A Woman, Phenomenally
Poetry Into Film Contest Winner Nicole Himmel on Her Project

~ from the artist ~

I would apply Virginia Woolf’s views on reading to the experience of all art. She writes, “to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions. If this is agreed between us, then I feel at liberty to put forward a few ideas and suggestions because you will not allow them to fetter that independence which is the most important quality that a reader can possess.”

I will offer, as Woolf writes, “a few ideas and suggestions” into the layers of the film and my own thoughts on the subjects it addresses. I took an English class on the literature of gender studies and psychoanalysis, and I kept thinking about the topics of the course long past the end of the quarter. Questions and issues around the themes of gender, femininity, and sex are as pertinent to today as they have been to any era. I was inspired to make a film that addressed both the bondage and creativity inherent in gender as performance.

Judith Butler says that gender is not an innate essence proceeding existence, but an act of creating and performing. Just as a play, or film, is written and performed by actors, Butler claims that a “script” exists that we actively perpetuate on the stage of life. Through this film, I seek to explore the agency and restrictions of what it means to be on a stage and what it means to perform as a woman. Is lipstick paint on the face’s canvas or war paint used to protect an image, to conform to the representations of culture and the media? Are scarves stylistic adornments or excessive props that enslave like a noose or rope? Are the stockings another accessory or do they symbolize a suffocation of speech when they are pulled over the face? Like pantyhose, with their history as sexualized symbols, the media and its advertisements have objectified and segmented the female body into sexualized parts.

I want to address how our bodies are our own canvases just as much as they are the screens for others’ projections. The questions at the core of the film address whether the woman, through her gender performance, is the artist of her body or the subject of someone else’s painting. It is important to mention that these questions of performance and ownership go beyond heteronormativity and extend to gender performance at large. The portrayal of a heterosexual couple in the film does not suggest that these issues only affect heterosexual individuals.

Getting ready for a date is a ritual of gender that men and women both perform; however, female performance is usually more time-intensive and involves more props than the performance of masculinity. When Adam, who waits at the door with flowers, sees his date, does he notice her costume or is he is oblivious to female gender performance? When a friend watched the film, she was convinced that Adam did in fact see everything, but didn’t care because he loved his date. I enjoyed this interpretation because I like to think that love is beyond all norms, that the physical performance of gender only goes so far. My friend’s interpretation brings up the question: who is it that cares about gender performance? Perhaps these constructs are continually perpetuated and enforced due to a male-dominated society; however, perhaps it is also the individual who self-perpetuates bygone standards, creating an external system of judgment that does not exist.

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I made the film because I was inspired and curious about these questions, contradictions, and ideas. It was after I wrote, directed, and edited it that I started thinking about poems. When I asked a family friend if any poem written by a woman came to her mind, she replied, “Phenomenal Woman.” When I read the poem by Maya Angelou, it was auspicious how well suited it was for the film and its message. The poem addresses the same ambiguities and complexities of gender performance.

The word “phenomenal” has two definitions. It can be defined as “remarkable” and extraordinary” as well as “perceptible by the senses.” The second definition of the word originates from the Greek phantasma: “image, phantom, apparition; mere image, unreality,” from phantazein: “to make visible, display.” So I thought, is the speaker of Angelou’s poem extraordinary in her empowerment or is she an image: something on display to be regarded by the senses?

I saw both the empowerment and oppression within Maya Angelou’s poem. The narrator claims she is not a “pretty women” and does not “fit a fashion model’s size.” Although she claims to not conform to certain gender norms and conceptions of beauty, she proceeds in the poem to objectify her body through isolating its various sexualized parts—her lips, her waist, her breasts. Little red flags surface in the poem as she writes, “When you see me passing, / It ought to make you proud.” Is this pride due to the fact that she is an extraordinary woman or to the fact that she appropriately performs as an image of a woman?  She writes, “I don’t shout or jump about / Or have to talk real loud.” Is her silence chosen or does it result from her voice being claimed by those who “ought to” be “proud.” She mentions the “click of [her] heels,” evoking the gusto of her stride, yet heels themselves are cultural symbols of sex, aesthetic objects that fit the constructs of the “femininity” from which the narrator seeks to dissociate. I was struck how she is a phenomenal woman in her empowerment and phenomenal as an image of a woman that men  “swarm around…” like “[a] hive of honey bees.”

The songs that I chose, “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” (1985) and “You Don’t Own Me” (1963) address the same paradoxes and ambiguities of the freedom and oppression of gender performance. In her music video, Cindy Lauper parades through the streets of New York City in a procession of shimmying girls wearing flashy skirts, pearl necklaces, and bright eye shadow. There is a moment when they dance through a crowd of men clad in hard hats, mustaches, and utility boots: images of masculinity. The girls just want to have fun, but the men’s “male gazes” carry other implications.

Just as “phenomenal” carries it meaning of “to make visible, display,” Leslie Gore sings of being put “on display.” In “You Don’t Own Me,” Gore sings “And don’t tell me what to do / Don’t tell me what to say / And please, when I go out with you / Don’t put me on display.” Her words speak to the fact that she was once told “what to do”, “what to say”, and “put on display.” She proclaims, “I’m free and I love to be free”; however, if someone is completely free, then why proclaim that she cannot be owned? The negation underscores a subtle, deep-seeded gender dynamic. Why proclaim that “Girls just want to have fun” if they simply can with no consequences? Like the poem, both songs serve as anthems for female power while they also, subtly, undermine their very power.

Through the conception of the film, I did not explicitly think about sexual assault. When a close friend told me she was sexually assaulted last week and that watching the film gave her hope and female empowerment, I was completely speechless and completely moved. I thought about the topics and the misconceptions that surround many of the themes that the film addresses. I must absolutely stress the fact that a woman does not put herself at risk for sexual assault based on what she wears or how she performs her gender.

Hopefully delving into the layers of the film has brought to light just how multifaceted and complex the themes of gender, femininity, and sex are. To reiterate Woolf’s sentiments, it is up to you to create your own meaning from the film’s portrayed gender performance and whether it inspires creativity, agency, silence, love, oppression, or hope for you.

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