From Literary Dolls to Sexual Reality

R-20100217-0046.jpgAn international conference on 8th March next year will examine the representation of the female body from the nineteenth century to the present day. In this research conversation, Dr Emma Miller explains the rationale behind Literary Dolls, which will be held on International Women’s Day 2014.

This conference is focused on the depiction of the female form from the nineteenth century to the present. Why did you choose to concentrate on this time period? What makes the modern age an especially interesting focus?

The nineteenth century saw the development and eventual formation of what we now recognise as the first wave of feminism. Until this point, feminism had not been identified widely as a political movement. However, I have observed in my own research on contemporary literature that art objects of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century frequently revisit the historical period prior to organised feminism.

For much of the nineteenth century, women in England had less legal protection than minors, those certified due to mental illness and prisoners, yet in the present, Western literature, film, television, music, dance, sculpture etc. seek to emulate this period in time through a variety of means and this production is in response to commercial demand. Yet, the past is often not reflected accurately but more frequently re-presented, rewritten and re-visualised to glamorise a world where men and women were treated unequally. Even texts that appear to be contemporary such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga and Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s Beautiful Creatures, frequently draw upon the style, structure and content of nineteenth-century gothic fictions and their portrayal of unequal gender relations.

“The presence of the past in the contemporary arts does impact upon real lives and can have far-reaching and detrimental effects”

The presence of the past in the contemporary arts does impact upon real lives and can have far-reaching and detrimental effects. I believe that it is of paramount importance that we focus attention upon the social impact of the revisitation of the past in the contemporary arts. The time period of this conference therefore covers the feminist journey from pre-first wave to the present, but also many of the time periods that made inequality “fashionable” (!) and which many art products exhibit nostalgia towards, such as the Victorians and the 1950s. It will be fascinating to see the juxtaposition of these concerns played out in the conference discussion.

You’re holding the conference on International Women’s Day 2014, when attention focuses on the real-world challenges still facing women around the world. What do you think the most pressing problems are for women today?

Women around the world face a huge number of very serious problems, many of which are relatively easy to identify, but this conference will crucially explore the issues that are either partially or wholly hidden behind what is deemed broadly culturally or aesthetically acceptable and even, by many, desirable.

fifty-shades-of-grey-cac1d39d5bb5c20810b1314bcbf61dee35d8219b-s6-c30Fifty Shades of Grey has been widely reported as one of the best-selling books of all time and yet it romanticises an unequal sadomasochistic relationship, a relationship that is juxtaposed with Thomas Hardy’s infamous tale of rape, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The huge popularity of Victorian period dramas has also had an effect on women’s fashions with the BBC reporting in June 2012 that sales of corsets have dramatically increased. This convoluted friction between what is socially acceptable, desirable and potentially problematic or even, dangerous, is the area that will concern many of our panels, looking at whether the arts have appeared to celebrate the aesthetics of culturally determined images of idealised femaleness, and how this has then affected real world attitudes to the treatment of women, and women’s response to their own gender.

How do you hope that the conference will be able to address some of these? What sorts of impacts have the arts had on the treatment of women?

My research is concerned with the oblique female narratives in texts, the stories of women that are not articulated by the women themselves but can be gleaned through effort, from close textual analysis of the dominant narratives in any text. One famous example of this is the buried narrative of the child, Dolores Haze, only visible through the clues in the narrative of her oppressor, Humbert, in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I have authored two books on the narration of incest and intra-familial abuse in literature, which is a taboo topic frequently only evident through close reading (my monograph on the depiction of incest and domestic abuse in the fiction of Iris Murdoch will be published by McFarland in 2014, and an edited collection on contemporary literary depictions of incest will hopefully be published this year).

Artistic modes of narration, whether they be in the visual arts, music or the written word, do influence how people narrate events and responses to that narration. When this is a narrative relating a crime such as incest or abuse, it is important that we recognise the relationship between art and life, and just how dangerous or potentially valuable this can be.

The conference is titled “Literary Dolls,” but you have asked for papers on all contemporary media: film, television, digital media. Why did you want to cover such a range of representations rather than literature alone?

It is essential that we look at a range of story-telling media, as we are concerned with a social and cultural journey to the present day. Digital media has had such a profound effect on literature, and vice versa, in the modern age, and we are talking about the influence of narrative on the real world. We have artists and musicians involved too. Narrative techniques extend to every type of artistic medium, and there is a lot of crossover, particularly in the present day.

It is increasingly the case that literary adaptations do not simply result from novels but that novelists write with a view to eventual adaptation, a type of cinematic ekphrasis. Even where this is not a conscious aim of the writer, people are so familiar with the storytelling techniques of visual media that similar techniques inevitably appeal when they are adopted in literature. Also, digital media such as e-readers and writers’ blogs have altered the speed of the dissemination of fiction in recent years, and the phenomenal popularity of texts like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey show how books can now reach hundreds of millions of readers in unprecedented timescales.

Can you give us some clues as to the sorts of approaches and papers your contributors will be taking?

Yes, we have had a wonderful response to the call for papers and it promises to be a very eclectic mix.

Lara_croftExamples of topics are: the portrayal of the ancient Egyptian Mummy in the nineteenth century, the female corpse in Agatha Christie’s detective fiction, gender and performance in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the Victorian asylum in the works of Sarah Waters and Amalie Skram and the performance of gender in Tomb Raider.

We have three very exciting keynote speakers: the winner of the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Jane Smiley; popular and middlebrow literature expert, Dr Kate Macdonald (University of Ghent); and Director of the University of Durham’s Centre for Sex, Gender and Sexualities, Professor Jo Phoenix.

In the evening we will be having folk music to explore another means of storytelling and a wine reception before the conference dinner. I am very much looking forward to it and I encourage anyone interested in attending to reserve a place as soon as registration details become available as we have had a lot of interest. Keep following this blog for more information on the conference, which takes place on 8th March 2014 at Durham University.


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