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Witnessing Sexual Trauma: The Complex Facets of the Gaze in Phoebe Gloeckner's Work

Alisa Burris

How Phoebe Gloeckner creates the "Feminist Gaze" and critiques Western art in her taboo-defying graphic narrative, A Child’s Life.

Editor's note: This article contains explicit artworks by Édouard Manet, Marcel Duchamp and Phoebe Gloeckner.
For centuries, Western art has objectified women’s bodies to fulfill patriarchal pleasure, especially since the Renaissance era. Such an ingrained ideology that elevates a masculinized perspective, while dehumanizing women in the process, normalizes the notion that female nudity is culturally acceptable. At the same time, images of naked men are viewed as inappropriate or pornographic, further supporting the hierarchical power structure that subtly oppresses women. To point out this unspoken hypocrisy and publicize the continued reality of sexual assault in domestic, familial settings, author/artist Phoebe Gloeckner offers a complex and personal examination of rape in her 1998 semi-autobiographical graphic narrative, A Child’s Life. Furthermore, she is part of a growing trend of women-authored graphic novels that are changing this medium and the larger discourse of feminism, exploring contemporary womanhood in ways that had not been broached in a cultural context before.

According to feminist graphic narrative scholar Hillary L. Chute, a notable voice in this blossoming field, Gloeckner’s contribution is profoundly important because of its impactful confrontation of sexual mistreatment. In her 2010 seminal analysis of groundbreaking author/artists Graphic Women, Chute argues that Gloeckner’s narrative stands out from other memoirs that examine such secret abuse in the domestic sphere because it embraces the inherent complexity of this dynamic. Chute claims: “Gloeckner’s work, refusing to excise titillation, is an ethical feminist project that takes the crucial risk of visualizing the complicated realities of abuse” (Chute 75). Indeed, Gloeckner not only situates her art in the ideological history of the visual, where women’s bodies are considered a mechanism for men’s sexual delight, she acknowledges the complicity that comes with this dehumanization and inherent objectification.

Presented as an autobiography of sorts, this cartoon collection repeatedly explores the experiences of Minnie Goetze, Gloeckner’s fictional alter ego, as she endures sexual assault and abuse by parental figures and peers. In addition to demonstrating the various ways in which Minnie suffers at the hands of these trusted individuals, the anthology consists of related stories with numerous characters who reflect certain facets of Gloeckner’s experiences in multiple points of view that transcend the limited experience of a young girl. Tales such as “The Girl From a Different World”, which details a teenage boy’s rejection of his girlfriend when he learns of the secret molestation in her home, and “An Evening in Prague”, detailing the troubled sexual exploits of a middle-aged woman in the Czech Republic, offer insights about the lingering consequences of assault that generate a shared story, a network of violence inflicted on women. While the central narrative focuses on what Minnie endures, Gloeckner creates a larger community of voices that enhances her readers’ understanding of the collection’s main protagonist. Divided into four sections that concentrate on stages of life from early childhood to adulthood, Gloeckner highlights the effects of sexual trauma years after the actual mistreatment occurred while offering a community of victims within these partitions. Furthermore, she adds a final chapter that includes various stand-alone drawings that span her career as a cartoonist and as a medical illustrator.

To heighten the significant connection that she builds with her readers, Gloeckner uses a number of visual methods, masterfully shaping Minnie with greater complexity and humanizing her at the same time. By interweaving conversational text and establishing steady eye contact with us during key moments of sexual abuse, we are better equipped to identify with Minnie’s despair as it happens in each frame. What’s more, the ability to look straight into Minnie’s eyes, especially in the most traumatic of circumstances, works to negate the automatic posture that instinctively objectifies female nudity. Gloeckner disrupts us from the default position of condoning Minnie’s nakedness through the customary patriarchal framework that always hovers above, ensuring we are sensitive to her sexual exploitation.

Complicating matters further, the author/artist inserts an intrinsic conflict into the conventional perspective that it's culturally acceptable to regard female nudity as natural, an important aspect of what feminist film critic Laura Mulvey terms the “male gaze”. Indeed, the act of conforming to this ideological stance, where the sight of an unclothed female’s body may be considered commonplace, is equivalent to becoming allies with a predator. This is because the default perspective of the reader automatically reverts to the masculine, obscuring the woman’s point of view to fulfill patriarchal aims. Throughout her graphic narrative, Gloeckner points out this inherent friction, consistently reinforcing the notion that the male gaze in her recreated world signifies an acceptance of continuous, uncensored rape. In addition, her determination to accentuate this concept openly contradicts how we as viewers see ourselves. In one scene after another, she highlights situations that showcase men regularly taking advantage of the trust granted to them by young girls with no cultural consequences. Therefore, Gloeckner puts us in a pivotal position to question this patriarchal outlook during multiple encounters of explicit sexual mistreatment.

Despite the masculine veil that indirectly sanctions molestation through the societal objectification of women’s bodies, Gloeckner succeeds in breaking through this deep-rooted barrier by providing such powerful testimony. She brings her damaged protagonist to life, poignantly revealing the hierarchical structure that debases the young child’s humanity. In the process, Gloeckner offers viewers an overall awareness of sexual assault, underscoring the reality that sexual abuse of this kind takes place within domestic secrecy and further securing Minnie’s virtual imprisonment. With this intimate and emotionally mortifying spectacle of the little girl’s predicament cemented by our ever-evolving closeness, the patriarchal strings that encourage said brutality are exposed. Not only does Gloeckner demonstrate the personally destructive effect of a system that sanctions violence against women to maintain power, she solidifies our concern for Minnie as we witness her inevitable struggle to understand circumstances that are largely out of her control.

Keeping these intertwining elements in mind, this essay explores how Gloeckner deliberately shatters the fourth wall -- understood both literally and figuratively -- that separates Minnie from readers to develop a complex, even raw, understanding of her reality. The result is a lived experience of violence that not only confronts the normalized objectification of women in today’s rape culture, originating from art history that is hundreds of years in the making, and the masculinized power structure that allows it to persist, but demands some form of involvement from the reader. Through the repositioning of viewers from anonymous bystanders to that of responsible witnesses to brutality, Gloeckner enables her audience to question the patriarchal framework that is so often relied on in representations of sexual violation against women. In fact, Gloeckner situates her readers as active observers to significant events of mistreatment, enmeshing them in her panels with purpose. Consequently, viewers are able to testify, at least in part, to the agony Minnie endures as a victim of sexual abuse because Gloeckner exposes us to the anguish and terror of the notable scenes that she selects.

Theorizing the “Feminist Gaze” in Gloeckner’s Comics

At first glance, A Child’s Life might appear to be an innocuous coloring book. This is because the comic’s cover exudes a sense of innocence. The central image shows a pale-complexioned young girl sucking candy buttons on her tongue while watching birds fly overhead. Although her profiled face dominates this picture, Gloeckner still conveys a feeling of vulnerability, a certain smallness against the faint San Francisco skyline. Her look of wonder as she observes a group of birds moving by also invites a peaceful feeling. Yet despite this tranquility, Gloeckner’s semi-fictionalized version of her formative years contains very little of the delight that the introductory picture suggests. The traumatic actuality contained within the book is masked by the charm of its cover. But there's more to Gloeckner’s introductory image than the sweet naiveté it may suggest. Given the established tradition in the Western art world of representing youthful girls and fresh young women as sexualized fodder for a masculine audience, Gloeckner could be integrating a critique of this convention in her representation of the child’s innocent pose and the feeling of virginal sensuality.

A closer look at this image provides possible sexual signals in the young girl’s open mouth, the extension of her tongue as she savors the sugary candy and the suggestive lift of her chin. Furthermore, the narrative that this adolescent is treated as a physical commodity by trusted adults, endures regular intervals of molestation and subsequently permits sexual exploitation from various men in her life supports the possibility that this cover fits into a patriarchal artistic institution that encapsulates her as a nubile body. Indeed, famous 19th century French painters such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Édouard Manet routinely depicted the blossoming sexuality of young girls. Moreover, Manet’s controversial painting Olympia first exhibited in 1865, received a negative reception because it was originally thought to portray a prostitute due to the orchid in the youth’s hair, the bracelet and other signs of her suspected profession. However, there has since been speculation that Manet actually wanted this piece to be seen as a portrait of an untouched maiden, a young woman ready to express her sprouting sexual nature. These prominent artists epitomized and further naturalized the ideological desire for chaste, undefiled physiques in the form of appealing adolescence.

Olympia, Édouard Manet (1863)

Within this context, Gloeckner’s cover may be making a statement about how girls are culturally coded, particularly since her book illustrates the ways in which predators capitalize on these victims’ bodies. Yet Gloeckner’s potential point about the sexual exploitation of a child is not immediately evident within her book’s initial panels. Even after opening the cover, Gloeckner still maintains the illusion of harmless inexperience through her gentle, seemingly decorative title page. She shows two young girls as they stare with surprised expressions into a shattered window that reveals the book’s title information in lower-case rounded, black letters. But the enchantment we might initially perceive is misleading. The reality is that this panel contains complex implications, subtly referencing oppression, the objectification of women and voyeurism at once. Indeed, Gloeckner commences her critique of patriarchal art history by applying complex layers within this one frame, where girlhood (and by extension, womanhood) is consistently used for the fulfillment of male pleasure, to expose this invisible cultural hypocrisy.

As a result, she provides an evaluation that links comics and the visual arts in general, demonstrating the normalized objectification of women’s bodies that permeates society to this day. It isn’t until pages later that this same panel is replicated, replacing the current title information with unexpected graphic nudity of the opposite gender. Although we do not initially realize the importance of this first panel, Gloeckner sets a foundation for questioning an ideological treatment of women within this one frame. To counter the established patriarchal power that occurs merely by looking, Gloeckner visually suggests what may be called a “feminist gaze”. Not simply a reversal of nakedness, where a man’s body is on display, this feminist gaze complicates voyeuristic tendencies while accentuating the underlying, often overlooked effects of sexual abuse at the same time. Based on a reinterpretation of Laura Mulvey’s theory of the “male gaze”, Gloeckner adds a new layer of depth to this concept, further deepening the treatment of viewer position.

To demonstrate how she incorporates Mulvey’s ideas into her illustrations, it is essential to understand how this important feminist film critic perceives cultural imagery. In her influential 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Mulvey explains that the entire perspective within movies is masculinized. From the filmmaker to the protagonist to the viewer, every perspective within this landscape remains filtered through a male vision, which showcases women as sexualized bodies, not equal players in the story. Mulvey states:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure, which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Women displayed as sexual object is the leit-motiff of erotic of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to strip tease, from Zeigfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire (Mulvey 837).

According to Mulvey, women are reduced to aesthetic objects to be taken advantage of by a patriarchal culture. Since the world is dominated by masculine power, womanhood as a whole is thrust into a submissive space. Indeed, this very passivity could be construed as similar to the docile reception that the spectator routinely assumes within the darkened theater. Therefore, male sovereignty in every facet of filmmaking is extruded that much further, even concerning the default perspective of the audience. In truth, the predominant cultural mentality tends to celebrate manhood and relegate women to little more than sexual diversions. As a result, viewers are automatically expected to identify with the active/male protagonist who drives the story.

Though Gloeckner incorporates Mulvey’s powerful theory into her own work, she adds a different dimension in order to create an environment that exemplifies both masculine power and female subordination. Her expert maneuvering is particularly clear upon viewing the repetition of this introductory panel in a later picture within her collection, underlined by its provocative male sexuality. Because Gloeckner’s title page appears to function only as a method to supply the space necessary for her book’s basic information, it's easy to overlook this panel’s commentary on misogynistic attitudes toward women. However, the frame not only initiates an assessment of cultural representations of womanhood, it also delivers a decisive foundation for the way Gloeckner situates viewers throughout her collection.

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