by Eleonor Botoman, Barnard College
The grotesque has played a crucial role throughout the history of art. From Hieronymus Bosch unraveling the chaos of hell in the 16th century to Francisco Goya embodying the deepest recesses of the psyche just three centuries later, this revolting study of human nature has entranced artists across generations. When we define the grotesque in this age, it is not always presented solely in terms of blatant body horror. The grotesque finds power in ugly subtleties. Its terrifying nature can be found in mere suggestions as well as in explicit images that make our skin crawl or turn our heads away from the screen.
Certain feminists use these subtleties of the grotesque to discuss how the pressures of conventional beauty have affected the female experience, in the way women are perceived and how they perceive themselves, and how a rejection of those standards through the unlovely can become a kind of reclamation for some women. Many feminist artists address the expectations of how a woman should present herself and explore how insecurities and unrealistic expectations can alter body image or reinforce sexual stereotypes. Social media can amplify these harmful ideals with popular imagery that tells women their appearance is not good enough or suggests that they are undesirable and should change their appearance to fit these standards. The expectation is that women should only portray themselves at their very best on social media, to always be beautiful and never explore the ugly moments of the female experience. As Jessica Bennett points out in her article Our Bodies, Our Selfies: The Feminist Photo Revolution: “We spend so much time trying to hide our flaws because the culture has set it up that you have to be ashamed if you’re not perfect.”1
Social media, however, also allows a degree of control. As consumers of these communication platforms, we have the ability to control how we are perceived: the gesture can be as simple as flattering light or the right angle. “Smart phones and point-and-shoot cameras are everywhere, allowing anyone to be the photographer or director as well as the subject of the photo,” writer Ashley Farmer explains in “The Selfie as a Feminist Act.”2 While the expectation in taking advantage of this control is to create something beautiful and cultivate a flattering online presence, many feminist artists reject this notion of beauty and instead craft portfolios that explore their individuality alongside the notion of the grotesque.
In her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” film theorist Laura Mulvey argues that classic Hollywood films structure the nature of the audience’s vision such that they see women as passive objects.3 Although her analysis lies within cinema, Mulvey understands just how much of a woman’s experience is determined by the male gaze. Women, whether in cinema or in the media today, have always been “objects of sexual stimulation.”4 Mulvey argues that “woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies.”5 Voyeurs consume the female image, but women do not control their own representation, “thus the woman is icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look.”6 Mulvey explores the psychological anxieties that could arise from removing the male eye from the appearance of female body —“there is no doubt that this destroys the satisfaction, pleasure and privilege of the ‘invisible guest.’”7 Whether she is a Hollywood actress or a girl with an Instagram, “the image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of man takes the argument a step further into the structure of representation.”8 Male-driven industries that choose to manufacture unrealistic female imagery and standards in order to embody unrealistic sexual fantasies ignore female bodies and real female experiences. For too long the women have been forced into the role of “bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”9
Feminist artists, now more than ever, are able to carve out spaces of expression through new technologies and create a new kind of representation not made for the male eye. Jessica Benett identifies this important shift of control as young girls take to the cameras: “For centuries we’ve watched as changing standards of beauty have shaped us: it was men, not women, controlling the photos. But selfies put the power in girl’s hands.”10 The usual reaction of this kind of ambition, especially when the goal is not to please the audience, “has been judgey: selfies are narcissistic, humble-braggy, slutty, too sexy, a cry for help.”11 However, the digital world allows feminist artists to engage the grotesque in order to question female identity beyond sexualized, unrealistic male fantasies. By reclaiming their bodies in new, unsettling digitally manipulated imagery across distributed video and photographic formats, contemporary feminist artists continue to study the power of self-representation.
Icelandic musician Bjork, an outspoken feminist performer, is well known internationally for her richly unique music and challenging, artistic music videos. Last year, the UK-based magazine Dazed and Confused premiered a music video for the song “Mouth Mantra” directed by artist and filmmaker Jesse Kanda. Having collaborated with other experimental musicians such as FKA Twigs and Arca, Kanda is no stranger to the filmic grotesque. Most of the video takes place inside Bjork’s mouth— that alone might already disgust some. Viewing “Mouth Mantra” feels like watching distorted surgery footage, as white teeth and the squished pink of her tongue meld and warp up together with that same kind of ‘twirl’ effect you find on Apple’s digital Photo Booth. Kanda designed special cameras to capture this grotesque effect, turning such a familiar image of the mouth into something violently alien and entirely uncomfortable. As Kanda explains: “If there’s one thing I’d like for people to take away from this video, it’s the power of vulnerability…Making this video was as much a terrifying horrific experience to me as it was a dream come true and pure ecstasy.”12 Music videos are not supposed to be unsettling; they are supposed to have stereotypically ‘hot’ girl or stimulate your imagination with romantic and sexual imagery. Bjork completely disregards these expectations. “Mouth Mantra” focuses on the devolution of a facial feature integral to our daily lives, contorted under the command of her voice’s rapid, twisting rhythms. The mouth, that eats, that kisses, that communicates, is suddenly removed from its usual erotic context to become hideous and unfamiliar.
Claudia Maté, an emerging Spanish digital artist, explores a similar kind of body manipulation. Her medium of choice is not video, but rather the kind of editing software and animation technology available to anyone who has a computer. Instead of following the trends of minimal digital design, her portfolio is entrenched in the kitschy and the grotesque: images reminiscent of early 2000s computer graphics and outdated Windows screensavers. Maté produces digital images, cartoon animations, and glittering GIFs, indexing her art into what would be considered ‘trash internet’ symbology. Her “New Faces” series, completed in 2013, pokes fun at the obsessive use of Photoshop to achieve the flawless perfection of models you see in advertisements and magazines.13 She takes popular images, such as the National Geographic ‘Afghan Girl’ cover or a smiling Paris Hilton at a film premiere, and re-edits their faces into grotesque masks. Her adjustments are subtle; a smiling mouth might be raised up too high into the nose, a face might be smoothed down to that glistening flatness of an anime character, eyes might be too enlarged and have pupils looking in opposite directions. Maté’s edits are just enough to render the faces obviously ugly. Photoshop, prized by magazine editors to manufacture attractive celebrities or unrealistically beautiful models, becomes a toy for Maté to play with, and as the viewer, you don’t know if you should laugh or cringe at the ridiculous result.
In January of 2015, a group of female artists came together to create an art show titled “Body Anxiety.”14 As the name implies, the online exhibition, curated by Leah Schrager and Jennifer Chan, featured various Internet artists who reclaim images of their body within digital space, moving away from male-authored work and the influence of the male gaze by embracing selfie-feminism in ways that are not always easy on the eye. One of the artists, RAFiA Santana, presented six different digitally manipulated pieces. The first one, Very Little Sleep, is a Photoshopped self-portrait of the artist’s face warped and misshapen by overlaid replications of the same image.15 The emptiness of the simple space around her draws focus to the strange and off-putting portrait. The image is by no means flattering, yet there is the implication that her identity is deeper than what is presented on the flat screen. The unflattering quality of the photo does not allow you to stand back and admire something beautiful, Santana’s piece encourages you to step closer and examine the artist’s complexities. Another piece to note is a GIF titled Morph (In Shower).16 The slow-moving animation shows her face distorted through a fish-eye lens and blotted out by water spots. As she angles her face upwards, she becomes a kind of creature, her features stretched out and muddled, a presentation that is unusually un-erotic given the very sexual context of a showering and its implications of female nudity.
Another cringe-inducing artist in this show is Ann Hirsch, a video and performance artist who examines how technology influences gender as well as the performance of pornography. In pornography, male desire dictates much of what female performers do and how they look, whether it’s having large breasts or dancing provocatively. As Laura Mulvey would identify it: “the voyeuristic active/passive mechanisms” of the male as the actively controlling viewer conditions the formal attributes of mainstream pornography.17 Like Mulvey, Hirsch acknowledges the role male desire plays in female sexuality. Her video dance party just us girls depicts her manipulated body split in two.18 On the left side of the video is the artist’s face, wearing glasses, with her face warped in by a Photo Booth effect, while on the right are the same eyeglasses but over her exposed vagina, also transformed in Photo Booth. Hirsch and her vagina dance together in unison to music. We don’t bat an eye at the artist dancing; it’s her exposed vagina that makes us uncomfortable. By personifying the female organ, Hirsch creates an immediate repulsion and embarrassment in the viewer, showing how we are still disturbed by our own bodies. Hirsch denies the male gaze by creating a “female image that threatens to break the spell of illusion” in male sexual fantasy by performing gender in a way that is hard to watch and not at all catered to male arousal or pleasure.19 The Photo Booth effect takes it into an even more alien territory, turning her vagina into a dissociated organ. The way in which Hirsch celebrates the grotesque female body, through joyous dancing, raises important questions about how we consume images of the body that no longer suggest pleasure. Selfie-feminism and feminist body positivity movements aim to de-shame and de-stigmatize the body by embracing natural features which our sexist society deems repulsive such as body hair or body fat. When Hirsch exposes herself to the world in this ugly and humorous way, she addresses a society that will always use her vagina to identify her as a woman, subjecting her to beauty standards and shaming if she does not comply by making herself perfectly pretty. By broadcasting her genitalia on the Internet, Hirsch regains control of her body, preferring funny over sexy. She takes the automatic eroticism of the exposed female body out of the conversation and introduces the viewer to her goofy personality without the stereotypical female sexualization.
In our new digital age, the grotesque plays an integral role in how the female form occupies space within social media platforms, free from male sexualization or body shaming. As image-based communication continues to grow, questions need to be asked about feminism, eroticism, and the effects of the controlling male gaze that have shaped the way women are perceived, whether they produce the picture or are observed as the subject. As female artists explore these new digital landscapes, their beauty becomes their choice, not something that is dictated to them by the media. There is something powerful about looking at hundreds of years art perpetuating these idealized forms of nude female bodies painted by male artists and choosing to spit on those standards and reject the male gaze. As digital art becomes more accessible, feminist artists shift towards the extreme of the grotesque in order to explore body image and challenge the traditional expectations of perfection and beauty that have been decided by male-dominated audiences for so long. Women are reclaiming their images by having direct control of how they appear with each new post or picture they take. You, as the viewer, witness this new radical self-autonomy, this experimentation and manipulation across millions of feeds each day, and it’s enough to make you uneasy.
Jessica Benett, “Our Bodies, Our Selfies: The Feminist Photo Revolution,” Time Magazine, August 11, 2014, http://time.com/3099103/feminist-selfies-uglyfseminists-iwokeuplikedis/.
2 Ashley Farmer, “The selfie as a feminist act,” The Clayman Institue for Gender Research, May 15, 2014, http://gender.stanford.edu/news/2014/selfie-feminist-act#sthash.0zzRTAUy.dpuf.
3 Laura Mulvey. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. (New York: Oxford UP, 1999), 833-44.
4 Ibid., 836.
5 Ibid., 834.
6 Ibid., 840.
7 Ibid., 844.
8 Ibid., 843.
9 Ibid., 834.
12 Daisy Jones, “Bjork’s Astonishing New Video Shot From Inside Her Mouth,” Dazed Digital, December 4, 2015, http://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/28711/1/bjork-s-astonishing-new-video-was-shot-from-inside-her-mouth.
13 Claudia Mate, “New Faces,” Claudia Mate, 2013, http://claudiamate.com/2013/projects/new-faces/.
14 Jennifer Chan, Leah Schrager, “Body Anxiety Online Exhibition,” Body Anxiety, January 24, 2015, http://bodyanxiety.com/gallery/landing/.
15 RAFiA Santana, “RAFiA Santana Gallery,” Body Anxiety, January 24, 2015, http://bodyanxiety.com/gallery/rafia-santana/.
17 Mulvey, 844.
18 Ann Hirsch, “Ann Hirsch Gallery,” Body Anxiety, January 24, 2015, http://bodyanxiety.com/gallery/ann-hirsch/.
19 Mulvey, 844.