Western's Caucus on Women's Issues

Essay Awards > Essay Award Winners 2003

First Prize Winner: Jenna Flannigan

Second Prize Winner: Lilianne Dang

First Prize Winner: Jenna Flannigan

Artful Hunger:
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.

There 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 self-harm. While
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 experiences
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 for
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 which
overlap sumptuous food with very thin bodies. One of the most striking images
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 together.

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 holding the
enormous meat platter continues this pattern. The meat of the drum stick is
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 is turning
her face away from the meat, as she is preparing to bring it to someone else.
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 becomes a
rebellion against the hurtful behavior of her peers. Carrie also gives a
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, this time
between the women of sweatshops who toil for hours to eat with women who work
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 with
emphasis on its 65 calorie total sits nestled next to a quote about refugees
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; in
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 countries can
suffer from both eating disorders and sexual abuse (208), thus blurring the
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. Legris
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 on self-harm.

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 the factors
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, the two
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 termed disordered
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 response”
including “crisis task forces . . . the best experts money can hire, a flurry
of editorials, blame and counterblame, bulletins, warnings, symptoms, updates;”
(Wolf 180). Wolf goes on to lament the lack of action taken by the media and
healthcare providers to prevent eating disorders among young women. (181). “hmmm . . . action./ look around. just/ look around.” (Legris 443).

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 disorders.
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 beings.

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.

“hungergraphs” objectifies 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, live wires.”

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 moving only
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 associated with
acute experiences of personal and social vulnerability, with negative feelings
(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 a release
of pain and a desperate, reactionary method of snatching back power from the
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: Barbie,
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 they
These images were primarily removed from various advertisements in
popular magazines. The presence of The New Yorker is a reminder that many
businesses profit directly or indirectly from women’s dissatisfaction with
their bodies. As Sandra Bartky comments: “The strategy of much beauty-related
advertising is to suggest to women that their bodies are deficient;” (Bartky
110). In many examples, businesses exploit not only female beauty and
sexuality, but also project an exotic, otherworldly excitement onto images of
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 onto a
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, rejecting
the idea of a single identity. As Balthazar is quoted saying, “Each Psyche is
really an ant-hill of opposing predispositions. Personality as something with
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 attention from
men. The
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 model could
possibly lead to the promotion of medication as a main form of treatment by
trivializing the deeper emotional issues behind eating problems. This is
expressed in my work with the image of a drug shining over a woman’s face, with
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 the
struggles of self-harming women.
Becky Thompson challenged these theories by privileging the voices of
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 her
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 and
bingeing/purging behaviors are taken away.” (Berg et.al. 95). Another
problem with eating disorder studies has been the reliance on “privileged women
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 existence of
self-harm among women in oppressive cultures world wide, and challenging the
notion of eating disorders being a problem of the West. I was able to capture
this notion, mostly by coincidence, as I was forced to use pictures of white
women almost exclusively for “The Hungry Cookie Tin,” only because of the very
low representation of women of colour in mainstream media. Similarly, women
belonging to minority groups are also overlooked in the healthcare system due
to a combination of outright racism and for some, lack of economic privilege.
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). This
discrimination appears to be just as prevalent in the mental healthcare system,
where Becky Thompson found very little research had been done on the presence
of eating disorders among women who faced other oppressions in addition to
sexism (Thompson 205).
Although “The Hungry Cookie Tin” reflects many of the ideas expressed
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 work. After
examining images of incredible thinness, the viewer is challenged to “SHARE” an
oatmeal raisin cookie. The viewer must then examine her own ways of thinking
about food. The coping mechanism
advocated is written on the cookie. Sharing traumatic experiences with a
friend, family member
or counselor can be an effective method of coping by helping to diffuse the
desire to harm one’s
self. In removing the cookie, however, you have also completed “The Hungry
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 in both
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.

Works Cited

Bartky, Sandra. “Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal
Power.” Women’s Studies 020E - Course Anthology. London, Ont: 2002. 103-118.

Berg, Kathleen M. et. al. Eating Disorders: A Patient-Centered Approach.
Cornwall: Radcliffe Medical Press, 2002.

Brownell, Kelly D. and John P. Foreyt. Handbook of Eating Disorders. New York:
Basic Books,1968.

Cool, Lisa Collier. :”Forgotten Women: How Minorities Are Underserved
by Our Healthcare System.” Women’sVoices, Feminist Visions: Classic and
Contemporary Readings. Ed. Janet Lee and Susan M. Shaw. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001. 247-249

Friedan, Betty. “The Problem That Has No Name.” Women’s Studies 020E -
Course Anthology. London, Ont: 2002. 264 - 268.

Gifford, James. "Reevaluating Postcolonial Theory in Lawrence Durrell's
Alexandria Quartet" Literary Studies and Global Culture. University of
Victoria, Department of English. 16-17 Mar. 2001. Online. 2 Nov 2001.
http://www.ualberta.ca/~gifford/textsvictoria.htm. March14, 2003.

Legris, Sylvia. “hungergraphs.” 1996. Women’sVoices, Feminist
Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Ed. Janet Lee and Susan M. Shaw.
New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001. 442-444.

Levenkron, Steven. Anatomy of Anorexia. New York: W.W. Norton & Company,

Nathan, Peter E. et. al Treating Mental Disorders: A Guide to What Works. New
York: OxfordUniversity Press, 1999.

Pipher, Mary. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent
Girls. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.
Piran, Niva. “Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating.” Encyclopedia or Women
and Gender: Sex Similarities and Differences and the Impact of Society on
Gender. A-K. Vol. 1.
Ann Arbor: Academic Press, 2001. 370 - 378.
Scheeres, Julia. “Vulva Goldmines: How cosmetic surgeons snatch your money.”
Women’s Studies 020E - Course Anthology. London, Ont: 2002. 70 - 85.
Thompson, Becky Wangsgaard. “‘A Way Outa No Way:’ Eating Problems
African-American, Latina, and White Women.” Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions:
Classic and Contemporary Readings. Ed. Janet Lee and Susan M. Shaw. New York:
McGraw-Hill, 2001. 205-211.
Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth. Toronto: Vintage Books, 1990.


Second Prize Winner: Lilianne Dang

Heaven and Earth: An Exploration of Race, Representation and Spectatorship

            Growing 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.

            Around 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 my whole.

            As 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.

            Although 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.

            War 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.

            In 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:

The 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:

Throughout 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. (190)


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 filmic medium.

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 Diego. 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.

 Works Cited

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.


Trinh, T. Minh-Ha. When The Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender and Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 1991.



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