Masochism and Feminism

Through his discussion of the breakdown of “traditional” mother-daughter relationships Halberstam explores the shadow feminism of female masochism, and the resulting struggle of defining the female identity. Drawing from Virginia Woolf, Halberstam states that “if we do not think back through our mothers, then we are not women, and this broken line of thinking and unbeing of the woman unexpectedly offers a way out of the reproduction of woman as the other to a man from one generation to the next” (125). Following this line of thought Halberstam discusses the protagonist of Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of My Mother, Xula and her lack of mother- daughter relationship and the subsequent rejection she has of traditional feminine and racial roles. Indeed this rejection could be seen as a failure to be a proper woman, as Halberstam mentions that at one point in the novel she aborts a baby. The idea of femininity and what it means to successfully complete your duties as a woman are often tied into one’s ability and willingness to reproduce. Within this failure Xula embodies a different idea of femininity and feminism.

Moving from a colonized point of view to a more privileged point of view Halberstam then discusses Elfride Jelinek’s novel The Piano Teacher and the claustrophobic and slightly incestuous relationship between Erika and her mother, and the violent outcomes of the breakdown of their relationship. Through this novel Halberstam also begins to really explore the idea of female masochism. Erika, like Xula, rejects the race and class- based norms imposed by her on her mother, but unlike Xula, who is able to reject these norms because her mother is no longer with her, Erika is faced with them every second of her life as she lives within inescapable proximity to her mother. Erika then expresses her anger through self harm and a request to be completely abused by her young paramour. Further expanding on the use of self harm Halberstam states that “cutting is a feminist aesthetic proper to the project of female unbecoming” (135) and that “masochism is an underused way of considering the relationship between self and other, self and technology, self and power in queer feminism” (135). As the embodiment of creation, a woman’s violation of her own body is, as Halberstam puts it “complex and [a] critique of the very ground of the human” (139). Additionally, the invitation that Erika delivers to her lover asking him to inflict violence upon her own person shows us her failure in being able to fulfill her own masochistic needs. This idea would also go against all traditional forms of feminism, and therefore fail as being a feminist work.

Halberstam’s further commentary on art pieces such as Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece” and Nao Bustamante’s “America the Beautiful” help to establish a view of masochism as a way of relating the self to the rest of the world. Halberstam’s analysis of Ono’s performance is deep and very relevant to his earlier points, but in a book about failure I find it interesting that he didn’t bring up the fact that Yoko Ono’s name is directly symbolic with the failure and break up of one of the most successful bands of all time. While it may not quite be directly relevant to the topic of the chapter it is still interesting to note that her position as the female who broke up the band has led to a legacy of people being wary of female partners of band members. While this idea was clearly created by people looking for a scapegoat for their devastation, the negative image that this brought to the female gender, and to Ono herself has never quite been forgotten.

Going back to the term “shadow feminism” that Halberstam sprinkles throughout the reading, this seems like a particularly good example of a kind of feminism that lives in the shadows. The idea of feministic masochism, where women are in control of their own pain, is certainly one that would not be highly talked about, although with the recent popularity of 50 Shades of Grey it might find a wider audience now, despite the fact that that book would probably be considered by most to fail as any sort of feminist work.


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