egyptian grave
I wear them wondering
How am I true to you?
In Rich’s text there are no periods – there can be no full stops (stopping is dying). The wide spaces between certain words seem to express distance and rupture (the space between the two). And the slash is cutting the fabric of the poem, whereas / the black dots ● these rounded pausing figures of sadness and mourning - these rounded black breasts, divide the verses, mark the empty white paper spaces.
Women are not born with breasts, they grow and evolve and change throughout life. Why then, is it so hard to come to terms with breast loss, another change in the spectrum of breast experience? The thoughts of lesbian feminist writers like Audre Lorde (1934-1992), Adrienne Rich (1929-2012), and (the “straight”) queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950-2009) prove almost liberating in the context of figuring breast loss. They are women who, having been marked by the disease personally or relationally, argue (in their own different ways) explicitly against the hetero-normative grains in breast cancer discourse, discourses on recovery and sexuality. Their thoughts have implications, especially for the contestable notion that one can re-normalize the cancerous woman by reconstructing the lost breast(s): to re-make her femininity and stabilise her desirability as heterosexual object, by reconstituting the form of the breast, when the organ, with all its history, complexities and sensations is gone.
I would have touched my fingers
to where your breasts had been
but we never did such things
The breasts remain in memoriam.
Adrienne Rich - R.I.P.
1. Adrienne Rich. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. .New York: W. W. Norton. 1986 : pp. 285-6.
2. Adrienne Rich. ‘A Woman Dead in Her Forties’. The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950-1984. New York: W. W. Norton. 1984: pp. 250-255.
Trailer for the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. The film provides a critical narrative on the growth of an empire of breast cancer awareness through feminisation and merchandise, whilst rates of breast cancer continue to rise.
Pink Ribbon star doll - a figure designed to encourage girls to support the fight against breast cancer.
October 6th, 1997 American citizen Paul Davidson registered pinkribbon.com and launched a website directed to and available for all people in the world engaged with breast cancer, The website was dedicated to raising awareness and funding for breast cancer.
In 2008, the initiative was extended and expanded creating the non profit network Pink Ribbon Inc. in New York. The objectives were defined and the idea launched of an international charity platform for breast cancer awareness and funding (awareness, advocacy, alliances, alignment and accreditation).
Throughout the years this initiative has grown into the international platform as we know it today, covering more than 30 countries over 5 continents.
I have been preparing for a post about the politics of the Pink Ribbon breast awareness campaigns, including the Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October). Then I came across this link to a film review in The Lancet: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2812%2960417-6/fulltext
I am really looking forward to this documentary, which critically examines the forces and motives behind the commercialisation and pinkyfication of breast cancer activism.
I recently did a presentation on breasts, and wanted to encourage my audience to donate money to breast cancer research. Because of my increased scepticism of Pink Ribbon, I searched for a non-pink breast cancer charity, only to discover that if you want to donate money to the breast cancer cause in Norway - you have to go through Pink Ribbon (Rosa Sløyfe). Is it just me who is paranoid, or has Pink Ribbon become the imperialist master of breast cancer campaigning?
Pinkyfication is in itself an interesting issue - for what do people tend to associate with pink? Girls, sillyness, princesses - in short: extreme femininity. Pink is a child´s version of the feminine (see illustration above). I don´t find pink a very powerful symbol at all - it is sweet and feminine, but it does not get me feeling angry or defiant. I wonder what is going on behind the intense colour-washing of breast cancer.
October is the official Breast Cancer Awareness Month, with each year being pinker than the last. Breast Cancer Awareness Month is all about increasing the awareness of the importance of early breast cancer detection.
Historically, the ribbon tradition is tied to the yellow ribbons that symbolised a family´s longing for their soldier-sons to come home from war. Then AIDS arrived, and the need for a symbol of solidarity and de-stigmatisation was needed - hence the Red Ribbon was born. The Red Ribbon of AIDS with its connotations of gay activism, has now been practically pushed out of the collective consciousness by the heteronormative Pink Ribbon, adding further evidence to the colonizing powers of the pink wave.
According to the pink.org website, the Pink Ribbon didn’t start out pink at all. It started out as a homemade peach ribbon, the creation of Charlotte Hayley, who had herself been diagnosed with breast cancer and campaigned for more research funding: ” She attached them to cards saying, “The National Cancer Institute’s annual budget is 1.8 billion US dollars, and only 5 percent goes to cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.” Strikingly, Hayley resisted attempts to commercialise her ribbon but eventually joined efforts to raise awareness about the disease:
The cosmetics industry got on board in 1991 to promote breast cancer awareness with the help of Evelyn Lauder of Estée Lauder Cosmetics and Alexander Penney, the editor-in-chief of SELF magazine. When Evelyn Lauder and Alexander Penney were working on their breast cancer awareness promotion, they liked Charlotte Hayley’s concept of giving ribbons to promote the support of breast cancer awareness.
It seems to me a fair claim to state that capitalism has begun a process of hijacking breast cancer. Why? Because cancer mamma is seen as a kind of grotesquely “glamorous” female disease. It is a far more alluring cancer than cancer of the ovaries or uterus, or even prostate cancer, for that matter. The market segment is potentially vast, as breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women - and many women fear the disease.
The sexual and symbolic allure of breasts in western culture acts as an aggressive contagion, even in the complicated field where these organs become a severe threat to a woman´s health. Culturally, the glamour persists, even where breasts radically change their symbolic character and begin to embody the tension between life and death, the cure for which can only be shiny Swarovski-bejewelled Pink Ribbon products. The entire “business” of this exchange is gendered - the colour of the logo is just the start. The Pink Ribbon products that are supposed to fight breast cancer are mainly clothing, cosmetics and jewellery - deliberately targeted at female consumers, superbly feminine in their branding and packaging - typically toxic for the environment and our bodies, possibly even carcinogenic.
Because many women dread breast cancer and most of us know someone whose life has been affected by the disease, we are emotionally coerced into embracing the Power of the Pink Ribbon as the only means to show solidarity with other women. Instead of donating money directly to cancer charities or research organizations, instead of showing more love for women with breast cancer, we are channeling money to major corporate brands, who then, charitably, give a share of their profits to the Pink Ribbon campaigns. It is a win-win situation, for the Pink Power Brand - a fertile allegiance between cancer research/awareness organizations and the many corporations who want a piece of the action (and come across as “nice” by doing so).
The Pink Ribbon is a brand of global stature. It now stands as a massive conglomerate of commercial and idealistic agents - a vast breast cancer empire.
The questions is: who profits most in the long run?
When is a breast (or two) deemed indecent?
Why should women be urged to cover up when breastfeeding? Why should mothers feel shame for exposing a breast during suckling?
Natashja Blomberg, from Sweden, has caused a bit of a stir, following the publishing of her “personal” breastfeeding images via an official national Twitter account.
In a way, I´m more interested in the stirring part than the actual message she is sending out. A woman´s right to breastfeed her child as and when she sees fit, as a matter of feminist or even civil rights principle, seems uncontroversial to me. But the fusion of “official” with “personal”, and then adding “breastfeeding” to the mix, proves a potent blend. It´ll be curious to see where this furore ends (if at all).
On a historical note: During the French Revolution, women used public breastfeeding as a symbolic and concrete act: a show of support for the cause - the good mother suckles her own child, as the mother-Republic “suckles” its citizens. Blomberg is Liberty leading the way here, part of a social media lactivist insurgence.
Follow her: https://twitter.com/#!/sweden
Follow the debate on Twitter: #breastfeedingriot
Photo: Frida Marie Grande / Dagbladet
This is a dense post but I hope it is long for the right reasons. I want to add som critical reflections on recent events that have highlighted issues concerning breast cancer, loss of breasts and the increased focus on reconstruction.
Yesterday, women affected by breast cancer, demonstrated in front of the Parliament in Oslo, Norway (photo above). Their uniting slogan was, somewhat bizarrely, “Boob to the people” (Norw. “Pupp til folket”) - what´s not to like? Lifting up their tops, they revealed their mastectomy scars to the public and the media, with the message “These are our scars. What you see, is not our shame” (Norw. “Dette er våre arr. Det du ser, er ikke vår skam”). This demonstration of female defiance is striking, not only because of the spectacular dimension. Baring breasts in protest is part of women´s history, and particularly a feature of political/feminist activism from Sojourner Truth to the outrageous La Cicciolina, and the tabloid favourites Femen, a Ukrainian feminist group (more on this later, I hope).
There is also precedence for showing, not just breasts, but the scars which mark the removal of the breast(s). In 1979 Sheila Metzger was photographed reaching out to the universe and saying yes to life with her one-breasted body. She chose to get a tattoo of a tree branch to “dress” the scar and turn it into something other than the site of a medical trauma.
Sheila Metzger. “Tree”. Photo by Hella Hamid
Another defining moment in the US: the American model Matusckha famously brought much attention to the breast cancer cause when she fronted the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1993, wearing a long white dress designed to expose the mastectomy scar where her right breast had once been.
In Norway, this year´s Pink Ribbon theme was more efficient time frames for diagnosis, specialist consultation and reconstruction. That reconstruction has now become a political cause, marks a new direction in breast cancer activism. Astonishingly, the diagnostic and curative aspects of this year´s campaign were almost completely drowned out because of the emergence of a new and loud ad hoc group. It was initiated in 2011 by radio presenter Lise Askvik, who had just previously been diagnosed with breast cancer. Media sassy friends of the presenter decided to back up Askvik, demanding reconstructive surgery within one year of a mastectomy.
A Facebook group was set up by this group of resourceful women. It was members within this group, who organised the striking demonstration yesterday. The name of the group expresses a defiant and assertive attitude - “Vi venter fandenmeg ikke på ny pupp etter kreft” (loosely translated as “We´re not bloody well waiting for a new boob after cancer”). Here´s a link to the group: https://www.facebook.com/ventetidpupp
Their argumentation is that it is denigrating to have to wait for anything from 3-5 (in rare cases even 10) years for reconstructive surgery. And the waiting lists are only getting longer, as more and more women are asking to be “reconstructed” and there are not enough plastic surgeons to tackle this mountain of missing breasts in the national health service. The founders, Astrid Gunnestad and Lise Askvik, assert on the group´s FB info sheet that “they take on the fight to heal the traces from the nation´s amputated boobs”. The main message that is being presented is that reconstruction erases the (physical? emotional?) trauma of cancer, a rather simplified, if not dubious claim. (If we take this as truth - what then about the women who turn down reconstruction?) In order to illustrate what they are fighting for, some of the group members post self-portraits, showing their mastectomy scars but not their faces. The breast-less woman becomes the face-less woman. The demonstration in Oslo, does the opposite: it reinstates a sense of subjectivity by giving faces to the bodies that have been marked by cancer.
Facebook subsequently received complaints about the group, apparently from men who felt offended and were worried that children might see the pictures and be traumatised in turn. Somehow, the breast-less women were now categorised as offensive, inserted into the same Facebook censorship protocol as pornography and other sexual/nude/violent content. In 2009, Facebook tried to censor another mastectomy photo, this time posted by a woman in the UK. She complained and finally gained acceptance for her right to show herself, face and torso, bringing breast cancer awareness to the public: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1189143/Facebook-forced-lift-ban-theyd-imposed-breast-cancer-victims-sexual-abusive-mastectomy-scar-photos.html
This new ad hoc campaign signals a significant shift in priority: from a focus on increased research, improved prevention and more effective curative measures - to a consumer-orientated demand for breast-restoration (essentially a cosmetic issue, not one that saves lives). It also meets up with other cultural trends - valuing form over content, body over psyche, the growing intolerance/lack of acceptance for disability, ageing and disease, and an individualistic regime centered on the disciplining and normalisation of the body (conformity through exercise, diet - you can shape your body and ensure your own health through doing all the “right” things). The sentiment is: We do not like to be confronted with other people´s “deficiencies”, because it forces self-reflection upon us, makes us doubt physicality and health as eternal or unchangeable states, makes us face up to our own fragility.
I am in full sympathy with women who have lost one or both breasts to cancer - I realise that the disfigurement and loss is a heavy burden to bear. I also understand that it feels traumatising to be left with scars and an unproportional torso. I understand that one feels the desire to rebuild what has been taken away, to restore a sense of normality. But it also seems to me a bizarre turn of events if reconstruction of the breast is deemed as worthy or more worthy than the fight to beat the disease itself. The main fight is for life, preferably with good medical treatment and medication that doesn´t break down your general health and life quality.
It is paradoxical, I would argue, how this Norwegian Facebook group ends up asserting the offensiveness of mastectomies by implying that life without a breast is such a shocking sight to behold (a terrifying spectacle: “see how horrible I look - no wonder I can´t bear it anymore”). And this, to me, is sad because I think that we could also be fighting for acceptance of this difference, rather than enforcing the view that women who have lost breasts are de facto defective.
It is worth pointing out in this context that it is possible to live a good and full life again and be loved by others with one breast, with even no breasts. Some early feminist breast cancer survivors in fact fought for this cause. Audre Lorde and Sheila Metzger are two prominent figures who argued that the scar could be carried with pride and thought of as a symbol of loss, survival and solidarity with other women who have lost breasts.
And let´s be honest: it is impossible to recreate a breast. The organ is forever lost with a mastectomy. The only thing that plastic surgeons can re-create is the form, the breast shape. The sensitive nipple is more often taken away, replaced by a tattoo. The milk ducts are gone. The nerve connections which contribute to the breast´s erogenous qualities removed. Breast reconstruction, using tissue from the patient´s own body, which is today considered the gold standard, is in itself a serious and invasive surgical procedure which entails risks and pains all of its own. And always present in the life of a breast cancer survivor, with or without new breasts, is the threat of recurrence.
The trauma of losing a breast or having (had) cancer cannot be erased, or replaced by a shape. The scar also reminds the woman that she has sacrificed a part of herself in order to live. It is a painful but existential realisation. It is important that we make room for the woman who has lost a breast, or even both breasts - whether or not she is reconstructed. Her trauma, symbolized by the mastectomy scar, should not be censored. Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women. It´s time we found a way to deal with its consequences and show these women some love. And it´s time to talk about loving yourself, to see yourself reflected without feeling shame:
I am no longer afraid of mirrors where I see the sign of the amazon, the one who shoots arrows.
There was a fine red line across my chest where a knife entered,
but now a branch winds about the scar and travels from arm to heart.
Green leaves cover the branch, grapes hang there and a bird appears.
What grows in me now is vital and does not cause me harm. I think the bird is singing.
I have relinquished some of the scars.
I have designed my chest with the care given to an illuminated manuscript.
I am no longer ashamed to make love. Love is a battle I can win.
I have the body of a warrior who does not kill or wound.
On the book of my body, I have permanently inscribed a tree.
by Sheila Metzger
Facebook has a problem with photos of breasts. Breasts that have been removed because of cancer. Breasts that nourish infants. It is ridiculous to conflate these breasts (the lived breasts that really mean something to women) with the pervasive breasts of pornography. But women are fighting back, insisting there is nothing obscene about a mastectomy scar or a suckling baby. There is a real sense of good old fashioned feminist activism about these pro-breast groups. I hope they make an impact on the FB corporation in this war of symbols.
Henricus Engelbertus Reijntjens (1817-1900)
I´m reblogging this interesting image of a cheeky Victorian enjoying his art. It tells a story of the artistic orchestration of male looking and and displays contrasting femininities. The reclining nude (in the painting in the painting) gazes into the distance, opening up the field for what feminist art historian, Griselda Pollock, would call undisturbed “visual incorporation”. The breasts are presented as the main attraction, whereas the genitals are concealed behind the model´s thigh, and also covered by a light fabric.
The male figure is literally leaning into the painting-in-the-painting, having removed his hat and made himself comfortable. It looks as if he is holding a piece of cloth (handkerchief?) in his right hand, his glasses pinched in his left hand, while looking intently at the breast directly facing him. There is a heavy velvety green material draped at the bottom right hand of the painting, with a poster suggesting a reserve auction price, perhaps. So the man in the painting may be looking beacuse he is considering whether to put in an offer.
And the woman next to him on the left? Is she his wife or daughter? Is she a random stranger, too demure to confront the nude painting? Her buttoned-up black costume and prudish pose presents the opposite feminine ideal to the relaxed figure in the other painting. What is she thinking? Is that contempt in her eyes? She contains herself, while he does not.
Although this painting is by a Dutch artist, it made me think of a book by Alison Smith on art in Victorian Britain, entitled The Victorian Nude: Sexuality, Morality and Art (1996). In the introduction, she writes of the Victorian nude as “a subject fraught with contradictions”:
Revered as the most ideal form and subject in art, the appearance of the nude in public coincided with a widespread concern over sexual morality which meant that the genre could not be granted autonomy within the perimeters of high art. On the one hand, the nude embodied the ideal, the highest point of the pictorial artist´s practice; on the other, it was viewed as an active incitement to unregulated sexual activity.
(Smith, 1996: 1-2)
This particular painting, comes across as a particularly effective staging of this cultural ambivalence around the nude and the effects of looking at the nude. It shows the contrast between the Victorian woman and the Victorian nude - and the gendering of the gaze, which in this particular case of “art appreciation” is orchestrated as a male prerogative. She must turn her back to his enjoyment of the nude.