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Considering everything from Nike ads, emaciated models, and surgically altered breasts to the culture wars and the O.J. Simpson trial, Susan Bordo deciphers the hidden life of cultural images and the impact they have on our lives. She builds on the provocative themes introduced in her acclaimed work Unbearable Weight—which explores the social and political underpinnings of women's obsession with bodily image—to offer a singularly readable and perceptive interpretation of our image-saturated culture. As it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between appearance and reality, she argues, we need to rehabilitate the notion that not all versions of reality are equally trustworthy. Bordo writes with deep compassion, unnerving honesty, and bracing intelligence. Looking to the body and bodily practices as a concrete arena where cultural fantasies and anxieties are played out, she examines the mystique and the reality of empowerment through cosmetic surgery. Her brilliant discussion of sexual harassment reflects on the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy as well as the film Disclosure. She suggests that sexuality, although one of the mediums of harassment, is not its essence, and she calls for the recasting of harassers as bullies rather than sex fiends. Bordo also challenges the continuing marginalization of feminist thought, in particular the failure to read feminist work as cultural criticism. Finally, in a powerful and moving essay called "Missing Kitchens"—written in collaboration with her two sisters—Bordo explores notions of bodies, place, and space through a recreation of the topographies of her childhood. Throughout these essays, Bordo avoids dogma and easy caricature. Consistently, and on many levels, she demonstrates the profound relationship between our lives and our theories, our feelings and our thoughts.
Bordo intermittently lives up to her claim to limn a "hidden" life of images—as when she pursues the underlying meanings attached to slenderness in the recent wave of ultra-skinny models, or in her analyses of the representation of sexual harassment and of the continuing sub rosa ghettoization of feminism within "advanced" postmodern scholarship. Often, though, as when Bordo (Philosophy/Univ. of Kentucky; Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, 1993) turns to cosmetic surgery or the O.J. Simpson case, she is content with more obvious interpretations, wordily entangled in a suffocating self-narration. The cultural landscape Bordo paints consists largely of the world of produced images in the background and her own reactions in the foreground, and although she pays lip service to the intervening complexity of actual lives and social forces, it has no substantial presence in the book. Thus, a ubiquitous advertising campaign like "Just Do It" can be simply read as an encompassing "ideology" embraced by contemporary society—exaggerating its real importance and thereby, perhaps, that of criticism like her own. It becomes positively depressing to realize that it's likely, judging by an excruciating essay on the role of theory in her work, that she is in fact among the academic cultural critics who are relatively dedicated to the connection of their work to the real world. A final chapter expanding on the personal references that inflect the whole book's tone, a collective memoir by Bordo and her sisters, is strangled at birth by the mandated topics of "bodies, place and space."
As ripe for scrutiny as the avalanche of images around us is, it seems that the prolific academic cultural-studies industry is capable of blowing up nearly as much snow as it clears away.
|Braveheart, Babe, and the Contemporary Body||27|
|P.C., O.J., and Truth||66|
|Never Just Pictures||107|
|Can a Woman Harass a Man?||139|
|Bringing Body to Theory||173|
|The Feminist as Other||192|