Woman =/= Body

For about the last year, I’ve been posting about the various stereotypes that plague female characters, and how to avoid them. I think I’ve reached the end of my ability to slice the topic up into coherent, focused points, at least for now, so I’ll be moving on to other topics — though I’ll certainly come back to this issue if I think of other (hopefully useful) things to say. Before I leave the topic of gender behind, though, I want to invite your attention to something that is often the root cause of many gender problems, both in fiction and in real life:

The equation — or perhaps I should say reduction — of a woman to her body.

We love our binary oppositions; they’re nice and clear-cut and easy to play with. Nature gave us an obvious one in male and female (sort of; some day, when I know more about the topic, maybe I’ll post about intersex issues), and so our pattern-making brains have had a field day mapping that pair onto other pairs in the world. The sun and the moon, for example, or light and dark, hot and cold, yang and yin.

Mind and body.

I don’t think the idea originated with Descartes, though he’s certainly the one who made that particular dualism famous. Thanks to the religious concept of the flesh as sinful, and the intellectual concept of bodily matters as primitive, the mind was definitely the valorized half of that particular binary. Unsurprisingly, it’s the one that got associated with men, while women got stuck with the body. If you asked an eighteenth-century philosopher, they’d tell you that everybody had both, of course — but men’s minds were capable of transcending the limitations of their fleshly urges and creating civilization, while it was a rare woman who could do the same. Go far enough into the hard sciences and you’ll still find traces of that belief, dressed up in different clothing. Women, so the story goes, are not as rational as men, not as capable of abstract thought; if one sex has a greater claim to the Mind half of the equation, it’s men.

But surely there’s some justification for automatically connecting women with their bodies, to a greater extent for men. After all, women are hormonal, right? That monthly fluctuation of estrogen affects the way we think. What this argument leaves out is the fact that all of us run on hormones, and men go through cycles of their own: daily cycles, yearly cycles, possibly some other cycles on a weekly or monthly scale. Production of testosterone is higher in the morning than it is in the evening, and higher in summer than in winter; you think that doesn’t influence how men behave? There isn’t an obvious physical sign suitable for endless rounds of bad sit-com jokes, but that doesn’t mean men are somehow unaffected by the antics of their own bodies. We’re all subject to these things, and we’re all capable of trying to rise above them.

The reduction of a woman to her body ties in with things I’ve mentioned over the last year: the virgin/whore dichotomy, the monstrous feminine, etc. For “body,” you can often read “sexuality,” though it also tips over into issues of motherhood (well, that’s associated with sex) or food (though psychologists have done plenty of work on the sexual aspects of that, too). Actresses and other female public figures are expected to be young and beautiful, because their worth is bound up in the sexual worthiness of their bodies; show me an actress with Steve Buscemi’s appearance, and I’ll show you an actress who doesn’t have Steve Buscemi’s career.

Here’s the kicker, though: some of the stories that actively set out to Celebrate the Power of the Woman do so in a manner that just tangles them more thoroughly in this snare. Even before Descartes, there was a clear sense (at least in the West; I can’t speak to other parts of the world) that women are closer to nature. If you view that as a negative thing, it’s justification for the restriction of female freedom; after all, we can’t be trusted to act like fully human beings, not like men can. If you view that connection positively, then it’s justification for a host of ascribed virtues instead of flaws. In spec fic — which is, after all, what we’re here to talk about — that latter approach produces cosmologies where women and men have different kinds of magic, the latter based on the mind and logic, and the former based, of course, on the body and nature. Men’s magic is rational; women’s magic is instinctual, and often has something to do with blood. (But usually it’s nice, nurturing blood, not the sort that involves human sacrifice.) If I had to choose, of course, I’d rather read about a cosmology where women’s inherently fleshly nature is treated as a good thing than one where it’s denigrated. But I’ve personally reached a point where I’m tired of the base assumption, that my body is more important, more magical or powerful or dangerous or awesome, than my mind.

I am not my body. I am not only my body. I am not my sexuality, or my hunger, or my hormones, and neither are you.

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  1. 1. Timo

    First i would argue, looks are a matter of personal taste, no matter their characterization.

    So for a female ‘Steve Buscemi’ how about Joan Cusack.She is a talented actress, played many serious and comedic roles and (in my opinion) has the a non standard look you imply holds women back.

    IMHO, For every Dany Davito, there is a Bette Middler :)

  2. 2. Clothdragon

    I enjoyed your article, particularly since I watched Lie to Me last night (tivo, I have no idea when it was really on) and the MC lectured his teenage daughter about how boys can’t help themselves at that age….

  3. 3. Tony

    See that’s funny (well not funny ha-ha funny, but you know what I mean), because if I had to assign body and mind to the different genders, I would automatically assign body to men because we’re typically taller, stronger etc. Which would of course leave mind to women. Although I’d probably assign mind of women even if it wasn’t because I had already assigned body to men so they just get the other one. Although I can’t really tell you why. . . it just seems appropriate.

    Then again, I don’t live in the 1600s.

  4. 4. Margaret

    I for one am utterly tired of and disgusted by women in books and visual media, being described as “beautiful.” Oh good grief. Heroines are described as beautiful and for some reason in each book where that happens that is supposed to be surprising. Really? REALLY? I want to read books where heroines are ugly. That would be fun! Or even better, their looks aren’t described at all, or not in terms of desirability. Like the Hunger Games trilogy. I found that utterly refreshing.

  5. 5. Maryse C.

    I’ followed your posts on the subject for a while and I can say they played a significant role in refining my view of feminism. I really appreciated you share your thoughts, and even think there is matter for a book there.

    Today I’m frustrated about the downsides of being a woman. Most of the time I’m proud and challenged, though.

  6. 6. Jaws

    Here’s a fictional reaction:

    Compare Eli in the book Let the Right One In in terms of stated gender to the Swedish film Let the Right One In (for the latter, you’ll have about two seconds to figure out twenty pages of the former)… and guess how H’wood is going to handle it in Let Me In next month.

    Multiple levels of body-is-the-person identity at work there!

  7. 7. L.A.

    I’ve always been amazed that women are associated with the body while men are associated with the mind. Really, I think the primary reason that men have historically denigrated women in this way is projection. Which sex commits more crimes? Which sex has more trouble controlling their hunger, anger, and sexual desire? Which sex has more rapists, murderers, and pedophiles among its ranks? It seems to me that the sex which lacks more self-control in terms of the body is pretty obvious. But since the physically dominant sex gets to make the rules, the “weaker” sex is screwed — metaphorically and literally.

  8. 8. Marie Brennan

    Timo — you’re right that personal standards vary, though from where I’m standing, Joan Cusack is a heck of a lot better-looking than Steve Buscemi (and I say that as a straight woman). Though it’s probably worth considering the effect had by makeup etc: when I see Joan Cusack in a movie, she’s usually well-groomed, well-dressed, and so on, whereas Steve Buscemi is often greasy-haired and scraggly. He has more scope to play deliberately unattractive roles, I think.

    Clothdragon — ARGH the notion that women are to be blamed for men’s inability to control themselves.

    Tony — ah, but (so the seventeenth-century thinking goes) all that height and strength and so on are subordinate to the (presumably) better-developed mind of a man, as opposed to women, whose minds are subordinate to their weak (in both physical and moral senses) bodies.

    Margaret — that’s the one other thing that I almost spun out into its own post, except it’s really just a rant, not anything constructive. The women always have to be beautiful, and if you get a heroine who’s “not beautiful” it’s because she fits our standards of beauty and not those of her society. Which really amounts to the same thing, from a reader perspective. Heck, I know my brain is programmed in that direction, even when I try to go elsewhere: I deliberately cast Delphia Northwood in my most recent book as being an honest-to-god plain woman, but every time I think about her I have to reconstruct that image in my mind, because Hollywood-style plainness (in other words, moderate attractiveness) keeps trying to substitute itself in.

  9. 9. Marie Brennan

    Maryse — I’m honored that my posts have been of use. I don’t know if I’ll ever write a book on the topic outright — mostly my thoughts get translated into the stories I tell — but who knows, maybe someday.

    Jaws — sadly, I have neither read nor seen Let the Right One In. Would it be a terrible spoiler if you expanded on what you mean by that?

    L.A. — Yeah, if you start applying logic to it then the pattern falls apart. But these kinds of constructions aren’t about observing the world and theorizing from the evidence; they’re about creating philosophical underpinnings to justify social inequalities.

  10. 10. Mac

    IT WOULD BE A TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE SPOILER.

    And I’m a bit concerned about how the U.S. version will handle it. They probably won’t bother. The Swedish one chose a very, very weird, offhand method and I don’t think it was successful.

  11. 11. Jaws

    Well, there are two levels of this…

    The nonspoiler one:
    Eli is a vampire appearing as a twelve year old girl (“But I’ve been twelve for a very long time”), which is no spoiler at all. Eli’s body/type/preconceptions about them are not Eli.

    The other is highly, highly spoilerific.

  12. 12. JS Bangs

    While I don’t disagree with any of this, strictly speaking, as a matter of emphasis this seems to be grabbing the wrong end of the stick. It’s clearly wrong to cast women as primarily gendered bodies and to cast men as sexless minds. But what I see most often these days is the attempt to cast both men and women as sexless minds, treating mental interiority as the “real” identity of the person and treating the body as something external, the property of the mind. This is unfortunately common in some strands of pop feminism, probably as an overreaction to a previous double standard.

    So I find it less urgent to state that women have minds than to state that men have bodies.

  13. 13. Farah Mendlesohn

    Motivation is the other one: men have motivations. Women are looking for brother, son or husband. Grrr.

  14. 14. Marie Brennan

    Mac and Jaws — fair ’nuff. I will probably see the movie at some point. (On that mythical day when I have free time.)

    JS Bangs — I’m not in favor of denying people’s physical nature and its importance, either; but from where I’m standing, the reduction of me to my body is a far more pressing issue. My attractiveness or lack thereof is more likely to be used as a stand-in for my personal qualities; my behavior in that regard is more likely to be used as a judgment on my character. If I had to choose between people acknowledging my interiority or my externality as the “real” me, I’d go for the former every day: it’s genuinely safer that way.

    Farah — and thus we come back to the Bechdel Test. <sigh>

  15. 15. Mac

    @Marie — I also think you should give the book a whirl. It’s a very different experience. I came away from the book feeling like I had experienced horror (and I’m wimpy, so what’s “horror” for me might be mild shivers to a normal person) and great sadness, in a good, skillful, well-told way. I came away from the Swedish film feeling like I had seen a black comedy — an extremely good black comedy, but something not quite intended to be poignant in the same way. The audience around me laughed at crucial moments, and I realized that although they had seen [*insert mild and very quick visual marker of completely spoileriffic and really harrowing thing from book here*], they couldn’t possibly have realized the significance — significance which in the book was explained at length in detailed flashback.

    I am horribly tempted now to explain exactly what specific events, and what about their interpretation, causes the difference in feeling between book and film, but that would be wrong. :)

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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