April 20, 2010

Women’s Love, Women’s Desire: Two Upcoming Papers Using Jessica Benjamin.

Judy Chicago - Chicago Rejection Drawing

I have been trying to write some poems recently about women’s desire. I’m also giving a couple of papers on seduction in the coming months. One is about the representations of women’s desire in the graphic novels by Alan Moore V for Vendetta and Lost Girls (to be given at Northampton University’s conference Magus ; and the other (written with Sorcha Gunne ) considers rape versus seduction in the short stories of Isabel Allende and Rosario Castellanos (to be given at the CWWN Conference in San Diego).

In both of these papers, what I am really commenting on is whether the female characters are able to express their ‘real’ desire or whether they just become an object for male passion. Isabel Allende’s stories have sometimes been criticised for blurring the boundaries between rape and consensual sex, while Rosario Castellanos writes about perfunctory sexual encounters that are often lacking in pleasure for the women involved. Sorcha and I approach the stories discussed with a transnational feminist agenda; specifically we look in detail at Isabel Allende’s stories, ‘The Judge’s Wife’ and ‘Revenge’, which we argue are typical of Allende’s strategy of feminist resistance against patriarchal domination within romantic relationships. Jessica Benjamin’s The Bonds of Love examines the politics of domination underlying the heterosexual norm and interrogates the inevitability of gendered domination as she argues that society’s slavish adherence to a particular type of family unit dictates man’s positioning as active, detached, independent and woman’s subordination into object, passivity, sacrifice. We argue that, like Benjamin, Allende challenges the transparency of these binaries in the context of postcolonial Latin America.

In using narrative strategies to undermine and disempower patriarchal domination, Allende’s writing builds upon a tradition of literary inheritance from writers like Rosario Castellanos. Both Castellanos and Allende present uncomfortable pictures of women’s disempowerment and sexuality. It is, however, this unease with women’s sexual agency that interrogates, challenges and ultimately subverts the rape script. Allende’s subversive strategy is controversial, since Casilda in ‘The Judge’s Wife’ and Dulce Rosa in ‘Revenge’ appear to adhere to the myth of rape as seduction – an assumption which legitimizes patriarchal control – by falling in love with their rapists. Far from reinforcing gender stereotypes and perpetuating social narratives of domination, however, Allende’s narrative strategies contextualize this ‘love’ to counteract the prevailing myth by complicating established binaries such as active/passive, masculine/feminine and dominator/dominated. By introducing notions of submission, female desire and female action, Allende challenges theoretical trends that reinforce or reverse categories of oppression.

Alan Moore is also controversial, but in May, I hope to explore his representations of rape and seduction via the notion of ‘ideal love’ which (again) is theorized by Jessica Benjamin in The Bonds of Love. In chapter two of Benjamin’s study titled ‘Master and Slave’, Benjamin discusses Pauline Réage’s sadomasochistic fantasy, The Story of O (1954), and she suggests that the master-slave dynamic between O and René represents all that is problematic about sexual and emotional relations between men and women in Western culture. Benjamin explains, ‘Excitement resides in the risk of death, not in death itself. And it is erotic complementarity that offers a way to simultaneously break through and preserve boundaries: in the opposition between violator and violated, one person maintains his boundary and the other allows her boundary to be broken’ (p. 64). I will argue that explorations of this dynamic are characteristic of Moore’s work and I will study the torture scene of Evey Hammond in V for Vendetta (1988-89) (with David Lloyd) as an example of the master/slave relationship. More possibilities might exist in Lost Girls as it traces a path from molestation and abuse to women re-discovering their own sexual desire. In ‘Women’s Desire’, the third chapter of The Bonds of Love, Benjamin notes that too often ‘women […] seek their desire in another […] being released into abandon by a powerful other who remains in control’ (p. 131). What I seek to discover in my more lengthy analysis of The Lost Girls (2006) (with Melinda Gebbie) is to what extent the three fabled protagonists, Dorothy (from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz), Wendy (from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan) and Alice (as created by Lewis Carroll), manage to overcome the problem of women’s desire. I hope to find what Benjamin describes as the possibility of finding ‘another dimension of desire’ that ‘can transform that opposition into the vital tension between subjects – into recognition between self and other self’ (p. 132).

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