The Importance of the Body: A Curatorial Statement

By Karen Gwee

I am somewhat of a predictable person – that is the conclusion I’ve come to after considering who I’ve written about over the course of the quarter. Two musicians, two poets: all artists I love. Their explorations of Asian womanhood, desire and kinship grip me viscerally. Mitski makes me cry. CL makes me want to dance. The words of Ocean Vuong and Jenny Zhang both repulse and fascinate me. I suppose I am invested in interrogating the art that jolts me because over the past few years – and certainly the past few months – I have becoming increasingly preoccupied with the body as an organizing approach to personhood, society and justice.

It seems to me that the body has remained a mostly quiet yet undeniably influential presence throughout the quarter we’ve spent exploring and theorizing Asian American gender and sexuality. No doubt, on occasion, we named the body explicitly: when talking about the theory of the flesh in This Bridge Called My Back and biopolitics in Stephanie Hsu’s “Transsexual Empire, Trans Postcoloniality,” for instance. Where theory of the flesh affirms the lived experiences of women of color and validates their bodies as political sites, biopolitics figures bodies as objects managed and regulated by the state, put into circulation as labor, tools or even weapons where appropriate. In our discussions of the fraught issue of visibility, our class has also circled the body, this time as an object of a consumptive gaze that might help or harm.

These modes of analysis feel strongly and consistently relevant for Asian Americans navigating their intersecting racial, gendered and sexual identities under white supremacist neoliberal capitalism, where they may be oppressed and/or co-opted into oppression. For Purvi Patel, who was almost convicted of feticide for having an abortion; for the East Asian women who have been solicited for their eggs; for the Filipina women whose affective labor as nannies and caretakers goes neglected; for George Takei, the gay Asian American film icon who has used his pop culture prominence to speak on Japanese American internment during WWII; for The Weeknd’s “sweet Asian chick” who goes “low mane”; for Anna May Wong and Lucy Liu; for the Tiger Mom – these (counter)frames can be illuminating.

After all, the body cannot not be part of a conversation about Asian American gender and sexuality, which is theory fundamentally centered on people who inhabit real bodies and lead real lives. A conversation about Asian American gender and sexuality is actually also a conversation about life, death and all that those entail – desire, pain, joy, to name a few. The lens of the body clarifies what is at stake with a discussion of Asian American gender and sexuality: survival and prosperity. Thus the immediacy of the body and its needs can helpfully and strategically direct scholarship. When someone is hurting or dying, it is not possible to orient theory anywhere but in service of fighting injustice.

When we live under what Laverne Cox has called a “cis-normative, hetero-normative, imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy,” our bodies are not always our own. Our control and agency are constrained by various aspects of our personhood, which we can sometimes liberate ourselves from when we create art, as Yen Le Espiritu has noted. In representations of ourselves and our bodies, we can excavate our trauma and move towards utopia. These are aims “Your Best American Girl,” “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds” and “I Would Have No Pubes If I Were Truly In Love” try to reach in their own ways. These three pieces of art all make Asian/Asian American bodies explicit, whether it be to demonstrate their marginalization from the concept of American romance or to make the reader acknowledge the visceral toll of American imperialism abroad.

However, I also think of what science fiction author Samuel R. Delany recently noted: “By making so much available, the internet makes it less and less possible to have anything except representations.” It is more important than ever to remember that representations do not exist in a vacuum, and to interrogate their provenances. There are still material barriers to crafting and disseminating representations (for instance, the money needed to film a music video, or the social capital needed to attract more eyes to your poem). Because representations still dwell in white supremacist neoliberal capitalist cultures, far too often representations by people of color are allowed to exist only because they align with or are not too inoffensive to that culture. CL’s art, for instance, is shaped by the demands of the hegemonic American pop music industry she is trying to break into. Representations are always situated within reality. The bodies on screen have always been crafted by particular bodies in society, and might very well tangibly impact other bodies.

The body: as an organizing principle, whether for solidarity or theory, it is simple and somewhat brilliant. Even if they do not look the same and often work differently, we all have bodies. They are made valid by their very existence. Our bodies will tell how we use our understandings of Asian American gender and sexuality in the context of American society to forge more equitable and more compassionate futures. After all, at the end, they are all we have.

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