words by Isobel Harbison
Last Sunday I went for a walk through Bermondsey, a newly affluent borough lining the river Thames in close proximity to the city’s financial district. It is not uncommon in London to see familiar faces on the street or in some local corner store, reappearing from the television screen or the newspaper columns. Along my way, I passed several such faces, spending their leisurely Sunday much like I was. Dame Helen Mirren was the first to appear, catching my breath as she walked past me along St. Katherine’s Dock in the company of two other women, one of her vintage, the other of her mother’s. Mirren, who began her career in avant-garde theatre, rose to recent Hollywood prominence via several television roles. Now, having frequently won awards, she is, arguably, as celebrated for being in a very small minority of women over fifty deemed attractive by the media. Who can forget the photograph of her on holiday several years ago, her svelte form dressed in a one-piece swimsuit? Not me. The image splashed across the newspapers was presented as shocking evidence that someone her age could still be desirable. In an uninvited memory spasm, her red one-piece reappears like a one-fingered salute to all the useful information I try, but fail, daily to lodge between my temples; capital cities, historical thresholds, hard new ideas, artists’ names, song lyrics. And there it is, this red one-piece, probably chlorinated and decomposing at the bottom of her summer wardrobe as it blinks clearly, uselessly in my mind’s eye, as she passes.
Crossing Tower Bridge and through Bermondsey’s cobbled alleys, crammed fist to jowl with boutique coffee houses and organic vegetable shops, Gok Wan strolls towards me beside two handsome young men, carrying a small, impeccably groomed Chihuahua. Won is a British celebrity whose television programme “How to Look Good Naked,” convinces middle-aged and marginally overweight women, supposedly suffering from low self-esteem, to get naked for a saucy photo shoot. The whole process is filmed for broadcast, replete with tears, howls and raptures, appointing itself as a life-changing, confidence-boosting journey for the willing participant. To complete the overhaul, Wan advises what clothes the individual should wear, ultimately liberating each woman before sending her on her much merrier way. Wan never colludes in a similar state of undress, nor I suspect have any men in the series—and why would they? Embarrassing bodies are the television firmament of women.
Soon afterwards, I arrived at Bermondsey’s new White Cube Gallery at the Gilbert and George exhibition, “London Pictures,” where Tracy Emin was browsing through the many works dealing, oddly enough, with the politics of media representation. Emin is an artist who rose to prominence in the 1990s as part of the YBA movement, and has subsequently established herself as a celebrity figure and public voice in British and international media. Her message, which seems to be predominantly about the complicity of emotional love and physical vulnerability, is one that finds a variety of material forms, although there rarely seems to be any profound variation on the subject. Pared down, Emin’s verbal meanderings (either through text pieces, or through her column in The Independent) sound like the intimate confessions of an old school friend you left behind in a seaside town some decades ago and indulge occasionally by listening silently to lengthy, whiney accounts of many hapless, personal affairs. Whether in drawing, painting or animation, she chooses the female body as form, pondering its cast, orifices and frailties and the plight of being stuck inside it. Her experiences or opinions aren’t unique; what resonates is this common, female corporeal experience of physical embarrassment or shame. But beyond questions of whether or not this is interesting—in my view, not—comes the more pertinent question of whether this is really liberating? And more broadly, how and where is the term ”liberation” actually being used?
As I left the gallery, the symbolism of each encounter fell backwards in line, clacking like dominos. What is the state of contemporary feminism, viewed through the chance encounter of these three people? If the women’s liberation movement strived for anything, then surely it was that women, like blacks and gays and anyone else who wanted, could, like white men, use their eyes to see the world and its agora, and that the world to recognise in return the value of their perspective. Instead, if we are to believe what appears in the media, we have been liberated not to see the world, but to watch our own scantily-clad, physical selves as our body parts bounce, swing or jangle or worse still, ignored. “Liberation” has been commodified, marketed as something to buy into through product, powder and potion. The industry that profits from it is not gendered: both men and women benefit from the short-term financial rewards. But the vocabulary it employs, and the important history it perverts, is profoundly gendered, routed comfortably in feminism’s established terms.
British writer and academic Nina Power’s recent One Dimensional Woman lampoons this lamentable situation, reflecting on the many abuses of the term “feminism” for political and economic ends.She writes, “the political imagination of contemporary feminism is at a standstill. The perky, upbeat message of self-fulfilment and consumer emancipation masks a deep inability to come to terms with serious transformations in the nature of work and culture. For all its glee and excitement, the self-congratulatory feminism that celebrates individual identity above all else is a one-dimensional feminism.” In The Enigma of Capital, Marxist geographer David Harvey outlines the ebbs and flows of capitalism’s waters, attempting to highlight the inevitable blockages and dangers that have led and will again lead to global economic collapse. Historically, he observes, capitalism depends upon disparities between people—be they divided by gender, class or ethnicity—to control the labor force. Capitalism’s capacity to survive without discrimination or oppression would be “severely curtailed, if not mortally wounded, in the face of a more unified class force.” United we stand, his message in short, divided we fall.
All things considered, it’s difficult not to see that the media’s reductive representation of women’s liberation is a massive economic and political ploy. Look at yourself, Worry, Consume are commands played on loop that detract daily from really important societal issues. For every programme or article focused on bodily oddity, how many precious opportunities are missed to reflect on the world around us, its achievements, problems and shortcomings, its vistas, ideas and creations? “But it’s what they want to see,” snipes some programming executive from somewhere behind the camera, in mute chorus with the multi-national industries that deal with and to our foibles and fund the programming through their advertisements. Mirren has achieved a great many things, as no doubt have the women that graced Wan’s changing rooms, but their achievements are muddied by a divisive culture of corporeal comparison. Emin too has remained prolific and dedicated to what she does, but I question whether her practice would attract such dedicated media attention if it was less self-regarding, rather than conforming as it does to the editorial norms that continue to portray women one-dimensionally.
As I walked home towards the tube that Sunday, I came upon a crowd encircling the body of a young woman lying face down on the pavement. A man was putting his jacket over her as someone else called an ambulance. A sickly silence weighed upon us all. Her face pointed towards the street, her eyes fogging over with the first signs of death. Get up, stand up and see, I urged inwardly, my stomach sinking. Get up, stand up, us all.