What tactics avoid perpetuating a patriarchal, gendered perspective? The film, ‘Eden’, and artists Sharon Kivland and Kara Walker offer enlightenment…

Yesterday, I watched the film Eden, staring Jamie Chung and directed by Megan Griffiths, about the abduction and sale into sex slavery of a young girl in the USA.

A key area of my practice research considers how we live in ‘a culture governed by the invisible but many-legged tarantula of patriarchal law’ so we invariably look with a gaze ‘ordered by sexual imbalance’ to see stereotypical roles of ‘active / male and passive / female’ perpetuated. (1) (2) (3) It is an endless dance of dominance and submission that finds the powerful few elevated from the multitude (the horde with little or no power).  Although this issue connects to gender, it doesn’t adhere to a strict male / female divide — both men and women experience the inadequacy and lack that subjects them to a submissive position within specific cultural situations.

Strategic mimicry offers one means of escape from this masculinised perspective, transmuting woman from victim of mime to its subversive instance, co-opting masculine discourse and disrupting it, reinvesting its power in the feminine. (4) My current series of work falls into this bracket by appropriating images that offer the promise of perfect, passive female but using cropping, juxtaposition, and the way they are re-made to undermine gender stereotype, supplanting masculinised values with the power of the feminine. However, the danger with such a strategy is that one simply perpetuates what one wishes to evade.

Eden could easily have adopted a traditional approach but is unusual in that the majority of violence enacted upon the young women it portrays is implied rather than shown, so no sexual acts are depicted at all, for example, negating any possibility of audience titillation. Thus, the masculinised discourse in Eden is only partially allowed to play out; the girls may be dominated by their male captors but this inequality in power is subtly rather than brutally depicted and is never glorified. The lead female role communicates an undercurrent of quietly persistent resistance which builds until she enacts her revenge and escapes masculine imprisonment.

The film left me with several thoughts. Firstly, that it’s brilliant — well-worth watching — and secondly an uncertainty about its reality — surely the events depicted never happened in modern-day America? However, whilst Eden isn’t a true story as such, it is shocking to discover it is based on parallel events that happened to Chong Kim.

If I were to make new work in the spirit of the approach used by this film, the perfect, passive female images I utilise possibly need to be less apparent, superseded by a presence that’s more implied in nature. Something that springs to mind is a series of work entitled Mes plus belles coiffures, 2011, by Sharon Kivland which offer a traditional crop of the female head, but shown from the back to more assuredly negate any possibility of a perfect passive female image. Alternatively, as a greater extreme, detail could be completely supplanted by a shadowy outline in the spirit of Kara Walker.

I’m not sure how to use this information at the moment, but I suspect it has potential for future projects.

Sharon Kivland, 'Mes plus belles coiffures', 2011
Sharon Kivland, ‘Mes plus belles coiffures’, 2011

References:

1.  Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement, The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsey Wing, (Minneapolis: the University of Minnesota, 1986 [La Jeune Née, Paris: Union Générale d’Editions, 1975]), p. xii.

2.  Mulvey, Laura, Visual and Other Pleasures, 2nd edn., (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009 [1st edn. 1989]), p. 19.

3.  Mulvey, p. 19.

4. Catherine Malabou, Changing Difference, trans. Carolyn Shread, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011 [Changer de difference, France?: Editions Galilée, 2009]), p. 123 & p. 126.

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