THE LEECH WOMANs Revenge
I, too, am about to become a cyborg, although what I value about the experience has less to do with cheating death than with rejuvenation. My leg having been amputated recently because of recurrent cancer, and a number of operations having forced me into increasing physical inactivity, I now find myself learning to use a prosthesis. I look forward not only to being enabled again but also to wearing high heels. And, after months of extreme and rigorous exercise, all the clothes I never gave away fit me again. In anger at its built-in self-criticism, I gave up dieting years ago and, hardly a glutton, worked on accepting myself "as I was." Nonetheless, slim has always gone with young, and now I'm overjoyed at my weight loss and do feel younger. There is something truly perverse at work here: I feel less the loss of the leg than the loss of weight. I feel more attractive and younger now that there is less of me. And I didn't have to diet. This is the power of the cyborg woman--and, although ironical, hardly the irony out of which liberation is wrested.
Today--even more than in the decades in which films like The Leech Woman or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? were made--the visibly aging body represents a challenge to the self-deluding fantasies of immortality that mark the dominant technoculture. Furthermore, in a sexist as well as ageist technoculture, the visibly aging body of a woman has been and still is especially terrifying--not only to the woman who experiences self-revulsion and anger, invisibility and abandonment, but also to the men who find her presence so unbearable they must--quite literally--"disavow" her and divorce her. As one psychologist dealing with aging relates: "I once heard a man say to his gray-haired wife, without rancor: 'I only feel old when I look at you.'" And another writes:
Baby Jane Morph
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There are male archetypes of death--the grim reaper, the skeleton. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they are neutral, because of their impersonal quality. They symbolize abstract mortality. But aging with its catalog of fleshly indignities is the human face of death, and it is a woman's face. There is no male counterpart to the witch or hag... [and here I would add the Wasp Woman and the Leech Woman] or any male figure who rivals the horror and loathing she inspires. She is the scape- goat par excellence for our fear of aging.
Julia Kristeva, in dealing with the phenomenon of abjection and its relation to horror, suggests that abjection has various forms. Particular to the exploration of the issues of female aging I've dealt with here is her distinction between the abject that comes from without and the abject that comes from within. The abject that comes from without includes "excrement and its equivalents (decay, infection, disease, corpse, etc.)," which "stand for the danger to identity that comes from without: the ego threatened by the non-ego, society threatened by its outside, life by death." These excess middle-aged women of low-budget horror films, these visibly decaying bodies that reach out to touch a man who recoils in horror, these "non-egos" who threaten society less by their rage than by their presence, certainly engender this form of the abject.
In contrast, the abject that comes from within is described thus:
Cells fuse, split, and proliferate; volumes grow, tissues stretch, and body fluids change rhythm, speeding up or slowing down. Within the body, growing as a graft, indomitable, there is an other. And no one is present, within that simultaneously dual and alien space, to signify what is going on.
While Kristeva makes reference to pregnancy and cancer as possible forms of inner abjection, her description also holds for the bodily changes in the 50 Foot Woman, the Wasp Woman and the Leech Woman. Within the transformed, monstrous and visible bodies of these women divided against themselves in desperation, anger, and self-loathing, there is indeed an "other." As psychotherapist, Elissa Melamed suggests in her book, Mirror, Mirror: The Terror of Not Being Young : "We often experience the changes of aging as somehow alien to us, as if the "real self" is frozen in time, imprisoned somewhere within the aging body. Thus, abjection suffered by the women aging in the horror film is doubled. Is it any wonder that they cannot possibly survive?
It is now a commonplace to acknowledge the complicity of ageism and sexism in white heterosexist culture in the United States. Professionals and academics across a range of disciplinary areas have pointed to the social and economic problems consequent to the cultural practice of regarding the growing number of older women in our society "like guests who have tactlessly worn out their welcome," who are seen "not as a resource, but as a 'problem.'" The opening image I presented as "my" scary woman belongs not only to me but also to others. Along with the "bag lady" or the "cat lady," she exists as the abject, excess, excessive figure of a great many women in our culture--including the psychotherapist I just quoted above, who recalls a woman she saw at a hairdresser's: "her skin...plastered with a tannish coating, further overlaid with spots of pinkish color. Only her eyeballs and the inside of her mouth were recognizably human tissue." She continues:
As I look back, I am not proud of what I felt: a mixture of pity, scorn, and above all, denial that [she] could have anything to do with me.... Why couldn't she see herself? And I told myself loudly that this could never happen to me. ...Yet one day, the memory...came back to haunt me. Somehow or other, I too was now over forty. I didn't really like it--even worse, I was ashamed to admit that I really didn't like it. ... As a psychotherapist, I realized that I was ob- viously dealing with something deeper than some wrinkles and gray hairs. I was feeling divided... against myself: a changeless person trapped inside a changing body; a centered person at odds with a needy person; an honest person ashamed of the "me" who wanted to play the youth game.
The prose here might seem simple, but the phenomenology of the experience of this process of change is complex and alien--however much we are now intellectually aware of the self-displacing, decentered, constantly mutable subject. At least in our fantasies, many of us would still rather be the scary woman that is the beautiful, frozen mask of Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger than the chilling whiteface of the self-deluded Baby Jane.
And yet, there is a passion that speaks to me in Bette Davis's grotesque performance as the child star who never grew up but did grow old in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). That painted face, expressing glee and spite, pleases and excites me in its outrageousness and its outrage. Ludicrous, grotesque, over-powdered and rouged, mascara and lipstick bleeding into and around her the wrinkled eyes and mouth, Davis's Jane is a manic proclamation of an energy that does not want containment, that refuses invisibility and contempt. I feel her somewhere deep within me even as I want to avert my eyes and not look upon my possible future.
At the post office this week, I--a middle-aged woman in good clothes and great shape (but for want of a leg)--stood in line in front of an old woman in mismatched clothes who had padded toward me on flat feet. Acutely aware of her because of this essay, I wondered how scared and scary she was and why. I saw no transgressive desire on her face--only a misshapen package in her arms. And if she had a rage to live, it certainly wasn't evident in her comportment. I could not tell if she was scared, but what scared me was her clothing. She wasn't in rags, but the colors and patterns clashed, had not been in any way coordinated, and her clothing seemed merely a bodily covering, put on as an afterthought. The dread she elicited from me was, on the one hand, economic. Like the "bag lady" and the more genteel "cat lady," she embodied my fear of not being able to "take care of myself," and her ragtag clothing marked the social reality of an increasing number of elderly women living on impossibly inadequate incomes who are lucky to merely "make do." On the other hand, however, the dread was existential, if certainly also acculturated. Not being able to "take care of myself" presaged a slide into "not caring" --not caring how I looked, not caring whether or not I "pulled myself together," not even caring about the sensual pleasures I used to get from color or from silk on my skin. This was a not caring that was hardly liberating, merely defeating. I think (although I'm not absolutely sure) I would rather inappropriately, transgressively, gleefully tap dance (prosthetic and all), wear makeup and a bow in my hair, and spite the world around me when I am really old--particularly if it remains the world it is. This would be the real revenge: to insist that I am alive and in the world and ever full of desire.
Clip from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
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Audio clips of post-paper comments.