Books that take race and gender equally seriously and treat them as utterly interdependent social identities are still not by any means dominant in contemporary cultural theory. Despite forceful arguments from theoretical critics such as bell hooks, Hortense Spillers, Karen Sanchez-Eppler, and Claudia Tate about the absolutely intertwined formations and histories of these identities, and despite the seeming omnipresence of this pair of terms, they regularly continue to enter as an unequal couple. Most often, one term is added to the other, as a complicating supplement. Robin Weigman’s book American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender is a welcome addition to those studies that clarify in fresh ways the inextricable coformation of race and gender.
Weigman’s tracing of the “intertwining relationship between patriarchy and white supremacy” is organized into three sections: “Economies of Visibility,” “The Ends of Man,” and “White Mythologies.” The first section reviews the historical constructions of racialized and gendered bodies in the eighteenth through early-twentieth centuries, especially in the sciences of phrenology, comparative anatomy, and anthropology. This overview covers material that will be familiar to many readers interested in race and gender, in a vocabulary that is sometimes weighted down with jargon. What Weigman usefully elaborates, however, building on Foucault, is the “modern economy of visibility” in which bodies are ranked and taxonomized, even as the visible differences were, in the course of the nineteenth century, increasingly interiorized and understood to reflect moral and psychological traits. Weigman effectively theorizes the historical work done by such scholars of racial and sexual science as Londa Schiebinger, pointing out, for instance, that interest in exaggerated representations of African [End Page 457] women’s skeletons and genitalia not only reflects the desire to justify enslavement or imagine a monstrous sexuality through the bodies of others, but also makes black women “the material ground for defining and ascertaining other social positions: in the development of her brain and skull, for instance, comparative anatomy locates evidence for both the African-American male’s masculine inferiority and the white female’s gendered priority.”
Weigman is most acute in tracing, as in this last example, how racial and sexual identities always and necessarily play off of and give place to one another and yet do so in ways that shift from era to era. Her careful attention to the historical shifts in the interlocked racial and sexual economy of visibility in the U.S. is the most persuasive proof of the mutuality of race and sex she discusses: their coupling persists despite radical reconfigurations of their relationship to one another. In the second section of her book, for instance, Weigman’s account of the metamorphic gendering of black men’s bodies from the abolition period to the Jim Crow segregationist era to our current integrationist era (integrationist, Weigman emphasizes, at the level of media representation) is compelling and persuasive. In its contemporary forms, as epitomized in cross-racial buddy films of the 1980s such as Lethal Weapon or In the Heat of the Night, and in marked contrast to earlier periods, black men are drawn, as men, into the homosocial community of white men as men. In these films the narrative is one of transcendence of race between men, which revises an old mythology dating from Huck Finn, this time positioning the black man as the instrument of the white man’s recovery of his heroism in a late-twentieth-century world in which that identity, and its claim to ethical purity, have been severely challenged. As Weigman notes, this remasculinization carries feminizing undertones even as it excludes women from the race-transcendent order and celebrates the black maleness of the black actors’ bodies.
These careful readings of the shifting but consistently racialized and gendered visual economy lead to Weigman’s framing argument for her book: that this economy of visible difference continues to structure twentieth-century politics and thought, including that of progressive activists, politicians, and academics. This legacy of what Martin Jay has called the “scopic regimes” of modernity shows its persistence insofar as both conservatives and progressives focus on equitable representation...