by Isabel Ruiz Cano
Descriptio puellae, literally meaning the description of the girl, is a trope most often found within medieval and Renaissance literature. It conjures the image of the blonde, curvy, virginal woman: Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus depicts a woman who retains a Western sense of modesty and shame around her body as she covers herself, not to be touched even as she is understood to be the embodiment of sexual desire and love. Later, Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde, a faceless torso, a voyeuristic reverence for a “perfect” anatomy. The female form both idealized and distorted. Eve, the first mother; Eve, the first monster who caused our downfall.
Taking descriptio puellae as a point of departure, this visual essay first examines male imaginings of female monstrosity in visual culture and film in the Americas, from the time of colonization to the twenty-first century. Woman as both mother and monster, as something to be both feared and controlled. In response to these male imaginings, this examination contextualizes the work of three contemporary women artists who engage with the monstrosity of womanhood as it has been depicted over millennia. In their art, these three artists complicate the processes of consumption and cannibalization of the female body, which for so long marked the imagery of women produced by men. These women create, in their work, an indigestion of sorts. The works are meant to create discomfort, meant to retaliate against prescribed and ascribed womanhood. If we, as viewers, recoil with disgust and discomfort at the sight of the following pieces, we can gain insight into these artists’ struggles. We ingest what is excreted, and so begin the process of female identification and formulation once more.
The female body is to be feared. Candice Lin returns to the vagina dentata myth1 in her multimedia piece The Moon, which features her video “Inside Out.” In order to view the video, viewers must peer into the vaginal hole of an anatomically accurate white sculpture of an open-legged torso. The video inside is a collage stop-motion animation, in which Lin turns L’Origine du monde into an actual character, gives her a face and a personality, but also gives her a weapon: teeth that bite back. As the newly whole torso breaks free, she becomes aggressive, assertive. This characterization reverses the voyeuristic position that viewers must assume to consume the video, as they become afraid of being consumed themselves.
Lin uses a mixed-media approach to capitalize on the monstrosity of womanhood: she toes the line between the uncomfortable and the humorous with her roughly assembled collage and minutely detailed anatomical renderings. Two performance artists— Nao Bustamante and Xandra Ibarra2— also humorize the idealized female form in their campy performances. Their descriptio puellae makes one recoil and double take. According to Coco Fusco:
“In America the Beautiful, Bustamante stretches the comic possibilities of feminine rituals to the limit. Performing the entire piece in the nude, Bustamante holds her audience spellbound as she transforms herself on stage into a kitsch version of a Rubenesque Blond with wild cascades of curls, cherry red cheeks, and high heels. Binding her abundant flesh with transparent tape, she proceeds to perform ludicrous feats in the style of a wacked-out circus performer. Without uttering a single word, Bustamante offers an eloquent commentary on the abject dimension of female experience.”3
Ibarra’s Nude Laughing performance continues Bustamante’s kitschy appropriation of femininity. In the performance, Ibarra parades around naked with fake, plastic, oversized breasts and high heels, dragging blonde wigs, ballet shoes, fur shawls, pearls, and tights behind her, cackling and stumbling the entire time. Ibarra thus takes ownership of her own body, restores agency to the oft-studied but mal-understood female nude: here and at long last, she is neither meek, nor silent. She frees herself from the white womanhood that is imposed upon her. Nevertheless, this is a womanhood that she will never be able to get rid of—a womanhood that she has to drag around, a womanhood that continues to haunt her and, as at the end of the performance, will swallow her whole.
We ingest the idealized female form. We break this female form down and take what we are fed. While this ingestion nourishes us, it weighs us down, as Ibarra elucidates. Then, at times, we turn the female body into easily digestible pieces, and value her for her reproductive abilities.4 Or we place all blame on her: because of her, we succumbed, because of her, we are weak.5 We become frightened at her reproductive possibility. The works presented in this essay grapple with the pain and discomfort of existing in or interacting with a female body. We somehow want Eve to both fit in the mold of an idealized female form and want to blame her when she transgresses these expectations. We turn Eve into a monster even as we engage in monstrous acts ourselves. But what if Eve decided to eat from the tree, not because she succumbed to feminine temptation but simply because she wanted to? What if Eve is fed up? And what if Eve were to vomit up what we feed her, and in turn feeds us the bile?
Isabel Ruiz Cano is a senior at Smith College, studying Art History with a concentration in Museum studies. Her research focuses on artistic practice as a mode of resistance, and she keeps too many museum entry stubs.
1 Gilmore, David D. “Our Monsters, Ourselves” in Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003, 174-194.
2 Ramos, Iván A. “Spic(y) Appropriations: The Gustatory Aesthetics of Xandra Ibarra (aka La Chica Boom).” Arara, vol. 12, University of Essex Department of Art History and Theory, 2016, pp. 1-18.
3 Fusco, Coco. “Nao Bustamante.” BOMB Magazine, vol. 57, 1 October 1996, https://bombmagazine.org/articles/nao-bustamente-1/.
4 Widdifield, Stacie G. “Assimilation and the Body of the Nation: Mestizaje and Gender.” In The Embodiment of the National in Late Nineteenth-Century Mexican Painting. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 1996, pp. 122-191.
5 Berglund, Jeff. “Introduction.” Cannibal Fictions: American Explorations of Colonialism, Race, Gender and Sexuality, University of Wisconsin Press, 2006, pp. 3-28.