"When the mask is taken off it becomes an inert object, like a doll or a puppet, confusing the boundaries between the living and the dead."
-Gen Doy, Claude Cahun: a sensual politics of photography
Most of Claude Cahun's self portraits are believed to be photographed by her lover Suzanne Malherbe (Marcel Moore). Since Cahun never sought publication for these works, it can be argued that they were composed and created for Malherbe's gaze as much as for Cahun's own personal creative outlets. In fact, in many of the photographs what is most probably Malherbe's shadow can be just seen eclipsing the figure of Cahun as it does in Self-Portratit with Flowers. Gen Doy in the collection of essays titled Claude Cahun: a sensual politics of photography points out that the shadow of the photographer can simply be a quirk of position and lighting, and yet, on another level it reinforces the presence of the one capturing the view, the one behind the lens who remains invisible. In a sense, the shadow of Malherbe in Cahun's work reinforces the intimacy they shared as Cahun performs for the camera and Malherbe actively participates in capturing this performance. The dual photographs of Cahun and Malherbe before mirrors (Self Portrait with Mirror and Marcel Moore and Mirror) surely indicates that they were aware and playing with the idea of doubling and the gaze. Cahun as well was familiar with Lacan and his "mirror stage" in which he theorized that the mirror phase "is narcissistic and its function is to stave off the fragmentation of one's self image and subjectivity while separating the child from the surrounding world and the mother" (Doy 59). This sense of coherent identity Lacan tells us is a trap for the ego, the ego preserves itself as the other, the ideal image contained in the mirror wherein lies the narcissism, the desire for the self which influences the object of the eye's desire based on this mirrored trap. Doy does a superb job of examining what the current flow of psychoanalytical theory including Freud's definition of the 'uncanny' means for Cahun's photographs as well as for her political stance as a lesbian artist working with her lover to create these images.
"The power of looking seems to be with the photographer, yet there is a sensual play of revelation and concealment on and across Cahun's face and body" (Doy 38).
I was thinking about this in regards to hip hop images of female rappers. It seems that the war raged between female MCs occurs in two places, in the ability to spit (orally and lyrically) and on the surface of their bodies. I want to look at Azealia Banks and her new video "Liquorice" and how the female rapper's body is a lethal terrain, presented as both seductive and dangerous, ultra-sexualized and hardened into a mask, a coat of armor upon which the "knives thrown" in the rap world can be deflected. In opposition to the normal mail of chains, this armor exposes the body, it offers up the body as a taunt and a promise as one able to thwart off attacks. And the audience for this performance, while certainly enjoyed by male eyes, is primarily aimed at the one who is being attacked/ or attacked back in retribution for earlier attacks, and it is always female. The performance then of the female rapper's lyrics and body are designed on one level to engage audience and listeners, but the pretext of the performance is to "one-up" or to "out bitch" the bitch who talked smack about either the rapper or her talent. Then what is the subtext of this masked performance designed for the other female, which contrary to Cahun's work is not made in the spirit of collaboration but in the spirit of aggression. What does it mean when women's bodies become the trajectory and the field for engaging in this pseudo warfare over their "turf" in the music industry.
Azealia Banks grew popular with her "212" video, shot in black and white where she wears cut off jeans and a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt.
Fast forward to the sleek direction and staged costumes of her latest video: "Liqourice."
Banks critiqued rapper Nicki Minaj for costuming, and yet in this latest incarnation, she emerges as a bat wielding American bomb shell, a horned beast, and a cowboy who eventually has a stand off with, of course, herself (barely veiled reference to being the only one in her league-- a statement often reflected in Minaj's lyrics.)
Granted, one can argue that the objectification of the self is simply more fodder for the male gaze, but in the hip hop/ rap world, these "disses" and "barbs" feed the media frenzy. Banks' use of American flags from her bikini clad outfit to her nails, her icicle pop and the flag that emerges from her gun all speak to "dissing" Australian rap artist Iggy Azalea who she is most often compared to. Her popsicle scene is reminiscent of Iggy Azalea's PU$$Y video, and if we watch the stand off scene closely, you'll notice that even though we know these are two versions of Banks; the scene is filmed so that one Banks is only represented by her lower back where all we can see is blond hair. Is this a subtle positioning to imply that the one losing the stand off is indeed blond-haired Iggy Azalea, and is it important that instead of being "shot," the gun emits an American flag. The competitive war zone of female rappers means that the images and their subtle intentions are on some level quite consciously devised to attack the other woman, or at least to launch a perceived attack on the other woman. If this stance is a mask, a game, then the question would be have the women engaged in this fierce play fallen into the trap of becoming their masks. As Cahun would say:
"In front of the mirror one day, you put on your mask a little too enthusiastically and it bites your skin. After the festival you lift up a little corner of it to look, you discover to your horror that the flesh and its concealment have become inseparable" (Doy 43).
And beyond that, the inevitable question is who profits in this power struggle waged on young women's bodies and their creative talent. Who ultimately wins by keeping these females at each other's throats? Does it make for more creative lyrics, does it mean we are more engaged with a rap artist because they are constantly exerting the energy to tell us they are number 1. Or does it perpetuate the image of catty women, does it enact the male fantasy of female on female aggression in a sexualized arena. Does the woman's construction of an image for a female gaze ultimately hold more power if it is done in a state of aggression or given over in a state of collaboration?
(Iggy Azalea Diss) by Azealia Banks
Compare Bank's cover shot where a giant golden Mickey Mouse head covers her crotch to
Francesca Woodman's Horizontale, Providence, Rhode Island, 1976
where Doy says: "a knitted glove covers up the dark 'woolen' shape that it simultaneously masks and draws attention to" (145).
Instead of a glove, we have the infamous eared rodent, simultaneously announcing the commodification of the women's vagina as well as quite literally "toying" with the masking of it. Where the body would appear is now a trademark, an official billion dollar enterprise that is carefully constructed to present veneers of fun and enjoyment rather than realities.