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Excerpt 2, SelfSame: The Female Grotesque

The following is an abbreviated excerpt from my thesis, SelfSame. In this chapter I discuss the "female grotesque" (this one is very research heavy!)

In a future post I'll discuss how the Female Grotesque relates to my art practice, and doesn't, and perhaps should more.


In order to discuss the concept of the female grotesque, I’d like to first examine the origins of the word ‘grotesque’ and how its use in everyday language began to reflect social and cultural inequalities.

Etymologically, ‘grotesque’ refers to a genre of decoration: specifically, to a decorative painting or sculpture: a light, gay and “beautiful style of ornament practiced by the ancient Romans.”(4) Mary Russo notes that retrievals of Roman culture during the Italian renaissance, while representing one of the most significant examples of the grotesque aesthetic rediscovered, cannot be take as a singular event in which the origin of the ‘grotesque’ is first discovered (5):

Art historians have identified many examples of drawings and objects in the grotto-esque style which predate both classical and renaissance Rome. The category of the grotesque, as such, emerged only later in the renewed interest in aesthetic treatises such as Vetruvius’ De Architectura (ca. 27 B.C.), which linked the classical style with the natural order and, in contrast, pointed to the grotesque as a repository of unnatural, frivolous, and irrational connections between things which nature and classical art kept scrupulously apart. It emerged, in other words, only in relation to the norms which it exceeded. (6)

Within a century of the Italian sixteenth century discovery and subsequent renewed interest of the decorative style, the term had spread to France and England, where “its definitive scope broadened from decorative motifs to encompass literature and even people.”(7) In its current usage, the grotesque is an expression of what results from the transgression of norms (8): therefore that which is ‘grotesque’ is positioned as ‘frivolous’ (9) and marginal within the dominant narrative— this is suggestive of certain societal constructions, such as constructions which designate the female and feminine as inferior. (10) If we consider the word ‘grotesque’ in the 18th and 19th centuries, we can see many examples of the grotesque entering a specifically gendered language as well as being used to denigrate the lower classes. The Oxford English Dictionary includes, in its extensive list of definitions, the following examples of use: “A woman with her head peeping out of a sack, could hardly...make a more Grotesque figure” (1747) (11) and “You can conceive nothing more grotesque than the Sunday trim of the poor people” (1863).(12) Both of these examples imply a sort of spectacle or offensive public presence. The narrator of the second quotation, F.A Kemble, describes how she found it offensive to gaze upon the grotesque sight of the poor people in their Sunday best.(13) Further exploration of the source reveals that Kemble is discussing the church wear of the black slaves on her family’s plantation.(14) This is important to note, as the grotesque body is not a concept exclusively associated with gender or class, but is projected onto other oppressed groups. The contemporary use of ‘grotesque’ has become inseparable from ideas of the offensive, unruly and repugnant body— all related to power dynamics between gender, race, class and physical ability.

In her much referenced book, The Female Grotesque, Mary Russo describes the image of the classical body and its comparative differences from the grotesque body:

The images of the grotesque body are precisely those which are abjected from bodily cannons of classical aesthetics. The classical body... is monumental, closed, static, symmetrical, and sleek; it is identified with the “high”... culture of the renaissance and later, with ... rationalism [and] individualism . . . The [classical] grotesque body is open, protruding, irregular, secreting, multiple, and changing; it is identified with non-official “low culture” or the carnivalesque, and with social transformation.(15)

The grotesque body is described as distinctly of the body: human bodies secrete and change, we sweat and age and lose hair. The classical body, on the other hand, seems to transcend the physical and material body. Michelle Hirschorn describes the concept of a mind/body split in Western philosophy, citing Plato and Descartes’s influential theories in which the human body “confused and obscured all rational thought.”(16) Descartes sought to create an absolute distinction between the spiritual and the corporeal, the goal being “complete transcendence of mind over body.”(17) The human body, being earthly and grotesque, was seen to limit the mind. As feminist theorists Janet Price and Margit Shildrick describe, “the body seems to have been regarded always with suspicion as the site of unruly passions and appetites that might disrupt the pursuit of truth and knowledge.”(18) This conception has traditionally established that only certain persons could engage in the pursuit of truth and knowledge:

“By reconceptualizing the scientific mind, Descartes effectively shifted knowledge and reason away from the natural world (commonly associated with the feminine) and recast such characteristics as masculine attributes.”(19)

The ability to achieve transcendence and exercise rationality has been gender marked as an attribute of men alone—and further, as an attribute of specific and privileged men (white, upper-class, heterosexual); in this scenario, women remain “rooted within their bodies, held back by their supposedly natural biological processes.”(20) Racism and sexism are found to be present in the scientific realm, and in the recent past certain scientific models prevented the granting of human rights for many types of persons. Women, for example, weren’t allowed to have access, or have limited access, to formalized education, and phrenology was a racist scientific practice that described character traits according to appearance. (21) Craniometry attempted to place black persons and Indigenous people with animals such as chimpanzees according to skull shape (22) —claiming that such people were less evolved and civilized than white persons with more classical features. There is an enduring association of the devalued, non-rational and earthly physicality with the feminine and female body, (23) the non-white body, the disabled body, and the homosexual body. Physical characteristics such as female genitalia, smaller skulls, darker skin, and disfigurement situate such persons in the category of the grotesque. Any person or act that is seen to be of the body (excrement, menstruation, sexual activity, sweat, hair, body modification, death) seems to be associated with the repulsive and grotesque.

It is, I think, important to note that male bodies can be grotesque as well—though I agree with Russo when she states that such bodies are necessarily coded as feminine in order to be considered grotesque. (24) Men whose gender performance do not conform to the normative heterosexual paradigm are also considered grotesque: for example, men who perform in drag; men who are sexually attracted to other men; effeminate men; and men whose actions do not conform to normative masculinity, such as men who cry in public. These bodies are grotesque because they are aligned with feminine traits, and so “the grotesque can clearly be seen to be rooted in oppression of the female form.” (25)

Doubled bodies, such as twins, take their place in the category of grotesque bodies. Russo makes mention of the grotesque double in her text, noting that

“the redoubled and ghostly body takes up residence at the site of the maternal, threatening always to monstrously reproduce...[w]hat possible good could come from such grotesque repetition?”(26)

Russo links the double to maternal reproduction, a fertility that monstrously reproduces and overwhelms. Female doubles, in particular, represent a potential re-reproduction, a grotesque repetition of the kind that Russo notes and Freud discusses in his essay “The Uncanny,” where he states: “And finally there is the constant recurrence of the same thing— the repetition of the same features or character traits or vicissitudes, of the same crimes, even the same names through several consecutive generations.”(27)


4 Oxford University Press, Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v.“grotesque,”

5 Mary Russo, The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity (London: Routledge, 1994), 3.

6 Russo, The Female Grotesque, 3.

7 Inga Kim Diederich, “Grotesque,” The Chicago School of Media Theory (blog), Winter


8 Ibid.,

9 Ibid., 10 Russo, The Female Grotesque, 5.

11 Oxford University Press, s.v.“grotesque.”

12 Ibid.,

13 F.A Kemble, “Miss Kemble’s Georgia” The Spectator Archive, published May 30, 1863,

14 Ibid., 15 Russo, The Female Grotesque, 8.

16 Michelle Hirschorn, “Orlan Artist in the Post-Human Age of Mechanical Reincarnation: Body as Ready (To Be Re-) Made,” in Generations and Geographies in the Visual Arts: Feminist Readings, ed. Griselda Pollock (London: Routledge, 2005), 152.

17 Ibid., 18 Janet Price and Margit Shildrick, introduction to Feminist Theory and the Body: a

Reader (New York: Routledge, 1999), 2.

19 Hirschorn, “Orlan Arist,” 152.

20 Price and Shildrick, Feminist Theory, 2. 9

21 “Scientific Racism,” Reduce the Burden (blog), February 11, 2009,

22 Ibid., 23 Price and Shildrick, Feminist Theory, 2.

24 Russo, The Female Grotesque, 13.

25 Ibid., emphasis mine.

26 Ibid., 186. 27 Ibid.,


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