Popular culture and the ‘postmodern body’
The intersection of postmodernism, popular culture and political economy can be seen to coalesce around the issue of consumer culture, where, as Schwichtenberg (1993:9) notes, ‘star packaging and targeted audiences are critical for profitability’. Susan Bordo’s essay ‘Material Girl: The Effacements of Postmodern Culture’ (1993b) considers those aspects of the materiality of ‘the postmodern body’ exemplified by Madonna. They include discourses that promote ‘plastic surgery, body building, liposuction, exercise regimens and other bodily enhancements that contribute to “plasticity” as a postmodern paradigm’ (Schwichenberg 1993:10). Schwichtenberg shows how, within a broad debate around the promotion of beauty and diet regimes, Bordo situates ‘the physical reconstruction of Madonna, who has come to represent the perfect postmodern body in both theoretical and popular discourse’ (ibid.). Bordo puts forward a feminist critique of Madonna’s bodily transformations as representative of postmodernism’s tendency ‘to efface women’s physical differences, in accordance with a plastic standard of beauty’ (ibid.). Bordo’s essay, as Schwichtenberg observes, warns against the political dangers of a postmodern feminism, particularly in its conjunction with contemporary capitalism, and draws on ‘Madonna’s physical iconography’ to emphasize how ‘commercial imperatives inform a “plastic aesthetics of the body”’ (ibid.).
Bordo shows how postmodernism’s intersection with capitalism has, through the currents of consumerism, led to ‘a new “postmodern” imagination of human freedom from bodily determination.. .In place of.. .materiality we now have what
I call “cultural plastic”’ (Bordo 1993b:265). Bordo outlines the emphasis on fitness, beauty, diet, and what she claims medical science has designated as ‘polysurgical addicts’ who undergo surgical operations in pursuit of the perfect body. She sees the pursuit of the ‘sculpted body’ as an expression of the process of ‘normalisation’. Bordo draws on the term ‘disciplinary’ as used in a Foucauldian sense, which points to practices which do not merely transform but ‘normalise’ the subject. Illustrating her point, Bordo draws on two examples of normalising feminine practice which highlight issues of race as well as gender. She cites Bo Derek’s hair in corn rows (in the film 10) and Oprah Winfrey’s admission on her show that she has always wanted ‘hair that swings from side to side’, as examples of the power of racial, as well as gender, normalisation. As Bordo states (1993b: 273), ‘normalisation not only to “femininity” but to the Caucasian standards of beauty that still dominate on television, in movies, in popular magazines’.
She correctly identifies the dark side of the transformative process, including damaging, sometimes fatal operations, exercise addictions and eating disorders. Further, Bordo notes that these normalising images are ‘suffused with the dominance of gender, racial, class, and other cultural iconography’ (ibid). In addition she maintains that
they reproduce on the level of discourse and interpretation the same conditions which postmodern bodies enact on the level of cultural practice: a construction of life as plastic possibility and weightless choice, undetermined by history, social location or even individual biography.
Bordo discusses the impact of postmodernism and capitalism in terms of consumerism, power and popular culture. She draws on Foucault’s use of the term ‘power’ and the ‘postmodern misappropriation of Foucault’ as shown inJohn Fiske (1987b). Foucault does not conceive ofpower as the possession of individuals or groups, but is concerned with the operation of power ‘though multiple “processes of different origin and scattered location”, regulating and normalising the most intimate and minute elements of the construction of time, space, desire embodiment’ (Bordo 1993b:278). The crucial issue here is ‘resistance’. Foucault describes the instability of modern power relations and the fact that resistance is ‘unpredictable and hegemony precarious’ (Bordo 1993b: 278). However, Fiske (1987b) transforms the Foucauldian concept of discourse into ‘a notion of resistance as jouissance’, ‘a creative and pleasurable eruption of cultural “difference” through the “seams” of the text’ (Bordo 1993b:278). Bordo argues that, whereas Fiske talks about ‘the power of being different’ as an act of creative interpretation, she interprets it as an ongoing political struggle. She notes that for Foucault the ‘metaphorical terrain of resistance is explicitly that of “the battle”; the “points of confrontation” may be “innumerable” and “unstable” but they involve a serious often deadly struggle of embodied (that is historically situated and shaped) forces’ (Bordo 1993b:280).
Bordo considers the representation of the black woman’s body and draws on an example of the magazine Essence, which she maintains has consciously and systematically tried to promote positive images of ‘black strength, beauty and self acceptance’. She notes that despite this, advertisers ‘continually elicit and perpetuate consumers’ feelings of inadequacy and insecurity over their racial bodies’ (Bordo 1993b:281).
Pursuing the concept of resistance in relation to Madonna, Bordo references the work of Susan Rubin Suleiman (1986) who advises moving beyond the valorisation of historically and culturally constructed and suppressed values towards ‘endless complication’. Suleiman draws on Derrida’s metaphor of ‘incalculable choreographies’ to ‘capture the dancing, elusive continually changing subject that she envisions, a subjectivity without gender, without history, without location’ (ibid.). Bordo relates this to the body and Madonna’s representations as she states:
the truly resistant female b ody is not the body that wages war against feminine sexualisation and objectification, but the body as Cathy Schwichtenberg has put it that ‘uses simulation strategically in ways that challenge the stable notion of gender as the edifice of sexual difference…an erotic politics in which the female body can be refashioned in the flux of identities that speak in plural styles’.
Bordo maintains that the new postmodern heroine of this exotic politics is Madonna.
Bordo charts the significance and relevance of Madonna’s representations for the politics of feminist resistance. She maintains that until recently ‘Madonna’s resistance has been seen along “Body as Battleground” lines deriving from her refusal to allow herself to be constructed as an object of patriarchal desire’ (Bordo 1993b:282). As she notes, Madonna presented a model of female heterosexuality that was independent of patriarchal control, ‘a sexuality that defined rather than rejected the male gaze, teasing it with her own gaze deliberately trashy and vulgar, challenging anyone to call her a whore.’ (Bordo 1993b:282). Bordo goes on to note that this is no longer the Madonna body type and that during 1990-1991 Madonna went on a strenuous reducing and exercise programme, running several miles a day. As Bordo (1993b:284) notes, Madonna ‘has developed in obedience to dominant contemporary norms, a tight, slender, muscular body’. As Bordo indicates,
in terms of Madonna’s own former lexicon of meanings within which feminine voluptuousness and the choice to be round in a culture of the lean was clearly connected to spontaneity, self definition and defiance of the cultural gaze—the terms set by the gaze have now triumphed.
Bordo argues that this type of critique of Madonna’s obsessive preoccupation with ‘body praxis’ does not appear to challenge the representation of Madonna as postmodern heroine. For both Madonna and those that emulate her, Madonna is ‘in control of her image not trapped by it’. Madonna herself maintains that ‘Everything I do is meant to have several meanings, to be ambiguous’. As Bordo notes, she resists an overinterpretation of her work in terms of ‘artistic intent’. In an interview with Cosmopolitan magazine, Madonna said that ‘she favours irony and ambiguity to “entertain myself” and (as she told Vanity Fair) out of “rebelliousness and a desire to fuck with people”’ (Bordo 1993b:286).10
Bordo goes on to highlight the significance of the ‘new’ Madonna body as displayed in her work and its implications. Using the video Open Tour Heart, Bordo states that, as is the case with ‘all rock videos, the female body is offered to the viewer purely as a spectacle, an object of sight, a visual commodity to be consumed’ (Bordo 1993b:287). As Bordo (1993b:287) states, ‘Many men and women may experience the primary reality of the video as the elicitation of desire for that perfect body; women however may also be gripped by the desire…of becoming that perfect body.’ As Bordo (1993b:288) concludes, despite the ‘internal’ ambiguities it contains, the ‘video’s postmodern conceits. facilitate rather than deconstruct the presentation of Madonna’s body as an object on display’.
Probyn, in her essay ‘Bodies and Anti-Bodies: Feminism and the Postmodern’ (1987), investigates the concept of the ‘postmodern body’ and, like Bordo, is critical of the political implications for the place of ‘the feminine body in mass and everyday culture’. In this context she claims that ‘the question is much too difficult to impose any postmodernist closure on these sites’ (Probyn 1987:356). In developing the relationship between postmodernism, popular culture and the body, Probyn (1987:356) argues that the way ‘the popular’ is articulated and ‘lived in the shadow of postmodernist theorizing’ needs to be investigated as well as the implications of this for ‘the death of the social’. As Probyn notes, the multiple subjectivities that have ‘emerged’ from postmodernist and poststructuralist critiques means that ‘our bodies are more actively articulated and that a surface is only one way of reading’ (ibid.). While cautious of the implications of postmodernism for feminism, Probyn recognises the potential of postmodernism for feminism. Drawing on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin (1968), she argues that feminism in the postmodern must search for interconnections between bodies and memories which can point to ‘all that prolongs the body and links it to other bodies or to the world outside’ (Bakhtin 1968:317). She warns against feminism’s tendency towards essentialising around subject positioning, and recognises that ‘bodies and memory in the postmodern can be seen defining epistemological lines which articulate subjectivities and practices’ (Probyn 1987:357).
An example of the interpenetration of bodies, memories and subjectivities with the politics of everyday life can be seen in the work of Angela McRobbie (1982a, 1982b, 1986). Probyn (1987:357), drawing on McRobbie’s (1986) work, shows how she entwines memory, fantasy, dance, biographical references and extracts from others’ lives through the meanings of ‘adolescent femininity’.
Probyn shows how ‘McRobbie articulates the memories of school dances, [the films] Fame and Flashdance, Camden Palace [London] and families, not to valorize them, but to bring out their specificity’ (ibid.).
The extremes of the postmodern body have been outlined by Donna Haraway in ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’ (1985). Probyn (1987:355) contends that ‘In the truly postmodern sphere of “cyborgs” there is no longer a self (“one is too few, but two is too many” [1985:96]) and the gendered bounded body is past…’ As Probyn notes in what Haraway calls the ‘post-information age’, ‘cyborg polities’ boils down to ‘the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication (1985:95)’ (ibid). Probyn warns that the implications of Haraway’s politics framed within her ‘techno-emancipation’ are unstable and obscure. She argues for a theory of articulation to problematise and politicise ‘unyielding’ hegemonic and patriarchal sites, central among which is sexuality.