Pearls and Gore: The Spectacle of. Woman in Life and Death
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One of the main purposes of this collection is to explore the apparent difference between women who kill and women who are killed. It is the contention of the editors that the distinction between these two aspects of violence is less clear than commonly perceived and is carefully mediated through socialized representational practices. In this chapter I argue that eradicating women and the murderous feminine are interrelated and are well illustrated in examples of early modern medical imaging. I examine the scientific treatment of the female model within this historical context and compare it with contemporary debates concerning visualizing the body as a materialization of violence against the feminine and against women. I make the case for a direct comparison between the visual representations of femininity that appear in horror and science fiction, on the one hand, and those that appear in science, on the other.
Modelling Femininity in Life and in Death:
The Horrific and the Ideal
The female body has long been a significant marker of the boundary between
life and death. The Freudian psychoanalytic drama, for example, is based on
the characterization of femininity as simultaneously nurturing and a fearful void. One of the ways this characterization has been explored in terms of representation is through feminist analysis of horror, especially the horror film. In her analysis of films such as Alien, Barbara Creed (1990,135) describes how the characterization of the female-as-lack is presented within a context of a phallic economy and manifests as a primal fear of the archaic mother: “the dread of the generative mother seen only in the abyss, the monstrous vagina, the origin of all life threatening to reabsorb what it once birthed.” The public spectacle of harnessing, suppressing, even killing this feminine uber – assassin has been debated at great length in other feminist analyses of horror (Creed 1993; Clover 1992; Modleski 1986; Kristeva 1982). Carol Clover is best known for her analysis of the treatment of the feminine in slasher movies, that subgenre of horror that typically features a gaggle of teenagers trapped in a horrific experience where they are picked off one by one by some monster (usually a deranged adult male). The series of killings usually involves visible and gory attacks on the body with knives, blades, and chainsaws. The last teenager standing is often a young woman who manages to outwit the killer. Sometimes this cunning figure saves her on-screen male love interest as well. Clover focuses on this “Final Girl” as the psychic manifestation of masculine fears that focus on violation of the body by evoking bleeding vaginas and castration. The Final Girl, usually a virgin or at least not engaging in onscreen sex, safely serves as a male surrogate in a heterosexual setting and provides a release for male fear of the feminized body. This analysis of fear and the resulting transference, along with Creed’s work on the archaic mother figure as arbiter of life and death, are relevant to medical visual culture and to our understanding of the binary function of the feminized body as killed and as killer.
Mary Ann Doane (1990) introduces another form of transference relevant to the analysis here; namely, that set up by a modern culture saturated with visions of uncharted and mysterious worlds generated by an increasingly socially dominant scientific and technological discourse. It is seen as no coincidence that the rise in science fiction occurs as industrialization, based on scientific endeavour and technological expertise, shifts into high gear. Doane examines Villier de l’Isle-Adam’s story of Tomorrow’s Eve (L’eve future, first published in 1886), and in particular the role of the robotic and man-made Eve named Hadaly (the Arabic word for “ideal”). She contends that the idealized feminine form, both good mother and mistress, being “opened up for dissection” is a masculine response to fear and uncertainty in the modern technological age (Doane 1990,164). Technology is harnessed, the unknown is kept
at bay, and men are made useful when the character Thomas Edison (a telling hero of the technological age) builds Eve. Although within the associated Fordist paradigm men’s bodies are analogous to machines, the women’s body literally becomes a machine (167). Nowhere is this more obvious than with the figures—one robotic, one organic—of Maria in Fritz Lang’s 1926 film Metropolis. A confused film in terms of its treatment of science, technology, and gender at the height of the Industrial Revolution, it does make clear the demeaning effects of the capitalist-led mechanization of men’s work. The sexualized and demonic robot Maria (created by the mad scientist character, Rotwang) and the caring, maternal organic Maria hover somewhat hesitantly around the central theme of capitalist exploitation of masculinity in the booming era of technological wonder captured in idealized and futuristic cityscapes. Doane’s idealization of the feminine form as masculine transference clarifies the respective roles of the Marias in Metropolis: whereas Hadaly incorporates the Madonna-whore in an obviously artificial form, Lang splits these between the technological and the organic. By doing so he clearly identifies the fear of the technological and transfers it to a fear of unbound feminine sexuality (whereas in horror slasher films it is the fear of feminine sexuality combined with reproduction that figures in the feminine form). Ludmilla Jordanova (1989,124) warns that it is a mistake to dismiss the robotic Maria as science fiction as her form “represents two different forms of danger—technological and sexual— riveted together.” The robotic Maria (created to look identical to the organic one in order to confuse the revolting masses of male workers) performs a crazed sexual dance among a group of lustful and easily led men. Eventually burned “alive” at the stake, the sexualized, robotic Maria is eventually replaced on screen by the maternal Maria, who then mediates the class conflict between city manager and the leader of the underground workers in front of a traditional church. Technology and the futuristic city have, respectively, been violently dispensed with and removed from the landscape: all is well among the men and the safely idealized woman.
Laura Mulvey (1996), in a collection of essays on fetishism and curiosity, examines the iconographic representation of femininity in terms of curiosity and knowledge in the classical myth of Pandora. Pandora is the Greek mythical figure who is created by the gods to seduce men and bring them harm with her box of evils. Instructed not to open the box, her curiosity gets the best of her: Pandora opens the box and, like her Christian sister Eve, brings earth – bound misery to man in the form of forbidden knowledge. Another important part of Mulvey’s analysis of Pandora concerns topography, which embellishes notions of inside and outside with surface-as-secret. Pandora, Mulvey
posits, does not simply carry the box secreting doomed knowledge; rather, she is the box and embodies the unknown as dangerous: “Pandora evokes the double meaning of the word fabrication. She is made, not born, and she is also a lie, a deception. There is a dislocation between her appearance and her meaning. She is a Trojan horse, a lure and a trap, a trompe-Toeil. Her appearance disassembles” (Mulvey 1996, 55). As does the robotic Maria in Metropolis. And what gods and god-like mysteries put asunder, man creates to control, as with the idealized constructs of organic Maria and Villier’s Hadaly.
An almost identical tension between and packaging of femininity feared and femininity idealized is found in early modern medical imaging.