The Female As Shapeshifter – Bodily Boundaries of the Grotesque

I am excited to announce I have been accepted to another conference with my paper titled “The Female As Shapeshifter – Bodily Boundaries of the Grotesque.” This time I am operating a bit outside the boundaries of my time period and crossing into the early modern period. However, considering my paper will examine myriad crossings of borders, it may just be absolutely appropriate.

I am currently in the stages of research, but have not yet began earnestly writing my paper, so to better give everyone a sense of what I am working on, here is the verbatim proposal I originally sent in to the “Performing Women’s Roles: 1500-1700 England” panel:

Attempting to define women’s roles from 1500-1700, or during any time period for that matter, will quickly evince the superfluity of such a category. The multifaceted nature of women’s roles necessitates a narrowing approach where a single aspect of female existence is reexamined. Currently there is a desideratum for research that examines traditional understandings of women as child bearers, and this paper will attempt to alleviate the paucity of scholarship that explores this role within disparate texts which regard the female body during that necessary but perilous period as grotesque.

Feminine social roles have long been delineated by physical boundaries ranging from venues women were not allowed to enter, to constrictions placed upon their bodies which women negotiated at various stages in their lives. Pregnancy is a stage ripe with liminality as it thrusts the female body into a position where it continuously redefines itself.

Mikhail Bakhin, in his description of Kerch terracotta figurines representing pregnant hags, permeates past initial repulsion at the depiction of decaying flesh bringing forth life, and brings to question a more universal reaction to the pregnant body that aligns it with a disturbing otherness.

The pregnant body is no longer a singular entity, yet cannot quite be counted as two. In this ever changing position the woman’s role becomes that of shapeshifter not only of herself, but through molding and essentially continuously reshaping the baby inside of her. And the idea that a woman has such power, to forge life outside the boundaries of male influence, renders the female body even more monstrous.

Thus the woman’s role during this period becomes one of performance of perceived proper conduct where she must watch herself and keep in line with popular beliefs reserved for pregnant women, regardless of how outlandish and contrary to common sense they might seem. Such prescriptions came in various forms and via diverse mediums ranging in examples from “The True Description of a Childe with Ruffes” (1566), “The Lamenting Lady” (1620?) and “The Mother’s Blessings” (1616), to consider only a few.

In short, this paper aims to look at women’s roles in the early modern period through a nuanced lens that analyzes the friction between the pregnant woman as giver of life, yet grotesque entity, an abjection, in need of constant regulation for society to not only regain control over her body, but supervise the development of the life inside of her.

I was restricted by word limits (that I had already gone over), so my proposal at this point sounds a bit vague, but I do have an idea of where I want this to go. There are numerous texts that explore decorum during the gestation period and I want to configure a unified image of the role women played during this precarious stage in their lives. While I am aware that the early modern period depictions of women do not serve as a terminus a quo to pregnancy and labor, the notions outlined at that point I feel resonate much more with future centuries leading all the way up to the twentieth century than previously thought. So, while I am examining various texts and delving into territories beyond my normal ken, I hope to uncover gems of literature that have resonated with women over the centuries and which may still ring true today.

In the meantime, should anyone have any suggestions for texts I should be looking at, please let me know – I will be glad for any advice.

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