Friday, April 11, 2008


(Self Portrait II, 1940)

There's a great article up at The Smart Set about Frida Kahlo and what the author, Morgan Meis, refers to as The Look: The level stare that Frida of the self-portraits aims at us the viewer. The articles begins with:

"It's The Look that gets to you. Frida Kahlo took up a variety of subject matter and dabbled in a number of styles. All of it worth seeing. But in the end it is the self-portraits that endure and that fuel her ever-increasing stature in 20th century art. That's because in the portraits you get The Look. The Look is the Frida Kahlo stare. If you've seen any of her self-portraits then you have seen it. It is an expression that barely changes throughout a lifetime of paintings. Costumes change, parrots flutter into the frame, monkeys come and go. The Look never wavers."

But, he says, Frida Kahlo in her photographs does not have The Look. This author considers why that might be so, suggesting perhaps the photos are more authentic. It could be the other way around, of course. Or one of several other theories I could create rather quickly.

Each new generation seeks to define itself. Within that generation, subgroups also draw their dividing lines, their boundaries of identity, usually with an air of "no one has EVER done this before" and "we have stumbled upon an immutable truth here". When subgroups within a generation are unusually large and/or economically privileged, as in the case of Baby Boomers, these delusions will be more pronounced.

In my generation, we rejected the post-war definition of woman and instead rifled through every human attribute regardless of previous gender assignation to come up with our own construct. Some of us did this from an essentialist perspective, i.e., we believed we were "reclaiming" or "reaffirming" innate qualities of womanhood which had been stolen under the patriarchy. Others of us were more clearly coming from a consciousness-raising spawning ground of believing that by examining our conditioning with others like us (in this case, women raised as girls), we could destroy the artificial constraints of gender and create a new kind of woman -- as Judy Grahn put it, "Look at me as if you have never seen a woman before." These two theoretically contradictory groups were able to work together in community without much conflict for a time because our primary task, that of redefining woman, necessarily began with separatism.

Separatism seems to be an essential liberation stage for all groups who are target for oppression living within a larger society dominated by those who are not target for that oppression. It is an ongoing process, as some members pass beyond the need for separate space to self-define and new members arrive to take their place. It's neither a sacred territory nor a "phase" to be ridiculed; it's just part of a process.

However, once you enter another stage, when you have reconstructed or reclaimed your identity, the differences become problematic. Women who were essentialists quite rationally, according to their principles, would seek to continue on in community without the deleterious influence of those who were innately oppressive. Women who were constructionists, on the other hand, would prefer community with those who had likewise done their work of self-definition and sought to create a larger culture where the old beliefs would no longer be visited on any child, in alliance with anyone who loosely fit a similar description.

It's hard to know how this division might have resolved itself, of course, because the dominant power structure asserted itself in a highly-effective, multi-pronged backlash against all the separatist, identity-based movements of the 1960s and 1970s. This backlash is still ongoing and has been incorporated into the fabric of education given to succeeding generations, especially at the university level. Higher education has been returned primarily to those with class privilege or a willingness to seek approval from the elite. This trend is accelerating.

The so-called "third wave" (or beyond) of feminism has its own definition of woman, which is at times an anti-definition, and its own community wherein essentialists and constructionists choose to ignore the contradiction of their belief systems in order to promote a perceived common agenda. In the "new" feminism, gender itself is seen as malleable (a constructionist view) but also somehow innate for those who are "born in the wrong body" (an essentialist stance). Masculinity and femininity are theoretically detached from gender and available to all, but are still primarily linked to the traditional gender and are usually proclaimed to be innate and congenital, as is sexual orientation. Naming males, male conditioning, and/or masculinity as the dominant end of the power dynamic is often considered, at best, old-fashioned.

There is, as in previous generations, a touching but completely unrealistic faith in the ability of individuals to overcome conditioning by simply choosing to be different. Thus, just as my generation believed aspiring to working class ethics and values was enough to sidestep our classism (and racism), the current generation cannot see its own sexism and screams in protest when it is pointed out to them, demanding that intentions and "suffering" trump behavior. This is common to American culture, a by-product of our being an addiction-based owning-class empire (as outlined by Anne Wilson Schaef), where good intentions provide a free pass for those unwilling to embrace the incremental, painful change of recovery.

Under a white capitalist patriarchy, whatever genuine truths are uncovered by a particular generation will be blocked from transmission to succeeding generations by any means necessary. I therefore predict that within twenty years, those who currently identify as "trans" (by any of the current definitions of that term EXCEPT for those who believe gender is biologically innate and can be adequately transfigured by purchasing technology and appearance alteration -- because that belief system supports the dominant structure) will be open to ridicule and the target of scathing dissection by academic theories and papers. The genuinely revolutionary thinking which can be found in trans theory -- that all gender exists on a continuum and is equally available to anyone regardless of appearance, behavior or birth -- will be buried under another wave of backlash, some of which will arise within their own ranks. Ironically, the move to name "trans" as its own category deserving of separate protection instead of insisting that previous anti-sexism legislation applies to anyone of any gender will be part of what undoes the current movement. Insisting on a victim stance instead of finding common ground with the majority is what always does us in. Pity and even empathy run dry, eventually.

But drop the clutching-at-straws "cis" designation (as if there is ANY woman out there who will say she's never discriminated against because of how she doesn't fit the gender norm) and instead claim commonality with a working class, terrified-of-queers housewife by pointing out how she's considered "not a normal woman" because she wears too much make-up and trashy clothes, and you've forged an alliance that would make Dick Cheney shit in his pants.

(Self-Portrait by JEB in Dyke, Virginia, 1975 © Joan E. Biren, from Eye to Eye Portraits of Lesbians)

In 1979, Joan E. Biren (JEB) toured women's communities in the U.S. with a slide show containing the work of several lesbian photographers from the past. She was promoting the theory that we could recognize lesbians of any era or class by three often subtle identifiers: The Look, The Stance, The Clothes. At that time, our definition of "lesbian" would be more or less identical to at least one definition of "transgender" today. I saw her slideshow three times, because it raised questions in me I found exhilirating, about the ability of humans throughout time to step outside the boxes of oppression and find another means of expression -- and, beyond that, community.

When I was in my teens and not yet out to family and community, living in poverty in an impoverished rural area, my main outlet for hope and mind expansion was reading. The books available in libraries were my conduit (and the limits that implies, overwhelmingly white, class-privileged, and male-dominated works of literature). Without manipulation, let me give you a list of the writers whose works I found most meaningful, usually memorizing and/or copying out lines to put up on the walls of my bedroom:

Edna St. Vincent Millay
Emily Dickinson
Langston Hughes
Henry David Thoreau
Christopher Isherwood
Robert Frost
Mazo de la Roche
William Faulkner
Dorothy Parker
W.H. Auden
Mary Renault
Edgar Allen Poe
James Thurber
Margaret Mead
A.E. Housman
Lewis Carroll
Dalton Trumbo
P.G. Wodehouse
May Swenson
Patricia Highsmith
William Shakespeare

Every name on this list evokes a strong memory in me, a sense of their art having permanently changed my world view, much more than other writers. But it was not until I was in my 20s that I began to discover, here and there, slowly, that 14 of these 21 authors were unequivocally bisexual, lesbian or gay at some point in their lives. Two out of three -- what are the odds of that happening, unless something was being communicated between the lines? Whether it was an innate or a collected identity, somehow the way they strung words together found a response in my brain, a brain also seeking to collect my identity as a lover of women. Art can do that, because it is created by humans for other humans.

So, when I read about Frida Kahlo's "Look", I thought of something else entirely. I saw a sister in that expression, read into it a refusal to look away or play the heterosexual game. That's just me, of course, me with my conditioning and a product of my generation. You can come up with your own explanation. Below are several of her self-portraits and photographs of her taken by others. Go look.

(Self Portrait, 1926)

(Frida Kahlo in her patio, 1931)

(Self Portrait, 1930)

(Frida Kahlo in San Francisco, 1931, photo by Imogene Cunningham)

(Self Portrait 1937)

(Frida Kahlo 16 October 1932)

(Self Portrait with Monkey, 1938)

(The Two Fridas, 1939)

(Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940)

(Me and My Parrots, 1941)

(Self Portrait as a Tehuana, Diego on My Mind, 1943)

(Frida Kahlo 1938, photo by Niklas Muray)

(Self Portrait with Loose Hair, 1947)

(Self Portrait with the Portrait of Doctor Farill, 1951)


Liza Cowan said...

that was fascinating, maggie. I'm just going to comment on Frida. The biggest difference I notice between the paintings and the photos is in the mouth. In the photos her mouth looks sesuous, giving her face a more accessible and softer quality. She looks strong, I like that she's not smiling or looking coy. She does, in my mind, look beautiful.

In her self portraits, she looks like she's sucking on lemons, like she's offended by what she's seeing. Not herself, i think, but the viewer. She's looking at us like she doesn't quite approve. I doubt she did this on purpose.

Quite likely she was in the habit of holding her mouth like that when she was concentrating, which she would be doing while looking at herself as the object to paint.

The effect for this viewer, is to want to keep my distance. In the photos, I want to get to know her.

kat said...

I think that either a print or a copy or the real-life Imogen Cunningham photo was just for sale at a rare-books shop in my neighborhood.

I remember reading somewhere that Friday purposefully painted her eyebrows more heavy and grown-together than they actually were. I don't remember the reason, though. Maybe the way she painted the mouth was related to that? Dunno....

I agree with Liza, I think she was a stunningly beautiful woman, and the contrast between the softer photos and the stronger paintings is interesting. Totally different goals, of course, in being photographed by someone else and painting a self portrait...

kat said...

okay, about the other stuff:

This essay made me think about the show Oprah did last week about the "pregnant man," Thomas Beatie. While I listened to his story, one thing that stuck out was how entrenched in traditional gender roles he was. It almost seemed like he was saying that he had to live as a man because he wasn't a traditionally girly-girl. It's very possible that that wasn't the intent, and that maybe the complicated issues were pared down, or even that the editing resulted in a different sort of presentation.

Is this what you mean by the clash of essentialist and constructionist ideas?

Also, could you explain "cis"?

Also, did you see the movie "Frida" and what did you think of it?

yeshe_choden said...

I'm with liza_cowan. Frida in the photos is a flesh and blood person, one I want to relate to. There is a human connection possible. I could affect her and she could affect me. We are changeable together.

Frida in the self portraits is a Work of Art. Done. She is presented for contemplation and reflection, not conviviality.

As for "Frida" the movie, YOW! The movie is the movie, and Salma is Salma (and HOW!) and Frida herself remains herself, gone.

Maggie Jochild said...

I'm agreeing with all you're saying (so eloquently) about Frida. Another reason I considered for the difference in her painted versus photographed self is that she was in severe pain much of her adult life, especially if she was trying to do something with her torso -- she painted despite the pain. But it likely showed in her face.

I did not see the movie because (and this is shallow, I know) I saw Salma Hayek interviewed when the film was first released by someone who knew a fair amount about Frida and wanted to discuss the movie. Salma was, even after having portrayed her, shockingly ignorant about Frida's life and seemed incurious about her. It irked me so much, I avoided the movie.

Kat, there's an essay about Thomas Beatie up at Alternet right now; the essay is okay, though not in-depth. The comments it's drawn are full of confusion and sometimes hostility. But the confusion mirrors Thomas's.

If you take the trouble to undergo surgery and ingest chemicals to alter your appearance (for any reason), you believe your identity depends to a heavy extent on your appearance. (Sex change, plastic surgery of any type, bariatric surgery, all the same.) And if you believe you cannot have your "true" identity without it matching the gender boxes our culture agrees are normal, then yes, that's an essentialist stance.

The case of Thomas Beatie is drawing so much more attention than others, I think, is not just because of the media hunger for sensationalism (and a pregnant man fits that bill), but also because Thomas is working class, not very coherent about his reasons, not part of the academic/20-something transgender community and lobby, and therefore he feels approachable to people who call themselves "regular folk".

It's interesting to read, out there in Cyberia, how much his decision has upset some elements in the trans community as well as all the others passing judgment on him. Because he didn't have his reproductive organs removed or "bottom" surgery, some folks who are "real trans" are insisting he's NOT trans, to the same extent that straight men are insisting he's not a man.

He is whatever gender he claims, as far as I'm concerned, and deserves entry to any group where having been raised male is not an issue OR having a penis is not an issue. (For instance, a group of men working on consciousness-raising of their own male conditioning, like some of the guys I knew in California, would not welcome him, and there are gay male sex clubs refusing admission to FtMs because they are specifically intended for people with a particular set of genitals available in sexual contact.)

Essentialism says that Barack Obama is exactly like any other African-American in the U.S. because he's black, and genes are what matters -- plus, now, he's a target for racism and that's the same for all black people. Constructionism says he's African-American, yes, but of a different kind, raised partly away from American "black" conditioning which is what makes you culturally black, and it differs from region to region, class to class. We can more clearly see that essentialism is bogus when it comes to race -- there is no "wash of hormones" bullshit to explain why black people have a somewhat different culture and set of behavior than white people, we KNOW it is conditioning (well, except for the biological determinists and their racist line).

We've not reached that point with gender. We almost got there, the backlash happened, and we're having to re-introduce the concept to "ordinary" people.

Unfortunately, there's a small but extremely vocal percentage (maybe 1-5%) of the queer community who are diehard essentialist and treat any disagreement with their insistence on outward boxes as oppression aimed at them, even though their own definitions likewise box the rest of us in.

We'll keep sorting it out, I'm sure.

The term "cis" is usually short for cisgendered, which Wikipedia defines as "a type of gender identity formed by a match between an individual's biological sex and the behavior or role considered appropriate for one's sex. In some feminist groups cisgender has come to mean, 'A gender identity formed by a match between your biological sex and your subconscious sex.'"

In practice, especially on blogs, cis is being used as the opposite of trans. I've seen it put forth that the reason for this is because the logical term "nontrans" is somehow perjorative to transfolk.

However, it's difficult, if not impossible, to convince a group to which you do not belong and which outnumbers you 90 to 1 to adopt your pseudo-academic term for them as how they refer to themselves. I don't see a perjorative in nontrans, any more than I see it with disabled and able-bodied. It's just descriptive.

Further, and much more to the point, the idea that you have a "subconscious" sex hints of essentialism. I have female genitals and a gender in which I was raised, female. I have for decades now been deconstructing that conditioning and coming up with my own definition of what female is -- which, once the oppression and power dynamics are lifted from our culture, will be identical to that of male except for a few biological differences (namely, reproduction) that won't come into play most of the time.

But in my entire adult life, my self-definition of female has NOT agreed with what the larger culture defines as "woman" in profound ways, and that dissonance has affected me deeply, daily, permanently. Thus, I'm not "cis" and I don't identify as trans. So this binary is not workable for me, and for the majority of lesbian-feminists I know from my generation. We're asking to not be labeled as cis simply because we've chosen to also not take on the label of trans. We see the world in different ways, with different (and, frankly, more expansive) categories.