Bordo, Susan

Assigned: Bordo, Susan. From Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, Chapter 5. “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity” (2096-2111). Also read the editors’ introduction (2094-96).

From Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (1989/1993)

Chapter 5. The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity

Reconstructing Feminist Discourse on the Body

1. On 2096-98 (“ The body—what we eat, how we dress…”), in what way, according to Susan Bordo, is a person’s physical body something other than simply a physical body? In what sense is it not only a kind of “text of culture” but also “a practical, direct locus of social control” (2096)? How does Bordo use the regimens surrounding “diet, makeup, and dress” (2097) to drive home this point?

2. On 2098-99 (“Developing such a discourse requires…”), what three Foucauldian ideas does Bordo adapt in order, as she says, to reconfigure and update the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s? (2098) How would these concepts or ideas change the way the older feminist model understood power and domination? Finally, how does Bordo describe the purpose of her concentration on disorders such as anorexia, hysteria and agoraphobia? (2098-99)

The Body as a Text of Femininity

3. On 2099-2100 (“The continuum between female disorder…”), how does Bordo analyze the nineteenth century’s emphasis on hysteria as a disease of femininity, one that was connected to “the ruling feminine mystique” (2100) and treated as existing along a continuum of “characteristics normative of femininity”? In what sense could the body of a female sufferer of this condition be read like a “text” fraught with political significance?

4. On 2101-03 (“The hysteric’s embodiment of the…”), in what way, according to Bordo, did agoraphobia in the 1950s-1960s (a time when the ideal of femininity was no longer primarily a matter of print, but rather of images served up in movies and on television) amount to a parody of the domestic ideal set before women? More particularly, how does the anorexia of that same period, with its insistence upon extreme “slenderness” (2101), register the “double-bind” confronting many women who must meet the demands both of constructed ideals of femininity and masculinity at the same time?

Protest and Retreat in the Same Gesture

5. On 2103-06 (“In hysteria, agoraphobia, and anorexia, then…”), how, according to Bordo, have some feminists interpreted conditions such as hysteria, agoraphobia, and anorexia as a form of protest against patriarchal demands placed upon women? (2103-05) In what sense, however, is such a protest also problematical—how does it “signal retreat” (2105) at the same time as it decries the status quo? What comment does Bordo make about relatively high-status women in connection to “symptoms crystallized from the language of femininity” such as anorexia—why are these symptoms so well calibrated to show the difficulties faced by such women who live in “periods poised on the edge of gender change” (2106)?

Collusion, Resistance, and the Body

6. On 2106-08 (“The pathologies of female protest…”), since, according to Bordo, it is unproductive to focus solely on “objective accounts of power relations” (2106) to explain the pathologies under discussion and how they may reproduce the very forms of oppression that the sufferer protests, we must examine how individuals have come to manifest their symptoms. How, then, does a woman begin to develop a condition such as anorexia? What may drive her to eat drastically less, and then to see the changes in her body as masculine-coded emblems of “self-mastery and self-transcendence” (2106), and the disapproval of her family, friends and doctors as a sign of success? Nonetheless, in what sense is such a protest, according to Bordo, “deeply and dangerously illusory” (2107)?

Textuality, Praxis, and the Body

7. On 2108-10 (“The ‘solutions’ offered by anorexia…”), how does Bordo employ the Foucauldian terms “useful body” and “intelligible body” (2109) to explain that to offer practical analysis is not simply to return to fraught conceptions of human biology or nature as the foundation of one’s arguments? In her view, how is the nineteenth century’s ideal of the “hourglass waist” an interesting and productive illustration of the way the intelligible body and the useful or practical body can “mirror and support each other” (2109) in the service of continuing oppression and suffering?

8. On 2110-11 (“Disquietingly, for the feminists…”), Bordo turns to the then-current state of affairs in gender studies as she perceives it, declaring that “the study of cultural representations alone, divorced from consideration of their relation to the practical lives of bodies, can obscure and mislead” (2110). What concrete example of this problem does she briefly discuss, and in what sense does she find the study in question misleading, even if excellent in its way? Finally, in Bordo’s view, what is the most important thing women can recognize about the “rhetoric and symbolism of empowerment, personal freedom, [and] ‘having it all’” of the late 1980s? (2111) What feminist analytical project does she suggest for the coming decade of the 1990s?

9. General question: Susan Bordo’s volume Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, was initially published in the late 1980s. Several decades on, how do you assess the current state of gender relations in the United States (or wherever you live)? Has further progress been made? If so, what kinds? What problems remain, and to what extent are you optimistic that they can be solved?

10. General question: In Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, Susan Bordo assesses the then-current state of feminist discourse and the perception and standing of women in American society. In 2016 the United States saw the most powerful campaign yet by a woman seeking the presidency. And yet, to the consternation of many feminists (and rank-and-file Democrats, obviously), Hillary Clinton did not become president. Just as she was narrowly defeated by Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries of 2008, she lost a very close election to Donald Trump eight years later—one in which Clinton easily won the popular vote nationwide, yet failed to get sufficient votes in the electoral college to take the victory. To what extent, if any, do you think gender perceptions, biases, etc. played a role in what was almost universally regarded as the political neophyte Donald Trump’s upset victory over a far more experienced female candidate? Explain your reasoning.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake