Gender Trauma & Abreaction
by Wendy Vogel
Brooklyn Rail Critics Page, May 2015
A critic’s stance evolves out of a personal worldview marked by trauma; the personal is political, as second-wave feminism tells us. As a feminist, my understanding of the movement cannot be separated from my lived female experience.
I am a young, white, educated woman whose appearance complies with normative standards of gender representation. I live with the violent contradictions that feminism has still not resolved. I embrace my gender identity while upholding the promise of feminism to be an intersectional movement working across differences of race, class, sexuality, and geography. I write as a highly visible figure with the knowledge that so many other positions are underknown. I articulate the trauma of gender from a position of privilege, with hesitation.
I struggle with striking a balance between illuminating a context and essentializing the experiences of my gender. I struggle with understanding my privilege and utilizing that privilege in ways that will create more equitable circumstances. I struggle with giving voice to vulnerability without creating a picture of victimhood.
My understanding of art and the world derives from living in my individual female body, yet my experiences are not unique. I live the schizophrenic role of a disembodied critical voice at my job as an art magazine editor—an “unmarked” status conferred in part by my race, nationality, and education level—while regularly being reduced to my physical appearance (or a collection of parts) in the public sphere. From the time I entered puberty, I have lived with the shame of unwanted sexual attention and the fear of sexual assault. I am subject to alarmist messages that I must defend myself against rape because I uphold certain standards of beauty and inhabit a voluptuous shape coded as sexualized. I live knowing my rights to reproductive care are under attack, and that they have been since the era in which I was born. I live knowing that my personal life is subject to scrutiny as a young woman of childbearing age. I live within a culture that values women’s ability to reproduce above all other values, even though I feel no compunction to parent.
As a feminist, I work to disabuse dangerous cultural myths: that women have to work harder than men to enjoy the same degree of professional success, that women must compete because there are only so many resources to go around (professional opportunities, money, relationships), that every expression of feminist cultural production is equal in value. At the same time, I recognize that I operate within prescribed social polarities. I perform affective labor without being conscious of it, manifest authority with a cheerful smile, decline invitations (or even worse, cancel plans) only with rhetorical gymnastics of apologia. Through these contradictory performances of gender, I articulate both trauma and abreaction, a compulsive repetition in hopes to erase it.
Discussions of trauma were deeply intertwined with psychoanalytic theory in the ’80s and ’90s, but only recently has trauma experienced a cultural resurgence—most heatedly in conversations around “trigger warnings,” or disclaimers about violent or offensive content believed to precipitate a response in traumatized individuals. The debate has engaged many pundits along well-worn cultural battle lines, with many respondents lining up to defend the “freedom of speech” over “political correctness.” Some of the more conservative responses came from New York magazine critics Jonathan Chait and Jerry Saltz, who both construed the critique of hegemony as an attack on “liberalism.”
Rather than siding with either of these positions, some artists and writers have produced interesting feminist work responding to the cultural weight of trauma. Since September, Columbia University senior Emma Sulkowicz has enacted Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), hauling her mattress with her everywhere on campus as a silent protest against the school’s response to her rape allegation. (Her alleged rapist is still matriculating at the university.) Sulkowicz’s piece symbolizing her trauma operates not only as a cathartic gesture for her audience; it has also catalyzed a nationwide movement across university campuses to reform policies around sexual assault. Jessica Bennett’s sympathetic New York Times profile on Monica Lewinsky in March catalogued how Lewinsky was humiliated across party lines more than 15 years ago for her affair with President Clinton and thus became the symbol of a country’s psychic wound, which resulted in significant personal trauma from which she is now battling back. And finally, Johanna Fateman’s article “Women on the Verge” in April’s Artforum discusses the work of young feminist artists working with the tropes and materials of social-media platforms. In many works recycling the imagery of “Internet babes,” the “line between criticality and complicity” remains thin, Fateman says. For these artists, the working through of imagery and embrace of formerly reviled positions, like “sex-negativity,” becomes a productive place for understanding that with new platforms certain traumas and erasures persist.