Women and girls’ association with visuality has been enduring and dominant in art history, in visual and film studies, as well as beyond the boundaries of academia and in the realm of everyday life. In 1975, Laura Mulvey famously argued that the man is always the bearer of the gaze, whereas the woman is burdened with what she termed as “to-be-looked-at-ness” in mainstream Hollywood cinema (27-29). In Ways of Seeing, John Berger comes to a similar conclusion and notes that “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves”(47). Visuality has therefore become a defining characteristic of female identity and nowadays, it is frequently – if not always – associated with beauty ideals that go hand in hand with female sexualisation, the perception that is, of the female subject as a primarily sexual object. Quite often, as I look at women and adolescent girls’ photos on Facebook or Instagram, or as I watch TV series, advertisements or music video clips, I keep noticing, with a sense of disappointment, how prevailing this phenomenon is becoming in Western culture. The question that comes to mind then is whether female “to-be-looked-at-ness” is doomed to restrict one primarily to the role of the passive, silenced, and in many cases, sexualized spectacle. Recently, in a discussion between feminist scholar bell hooks, filmmaker Schola Lynch, author Marci Blackman and activist author Janet Mock, hooks characterized Beyoncé as a “terrorist” in the process of critiquing the singer’s Time Magazine cover (hooks qtd. in Danielle, 2014). hooks argued that Beyoncé’s influence on young girls is harmful because she reproduces patriarchal, objectifying formations of femininity (ibid). While the impact of sexualizing media representations of women and girls is unquestionable, I wonder if there is a way to undo them and to thus react to what bell hooks characterises as a wound for feminism and contemporary feminist thought (ibid).
During my PhD studies, I have worked with Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic memoirs, A Child’s Life and Other Stories (2000) and The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures (2002). Gloeckner’s memoirs are told via the medium of comics and they narrate the underage female protagonist’s sexualisation and sexual abuse by father figures in the family domain. What makes Gloeckner’s work remarkable is the artist’s manipulation of a visual medium to recreate the sexualized, underage spectacle and the trauma that comes along with her objectification and abuse. Gloeckner dares to take what Hillary Chute describes in Graphic Women as the “risk of representation,” by refusing to conceal Minnie’s nude beauty and her developing sexuality and by blatantly introducing them through the visual register (62). This is precisely the reason why Gloeckner’s graphic memoirs are difficult to read. The two texts have the power to force readers/spectators into discomforting identifications. One is called to either identify with Minnie, the sexualized victim, or with adult abusive father figures, whose gaze constantly objectifies her. The narratives do construct a sexualized, beautiful spectacle that has the potential to offer voyeuristic pleasure to the (male) onlooker. Nevertheless, that pleasure is repeatedly undermined through Gloeckner’s insistence on mediating the problems that come with sexualisation.
While both graphic memoirs negotiate the girl protagonist’s sexual trauma, A Child’s Life does so in a more painful and disturbing way. Its visual images are filled with naked bodies, both male and female, which perform obscene sexual acts in the family domain and outside of it. Minnie is shown growing up in a problematic environment where she comes to value herself solely as a sexual being. As a result, she becomes easy prey for the paedophilic adults in the house. As an adolescent, she is primarily depicted as a castrated, passive sexual object in the service of abusive adult male sexuality. Readers/spectators are forced to come face to face with her sexual suffering, thus becoming implicated, through their own gaze, in the processes recreated in the visual/verbal narrative. By insisting on the realist visual depiction of Minnie’s nude adolescent and pre-adolescent beauty, and on the preservation of the sexual dimension of human nudity, Gloeckner succeeds in unveiling the complexities of sexual abuse.
Fig. 1: “Self-Portrait with Pemphigus Vulgaris,” p. 6, from A Child’s Life and Other Stories by Phoebe Gloeckner, published by Frog Books/North Atlantic Books, copyright © 1998, 2000 by Phoebe Gloeckner. Reprinted by permission of publisher.
My engagement with Gloeckner’s graphic memoirs coincided with my attention to the increase in sexualizing representations of women and girls in the media and on social networking sites. As I was studying these texts, struggling to untangle the effect of the sexual trauma that is mediated through the visual, I had dismissed what I have now come to see as Gloeckner’s contribution to the feminist struggle against the cultural sexualisation of girls and women. As we learn how the protagonist becomes manipulated by paedophilic father figures in the domestic domain, we also come across a more implicit form of sexualization via dominant cultural discourses she interacts with. One such an example entails Minnie reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita at the age of eight years old, with a naked Barbie doll lying next to her on the ground (47). On the one hand, Nabokov’s tale of the adult male narrator’s sexual affair with his twelve-year-old stepdaughter Dolores Haze is a canonical literary text that introduces the underage female subject as silenced, objectified and formed through the discourse of the father figure, whose sexual satisfaction she serves. On the other, the Barbie doll represents a beauty ideal for many girls in Western cultures and it evokes a broader phenomenon, where various discourses produce and naturalize girls’ sexualisation and the formation of Nabokovian nymphets or Lolitas. This phenomenon is lucidly described by Gili Durham, in her book The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Do About It. By familiarizing herself with such discourses at a very young age, and by being constantly interpellated as a sexual being by the father figures in the family domain, Minnie comes to perceive girls’ sexualisation as a naturalized process. By pointing to dominant literary, consumerist and familial discourses that lead to Minnie’s self-objectification, Gloeckner’s visual/verbal text unveils their injurious effect, precisely because it shows how they can lead to more serious problems like child sexual abuse.
The autobiographical subject’s injuries are translated into the visual register and become inscribed on her body in Gloeckner’s “Self-Portrait with Pemphigus Vulgaris” at the very beginning of A Child’s Life, which foreshadows the suffering that will unfold in the following pages. The psychic trauma of sexual abuse and the subtler injuries of sexualisation are translated into a sickness that renders the skin grotesquely decomposed. In the self-portrait the spectacle is once again nude, in a classical pose, averting her gaze from spectators. She holds a conventionally objectifying position both in the domain of visual arts, where the nude spectacle is usually presupposed to be female, and in that of medicine, where the penetrating gaze of the (male) doctor has been trying for centuries to make sense of the female body and of femininity. However, the adolescent girl’s grotesque sickness reacts to patriarchal preconceptions of sexualizing beauty ideals. Being a professional medical illustrator, Gloeckner seizes the traditionally male roles –of the artist, and the doctor – and fuses the artistic and the medical realm to visually recreate the girl’s wounds on her body. In so doing, she shows us how female “to-be-looked-at-ness” can facilitate feminist expressions of trauma as opposed to merely restricting one to the role of the sexualized object.
Working on Gloeckner’s narratives has made me alert to the increasing prevalence of girls and women’s cultural sexualisation in Western culture and its alarming consequences, which are still not addressed properly through education. It is urgent to raise awareness about the dangers entailed in the aforementioned phenomenon. It is also necessary to train parents, teachers, caregivers, and consequently, students themselves to become critical consumers of mass media and to be able to distinguish between healthy and non-healthy gender representations, in accordance with pledges made by the APA and UNESCO in 2007 and 2006, respectively (Carlson 2006, APA 2007). Gloeckner’s work has also taught me that female “to-be-looked-at-ness” need not be perceived as a mere burden. To the contrary, it can function as a means through which to react to harmful patriarchal formations of the female subject.
During my studies, I have heard comments about the “uselessness” of doctoral studies in literature for anyone who is not interested in texts that are often described as obscure and unknown. Nevertheless, my experience has taught me that becoming familiarized with marginalized, and until recently silenced, narratives of sexual – and other forms of – trauma, can lead to the formation of critical media consumers and to the intolerance against different forms of gendered violence. At least this is what happened for me. Given the contemporary rise of the visual due to ongoing technological advances, it is essential, as Marianne Hirsch has proposed in 2004, to introduce “a new visual literacy” that will lead to its better interpretations and better uses (1212).
Olga Michael has recently finished her PhD Studies in English and American Studies at the University of Manchester. Her thesis examines the representation of different forms of insidious trauma and the use of pastiche as reparation in contemporary American women’s graphic memoirs. It also demonstrates how the graphic memoir can become a site where feminist reconfigurations of femininity and of elements from dominant male artistic and psychoanalytical canons can be performed. Her research interests include women’s autobiographical performances, feminist reconfigurations of trauma, trauma in relation to the visual and contemporary uses of intertextuality.
APA. Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. Washington: American Psychological Association, 2007. www.apa.org/pi/wpo/sexualization.html
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972.
Carlson, Ulla, Ed. Regulation, Awareness, Empowerment: Young Children and Harmful Media Content in the Digital Age. Gothenburg: The International Clearinghouse on Children, Youth and Media, 2006. http://tvgeweld.nl/leeszaal/boek_mediaregulations.pdf
Chute, Hillary L. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia UP, 2010.
Durham, Gili M. The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Do About It. London: Duckworth Overlook, 2009.
Danielle, Britni. “bell hooks on Beyoncé: She’s a ‘Terrorist’ Because of her ‘Impact on Young Girls,’” Clutch Magazine. May 8, 2014. http://www.clutchmagonline.com/2014/05/bell-hooks-beyonce-terrorist-impact-young-girls/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=bell-hooks-beyonce-terrorist-impact-young-girls.
Gloeckner, Phoebe. A Child’s Life and Other Stories. 2nd ed. Berkeley, CA: Frog Books, 2000.
———. The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures. Berkeley, CA: Frog Books, 2002.
Hirsch, Marianne. “Editor’s Column: Collateral Damage.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 119. 5 (Oct 2004): 1209-1215. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25486117.
Mulvey, Laura. Visual and Other Pleasures. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita, 2nd ed. London: Corgi, 1978.