Tag Archives: Carolyn Steedman

(Burying) bodies

30 Sep

I’ve done some hardcore reading this week. Novels, articles, textbooks, a little bit of poetry thrown in to lighten the mood. It’s been intense. I won’t go into the marxist/feminist discourse and the consideration of the stationary self vs the moving others (although I will some other day, if you fancy) but I am going to talk about the novels I read. Not in a ‘reviewing’ way, as per usual, but in a personal, relational way.  

These novels – Beloved, by Toni Morrison, and Landscape for a Good Woman, by Carolyn Steedman, were recommended reading for my module on feminist cultural theory. I was all prepared for them to be – well, frankly – difficult. While neither of them could be described as ‘light’, however, they were certainly fascinating, and all the more so for being read one after the other. 

Both books are explicitly about women and, marginally less obviously, their relationships with their daughters. Beloved is the story of an escaped slave; Landscape a semi-autobiographical account of two eras of womanhood. Both are fundamentally about female ownership of the body and the extent to which a child is of that body. Landscape enunciates this with scholarly precision: relationships require giving and taking. Frequently, women have nothing to give but themselves and the possibility of a future. In a society that continues to disempower women, a woman’s only bargaining chip is herself and her potential for children. Beloved repeatedly suggests this through more subtle means; the main character, Sethe, ‘pays’ to have a word inscribed on a headstone for her dead child with her body; her body is the only thing she can give when she is ‘married’. Bodies are commodities and bodies can be given away dearly or cheaply – bodies are everything. 

While we may like to kid ourselves that we live in a free and equal society these days, it’s impossible to deny the force that a body can still have. In the interests of research (naturally) I was sat in front of some terrible daytime television with my housemates this afternoon. Before we found the cookery programs, we were watching dating shows. It’s incredible how many people respond to the physical nature of a person before they consider anything else about them. ‘He’s well buff, I’d definitely go on a date with him’, etc. But the thing is – what does a body tell you about someone, these days?

Bodies are so subject to change. Of course, you can work on your personality, too, and you can certainly be selective in how you choose to behave around certain people (consciously and unconsciously) but I don’t think it’s quite the same here. The sculpting and presentation of one’s body is a particular privilege we enjoy (or not). Invariably, the way we choose to present our bodies say something about the value we place on them. Of course, everyone has their own value systems; having a lot of piercings might evoke squeals of disgust from some middle class yummy mummies, for example, but that may be your way of expressing your own identity and self-worth. The way you present your body may indicate your desire to stand out, or it may be a camouflage you use to blend in. The thing is, we think we can control the value of our bodies by the way we present them and the way we use them. In most instances, I believe, that’s true. 

But. What these books suggested to me is that a body is not just how it looks, but how it is used. We can make our bodies into portraits of how we’d like to be seen, but if we don’t use them in keeping with those images, what then? What counts more, intention or act? And if creating the body as we’d like it to be seen is an act of authorship, can we apply the premise that meaning is created at the point of reception? Are we scripting our bodies for a multiplicity of readers, or are we doing so for the ideal one? Is our ideal reader, in fact, ourselves? 

Maybe this is all getting a bit weird now. I think the point I’m trying to make is this: ultimately, you are in charge of what your body does and this is far more important than what it looks like. Use it wisely, grasshopper. It can still be a powerful thing.