Elevate Difference

Being and Becoming Visible: Women, Performance, and Visual Culture

This book collects an array of articles previously published in the National Women’s Studies Association Journal, brought together for the first time under the auspices of elaborating on the theme of visibility in both performance and visual culture. As with all such collections, some pieces stand out in caliber, notably "Practical Perfection? The Nanny Negotiates Gender, Class, and Family Contradictions in 1960s Popular Culture" by Anne Mcleer, "Fractured Borders: Women’s Cancer and Feminist Theater" by Mary K. DeSchazer, and Vivyan C. Adair’s must-read piece "The Missing Story of Ourselves: Poor Women, Power, and the Politics of Feminist Representation."

I picked these three out of the rest because of their remarkable quality of questioning. These three theorists take nothing for granted in their articles, managing to question everything down to the marrow of their subject. They escape clichés of feminist critiques of art culture and add something truly important to the canon of thought.

One of the major pitfalls for many of the articles is a failure to complicate the viewer-viewed relationship. This is one reason Adair’s essay is such a breath of fresh air—she affords a much needed shift from the “educated” woman writing about the “disenfranchised woman” who presumably need to be made visible by the well-meaning author of the article. Adair, on the other hand, sensitively addresses the viewed body as text, which is simultaneously produced and read by policy-producing discourses. There is a need for some of the other authors to readdress the question of who is doing the looking, and who is being looked at. The simplistic tradition of the “male gaze” is no longer groundbreaking. What more can we say about the looker and the looked-at?

Throughout the different pieces, the theme of visibility effectively arises, but also the theme of invisibility. It becomes evident that what one does not see—in an Alice Neel painting, in a Lucille Ball show, or even in a feminist essay—that what is not seen and not said is just as important, perhaps more important than what is seen. The point of interest then becomes these cracks in visibility: looking and asking as much about “why absence” as “why presence.” Even beyond that, “becoming visible” is effectively related not only to telling a previously untold story, but complicating the stories that already do exist. “Visibility” comes to mean the visible(ness) of ambiguity, and each essay moves in its own way toward promoting understanding of that space that exists in between the dichotomies of dangerous thinking.

This is a valuable collection, which brings together articles that otherwise perhaps would never meet eye-to-eye. There is something integral in the attempt to bring together cross-cultural, interdisciplinary theory to address a theme which is so at the edge of both feminist and visual studies.

Written by: Beth Fagan, December 7th 2010