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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Philosophy Club Take 2: The Invisible Matron as Spectacle

The second session of our current Philosophy Club series found us examining the Invisible Matron through the lens of looking and seeing, and from the standpoint of those doing the spectating. Whereas our first Thursday night session had brought us in quite close to the Invisible Matron, considering her from the perspective of daughters and listening out for our mother's voices, this week's session compelled us to step away from our object of study and, with scrutinizing eyes, survey midlife women from the sidelines.

We began the evening exploring the connotative and denotative meanings of words like "matron" and "spinster" and "old maid" - as attentive to the actual definitions of these words as to how they made us feel, and to the kind of visual pictures they provoked. These pictures, we observed, were quite at odds with the midlife women we actually know, not to mention with the picture of midlife womanhood painted in the articles we had read in preparation for our session. Breaking into groups, we worked Joanna Frueh's presentation of hypermuscular body-building midlife women negotiating the monster/beauty paradigm alongside Vivian Sobchack's presentation of "scary" surgical makeovers undertaken by midlife women in both cinema and real life. This exercise heightened our awareness of the many ways we can 'read' the midlife female body, but equally, of how few of those bodies are socially acceptable and how thin the line is between 'good' visibility and 'bad' visibility. As we turned to our visual case study of the evening - Susan Boyle's 2009 audition on Britain's got Talent - this latter reflection became particularly pertinent.

All of us had seen the Susan Boyle audition before. But watching it together - and armed as we were with John Berger's assertion that, as women in our society, we are the objects of a male gaze and as such, spend a good deal of our lives seeing ourselves as that gaze sees us - was an altogether different (and for some of us, quite excruciating) experience. Not so much, this, the heart-warming story of "frumpy 47-year-old spinster" making good against all odds. Rather, what our spectator selves saw was the actual framing of those 'odds' - the idea, as perpetuated by a bullying crowd and a sneering panel of judges, that a talent show is no place for a woman whose hair is graying, whose body is full, whose clothes are 'old-fashioned', whose eyebrows are bushy...In short, no place for a woman whose "odds" are that she is middle-aged with a face that is ordinary and a body that is natural and a character that is gutsy. The comments made by the judges after her "still reeling from shock"-inducing, "biggest surprise ever" singing performance only served to reinforce the societal prejudices that our society has towards a midlife woman like Susan Boyle. Grappling with a way to 'read' this spectacle for what it was - a blatant example of sexism, ageism and looks-ism all rolled into one - we explored how mediated products are encoded with certain meanings, and how it is up to us to decode them in ways that better suit us. We can, for example, read the Susan Boyle audition "against the grain" - creating, in so doing, a new oppositional spectator positioning that challenges the implied or ideal spectator positioning that the producer of the program expects us, as viewers, to have.

Next Thursday we will return briefly to the male gaze - it is a difficult concept to grasp, and one that becomes clearer through examining, as we are doing on our own this week, a range of cultural products (from TV ads to Hollywood films to "high art" paintings of women) and making note of the eyes through which we gaze at them, the eyes for whom they seem to be intended, and the point of view that we find ourselves taking on as we do our looking. We will also bring to that discussion what happens to ourselves as we walk in the park, walk down a busy street, stand in a line waiting to be served in a shop, make a presentation at work. Are we fully in ourselves, looking out at the world? Or are we also watching ourselves being watched - aware of what we are looking like in the world and to that world, as compared to what we maybe should or could be looking like? And then, we'll be moving on to a more comprehensive look at the word "old" and, along with that, stepping into our roles as researchers of the Invisible Matron in "olden" times.