Body Politic: Maya Deren and the Subversive Female Body

By Andrew Howe.

Published by The International Journal of the Image

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

In three of the avant-garde films she directed and starred in in the 1940s, Maya Deren positions the female body as the centerpiece of the narrative. In Meshes in the Afternoon, At Land, and Ritual in Transfigured Time, the only site of stability and, therefore, meaning, is Deren’s body itself. That a woman’s body represents a prodigious site of meaning is nothing new in Film Studies. However, where Deren’s model differs from that of traditional Hollywood lies in the relationship between the portrayal of the feminine body and the very artifice of portrayal. In many Hollywood films, the formal narrative conspires to reduce the female body to visual chattel, to incorporate Levi-Strauss’ ideas of symbolic exchange into Film Studies. In this manner, a woman’s body is publicly fractured and visually consumed by a male viewership, removing any agency the character might have had over her own body. In Hollywood, certain cinematic devices unconsciously aid in achieving this effect. A woman’s movements are typically curtailed as the camera itself exhibits movement, dancing around her in order to triangulate upon a specific position. Objectification naturally results, an objectification imbricated within the collective desires and fears of the spectatorship, forcing the female body to become the bearer of meaning. With Deren, however, the focus on the female body has the opposite effect. In Deren’s films, female bodies are continually in motion, reducing the positionality of the camera, and by abstraction the viewer, to an object that exists as the motionless and reformulated bearer of meaning. Deren’s body enters into her films as the central presence; however, her body appears as a controlling component instead of a controlled one. Her body is freed and acquires agency while the viewer, fixed into a solitary position, becomes feminized.

Keywords: Film Studies, Gender Studies, Avant-garde

The International Journal of the Image, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp.109-116. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 603.053KB).

Dr. Andrew Howe

Assistant Professor, Department of History, Politics, & Society, La Sierra University, Riverside, CA, USA

Andrew Howe is an Assistant Professor at La Sierra University, where he teaches cinema studies, popular culture studies, and twentieth century history in the Department of History, Politics, and Society.