- Should My Bum Look Bigger in This?—Re-dressing the Beauvoirean Femme
But I who am bound by my mirroras well as my bedsee causes in coloras well as sex
and sit here wonderingwhich me will surviveall these liberations.—Audre Lorde, "Who Said It Was Simple"
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Video Interruptus—or Becoming Naked Again?
I am looking at a black-and-white photo, the back of a woman standing in front of a bathroom mirror, naked and high-heeled, about to slide a pin through a bun just secured by her left fingers. Her right arm is reaching for the knot, blocking the view of her face from me, us. Left behind the mirror, outside the door left ajar, allowed only a glimpse of the top of her hair, we are faced instead with those hands, hips, and heels that form a flowy vertical strip parallel to the left frame of the picture. Whoever is that peeping Tom in the right corner might be, this snapshot, this good, must be the job of a professional. Whatever you are looking at, whomever you identify yourself with, you too, I imagine, are confronted with many minipointers here, including the very dorsality of this photographic moment, allegorized by the unavoidable centrality of her derriere. The subject in question seems unaware or else unconcerned; intruded upon but not exactly interrupted, she carries on, minding her own business.
I may not be the only one who finds this piece visually loaded, oddly suspenseful. What was this character doing prior? Where is she going next? What sort of clothes was she wearing? Is she dressing or undressing? Is this bathroom a room of her own? And who is looking at whom?
I find myself drawn to a curious cocktail of indifference and intimacy in this image of a woman in her birthday suit: her objective aloneness, her vulnerability, her striking carnality, her banality, her affirmative impersonality, her anonymity, her being there, (un)doing her hair, no matter what, no matter who, her being her. But wait: At what point and in what way is this person to be identified as, presumed to be, a woman? And why?
(If I were a Cartesian cogitator, I would have to entertain further the possibility that this "person" could be an automaton, but here, I would bracket off that hypothesis as my immediate interest seems to lie elsewhere, closer to my vision here.)
More clearly, I am rehearsing—hearing—Simone de Beauvoir, of The Second Sex, whose pivotal formulation on femme remains oddly un/re/translatable: "On ne naît pas femme: on le deviant" (Beauvoir 1949, 285-86). Typically circulated as "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman" (Beauvoir 1953, 301), as H. M. Parshley's zoological version has it, the translation is good enough and has done us good service. Yet it needs some redoing in the manner, for instance, recently suggested by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier, who write instead, [End Page 185] "One is not born, but rather becomes, woman" (Beauvoir 2009, xviii). Just woman, not a: That is the one I would pick, for indeed the idea, to be more precise at the risk of being fussy, is that "one is not born femme [(a) woman/female/feminine]; one becomes so/that/it [le]." What a difference an a can make, what a devil in the detail.
As will become clearer, as implicit in Judith Butler's (1986) reading of Beauvoir, central to the convoluted logic of gender configuration and identification that Beauvoir captured with such deceptive simplicity is this bonded slippage, the elliptical tension between "a woman," a countable noun, on the one hand, and "woman/female/feminine [femme]" with no article, on the other hand, more of traditionally or conventionally uncountable "stuff" such as, say, cheese. Femme is and becomes the invisible fabric or matrix out of which a figure, "a woman," is cut and to which it is slotted or "fitted" back, at will, as the ultimate point of departure/return, which would also explain, often in the eyes of...