Gender

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Photo: Marco Merkli

The results of my comparative study of visual and verbal portraiture informs my explorations into the unique social status of the photographic image to ask how writers, especially writers of autobiography, have used it in their presentations of self to overwrite existing notions of gendered identity. In "Here's Looking at Me: Exposing Gender in Gender Outlaw and The Last Time I Wore a Dress" (2006), I expand upon the observations that a represented body is never a neutral body and that photographic portraiture can and has been used to challenge popular attitudes about gender and its corporeal intelligibility and, at the same time, introduce and legitimize unconventional gender formulations. A close examination of the use of photographic portraiture in two interart autobiographical texts, Gender Outlaw by Kate Bornstein and The Last Time I Wore a Dress by Daphne Scholinski, leads me to conclude that the photographic image can work alongside words to effectively present a body that is, quite surprisingly, free from the societal constrictions of gender.

Gender and its representation in photography is further explored in "Critical Encounters with Gender: Photography in Virginia Woolf's Orlando" (2005). In this article, I argue that the complex interweaving of fiction, biography and photography in Woolf's text exposes gender as the product and process of what cultural theorists, following Foucault, call social technologies. Focusing on the body and its representation (both verbal and photographic), I argue that Woolf, whose private and public writings indicate a keen awareness that the represented body confirms to and even consolidates specific gender categories, works within the very parameters of photography to unsettle the premises upon which the correlation between body and gender is instated.

My research in the study of gender and its relation to photography has also led me to examine photographic essays, such as Lincoln Clarkes' Heroines, a collection of photographic portraits of the heroine addicted and marginalised women of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. In "Failing the Feminine: Photographed Words in Lincoln Clarkes' Heroines" (2010), I explore how the background words in many of Clarkes' photographs overpower the portrait subject, emptying it of its own specificity. I argue that although the words may seem to situate these otherwise invisible women in the popular cultural milieu by asserting cultural stereotypes of femininity (especially by exploring how food intersects with sex and the fashion industry), they actually work alongside the visual to efface the feminine. Hence, the words aid to further marginalize these women and distance them from the strictures of gender that regulate behaviour, beauty and desirability. Although in the background, the words in these photographs tower over the human subject so that public norms, assumptions and prejudices, and not private identities, are exposed.

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