When will the female body stop being a political tool?
For the last few weeks, my social media feeds have been seething with articles, editorials, and opinions on victim-blaming, particularly in reaction to columnist Ridhuan Tee’s remarks on women’s bodies inviting rape.
This may be why, as I read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, I found myself repeatedly pondering on women and their bodies. Tee is only the latest in a long line of people – not necessarily confined to the male of the species – who feel that the female body is a receptacle to be imbued with their own politics and prejudices.
In the 1993 novel, Eugenides plunges us into an American suburban community in the 1970s, where one by one, a family of five sisters commit suicide (a film version, directed by Sofia Coppola, was released in 1999). Most notably, despite being the focus of the plot, we never know much more about the Lisbon sisters than we did at the beginning of the book; instead, as their story unfolds through the narration of a group of anonymous teenage boys, the girls almost feel like blank canvases onto which the expectations, anxieties and judgements of everyone around them are projected.
We read of how the girls’ budding bodies are held in control by their strictly religious mother, who dresses them in dowdy clothes, frowns upon makeup, and forbids fraternising with boys. Their father, while kind enough, seems baffled by the over-abundance of femininity in his life, and prefers to lump his daughters together as a single entity rather than view them as individuals – a pattern we see repeated by most of the males in the story.
The sisters are objects of intense desire among the boys in their school and neighbourhood, none of whom talk about the girls as actual people, but rather, as the manifestation of their fantasies on love and sex. To the boys, the Lisbon sisters are so perfect precisely because they are abstractions, to be moulded as wished – and, as the novel depicts, even years after the girls’ deaths, the now-men continue to fantasise about them, because in the absence of any other information, they can make of them what they want.
And from the first suicide, the girls also become the emblems of a crisis: of depression, of teenage isolation, of suburban decay, and whatever else the media and public can glean from their lives.
Eugenides’ writing is rich, vivid and quite brilliant, particularly in the way his narration simultaneously objectifies the girls and questions the act of doing so.
The first person plural perspective (the narration is always by a “we”, ostensibly the besotted neighbourhood boys) takes away not just the sisters’ voice, but their agency. Everything we know about them, from what they said and did to why they did so, is filtered through another, specifically a male, perspective. If the girls had thoughts, voices and intentions, they are not anything anyone else was privy to.
It is this voice, this agency, that is taken away from a woman when others use her and her body as a means of fulfilling their own agenda, whether that may be religious, political, or moral. Rape should absolutely be discussed, but it isn’t, shouldn’t, be a platform for any political party or religious organisation to ride on.
How a woman chooses to dress is her prerogative, and acting like anyone else has the right to dictate that is, in essence, undermining her agency. Placing the blame for rape on the victim is to render her voice unimportant (and simultaneously, to position men as mindless, lust-driven creatures).
Towards the end of The Virgin Suicides, when the narrators discover the deaths of the Lisbon girls, Eugenides writes: “We had never known (them). They had brought us here to find that out.”
When all we know of someone is what we choose to project onto them, then that is not a reflection of them at all; it is a reflection of us. I wonder whether Tee and others like him realise that.
Sharmilla Ganesan is reading her way through 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.
Get a 20% discount on The Virgin Suicides by picking up today's (March 1, 2015) copy of The Star.