TW: references of rape and sexual violence discussion.
In Summer of 2016 I attended ‘Savage Beauty’ – the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the V&A in London. Of course, the exhibition was fascinating- it was both informative and beautiful, and it goes without saying that I was in awe of McQueen’s talent. Nonetheless, McQueen’s work troubles me. It’s no secret- and nor has it gone without criticism- that throughout his life, McQueen was fascinated by violence against women. Specific historical events- the Jack the Ripper murder, the Battle of Culloden- featured as artistic inspiration for various of his collections. His graduate show was entitled ‘Jack the Ripper stalks his victims’; he later produced the infamous runway show ‘Highland Rape.’ The interest shows itself just not thematically in McQueen’s works but also in their construction. Further shows demonstrate McQueen’s interest in dissecting the female body, then reconstructing it- such as with the anthropomorphic ‘Jellyfish ensemble’ shoe from ‘Plato’s Atlantis’, or the bird-woman costumes in ‘Nihilism’. I was troubled by this not merely because it was out of the ordinary, or thought-provoking, but because it struck me as misogynistic: What business did a man have playing about with women’s bodies, even in the artistic sphere? Chopping off noses and replacing them with beaks, adorning spines with wings, adding a claw here, a feathered protrusion there? My worry was naturally not that McQueen was not a great artist, but rather that his work played into a greater tradition of the role of women’s bodies in art; one in which women’s bodies are spitted on a two-horned dilemma. Either women’s bodies, in their natural state, are inherently pathological and ‘deformed’, in which case they are an object of male disgust, or female bodies may be ‘supernaturally’ deformed; in which case they are the object of male fascination. Either way, the ‘deformity’ never serves as an advantage to the woman herself.
I feel the need to defend my use of the word ‘deformity’ here, even though I take care to use it only in parentheses. The more appropriate term is naturally ‘bodily difference’, but this fails to capture the lens through which bodily difference in women has been viewed throughout history; as a marker of the abject, the other, of moral depravity. It’s well known that Anne Boleyn’s rumoured extra finger was interpreted as a sign of her allegiance with the devil, meanwhile, in the Early Modern period, women were even held accountable for bodily difference in their children- a child born with bodily difference was viewed as evidence of its mother’s moral misdemeanours.
The association with the devil led of course to female bodily difference playing a crucial role come the advent of horror literature. Academic Adharshila Chatterjee in a recent article ‘Forgive me father, for I have sinned: The Violent Fetishism of Female Monsters in Hollywood Horror Culture’, has pointed out that female characters in horror literature are typically either perfectly good or perfectly evil, those in the latter camp are often marked by bodily difference, whether supernatural, as applies to vampires, banshees, harpies, or natural, as the result of decay or violence. For an example of the latter, one need only refer to the bathroom scene in Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’. As such, ‘deformity’ is a word with an inbuilt ‘male-gaze’; I use it here because it tells us something interesting about the society has historically felt about the way women’s bodies should appear.
Of course, if the essence of misogyny around ‘deformity’ in women surrounds fear of female perceived ugliness, then McQueen is the opposite of misogynistic. He by no means fears bodily difference in women, he in fact glorified it. Mid-20th century design is characterised by designs which emphasise a traditionally ‘feminine’ figure; a small waist, fuller chests, they are often floral, delicate, and impractical- in other words, not designed for working women. McQueen’s graduate show, and indeed his subsequent designs have often been interpreted as a rejection of this: his designs enable us to view women not as wallflowers, but in fact attempt to portray women as fierce and strong. What is more, the collections ‘Highland Rape’ and ‘Jack Ripper Stalks His Victims’ were never ready-to-wear, and indeed, McQueen refused to sell the pieces on any terms, so McQueen never profited, at least monetarily, from his artistic exploration of sexual violence.
Nonetheless, regardless of profit, whether sexual violence is ever an appropriate source of artistic inspiration seems doubtful. This is not intended as a tirade against men or Alexander McQueen specifically, since the use of sexual violence and violence against women as inspiration for art is by no means limited to McQueen, or to men. The Mulready sisters of Rodarte were widely critiqued for the Mac x Rodarte Autumn Winter 2010/2011 collection, which used the Mexican border town of Juarez, a city which has the highest homicide rate in the world and from which hundreds of women have gone missing, as inspiration. A blusher from the collection bore striking resemblance to a standout tailcoat from McQueen’s degree show; bright red pigments were streaked across pale powder in such a way as to unambiguously resemble bloodstains on pale fabric, whitewashed walls, bones. Rodarte and Mac apologised, pulled the collection from production and MAC pledged a portion of profits, and Rodarte $100,000, to the women of Juarez.
This brings me to my next point: by elevating violence against women to the level of aesthetic appreciation, both Mac x Rodarte and Alexander McQueen engage in a historic discourse in which the female corpse, and female deformity, has been fetishized. The two are perhaps more closely linked than a first glance suggests: violent attacks perhaps necessarily involve making the body ‘deformed.’ Indeed, in the same article mentioned above, Chatterjee points out that female bodies in horror are often intended to simultaneously disgust and arouse. Female monsters are highly sexualised: vampires are obviously so, and harpies are also described as beautiful. Indeed, even outside of the horror genre female deformity is on occasion portrayed as having aphrodisiac qualities: in Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ the protagonist K. admires the webbed finger of a character, Leni, exclaiming: ‘Was für eine hübsche Kralle!’ (‘What a beautiful claw!’). That this is problematic is, in the case of the more extreme examples obvious: by equating violence against women with beuaty as in the Mac x Rodarte collaboration we seemingly sanction it, or at least fail to acknowledge the gravity of those crimes. The problem with fetishizing ‘deformity’ is perhaps more subtle: but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that the kinds of ‘deformities’ explored by Kafka, McQueen and others are often borderline supernatural. The ultimate effect of this is therefore not that female bodily difference is normalised, but instead it is put on a pedestal; the attraction of these women is that they are not fully human, not quite real. Needless to say, the association between bodily difference and supernatural beings is also problematic.
So, the use of bodily difference as inspiration in art and literature is one which is ultimately problematic on a moral level, if not in artistic terms. When designers and authors use violence against women and ‘deformity’ as inspiration, the result is not the genuine inclusion of bodily difference on runways, magazine covers, or a safe sense of belonging within the socially defined term ‘beauty’. Instead, ‘deformity’ is dealt with through the fetishization of violence and the upholding of pedestals. This ultimately fails to recognise women for who they are: real people.