Lost in Amazonia | The Nation


Lost in Amazonia

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Such is the tough triumph of the Amazon myth itself, which like everything else in this exhibition is fraught with grotesquerie and contradiction. Robert Graves reports that the Amazons were offspring of Ares and Aphrodite, war and beauty. Tracing descent through the mother, they fought and ruled while their men kept house. The limbs of boy infants were broken accordingly, to insure domesticity. Unhobbled, Amazons were said to have opted for another injury, cutting off one of their breasts. "One half pure woman, one half pure warrior," John Barth explains cheerfully in his postmodern rewrite of mythology, Chimera. The mastectomy aided archery and created solidarity among the sisterhood.

About the Author

Wendy Steiner
Wendy Steiner is the Richard L. Fisher Professor of English Emerita at the University of Pennsylvania. She is an opera...

Also by the Author

Beginning with medical care and expanding to education and more, Village Health Works is on a nervy quest to rebuild Burundi from the ground up.

As the exhibition presents it, to reassert the Amazon is to reassert the matriarchate, woman begetting woman and passing on strength and self-determination as part of an empowered, male-disdaining legacy. The ancient Amazon myths spawned Rosie the Riveter, Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Xena the Warrior Princess and Kingston's "white tigers." According to the organizers, "the 'modern amazon' is presented as a culture with a history, as a dazzling and transgressive current phenomenon, and as an avatar of the future." She is the Magna Mater, "mother, chieftain, champion," and her images assembled in this exhibition are the remnants of an unacknowledged matrilineage. As often as not, however, these picturings suggest discontinuity in female history. Kathleen Gilje's Comtesse d'Haussonville, Restored (1996), for example, shows an Ingres beauty standing before a mirror, oblivious to her reflection, which is a Robert Mapplethorpe portrait of the bodybuilder Lisa Lyon. Here, women's past and present may meet in the mirror, but they do not match; not every sister is an Amazon or, more accurately perhaps, not every male artist has depicted strong women. And of course, the meaning of matriarchy differs from culture to culture. "The complexities of defining such heightened displays of strength, femininity, and womanhood," according to Carla Williams, "are further compounded within the boundaries of a matriarchal culture in which black men's lack of power is deemed the fault of strong, 'castrating' black women." Matriarchy is no simple matter.

But neither is motherhood simple, especially for a bodybuilder. "Now when I was naked," observes Kingston's woman warrior, "I was a strange human being indeed--words carved on my back and the baby large in front." In the exhibition catalogue, the hypermasculine Bev Francis grimaces during a power lift, but on the facing page she smiles pacifically, surrounded by husband and children, her muscles, veins and bone ridges softened by fostering flesh. Can these two selves coexist in the same picture? Sarah Van Ouwerkerk's remarkable photograph of Jennifer Greenbaum's daughter lovingly leaning on her mother's tensed leg implies that Amazonian motherhood may not be a contradiction in terms, though the absence of the mother's face is disconcerting. Mary Ellen Mark, in contrast, shows a stony-faced bodybuilder hoisting a barbell over her head, oblivious to her 3-year-old daughter below. Hypermuscularity may not be incompatible with maternity, but even women artists are struck by the challenge of combining the two.

The most persistent fact about Amazons, however, is that all the myths end in defeat. Achilles bested the Queen of the Amazons, Penthesilea, in battle and then was so overcome by her beauty that he raped her corpse; his fellow soldiers dishonored her body, subjecting the double effrontery of female strength and allure to a double punishment. Shakespeare's playfully skeptical marriage comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, celebrates the wedding of Theseus to the Amazon Hippolyta, whom he has recently conquered. John Barth's Bellerophon in Chimera defeats and ravishes the Amazon Melanippe but then redeems himself by making her his muse and scribe--no doubt a consolation as he saw it. For Robert Graves, the vanquishing of the Amazons is disguised history. "The victories over the Amazons secured by Heracles, Theseus, Dionysus, Mopsus, and others, record, in fact, setbacks to the matriarchal system in Greece, Asia Minor, Thrace, and Syria." Perhaps they do, but maybe this repeated story is simply a favorite male fantasy. Unlike Judith or Delilah or Salome, an Amazon fights men fair and square, disdaining guile and sex appeal for honest brawn. She is a worthy opponent for a man who enjoys a good fight, and heroes generally do. The preordained prize seems all the sweeter when the hero has to work so hard for it.

The battles of modern Amazons pit one against the other, appearing to leave men out of the picture. "To be, to do, to show." But showing--there's the rub. Display is tied to judgment and less rule-governed forms of voyeurism. Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of "Picturing the Modern Amazon" is the utter incompatibility between the bodybuilder's stated motives and the public's reactions to her art. She sees display as a means to dominance, self-realization and artistic triumph. She is an "aesthetic-erotic self-creation," says Joannah Frueh, cultivating a "severe voluptuousness of form" and "fulfillment in carnal thingness." She is Umberto Boccioni's sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space: all form, all primitive force and abstraction. The audience, under the circumstances, matters not at all: "In the final arena, there will be no judges," Fussell quips, "only witnesses to...greatness." Nathalie Gassel reports her thoughts as she poses: "Ha! One more, one more, in front of those looking at me with their gluey eyes, wanting to feel me. So let them touch this hard body, so let them touch it and understand my muscle's determination to turn into steel. I know what they want. They tell me of their desire to be under my influence, to be enslaved by me." Tina Lockwood's photograph of Jan Tana--pumped, greased, flexing, with an imposing shadow rising behind her--expresses this desire to prevail without resistance.

But this is the wish of a naïve artist, woman, competitor: to enthrall, seduce, dominate without opposition. "Nobody needs criticism, only appreciation," as Gertrude Stein put it. We all understand this desire, but it turns the critic into a presumptuous irrelevance and ignores the fact that art and love and competition are in the last analysis forms of communication. The bodybuilder needs an audience as much as she needs a gym. No matter how uncomfortable she may be with the "direct personal scrutiny by others," as Steve Wennerstrom calls it, the hypermuscular woman offers herself to judgment at every turn. Leslie Heywood goes so far as to argue that female bodybuilding assuages the "hunger for visibility, the hunger for the kind of meaningful life that powers late-twentieth-century culture.... the contemporary sense of being in America, masculine or feminine, might be summed up not by 'I think therefore I am,' but rather by 'I have an audience, therefore I am.'" The path from Descartes to Berkeley to Warhol is clear: To be is to be perceived, and fifteen minutes, covered in body oil, might be just the ticket.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size