Image from a body of work about censorship by Brent called The Hardline
Photography: Brent Leideritz
Year: 2018

His and hers: her censored nipples and our collective freedom

Are we all just playing a game of dress ups in a doll house created by our

time and the performances that came before us?…

 

Judith Butler writes that gender is a performative act. That our gender is not inherently female or male, but that the act of performing either She or He, however is currently acceptable to do so, makes it so. She describes gender as something we do, not something we inherently are or have. Butler describes ‘Gender’ as nothing more that a culturally constructed boundary; a boundary we could choose to transcend. What a liberating notion.

 

The following, seeks to understand the theory of gender performativity as theorised by Judith Butler and through this theory to analyse the censorship of the female breast in relation to contemporary photographic artworks and the social media landscape they were placed within.

 

Within this body of words when referring to He, His or She, Her is pointing to the gendered contract they are required to play out.

 

In her words, gender is ‘an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts. Further,

gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.’[1]

 

The very foundations of language and the culture we exist within define and govern how our ‘Gender’ is allowed to be performed, how our gendered act is allowed to be played. The agreement we have no choice to be a part of, the state of play and the rules created by a Gamemaker. Rules that bind us. Rules that restrict and inhibit all that we could be. Rules that allow only a single story of She or He within the game. Rules that keep us within a game we might otherwise choose not to play.

 

With each play of the game, with each performance acted out, this notion of internalised ‘Gender’ is produced, and continually reproduced.[2] As our performances cycle through, they are policed and kept inline by the whole, by the collective audience and other performers. Stepping outside of our designated performance triggers personal and institutional powers to police and shame us back into our gendered place. [3] Those challenging the state of performance risk being treated like a virus and attacked by those protecting the status quo.

 

‘Converge?’ … ‘They sense the foreign nature of the dreamer. They attack like white blood cells fighting an infection.’

Inception[4]

 

Gamemaker. There is nothing so obvious or defined as a singular Gamemaker that created this stage and rules for our performance. But a slow moving set of rules that have altered over time and differ from one culture to another. There is no singular Gamemaker that could be targeted and deconstructed in the hope of liberation. For most within the game, their reality, the act they perform is their truth. Challenging this truth would mean challenging their identity and reality. Every solid foundation they believe to be be truth would revel itself as fluid.

 

‘…gender is a kind of persistent impersonation that passes as the real’

Butler[5]

 

For those a part of the Gamemaking few, what a terrifying thing for the performance they are playing to be seen as such. Their very identity, the very thing they feel defines who they are would be seen as the liquid and smoke that it is. Fluid truth. Their privileges risked by a challenge to their game.

 

Regarding gendered privilege; for longer than we remember we have been required to operate in a binary game with privilege and power resting at the feet of the (white) patriarchy and those who play his game well. His game rules, defined by the masculine; women seen as ‘the negative of men, the lack against which masculine identity differentiates itself’[6]

 

Her biological and physical differences as She, define the allowable performative actions she may take and performances she may make. Her body, and indeed his body, ‘…understood as (a) passive recipient(s) of an inexorable cultural law.’[7]

 

Feminism challenges Her role within this game as the passive performer of His rules, seeking equality within pre-defined constructs, within His game. Butler however states that to truly disrupt the state of play we need to re-think the binary parameters we are all bound by and to challenge the constraints of language set out by heterosexual hegemony; ‘Constraint is thus built into what that language constitutes as the imaginable domain of gender.’[8]

 

‘She’ can never fully be ‘Herself’ because ‘Her’ is defined by an external other created by ‘Her’ difference to ‘Him’.

 

If the very notion of ‘Her’ is removed there is a fear that Her power to challenge His hold on the systems that created the games binding us will be erased. The current structure separates Her out from Him, creating an us and them tension; in the current state of play, for anything to change She must fight against Him.  ‘Gayatri Spivak has argued that feminists need to rely on an operational essentialism, a false ontology of women as universal in order to advance a feminist political program.’[9] Perhaps She must first rise to break and challenge their ideal of Her and fight for a position of equality before She can challenge the whole system of binary gender?

 

Butler challenges this fear, noting the only solid way to seek true equality is to break the very systems and language that bind us, the game and all its definitions, she re-enforces that biological difference is not a marker for a singular gendered story and challenges; ‘without a radical critique of gender constitution feminist theory fails to take stock of the way in which oppression structures the ontological categories through which gender is conceived.’ [10]

 

Fighting for equality of all within a binary, gendered game seems like a superfluous exertion of energy that can not possibly hope to truly disrupt inequality. We need a new space to be, we need to create a space where no one feels the binding oppression to ‘play’ out a performance of any kind. A space no one is bound by any singular story of one’s gender, race or socio-economic standing, but where we each feel safe to interact in a way that is authentic and inclusive. In a way that is void of definition and allows space for a complex, fractured, beautiful and ugly being to expand into their world as organically inspired to do so. An incredibly idealistic notion.

How can we hope for such an idealistic reality when something as unassuming and innocent as a ‘female’ nipple continues to cause such unrest; and the white blood cells continue to viciously attack these challenges like a virus?

 

Photographic artist and model Sasha Frolova found herself under such an attack for daring to share an image of her nipples on social media, a common occurrence for many. A part of the acceptable narrative of She is poise and modesty, unless of course she is performing for him, by his rules, then she is expected to be an open whore, available.

 

Acceptable versions of Her performance as She have been separated out into only light or dark, two singular stories of She, stripped of Her complexity and agency. She can be either light or dark, Virgin or Whore. She is allowed the roles of selfless, virtuous Mother or selfish, abject Mother. The physical attributes of She that define her gendered femininity in the current state of play are the very things she must keep hidden, in the shadows. Unless the shadows are where He wants Her to be for His gaze and His pleasure.

 

By Butlers definition, a breast is no more significant than an arm or a leg, it is simply another part of one’s anatomy and does not define one’s gender. A person can have both a penis and breasts and in performance, can play either binary gender.

 

Curiously, in the context of a contemporary social media landscape, it is not the anatomical difference of a breast that is censored, but the only aspect of the breast that is undefinable from a male’s chest; the nipple.

 

A semi-nude self portrait posted to Frolova’s social media platforms, was removed for ‘Violating community standards’.

 

Why is it that Her Nipples, undifferentiated from His, are so offensive? Marion Young, On The Female Body Experience, suggests; ‘Breasts are a scandal because they shatter the border between motherhood and sexuality. Nipples are taboo because they are quite literally, physically, functionally undecidable in the split between motherhood and sexuality. One of the most subversive things feminism can do is affirm this undecidability of motherhood and sexuality.’[11]

 

Nipples from Her body, as differentiated from His body, have the potential to represent both the light and the dark, their exposure out of a context He has not defined. They can all at once represent the selfless virtuous mother giving life to his children, and a fetishised sexual object.  Her bare nipples, shared by her hand are a performance of She not governed by the pre-defined rules for Her performance. This confuses the performance She is playing, challenging His defined role for Her. Therefore, they must remain hidden, removed, bleached away, Her performance kept clean until He decides otherwise.

 

Frolova created a series of images triggered from the censoring of her self portrait that explored this censorship and the cleaning of her image. She ‘wanted to address the complex network of eroticisation, judgement, censorship and disempowerment women face simply for living in the bodies they were born with.’[12]

 

To illustrate the ridiculous censorship guidelines on social media, Frovola decided it would be more powerful to simply meet the guidelines, literally, instead of attempting to subvert them.[13] The following three works from a series of eight, are a result of her desire to comment on the absurdity of these guidelines.

 

Each image within the series is delicately laced with colours and symbols of traditional femininity. The boarded context was taken from a childhood photo album Frolova salvaged from her memories, she collaborated with water colour artist, Sophie Friedman Pappas, to create the pastel, pretty scenes that surround each model.

 

The women’s breasts, as photographed have been left intact, except for their nipples. Each of their nipples have been seamlessly removed and cloned over with breast skin. The only part of Her breast, undefinable from His, has been removed, as required. The protruding flesh attached to their frames left in an uncanny suspension between the real and not-real.

 

The soft pastel colours selected for the make up and painted idyllic scenes illustrate acceptable notions of femininity; of all things ‘pretty’. The choice of material of the childhood album echo’s of the conditioning of gender we grow up within. The lined borders contain Her, keeping Her separated from the scene just outside Her reach; a passive viewer contained within his game.

 

The images seem to beg the question; is She acceptable now? Is she playing her role to your liking now? Now that her abject femininity has been erased, is she acceptable? In every image, the model looks directly at the viewer, with neither a smile or clear defiance. Each face, each body position expressing a varying shade of emotion; frustration? Disbelief? Resignation? Are you happy now? Am I acceptable now?

 

Busts by Frovola is a brilliant and perfectly, pretty critique of the allowable performances of She and of the ludicrous guidelines that would see the only part of her breast, undefinable from a ‘males’, erased.

 

Seemingly on the same side of the censored-female-nipples-debate, women champion breasts as the ultimate celebration of She. Breasts and Her nipples seen as the giver of life and right of passage into divine femininity and Virtuous Mother. Censored images of women breastfeeding their children have gone ‘viral’ with a cascade of other mothers sharing similar images in a show of solidarity. [14]

 

One such mother, Kaya Wright, after her censored breastfeeding image went viral, was quoted as saying ‘In the Western world breasts are sexualized, you see celebrities with their boobs out so people associate them with sex. But people need to remember that first and foremost breasts are for feeding babies.’[15]

 

This statement reveals the polarities in the only acceptable performances of She. The light or the dark, the one or the other. In her few words, sexuality-breast connection is shamed while reaffirming her sole purpose as Mother. Her words challenge His censoring of Her body while playing directly into His pre-defined, acceptable roles for Her.

 

Wright’s words do little more than support the state of play for Her allowable performances. This separation of She into only one or the other, light or dark is a view supported by many. A view that isolates and cuts She off from her natural sexuality and shames Her for seeing her breasts as anything other than milk producing protrusions. While Wright’s intent was to challenge the stigma associated with the other side of this argument, within a binary construct, within the rules and allowable gendered performance, all she does is support His game.

 

Wright’s few words prove Judith Butlers theory that for true equality and liberation we must deconstruct the very notion of binary gender and the acceptable performances of gender we are allowed.

 

Bare Reality: 100 women, their stories, their breasts; is a photographic series by UK photographer Laura Dodsworth, a series of images that has received significant exposure on global platforms. What positive work this collection of images does for visibility of body diversity and deconstruction of ‘over-sexualised’ breasts for His gaze, is almost entirely undone by its playing into the Virtuous Woman allowable performance of She.

 

A Kickstarter link to support the creation of Bare Reality had the photographer banned from her own Facebook account.

 

Dodsworth discusses wanting to challenge the over-sexualisation of breasts and critique how breasts are continuously used for consumption. [17] She speaks of the pressure placed on women to meet these sexualised ideals of the female breast and how important she felt it was to show true diversity of breasts and womanhood. The damaging effect of this type of gendered pressure is indisputable.

 

Dodsworth’s intent coming into creating this collection of images is admirable and beautiful. There are 100 breasts represented in this book, as is true to life, they are all beautifully diverse. This visibility of diversity does indeed highlight the false ideal of a female breast and offers another view of She.

 

While feminine physical perfection and breast sexualisation is deconstructed by the reality of these images, they way they have been shot and the context in which they are presented boxes She into her only other allowable role; that of the selfless, virtuous She, denouncing all sexuality. If She cannot be dark She must be Light.

 

Each bust is presented without a face and without an identity. Each bust is shared with a personal account of Her experience.[18] Each account speaks of the positive, challenging and beautiful aspects of Her womanhood. In challenging one allowable performance of She, this work boxes Her into the only other allowable gendered performance of She.

 

Their lack of identity is one of the most significant markers of this works play into cultural expectations of she; that she must be modest and pure less she be shamed. Baring one’s breasts is championed by Dodsworth as a brave act in our society 17 an accepted reality. In removing or indeed omitting their identity she is protecting their identity, protecting them from potential shame of being seen as something other than brave. But in removing their identity, she is removing their power, she allowing his predefined roles for her to continue to control how She chooses to display herself.

 

In an interview with the artist about the work, one of the interviewers decidedly states that removing their heads was the ‘right’ thing to do17 ‘It was absolutely the right thing not to have the faces on’. How is it the right thing for Her breasts to be removed of Her face? Her identity, her eyes, her connection to the images removed? In removing Her eyes and face, the busts become nothing more than isolated objects, is that not the very thing the artist is trying to challenge; women’s breasts being seen as nothing more than objects separated out from the person they are connected to? In this work, her nipples may not have been censored, but her identity is.

 

Identity removal aside, the book presents each image of a breast with a story from the She connected to the breast. The stories speak of virtuous womanhood; cancer survivors, experiences of lactating mothers and other binary classifications of She. These words and resulting conversations, for example the Loose Women interview with the artist 17, seem to say well look they are naked, but this one had cancer so it is all ok, she may be naked but we will glorify her inherently feminine struggle.

 

‘Breasts make you feel like a proper woman’, ‘They are a symbol of being a woman’.[19] Phrases such as these have been highlighted within the pages of Bare Reality, doing little more than to champion the light side of the gendered performance She is allowed to play. The artist speaks often, in interviews[20], of the cancer survivor who chose to get her mastectomy scar tattooed. Dodsworth describes this as the survivors way to re-claim that space and make it ‘pretty’. This plays directly into the notion that as a woman we should feel, be and play ‘pretty’; that if one part of our inherent femininity has been removed, it is a wonderful idea to replace that with another symbol of ‘femininity’, in the case of this cancer survivor, a pretty floral tattoo.

 

The removal of Her breast signifies for a She within this gendered game, that her worth and value as performer of She is no longer, therefore she should do all she can to replace it with something else that signifies femininity.

 

It is to be noted that there is nothing wrong with a survivor of any challenge doing whatever is required to pull through; but the intent behind how this particular story was framed is what is being challenged. A person should not feel the need to replace one part of ‘Femininity’ with another just to feel whole. The very construct of ‘feminine’ should be destroyed so that a She is not defined whole by having breasts or not or by having a womb or not.

 

How does highlighting a statement like ‘Breasts make you feel like a proper woman’, include women with very small breasts, or women who have had them removed due to illness or exclude from the ‘male’ performance, larger men with noticeable breast tissue? The only way for true equality and freedom from the confines of ‘gender’ is to completely deconstruct the rules that decide a physical attribute or biological marker defines ‘gender’ at all.

 

Until She can recognise the separation of Her light and Her dark as the very thing that tethers her to this continual performance, until She removes her identity to the light or the dark acceptable female performance and challenges Her need to fight the contrast of She, we will never be able to rise to freedom of self and equality. Breasts are no more for the purpose of feeding children or sexual fetish; both are functions they can perform, but not a singular purpose that defines its body as a specific gender.

 

Nipples like ‘gender’ do not actually represent any boundary which once crossed must be censored or cleaned. Nipples are skin and blood and cells attached to a body, neither or either ‘male’ or ‘female’. Our casing is just that, it too is not a boundary that creates the allowable dress, or actions or play we may take. We just need people to see through and beyond the edges and dare to see past these implied boundaries. Then perhaps we can be free. If only we all could see…

 

‘All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended.

One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so.’

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

 

Aj

 

[1] Judith Butler, Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory (Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4, 1988, Pg 519-531) 519.

[2] Bigthink, Judith Butler- your behaviour creates your gender, YouTube Video, posted August 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WRw4H8YWoDA

[3] Bigthink, Judith Butler- your behaviour creates your gender, YouTube Video, posted August 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WRw4H8YWoDA

[4] Inception, directed by Christopher Nolan, 2010, Warner Brothers.

[5] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity (Routledge, Great Britain, 1990) Pg. viii.

[6] Ibid. Pg 9.

[7] Ibid. Pg 8.

[8] Ibid. Pg 9.

[9] Judith Butler, Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory (Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4, 1988, Pg 519-531) 529.

[10] Ibid. Pg 529.

[11] Iris Marion Young, On female body experience and other essays, (USA, Oxford University Press, 2005) Pg 88.

[12] Priscilla Frank, Nude Portraits Without Nipples Challenge Sexist Censorship Policies, Huffington Post Online, September 2016, www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/sasha-frolova-busts-photography-feminism_us_57e9546fe4b0e28b2b553161

[13] Ibid.

[14] Dominic Kelly, Mom’s Controversial Breastfeeding Picture Brings Supportive Moms Together On Social Media, Opposing Views Online, 2015, http://www.opposingviews.com/i/health/womens-health/moms-post-breastfeeding-pictures-social-media-after-fellow-mother-flagged-pho

[15] Ibid.

[16] Laura Dodsworth, Twitter, 2013,  https://twitter.com/barereality/status/516880888442159104

[17] Loose Women, Seeing Real Breasts is Important, interview with Laura Dodsworth, posted June 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-DfPxEPu7U&feature=youtu.be&list=PLUWW0cpDl-npzYJOkUQZ8NCXofXi7YwOm

[18] Laura Dosworth, artist webpage, accessed 2nd November, 2017, http://www.barereality.net/barereality/

[19] Laura Dosworth, artist webpage, accessed 2nd November, 2017, http://www.barereality.net/gallery/

[20] 5 News, Breast cancer survivors show their scars, Interview with Laura Dodsworth, Posted November 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsFSQQ_0GmQ&index=5&list=PLUWW0cpDl-npzYJOkUQZ8NCXofXi7YwOm

 

References

  • Butler, Judith, Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory (Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4, 1988, Pg 519-531) 519.
  • Bigthink, Judith Butler- your behaviour creates your gender, YouTube Video, posted August 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WRw4H8YWoDA
  • Inception, directed by Christopher Nolan, 2010, Warner Brothers.
  • Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity (Routledge, Great Britain, 1990) Pg. viii.
  • Butler, Judith, Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory (Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4, 1988, Pg 519-531) 529.
  • Young,Iris Marion, On female body experience and other essays, (USA, Oxford University Press, 2005) Pg 88.
  • Frank, Priscilla, Nude Portraits Without Nipples Challenge Sexist Censorship Policies, Huffington Post Online, September 2016, huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/sasha-frolova-busts-photography-feminism_us_57e9546fe4b0e28b2b553161
  • Kelly, Dominic, Mom’s Controversial Breastfeeding Picture Brings Supportive Moms Together On Social Media, Opposing Views Online, 2015, http://www.opposingviews.com/i/health/womens-health/moms-post-breastfeeding-pictures-social-media-after-fellow-mother-flagged-pho
  • Laura Dodsworth, Twitter, 2013, https://twitter.com/barereality/status/516880888442159104
  • Loose Women, Seeing Real Breasts is Important, interview with Laura Dodsworth, posted June 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-DfPxEPu7U&feature=youtu.be&list=PLUWW0cpDl-npzYJOkUQZ8NCXofXi7YwOm
  • Laura Dosworth, artist webpage, accessed 2nd November, 2017, http://www.barereality.net/barereality/
  • Laura Dosworth, artist webpage, accessed 2nd November, 2017, http://www.barereality.net/gallery/
  • 5 News, Breast cancer survivors show their scars, Interview with Laura Dodsworth, Posted November 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsFSQQ_0GmQ&index=5&list=PLUWW0cpDl-npzYJOkUQZ8NCXofXi7YwOm
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