“Ruined” Women and the Value of The Abject

Posted on April 27, 2011 by

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French Lieutenant's Woman

Washington State high school student Gaby Rodriguez made national news last week when she announced that she’d been faking a pregnancy for six and a half months. She revealed the fraud in dramatic fashion, pulling her fake bump out from under her shirt before a shocked student assembly, who gave her a standing ovation when she announced that her “pregnancy” was the subject of a senior class project on stereotypes.

Rodriquez’ stunt was certainly remarkable—but that’s not the only reason it got people’s attention. There’s something fascinating—and eerily familiar—about what Rodriguez did. Whether she was completely conscious of what she was doing or not, seventeen-year-old Gaby Rodriguez essentially forced her fellow students to recognize their own adherence to implicit social rules by deliberately casting herself in the role of The Abject.

In contemporary cultural theory, The Abject is the figure or space within society that threatens social identities by embodying a transgression of fundamental boundaries. Julia Kristeva develops the theory of The Abject in “Powers of Horror”:

[It is] not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.

[ … ]

The abject is perverse because it neither gives up nor assumes a prohibition, a rule, or a law; but turns them aside, misleads, corrupts; uses them, takes advantage of them, the better to deny them.

Gaby Rodriguez, an A-student,  temporarily became a symbol of abjection within her community by projecting a new image of herself as a pregnant unwed teenager. Teen mothers aren’t exactly anomalies in contemporary America—they have their own MTV reality show, after all—but they still represent a kind of jarring anathema to the hegemonic ideal. Today’s Judeo-Christian culture worships at the altar of the nuclear family; but high-school mothers are still (for most people) an unsettling iteration of a woman’s fabled maternal destiny. Just as America held Bristol Palin at awkward arm’s length during the presidential campaign, so do most local communities treat their own unwed teenage mothers—-with ambivalence, unease, and confusion.

But Gaby Rodriguez’ story isn’t the story of an unwed teen mother battling social prejudices; it’s the story of a girl pretending to be an object of prejudice—and that’s what makes it interesting.

In last year’s under-the-radar movie easy A, Olive (Emma Stone) becomes the object of scorn and harassment in her high-school community when she knowingly perpetuates false rumors about her own alleged promiscuity. Like Rodriguez, Olive finally reveals the sham with a dramatic speech (and surprise musical number!) before her fellow students and teachers.

In John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Sarah Woodruff encourages her Victorian community to believe that she’s a ruined woman, even though she’s actually a virgin. She’s a social outcast, but she still lives among those who scorn her. Her daily presence in her moralistic community is a daily confusion for the Victorian characters—particularly, of course, for Charles Smithson, who finds himself drawn to her and repulsed by her at the same time.

Much Ado About Nothing is a little different: Hero doesn’t choose to be a false idol of abjection; the role is crudely thrust upon her. Likewise, Lily Bart of The House of Mirth.

And then there’s The Crucible and the real-life story of the Salem Witch Trials, in which teenage girls became projections of The Abject by setting themselves up as the lone gateway between Christian society and the Devil.

In all of these stories, young women reveal the underpinning social rules of their communities by temporarily becoming living, breathing corruptions of those rules. They’re  not just demonstrating that norms can be rejected—-anyone with a penchant for juvenile rebellion can demonstrate that. Ultimately, these woman are actively undermining their communities’ systems of social law by revealing (or by having it revealed for them)  that their own perceived “corruptions” are only social performances. It’s the untruth at the heart of their outcast identities that makes their performances as The Abject so interesting, and so strange. There’s some kind of valuable (but disconcerting) social effect of revealing a young woman’s “ruination” to be a fraud perpetrated upon the community—-but what is the effect, exactly? At the end of the day, what is the social value of The Abject?

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