Friday, May 4, 2012

Kathryn Bond Stockton, "Cloth Wounds"

Kathryn Bond Stockton theorizes ideas about the way queer people wear clothing in her essay "Cloth Wounds, or When Queers Are Martyred to Clothes: The Value of Clothing's Complex Debasements."  This article appeared in Women: A Cultural Review in Winter 2003.  In this piece, she discusses how clothing a person wears can be symbolic of how they are viewed and treated in society.  She discusses three novels (The Well of Loneliness, Stone Butch Blues, and Querelle) as three novels where the clothing that queer people wear are a site of conflict.  For this project, I am more interested in her theories about clothing than in her literary analysis.  She discusses the idea that choosing certain clothes can be an action of self-outing and self-betrayal (Stockton, 2003, 289).  It is an act of self-betrayal for queers because wearing their preferred clothes can be an act showing their true selves and opening themselves to violence.  Stockton writes: 
"Clothing, in these novels, is a throwing and catching, a centrifugal force.  In the act of clothing, one is thrown outward into cloth arms (the arms of one's clothes), caught and held as a public gesture, in the social field.  Clothing is this act of public self-betrayal, by which one seems to reveal oneself."(Stockton, 2003, 290). 
Stockton wants to explore the idea of women's clothing as exposing the wound of being female in society.   She says that clothing can "wound" by making a person susceptible to violence or by making them feel pain because the clothing does not match the inner thoughts or desires (Stockton, 2003, 291).  She also discusses the way that women's clothing emphasizes her gendered position as the "wounded" gender as theorized by Freud (Stockton, 2003, 291).  She also says that queer people may become obsessed by their clothing and what it represents (Stockton, 2003, 291).  She defines these pains and stigmas as "cloth wounds" (Stockton, 2003, 291).  She contradicts the dictionary definition of clothing as something that cover the body and Freud's definition as the covering of genitals like pubic hair (Stockton, 2003, 291-292).   Instead, she thinks that clothing exposes the body and particularly female genitals to public view (Stockton, 2003, 292).  She uses Freud's definition of vanity as coming from women's shame in their wounded body to contradict his ideas of clothing as covering the female genitals (Stockton, 2003, 292). She writes: 
"By Freud's rendering, in spite of what he claims, clothing is not primarily concealment; it is not primarily a more attractive version of its model, public hair.  Clothing, rather, is bold revelation, a cover turning inside out: it reveals the category (male or female) of the person's genitals it purports to cover.  On 'every women's' sweater, a vaginal wound." (Stockton, 2003, 292).
Stockton notes that not every one, such as psychoanalyst J. C. Fluegel, shares the idea of women's clothing as a sign of the "shame" of her sex (Stockton, 2003,  292-293).  She connects this idea to the concept of the New Women in the 20th Century who rejected feminine clothing and lesbians who also chose to forsake women's clothing (Stockton, 2003, 293).  She notes that this rejection marked these women as deviants and calls it a "stigma" (Stockton, 2003, 293).  But she wants to make the point that it was their lesbianism that marked them and their clothing rather than their clothing marking them (Stockton, 2003, 293).  Stockton notes,
 "Refusing women's clothes may publicly reveal one's sexual preference for other women's bodies, thus resulting in a stigma.  But can we put emphasis on the other way around?  One's public preference for other women sexually can make the public see--and see, perhaps, in a whole new way--something about some women's refusal of women's clothes." (Stockton, 2003, 293). 
 This is a key component of her argument.  She wants to point out that the way queers wear clothing marks the importance of clothing and the way that gender and shame are intertwined into the way that we wear clothing.  The point of the shame the wearer may feel is very important in this essay.
I like Stockton's discussion of feminine clothing highlighting the stigma of the female body.  So often, in discussions of clothing, sexuality, and gender, the feminine is not recognized as a site of queer production.  Because femmes are not seeing as wearing clothing in a deviant way, they are not seen as being visibly queer.  In this essay, the female and wearing of female clothing is recognized as a place of gender shame and public visibility.  There is also not enough discussion of how the female body and feminine appearance marks people as a person that is vulnerable in society.  Women and female-identified people are treated as objects that can be violated, discriminated against, and owned in society.  For all the strides female identified people have made, their bodies are still shamed in society and are still sites of state, public, and private violence.  I do not think that Freud was right in saying that having a vagina is a psychic wound, but society does construct the male body as the "correct" and "normal" body and the female body as the "broken" and "deviant" body.   Regardless of whether this is real or not, it does effect the way that the female body is portrayed, constructed, and treated in society.  I do think that this argument about genitalia can be cissexist and should be questioned on those grounds.
I also really like her discussion of the preferences of the person marking them rather than their clothing as showing their "deviant" preferences.  This is a sharp distinction.  What marks one as queer or gender variant?  Is it identity, thoughts, and feelings, or is it visible actions such as wearing the clothing that is traditionally of another group?  Is the femme only queer in reference to their relationships with other queers?
Stockton addresses the idea of clothing as the place of public visibility,
"The subject-in-clothes seems thrown to a public all too real, caught and held by a social world that, traditionally, has been devoid of caprice in its gender prescriptions.  Here, however, is the insight of our novels: if the act of clothing is this public self-betrayal, in a known social field, clothing can also be a move towards self-enclosure inside the wrap of fantasy.  When clothes seem inappropriate to wearers--for example, butch women adopting men's clothes--they discernibly signal a body broken from established versions of 'real relations.'  As a result, the social field must hold, and behold, this wearer as one humiliated, cast beyond its reach.  The question then arises of how the subject bears humiliation and her seeming break from the larger social field, even as she's held on public display."  (Stockton, 2003, 311).  
I like the idea of clothing as the signal of inner deviance form social ideas rather than as the act of deviance itself.  This implies that the act of wearing clothing as a queer is a more complicated proposition than simply being judged as queer for wearing deviant clothing.  For it is the inner ideas that are the queer rather than their outer presentation.   Clothing can be a very important public declaration of these ideas and desires, can even be a necessary part of identity marking and creation for queer people, but it is not the sum and total of queerness.  But this text also emphasizes that there are very real and violent social consequences to the act of wearing deviant clothing and marking one's self as queer through appearance.  People are judged by society and place themselves in vulnerable positions for discrimination and emotional and physical violence by wearing clothing that marks them as queer, gay, transgender, or gender variant.  People can also feel conflicted over clothing because the clothing they want to wear may not be the clothing that society tells them they should wear.  While choosing the clothing one wants to wear can be liberating, it can also be difficult because it can be painful to actually name and recognize your desires, especially if those desires are shamed in society.  This public act of wearing deviant or marking clothing can be a reason that young people may find liberation in wearing and discussing this clothing in their internet personas.  It may not seem easier to a privileged person to wear the clothing you want, photograph it, and put it on your blog before you wear it in public, but for a young person who is more out online, it can be a safer way to experience and experiment with identity.  
  Stockton, Kathryn Bond. "Cloth Wounds, or When Queers Are Martyred to Clothes: The Value of Clothing's Complex Debasements." Women 13, no. 3 (Winter2002 2002): 289. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed May 3, 2012).

No comments:

Post a Comment