Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Defying the Gender Binary: A Comparative Feminist Analysis of Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even and Rrose Sélavy PART I


The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même) is perhaps Marcel Duchamp’s most complex conceptual oeuvre. Because of its ambiguity and radical deconstruction of sexual relations, of desire, of gender identity, and of identity in general, it is challenging to formulate a coherent feminist analysis. Paradoxically, Duchamp created this work based on a definite binary of sexual desire, yet he compromises this binary by adopting a female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy. What does gender identity mean to an artist who devoted years to constructing a work of binary sexual desire yet who fused genders through his own performance of a feminine identity?  I argue that Duchamp held a radical stance on the deconstruction of gender long before many postmodern feminist scholars, and his ability to not only adopt a female alter ego, but to have it accepted and lauded by his otherwise sexist colleagues is a testament to his clever genius and stature as an artist.

To grasp the feminist paradoxes in The Bride Stripped Bare, I will begin by analyzing Duchamp’s use of a masculine and feminine binary.  The first indication that the Bride retains a stereotypically passive ‘feminine’ position is in the title of the work itself. She is the Bride Stripped. Despite Duchamp’s laborious notes, the French title and English translation indicate that she is the recipient of a gesture, not the actor.  In the French title, “La mariée” is definitely feminine, as it is worth noting that the French language employs masculine and feminine nouns and pronouns. We know from the rest of the title that the Bride is “stripped bare by her bachelors.”  These bachelors represent the actors in this scenario, a stereotypically ‘masculine’ role, as it is by them that the Bride is stripped.

The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass)
Marcel Duchamp
created from Duchamp's notes by Jean Suquet (includes parts never completed). (Courtesy of Jean Suquet.)

Duchamp emphasizes the phallogocentric position that a woman’s power resides in her desirability to men; he only empowers the Bride with her own sexual agency and desire in relation to the bachelors below.  The Bride debuts as the virginal, object of desire for the bachelors; she exists for an audience, not for herself.  As Duchamp told Arturo Swartz, “There is no physical contact, the physical relationship remains at the stage of intentions.”1  The entirety of The Bride Stripped Bare hangs in this indefinite sense of desire, but I argue that the emphasis is placed more on the bachelors’ desire than on the Bride’s, and there is a false sense of sexual empowerment of the Bride.  The Bride’s sexual power exists only because she is the desired object of her bachelors.

Although Duchamp is using what appears to be a staunch gender binary, feminist historians and theorists offer a different perspective on his construction of The Large Glass. This relation between the humiliating emasculation of the bachelors’ desire for the Bride is remarked upon by Jean François Lyotard: “What do the bachelors want, these little soldiers erected by their gaseous, terrorist sperm? To suppress the other space, or rather the dissimilation... Thus women would be nothing but the other half of men, and men but their ‘masters,’ that is to say of the fragments like them [the women] in the megamachine of reproduction.”  Lyotard argues that the bachelors’ helpless attempts at attaining the Bride go deeper than simple sexual desire, but that they also desire to control the bride and to define her sexuality in relation to theirs. “The stupidity of intelligence is entirely contained in this idea of reconciliation, of a totalization of spaces In the masculine desire to make the woman have orgasm, there is much worse than vanity, there is assimilation.”2  This assimilation, as Amelia Jones argues, “Refuses to mark sexual difference symmetrically, in relation to the man (the false promise of gender symmetry being, as [Luce] Irigaray warns us, one of the means by which patriarchy veils its power).”3  The Bride can be read thus as not only existing independently of the male desire, but she is also refusing male dominance.

Feminist scholars argue that marking a subject either ‘male’ or ‘female’ or ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ is to define sexual identity through patriarchal, heterosexual standards.  In French, for example, the default pronoun or noun for mixed or ambiguous gender will be the masculine pronoun, and feminine nouns and pronouns are only employed if the subject is specifically female. By its very etymology, French is ‘othering’ of the feminine. Post-structuralist, feminist scholar Judith Butler warns against the use of the binary gender system: “The institution of a compulsory and naturalized heterosexuality requires and regulates gender as a binary relation in which the masculine term is differentiated from a feminine term, and this differentiation is accomplished through the practices of heterosexual desire. The act of differentiating the two oppositional moments of the binary results in a consolidation of each term, the respective internal coherence of sex, gender, and desire.”4 The only way one can escape the confines of patriarchy is to completely eradicate the presupposition of gender and sex as binary systems. Butler argues, “The presumption of a binary gender system implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relation of gender to sex whereby gender mirror sex or is otherwise restricted by it. When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one.”5

Was The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Duchamp’s attempt to promote these binary systems?  As I argued, he certainly employed stereotypes of feminine passivity as the norm and masculine passivity as emasculating, ideas that stem from heterosexual hegemony.  However, both Lyotard and Jones remark on the failure of the bachelors attainment of the Bride as the failure to make the female assimilate into a patriarchal system. Duchamp scholars continually note that, as Duchamp remained mute on many aspects of The Green Box notes, it is relatively impossible to come to a fixed conclusion on the interpretation of The Bride Stripped Bare. 

1. Linda Dalrymple Henderson, Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in The Large Glass and Related Works, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998, 113.
2. Quoted in Amelia Jones, Postmodernism and the En-Gendering of Marcel Duchamp, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1994, 198.
3. Jones, Postmodernism, 198.
4 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, New York, NY: Routledge, 1990, 22-23.
5 Butler, Gender Trouble, 22-23.

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