Lost in Amazonia | The Nation


Lost in Amazonia

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But just like the Amazons of old who fought men on male ground, this self-creation through audience approval is a recipe for disaster. The novelist Katherine Dunn sees right through it in her brilliant fiction Geek Love. If you try to be beautiful it is because you want to be loved, and that puts you under other people's power. Instead of the Greek ideal you must substitute the Geek ideal, presenting yourself as if you could not care less how others see you. Is the exaggerated physique of the bodybuilder the answer? No, "technical, illustrative, and predictable." Perhaps a "flayed, emaciated cadaver" might do the trick. But no again: "Classic and totally predictable." The "answer" for Dunn is amputation and other willed self-deformations, with lobotomy the ultimate route to P.I.P.: "Peace, Isolation, Purity." Perhaps the artists in the show who depict headless bodybuilders have this goal in mind.

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...

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As soon as the bodybuilder submits to judgment, she falls victim to fantasy and desire. The International Federation of Bodybuilding long insisted that competitors not look hypermuscular, since women would not be attracted to the sport if it made them appear unfeminine. "We don't want to turn people off," say the judges in Pumping Iron II; "we want to turn them on." Women, the theory goes, are turned on by female bodybuilders either through narcissistic projection or lesbian attraction. However, the more typical audience for woman warriors is young boys, or men who enjoy masochistic titillation: R. Crumb's Frightened Little Man in the Land of the Vulture Goddesses. Some men, like Achilles, fancy women who offer a rousing skirmish before succumbing. Gay boys and men, in contrast, might identify with the purported invulnerability of warrior women. As Michael Cunningham's "Dream Girl" describes her: "She wasn't regular. She wasn't a 'normal' girl but she wasn't a girl posing as a boy, either. She wasn't even a tomboy. She was herself. She was potent and tenacious; she was butch and femme; she felt deeply and fought hard. She was heroic and, like many heroes, lived a solitary, defiant life. Like many heroes, she could hardly have cared less about satisfying the dictates of conventional taste."

It is geek love all over again, adoration of those who couldn't care less and who show their indifference through an aesthetics of disdain: Joanna Frueh's "Aphrodite/Amazon" with her "monster/beauty." The failure of this alleged invulnerability is apparent in Louise Bourgeois's St. Sebastinne. As with Serrano's photos, the bodybuilder's head is omitted, for the speaking body is as oblivious to women's brains and emotions as the most blatantly sexist pinup. The body is pure surface, a contour map of protuberances and hollows, and as such, it also resembles a target for the arrows of observers. If medieval art imaged love as the exchange of barbed eye beams, in St. Sebastinne the arrows indicate no mutuality of scrutiny and promise nothing but victimization and pain. Here hypermuscularity becomes a new form of martyrdom.

Perhaps no work in the exhibition interprets the contradictions of the modern Amazon more clearly than Judy Chicago's Arcanum in Shades of Gray. It consists of a lamination of glass sheets on a base, with the outlines of female bodybuilders incised into them. If you stand in front and look through, you see a scrambling palimpsest of hulking figures with multiple arms, legs, and breasts, like a hypermuscular Indian goddess. Every change in viewing position realigns the sheets of glass and increases the impression of vigor and motion. On the base of the sculpture are the words "Picturing Modern Amazons." In addition, each pane has two words at the bottom. Read across, the words are: "Female" and "Power" on one pane; "Body" and "Pleasure" on the next; and "Building" and "Perversion" on the last. Read from front to back, the left side produces "Female" "Body" "Building"; and the right "Power" "Pleasure" "Perversion." These heterogeneous judgments are visible only by looking between the panes--into the "arcanum" of the artwork. Otherwise, the image conveys only the official face of women's bodybuilding: strength, energy and assertiveness as unambiguously positive values. The reality, however, lies in the shades of gray.

The gods offered Paris a choice among feminine Beauty, Strength and Wisdom, and we all know which he chose. But his mistake lay not in preferring Beauty but in accepting the premise that the three virtues were separable, indeed mutually exclusive. The old circus poster of the strong lady calls the lie to this assumption, heralding the marvel of "Strength and Beauty" in a single female form. If we could only return Wisdom to the mix, we might end up with something resembling a woman.

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