Bodies as Text, 2011
A Collaboration with Barbra Elenbaas
I recently had the pleasure of working with my dear friend Barbra. She came to me with this idea of our bodies as text as a part of her thesis portfolio. These images attempt to convey how we write our bodies, how our bodies write themselves, how others write our bodies, and the relationship between these contrasting ideas.
“I have always carried tension in my body. I happen to think that everything isperformance. That doesn’t mean that performing is falsity and that there is no true self, as some have asked me during conversations about this concept. For me, every performance is a true performance and each one of them is me. There are lots of performances, but I also construct myself in specific ways across many of them.
Bodies are texts. I acknowledged a long time ago that I have consciously written (and continue to write) my body in very specific ways, and that people (because they are not dim) sense, read, and write back to it. I also realized long ago that my intentional construction of performance has left me feeling perpetually uneasy about my physical self because my body writes itself in ways that are in conflict with the things I and others write.
I write my body as, at times, unrelentingly sexual. Aggressively sexual. I write my body full of lust and savoir-faire. My body becomes a predator in seconds. I use my mouth so that it hides my teeth and smiles from the side, and I use my eyes to make people feel I am looking into their brain. Eye contact makes people nervous, and I construct my body in their unease. I use my body in space to stand too close to people, to touch them, to situate myself as inaccessible, to create friction, to create space. I write my body in the things I say, in the focuses I hold and share with people. When I tell people about my vibrator and how often I masturbate. When I tell people about sex dreams. When I over-share about my body. When I make zines about my cunt. I am thinking about sex always, and won’t bother to hide it. I know, because I observe it and because sometimes people tell me directly, that this writing is clear and communicated well; people can and do read it, interpret it, and write back to it. I am sexualized because I want to be sexualized, because I encourage sexualization.
I have done this intentionally, but in many ways I have constructed a performance that is a lie, that is often in conflict with the way my body writes itself. My body writes tenderness and brokenness, fear, shyness, inexperience in more than one way. No one has ever come inside my body because my body writes violation. My body is a thing that cannot allow itself to be entered, or to derive orgasm from anything not itself. My body writes shame in its genitalia and embarrassment in its spine; inadequacy in its abdomen. My body writes curiosity and an immense desire to explore. When my body enters sexual situations, its own writing collides with my writing and with the writings of others, and I tend to crumble. I am forced to admit that I have no idea what I’m doing and my brain makes me feel like a failure. It’s like being caught in a lie. I feel shame.
I did this project because I wanted to represent the ways in which my body is written. I had questions to answer with this project: how do I write my body? How do people read my body, and what do they write on it? How does this process become cyclical? And how does my body write itself? I wanted to put readable, alphabetic text answers to these questions on my skin, and the best way I could think of to document the result was through photographs. I knew my body didn’t have enough space to include every way it is written, but I wanted to include some of the most important ways: as a woman, as a physical object, and as a sexual being. I wanted evidence of the tension by which I sometimes feel crippled and through which I often find myself in deliciously complex situations. I wanted to write over the writing that tells me to be ashamed of acting so sexual while being so virginal, against the forces that tell me I should be ashamed of being a slut and a prude and a tease all at once, and that overwhelms me with an onslaught of pictures of highly sexualized women while telling me to keep my clothes on, that pictures on the internet can ruin my life, that I’ll never get a ‘good’ job because I have facial piercings.
There are three sets of handwritings in the photos because three sets of hands took Sharpies and wrote letters on my skin, because my body has been written by myself and everyone I have ever met. I covered my limbs with the way I and others write my body (less connected, sometimes tangential, and not as true to my body cavity), and my torso and back with the way my body writes itself (close to my core; more ‘truthful’). Lying on a bed almost nude with my insides on my skin and my body on my body was slightly surreal. I could see the disconnect as well as feel it. I feel the photos are an accurate reflection of this.”
Barbra Elenbaas, 2011
As promised, the first in a series looking at the things that are really just so great and progressive in Chris Claremont’s run on The Uncanny X-Men and The New Mutants. Exhibit A: Storm!
I was a pretty obsessive X-fan as a kid, lost interest around the time I was 12 or 13, came back around for Grant Morrison (and caught up on Scott Lobdell’s run, which was also pretty great), and have been kinda half-in, half-out since. I liked Joss Whedon’s and Matt Fraction’s runs a lot, hated Peter Milligan’s. When I was in the height of my X-Men fandom, around 7th and 8th grade, Jim Lee was drawing the tail end of Claremont’s sixteen year run. This was before bookstores had a graphic novels section, so I would hunt down and save up for back issues, try to get as much of the back-story as I could.
And I never liked Storm. I thought she was boring. Re-reading the early parts of the series, it makes sense that I thought that: She was, at first! She had the whole goddess spiel down, and was really far removed from all of the realness of the other characters. Kitty was real, so was Nightcrawler, so was Cyclops. The closest Storm got to a real emotion was being jealous of Kitty’s dance teacher.
Like, check out Storm and Luke Cage here, after searching a drug den. Cage knows the score, and Storm is just bewildered. But over the next few years of the series, all of this changes slowly. She gets tough, and at first that looks like a gimmick. Claremont transformed her into the team leader, and the template for that has usually been to have her act like the dude leader who preceded her. Suddenly, she’s willing to kill a motherfucker if that’s what the job entails, just like Wolverine. But there are a couple of things that are interesting about this: One, the change doesn’t come because of some trauma she suffers. She doesn’t get hard because she gets jumped or attacked or is too weak one crucial time and it costs her big. She becomes wilder and more free because she meets another woman, Yukio, and sees how much fun Yukio is having. The entire issue before Storm cuts her hair into a mohawk and starts wearing leather jackets and stuff, it’s just her and Yukio running around Japan laughing together. Two, the change doesn’t turn her into more of a dude. In fact, it’s the opposite.
Suddenly, how that she’s dropped the “untouchable goddess” thing, even Professor X is looking at her and realizing that she’s a woman. And that’s striking to me, because I think in most stories like that, it’d be the opposite. As she becomes the leader of a group of mostly-men (though in another dozen issues, the team’ll tilt super-heavy toward women), that’s when she’ll become elevated and above it all. That’s when she’ll become unnatural — because it’s hard to portray a real woman as a leader of men. We haven’t got a lot of models for it in adventure fiction, especially. Usually, they’re just dudes with tits drawn on. Instead, Storm runs around laughing with Yukio; she defends Rogue; she gets zapped and loses her powers, then beats Cyclops in a duel anyway; and she falls for Forge, and starts boning him in the Adversary’s realm.
That’s actually a theme of Claremont’s work, and it’s something that is really pretty exceptional — his women are powerful and leaders and they’re not asexual. Their sexuality is very much a part of them — or it’s not, like for Rogue, but they’re not written to be “above” sex, and they’re not written to be dirty for getting down. No more than Cyclops is, or Nightcrawler (though Nightcrawler’s is with his stepsister, so it kinda should be). Check out Dani Moonstar from the New Mutants:
She puts on the tiny dress in Rio, lamenting that it’s still too modest for her, but the fact that she likes to dress like that on occasion is maybe 1% of her character throughout the run of New Mutants. Mostly, she’s responsible and clever and brave, leading the team and occasionally flirting with Sunspot, but never in a way that makes it even remotely shameful.
And that’s just super progressive and, I’m willing to bet, responsible for changing the way a whole generation of kids who grew up giant X-fans saw gender dynamics. Probably there are a bunch more who missed that point, but that happens.
I’m a big Saul Williams fan, and I saw him read Said The Shotgun To The Head a few years ago. And one thing that he stressed is how it’s the story of a man preaching about a female god that he’s encountered and been intimate with, because he wanted to get the point across that we need to be able to see women who are both elevated and sexual. (We see men who are elevated and sexual all the time, of course — Cyclops hooks up with Jean Grey, Colleen Wing, Lee Forester, and Madeline Pryor throughout the first eighty issues of Claremont’s run, for example.) It’s probably the most interesting part of Said The Shotgun To The Head (and that’s coming from a guy who has a line of that poem tattooed on his arm). So when I was re-visiting all these X-Men comics, I found it especially striking that Claremont covered that exact same topic a couple decades earlier in a series written for 14 year olds.
Next in the series: Wolverine — feminist role model for boys!