Dr. Julie Brown
Poetry in the Expanded Field
13h, April 2013
The Power of Duality, Association, and Context
When language is placed in an aversive or contradictory context, the words begin to work on two levels: the literal and the metaphorical. Ellen Knudson manipulated this relationship between text, form, and image in order to create a conversation of duality in her artist book, Wild Girls Redux: Operator’s Manual. In this work, Knudson relies heavily on the duality thus created to evaluate women in relation to machines, looking specifically at the way in which they are “operated” by men and thus creating parallels between the female body and industrial parts. This analogy works to realize the sexist nature of language in our culture and how it propagates misogynistic behavior and attitudes.
The juxtaposition between industrial representations and more “feminine” type forms is highly apparent in the form of the book itself and is strongly suggestive of the material within. As first presented, the book actually hides slipped within a brown mailing clasp envelope with a lighter brown belly band including the book’s title. Attached to the lip of the envelope is a mailing tag with all the printing information about the book. The effect of the mailing envelope is this overall sense of arbitrary, everyday uniformity and regularity, in which the envelope was most probably mass-produced in a factory to look just like every other mailing envelope. Its aesthetic is strictly limited to functionality rather than style and it feels practical and useful. These descriptive adjectives, however, when contrasted with the title of the book and the images of pin up girls on the front of the envelope begin to stir thoughts of female functionality and the “practical” use of her “mass-produced” parts. Nevertheless the author is never quite so direct, and uses only suggestion and juxtaposition to communicate these ideas, albeit, in a far more powerful way. The title, “Wild Girls Redux: Operator’s Manual” is hardly vague. The additions of the “Handle with care” sticker and the reverse side of the mailing tag which features “in” and “out” columns, similar to a library book are provocative because of what the title implies. The reader makes the connection that one is to handle his/her woman with care, but this instruction is ironic in comparison to the text within the body of the book. The columns on the other hand seem sexually suggestive, especially when we’re introduced to the form of the book itself.
While the exterior packaging is highly industrial, the book is entirely contrasting. The cover boasts flocked paper in maroon with black print – it is soft to the touch and the color is sexy like dark lipstick. Essentially, the book unfolds into a small portfolio accordion, and when propped up appears similar to that of a folding room divider at a seedy strip joint. These choices are extremely evocative and purposefully made to make conversation with the mailing envelope; one would not expect to unfold this book from the exterior packaging. On the interior, however, the lining paper is similarly industrial like the envelope and two pamphlets are sewn in the gutters of the accordion cover. Practically, the pamphlet style allows the reader to see the overlay of the different paper materials, transitioning between industrial and “feminine” type pages. The act of physically flipping the pages is quite difficult. They are bound tightly together and some of them are so delicate that one must literally “handle with care.” The juxtaposition between the practical, industrial brown paper which suggests durability with the thin, tightly bound pages creates the uncomfortable feeling: while the form is open and willing, the content is reluctant to reveal itself. When one considers that the pages are bound in a dark, sexy cover, an overwhelming sense of unease is created; the idea that something so protective and guarded lies within an unsympathetic packaging is fitting to the content of the book. Overall, form fits function.
The book has multiple distinct parts – types of paper, fonts, and images – which continue the conversation between woman and machine. What is most striking, are the white doily placemats and pink heart doilies, especially in contrast with the green office ledger paper. The delicate, intricate and curly figures next to the strict, mechanical, and methodical lines create a resemblance to the types of fonts and images chosen. The characteristics are in the names of the fonts: Blue Highway, French Cursive and Cooper Black. The chapter names are written in Blue Highway and the rules are written in Cooper Black, while the more subjective, authorial language is written in French Cursive. There is a practical and yet loud quality to the more formulaic text and a softer, feminine quality to the subjective text similar to the feminine quality of the doilies. The most prominent juxtaposition, however, lies in the images Knudson has chosen. Throughout the book, images of pin up girls illuminate the plain brown pages with color. They can be heavily dotted in a pop-art technique, close-up or far away, they can appear as outlines or silhouettes, and they can be grey-scaled, negatives, or their hue can have been tampered with so they appear entirely red or green. These images are large and draw the most attention, but the fact that they are not in the form of realistic, 5’ x 8’ photographs, but rather colorful cutouts, gives them a sort of whimsical quality similar to the aesthetic of paper dolls. Printed on top or near these images, however, are industrial schematic illustrations with directions such as “TOP VIEW,” “FRONT,” or “SIDE.” This directional vocabulary when read in context with the almost nude females in sexy poses suggests that the women are to be interpreted merely as three-dimensional forms with different sides. It also creates an unpleasant line of conversation between a firm, directional voice and a sweetly smiling girl. As a whole, the combinations of industrial and “feminine” types of paper, fonts, and images allow the reader to compare similar attributes and characteristics between the two seemingly opposing forms.
The other sequence of images Knudson uses is a collection of small maroon outlines of nude women in what seem like painfully exerted poses. There is a lot of tension in the bodies of these women and oftentimes the images are rotated on an axis so that they appear to be falling in space. They are essentially frozen on the page, mid-fall, stuck in an uncomfortable position. These images are so effectual, though, because they are printed on the doilies themselves, sometimes alongside an industrial schematic sketch. Again, it is the context of where an image is placed that gives it its cohesive meaning. The delicacy of the doily marked with the dark red ink of women in tortured positions and the unfeeling attitude of the sketches creates a potent message. The doily works in two ways. It could mock the culturally accepted notion that women are the meeker, more delicate of the two sexes while the images of the women exhibit how much pain they truly endure, but it could also represent the delicate interior of the titular strong and powerful wild girl – that somewhere beneath this exterior of bravado, there’s a heart inside that is aching for strength. The industrial sketch, however, brings out the mechanical aspects of these bodily images. They are poised in a way that purportedly provokes sexual thoughts and ideas, but they are simulated only because the woman asserted the position. There was no real effort or conscious thought, they merely stripped and posed, inducing sexual ideas in a man’s head. This process of seduction is highly mechanical, and with the aid of the industrial sketches, one is able to make those connections. The dichotomies present in this combination – of doily, woman, and industrial diagram – is evocative in its ability to prompt ideas that challenge the cultural ideas of what women and sexuality are.
If the conversation between artistic forms is not enough to induce thoughts of similarities between woman and machine, the text is still more explicit in its purpose. Knudson actually inserted found text from the Missouri Department of Revenue Motorcycle Operator Manual. The operating rules take on a lighthearted tone, especially when the girls on the pages are smiling, bright-eyed and giddy, but they have “the sting of recognition that most women realize to be sexist in nature,” (Knudson, Crooked Letter Press). For instance, when discussing how to “Get Familiar with the Controls,” we are told to “Find and operate these items without having to look for them.” Next to a lounging girl in lingerie, we associate these “controls” or “items” with parts of the female body, and the idea that body parts should be “found and operated” without actively looking at them is reminiscent of a blind grope by a horny, unsympathetic man. Knudson is most direct, however, near the end of the book where we find a diagram of a woman with arrows pointing to each of her “essential” body parts, labeled with controls such as “Turn Signals” and “Ignition Switch.” This general labeling effectively realizes the practical and mechanical qualities which society assigns a woman’s body. The last line, “All controls act a little differently from model to model,” completes the argument with the idea that women are like cars, similar in purpose, look, and feel and merely respond “a little differently” when used.
If the text were presented alone on the page, or perhaps next to diagrams of motorcycles, we might not have made these associations so readily. We would lose the visual irony and the dialog that gives the book its weight. When associated with pin-up girls and doilies, the words take on a debasing tone and gravity, and while the analogy may be meant to be tongue-in-cheek, the sad reality of the correlation is biting. Words like “gear,” “equipment,” and “controls,” when read alone, prompt thoughts of practical industrial apparatuses, but the strong metaphorical quality of the language when paired with a woman in lingerie is undeniable. The fact that such associations can be made with ease is exactly what Knudson is commenting on – that society has created these parallels between woman and machines, perhaps accidentally, is what is most disturbing.
This isn’t Knudson’s first commentary on the cultural sexism towards women. This book, Wild Girls Redux: Operator’s Manual, is actually a continuation of an original book she created titled “How to Become One of the Original Wild Girls.” It contains the five rules that we see printed on a white doily placemat near the front of Wild Girls Redux. What is a “wild girl?” The rules printed on the doily suggest that a wild girl is manipulative – she is a “fierce bitch” and can behave inappropriately when she pleases, but can be “sweet” in order to get what she wants. The Operator’s Manual re-envisions these rules to realize how these women aren’t necessarily “in control” and aren’t “getting what they want.” They are, essentially behaving in ways they consider to be “empowering” when in reality, the way they act allows them to be used and demeaned, rendering them powerless.
In the front of the small rulebook is a miniature brown mailing envelope with the word girl printed on it. Inside is a small cutout of a girl in a provocative pose – the cultural idea of what a woman looks like, especially according to the sexy images in a magazine. In Wild Girls Redux, Knudson has replaced the girl insert with multiple, bright red cutouts of industrial schematic designs, yet the cover of the envelope still says “girl.” This decision implies that a girl in a provocative pose is as practical and mechanical as an industrial design, that the two are interchangeable. All throughout the book there are outlines of where these cutouts should be placed; it is a game of sorts, like a sticker book. The methodical process of placing these designs throughout the book serves as a powerful reminder of the sexist metaphors that exist in our language.
Knudson has since created another artist book titled American Breeding Standards. This book is made up of anatomy illustrations, exploring the “systemized rules about what comprises a good or bad horse, a good or bad woman – and the steps one might take to achieve the breed standard.” It serves as another commentary on the unwritten rules of how women are supposed to act in today’s society, with strong metaphorical language comparing a woman to an animal. The text itself is found in American Horses and Horse Breeding as well as Canine Breeding Standards of the German Shepherd. The duality of language – the associations it makes – is a strong indication of what our society values and how it views women.
What most compelled me to respond to this book was this idea of unwritten rules in our society that instigate sexist behavior. It calls into question the line between fact and fiction – how can these invented rules become so embedded in culture that they essentially become naturalized? As the cover of Wild Girls Redux says: “What’s wrong? What’s right?” What is acceptable behavior when sexism is so embedded in our culture that even the text in Motorcycle Operating Manuals can induce sexist associations? In a culture where the language we use to describe the operation and handling of motor vehicles has become synonymous with the way we treat women, it is not surprising that a culture of “Wild Girls” has been propagated and sexist messages have become so inextricably intertwined into our media. Girls are beginning to receive these messages at even younger ages and, what is more, it is creating competition between them to become “the best wild girl,” or as in my particular high school, “the baddest bitch.” If women are going to divide themselves by comparing and victimizing each other, essentially engaging in reverse sexism, they will never achieve justice from our oppressive culture. The first rule in feminism is to accept and love other women, and especially to respect yourself. Without that enriching community, all other goals and motives in feminism will fail.
This semester, I have been writing a creative nonfiction essay titled “Sex in the Midwest,” which looks at a period of time in high school where I was consumed by female competition and followed unwritten rules of how to become a “bad bitch.” Throughout the linear narrative, I break the flow of the story with categorical lists of rules like “How to dress like a bad bitch” and “How to hook up like a bad bitch.” As a poetic response, I intend to revise these rules into the format of a poem and insert them into a “Text-to-speech” program in which a female, mechanical, robot voice reads them in monotone. I have also been studying the photographs of the famous Bettie Page, the original pin-up girl in comparison with the poses of the women in Knudson’s artist book. With the monotone rules as musical, recorded text, I will choreograph a dance for a few female students, comprised mainly of the poses from the Bettie Page repertoire. My hope is that the rules will create a formulaic, mechanical structure and that the dance will feel inauthentic and performative, like the poses of Bettie Page. What remains in question is the choice of the costumes. There is a photograph of Bettie Page in a makeshift money swimsuit and I have considered creating outfits out of doilies to contrast their movement with the delicate textures and curvature of the paper art. I am also still deciding about whether or not this dance should be presented on stage for an audience, in a public space, or videotaped and put in virtual space on the Internet. There are issues and concerns in each mode of presentation. If the dance was performed on the concert stage, I run the risk of putting the dance in an environment that is used to seeing experimental forms and the message would not be as strong as if it were performed in a public space. Nevertheless, the cheeky quality of the movement in the dance would be significantly contrasting to the elegance of the concert stage space. If I filmed the dance, it would be more accessible to students who could watch it in their own spare time, and while they would lose the direct engagement of being an audience member, they would be able to hear the rules more clearly from their computer or headset. This way, though, I wouldn’t be able to see their physical responses, but would count on their written comments in response.
Another idea I had was to photograph the female students holding old car parts from a junk yard and have the women attempt to pose seductively with these clunky, broken metal objects, creating humor. However, I could also write on the car parts with red paint, labeling which body part the object refers to which would create friction. If I inserted the photographs into a slideshow with the recorded rules overlaid, the effect would be similar to the biting tone and atmosphere created in Knudson’s book. Or perhaps I could post the photographs on fraternity row or in the fraternity houses on campus, with the rules printed beneath them to create dialog in a problematic area on campus. With either poetic response, my hopes are that the power of dichotomy, association, and context will inform viewers of the message in my piece.
Knudson’s book and my high school experience are prime examples of the reciprocal relationship between language and behavior. The duality of language, the associations we can make, inform our culture as our culture creates these associations in language. What we need is to attack this problem from both sides – through our behavior and through our language. If we slowly eradicate the misogynist attitudes in media, most specifically music, television, and advertisements, interchanging them with new, positive associations, then hopefully our behavior will be improved as a result. We must also promote philological attention in the home and at school, and hopefully our language will become an example of it. While sexist associations can never be destroyed, new associations can be made if we realize the positive effects of context. Knudson uses it to her advantage for educational purposes – revealing unfortunate, corresponding connotations between women and machines in our language.
Knudson, Ellen. Crooked Letter Press. Web. 13 April 2013.
Knudson, Ellen. Wild Girls Redux: Operator’s Manual. Gainesville, FL: Crooked Letter Press,