The Role Of Gender In The Psychoanalysis-Inspired Notion Of The Monstrous-Feminine In Contemporary Art And Film

Throughout the feminist movement in the later 20th century, women have become a renewed topic for art and art history, giving rise to gender analysis. Women are not just defined or categorised by gender alone. They are also categorised by other aspects such as class, ethnicity, culture, religion, sexuality, and ability. As a female student artist, myself, most of my practices explore the point at which my cultural identity and symbolism intersect through the context of feminism, female body and soul. I create illustrations and video works that aim to combine abject, sensitivity and disturbing subject matter, materials and behaviours with the female body. Having done such works, I could now relate them to a range of feminist and psychoanalytical theories that explore the separation between the state of mind and body in contemporary western culture and their later representation as ‘male’ and ‘female’ respectively.

Examples are, Julia Kristeva, Helene Cixous and Barbara Creed. I would specifically like to talk more about Barbara creed’s studies and thesis in relation to my work. Barbara Creed argues that when the feminine is deemed as monstrous, it is frequently done in association with its mothering function. Her thesis continues as that the prototype of all definitions of monstrosity related to the feminine is linked to the woman’s reproductive body. She tends to use the term ‘monstrous feminine’ instead of ‘female monster’, which, in my understanding would be against to the idea of a ‘male monster’. By doing so, she seeks at providing a definition that could possibly further the discussion of a simple division of two contrasted aspects concerning the gender of the monster. In similar to this notion of ‘monstrous feminine’, my earlier work called ‘Pomegranate’ is a representation of an Indian’s vagina as a site for potential mess, desire and excess. Highlighting the issues that Indian women in today’s society struggles with and the problems that she faces with the ‘power’ that she has: ‘The Vagina’, my illustrations and video work of the pomegranate gives you an experience of how some women struggles in their daily life and how her own ‘power’ opposes her.

Like what Barbara Creed says, the monstrosity of a female monster is often associated with her status as a girl/woman, her gender, sexuality, and pubertal body. In the video work, you will see a man holding onto the pomegranate and slowly starts to cut into it with a knife. As the video goes on, he becomes more vigorous and violent. The video ends with all the parts of the pomegranate being crushed and having only the juice of the fruit left. And at this point, I’m particularly talking about sexual harassment and rape; the fruit being the vagina, the juice representing blood and how he has devoured the vagina. Instead of considering the opposite gender as the ‘monster’ here, I do right now feel that the woman takes the name of it. She has the power which the other gender is threatened of and henceforth he feels the urge to destroy it. “Woman’s body is slashed and mutilated, not only to signify her own castrated state, but also the possibility of castration for the male. In the guise of a ‘madman’ he enacts on her body the one act he most fears for himself, transforming her entire body into a bleeding wound. ” (Creed, 52) My understanding of the monstrous- feminine has changed and developed as a natural outcome of the continued aggression towards female body. My thoughts of it was initially founded in trauma, disempowerment and victimisation; in the sense, of what it was to be offended when a woman becomes a victim of rape and sexual harassment, to be rejected and feared by society because of her body and sexuality; the monstrous vagina. Instead now, I am able to see monstrous feminine from a point of power; as a device to overturn and challenge those prevailing societal debates and discussions that inform our understanding (and reactions to) of gender, sexuality and identity and their complex relationship to the female body. In other cases, many feminists perceive the horror film as a negative representation of the feminine as most horror films depict female monster and focus on the female body. This is being considered to promote violence against women by portraying the ‘ruined’ female body and has become an obsession. Examples are, Alien, Psycho, Orphan and The Witch. Each of these films depicts strong and violent, female characters. It explores monstrosity and violence in reaction to external pressures, particularly the threat of disordered surroundings and the survival of the community. Linda Williams argues, it is undeniable that, especially in horror, “the bodies of women figured on the screen have functioned traditionally as the primary embodiments of pleasure, fear, and pain. ” I do not disagree to this, but I also wish to analyse the positive appropriations and subversions of the horror genre to explore the issues of female sexuality, gender and thereafter challenge the negative patriarchal notion of the feminine as monstrous.

In relation to this, I will next attempt to analyse the psychoanalytical exploration of abjection by Julia Kristeva to other artworks. Recent contemporary artists aim to reverse the ideas of obsession and abjection. One such example of an artist is Chloe Piene. Chloe Piene is a video and drawing-based artist, mainly known for the power of her drawing. She works with representations of death, fear and the monstrous within her work. Her short video work called Blackmouth (2. 51 mins) depicts a young girl portrayed in a dark shade of lighting, dressed in an unclean and muddy attire as she rolls around in ground of forest. In a slow motion, she moans and struggles in the mud, being drenched in sweat and dirt. But absurdly her moaning was delivered in a masculine way.

As she kneels down, she begins to scream vigorously with her mouth wide open-wider than a person physically could. She then falls back into the muddy ground and this whole act goes into a loop mode. Basically, this video was an attempt to show the idea of abjection. The minimal verbal language in this video arouses the presymbolic and the unusual opening of the large mouth overturns reality. This almost resembles the physically unobtainable actions that Regan gains in The Exorcist. There is this representation of liminal space thru the imagery of the girl. In similar to Regan, the girl is centred between childhood and youth, and by the distortion of their young and childlike bodies, they both are an example of the female monster. Also, both the roles were portrayed with a deep masculine voice. Talking about the sound of the voice, Creed concludes that Regan’s body is a body in subversion. “The film’s rhythms and use of sounds and language, particularly Regan’s snarling, grunting voice, exert a disturbing and powerful effect almost as if the film’s semiotic (female) voice had overpowered its symbolic (male) one. ” The voices of both these characters which supports and leads girlhood, are examples of the wrong boundaries between within and outer, masculine and feminine, and the self and other.

Piene’s video work as semiotic sounds shows the connection between feminine and language. To me, I felt that she could only exists in language. There was no other existence for her besides that, carrying the murky side of a male and thus the male does not lack in anything. I see this work as a representation of how a male dominated society considers femininity. Femininity can be understood and seen through the symbolic language and deep masculine voice yet still being monstrous. Besides of just showing the negative notion of feminine as being abject, the female here is being portrayed in a terrible and dirty form, and message still being delivered with the lack of consistent language, the artist shows the widening of the mouth in relation to the possibilities of the body that cannot be imagined or achieved by a normal human which is seen as the real ground of the feminine as sexual and gender variation. By creating a video in loop form, the artist overturns the narrative in her plot. This piece of work, ‘voices’ the prevailing and terrifying possibility of ‘otherness’ by the constant repetition in the phasing the feminine in conjunction with masculinity, along with the unfeasible physicality. Moving on, I would like to talk more about the alteration of monstrous feminine today through horror films. Sometimes, the constant misuse of psychoanalytical theories could be a reason why some may be still trapped in the conventional assumption of gender in horror films. Traditionally, horror films show that the idea of variation is important in explaining gender representations. Judith Butler talks about this variation in relation to gender and sexuality and shares her opinion as, “not one that one can wish away or argue against, or even make claims about in any reasonable way. It is more like a necessary background to the possibility of thinking, of language, of being a body in the world. And those who seek to take issue with it are arguing with the very structure that makes their argument possible…”

And with this, I will talk about the next work in relation with monstrous feminine. We are able to see the female imagery in Spanish film director’s Jaume Collet-Sera’s psychological thriller, Orphan as manifesting the variations in one gender and so subverting the assumption of the ‘male in comparison with female’ idea and conventional notion of the feminine. He depicts this idea of women returning as women by showing other sort of characters. Mainly, this movie tells us that horror having more terrifying difference; it also has the fearful similarity. This movie opposes previous norms by giving space for new understanding of monstrous feminine; in this case, being neutral with both the good and bad character. The two main characters in this film are considered of not fitting the social norms of femininity. The mother in this movie is called Kate, who struggles to endure and move on from the grief of her lost child, career and a problematic marriage. In addition, she’s being tied down to the consumption of alcohol. She in this movie plays the protagonist. Next the other main character, Esther a young girl who depicted in the most modest way. She is seen to be the most charming and intelligent child among the other girls in the orphanage that she stays in. Thus, Kate decides to adopt her. Because of her gender she is able to keep up a risky secret of herself which is that she in reality is called Leena. She suffers from a rare condition called Hypopituitarism that makes her physicality look like a dwarf. Because of this condition she’s mentally affected and lives a psychologically unstable life.

The understanding of both characters in this film reveals a sort of stress about being in between assumption and reality. Both the characters are weighed down with perception of withdrawal and in the constant effort to find themselves among the rest and to be accepted into the society and as a woman. They try to fight against all the negative forces and find a meaning for themselves; self-acceptance and social acceptance. The setting of this film play an important role in depicting this struggle they both face. The imagery of the cold season and the house were almost in similar to their struggles to find the ‘self-acceptance’. In this case, both the characters are discriminated by depicting unconventionality to proper notion of female gender roles. Kate is looked down at and sabotaged as she constantly fails to be the ‘perfect’ mother by not protecting her kids from the dangers Esther has caused for her family. As a wife, she is unable to cope with the relationship with her husband due to trust issues. Adding on to this, she is always questioned by her mother in law who pin points her lifestyle as a woman, mother and wife. In contrast to this, Esther is unable to experience the role of a woman due to her physical condition and also, not being able to remain as a girl. However, she doesn’t prolong this unreal character till the end. She reveals her real self and the condition that she has been in all the while.

15 Jun 2020
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