The Enlightened Woman’s Bodice or An Example of Feminist Literary Criticism

German Version

For the average consumer, the term “feminism” typically triggers a defensive reflex. After all, no one wants to be linked to an “androphobic, hypersensitive and totally outdated” ideology. And besides, what does all that have to do with literature in the first place?

Well, for one, such images of an intellectual tradition this important need to be resolved in order to enable a genuine reflection on multiple topics, and also to make interrelations recognizable. And, second, not just all private matters are political, as we know since the 1970s, but also all of literature. Yes, all of literature. Text is a mirror of its time since no author can extricate himself sufficiently from the specific situation of his life to write absolved from all things political. Views, attitudes, opinions, constellations intrude everywhere and create a portrait of specific netting. Considering that the family itself is the smallest political unit, everyone can imagine how history would look without a socially produced framework. In short, literature is congealed politics.

That said as a brief theoretical introduction, we can move along to (queer)feminist approaches. But to keep all that less dry and boring I will relate it to two texts: 1. To Laurie Penny’s “Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism” as a political foundation, and, 2. Susanne Kubelka’s “Das gesprengte Mieder” (The Blown-up Bodice”), a historical novel set in Enns, Austria, circa 1900.

“Meat Market” is Laurie Penny’s first oeuvre in book form. Published in 2011, the text deals with the female body under late capitalism and describes some of the repressions women are still confronted with to date, including pornography, eating disorders and house work.

Kubelka’s novel, on the other hand, relates the story of Minka, a young girl raised to become a lady of high social status which includes displacement of her female gender into the domestic sphere, intentional denial of education, suppression of any sex education and also wearing a bodice as was the common custom around the fin de siècle.

It is beside the point that a contemporary readers will discover great injustice vis-à-vis the female sex, will grab their heads at the girl’s tragicomic notions and be shocked by the intentional mutilation of a woman’s body by universal societal consensus. The novel’s objective is clearly to shock and make us sigh, of happiness that we no longer live in times like these.

What is interesting above all else about this text are the parallels to modern times that Kubelka points out. But all that becomes apparent only once we start applying feminist theories.

Starkly simplified, Penny recognizes pornography to be often the only means of sex education and, as a result, a means of veiling genuine female sexuality. A child of the 21st century lives in a hypersexualized world that stylizes sexuality to such a degree that nary a realistic image of it is left. Sweat, facial contortions, often humorous intimate moments of true physicality are not conveyed. So a first sexual experience is often approached with an altogether different expectation than reality can offer. Penny relates the example of a young man who expects having to squirt into a woman’s face during intercourse. Given the background of such a strangely ironic mystification of the sexual act it does not even appear absurd that Kubelka sets her narrative in an era where the very ignorance of young ladies was good etiquette. Minka is left in the dark, both about the sexual act and about her own body, just as many young women are today according to Penny.

Here we would arrive at the next point, the alienation of one’s own body and ignorance about it. The most explicitly symbolic and historic form of expression of these phenomena is the bodice, or corset, as it is more commonly known today. Indeed it is the central picture in the novel that limits the protagonists’s freedom of movement, of speech and also of breathing, that artificially disables and literally jails her. Historically speaking, Kubelka’s description of a corset is extremely accurate: this garment, composed of firm fabric, fish bones and/or steel bars in the back, was worn around the fin de siècle in almost all of Europe by 80-90% of women and had immense health consequences that could include premature death. The ideal to be followed was, at least in the Habsburg monarchy, the waist of Empress Elisabeth, said to have been laced down to 32 cm (12.6 inches). A woman’s body was to be wasp-like and resemble an S-line, while it was up to the fashion of the day whether bust or hips were emphasized or laced up as well.

Well, Minka’s aversion and ultimate rejection of the garment sends a subliminal message to readers to make a similar choice. Of course the bodice has long ceased to be a mass phenomenon (even of corsets became increasingly fashionable items and are actually abused as an erotic symbol), but if we follow Laurie Penny, it quickly turns out that deformation of the human, and especially the female, body in modern media has taken up the role once performed by the bodice in society. People are flooded with illusionary images suggesting that a slim and almost boney woman, that is to say, a physically starving, weak woman, is an ideal to aspire to. The suggestive power of the slim craze is today’s bodice to women and it remarkable that Laurie Penny and Susanne Kubelka unintentionally describe the same process, even if the symptoms they talk about are different.

The final point I want to make is the aspect of house work. Even contemporary reality has women systematically relegated, as in the novel’s setting, into the private and domestic sphere. House work remains unpaid women’s work in most cases even now. Laurie Penny shows that explicitly and also the systematic displacement of men into certain groups. While a woman’s pride and aptitude is measured by the cleanliness of her living space, men are not even taught how to perform certain domestic tasks, thus limiting even their ability to assist.

This phenomenon as it confronts us still today has its origin in the rise of bourgeoisie that increasingly banished women into the private sphere. That is the time in which the novel is set. Of course the protagonist liberates herself of these constrictions and comes to lead an independent life outside the limits of her own residence. Kubelka’s heroine thus nips the origin of our contemporary situation literally in the bud and unwittingly sends a signal to her readers, a message or, rather, an appeal.

Of course one could keep waxing for considerable time about texts such as Laurie Penny’s that serves as an example for numerous feminist constructs of ideas and theories, and drill quite a bit deeper than I did here. This brief interpretation is meant to serve as an example for applying feminist theories to literature. Since this line of reasoning is not explicitly about literature, it is often a bit more difficult to see its applications than in the case of texts that are designed to take a scholarly approach to literature. But if one keeps in mind that even fiction can be political and a lot more, there appears often a nexus between text and theory that can even turn a presumptively irrelevant historical novel with much kitsch and orthographical errors into a powerfully expressive text with high potential.

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