Her Eyes, Her Cart
“Reading in the Corner”: Nancy M. Henley’s Body Politics
Editor’s note: This is one of a series of columns by An Mi-seon, who listens to, reads, and writes women’s stories and is the author of Women, Voices.
The most moving scene in the movie Cart (directed by Bu Ji-yeong, 2014) is the one in which an older female cleaning worker, after finding out that she has been unfairly dismissed, straightens her hunched form to look her manager full in the face. She, who has worked with her back bent and has had to keep her eyes downcast even when something unfair happens while she is following orders, rises slowly. As she looks her opponent squarely in the eye, the shock and then determination to fight back in her eyes is heartbreaking.
This movie vividly portrays the gestures, tones of voice, and expressions of the dominant and subordinated as they fight for power, as well as how those gestures, tones, and expressions change as much as anything does when the female laborers band together and fight for their right to make a living. Voices that had once been low mumbles become loud and determined. Bodies that cowered and braced themselves become upright, point fingers, and step forward. The women stop avoiding others’ gaze and look them straight in the eye.
The reason that the scenes that show these changes are so moving is that they show the true feelings that the women had kept hidden. What they had wanted to say when they were forced to be silent, what they had wanted to go on to say then they were interrupted, the demands they wanted to shout when they were ignored, the truth—that their survival was not a trivial matter—that they had screamed only internally. As these women reveal this truth that has been repressed, they become one with their bodies for the first time. They stop having to deceive themselves. For the first time, they can hug and laugh with their coworkers, and tell their stories in their own voices and without inhibition.
While watching the movie, I was reminded of Body Politics (Nancy M. Henley, Prentice Hall, 1977). This is because it is the rare book that considers how authority oppresses us through the body, and how we should fight back against authority that threatens our survival. It is clear that this book was written in order to awaken women and urge them to change their behavior.
“In front of, and defending, the political-economic structure that determines our lives and defines the context of human relationships, there is the micropolitical structure that helps maintain it. This micropolitical structure is the substance of our everyday experience. The humiliation of being a subordinate is often felt most sharply and painfully when one is ignored or interrupted while speaking, towered over or forced to move by another’s bodily presence, or cowed unknowingly into dropping the eyes, the head, the shoulders. Conversely, the power to manipulate others’ lives, to take graft, price gouge, or plan the bombing of far-off peasants is conferred in part by others’ snapping to attention in one’s presence, their smiling, fearing to touch or approach, their following one around for information and favors. These are the trivia that make up the batter for that great stratified waffle that we call our society.” (pg. 3)
With her research into this previously little-researched topic of the politics of body-language, Nancy Henley reveals how dominance and oppression—on the basis of class, race, gender and age—are accomplished through concrete actions. She analyzes how power is shown, maintained, and negotiated through greetings, attitude, posture, personal space, timing, physical contact, eye contact, facial expressions, and self-revelation. In this way, she shows how unjust a culture that criticizes the victimized is.
She collects this information because she wants the oppressed to become conscious of the humiliation and intimidation that they feel every day, and change that behavior. And more than anything, she wants people to be able to stand up to existing political-economic power and unjust authority and change the system.
When irregular workers engage in labor struggles, the most common reason they give for their struggle is that their human dignity is routinely disregarded. This fact shows the inhuman atmosphere in which authority operates. Communication between the dominating and the dominated follows a similar script whether it is between the rich and the poor, white people and black people, men and women, or adults and children.
Women are cast as childlike beings in this script, and socialized not to show aggression, not to assert themselves, and to be compliant. These kinds of characteristics are not individual and personal but formed, systematically, for the benefit of those in power.
Even after they form a labor union, the women in the movie are left sitting in an empty office waiting for their employer to arrive. Because they are not considered to be worth speaking to, they are ultimately unable to meet with the company president. This is how authority works.
There is the person who asks personal questions without hesitation, and the person who cannot ask them in return but has to answer politely and be thankful. The person who relaxes and takes up space and the person whose space is taken as they brace themselves. The person who repeatedly remarks that they are busy and is stingy about giving someone a sliver of their time, and the person who is always waiting because they “have so much time.” The person who presumptuously touches the other and invades their space, and the person who can’t express their discomfort directly. The one who stares piercingly and monitors and the one who lowers their gaze and feels uncomfortable knowing they are being watched. The person who unsmilingly gives orders and the person who smiles continuously while obeying. The person who doesn’t reveal their emotions and the person who comes to them and cries and pleads while telling their story.
Authority causes these kinds of differences between human bodies, and establishes, maintains, and reproduces itself.
“In a society in which women’s clothing is designed explicitly to reveal the body and its contours; in which women are ogled, whistled at, and pinched while simply going about their business; in which they see advertisements in magazines, on billboards, on TV in their own homes, showing revealingly clad women; in which tactual information about them is freely available, their bodies accessible to touch like community property; in which even their marital status is the first information by which a stranger identifies them—in such a society it is little wonder that women feel ‘observed.’ They are.” (pg. 167)
Women haven’t learned the gestures of unity, trapped as they are behind the walls of the authority of the body. This is the result of oppression. In Cart, however, one of the last scenes is of women workers pushing shopping carts with all their might to charge into their blockaded supermarket, the workplace they are not allowed to enter. In the face of the water cannon and threats that are prohibiting their approach, they snatch up the carts and cry out as they push forward. The inanimate carts that had been arranged in identical lines now seem like part of the advancing women’s bodies.
Just like when I look into the eyes that have been hidden by bowed heads, just like when I face the emotions those eyes contain, this scene makes me feel the cries they have been holding in.
“Neither the history, nor the pervasiveness, nor the intricate workings, nor seeming inexorableness of power make it immutable. The history of power in fact shows us that victims of unfathomable oppression have arisen to claim their rights, that power is persistently being broken down and overturned. Every new insight into its workings may provide a new road to its overthrow. I am one who believes in the human ability through striving to transform political organization and social relations continually for the better. Let’s not settle for less.” (pg. 205)
Published: March 25, 2015
Translated by Marilyn Hook
*Original article: http://ildaro.com/7035
◆ To see more English-language articles from Ilda, visit our English blog(https://ildaro.blogspot.com).
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