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The Female Face of Shame

The Female Face of Shame

by Erica L. Johnson
     
 

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The female body, with its history as an object of social control, expectation, and manipulation, is central to understanding the gendered construction of shame. Through the study of 20th-century literary texts, The Female Face of Shame explores the nexus of femininity, female sexuality, the female body, and shame. It demonstrates how shame structures relationships

Overview

The female body, with its history as an object of social control, expectation, and manipulation, is central to understanding the gendered construction of shame. Through the study of 20th-century literary texts, The Female Face of Shame explores the nexus of femininity, female sexuality, the female body, and shame. It demonstrates how shame structures relationships and shapes women's identities. Examining works by women authors from around the world, these essays provide an interdisciplinary and transnational perspective on the representations, theories, and powerful articulations of women's shame.

Editorial Reviews

Mary K. DeShazer

"This collection features well written, carefully researched essays that analyze an impressive range of fictional, autobiographical, theoretical, and (in one case) cinematic texts. It exemplifies feminist scholarship of the highest order and offers a timely intervention. This is a powerful collection with impressive interdisciplinary strengths." —Mary K. DeShazer, Wake Forest University

Jonathan Flatley

"Written by an impressive group of outstanding scholars, the essays in this book make a compelling case for the important connections between shame and femininity across a diverse set of cultural and national contexts. The Female Face of Shame shows us both the damage shame does and its powerful capacity to generate subjectivities, practices and modes of belonging. Johnson and Moran’s volume will be an extremely valuable resource for scholars working in or around affect studies and women’s and gender studies." —Jonathan Flatley, Wayne State University

From the Publisher
"Johnson and Moran's volume is well presented, highly original and deeply moving. As well as providing a new theoretical framework in which women's literature and experience can be discussed, it is significant that this is not only an academic text, but also a source of comfort, understanding and hope to marked women who suffer the emotional anguish of shame within their societies." —Women's Studies International Forum

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780253008732
Publisher:
Indiana University Press
Publication date:
05/16/2013
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
280
File size:
937 KB

Read an Excerpt

The Female Face of Shame


By Erica L. Johnson, Patricia Moran

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00873-2



CHAPTER 1

The Other Woman

Xenophobia and Shame

Jocelyn Eighan


In the 1950s and 1960s, when science fiction predominantly consisted of works by male writers, Judith Merril emerged onto the science fiction scene with her groundbreaking texts which challenged the genre's pervasive focus on masculine concerns. While the texts written by her male contemporaries often featured women as minor characters, many of Merril's stories distinctly centered on female characters and broached topics of motherhood, sexuality, and gender relations. Interestingly, notions of gender inequality permeate Merril's plotlines; as the female characters grow increasingly isolated from their male counterparts, they become the dangerous and feared alien outsiders. What is at work, then, is an intricate interplay between fear (of the other) and shame as the male characters interact with the "alien" women. Indeed, as Andrew P. Morrison notes in The Culture of Shame, "We seem to need visible 'monstrosities' to depict our own disavowed self-images. Our feelings of defectiveness and imperfection find an outlet in the real-life 'freak,' who becomes the receptacle for our deepest fears" (27)—a notion particularly accurate, not only when applied to shame, but also when understood within the context of xenophobia. In this chapter, I explore representations of women as shame in a selection of Judith Merril's short stories and note the ways in which the female characters become alien "others" while scrutinized under the xenophobic male gaze. Focusing specifically on Merril's "That Only a Mother," "Whoever You Are," and "The Lady Was a Tramp," I argue that the female or feminine characters—by virtue of their alien/foreign otherness—embody stigma and shame. Paradoxically, however, the shame represented by these "alien" women mirrors the actual stigmatized feelings of the male characters. In light of this phenomenon, I investigate the specific textual moments in which the male characters utilize guises or "veils" to protect themselves from shame—notably through shame-rage, shame-pride, and narcissism.

As a literary phenomenon, the "alien" is difficult to define, and it is beyond the scope of this chapter to fully analyze the numerous renderings of the alien offered by critics and theorists; from bug-eyed monsters (BEMs) to humanoid aliens and BAMs, or beautiful alien monster-women, the criterion of "otherness," however, remains universally accepted within these varied categorizations. It is precisely this sense of otherness—the stigma attached to this otherness, and its accompanying shame—that incites fear within those who deem themselves "normal." In traditional science fiction which posits the "man as human" and the "woman as other," the woman-as-alien motif works to solidify the masculine notion of the logical/rational versus the (feminine) emotional/irrational. As Patricia Monk notes in Alien Theory, the "woman as Other" functions as part of an androcentric encoding in which the human (understood as man) is identified "positively," while the "alien is defined with extreme negativity (the woman/alien is monstrous—a source of contamination and destruction)" (67). In light of this argument, the female alien (symbolically attached to irrationality/emotion) is threatening in her ability to contaminate masculine "reason" with her emotion—a fundamentally stigmatic trait. The female/feminized aliens in Merril's stories, however, are unique precisely because of their stigma and its power to unveil the more unconventional and unsettling notions of reason.

As one of the leading feminist science fiction writers, Merril is celebrated for her unique thematic contributions to the genre—notably female issues of love, motherhood, pregnancy, emotion (Pohl-Weary, 2). The significance of Merril's work rests in its ability to implement these themes in ways that challenge gender-role behavior. Merril consciously acknowledges the subversion of gender stereotypes as a major impetus for her work: "How much of what we consider 'feminine' or 'masculine' behavior is cultural, how much biological? One of the [science fiction] games is psycho-drama-on-paper. Set up an environment-shift or a role-switch, and see what happens" (Pohl-Weary, 156). In her own fiction, Merril uses the trope of the alien to confront widely held views of the irrational/emotional female other. From the hairless, sensual, "loving" beings to the mutated, monstrous humanoid child, Merril's aliens are remarkable in their unsettling, yet provocative representations of feminine embodiment.

Henrietta, the monstrous child that appears in Merril's "That Only a Mother" (1948), exemplifies the stigmatized alien other both in terms of gender and bodily difference. As a result of her exposure to bomb radiation while in the womb, Henrietta is born without limbs—a horrifying discovery for her father, Hank, who must carry the burden of his own shame over having produced a defective girl child. The first portion of the narrative is largely presented through a series of letters and telegrams between Henrietta's mother, Margaret, and Hank, who is away at war. In these exchanges, the dichotomy between emotion and reason is ever-present; even structurally, Margaret's letters are lengthy—detailing her anxiety over their daughter's impending birth in the wake of atomic weapons and radiation—while Hank's replies seem calculated, relatively disinterested, and brief. Through Margaret's letters, readers learn that atomic radiation has led to the development of mutations in newborns. Alarmingly, many of the mutated infants become victims of infanticide, and as Margaret tells Hank in a grim moment of foreshadowing, "It's the fathers who do it. Lucky thing you're not around, in case—" (Merril, "Mother," in Homecalling, 13). As the narrative follows Margaret through her pregnancy and into motherhood, readers bear witness to her distorted love. Indeed, Margaret's mother-love plays a large part in her refusal to acknowledge her daughter's physical abnormalities. Rather, she deems Henrietta a seven-month-old "prodigy," and notes Henrietta's exceptional ability to sing and "speak perfectly clear" (13).

When Hank returns home, the narrative shifts to reflect his point of view, and Henrietta's exceptional abilities are suddenly refocused to reflect gross deformities. Whereas Margaret likens Henrietta to a "snow-white potato sack with [a] beautiful, beautiful flower-face blooming on top" (15) and boasts her ability to "crawl," Hank gropes for her arm in a fit of terror only to discover "a moving knob of flesh at the shoulder" (19). His disgust is clearly palpable as he watches his deformed daughter crawl on her belly; he "sternly" says, "The way you wriggle ... anyone might think you are a worm, using your tummy to crawl on, instead of your hands and feet" (19). In this moment of verbal condemnation, Henrietta's extraordinary talent is reconfigured into a grotesque display of her alienness. More specifically, Hank's accusations—that Henrietta crawls the wrong way, like a "worm"—draws attention to the act of crawling not as a developmental milestone, but rather as shameful movement indicative of dirtiness and defectiveness.

Like Henrietta's limbless body, which fundamentally becomes the source of Hank's shame, the stigmatized "disabled" body represents a threat to social order. InCivilization and Its Discontents, Freud specifies that "dirtiness of any kind" is "incompatible with civilization," and the "demand for cleanliness" extends beyond "civilized society" to encompass the human body (46–47). Similar ideas are echoed in the work of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, whose classification of dirt as "matter out of place" (44) perfectly aligns with the stigmatized body—an idea Rosemarie Garland Thomson explores extensively in Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. Drawing on Douglas's concepts of dirt, Thomson additionally contends, "Dirt is an anomaly, a discordant element rejected from the schema that individuals and societies use in order to construct a stable, recognizable, and predictable world" (33). Thus, the disabled body, like dirt, is "in some sense 'matter out of place' in terms of the interpretive frameworks and physical expectations our culture shares"; it is regarded as a "pollution or taboo or contagion"—something that needs to be eliminated in order to preserve a "normal" society (33–34)

Keeping in line with Erving Goffman's notion that "we believe the person with a stigma is not quite human" (Stigma, 5), and Mary Douglas's observation that one must "avoid anomalous things" (49), there exists an underlying danger in the "normal's" association with the nonhuman/other—namely, the potential for sharing in the stigmatized other's shame. Goffman's idea of the "courtesy stigma," which he defines as the "tendency for a stigma to spread from the stigmatized individual to his close connections" (Stigma, 30), speaks to this phenomenon. In Shame: The Exposed Self, Michael Lewis builds on Goffman's theory, maintaining that courtesy stigmas are "contagious" in the way they act "like an infectious disease," not only affecting the stigmatized victim, "but all those who are associated with him or her" (201). Parents of stigmatized children are especially affected by their child's shame, first in expressing complete shock and disbelief at the child's imperfect health. While Margaret seems overcome with disbelief, and in her sheer denial refuses to see her daughter's imperfections, Hank—viewing Henrietta as a malformed extension of himself—enters into a state of rage. Readers can speculate that Hank's rage perhaps stems from guilt over his involvement with atomic weapon research; as the narrative forebodingly implies, these mutations could have been prevented, making Hank fundamentally responsible for Henrietta's deformed body.

Since Hank shares in Henrietta's stigma and cannot overcome its accompanying shame, the only manner in which he can stifle his shame is by killing it, essentially by murdering its source. Using anger as an "emotional substitute" for his shame, Hank acts out his feelings of shame through aggression—a primary characteristic of shame-rage, in which one is so overcome by shame that one carries out one's feelings in the form of rage and violence. Hank's shame-rage manifests itself in the narrative's final chilling scene:

With infinite care he opened the knot at the bottom of the nightgown ... His left hand felt along the soft knitted fabric of the gown, up toward the diaper that folded, flat and smooth across the bottom end of his child. No wrinkles. No kicking. No ...

"Maggie." He tried to pull his hands from the neat fold in the diaper, from the wriggling body.... His head was spinning, but he had to know before he let it go.

"Maggie, why ... didn't you ... tell me?"

"Tell you what, darling?"

... She didn't know. His hands, beyond control, ran up and down the soft-skinned baby body, the sinuous limbless body. Oh God, dear God —his—head shook and his muscles contracted in a bitter spasm of hysteria. His fingers tightened on his child— Oh God, she didn't know.... (19)


Arguably, Hank's act of violence functions as a mode of concealment from shame. By murdering Henrietta, he "eliminates" the source of his shame—the stigmatized, alien other—"as dirt is thrown away" (Wurmser, Mask, 80). As this passage also demonstrates, the line between reason and emotion becomes so obscured that readers are left to question rationality entirely. Indeed, the story's irony emerges in this final moment of brutality, where the masculine "reason" traditionally idealized in science fiction transforms into an irrational, disruptive (and destructive) force. Hank's "spasms" recall feminine "hysteria" while the brutal image of his "fingers tightening" around his alien daughter underscores the "murderousness of rationality." Taken a step further, Hank's act of murder offers another interpretive possibility; not only does his literal destruction of Henrietta function symbolically as an attempt to obliterate the horror and shame of the female otherness Henrietta embodies, but it also serves as a means through which Hank eradicates the shameful feminine other that stems from (within) him.

Like Henrietta in "That Only a Mother," the feminized aliens in Merril's "Whoever You Are" (1952) expose the "murderousness of rationality" by bringing emotion to the forefront of the plot. Thematically, the story tackles similar issues of unconditional love and motherly acceptance to those found in "That Only a Mother," while simultaneously exploring male preoccupation with the different (female) body. Even more telling is the story's title, which readers learn is derived from an anecdote of an orphan girl who tosses a note over the orphanage wall; the note reads "Whoever you are, I love you" (Merril, "Whoever," in Homecalling, 137). The narrative depicts a space crew on Scanliter Six who monitor alien ships by trapping them in a Web that surrounds the solar system. A group of unauthorized aliens has made an attempt to pass through the Web, endangering five billion (male) Solar citizens protected within the Web's "womb-enclosure" (126). The crewmen suspend the intruding ship, which allows them full access for exploration—an assignment officer Joe Fromm enthusiastically accepts. While aboard the alien ship, Fromm must record his observations, specifically noting the physical anomalies of the intruders in an effort to establish and reaffirm their "otherness."

Upon discovering the aliens, Fromm refers to each individual alien as "he," yet his depiction suggests otherwise: "It's not a man; it's ... definitely humanoid ... face is different, something funny about the mouth, sort of pursed-up-looking ... [the aliens are] not very hairy" (129; italics in original). The images of the "pursed-up" lips and hairless bodies certainly portray strong evidence of femininity, though Fromm— daunted by the aliens' strong human likeness—never confirms their genders. In comparison to their grotesquely large bodies, the aliens' feminine features further disrupt expectations associated with a "normal body." In Staring: How We Look, Rosemarie Thomson suggests that such an "interruption of expectations, of the visual status quo, attracts interest but can also lead to disgust" (37). Because extraordinary bodies "fascinate," they also "demand that we 'sneak a second look'" (W. Miller qtd. in Thomson, Staring, 37). But the lingering gaze also has the power to provoke shame, making the starer "vulnerable for indulging in such profligate and inappropriate looking" (43) Indeed, improper staring has the power to provoke embarrassment within the vulnerable starer, for unrestrained looking connotes a failure to control impulses.

This phenomenon surfaces in the pivotal moment of Fromm's investigation. He considers "[taking] the robe off one of the creatures first, [to] make sure of their anatomy," yet grows oddly reluctant: "They were too human ... it seemed as if it wasn't fair somehow to go poking around under their clothes" (130). As a form of "less intense shame" (Lewis, Shame, 82), Fromm's embarrassment is motivated not only by the possibility of exposing the aliens' sex (via the most intimate, "shameful" part of the body), but more specifically by the fear of "being caught" as The Exposer who simultaneously reveals and stares. If the "eye is the organ of shame par excellence" (Wurmser, "Shame," 67), then this scenario produces additional possibilities: by looking at the alien, Fromm casts the shameful gaze that marks the alien as other, yet there also exists the potential risk of his own exposure—that he, too, will be discovered and subsequently marked by his peers, thus judged for exhibiting "intractable curiosity." Fromm's hasty exit is proof of his overwhelming embarrassment: "Hell! Let Bolster do it! [Fromm] left the ship" (Merril, "Whoever," 130). By passing the responsibility (the literal "dirty work") to the other officer, Fromm resists the full-scale shame associated with staring, which—like "watching" or voyeurism—constitutes a "dangerous activity" that "may be punished" (Wurmser, Mask, 28).


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Female Face of Shame by Erica L. Johnson, Patricia Moran. Copyright © 2013 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Erica L. Johnson is Associate Professor of English at Wagner College in New York. She is author of Caribbean Ghostwriting and Home, Maison, Casa: The Politics of Location in Works by Jean Rhys, Marguerite Duras, and Erminia Dell'Oro.

Patricia Moran is author of Word of Mouth: Body/Language in Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf and Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, and the Aesthetics of Trauma, and editor (with Tamar Heller) of Scenes of the Apple: Food and the Female Body in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Women’s Writing.

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