Friday, April 5, 2013

Femmespiration Friday: Tilda Swinton

I’d like to first thank Meg and Melina for allowing me to be a guest poster on Femmempirical Evidence—I’m really delighted to be able to talk about my femmespiration, Tilda Swinton.

What, Tilda Swinton, androgyne extraordinaire, as femme?

I’ll be taking femme in its most basic sense—femme as woman, as the embodiment of femininity—and looking to the work of Luce Irigaray, who riffs off the Freudian notion of femininity as masquerade (I’ll get to that in a moment) to inform my reading of Tilda as femme par excellence. Irigaray, for those of you unfamiliar with her, is a Belgian-born French feminist theorist, philosopher, linguist, and psychoanalyst, who was so radical that she got expelled from Lacan’s school, the École Freudienne de Paris (Freudian School of Paris), for publishing in 1974 her doctoral thesis, the seminal work Speculum, de l’autre femme (Speculum of the Other Woman), a scathing critique of the phallocentrism of Western philosophy and of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. The fallout from Speculum, in addition to expulsion from Lacan’s school of psychoanalysis, included Irigaray’s being stripped of her teaching post at the University of Vincennes (a university known for its radical politics and for being a safe haven for otherwise renegade or marginal academics) and being generally ostracized by the psychoanalytic community of Paris.

Irigaray is certainly one of my femmespirations, but she’s not particularly well-dressed from what I can tell, and her haircut leaves something to be desired, which is why I will be talking about her ideas only and leaving it instead to Tilda Swinton to participate in our scopic economy.

I’d like to talk here a little about an important Irigarayan concept that can be used to think about Tilda Swinton’s performances of self:

Mimicry (and masquerade)
Masquerade is a psychoanalytic term denoting what Freud identifies as “femininity” in which a man is born a man, while a woman has to become a woman through masquerade, such that femininity, is not a given, but something that a woman, as a feminine subject, assumes or puts on, and this for the gratification of masculine subjectivity and desire. (In Speculum, Irigaray shows us how the Western intellectual tradition depends on setting woman up as man’s other, as his reflection, such that she confirms his subjectivity while being deprived of her own.[1])

Irigaray puts a wrench in the machinery of masquerade, this idea that would reduce femininity (and by extension, woman) to an other that has no real agency, but only serves as a support for masculine identities. Mimicry, unlike the “more passive, self-subordinating acceptance of femininity” is “a more active, self-assertive strategy or practice.”[2] Mimicry strategically imitates masquerade from within patriarchal systems to enable a feminine subject, a woman, to pass as such, but from a position of self-awareness, a position that is one of resistance, in that her “self” is “foreign to the whole staging.”[3] We can think of it like this:  the woman, who is claiming her right to subjectivity is effectively like a double agent, residing in enemy territory, knowing who she is and where she comes from, holding onto the very powerful arm of her own subjectivity while she passes in daylight as any other citizen. Or we can think of it another way: the woman is like the puppeteer who controls and moves her socialized body, a free agent who, when behind that stage, is in complete control, able to interact with others without exposing her own self or subjectivity, rendering these things vulnerable.

Forgive me if I’ve been a bit long, but I wanted to get all this out of the way so that I could declare Tilda Swinton to be a master of mimicry, a woman who takes advantage of the full range of gender presentations available to her in order to constantly destabilize any notion we might have of what or who she is.

Remember her in Orlando?

And in real life--now we see her, masculine:
Now we don’t:
This is her:

And this is her:
So is this:
And this:

HOME GIRL IS ALL OVER THE PLACE. What does this mean? What is she doing? I think she’s taken Irigaray’s mimicry, the self-somewhere-not-seen controlling a “self” that is seen, to the “self-somewhere-seen-but-impossible-to-make-out” controlling a “self” that is seen. In avant-garde art, the tendency from the first moments of modernism to now has always been to greater transparency for the purposes of greater opacity. The artist or creator is increasingly transparent about their medium (the painter lets her hand show as pain moves away from mimesis, the writer steps out of the narrator’s voice and shows a novel to be, confusingly, difficultly, language-work), giving up the illusion of reality in order to be real.

Who does this better than Tilda Swinton?

I think that the notion of giving up illusion for what is real is a common fairy-tale trope. And I think Tilda Swinton’s latest incarnation of passing from “reality” to the real is her performance piece at MoMa, “Maybe”:

Here, we have, I think, Tilda Swinton assuming the role of those women in fairy tales of old who are always sleeping in public places, or places that they cannot control: Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, The Princess and the Pea, etc. It is a quintessentially feminine attitude or position, you could say. But unlike those fairytale women, we have a woman who, in full control of her subjectivity, is still able to keep in reserve, somewhere where we can’t access it even as it presents itself, her self, as we bring ourselves and our selves in quest of her. Kelis’s milkshake might bring all the boys to the yard, but I think Tilda Swinton’s self brings all the selves to her yard.

No small feat in an increasingly virtual and mediatized and mediated world. And THAT (besides the fact that she has very nice hair and terribly exquisitely expensive clothes) is why Tilda Swinton is my femmespiration, on Fridays and all other days of the week.


[1] “Toute théorie du « sujet » aura toujours été approprié au « masculin ». À s’y assujettir, la femme renonce à son insu à la spécificité de son rapport à l’imaginaire. » [All theory of the “subject” will have always been adapted to the “masculine.” In submitting to it, the woman renounces, unwittingly, the specificity of her relationship to the imaginary.]Luce Irigaray, Speculum de l’autre femme (Paris: Minuit, 1974), 165, my translation.
[2] Carolyn Burke, “Romancing the Philosophers” in Seduction and Theory: Readings of Gender, Representation, and Rhetoric, ed. Dianne Dunter (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 237.
As the translators of Irigaray note very nicely in their glossary to This Sex Which Is Not One, mimicry is “An interim strategy for dealing with the realm of discourse (where the speaking subject is posited as masculine), in which the woman deliberately assumes the feminine style and posture assigned to her within this discourse in order to uncover the mechanisms by which it exploits her.” This Sex Which Is not One, trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), 220.
[3] This Sex Which Is Not One, 152. 


  1. Swinton exudes "self" confidence, extraordinaire. Also, a blog fantastique, this. Thank you.