Troping the Body: Gender, Etiquette, and Performance

Troping the Body: Gender, Etiquette, and Performance

Troping the Body: Gender, Etiquette, and Performance

Troping the Body: Gender, Etiquette, and Performance


Troping the Body: Gender, Etiquette, and Performance is an interdisciplinary study of etiquette texts, conduct literature, and advice books and films. Gwendolyn Audrey Foster analyzes the work of such women authors as Emily Post, Christine de Pizan, Hannah Webster Foster, Emily Bronte, Frances E. W. Harper, and Martha Stewart as well as such women filmmakers as Lois Weber and Kasi Lemmons.

"Specifically", Foster notes, "I was interested in the possibility of locating power and agency in the voices of popular etiquette writers". Her investigation led her to analyze etiquette and conduct literature from the Middle Ages to the present. Within this wide scope, she redefines the boundaries of conduct literature through a theoretical examination of the gendered body as it is positioned in conduct books, etiquette texts, poetry, fiction, and film.

Drawing on Bakhtin, Gates, Foucault, and the new school of performative feminism to develop an interdisciplinary approach to conduct literature -- and literature as conduct -- Foster brings a unique perspective to the analysis of ways in which the body has been gendered, raced, and constructed in terms of class and sexuality.

Even though women writers have been actively writing conduct and etiquette texts since the medieval period, few critical examinations of such literature exist in the fields of cultural studies and literary criticism. Thus, Foster's study fills a gap and does so uniquely in the existing literature. In examining these voices of authority over the body, Foster identifies the dialogic in the texts of this discipline that both supports and disrupts the hegemonic discourse of a gendered social order.


This book grew out of my fascination with etiquette books and conduct literature. in a graduate seminar led by Susan Rosowski, I expressed my interest in writing a paper examining the role of women as etiquette writers. I proposed such a project to my professor and peers, explaining my fascination with a whole range of popular literature on etiquette, manners, dress, behavior, and charm. I had difficulty defining the scope of my study because, to me, there was no clear boundary between high literature and the literature of popular culture. I have always been interested in women writers, race, gender, and power, but I felt I had stumbled on an area that was seemingly ignored; specifically, I was interested in the possibility of locating power and agency in the voices of popular etiquette writers, such as Emily Post and, more recently, Martha Stewart. My classmates were eager to foster discussion on the politics of this power, and they were extremely helpful in bringing to my attention the value of such a project. I brought a number of examples of etiquette and conduct texts to class and discussed my attraction and repulsion to these texts, many of which were blatantly racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, and patently offensive in every way from a cultural perspective. I described my feelings about these books to the class, most of whom clearly chose to write about authors whom they loved. I said I both loved and hated these books, and I found them macabre, humorous in the fashion most associated with camp. Nevertheless, I wanted to get beyond the humor I found in these books to the core of power involved in essentially telling people how to behave, from instructions on how to set a table to how to make conversation at a dinner party.

At this point, there were two studies that had a great deal of influence on me in terms of setting my scope and defining my methodology. Women and Power in the Middle Ages was influential in my thinking because the authors encouraged and rehearsed a new way of interpreting the various local heterogemonies of power held by women that had not yet been recognized as areas of power because power has been defined largely by . . .

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