Understanding Abjection: An Analysis of the Monstrous-Feminine in the Art of Cindy Sherman
*Warning: Contains graphic images
This is an academic paper. You DO NOT have permission to reprint/reproduce this material. Copyright 2011 Megan Karius.
It is that which cannot be assimilated, always within us, forcing an eternal repetition of repulsing and expelling that is doomed to fail. Kristeva attempts to articulate an explanation of the abject in her seminal text, Powers of Horror. The abject is constantly shifting and different for everyone, but Kristeva asserts that without it, we would have no way to understand ourselves as fully formed subjects in the symbolic order (Kristeva 4). The abject is something so vile that I do not recognize it as a thing (Kristeva 2); I must violently reject it in order to assert myself as ‘I’, and ‘Not that’. Why is it important to understand the abject? I argue that it can help us to understand why we regard some things as disgusting and repulsive. This analysis can be a useful tool for feminist theories of gender, sexuality, and embodiment. Representations of the monstrous-feminine, as conceptualized by Barbara Creed, illustrate the ways in which femininity is feared and abjected in contemporary society. As Jayne Ussher notes, this positioning of women’s bodies as abject has important implications for women’s lived experience (7). Thus, it is useful and necessary for feminists to understand the concepts of abjection and the monstrous-feminine, as well as how they intersect and relate to one another. Cindy Sherman’s work provides a useful opening into these complex theories. It is my assertion that through techniques such as hyperbole and alienation, depictions of the monstrous-feminine in Sherman’s Sex Pictures create a productive space for discussing and understanding Kristeva’s concept of the abject.
Before tackling Kristeva, it will be useful to more fully explain Barbara Creed’s notion of the monstrous-feminine. Creed has traced a direct connection between the monstrous woman and Kristeva’s concept of the abject, noting that, “all human societies have a conception of the monstrous-feminine, of what it is about woman that is shocking, terrifying, horrific, abject” (Creed 1). Creed discusses depictions of the monstrous-feminine in horror film, but her “argument that abjection is central to the recurring image of the ‘monstrous-feminine’ in horror movies is also applicable to the monstrous in Sherman” (Mulvey 148). Her analysis goes far deeper than simply looking at monsters in movies though; she is concerned with the importance of gender in these representations. Creed is careful to explain that she has:
Used the term ‘monstrous-feminine [because] the term ‘female monster’ implies a simple reversal of ‘male monster’. The reasons why the monstrous-feminine horrifies her audience are quite different from the reasons why the male monster horrifies his audience . . . The phrase ‘monstrous-feminine’ emphasizes the importance of gender in the construction of her monstrosity. (3)
For Creed, it is the femininity itself that is monstrous. According to Creed, women have historically been “constructed as ‘biological freaks’ whose bodies represent a fearful and threatening form of sexuality” (6). This monstrosity in difference can be traced as far back as Aristotle, who stated that “Woman is literally a monster: a failed and botched male who is only born female due to an excess of moisture and of coldness during the process of conception” (qtd. in Ussher 1). Woman’s ‘lack’ of the phallus is closely linked with this notion of monstrosity. As Creed argues, “the concept of the monstrous-feminine, as constructed within/by a patriarchal and phallocentric ideology, is related intimately to the problem of sexual difference and castration” (2). I will return to these ideas in my discussion of Sherman’s work, as I think it can be argued that Sherman is making a similar comment. Before we can move onto that subject though, I need to more fully explain Kristeva’s concept of the abject.
Abjection is a difficult concept to come to terms with, but I will attempt to explain it here. Kristeva is concerned with the vital role of the abject in forming the subject. Abjection allows one to separate themself from what they are not. Kristeva asks, “How can I be without border?” (4) She contends that we cannot exist without using the abject to draw a border. The abject is what must be repulsed because it cannot be assimilated (Kristeva 3). The necessity of this repulsion is described thus: “we may call it a border; abjection is above all ambiguity. Because, while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it – on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger” (Kristeva 9). We must expel what is abject, but doing so requires recognizing that it is always already within us. We cannot approach the repugnant abject, yet we cannot be without it; it is the border that defines us.
As I mentioned, the abject is not one thing, however, Kristeva asserts that there are some relatively universal forms of abjection, the foremost being the corpse. Death is the absolute in life that I recognize and turn away from simultaneously. The potential corpse resides within me at all times – it is me, but the rejection of that notion is what defines me as living. Kristeva states that “refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live . . . There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border” (3). I am forced to recognize my own mortality, yet unable to do so at the same time, thus, I must repel it, reject it, abject it (Kristeva 13).
Kristeva discusses this notion of the abject as “a ‘something’ that I do not recognize as a thing” (2) in terms of the sublime – that which is incomprehensible to me. Kristeva describes the moment of the sublime:
When the starry sky, a vista of open seas or a stained glass window shedding purple beams fascinate me, there is a cluster of meaning, of colors, of words, of caresses, there are light touches, scents, sighs, cadences that arise, shroud me, carry me away, and sweep me beyond the things that I see, hear, or think . . . As soon as I perceive it, as soon as I name it, the sublime triggers – it has always already triggered – a spree of perceptions and words that expands memory boundlessly. (12)
The act of naming is essential to this process. Kristeva calls this possibility sublimation: I name the abject in order to keep it under control (11). By naming it though, I am forced to recognize it and thus faced with the sublime. It is so great that I cannot comprehend it; I am overwhelmed. Faced with the imperceptible nature of the sublime, I require some way to alienate or separate myself from the abject; I must expel it, constantly and forcefully.
What though, is the connection between the abject and the monstrous-feminine, and how do these ideas relate to the work of Cindy Sherman? In order to move in that direction, I must explain how Kristeva understands maternity and the mother relationship to the abject. Drawing on Freudian psychoanalysis, Kristeva contends that the process of becoming a subject inherently requires breaking away from one’s mother. “The abject confronts us . . . with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal entity . . . It is a violent, clumsy breaking away, with the constant risk of falling back under the sway of a power as securing as it is stifling” (Kristeva 13). There is always that connection to (and fear of) the mother’s body; abjection preserves it. We must reject it in an attempt to be whole, to be homogeneous subjects, but the very act of continually rejecting the abject – here, the connection to the mother – brings it into existence, again and again. The psychic echo of violent physical separation from the mother is always within us. Thus, during the struggle of the child to become a subject, “a third party, eventually the father . . . helps the future subject . . . in pursuing a reluctant struggle against what, having been the mother, will turn into an abject. Repelling, rejecting; repelling itself, rejecting itself. Ab-jecting” (Kristeva 13). This intimate, tense, and inescapable relation to the mother perhaps reveals the need to represent woman as monstrous, especially in relation to her mothering and reproductive functions (Creed 7). We must deal with this abject relation, and so we attempt to purify it.
In Managing the Monstrous Feminine: Regulating the Reproductive Body, Jane Ussher discusses this need for ritual purification in dealing with the abject, claiming that, “film and art . . . offer the potential for inoculation against the danger and polluting power of the fecund body. Indeed, Julia Kristeva has argued that as societies become more secular, art has taken over from religion as a force of purification and catharsis” (Ussher 2). Here, the fecund body is the monstrous-female body, which is the abject mother. Tracing representations of women’s bodies through art history, Ussher helps to uncover the ways in which we struggle to come to terms with the abject feminine body. Evoking images of Classical art, Ussher notes that:
The female nude, icon of idealised feminine sexuality, most clearly transforms the base nature of woman’s nakedness into culture, into ‘art’, all abhorrent reminders of her fecund corporeality removed – secretions, pubic hair, genitals, and disfiguring veins or blemishes all left out of the frame. (3)
In a more contemporary example, she mentions that “Karen Horney has argued that the idealised vision of woman we see in art (or film) is not a glorification of woman, but a reflection of man’s ‘desire to conceal his dread’, for ‘there is no need for me to dread a creature so wonderful, so beautiful, nay so saintly’” (Horney, qtd. in Ussher 2-3). It is here that we begin to see the intersections between the abject, the monstrous-feminine and the artwork of Cindy Sherman.
In a series entitled Sex Pictures, Sherman uses dismembered mannequins and dolls, arranged with various props, in various poses in such a way that suggests she is trying to make a bold statement, but about what? While art is open to interpretation, and people will have different reactions to it, my goal here is to analyze the possible meanings of Sherman’s photographs. Whether intended by Sherman or not, I argue that a number of the photographs in this series depict some of the forms of defilement and loathing brought up by Kristeva in Powers of Horror. I think that analyzing Sex Pictures can help us to gain a deeper understanding of abjection. With these photographs, Sherman refuses this ‘desire to conceal’ and forces the viewer to face the abject female body that horrifies them so. That which we dread is imposed upon us and we are repulsed by it.
The objects of my analysis here are the photographs Untitled #263 and Untitled #250. I will describe each and then go into a discussion of their relation to monstrous-femininity and the abject.
In Untitled #263 we are shown an ambiguous torso, consisting of male and female genitals. The male half is on top, the female below and it is tied at the centre with a decorative bow. The penis is encircled with a ring; the vulva has an exposed tampon string and a large amount of dark pubic hair. Finally, there are two decapitated doll heads in the frame; the head that is level with the female half is turned away from the camera, while the male head stares out at the viewer.
Untitled #250 depicts part of a woman mannequin, lying on a bed of hair. Her face is wrinkled and aged and she has long white-blonde hair. She is posed somewhat seductively and staring directly at the camera. Her nipples are overly large and erect; her belly protrudes, possibly signifying pregnancy. Again, the female genitalia is visible and extremely hairy, but here it is exaggerated; in addition to seeming too large, it is inflamed and swollen. Perhaps most shocking of all, there are what appear to be dark brown sausage links protruding from her vagina.
If we recall Ussher’s discussion of the clean, contained female nude, we can compare that representation of woman to what we see here. “The apparently uncontained fecund body . . . signifies association with the animal world, which reminds us of our mortality and fragility, and stands as the antithesis of the clean, contained, proper body” (Ussher 7). Sherman takes the idea of the nude and re-inserts those reminders of fecund corporeality. At the same time, she is not attempting to show some sort of ‘natural’, beautiful female body; on the contrary, it seems obvious that these photographs are meant to repulse the viewer, or at least provoke a strong reaction. Reminders of femininity lurk in the photographs in the form of the tampon string, the pretty bow, the long hair, and the seductive pose, but they are juxtaposed with the grotesque nature of the dismembered mannequins. The abject and the masquerade of femininity are both encompassed in these photographs.
I also think Sherman is communicating a point articulated by Ussher, wherein she says “this is not to say that the female body is abject or polluted, it has merely been positioned as such, with significant implications for women’s experiences of inhabiting a body so defined” (7). I contend that it is Sherman’s goal to reveal this clever positioning of woman as abject through hyperbolic representations of grotesque and monstrous female bodies. Components of the dolls are often exaggerated in order to expose the fear and hysteria associated with constructions and mythologies of the female body, rather than any sort of ‘truth’.
This is an academic paper. You DO NOT have permission to reprint/reproduce this material. Copyright 2011 Megan Karius.
I would now like to focus the discussion on two important components of these photographs. The first is the theme of menstruation, the second, that of maternity. In describing the process of making woman monstrous, Ussher claims that:
Menarche marks the point at which a girl becomes a woman; when childhood innocence may be swapped for the mantle of monstrosity associated with abject fecundity. The physical changes of puberty – breasts, pubic hair, curving hips and thighs, sweat, oily skin, and most significantly, menstrual blood – stand as signifiers of feminine excess, of the body as out of control. (19)
From the time of menarche, girls are taught to hide all evidence of their shameful bleeding. In the West, girls are taught about the need for stringent hygiene in order to manage their menses. Ussher argues that “each of these regulatory practices shares a common aim: containment of the monstrous feminine and protection from the threat of contamination from pollution, signified by menstrual blood” (20). Now, recall the photograph Untitled #263. Sherman provokes the viewer with her refusal to hide or contain evidence of menstruation. The exposed tampon string goads the viewer into reacting, while simultaneously evoking thoughts of the ritualized cleansing and covering up of menstruation through proper femininity. As a female that experiences a monthly period, I am forced to agree with Ussher’s assertion that “depictions of menstrual blood are completely taboo; it remains the great unseen, the shame that must be hidden . . . [the sight of blood] would too abruptly [dispel] the fantasy of the female body that does not leak” (21). Again, we can think of the exposed tampon string; Sherman breaks the taboo by showing the string of the concealed tampon, but any depiction of actual menstrual blood remains absent. Thus, the image conveys a double-meaning: Sherman forces us to think about the construction of menstrual blood as grotesque, while simultaneously revealing the positioning of menstruation as something to be concealed. She brilliantly exposes and hides the monstrous-feminine all at once.
An intriguing aspect of the doll in Untitled #250 is the disturbing presence of meat in the vagina. If we recall Creed’s notion that the monstrous-feminine is intimately related to the concepts of sexual difference and castration (2), we can draw a parallel to Sherman’s photograph. Sherman’s Untitled #250 evokes multiple images by showing the sausage links protruding from the doll’s genitals. We are unable to tell if they are being expelled or consumed. Either way, one cannot help link this image to the idea of the castrating vagina dentata, a concept at the heart of the monstrous-feminine. Drawing on the work of film theorist Stephen Neale, Creed discusses how the “fascination with and fear of female sexuality is endlessly reworked within the signifying practices of the horror film” (Creed 5). While Neale and Creed are discussing the monstrous-feminine in the context of horror film, their analysis can be translated to Sherman’s treatment of the monstrous-feminine in her art. Susan Lurie, on the other hand, challenges the traditional Freudian position. She says that, “Specifically, [man] fears that woman could castrate him both psychically and in a sense physically. He imagines the latter might take place during intercourse when the penis ‘disappears’ inside woman’s ‘devouring mouth’” (Lurie, qtd. in Creed 6). Again, the doll in Untitled #250 could easily be ‘devouring’ the sausages, which are phallic, but they also evoke thoughts of food (and therefore food loathing) and excrement – all images deeply related to the abject.
The mannequin in Untitled #250 also looks as though she is pregnant. The image of the round, taught belly forces the viewer to think of the reproductive feminine body. Once again, we are brought back to the image of the mother, but here, she is monstrous, abject. “Although the subject must exclude the abject, the abject must, nevertheless, be tolerated for that which threatens to destroy life also helps to define life” (Creed 9). The imagery of life and death together are ripe within Sherman’s work. In agreeing that these photographs are permeated by a strong sense of death, Sherman has stated that “I’m not obsessed with death, and yet, when I started thinking about it, I realized that I actually was. It’s one of those mysteries of life — it’s terrifying and grotesque” (Lichtenstein 86). Within the concepts of the monstrous-feminine and abjection, the following themes are all linked: mothering, giving life, birth, death, mortality, corpses, return to nature, animality; the female reproductive body has the power to evoke this sort of word association; therefore, the sight of the woman’s body is recognized as possessing the ability to give life, while at the same time, reminding us of our own mortality, of our ‘corpse’.
Returning to the concept of the monstrous-feminine, we see how Creed’s work is so helpful in decoding Sherman’s Sex Pictures. Sherman doesn’t need to create actual monsters because she is making a statement about the monstrosity placed onto the meaning of femininity itself. Creed says, “The place of the abject is ‘the place where meaning collapses’, the place ‘I’ am not. The abject threatens life; it must be ‘radically excluded’ from the place of the living subject, propelled away from the body” (Kristeva, qtd. in Creed 9). The female body is reviled as abject, for men and women. Women are taught to internalize self-hatred and shame of our bodily functions, such as breast-feeding, giving birth, and especially menstruation. The abject female body must be covered, hidden, and disguised by traditional modes of femininity. Woman is still Other, but her abjection is concealed. I think this is part of the reason Sherman’s photographs are so striking – she refuses to cover up the monstrous female body. In Untitled #250, the mannequin seems to unabashedly stare, fully exposed, at the viewer, challenging you to question your own reaction to the image. I think Sherman wants us to be shocked and repulsed, but also to wonder why we have that reaction. In forcing us to question why these images seem grotesque, Sherman partially exposes the positioning (to recall Ussher) of the female body as monstrous and abject.
In “Tracing the Subject with Cindy Sherman”, Amelia Jones discusses the effects of Sherman’s work in Sex Pictures. Jones is concerned with the concept of the projective gaze and the ways in which Sherman encourages viewers to feel their own participation in the voyeuristic act of viewing the photograph (36). The camera sets up a binary in which ‘I’, the subject, am on one side, and you, the ‘object’, are encapsulated within my frame. Jones asserts that this relationship is necessary for how we define ourselves as subjects. She states, “the subject, then, is never complete within itself but is always contingent on others, and the glue of this intersubjectivity is the desire binding us together (the projective gaze is one mode of intersubjectivity but functions specifically to veil this contingency by projecting lack onto the other rather than admitting its own)” (Jones 40). It is here we are forced to recall Kristeva’s very similar notion of the necessity of abjection: we become subjects by drawing a border through abjecting what we are not. Thus, Jones’ statement could potentially be changed to read “the subject, then, is never complete within itself but is always contingent on the abject.” Jones ultimately comes to the conclusion that Sherman succeeds in turning this gaze around: “It seems to me that all of her series use the technology of photography (which, again, was developed precisely out of the compulsion to master the world through a monocular gaze) to stage scenarios that engage or repulse this projective eye in one way or another, ultimately turning it inside out” (Jones 47).
It is this disconcerting process of inverting the gaze that leads to our final discussion on the topic of Brechtian distanciation. In “The Origins of Feminist Art”, Jayne Wark discusses the use of Brechtian theatre techniques in feminist theatre and performance art. Wark describes it this way:
At the core of what Brecht called ‘epic theatre’ was his famous concept of ‘alienation’ (Verfremdung). This concept . . . essentially held that, in order for audiences to become critically aware, they had to have their familiar understandings and expectations overturned through a process of defamiliarization or estrangement that would dialectically bring about a bewildered insight into their state of social alienation. (32-33)
The concept of Brechtian distanciation is aptly applied to Sherman’s work with Sex Pictures. I think the use of mannequins here is key. In the past, Sherman has always included her own image in her work. Sex Pictures marks a transition to the use of dolls and props. They can be dismembered and manipulated in very distinct ways, marking them as inhuman and thus, monstrous. The fact that the photographs depict graphic nudity through inanimate objects works to effectively alienate the audience; the grotesquely exaggerated body parts also help achieve the feeling of bewilderment meant to cause the critical reflection described by Wark. I argue that Sherman uses Brechtian distanciation extremely effectively, causing exactly the sort of critical awareness Wark discusses in relation to performance art. Working in this manner, Sherman simultaneously disrupts and reveals the ideological operations that work to construct the monstrous-feminine and position it as abject.
Sherman’s representations of female bodies evoke feelings of disgust and discomfort. The mannequins are ambiguous, sometimes possessing both male and female genitalia; they are also dismembered, never giving the viewer a complete picture of the female body. By doing this, Sherman subverts the scopophilic treatment of women’s bodies in art and film. The bodies are chopped up so as to fetishize the separate parts, but rather than simply evoking fetishistic pleasure, the images compel and repulse us simultaneously. By alienating her audience in this way, Sherman creates a space for critical analysis of the images. I argue that her treatment of the mannequins aligns with Creed and Ussher’s notions of the monstrous-feminine, as well as with Kristeva’s concept of the abject. By incorporating elements of masculinity, femininity, monstrosity, and abjection, Sherman asks us to question our conceptions of gender and embodiment. Through her exaggerated representations of abject femininity, Cindy Sherman’s Sex Pictures can help us to understand the ways in which all femininity is constructed as monstrous, and ultimately, abject.
This is an academic paper. You DO NOT have permission to reprint/reproduce this material. Copyright 2011 Megan Karius.
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Sherman, Cindy, et al. Cindy Sherman: Photographic Work 1975 – 1995. London: Schirmer Art Books, 1995. Web. 5 December 2010.
—. “Tracing the Subject with Cindy Sherman.” Cindy Sherman :Retrospective. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1997. Web.
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