The Female Face of Shame

The Female Face of Shame

The Female Face of Shame

The Female Face of Shame

Synopsis

The female body, with its history as an object of social control, expectation, and manipulation, is central to understanding the gendered construction of shame. Through the study of 20th-century literary texts, The Female Face of Shame explores the nexus of femininity, female sexuality, the female body, and shame. It demonstrates how shame structures relationships and shapes women's identities. Examining works by women authors from around the world, these essays provide an interdisciplinary and transnational perspective on the representations, theories, and powerful articulations of women's shame.

Excerpt

Maxine Hong Kingston opens her now classic The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts with the harrowing account of how her aunt, her father’s sister, committed suicide after suffering the villagers’ punishing assault upon her family home on the night she gave birth to an illegitimate child. Related to Kingston by her mother, the story functions as a disciplinary, cautionary tale: “Don’t let your father know that I told you,” Brave Orchid warns Kingston. “He denies her. Now that you have started to menstruate, what happened to her could happen to you. Don’t humiliate us. You wouldn’t like to be forgotten as if you had never been born. the villagers are watchful” (Kingston, 5). Not content with her mother’s bare-bones factual account and cognizant of her own need to find personal meaning in the story—“Unless I see her life branching into mine, she gives me no ancestral help,” Kingston comments (8)—Kingston fleshes out her mother’s skeletal narrative, speculating about the motives and desires that might have impelled her aunt to transgress “boundaries not delineated in space” (8), thereby incurring the wrath of the villagers for daring to imagine her life as separate from that of the community: “The frightened villagers, who depended on one another to maintain the real, went to my aunt to show her a personal, physical representation of the break she had made in the ‘roundness.’ Misallying couples snapped off the future, which was to be embodied in true offspring. the villagers punished her for acting as if she could have a private life, secret and apart from them” (12–13). Nor is the villagers’ punishment her aunt’s only trial: while the family actively encourages wanderlust in men, they “expected her alone to keep the traditional ways, which her brothers, now among the barbarians, could fumble without detection. the heavy, deep-rooted women were to maintain the past against the flood, safe for returning” (8). Hence in choosing forbidden desire, Kingston’s aunt “gave up family” (8). in memorializing her aunt Kingston not only repairs the broken ancestral branch between herself and her “forerunner,” she breaks the family taboo on naming her aunt and thus defies her family’s even more draconian punishment of sentencing the aunt to an eternity of exile: “The real punishment was not the raid swiftly inflicted by the villagers, but the family’s deliberately forgetting her. Her betrayal so maddened them, they saw to it that she would suffer forever, even after death” (16). the opening line of Kingston’s memoir underscores the author’s com-

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