Misplaced Bodies: Probing Racial and Gender Signifiers in Ngozi Onwurah’s The Body Beautiful

Misplaced Bodies: Probing Racial and Gender Signifiers in Ngozi Onwurah’s The Body Beautiful

Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies
Volume 29, Number 1 (2008)
pages 37-50
E-ISSN: 1536-0334 Print ISSN: 0160-9009
DOI: 10.1353/fro.0.0004

Diana Adesola Mafe, Assistant Professor of English
Denison University, Granville, Ohio

Exalted by poets, painters and sculptors, the female body, often reduced to its isolated parts, has been mankind’s most popular subject for adoration and myth, and also for judgment, ridicule, esthetic alteration and violent abuse.

Susan Brownmiller, Femininity

In her seminal text Femininity, Susan Brownmiller identifies what can simply be termed the mythic proportions of the female body. Idealized, worshiped, ravaged, and reviled-the female body is forever being measured (usually against the unattainable paradigms of a male imagination) and found lacking. The myth of the female body’s inadequacy is crucial to my discussion of Nigerian British director Ngozi Onwurah’s 1991 film, The Body Beautiful. In the spirit of Brownmiller’s claim that “biological femaleness is not enough. Femininity always demands more,”21 wish to posit Onwurah’s film as a seldom discussed yet highly subversive text where cinematic representations of the (lacking) female body and the racialized performance of femininity are concerned.

Neither a documentary nor a fictional film, The Body Beautifuloperates as a memoir, merging the memories and imaginations of both the director and her mother to create a twenty-three-minute film of their lives. Onwurah, played by actress Sian Martin, appears in the film as a confident, attractive, and sexual young woman of mixed race. Her mother Madge (who plays herself) is a visibly scarred older white woman who has undergone a mastectomy. The dissimilar female bodies of mother and daughter are constantly juxtaposed, reminding viewers that “how one looks is the chief physical weapon in female-against-female competition.” And, bearing out the epigraph of this paper, the young Ngozi, a fashion model, seemingly epitomizes the role of the female body as “subject for adoration” while Madge remains subject to “judgment, ridicule, [and] esthetic alteration.” But Onwurah, as director, points to the commonality of these raced and gendered bodies, both of which are subject to myths of inadequacy despite their differences.

Notably, race cannot be extricated from this discussion of the female body and its idealization. Even the beautiful young Ngozi is rendered lacking because her body is, in the words of Homi Bhabha, “almost. . . but not quite” the (white) Western feminine aesthetic. Ngozi’s modeling success thus hinges on her manipulation at the hands of a white male photographer, who urges her to fulfill the stereotypical role of the sexualized “black” woman as he clicks the camera, saying, “Give me sex. Give me passion.” For Madge, a survivor of breast cancer and a mastectomy, the “lack” is literal and symbolic. Although biologically female, she is consistently situated by social discourses (as represented in the film) outside the sphere of femininity.

Indeed, I suggest that discursive practices are unable to accommodate either Madge, an aging, arthritic, breastless woman, or Ngozi, an attractive, young, mixed-race woman caught between the myths of white beauty and black sexuality, except through essentialized notions of gender and race. Although excluded from the sphere of “real” femininity, Madge is included in the category of majority white British society. Her visibly raced daughter, on the other hand, while coded as highly attractive and feminine, is very much excluded from that white world and read, in typically Manichean terms, as a black model. But despite these respective exclusions and inclusions in vexed categories of identity as a result of their visibly marked bodies, neither of these women is ever adequately “placed,” and therein lies the fallibility of identification, which, as Stuart Hall aptly states, is “never a proper fit.”

Incidentally, the mixed-race woman of African and European descent has long functioned as a recognizable signifier for illicit sexuality and racial ambiguity in Western literary traditions. In both Europe and the Americas, the origins of the “mulatta” as cultural icon are linked to the erotic/exotic fantasies of a white (male) imagination. In early modern travel narratives dealing with the African coast and the Caribbean, European men often made careful observations about mixed race women. And the mulatta character appears with enough frequency in British novels to betray an ongoing British fascination with that figure. By critiquing her own stereotypical role as an eroticized/exoticized mixed-race woman, Onwurah also challenges the problematic iconography of the mulatta figure. Since the very process of identification is fraught, that is, “lodged in contingency,” the self-identification or self-representation of the mixed-race subject becomes a useful starting point for understanding and theorizing (white-black) mixedness. The Body Beautiful, a rare example of a film with a mixed-race woman behind and in front of the camera, literally speaks to these exigencies where representations of interraciality are concerned…

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