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Where’s that Power coming from? March 27, 2007

Posted by erinsull in bodies.
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We talked a lot in class about how the men in the movie often controlled Nikita but as the end shows with her feminine wiles (pardon the ridiculous phrase) she was actually able to have control over them. Here sit these two men, staring at each other, both in love with Nikita but neither able to hang on to her. I found myself asking what is it about Nikita that makes her so enticing? It brought me back to the discussion we were having about the new idealized female body. Even though the Hollywood ideal is no longer the big breasts, big ass curvaceous sexpot the new celebrated body is still very feminine. Even though it is athletic the body is very feminine in its smallness. You see Nikita in contrast to the males around her and she is still very petite despite her ripped back. The contrast in Buffy is even more noticeable, especially because she is a 5’2 wisp fighting hand to hand with men (well vampires but still). Even Sydney Bristow looks obviously smaller then the men she takes down so easily. What is also common between these women is that the constantly have men falling for them who are also in awe of their power and strength (Vaughn, Will, Xander, Spike, Bob)

So why is this important? I think that smallness is the new voluptuousness in some ways. These women are so hot and enticing because their ability to overpower men is unexpected. Yes they are often ripped, which makes their strength more believable, but they never appear physically more powerful then men at first glance. I think that is the clear line. It is only hot for a girl to be kicking ass if when dressed up it does not appear like she could. The hotness lies in the contrast, in the ability for the women to exceed her small stature. I think Bob fell so heavily for Nikita because he was entranced by the power and energy she held in that small body. So even though it is interesting that the athletic body is now embraced, it is a very specific lean athletic body, one that is not too obvious and can still surprise with its power.

Just one last jump, this made me think of the phenomenon of guys liking to watch girls fight. Why is this so danm hot? Of course I think it is only a big deal when the girls are small or feminine looking (which of course are not mutually exclusive). I believe that a lot of the appeal here to lies in the unexpected, that out of this obviously feminine body could come this rage and power (it helps to that girls are touching each other a lot but that is a matter for another day).

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1. sindhub - March 28, 2007

I wonder if part of the appeal to men of unexpectedly strong women isn’t also a trivialization of the power that their bodies have, i.e. being able to ‘overpower’ them later and thus reassert their own masculine power. Or simply “oh look how cute and fiery she is!” This idea might be grasping for straws, though, because I don’t really see evidence to support this in Nikita (yes, men do underestimate her, but they’re not very amused when they’re affected by it themselves).

In Tomb Raider 2, though, the attraction (and love?) Terry feels for Lara is later counteracted by his need to overpower her idealism, and he achieves that by slapping her–not fighting her ‘like a man,’ but backhanding her.

2. andyw - March 28, 2007

“Of course I think it is only a big deal when the girls are small or feminine looking (which of course are not mutually exclusive)”

Just as some food for thought here’s the link to the past WWE women’s wrestling championships: http://www.wwe.com/shows/wrestlemania/history/wrestlemania22/wmdivas/
. Obviously some of them conform completely to this characterization (the playboy fight especially), but I am not so sure about phenomena such as Chyna (is she regarded as a sex object? a freak?), or some of the earlier divas (an interesting name, given the above description of what makes women fighting exciting).

There’s obviously much much more to make of this than my comment, but I think it’s very interesting and more complicated then the phenomenon of compact female power.

I think, though, that the thesis offered above about the contrast being exciting makes a lot of sense. Men do tend to have a less excitable exterior (although that may not be the correct way of putting it: the look-alike is certainly excitable, but he dies, and even the cleanup guy is excitable and energetic, although certainly not in the same way as Nikita; however, I can’t think of a more suitable word off the top of my head). Instead of bursting with energy, Nikita’s boyfriend (and Xander) have a more ironic humor that defines their characters (one which implies a distance from what’s happening that Nikita seems to lack). Bob is different (or at least less ironic – the first chamber being empty in his gun is also the same kind of humor) , although he is also distant. What does the size of the women have to do with their capacity for distance (if anything)? Why is Nikita’s humor absurd, while her boyfriend’s is clever?

3. robynbahr - March 29, 2007

Andy, when you speak of what men find attractive in these women, are you speaking for yourself or for other men?

4. andyw - March 29, 2007

I am not sure I understand what comment of mine you are referring to. If you are referring to my comment on the original post’s thesis (or one of them) that what is exciting about women fighting (or, my point was, a certain kind of woman fighting) is the contrast between their compact size and their ferocious energy, then I understood erinsull to be talking about specifically the characters in the movies we’ve watched, but those characters as representative of the general male population. It is, of course, presumptuous to speak about a desire of the general male population, and so it would probably be better to specify to certain audiences, or possibly even intended audiences, of certain cultural productions (namely, movies like Le Femme Nikita and Tomb Raider 2; as well as, and this was the audience I was specifically thinking about, wrestling).

5. robynbahr - March 29, 2007

I was referring to the comment on the contrast between a woman’s size and her “ferocious energy.” I was just curious if you yourself find that attractive (and that’s where you derived the explanation) or if you were theorizing on the behalf of other men, whether they be the general population or a specific audience of action-type films. In other words, are you just coming up with plausible arguments based on observation of other men or are you analyzing yourself? I think the context of your argument would help elucidate some of your points for me.

6. andyw - March 29, 2007

I am very sorry for the obviously confusing original post. Hopefully this helps clarify. What lack of clarity there is in this almost certainly reflects some underlying confusion I have about the subject I am talking about.
What I understood myself to be doing (and that isn’t necessarily the same thing as what I actually was doing) was agreeing with erinsull for her comment that men find the contrast compelling. To make that comment, she drew on her reading of Bob from Le Femme Nikita. I thought that was a good point. She then generalized to what I understood to be the general male population. I attempted to temper that generalization (which said not only that men get excited about the contrast, but also seemed to be making a point – although it wasn’t very explicit in this post – about the lack of threat stemming from a small or feminine body, and made a final comment that the touching helped as well) by referencing WWE women wrestlers and some of the different bodies that they have (specifically Chyna). My first question (which I was trying to leave open, since I’m not sure what the answer is) was what to make of those feminine bodies. Thus, I am not drawing on any personal experience (except, of course, that’s obviously false; all of my comments are ultimately derived from personal experience, and I had seen Chyna wrestle), but rather attempting a slight criticism of erinsull’s thesis (that might not even be the right word; perhaps it would be better to say that I was trying to come at it from a different perspective – and certainly she doesn’t attempt to offer a definitive answer or description of fighting female bodies). Ultimately, then, I too am drawing on Bob as an example (as opposed to the general male population), but I am extending that point to ask a question about, specifically, the male audience of the WWE divas. I am not drawing on their experience, but neither am I drawing on my experience (except, of course, I obviously am; I am not, however, analyzing myself – my comment lacked that self-reflective quality). Instead, I am posing a question about a specific audience’s reaction to a specific site of female fighting bodies. Answers that I would be tempted to offer would probably draw off of what I perceived to be the ways that that cultural site was trying to appeal to its male audience (which isn’t the same as attempting to draw from the actual reaction of the general male audience, and still lacks self-reflection of the kind you are talking about).
Hopefully this helped.

p.s. I am perfectly willing to explain my personal reactions to such phenomena if anyone thinks that would help (either in clarifying this confusion, or just generally).

7. robynbahr - March 29, 2007

Thank you for the clarity, it helped me understand more from where you are coming from. Still, would you mind explaining your personal reactions? I think it would help me further understand the male point of view when it comes to these issues and would broaden my perspective of the subject itself. I am not picking on you, by the way, it’s just that you’re one of the only boys in the class and I find the male voice to be valuable in this setting.

8. andyw - April 3, 2007

I would have no qualm elaborating on my personal views. However, before I begin – and I may not begin in this comment and you may not maintain your request after this comment – there are a few hesitations I have. You (and I pause here, because it is a blog and I am not sure in the first instance who it is that I am typing too: robynbahr, Robyn, half the class, the professor, etc.; this being my first blogging experience, I have not yet familiarized myself with the proper mode(s) of typing) ask me to speak from a particular subject position (the subject position of a bearer of “the male point of view”), a subject position that you apparently do not have immediate access to (since, if you did, there would be no need to broaden your perspective). Thus, my personal reactions already come categorized, to be neatly stowed away not primarily as Andy Werner’s perspective (whoever the subject, the bearer, of that name may be) or andyw’s perspective, but as the male perspective, where Andy Werner (or andyw) is at best present only as a specific instantiation of something much larger than he (an already prescribed pronoun) is (without ever first interrogating what, or who, “he”, or Andy Werner, or andyw, is). The subject position I am being asked to occupy is further complicated (ignoring, for the moment, the mode of address) by the identification of me as bearer not only of the male perspective (already excluding the potential for “a” male perspective, or a multiplicity of male perspectives) but as a boy: in fact, as a particular kind of boy, “one of the only boys in the class”. Thus, not only is a responder to your request forced into the subject position of a bearer of the male point of view (or, implicitly, a particular kind of other), but also as the subject position of a boy (or, explicitly by the word “only”, an almost but not quite unique subject and, again implicitly, another particular kind of other). Not only that, but I am being charged, through the subject position assigned to me, to be the bearer of a “valuable” perspective (that of the male perspective, which is, implicitly, being born by my identity as a boy – an identity that is made rare but, oddly, not rendered valuable in itself), a perspective whose value has already been ascribed to it, a value the nature of which is left in the air by the request, but which leaves no doubt that something, some content – probably very particular – is being ascribed to it by the addressor.
The mode of address, too, contains an expectation, circumscribes the nature of the response (as, first and foremost, a response). My narrative, or the narrative being asked for from me, creates, or sustains – perhaps even disrupts, or changes – the relationship between you and I. It demands of me, since it is specifically and firstly a request for a personal accounting of certain of my actions, or reactions, that “I come into being as a reflexive subject” (Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, 15 – I am quoting this line only to ensure that I am not seen as plagiarizing or thinking of these ideas by myself, that I am not put into those subject positions by readers of this; along those lines, of course, I would have to mention Derrida and the Force of Law). This forces me into a certain mode of typing, one of (I have already mentioned it) narrative, something that contains – or is expected to contain – (to oversimplify) personal experiences (experiences that happened to me, or, perhaps, experiences that happened to the boy who bears the male perspective) and true opinions or reactions to those experiences. Thus is this body of writing to be constituted even as the writer is being constituted (not that I would affirm a distinct dichotomy between the writer and written: the call to a narrative affects not only the nature of the body of writing but also tells the writer what kind of thoughts to generate).
However, there is perhaps a level of freedom vouchsafed through the constraint of reflexivity forced upon me. Since I am being reflexive, there can be no real calling into account for my story… Within circumscribed limits, of course – certain lines that I type will be rejected and certain lines punished by my audience depending on how far they transgress the norm established by my prescribed subject position and the mode of address as well as a variety of cultural norms that specifically limit appropriate and inappropriate forms of self-narration. Thus, I am being asked to assume a position that is neither free nor unfree, that is neither self-constituted nor constituted by an other.
The position I am being asked to assume (and it is properly not a position I have been asked to assume, but one which has already been assumed of me), to change tracks for a moment without yet beginning, is fraught with anxieties. It assumes that I already have knowledge of the male position that I am ready to offer up. Indeed, it even assumes that I am aware, prior to being asked to explain that position, that I am the bearer of that position since it asks for a recounting of an experience experienced (in the past) by that perspective. But, it does not give an attempt to explain what that position is. However, since I am being asked to reflect on my position, I am forced into anxiety. For, even if I take the best case scenario for myself (namely, that I am a self-confidant individual who firmly believes that I am a boy who bears the male gaze), I am being asked to call into question, to become critical of, this position, which is assumed to be mine. It is an absolutely untenable position to ask someone who is not a boy who bears the male perspective to be in (this is an impossible situation by the logic of the question, but I hope that my analysis has at least revealed the possibility of this situation coming about; to be more explicit, imagine that this request was made of a girl who did not bear the male perspective – assuming that that situation is imaginable, through a (mis)recognition or an (in)correct hailing). Said person would be forced into recounting a personal story, with the constraint that it must be true, of a person that they are not. Even worse, the addressee of this request, through his reflection on his story, may come to the realization that there is the room for, indeed even the implied existence of, a great deal of tension, a great deal of failure, to live up to the male perspective from the position of boy – someone who is not yet a man. And it gets worse from there (in no particular order: anxiety in the face of the unknown norms for blogging, in the face of the – oftentimes unwritten – norms of acceptable self-narration, in the face of being asked as almost unique and yet simultaneously as profoundly common, in the face of being requested to offer a self-narration which is meant to have a certain value which is as yet unknowable, etc.; obviously the “in the face of” is a very important formulation, indicating a number of valuable – although perhaps not of the requested value – possible insights).
So, to insert the only obviously personal comments in this response to a question that called for an exclusively personal response, I apologize for my play. It is fun for me to engage in such (non)responses, and it is an intellectual experiment that I have been waiting for a while to engage in (it is most of all, perhaps, an attempt to embody Derrida’s position, or to expropriate Derrida’s mode of exposition as my own; not so much in an attempt to pay Derrida homage or even because I agree with his position, but more because his discourse looks like, from afar and also – I am delighted to report – from close up, a very exciting and fun position to occupy). It is also my way of saying – adhering above all to the honesty requested, required, by the mode of address – that I do not think I can possibly even begin to occupy the position being asked of me by your request. It is perhaps a light-hearted criticism of the attitude taken by the question, although it is also certainly a piece of self-mockery.

9. Matt - April 4, 2007

Nice. I particularly liked, “It is properly not a position I have been asked to assume, but one which has already been assumed of me.” But I’m lost at your assertion of the impossibilty of answering the question. It’s contained here, right?:

“For, even if I take the best case scenario for myself (namely, that I am a self-confidant individual who firmly believes that I am a boy who bears the male gaze), I am being asked to call into question, to become critical of, this position, which is assumed to be mine. It is an absolutely untenable position to ask someone who is not a boy who bears the male perspective to be in.”

Is it because of your percieved conflict between “boy” and “man,” and your inability to know which you are being hailed as? If so, aren’t you bringing your own interpretation to her question– that of conflict between boy and man, which she may not have intended– aren’t you constructing her question in the terms of your meanings so that you may deconstruct it in terms of your meanings? Should you not try to to place yourself instead in a position of goodwill and understanding, instead of assuming your own assumptions about what her assumptions are?

The inability to be correctly hailed reminds me of a fifth-grade question: does your mother know you don’t unqualifiedly self-identify as a man?

10. andyw - April 4, 2007

I was not asserting the impossibility of answering the request, which would indeed contradict my depiction of a best-case scenario (where it is possible to answer, certainly, although still fraught with anxiety). I was, at the end, merely asserting my impossibility of answering the request, or, better yet, the untenable position that answering the request would put me in. I certainly could have answered it (and, one might even say, that I did: without, perhaps, embodying the position requested of me). But I understood that a particular facet of the request (honesty) was the defining element (or at least the most important element) of it, and adhering to that precept and adopting the position requested of me was an impossibility.
The “perceived” conflict between boy and man was a piece, certainly an important one, of the anxiety-laden position I was being asked to offer. It was not the only reason I had for believing the subject position an anxious one.
And to be fair, of course, I did not precisely entertain goodwill towards the request. I do not believe that I bore the question any ill will, but I was not attempting to be kind towards the request. My attempt was to analyze what I understood it to mean, to break it down so as to show, clearly, what I thought was being asked of me (which I did, at least partially, to provide some justification for my refusal to begin to answer). I’m not sure if I should put myself in a position of goodwill towards the request, and I would certainly hesitate to say that goodwill towards the request is the same as goodwill towards Robyn, robynbahr, or what Robyn or robynbahr consciously intended with the request. Certainly her post escaped her conscious intent, just as my (non)response did (both through my unconscious and through the structure of language; not that I am affirming the difference or identity of those two, or their exhaustiveness as factors that make meaning escape the conscious intent of the author). And, I think, the best thing to do to ease communication (the goal toward which I am still operating, at least partially) is not to bear some sort of goodwill towards assumptions, but rather to criticize assumptions, and most importantly to make explicit assumptions as much as is possible (not that I would affirm that assumptions are completely explicable or that it would be good if they were). Thus, my goal was less to presume on what Robyn, robynbahr, or whoever wrote the request was assuming, as if I had some sort of access to her consciousness. Instead, I was merely trying to outline what I understood her request to be asking for, the subject position I understood her to be conjuring up, consciously or not.
I must confess that I don’t understand your last comment (the fifth grade question) well enough to speak intelligibly about it, so I will (almost) pass over it in silence.

11. marinaw - April 8, 2007

well now, it’s a showdown, and i’m interested. this is much like discussions i got into in my Invisible Man course last spring about whether the main character (Invisible)’s domination of women was truly a necessary part of asserting his own power as an oppressed member of society, or merely a manifestation of the imperfect understanding of each other’s humanity that we have in this society.

The discussion soon zoomed out of the text and became an attack on me: did I, as a white person, truly understand oppression? It is not an easy question to answer, without having other people’s experiences to compare to. I think that andyw’s been put in a similar spot here, and i regret that the intersection of the political and the personal has put him so much on the defensive, because this is otherwise a very valuable philosophical exercise.

In the interest of including white people in black studies and men in women and gender studies, i argue that we cannot lump all individuals in these dominant groups into the ideological categories that these groups stereotypically hold — this would be reinforcing the ideas that we are attempting to examine, and ultimately deconstruct.

Simultaneously, however, we have to allow for some people to take up these positions without condemning them: some people were probably attracted to Nikita in La Femme Nikita, and although this was the emotional reaction that the movie’s directors no doubt anticipated in their audience (and perhaps shared themselves), there is a difference between being attracted to Nikita and making generalizations about the kind of person who’s ‘attractive’ to the male gaze – which is to say, the kind of person who is portrayed as attractive.

I think that the trouble arose because Andyw’s comment that “I think, though, that the thesis offered above about the contrast [between women’s beings as both small and powerful] being exciting makes a lot of sense. Men do tend to have a less excitable exterior (although that may not be the correct way of putting it: the look-alike is certainly excitable, but he dies, and even the cleanup guy is excitable and energetic, although certainly not in the same way as Nikita; however, I can’t think of a more suitable word off the top of my head).” begins as a blanket statement about female characters (sexually?) exciting the audience and then became an investigation of whether female characters were excitable.

The conflation of these two terms is problematic, as one is transitive (exciting TO someone) and the other intransitive (exitable in herself). Andyw’s distinction between these two has been overlooked – he remarks that the contrast between women as small and powerful as exciting “makes sense,” and then goes on to discuss whether men are ‘excitable’ as Nikita is in the movie.

If anything, i think that the director’s choices to present Nikita as the most excitable character (as Andyw points out) despite her glossed-over but probably extensive experience of violent atrocities is an attempt to give her a personality that the audience can relate to; otherwise she would seem like some kind of superhuman robot assassin. At the same time, however, this representation maintains the Freudian paradigm of woman as hysterically sensitive. Thoughts?

12. andyw - April 11, 2007

Your clarification of what the confusion might have been makes a lot of sense. And your comments about not lumping all “men” or all “women” together into one group make a lot of sense too.
And I certainly would want to affirm the creation of a space where “men” (and “women” – whatever it is that is meant by those two terms) who were attracted to Nikita can speak about it – whether it be this blog or not. But I wouldn’t want to do so conditionally: whatever anyone desires (be it directed by a director or by something/one else) is okay (to take a controversial example, I think there should be a space for people who desire to rape others if not to speak, at least to feel safe in that desire; I don’t think that people should rape, but to desire it, to fantasize about it, is something that is, in my mind, of a completely different order: no one should be condemned for desiring anything).

I’m not sure that I accept the idea that Nikita is displayed as excitable to give her a personality the audience can relate to. Certainly, there are scenes where that reading makes a certain amount of sense (when she is very upset in the restaurant for instance). But those times generally do not involve what I meant by the term excitable: that is an emotional side, but not one that contrasts with her small body. The way I was trying to use ‘excitable’ – and remember I don’t think it really captures the situation, since men are excitable in this sense as well – was as displaying a burst of energy (the contrast lying in that burst not being expected from a body of that size). And I don’t understand how the burst can be read as attempting to make the audience relate to Nikita: when she stabs the police officer in the hand with the pencil I think we are supposed to be alienated from her and her insanity. This is interesting, in relation to the original post, because I’m not sure how that fits into the original thesis that the contrast is exciting: if I am right, and the audience was supposed to be alienated from Nikita in that scene, that would seem to correspond to a different kind of surprise – not one of sexual attraction, but more along the lines of disgust or perhaps even pity. Certainly the exciting contrast theory makes sense in terms of her capacity to kill, or do amazing feats of acrobatics (like jumping down a chute): in those cases, the audience is supposed to be surprised/shocked (and thus, perhaps, alienated) but in a way that seems to create a sexual attraction. It seems, then, that the obvious question is what is the difference between those two kinds of alienation?


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