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The Female Face of Shame

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The female body, with its history as an object of social control, expectation, and manipulation, is central to understanding the gendered construction of shame. Through the study of 20th-century literary texts, The Female Face of Shame explores the nexus of femininity, female sexuality, the female body, and shame. It demonstrates how shame structures relationships and shapes women's identities. Examining works by women authors from around the world, these essays provide an interdisciplinary and transnational perspective on the representations, theories, and powerful articulations of women's shame.

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Part 1. Bodies of Shame

ePub

PART 1

BODIES OF SHAME

Jocelyn Eighan

IN THE 1950s and 1960s, when science fiction predominantly consisted of works by male writers, Judith Merril emerged onto the science fiction scene with her groundbreaking texts which challenged the genre's pervasive focus on masculine concerns.1 While the texts written by her male contemporaries often featured women as minor characters, many of Merril's stories distinctly centered on female characters and broached topics of motherhood, sexuality, and gender relations.2 Interestingly, notions of gender inequality permeate Merril's plotlines; as the female characters grow increasingly isolated from their male counterparts, they become the dangerous and feared alien outsiders. What is at work, then, is an intricate interplay between fear (of the other) and shame as the male characters interact with the “alien” women. Indeed, as Andrew P. Morrison notes in The Culture of Shame, “We seem to need visible ‘monstrosities' to depict our own disavowed self-images. Our feelings of defectiveness and imperfection find an outlet in the real-life ‘freak,’ who becomes the receptacle for our deepest fears” (27)—a notion particularly accurate, not only when applied to shame, but also when understood within the context of xenophobia. In this chapter, I explore representations of women as shame in a selection of Judith Merril's short stories and note the ways in which the female characters become alien “others” while scrutinized under the xenophobic male gaze. Focusing specifically on Merril's “That Only a Mother,” “Whoever You Are,” and “The Lady Was a Tramp,” I argue that the female or feminine characters—by virtue of their alien/foreign otherness—embody stigma and shame. Paradoxically, however, the shame represented by these “alien” women mirrors the actual stigmatized feelings of the male characters. In light of this phenomenon, I investigate the specific textual moments in which the male characters utilize guises or “veils” to protect themselves from shame—notably through shame-rage, shame-pride, and narcissism.

 

Part 2. Families of Shame

ePub

PART 2

FAMILIES OF SHAME

Erica L. Johnson

The daughters' lives were bound, as are the lives of most children, by the personalities of their parents…Which of course is nothing new—only something which makes resistance very difficult, and may even make a child believe that resistance is impossible or unnecessary.

Michelle Cliff, Abeng

She felt split into two parts—white and not white, town and country, scholarship and privilege, Boy and Kitty.

Michelle Cliff, Abeng

In a searing passage of Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon analyzes the intersubjective play of colonial race relations as they coalesce in the shameful and painful cry of a white child: “Look, a Negro!” Fanon describes the violence done to himself in this moment, the way in which the gaze of the Other is distilled in the child's utterance and transforms his entire being from having a comprehensive “corporeal schema” to being stripped down to an “epidermal schema”: this “peeling, stripping my skin cause[s] a hemorrhage” (92). He follows through on this imagery in his analysis of how his body is routed through the child's remark to be “returned to me spread-eagled, disjointed, redone, draped in mourning on this white winter's day” (93). The flayed body is subject to the Other's projection of primitivism and wickedness onto blackness, and Fanon describes how the palpable violence of the racist gaze makes him feel “imprisoned” and divided internally, ultimately forcing him to “g[i]ve myself up as an object” (92). There are few descriptions of the workings of shame that exceed Fanon's stark description of an interpersonal dynamic that provokes in him the desperate thought so common to shame experiences, of wanting to disappear from the face of the earth, to erase one's subjectivity—”Where should I hide?” (93). Yet what is remarkable about Fanon's portrait of colonial shame is his use of the intersubjective nature of shame as a mechanism for understanding an important affective axis of colonial relations. As an axis, shame flows back and forth across colonial binaries; it works through what Liz Constable refers to as a “relational grammar,” and thus as a conduit between two subjects rather than as a structured relationship. Indeed, Fanon's first use of the term “la honte” (shame) in this passage refers not to his shame, but to the shame felt by the white woman when the object of her child's gaze says, “‘Fuck you, madame.’ Her face colored with shame.” Although later in the passage he refers to the coercive sense of “shame, shame and self-contempt. Nausea” that he is made to feel, Fanon documents how colonialism operates as a shaming ideology as well as the way in which shame is a non-dialectical flow that can be rerouted across colonial binaries as a powerful tool of critique.1

 

Part 3. Nations of Shame

ePub

PART 3

NATIONS OF SHAME

Peiling Zhao

SHAME OCCURS WHEN there is a discrepancy between how we are seen by others and how we want others to see us (Kilborne, “Fields of Shame,” 231). As this discrepancy presents as a “global attack on the self” (M. Lewis, Shame, 75) and typically evokes feelings of disgrace, failure, and weakness about our body, we tend to hide or reshape our body to dissolve the feelings associated with the embodied shame. A nation, treated as a living soul (Abdel-Nour, 698), also feels shame—disgrace, dishonor, and humiliation—when there is a discrepancy between its imposed international image and its national pride, and consequently it changes the bodies of its subjects to dissolve the national shame, typically through, in a Foucauldian sense, historical and cultural forces, discourse, and disciplinary practices.

Although shame is considered as the “master emotion” (Scheff, Bloody Revenge, 54), whose powerful functions have been studied by Silvan Tomkins, Helen Block Lewis, and others, few have acknowledged the shame-pride axis as “a yardstick along which we measure our every activity” (Nathanson, Shame and Pride, 86) and recognized pride as the basic, constant, universal, and primary emotion that drives our every activity: a bond that binds individuals with others, a high-power emotional energy that motivates people to action. In the words of William Blake, “shame is pride's cloak”: this is a clear argument that pride is both the origin of our shame and the emotional energy we use to cope with shame—to shake off the cloak of shame. Although “pride, like shame, involves more than an evaluation of the self, and is reflected in a manner of interacting with others” (Britt and Heise, 255), pride is more public and moves people to interact with others, as prideful behaviors, unlike the shameful behaviors of hiding, withdrawing, and feeling shrunken, typically demonstrate a “tendency to broadcast one's success to the object world” (Nathanson, “Shame/Pride Axis,” 184) and make us feel in our bodies “taller, stronger, bigger, and expansive” (Davitz, 77). Therefore, it is important for us, on the one hand, to further investigate the fundamental role of pride as a universal emotion, as Jessica Tracy has done, and on the other hand not to treat shame and pride as binaries.

 

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