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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Ambiguous bodies in motion : representations of female identity in contemporary screendance

  • Author(s): Sprague, Terry
  • et al.

The female body is one of the most heavily culturally coded signifiers both historically and in visual cultures around the world. At a time when visual media technologies are increasingly becoming integral to our daily lives, and emergent art and visual technology forms such as screendance circulate along global pathways with other media objects, to what extent can screendance resist, or even transform, the pervasive commercial representations of, and messages about, the female body? Drawing from feminist film theory, media theory, semiotics, existential phenomenology and cultural studies, this study comparatively analyzes representations of female identity in selected screendances side by side with advertising, commercial Hollywood films and network news media. I begin by deconstructing corporeal images to discover what it is about an image that makes it provocative in relation to representing female identity. Then I examine different ways in which the female body is utilized in imagery that hails and shapes the viewer. Given that screendance circulates globally, I also look closely at three transnational screendances that represent the veiled female body and demonstrate that culturally coded icons such as the veil resist abstraction when appropriated in representations by artists from another culture. I demonstrate that given the nature of the medium, when screendance represents the female body it inherits culturally constructed meanings along with mainstream media conventions, and, indeed, some screendances repeat reductive representations prescribed by dominant patriarchal consumer ideology. Conversely, some screendance artists challenge, disturb or subvert those meanings despite the conventions of the medium. Key to their transgressions, I argue, are two factors. One is that some screendance artists represent the female body moving with intention and embodying what Merleau-Ponty calls the "lived body." Another factor is that they all incorporate some form of visual and/or conceptual ambiguity in ways that operate productively in the representation of female identity such as challenging exclusionary stereotypes. This dissertation spotlights those artists and seeks to give momentum to the ways in which they promote alternative bodily identities and challenge the status quo

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