There is a growing trend in popular visual culture towards a more stripped down, invasive and often grotesque view of the human body. The overwhelming popularity of television’s CSI series is case in point. Its success can be partially attributed to its edgy and gross visual presentations of the body’s internal workings. The show’s use of spectacular optics takes the notion of the “close-up” to a new extreme. In these famous shots, the camera carries us beyond the boundaries of the skin and into the inner flesh and organs of whoever happened to be killed during that particular episode. This roller coaster ride (now known as “the CSI shot”) is seductively exhilarating and enables us to get into places we’ve never been before. CSI’s audio-visual practices facilitate our fascination with the human body and its mysteries, allowing us to get further and further inside the body. But while hiding behind a discourse of medical science and a quest for truth, these televisual effects are not necessarily based on anatomical facts. For CSI, what is actually more important is the resultant visual spectacle, as the camera rips past the body’s usual borders.
Although these displays are sometimes flinchingly gross, they don’t usually produce the same level of repulsion as other contemporary audio-visual displays of gore. This is partially because the flesh of CSI shots does not seem to have a link to an actual human subject. These rollercoaster rides through tunnels of flesh and blood take place in the bodies of people who have died at the beginning of the episode. As a result, they simply become revealers of evidence, rather than actual people. Because of their existence as “just bodies”, we are able to disassociate ourselves from any human subjectivity and simply enjoy the thrill of a quick and gruesome ride through their insides.
Gross body spectacles on television are not exclusive to CSI. Contemporary viewers seem to have an increased appetite for the revolting. Makeover shows often showcase the plastic surgery procedures of participants. As viewers, we are now lucky enough to witness ass fat being sucked through tubes, or faces being peeled off, all in the name of self-improvement. In the comedic realm, the Jackass series prides itself on gross humour. The members of this comedy troupe perform a variety of extreme acts, such as taking craps in public and sticking toy cars up their asses, all with the hopes of making viewers squeal with delight and disgust.
The popularity of Jackass brings up an important point in the discussion of extreme body spectacles: this type of performance would simply not be acceptable if it were a troupe of women performers rather than a bunch of wild and raunchy men. In 2005, some of the members of Jackass made a guest appearance on America’s Next Top Model. During this episode, the men were encouraged to be gross and outrageous in a photo shoot with the aspiring models. In an effort to join in on the fun, one of the models put on one of the men’s diaper props and announced to the group that she was urinating in it. Needless to say, her behaviour was vehemently criticized by both the models and the Jackass members as unladylike and disgusting.
Within our image-based culture, men’s and women’s bodies have very different options for representation. Women’s bodies sustain their positions as the main objects of a scrutinizing and desiring gaze within the mass media. The ideal female body is one that is shiny and impermeable and never spills over the edge. Sexuality and excessive bodily behaviour can only exist for a certain type of body: one that is thin, firm and clean, with no options for actual bodily functions.
In a recent review of the Sex and the City movie , Anthony Lane, a columnist from The New Yorker, describes his disgust with the film’s presentation of the notoriously outspoken and horny character of Samantha Jones. He says: “Samantha’s efforts to signal her appeal, which might have seemed languorous on the small screen, are blown up here into an embarrassing semaphore: thudding closeups of her slurping through a cocktail straw or swallowing a mouthful of guacamole. No self-respecting maker of soft erotica would countenance such shots.” Lane’s overwhelming repugnance for Samantha’s excessive corporeality demonstrates the current intolerance towards any sign of women’s sexuality and carnality that exist outside the young, feminine ideal. The unruly woman, one who disregards cultural propriety for loudness, hunger (sexual and otherwise) and excessive displays of corporeality, is generally loathed by masculinist society.
Disgust thresholds are different for everyone, but current social attitudes illustrate how male and female bodies are not on equal playing fields. In the presentation of bodies and their fluids, there is a certain type of spectacle that we relish (think sweaty Britney Spears in her "I’m a Slave 4 U" video), and another type that may be fun to watch, but is ultimately repulsive or laughable (think of the participants on The Biggest Loser who sweat profusely and fall off their treadmills). Everything depends on who is making the spectacle and what type of body they have. In this way, contemporary appetites for grotesque body spectacles are not politically neutral. The politics of disgust are always accompanied by a long and complicated history of sexism and repression.
© 2008 Erin Jennings; licensee (Cult)ure Magazine.
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