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Web Event #3: Unbinding Bodies

juliah's picture

The intimate gesture of touch can convey caring and concern or, just as easily, dominance and disrespect. Micro-level interactions, be they handshakes or long-term relationships, affect and sustain macro-level institutions of dominance. Despite the fact that body integrity is vital to one's sense of autonomy, kyriarchal systems have a history of appropriating bodies, and continue to do so as a way of systematically securing supremacy. In her essay, “Violence, Mourning, Politics,” theorist Judith Butler makes a call to reclaim the body in an effort to combat kyriarchal establishments. She asserts that violence, from blatant genocide to interpersonal cruelty, reinforces itself through a process of making the recipient “unreal”. This violence, and it is violence regardless of form, is not limited to women, or even humans for that matter. The perpetrators, however, excuse their actions by deeming their victims as unworthy, to the point that “the very bodies for which (the victims of violence) struggle are not quite ever only (their) own.” (26) Through this process, Butler maintains that when “the violence is done against those who are unreal, then, from the perspective of violence, it fails to injure or negate those lives since those lives are already negated.” (33) These arguments are the framework for her theories on derealization, or the act of stripping someone or something of its individual worth in order to grant oneself impunity and to justify acts of cruelty in order to preserve power. One of third-wave feminism’s primary aims has been to reclaim the body, in whatever shape the owner sees fit; however, this still makes the body essential, abandoning other victims of kyriarchal systems such as the Earth, animals, and even a dead or dying body. Feminism is bound by the restrictions of a body, all of which have been created and maintained by kyriarchies and their attempt to derealize their victims; self-determination requires the release of these manacles.

The existence of kyriarchal systems has enabled subjectivization of bodies—be they those of women, those of their enemies, those deemed somehow inferior, and even non-human bodies including animals and those of the Earth—to such an extent that they are seen as objects unworthy and undeserving of being their own entities. Owning bodies as a demonstration of superiority and dominance has been employed by kyriarchal systems since their inception. Slavery, genocide, and forced prostitution are examples of such sadism used to subjugate the body. Butler asks: “How do we understand this derealization? It is one thing to argue that…they fit no dominant form for the human and that their dehumanization occurs first, at this level, and that this level gives rise to a physical violence that in some sense delivers the message of dehumanization that is already at work in the culture.” (34)

While such horrific exploitations are disturbingly, deeply integrated in our world today, less directly violent ways of embezzling bodies are plastered on billboards and flaunted on the pages of magazines in first-world populations on a daily basis. The objectification of women in the media is ingrained in our society; the manipulated bodies rampant in advertising have become beings unto themselves, systematically appropriated for financial gains. A short Internet video which is linked below shows the shocking extent to which women’s bodies in the media are stolen and distorted in order to reflect an unreal ideal fabricated by capitalistic societies. Beyond this, advertisers take women’s bodies, denude them of humanity and warp them into objects; they cut the female form apart, taking away any semblance of reality. Such processes are created, promoted and justified precisely because its perpetrators employ derealization; the objects they are manipulating are determined to be less-than and therefore exploitation is permissible. This kidnapping of women’s bodies helps to maintain kyriarchal systems because by owning and manipulating their bodies, societies can more easily continue to discount the worth of “real” women—pay them less, control their reproduction, etc. Even more disturbing is the appropriation of black women’s bodies; a recent event demonstrates the extent to which black women’s forms are taken and abused by mass media, especially advertising. Designer Peggy Noland took depictions of a naked black woman’s body and the face of Oprah Winfrey, stretching them out onto the front of a floor-length dress. In her article addressing the issue, Veronica Miller quotes her friend, saying that "black women are not here to be used as collateral damage in the fight against the patriarchy.” Clearly, bodies in advertizing are not seen as owned by the individual, but the public, which enables the separation necessary for derealization.

Under kyriarchies, bodies have unquestionably been taken and abused, be it physically or otherwise. Third-wave feminism has attempted to fight such appropriation with a call to reclaim the body in whatever shape it takes, fighting against heteronormative,  “idealistic” interpretations. Intersectional identities are slowly integrating themselves into the effort as well, with a surge in visibility of different races, gender representations, handicapablities, etc. Recently, one such endeavor has involved women who have undergone treatment for breast cancer and have decided to reclaim their bodies as opposed to hiding themselves or attempting to present a “normal” façade. With the help of organizations such as Personal Ink (P.INK), women who have undergone mastectomies due to the effects of breast cancer have chosen to take ownership of their newly altered bodies by getting tattoos over the surgical scars, to own their bodies instead of trying to meet normative beauty standards. This is clearly a rejection of societal dictates about what makes a body “acceptable” or “understood.” It is a small but powerful demonstration against that which has only created such baseless standards due to kyriarchal influence.

Women are real, flawed, beautiful beings struggling under the oppression of a society that is determined to rob them of their autonomy by co-opting their form in an attempt to rob them of what makes them autonomous -- control of their physical being. Kyriarchies justify this debasement with the deep-seated belief that women are somehow less than men; it's really no different than the religious zealot who justifies attacks on those with differing beliefs because they deem their enemies as heathens. Such appropriation doesn’t even begin to factor in the effects this has on the disabled, racial minorities, genderqueers, transpeople, and other non-normative groups that have been seriously affected by kyriarchal systems. There is really only one way to combat this oppression, and that is to embrace ourselves and our bodies as they truly are. Butler writes, "It is important to claim that our bodies are in a sense our own and that we are entitled to claim rights of autonomy over our bodies." (25)

Quick Links:

"Body Evolution--Model Before and After":  <>

"I'm Fed Up With the Appriation of Black Women's Bodies": <>

"Molly's P.INK Tattoo": <>

Works Cited:

-Judith Butler, Chapter 2: “Violence, Mourning, Politics.” Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and  Violence. Verso, 2004. 19-49.

-Username: President of the Universe. “Body Evolution—Model Before and After.” Online video clip. Youtube, 22 May, 2012. Web. 8 December 2013.

-Miller, Veronica. "I’m Fed Up With the Appropriation of Black Women’s Bodies.” XO Jane. SAY Media, Inc., 18 November, 2013. Web. 8 December 2013.

-Username: PersonalInkProject. “Molly’s P.Ink Tattoo.” Online video clip. YouTube, 20 February 2013. Web. 8 December 2013.


Anne Dalke's picture

touching feeling


you offer here quite a nice gloss on Butler's notions of derealization, of the female body stripped, embezzled, kidnapped, appropriated--along w/ examples of it reclaimed, made visible, especially w/ the use of tatoos to call attention to the body altered by surgery.

Where we might talk about taking this further is @ your/Butler's final line--that "there is really only one way to combat this oppression, and that is to...claim that our bodies are our own." I always think that there is more than one way. And I actually think that your very first line, in some ways your most profound and provocative, gestures toward an alternative to tatoos, another way laid out in its evocation of the intimate gesture of touch. For me, this evokes three more essays about touching as a way of renovating the derealized. The first two I mentioned in class: Kathy Neustadt's "The Folkloristics of Licking."  The Journal of American Folklore 107, 423 (1994): 181-96: “Sniffing, tasting, touching (licking partakes of all three): they are so immediate, so intense, so of the body." Then there's Jane Hedley's  "'Old Songs with New Words': The Achievement of Adrienne Rich's 'Twenty-One Love Poems,'" Genre 23, 4 (Winter 1990), which argues that Rich replaces the Petrarchian mode of the male gazing on the female body with female bodies touching one another. Finally, I think of the utterly remarkable work of Eve Sedgwick, who in Touching Feeling evokes the notion not that (as you say Butler says) "our bodies are our own," but rather, well, see this: