The Female Body


in Archive


A scene in the “new hit series” The Killing seemed déjà-vu familiar, until I realized it’s a standard moment in crime dramas. The victim’s parents are in the police station to answer some questions, and they accidentally come across the crime scene photos. The warm body of the daughter they knew and loved has become the cold corpse the police treat casually. Maybe they overhear a callous gallows-humor joke made by a detective. Their daughter’s dismembered body is cut into even smaller pieces by the police camera as it zooms in on her bound wrists, her broken nails left bloody stumps from trying to claw her way out of captivity, the petechial hemorrhage pinking the white of her eyes. The viewer is not allowed the same reaction as the parents. What they see as defilement, we see as aesthetics. When the body of the young girl is discovered, her body glows angelically through the water that fills the trunk of the car just pulled from the bottom of the lake. The position of her body — curled up in the fetal position — is meant to imply lost innocence and highlight her childish state. With the dramatic lighting and the Twin Peaks-ish score droning in the background, she’s shot more like a misplaced water nymph than a dead teenage girl.

  • Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars by Sonia Faleiro. 232 pages. Penguin Books. $35.95
  • The Chronology of Water: A Memoir by Lidia Yuknavitch. 268 pages. Hawthorne Books. $15.95
  • The Crystal Frontier by Carlos Fuentes. 280 pages. Mariner Books. $14
  • Lustmord: Sexual Muder in Weimar Germany by Maria Tatar. 213 pages. Princeton University Press. $30.95
  • Making a Killing: Femicide, Free Trade, and La Frontera edited by Alicia Gaspar de Alba. 238 pages. University of Texas Press. $24.95

In the meantime, they’re pulling real dead girls out of the brush on Long Island. These girls are not as photogenic; they’ve been lying out there for months, the detritus of a new serial killer. But that storyline is less entertaining than the girls’ fictional counterparts — no suspects, no frantic mother, no obsessed cop in charge of the investigation. No matter, I have a lot of alternatives to choose from. There are so many dead girls on my television and in my books. Even if we’re not counting Law & Order: Dead Hooker of the Week, which I can’t bear to watch, the body count rises through Stieg Larsson’s books to The Killing to Scream 4 to rewatching season two of The Wire before remembering it’s the “dead girls in the can” storyline. Even when I’m not expecting it, and specifically trying not to read about any more dead girls, the craggy retired police officer in Kate Atkinson’s Started Early, Took My Dog, turns out to be obsessed with his dead sister, murdered at 17. He muses endlessly on her inherent teenage girl vulnerability, but, “Let’s face it, Jackson thought, every age was a dangerous age for a woman.” Once you become aware of dead girls’ being used as scenery or decoration, you see them everywhere — all of these young women’s bodies, laid out in expressions of terror and relief, one shoe off, with unfocused eyes and a pancake-makeup pallor.

As gender roles shift and evolve, this set-up — man as predator, woman as prey — is one we seem reluctant to let go of. These are roles we play willingly, or at the very least resignedly. It can be difficult even to see there are other alternatives, what with how frequently the girls are scattered about to motivate world-weary detectives to make bland statements about just how out-of-control the world has become. In Maria Tatar’s 1995 study of how the sexual murder and the female victim entered our culture — Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany — she writes that in today’s culture it’s “because they are so familiar, so evident, we are culturally blind to the ubiquity of representations of feminine death.” In the time of Weimar Germany’s economic desperation, loosened morals, and gender upheaval, women became more visible and vulnerable, from the small-town girls looking for work in big cities to the sex workers driven to the street in desperation.

Peter Kürten was a serial killer working in Weimar Germany, but he was more interested in creating a state of fear than in taking pleasure in his victims. He taunted the newspapers with letters, and specifically targeted women and children to whip up panic. The newspapers were happy enough to assist, spreading terror and mayhem with their reporting all the sordid details — it was good for business. That it reinforced a mentality that the only safe place for a woman is the home, well, that was just an unintended benefit. After his arrest, Kürten thanked the media at a press conference for playing along so well: “The sensational reports in certain scandal sheets turned me into the man who stands before you today.”

The atmosphere of lustmord (sexual murder) fed into and from the larger culture. Fritz Lang used a German nursery rhyme-like song about the real life serial killer Haarman (“Just you wait til it’s your time,/Haarman will come after you,/With his chopper, oh so fine,/He’ll make mincemeat out of you”) in his film about a fictional child killer, M. The paintings of Otto Dix and Georg Grosz, both of whom painted portraits of themselves as murderers with manic looks and dismembered women in the background, introduced the bloodied women’s corpses as scenery into the visual arts. It’s not the murdered and abused women you care about in Alfred Döblin’s modernist classic Berlin Alexanderplatz, it’s the narrator doing the killing and the beating.

Men’s rage against women started to be depicted as something understandable, something lurking just beneath the surface of every suit and tie. Kürten and other serial killers at the time were being revealed to be family men, churchgoing men with respectable jobs. As psychologists stepped in to discuss how poor mothering and thwarted sexual cravings were to blame for the growing violence, the artists tried to humanize the inhumane by filling in the back stories. Their efforts made, as Tatar puts it, “sadistic violence the marker of masculinity and its absence a sign of femininity.” The artist and the male viewer were meant to identify with and understand the man holding the knife. Which I guess means the female viewer is supposed to identify with the woman in Dix’s Sexual Murder whose uterus has been cut out of her body.

This dichotomy has been around for so long that it doesn’t even seem to be something to fight against anymore. Even those writers who try to change the balance of power between the sexes end up playing into it. Heroines such as Lisbeth Salander in Larsson’s novels — originally titled Men Who Hate Women — and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are still the target of male violence, they just happen to live. The message remains the same, neatly summed up by Dame Rebecca West as “Men and women don’t like each other very much.” If that’s the background noise, the setting in which we wander out every day to do our business, I wonder how it interrupts our forethoughts without our even noticing. And if it’s not just the dead girls in your books, on your television, in your video games, but real life acting as reinforcement, how can you ever successfully walk away from it? Even if you’ve been lucky enough to always choose your sexual partners, but maybe you’ve answered the phone and heard your sister, your mother, your friend on the other end, calling from the emergency room, or if you’ve come home one day to the news that a woman you love has been murdered by her husband, or if you’ve held your friend’s hand as she chokes on the story of the day her father first got into bed with her… how do you then, as a woman, carry all of that out the door? Are you aware of your status as quivering prey as you sit there across the table? Do you weigh a guy up when you decide to go home with him, calculating your chance of survival if he suddenly turns on you? Or maybe you gravitate to large men who could easily snap your neck during sex, and you take it as a compliment when they don’t.

A man with the same name as my ex slaughtered a bunch of women. He didn’t have the same exact name, but his first name was close, the last name one letter different. I unexpectedly came across this story in my reading. The man — a butcher by trade — sold the meat from the women’s bodies as if it were beef. An almost endless stream of women went into his house — dirty wretched girls, poor and starving _ and never came out. The neighbors thought it odd but none of their business. The killer did this while (almost) having my ex’s name, and as I read the accounts my eye kept rearranging the letters, so that it was my ex I saw turning women into sausages. It was my ex dumping the women’s bones into the river. It was my ex luring more than 50 women into his home with promises of a hot meal, before transforming them into one himself.

The comparison would be funny if it weren’t so horrible, but then if you grow up with the knowledge that men want to kill you, maybe the confusion becomes understandable. It’s often said that my generation sexually came of age in the shadow of AIDS. For us, there were no idyllic days of free love and experimentation. We were ingrained with the knowledge that sex could kill us. But it seemed to me that we — the female half of my generation, at least — also came of age in the shadow of the sex criminal. Sex could kill us in all sorts of ways. Before I even lost my virginity, I was attending Take Back the Night marches in solidarity with friends who had been raped at as young an age as 11 by fathers, stepfathers, boyfriends, strangers, and cops. I got the same forwarded emails that everyone received from their mothers, which passed around rape urban legends. Lidia Yuknavitch wrote in her new memoir The Chronology of Water that “if you’ve never read Kathy Acker’s books, then you don’t know how often fathers rape their daughters.” I’ve read my Kathy Acker, starting at the age of 15, and her novels of the misadventures of Janey after being torn apart by various men. But by that time, I already knew.

We were also in the shadow of the Juarez murders. In the Alicia Gaspar de Alba edited anthology Making a Killing: Femicide, Free Trade, and La Frontera, the details of those murders are re-examined. Since 1993, the bodies of approximately 400 young women and girls have been discovered in the desert near the border between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, with thousands of women still missing. Bodies were found with breasts sliced off, uteruses cut out, genitals snipped off with scissors. The women were raped, beaten, vivisected, and dumped. Otto Dix paintings, decomposing in the desert. During the ’90s, the stories were slow to reach the United States, but once the stories migrated north, we could all watch the body count continue to rise. The investigation seemed to go nowhere, reinforcing the idea that these women were disposable.

When the stories of the women in Cuidad Juarez began to be told, the theme was not economic exploitation, or all the ways NAFTA was trashing Mexico, or even the lack of social programs and shelters and affordable housing for single girls in the city. It was, What are all these young girls doing on the streets? The Chihuahua state attorney general made a public statement: “It is impossible not to get wet when you go outside in the rain; it is also impossible for a woman not to get killed when she goes out alone at night.” If a limping baby antelope is wandering through a lion’s territory, it’s only natural it’s going to get eaten. When it became increasingly evident that no real arrests were going to be made, either because the police couldn’t figure out who was behind the murders or because they were being paid not to, the police officials and politicians began equating the victims — most of them factory workers at American-owned plants — with prostitutes, as if that could magically lower the body count. As if the life of a prostitute was only worth a fraction of the life of a sainted mother.

There was such rage behind the killings. Bodies were not just violated and discarded, they were brutalized, their uniquely female traits targeted and destroyed. And as the dead girls started to seep into our culture, much like the Weimar Germany women, that rage again became something understandable. Carlos Fuentes, often declared Mexico’s greatest living writer, wrote about the lives of the factory workers in The Crystal Frontier, focusing on the disorientation of the changing times. The takeaway was that there’s something wrong with a society that requires a woman to work — as society breaks down and the mother is forced outside of the home, these sorts of things happen. The Mexican writer and journalist Carlos Monsivais responded to the crimes by explaining it was simply a matter of “the great problem [being] that woman has always been victim… when one of them is kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered by a man, this no longer disturbs people or fills them with indignation because these aggressions have become customary.” When the murders become commonplace and simply a by-product of a world of gender roles gone mad, we can handle the lack of suspects and the cliffhanger ending.

When people use the phrase “the war between the sexes,” the soldiers are generally a frigid wife and a philandering husband, the battlefield a loveless marriage, and nothing is dismembered except maybe their cozy suburban existence. Yet there is a real contempt and fear between the sexes, although I’m not convinced it’s inborn. These peaks in the violence occur when gender roles are changing and during times of economic peril, and many experts will say they are born of a desire to keep women in their place. It seems just as likely that they come from men’s resenting their inability to break from their own role as predator and protector.

I was struck by this reading Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars. Faleiro follows a group of dancers living in Bombay, most of them prostituting themselves on the side, all of them the survivors of horrendous abuse. What they’ve lived through is shocking. Leela, the focus of the book, grew up watching her father beat and rape her mother until he turned his attention to her when she hit puberty. He sold her to the police station, meaning cop after cop raped her from the age 11 on. Leela explains, “They are men, and that’s what men do.” She decided that if she was going to be forced into having sex, she might as well profit financially. It’s a philosophy that many of the girls and women in the book share, believing men are their ticket out in one way or another — they’ll take their money now, but what they really want is to fall and love and get married, whisked away from the horrors they’ve experienced.

The men are mostly an aside, their stories told only through the dancers. They play along as well, and seem just as unhappy to be in the pantomime. The men give gifts of money and jewelry, and the girls threaten suicide and declare their undying fidelity and love to manipulate more out of them. Everyone knows they’re just playing a game, and the men seem disgruntled about it, but no one seems to know how to stop. Being the provider and the supposed rescuer isn’t satisfying to these men, but it gets them what they want, which is sex and at least the gesture of affection. It’s obvious that this is a charade, however, and not a genuine exchange. It creates not just an atmosphere of menace and resentment, but real hatred. It’s a simplistic observation, but no more so than the theory that the violence is caused by men’s inability to deal with even the idea of female equality. It’s a theory that sells men short, I think, and one I’m frankly surprised doesn’t offend more of them.

As our gender roles continue to change, we still want things from one another — warmth, affection, love — but the old rules of how to access them are no longer valid. We can think that the other is intentionally withholding, and we become afraid of one another. I think these German, Juarez, and Bombay girls and women play out extreme examples of the dynamic that exists in each of us, in a teenage boy who beats a virtual prostitute in a video game for extra points, or a woman who stays with the man who demeans her in public but supports her financially. When a woman is being carved up, it’s not always a man on the other end of the knife, it’s sometimes her own hand. Maybe she’s just finishing up the work that some other man started, but there is always the option of putting the blade down. Society changes when the people in it do. I think we all benefit from the role we play, in some uncomfortable, dark way, or else we would have rejected it long ago. All those dead girls are being used to sell us something, and it’s not just those $400 stilettos on the ends of their akimbo legs. • 28 April 2011