Friday, 7 June 2013

Disavowed Portrayals: The Classing and Gendering of Self-Presentation

(This is a rough draft of the paper I gave at yesterday's ANTI-PORTRAITURE  conference)


In this paper I'll be discussing some of my research from the first chapter of my thesis, which focuses on the way class and gender are described as well as disavowed in much representations of women. So for a bit of background, In my  thesis I'm writing about the female grotesque, of representations in art and visual culture of femininities that have been treated as socially undesirable and aesthetically displeasing. My argument will question how it is that actually many of the supposed grotesque femininities can be subversive in their refusal to adhere to western cultures repressive beauty norms - that their presentation of alternative bodily realities can in fact be received with pleasure and delight. This I feel chimes quite nicely with the idea of the anti-portrait, as images of the female grotesque are also destabilising to the notion that photography and portraiture, is in some way representing one truth or essential essence of a person. The anti-portrait like images of the female grotesque highlight the fragmentary and constructed nature of representation itself.     

What I'm interested in exploring here today are the ways that some aspects of the realities of women’s bodies and lives have been erased from presentations of women in art and the media. For example, class is disavowed in conventional representations of women in art and visual culture, particularly in media images that often aim to promote a perpetually aspirational subject with no class consciousness or identity, this often instils a sense of shame of ones class background and encourages a desire to “pass” as higher class in order to be socially acceptable or employable, or worthy of representation in visual culture etc.

In the work of Jo Spence who I'll be looking at today, the class-conflicts of coming from a working-class background while being involved as an “artist”, writer and academic, which were predominantly middle-class occupations in the 1970's, and I'd also say, that still stands today, caused her to feel the a split-subjectivity of never quite fitting in with either class, and being like an intruder in both. 

Another example is the physical realities of women's bodies and sexual selves are disavowed in media images, in favour of normalised versions of femininity. The standardised version of Western beauty has been for some time despite certain attempts to move forward, white, thin, youthful, heterosexual and aspiring to classlessness. Michel Foucault writing on biopolitics discusses the way historically the body has been put under social disciplines of “standardised normalisation”, these disciplines are political as well as physical and enforce a regulatory effects over the body. This can be seen particularly in the management of women's bodies:  that must be kept “in control”, to keep the integrity of the boundaries of the body upheld, these bodies must be tight, must not age or seep or swell, must not have hair in “the wrong place”, must not be sexually ambiguous and must be clearly defined as “feminine”. 

This also works on the way we view bodies and people more generally in art, the sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu writes on the way good taste or distinction is constructed, he defines this as a class-based cultural capital -  that we are therefore taught what or whose bodies can be perceived as beautiful, are allowed to be socially visible, and celebrated as “normatively correct” and worthy of regard. The images of women I'll be looking at today, show women's bodies that have deliberately disregarded these rules of normalisation and “good taste” to show behaviours and gestures of class and sexuality in the “wrong place”, of anti-portraits of what has been culturally disavowed.


Jo Spence was a photographer and social activist working in the 1970s and 1980s,  through working in feminist co-counselling and consciousness raising groups in the 70s Spence along with collaborator Rosie Martin came up with Phototherapy, a community led practice that allowed people to take ownership of the means of artistic production, in this case photography, in order to reconstruct their own images of themselves and their histories to counter the often negative and limited representations of women and the working-class in the media and the art world. Phototherapy allowed and encouraged women space to work through problems and conflicts within themselves by creating multiple diverging and conflicting images, anti-portraits of photographic role playing versions in order to explore, work through and to become familiar and comfortable with themselves.

Spence and long term collaborator Terry Dennett came up with the term "Intruder Systems" to describe gestures of resistance in their own projects. This term came from advertising lingo to describe the object or part of an image that catches the eye, similar in some ways to Roland Barthes notion of the the punctum – the thing in a photograph that moves you. The Intruder Systems in Spence and Dennett's work was often the “thing in the wrong place” - something that destabilises our usual easy visual appreciation or enjoyment of an image, the intruder system is meant to disrupt, cause confusion and to communicate meanings.  

In Colonisation (1982), Spence positions a scene in which the two polarised spheres of public and private, of the domestic and the sexualised are forced into coexisting in the same space. The incongruity of her being topless with a broom on the front step of a terraced house in a working-class area acts as the intruder system into the iconography of the pornographic pin-up of men’s' mags, the fact that Spence has not posed herself in the typical “sexy” gestures, instead choosing to pose in the familiar cliché of the old fashioned working-class housewife cleaning her front step,  throws both stereotypes of classless pin-up and working-class housewife into stark relief. 

The social geographer Doreen Massey in space, place and gender, speaks of the way all geography is to a large extent gendered, that much of our life is demarcated into separate into spheres of classed and gendered space within work, home and culture etc. In Colonisation Spence draws our attention to the way fetishised pornographic images have colonised women's sexual integrity and identity. By baring her breasts, breasts being one of the most highly fetishised signifiers of sexuality as commodity objects (think of Britain's topless Page 3 Girls for example), and in the wrong social sphere Spence is exposing her own sexuality but that of a real woman, a woman with a body that has been lived-in, that expresses her age, that comes from a time and place and class. 

The deliberate awkwardness of this image is also what makes it interesting, its echo of art historical female nude is brought to mind - these nudes who were real people, whose disavowed lives outside of being idealised held the unsexy hidden realities of having to work for a living, the “bad taste” of selling ones labour and in this case, ones body, by posing as fantasy objects. Here Spence brings to focus the uncomfortable pairing of sex/fantasy with reality and labour.

Again speaking of uncomfortable or strange pairings, is the story of the Victorian maidservant Hannah Cullwick and her collaborator and secret husband, the wealthy philanthropist Arthur Munby. At the turn of the century a wooden box was bequeathed to the British museum with special instructions that it not be opened until 1950; the British Museum turned it down and the box was taken into possession by the Trinity College Library archives. This box was called "The Munby Box"; it contained hundreds of photographs by Arthur Munby, revealing his passion for collecting and archiving images of a particular type of body: the broad-shouldered, hard-muscled physiognomy of working class-woman. He also "collected" washerwomen, female miners, milkmaids and women who suffered facial disfigurements due to Congenital syphilis - Barry Reay in his book on the couple, called Munby a "collector of noseless women". In their work together, Munby posed Cullwick in ways that best showed off and revealed the signs of her labour, which marked her physical as well as social otherness from him and his class.

In the first picture (1862 - 1867) Cullwick is attempting to "pass" for a gentleman, her hands are hidden from view, a "real" gentleman would have had the delicate hands of someone who did not have to use their body to earn a living, therefore exposing Cullwick's calluses and the largeness of her hands would give away her class origins. Due to the strenuous labour the body is put under, the working-class body is outwardly visibly, one that works, moves, lifts, scrubs, endures strain etc so that no matter what clothes are put on, the body is inscribed as poor. This is in marked contrast to the supposed refined body of the middle and upper classes - John Berger in his essay The Suit and the Photograph details how the modern suit was designed for a body that doesn't partake in physical work: the tailored suit is restrictive, form-fitting, meant for the leisured body of the office clerk who is in tern then marked out visibly as middle-class. Therefore what is interesting about this picture is that Cullwick's failure to pass as a gentleman has not only to do with her gender, the fact she is female, but also to do with her class. 

In the image on the left, Cullwick juxtaposes feminine dress with her muscular body, there is an Intruder System here,  it is her large impressive biceps which rather than disguise she displays proudly. But, as in the case with the suit and hidden hands, her body seems to rebel from the restricting confines of the classed demarcated clothing, to reveal itself as Other to the dainty figures of waifish Victorian femininity - her body being too large and muscular to successfully carry off posing as a lady. The intersections of class and gender here are interesting, as a working-class woman, Cullwick can't pass as a gentleman, But as a worker, she can't pass as a lady.

These two portraits work against the normative regulatory structures detailed by Foucault that I mentioned at the start of this paper, being working-class and possessing a large muscular body that is socially coded as masculine, meant that Cullwick's image is an anti-portrait of failed femininity or rather the decision not to conform to standardised feminine appearance. This process of compulsory gender normalisation starts at a young age, Judith Butler in Bodies that Matter, calls this the process of being “girled” that from the moment the female infant is born and given a girls name she is gendered into being different from that point on. The feminist philosopher Iris M Young backs up this idea in Throwing Like a Girl, stating that girls are taught to move, view and experience their bodies differently to boys, that female children must monitor their behaviour so as not to appear unladylike, to not make exhibitions of themselves etc, this kind of self- monitoring makes it hard for girls and the women they grow in to, to feel free to move in their bodies, as they/we are taught that their bodies are things to control rather than simply live in.  

Yet it seems this supposed otherness of Cullwick's, her powerfully strong, unladylike classed-body bursting out of the flimsy ladies' dresses was for Munby an exciting frisson of two ill-fitting worlds colliding. It is also worth mentioning that Arthur Munby, being a Victorian gentlemen of well fitting suits and philanthropic pursuits, did not have a body that had ever experienced manual labour: perhaps this goes some way to explain his fascination with the bodies of the working classes. Either way, putting aside the indications of problematic power structures between Munby and Cullwick and the evident fetishistic pleasure he takes from her body, the images themselves are still successful at destabilising stereotypes of normative polarised genders, and make the effects of social class difference visible. 

In my research I have had decided to discard discussions of Hannah Cullwick as the gap of historical contexts between that of the Victorian era and of the arguably more politically vibrant time for feminists in the 1970's when Spence was working seemed a stretch. Yet for this conference thinking about notions of how the Anti-portrait can be seen to function I felt it fruitful to return to both Cullwick and Spence to compare different ways class and gender signifiers that have often been disavowed, can  be played around with, represented and disrupted.  

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