Prize Winner: Jenna Flannigan
Exploring Cultural Influences
and the Lives of Women Coping with Self-Harm
While the poem “hungergraphs,”
by Sylvia Legris, deals mainly with the internal
life of a self-harming woman, it is overshadowed by whispers of
the oppressive and uncaring outside world. Conversely, “The
Hungry Cookie Tin” presents images of a woman-harming culture,
with glimpses into the lives of women coping with self-destructive
behaviors. In this way, my artwork “The Hungry Cookie Tin”
becomes an inverse reflection of “hungergraphs.” The
two pieces are connected by two overarching elements: contradiction
and contrast, and the dehumanization of women. Within these primary
themes, the works address the realities experienced by coping women,
as well as the discourses within the patriarchal culture at large.The
direct contradictions in these works reflect the contrasts that
exist within the lives of women, as well as the discrepancy between
societal expectations of women and the prejudices against them.
is also a great deal of contention about eating disorders and self-mutilation
within the research community. This debate is displayed by the great
number of diverse, and sometimes conflicting, theories on these
subjects. Although in some cases therapy can help a coping woman
heal and strengthen her voice, other clinical approaches can serve
to further disembody women. The poem and the tin both examine the
theme of dehumanization to the point of death. Women are dehumanized
by a culture obsessed with the female form, as well as by their
own need to deal with emotional pain through carving their bodies.
As the culture further
objectifies women, and women further disassociate their minds from
their bodies, death becomes a very real possibility. In the end,
the two works differ in the way they reject both cultural harm and
reflecting the main themes in “hungergraphs,” “The
Hungry Cookie Tin” is able
to arrive at a different form of cultural rebellion and strategy
for coping with trauma.
While “hungergraphs” presents
the conflicting image of a self-starving woman who is obsessed with
food, the poem also addresses the contradictory messages with which
women grow up. Like many women suffering from eating disorders,
the woman in “hungergraphs” is captivated by food. The
food versus thinness contrast begins in the first section of the
poem with the image of the emaciated woman balancing an Oxford English
Dictionary on her pelvis bones and tucking The Joy of Cooking beneath.
After examining The Joy of Cooking,
and trying out the test with another large book, I concluded that
the woman described would have to be so thin as to have almost no
body matter between her pelvic bones and above her lower spine.
Her body would be so starved that, as Levenkron explains, her internal
organs would have atrophied and shrunken (85). The picture of The
Joy of Cooking placed on the woman’s starving body is one
of stark contrast because for this woman, food holds no joy.
The image of food against starvation
occurs again with the use of food
words in the poet’s dream description. The fact that the woman
dreams at all seems contradictory, since she already commented that
she suffers from insomnia, as do most women dealing with eating
disorders (Brownell et.al. 429).
After describing a dream scene of branches
“piled like bones” (Legris 443), the poet imagines herself
carving watermelon, kitchen linoleum, and finally, her own arms
like potatoes. Not only does this sequence recreate the contrast
of food against starvation, but it also makes a culture critique.
The girl lost in the forest can be seen as the poet, or any woman,
caught in a maze of mixed signals. The bone-like branches and twigs
can be representative of the stick-figure models of female beauty,
or as the dead bodies of women who have been killed by the oppressive
culture. The latter representation has much larger meaning because
it implicates oppression as the source of women’s self-harming
behaviors; yet the two cannot be separated.
By portraying only weak, passive, stick-thin
figures as the epitome of femininity, the culture condones the objectification
and manipulation of women’s bodies, which encourages physical
abuse. This idea is further expressed through the image of watermelon
being carved into “perfect pink balls.” (Legris 443).
The poet starts with a large, whole fruit, and wants to cut it into
much smaller, identical balls, resembling nothing of the original.
The placement of the word kitchen on the same line, right next to
the pink balls suggests that the two ideas are connected. The pink
balls come to represent the culture’s ideal women:much less
than the original, from which they were perfectly carved, and ready
to serve beside the kitchen.
Although the poet dreams the carving
of the female form, she rejects the
kitchen as she slashes the floor into a series of “Xs.”
The “Xs” can be representative of the female chromosome,
further connecting the watermelon
balls to women, or they can also be seen as errors. Like the indicators
mistakes on an exam, the repeated “X” signals something
is very wrong. The
placement of this sequence after the description of the girl lost
in the bone-
filled forest makes it even more powerful because it shows how the
culture places contradictory demands upon women. The culture will
encourage the harm of women, while also demanding that women fit
a beauty mold and be the caretakers of the home.
The poet hints at this world of conflict
throughout her work. After a series of red on white images she comments:
“the contrast/ so stark.” (Legris 444). Even the arrangement
of the words is done in contrasting sequences, with one section
of lines made up of long, run onsentences followed by a single word
standing on its own. Legris is not just commenting on the world
of a self-starving woman, but also the conflicting images and ideas
put forth by the dominant culture.
While mirroring the main themes presented
by Legris, the imagery of“The
Hungry Cookie Tin” focuses more on cultural contradictions
with some insight
into the lives of self-harming women. There are a number of pictures
overlap sumptuous food with very thin bodies. One of the most striking
is the picture of a very thin woman’s torso insidea sprinkle
donut. It is unclear whether the donut is very large, or the woman
is very tiny, but in either case, the two pictures do not belong
Our culture’s love of fatty foods
and love of thinness are in direct conflict and
create an impossible situation. The picture of Wilma Flintstone
enormous meat platter continues this pattern. The meat of the drum
about three times thicker than Wilma’s waist. The bone of
the meat is thicker
than her legs. The impossibility of this image is obvious. Wilma
her face away from the meat, as she is preparing to bring it to
She is tiny and servile - the culture’s perfect woman.
The feminine ideal is seen again in
‘the future homemakers of America’ image. These women
are Sylvia Legris’ “perfect pink balls.”(443).
They represent women’s willingness to fulfil the cookie-cutter
ideal. Their image conflicts grossly with Carrie, the half bloody
girl next door from Stephen King’s thriller novel Carrie,
later turned into a Hollywood film. But these four future homemakers
are connected to Carrie by “Sex, Lies and Salad Forks.”
They are the same sex, have been fed the same lies by the culture,
but differ in their use of the salad fork.
Perhaps all five eat salad to stay
thin, but Carrie is just as likely to use
the salad fork in a deadly manner. Her mutilation of self and others
rebellion against the hurtful behavior of her peers. Carrie also
glimpse into the lives of women who have been traumatized but have
no healthy methods for coping with emotional pain. In the same way
many women who suffer from self-abuse feel they have no options,
Carrie literally has no place to turn; she is not safe at home in
her private sphere and is tormented by her classmates in the public
sphere. Using her telekinetic abilities, Carrie is able to externalize
her pain and take her revenge against those who have harmed her;
yet this revenge also tears Carrie apart. Real women don’t
have the option of telekinetic vengeance, and instead they “deal
with their internal pain by picking at their skin, burning themselves
or cutting themselves with razors or knives.” (Pipher 157)
Like the half normal,
half bloody image of Carrie, a self-mutilating woman often appears
on one side
to be leading a relatively healthy life, while the other side of
her life is dominated by self-abuse. (Pipher 159).
The type of trauma which elicits self-mutilation
can vary from experiences of ostracism to sexual harassment or assault.
In most cases it is connected to some form of oppression which impacts
women almost exclusively. (Pipher 158).
Another area of contrast in both works is the stark difference between
starving as a coping mechanism versus starving because of poverty.
“hungergraphs” makes reference
to this idea when the woman describes
her life in terms of a sweatshop. Once more there is a direct clash,
between the women of sweatshops who toil for hours to eat with women
to avoid eating at all costs. “The Hungry Cookie Tin”
makes a similar
statement with the placement of the words “sweat yourself
skinny” beside a
woman hauling a mud brick. Across from this image, a low fat snack
emphasis on its 65 calorie total sits nestled next to a quote about
who subsist on only 1000 calories per day.
These messages remind me of the somewhat
contentious conception that eating disorders are “a problem
for the prosperous” (Pipher 174). These attitudes are also
reminiscent of the contrast between female genital mutilation and
the rising trend of vaginal cosmetic surgery. Disordered eating
versus forced starvation follows a pattern similar to the idea that
when FGM “is performed on healthy girls in
some African countries . . . Westerners denounce it as genital mutilation;
the U.S. of A., it’s called cosmetic enhancement.” (Scheers,
245). At the same
time, as Thompson points out, women living in poverty in Western
suffer from both eating disorders and sexual abuse (208), thus blurring
assumed class boundaries surrounding these issues.
Instead, one can see that self-starvation,
imposed starvation, and sexual abuse are issues which have the potential
to effect all women. The major connection between these issues is
their occurrence within hierarchical cultures which privilege men
above women and emphasize the importance of female appearance.
Both works accurately reflect the conflicting
views within the research
community in regards to the causes and treatment of eating disorders.
makes reference to an O.E.D. ,which I have taken to mean the Oxford
English Dictionary, a book about the meanings of things. She takes
this long name, and shrinks it -- a nod to the reductionist theories
An example of reductionism comes from
the 1999 guide Treating Mental Illness.
On anorexia, the guide comments that “No one really knows
the cause of
anorexia, in part because there has been so little research into
that contribute to the disorder.” (Nathan et.al. 26). The
guide raises a few
of the supposed factors, but makes no mention of trauma and oppression,
elements central to Becky Thompson’s 1994 research.
Also absent is the statistic quoted
in Thompson’s work that “between one-third and two-thirds
of women who have eating problems have been abused” (Oppenheimer
et al.; Root and Fallon; qut. in Thompson 207). The guide also makes
the rather contentious claim that only 1 to 2 women out of 1000
have symptoms of anorexia, while 1 to 2 women out of 100 will suffer
symptoms of bulimia sometime in their lives.(Nathan et.al. 26, 32).
In direct contradiction to these statistics
comes the work of Naomi Wolf, who suggests that the high end of
the figures show that out of ten women on a university campus, 2
will suffer from anorexia and 6 will suffer from bulimia at some
point during theirschooling. (Wolf 182). Both works are contradicted
again, by Niva Parin’s work which suggests that the most common
form of eating disorder falls into the Diagnostic Statistics Manual
under “Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified,” a
category not even mentioned by the other two works. Any type of
abnormal eating pattern which causes harm to the sufferer, often
eating, falls under this third category (Piran 370).
One thing the researchers agree on
is that anorexia, bulimia and ‘eating disorders not otherwise
specified’ are disorders which effect women at least 10 times
more often than men. (I tried to display this statistic in a very
obvious way with a picture
of ten thin, scantily clad women taken from the same magazine as
the picture of
one man placed beside them.)
When questioning why eating disorders
strike so many more women than men, the guide for Treating Mental
Disorders draws another blank: “No one knows why there is
such a discrepancy . . .” (Nathan et.al. 28). Although Betty
Friedan was addressing a different issue, the following statement
could very well be applied to this widespread problem: “For
human suffering there is a reason; perhaps the reason has not been
found because the right questions have not been asked, or pressed
far enough.” (Friedan 267).
Naomi Wolf questions how the Western
world would react to the mass self-
starvation of their sons, suggesting there would be “an emergency
including “crisis task forces . . . the best experts money
can hire, a flurry
of editorials, blame and counterblame, bulletins, warnings, symptoms,
(Wolf 180). Wolf goes on to lament the lack of action taken by the
healthcare providers to prevent eating disorders among young women.
(181). “hmmm . . . action./ look around. just/ look around.”
The empty space around the words in
this stanza will not be fully shown here for purposes of space;
needless to say there is nothing around these words
because nothing is really being done to prevent the onset of eating
As “The Hungry Cookie Tin” also shows, there arecertainly
plenty of images readily available in pop culture of dangerously
thin, weak-looking women displayed more like objects than human
The theme of the dehumanization of
women takes on multiple forms in both works, and displays the inner
turmoil of coping women, while also commenting on larger patriarchal
discourses in pop culture as well as in the research community.
Dehumanization can come in the form of objectification, Orientalism,
dissection and death. The demeaning of women to a sub-human level
in pop culture or in academic circles, is both a creator and a product
of a sexist culture. This type of environment not only encourages
oppression and violence against women, but also makes it difficult
for women to develop effective coping methods to deal with the types
of trauma many will undoubtably face.
the woman in the poem by literally describing her in terms of objects.
She describes her ribs as pencils, over which is pulled “every
inch of flesh taut/ as a drum.” (Legris 442). Legris indicates
a cultural connection here because the word “taut” is
pronounced identically to the word “taught.” Not only
is she hollow and stretched and abused like a drum, she has been
taught to take on that role by her culture.
A similar idea is expressed by Sandra
Bartky when she states that the disciplinary practices of modern
patriarchy construct the female body to be “a practiced and
subjected body, that is, a body on which an inferior status has
been placed.” (Bartkey 109). The woman’s body is further
objectified when it is described in terms
of a factory. Her body is a sweatshop, toiling out of habit to keep
her alive. She feels it buzzing with the effort. Like the refrigerator,
which may contain nothing if she keeps it as empty of food as she
does her own body, she feels hollow. Her body doesn’t make
sense to her; it is made up of a “tangle of wiring”
which is “crackling” beneath her thin skin (Legris 442).
She counts time by the headlights of cars passing by, but also by
the way her body processes fuel. She calls the digestion process
“discordant movement” and separates that idea from the
digestive organs of her body.
Legris takes this objectification of
the woman’s body one step further when she describes her arms
in terms of a surface on which to cut designs. She calls
her arms “skinny birch limbs” and wants to carve them
into “blunt potato cuts,”
which is striking since both birch bark and potato skins are peeled.
The woman later comments: “my gums are peeling from my teeth.”
(Legris 443). This overlapping peeling imagery creates the feeling
that one must peel away all the layers to know what is really going
on inside this woman’s life.
At the same time, the woman in “hungergraphs”
is disembodied, cut up and remains stuck in a living death. This
woman fits in with the majority of women who “are acculturated
to internalize an observer’s perspective as a primary view
of their physical selves.” (Piran 373). In this view, the
first line of the poem, “I heard once of a woman so thin .
. .” (Legris 442) could be a reference to the woman herself,
observing her body from the outsider’s perspective.
The poem itself is cut up into three
progressively longer sections, resembling the cut up views, body
and mind of the woman. Even her language seems starved, as she is
forced to combine three separate wishes into a run on sentence.
The second stanza on the last page reads quickly as a jumble of
words, “it’s not that i intend tohurt myself i just/
never feel real want to feel so badly/ feel/ anything.” (Legris
444). If this stanza were not starved of language, it could read:
“i just never feel real. i just want to feel so badly. i just
want to feel anything.” Instead, the three ideas are
forced to combine into one sentence.
Finally the woman’s disembodiment
leads her to a kind of living death. She uses imagery of bones and
blood to shape a disturbing, deathly picture. She stands in front
of the mirror “bone-naked” (Legris 442). As she describes
her life in the third stanza, she comments, “it’s like
living.” (442); however, this is not the same as actually
living. Her body is numb, but also “tingles with/ insects,
A body which is numb yet infested with
insects is the description of a
corpse. The live wires come to resemble worms, keeping the body
through their own slithering movements. She feels nothing, yet has
dreams about near death. Although the woman makes no clear reference
to past trauma, she is in an obvious state of disembodiment.
Disembodiment usually “occurs when the body domain becomes
acute experiences of personal and social vulnerability, with negative
(such as fear, shame or anger), and with internalized harsh or deprecating
attitudes and practices. Disembodiment disrupts one’s ability
to practice self
care . . .” (Piran 373). The woman’s ultimate separation
of mind from body occurs when she is self-mutilating from the observer’s
perspective. She questions how far she will have to dig into herself.
From outside her body, she makes an observation that her own dead
body does not bleed very much.
In a more metaphorical sense, this
sections signifies a deep inner search to find meaning and feeling
within herself as well as a rejection of her assigned role
in the dominant culture. Self-mutilation presents an escape through
of pain and a desperate, reactionary method of snatching back power
dictates of society. As Dr. Mary Pipher explains, when a woman self-mutilates,
she can be expressing, “‘I will hurt myself more than
the culture can hurt me.’” (Pipher 158).
The majority of women on “The
Hungry Cookie Tin” have been amputated in
some form. They no longer exist as whole persons. The women who
are the most
out of proportion are the female characters who are not really women:
Wilma Flintstone, and the cartoons.
The dehumanization theme progresses
to the point of the mechanization of food and the human body. The
picture of the otherworldly hand and hotdog emerging from the two
sports cars is eerie in its mechanical nature. Right next door,
a woman’s digitalized face smiles from a cell phone screen.
These pictures present the most objectified form the human body
can take in mainstream society. These images are no more than pieces
of mechanical objects, in a highly constructed “man-made”
form. Although I took all the images from pop culture, I added to
their dehumanization by further dissecting the women, and then burying
them under other images.
In some cases, I covered up their eyes,
mouths or entire heads, all in an attempt to expose their decreased
humanity; yet in other cases, there was little I could do to make
the image any worse than it was already. I came across a whole series
of fashion pictures in which the bones of the models had been drawn
overtop of their skin. The leg and half the pelvis of one of these
models appears next to drawing of a disturbingly disproportionate
cartoon woman. Part of the reason I decided to overlap layers of
pictures was to create Legris’ effect of overlapping cut up
segments to make run on sentences.
While I feel that the dissected pictures
of women are also reminiscent of
Sylvia Legris’ dehumanization process , my deconstruction
of these women can be
seen partly as my own personal rejection of the unhealthy body types
represent. These images were
primarily removed from various advertisements in
popular magazines. The presence of The New Yorker is a reminder
businesses profit directly or indirectly from women’s dissatisfaction
their bodies. As Sandra Bartky comments: “The strategy of
advertising is to suggest to women that their bodies are deficient;”
110). In many examples, businesses exploit not only female beauty
sexuality, but also project an exotic, otherworldly excitement onto
women of colour.
The image of the woman barely dressed
in a stereotypical oriental-looking
bikini is a prime example. This exotic quality is obviously false,
and therefore becomes a form of Orientalism in its projection of
an imagined reality unto women of diverse backgrounds.
The concept of Orientalism, as discussed
in my English 020E class with
Dr. James Doelman, relates to the projection of imagined characteristics
culture of people. These characteristics do not necessarily exist,
but are projected onto the culture to fulfil some dream of Western
imagination. Orientalism becomes a form of dehumanization because
it imposes an outside view on someone else’s reality, without
allowing those people to have their own voice todefine themselves.
This is a very significant concept for both works because it taps
in to how each piece comments on, and ultimately rejects, certain
culturally biased theories and attitudes about eating disorders.
Legris’ first reference to Orientalism
comes in the first paragraph with her mention of The Alexandria
Quartet. The quartet, written by Lawrence Durrell, is a series of
four novels, Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958),
and Clea (1960) all set in Alexandria, Egypt in the years before
World War II, with the final novel entering into the war. Each novel
is written with a different first-person narrator, with the exception
of Mountolive which is written in the third person. The story has
been called Orientalist, as the reader finds “each volume
offering a redefinition and
reconstruction of the significance of the same (mis)perceived events.”
(Gifford). The novel also deals with the idea of multiple profiles,
the idea of a single identity. As Balthazar is quoted saying, “Each
really an ant-hill of opposing predispositions. Personality as something
fixed attributes is an illusion.” (Balthazar qut. in Gifford).
This contrasts directly with traditional clinical approaches which
attempt to slot every patient into a specific category.
The woman in “hungergraphs”
is not simply a freak, she is “some sort of freak” (Legris
443) to be categorized by the medical institution. Worse still,
the dominant culture-of-thinness model, widely accepted as being
the main factor in the West’s high eating disorder rates (Thompson
210), tends to overgeneralize and dictate the rational behind self-harm.
Under this model, the guide for Treating Mental Illness says: “For
some women, the social cost of even the perception of being overweight
(regardless of whether they really are) is too much of a burden
to bear.” (Nathan et.al. 27). In this analysis, eating disorders
become “signs of self-centered vanity” and other forms
of oppression are ignored entirely (Thompson 221). As Sylvia Legris
writes, “my father says I do this for attention.” While
indicating fracture in the woman’s real family, this can also
be taken as a comment on the all-knowing
patriarch, who assumes the woman starves herself to gain sexual
woman’s feelings of being thin-skinned and shallow are repeated
again on the
last page of the poem, when the poet comments that “it doesn’t
take long/ to
hit bone.” (Legris 444). Focusing on the culture-of-thinness
possibly lead to the promotion of medication as a main form of treatment
trivializing the deeper emotional issues behind eating problems.
expressed in my work with the image of a drug shining over a woman’s
the words of a medical professional over top of the woman’s
mouth. In these
cases, the research community is using their own theories to define
struggles of self-harming women.
Becky Thompson challenged these theories by privileging the voices
women who had experience with eating problems. Although Dr. Mary
Pipher uses a
great deal of her own analysis, she also privileges the voices of
patients. This movement of listening to the
experiences of patients has led to a method called the “patient-centered
approach” which focuses on a holistic approach to healing
mind and body
and “which offers alternative coping strategies when self-starvation
bingeing/purging behaviors are taken away.” (Berg et.al. 95).
problem with eating disorder studies has been the reliance on “privileged
who mainly reside in Western countries” and “reliance
on prevalent Western
values.” (Piran 372). This makes Sylvia Legris’ reference
to The Alexandria
Quartet even more significant because she may be commenting on the
self-harm among women in oppressive cultures world wide, and challenging
notion of eating disorders being a problem of the West. I was able
this notion, mostly by coincidence, as I was forced to use pictures
women almost exclusively for “The Hungry Cookie Tin,”
only because of the very
low representation of women of colour in mainstream media. Similarly,
belonging to minority groups are also overlooked in the healthcare
to a combination of outright racism and for some, lack of economic
Studies have shown that doctors are less likely
to order tests or prescribe medication for women of colour, even
if they are
known to be at a
higher risk for certain illness because of ethnicity. (Cool 248).
discrimination appears to be just as prevalent in the mental healthcare
where Becky Thompson found very little research had been done on
of eating disorders among women who faced other oppressions in addition
sexism (Thompson 205).
Although “The Hungry Cookie Tin” reflects many of the
in “hungergraphs,” it differs in its rejection of cultural
harm and method of
dealing with trauma.
Upon opening the cookie tin, the viewer becomes part of the art
examining images of incredible thinness, the viewer is challenged
to “SHARE” an
oatmeal raisin cookie. The viewer must then examine her own ways
about food. The coping mechanism
advocated is written on the cookie. Sharing traumatic experiences
friend, family member
or counselor can be an effective method of coping by helping to
desire to harm one’s
self. In removing the cookie, however, you have also completed “The
Cookie Tin’s” mission to purge itself of the food. It
is left hollow and
metallic – reminiscent of Sylvia Legris’
empty refrigerator or drum.
“The Hungry Cookie Tin,” while focusing more on the
expression of the
patriarchal culture and less on the inner turmoil of coping women,
is still an
effective reflection of the main themes conveyed in Sylvia Legris’
“hungergraphs.” The two key elements these works examine
include contrasting views and contradiction, and the demeaning of
women through many
forms of dehumanization. The works reflect a knowledge of the inner
world of a
woman struggling with self-abuse, as well as the larger issues existing
popular culture and the mental health community. Both works are
valuable in their attempt to expand ideas in these areas and to
raise awareness about these concerns.
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and the Modernization of Patriarchal
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Prize Winner: Lilianne Dang
and Earth: An Exploration of Race, Representation and Spectatorship
up in a predominantly white, middle-class neighbourhood
in Toronto, I learned that I was “different” from
the other students in my elementary school. I was aware that my
ethnic background was Vietnamese but I did not see this difference
as something problematic, questionable or undesirable. While we
spoke Vietnamese at home and ate rice instead of spaghetti or potatoes
for dinner, I did not feel particularly unlike my friends from school.
It is not my intention to be reduce or simplify the dissimilarities
between my Caucasian counterparts and myself to just the food and
language but to my eight year old self, those were the glaring differences.
that time, a few of the other students took it upon themselves to
highlight the more disturbing distinctions that they found marked
on my body. They pulled the outer corners of their eyes taut and
called out “slant-y eyes” before running away to play.
Along with my eyes, I felt that my almost black, stick-straight
hair and my yellow skin became disparate parts that represented
I became more aware of the significance that my race and ethnicity
took on outside of me, I had trouble making sense of what that meant
for me. I understood these bodily markings as something beyond my
control but for those around me, they were a point of contestation.
It seemed as if my physiology and its cultural baggage was a personal
challenge to them – by locking eyes or by simply existing,
I had impelled a confrontation, a battle. However, at home, this
privileging and fixation on ethnicity and its signifiers was cynically
regarded and accepted as a fact of life. Although my parents had
experienced discrimination and racism throughout their lives in
Canada, they had hoped such incidents would be few and far
between for their children, but they knew our ethnicity would still
be an issue, major or minor, throughout our lifetimes.
my parents were sensitive to our Vietnamese heritage, they did not
speak of it in essentialist terms. Our heritage was rich but it
was not the core essence of our being. As I grew older, I was more
cognizant of my race and ethnicity and I sought representations
of my culture in mass media – television, film and music,
not to validate my culture and I numerically but merely to see familiar
faces. Unless its context was the Viet Nam War, Vietnamese people
very rarely ever made it to our television and movie screens. The
chance of catching a glimpse of an Asian person was greater but
still exceptional. As Asians, we were always relegated to the background,
to roles that facilitated the protagonist/subject on their narrative
journey. We would provide spiritual wisdom, “Oriental”
food, groceries, laundry services, musical (piano or violin) accompaniment,
or as spectacular kung-fu obstacles.
films that dealt with the experience in Viet Nam proved to be a site of tension and conflict because
they seldom portrayed the experience from the perspective of a Vietnamese
person. My parents were always disappointed in the (mis)representation
of the war because for them, it is not the Viet Nam War but the
American War. Also, the portrayals of the Vietnamese were less than
positive. As bell hooks writes in “The Oppositional Gaze:
Black Female Spectators”, visual pleasure in the context of
these films was “where looking was also about contestation
and confrontation” (309). Although she writes to articulate
the black female viewing experience, her work applies to that of
the Asian spectatorial experience and specifically, the Vietnamese experience
of watching such films as Heaven and Earth (dir. Oliver Stone,
1993) that attempt to “give voice” to or represent Viet
Nam and the Vietnamese. She elaborates, “Then, one’s
enjoyment of a film wherein representations of blackness were stereotypically
degrading and dehumanizing co-existed with a critical practice that
restored presence where it was negated” (309). Watching such
films highlights the Vietnamese viewer’s position as that
of both One and Other. The film positions the viewer to identify
with the character(s) on screen while disrupting this identification
through moments of “rupture when the spectator resists ‘complete
identification with the film’s discourse’” (qtd. in hooks 309). The ruptures have a two-fold purpose:
to create distance between the viewer and the filmic text, enabling
critical assessment and also, to underscore the ways in which the
Vietnamese character is made foreign to the Vietnamese viewer. It
is beyond the scope of this essay to polemically chart “the
oppositional gaze” of the Asian spectator; however, it is
appropriate here to examine how race and representation intersect
in the instance of Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth.
her book, The Viet Nam War / The American War: Images and Representations
in Euro-American and Vietnamese Exile Narratives, Renny
Christopher attempts to situate the conflict in Viet Nam for both
Americans and Vietnamese exiles out of the confounds of American
mythology. She notes:
The American tendency to call the war ‘Vietnam’
or ‘the Vietnam War’ obscures the fact that there was
a series of wars in Southeast Asia … The Second Indochina
War is the war between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North;
henceforth abbreviated DRV) and the Republic of Viet Nam (South;
henceforth abbreviated RVN) … In Viet Nam, the war carried
on between 1961 and 1975 is usually called the American War. (311)
Her statement points to the American project of “Americanizing”
the experience of the war by removing the agency of Viet Nam or
the Vietnamese to endure those years in conflict and supplanting
the American subject in its place. She adds:
real war in Platoon and in American culture is not the historical
war fought on the battlefields, but rather the ongoing meta-war,
which attempts to erase Vietnamese from their own reality and make
them part of the American reality … U.S. discourse about the
war seems most comfortable when it can centre exclusively on American
issues and abstract “Vietnam” the war from Viet Nam
the country. (4)
Oliver Stone attempts to rectify this problem in his
filmic adaptation Heaven and Earth from Le Ly Hayslip’s
two autobiographies When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese
Woman’s Journey from War to Peace (1989) and Child
of War, Woman of Peace (1993). As the third film in his Vietnam trilogy (Platoon and Born on the Fourth of
July are his other two films), he endeavours
to represent the “authentic” Vietnamese experience of
the war through the female protagonist Phung
Thi Le Ly Hayslip.
It is important here to draw distinctions between Le Ly in these
two different texts: the written autobiography and the film. In
her essay, “Third World Testimony in the Era of Globalization:
Vietnam, Sexual Trauma, and Le Ly Hayslip’s
Art of Neutrality,” Leslie Bow elaborates further on this
method. She writes:
this essay I make a distinction between Hayslip,
the author who constructs the narrative, and Le Ly, the representation
of herself as the character who plays out the action in the narrative.
The fact that these two entities are often presumed to be identical
testifies to the strength of realism as a genre and the illusion
of unmediated access to the subject of the first-person narrative.
While both Leslie Bow and Renny
Christopher credit Hayslip’s autobiography
in their work for its contribution to the canon of Vietnamese exile
writing, as it offers what Bow refers to as “an alternative
view – that of a Vietnamese peasant woman” (170). Christopher
adds, “[S]he speaks from a position that is systematically
erased from the discourse on both of the warring sides – the
Viet Cong and the U.S. – RVN alliance. Through her book,
and her life, she turns that victimization into a force for healing
and reconciliation” (71). In her autobiography, Hayslip
succeeds “in countering dominant American representations
of the Vietnamese people as mere backdrops to a hellish landscape.
Vietnam and the Vietnamese, her story testifies,
exist” [author’s emphasis] (Bow 170). Despite
the power of her narrative as testimony and activism, these writers
credit Hayslip for an agency that does
not exist for her filmic counterpart, Le Ly. Oliver Stone, a white
American male and former veteran mediates the “voice”
of Hayslip/Le Ly as he adapted and wrote
the screenplay for the film. Bow describes the differences between
the autobiography and film. She writes:
Stone’s interpretation of Hayslip’s
life jettisons the autobiography’s narrative structure, which
centers on Le Ly’s reconciliation of her supposed national
betrayal, in favor of a simple chronology of events and the all-too-familiar
American male saviour/Asian female saved narrative of Madame
Butterfly … (186).
Although she argues against overdetermining
the role of the coauthor (Jay Wurts, a
white American male veteran co-wrote When Heaven and Earth Changed
Places) or in this case, the adaptor, Bow misses the importance
of agency and the subject for an Other like Hayslip/Le
Ly. From the transition from Hayslip in the autobiography to Le Ly in the film, loses the
voice from which she speaks as what Trinh T. Minh-Ha
deems the (Inappropriate) Other. In Heaven and Earth, a white
American male veteran “gives voice” to the un-represented
– poor, Oriental/foreign woman. For someone to be in the position
of privilege and dominance to “give” voice to those
that are disadvantaged is a technique of condescension. It implicitly
acknowledges a difference in power and position but provides a band-aid
type remedy instead of critically examining the ways in which power
(culturally inherited or not) is internalized and subsumed. Trinh
depicts this technique of “giving voice,” common in
documentary film practices as a way “[t]o authenticate a work”
(67). She asserts:
[I]t becomes therefore most important to prove or make
evident how this Other has participated in the making of his/her
own image; hence, for example, the prominence of the string-of-interviews
style and the talking-heads, oral witnessing strategy in documentary
film practices. This is often called “giving voice,”
even though these “given” voices never truly form the
Voice of the film … (67)
To be “given” a voice reveals itself to
be a false sense of subjectivity. Le Ly lacks true agency. Do I
identify with Le Ly because she is a Vietnamese woman? This becomes
a site of rupture for the (Vietnamese) viewers, as her unique positioning
is undermined and displaced in the film. Bow notes:
However much the film intervenes by recasting Madame
Butterfly’s ending – the disintegration of the American
vet contrasted to the triumphant Vietnamese woman’s homecoming
– it nonetheless reaffirms the dominant representation of
Asian women in American film as noble whores finding salvation in
white men who turn out to be more angst-ridden, psychologically
complex subjects. (186)
In my view, it is not enough that her story is recounted
for a Western audience or that she exists on screen. To merely exist
should not be equated with acting and/or disrupting.
In Heaven and Earth, the conflation
of Hayslip and Le Ly serves to authenticate
the war narrative whose validity hinges on “experiential accounts”
and “being there” (Bow 169). Christopher elaborates,
“only those who were ‘there’ can really understand
experience. This qualification gives the participant writer greater
‘authority’ … ‘authenticity’ is construed
as authenticity of experience” [author’s emphasis]
(9 – 10). By employing the “voice” of a Vietnamese
woman though Le Ly and Hiep Thi Le, the actress that portrays her, Stone appropriates
the voice of the insider. This lends the film greater sense of “authenticity”
that ultimately effaces the construction of the character and the
The film misrepresents itself as enlightened
as it (falsely) speaks from the perspective of a Vietnamese woman,
simply reinforces the dominant American understanding of Asians
and specifically, the Vietnamese. The film draws a distinct parallel
between Le Ly and Viet Nam. It conflates woman with nation. In the film, Steve
Butler (Tommy Lee Jones), an American marine initiates a relationship
with Le Ly (Hiep Thi
Le). He comes to her home, carrying a box of cheap toys and trinkets,
evoking the image of a generous white Santa Claus. This image draws
upon the narrative that the United States as “well-meaning
good guys,” trying to help poor, inferior nations around the
world “who do not recognize good intentions in Americans”
(Christopher 7). In this scene, Steve asks Le Ly to marry him. He
says, “I just want a little peace and happiness. I just want
to be with you … to help you and your mom. Anything wrong
with that?” When Le Ly protests that she has bad karma since
past relationships with men have left her sexually violated and/or
unwed and pregnant, Steve dismisses her objection. He says, “Bad
karma? How much bad could have happened to a little girl
like you?” [my emphasis] He goes on to say, “I have
a house in San
I want you to be there with me. You’ll be safe. You’ll
be free. Your boy will have his freedom and an education. I need
a good Oriental woman like you.” The men in Le Ly’s
life reduce and abstract her from her actual body and self. Steve
and others speak of her in terms of her size and her lack of ability/agency.
She is “little” or “small” in their eyes.
Also, she is not an actual woman but rather a girl or child.
The malleability of language and accent highlights
alternation between affirmation and difference. Ultimately, it reveals
Le Ly’s lack of agency. In the scenes that take place in Ky La, a remote farming village in central Viet Nam, villagers speak English with the slightest
hint of an accent. This is not to suggest that greater authenticity
is required but for a film that rests on authenticity, it is puzzling
that the villagers begin their dialogue (particularly the Viet Cong’s
rousing propaganda rally) with a few words in Vietnamese and then
switch over to flawless English. However, when Le Ly moves to Saigon and must earn her living on the street,
selling “smokes and Johnny Walker,” her mastery of English
evaporates, leaving her barely able to communicate with the soldiers
around her. She reverts to the stereotypical “sucky
sucky five-dollah” accent
in the metropolis of Saigon.
Any agency she had in the inaccessible town Ky
La has been confiscated when she is around white American men; thus,
leaving her vulnerable and dependent. This bizarre shift accentuates
Le Ly’s Otherness. It leaves her unintelligible.
The representations of Vietnamese women in
the film play upon the stereotypes of Asian women in general. They
oscillate between lotus blossoms and dutiful daughters and/or dragon
ladies. Despite her status as unwed and pregnant with her former
master’s child, Le Ly sells not her body but cigarettes and
whiskey on the streets of Saigon. In contrast, her sister and other Vietnamese
women pander their bodies to American soldiers for money. Hai, Le Ly’s sister, works as a prostitute in a Saigon brothel. In the brothel, a sense of chaos
overwhelms as bodies flow in and out of tight spaces and women dance
naked. Hai, in her red chinoise dress,
red heart-shaped sunglasses, big coiffure and gaudy make-up contrasts
against the plain clothes and face of Le Ly. Le Ly’s hair
is long and straight and pulled back behind her head, a style common
to “good” Vietnamese girls. Although prostitution became
a facet of life for many in the war, the film does not contextualize
the economics of such a vocation. Instead, the film in the way it
represents the two sisters, plays the stereotypes of Asian women
against one another.
In Heaven and Earth, Le Ly declines
requests for sex by American soldiers because she is a “good
girl” but she succumbs in one brief scene, as the soldiers
offer her $400. After much time hesitating and rebuffing the offer,
she obliges because the money could feed her mother, son and herself
for a year. The film portrays this instance as one of shame and
humiliation and ultimately, an aberration. She washes herself, cloaked
in darkness, crying, and her back to the camera/viewer. However,
in her autobiography, Hayslip writes of
more than one instance of prostitution. Bow notes the agency in
this action that is often judged:
Le Ly’s resistance does not depend upon the denial
of these systems [patriarchal systems of marriage and heterosexuality,
etc] but on her ability to recognise and exploit them materially.
As sex literally becomes a commodity bartered for survival, in controlling
her sexual commodification Le Ly asserts the primacy of her own agency
in her distribution. (185)
Any agency that Hayslip has
in her autobiography is lost in the translation to the screen. By
portraying her prostitution, a sex-positive and economically conscious
act of resistance as humiliating and shameful, the film reaffirms
the stereotypes that divide Asian women that When Heaven and
Earth Changed Places fought to change.
Perhaps Heaven and Earth could have been
a more successful film in terms of race and representation if Hayslip could have written the screenplay herself or even
articulated her experience in film, not to authenticate the text
as an insider but to take the position as the Inappropriate Other.
Trinh defines this as one “who moves about with always at
least two/four gestures: that of affirming ‘I am like you’
while persisting in her difference; and that of reminding ‘I
am different’ while unsettling every definition of otherness
arrived at” (74). After viewing the Hollywood epic Heaven and Earth, despite the
(good) intentions of the filmmaker, the representation of Viet Nam and the Vietnamese has much to accomplish
and complete before its spectators can comfortably sit and watch
with more pleasure than displeasure. In either case, the critical
eye is still necessary to ensure that questions are constantly being
asked and explored.
Bow, Leslie. “Third World Testimony in the Era
of Globalization: Vietnam, Sexual Trauma, and Le Ly Hayslip’s Art
of Neutrality.” Haunting Violations: Feminist Criticism
and the Crisis of the “Real.” Ed. Wendy S. Hesford and Wendy Kozol. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. 169 – 194.
Christopher, Renny. The
Viet Nam War / The American War: Images and Representations
in Euro-American and Vietnamese Exile Narratives. Amherst:
University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.
Heaven and Earth. Dir. Oliver Stone. Perf. Haing
S. Ngor, Joan Chen, Hiep
Thi Le, and Tommy Lee Jones. Warner Brothers, 1993.
hooks, bell. “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female
Spectators.” Feminist Film Theory: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh
UP, 1999. 307 - 320.
T. Minh-Ha. When The Moon Waxes Red:
Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1991.