Distraction Free Reading

Emilia Sanabria on Bodily Plasticity in Brazil

Each year, Platypus invites the recipients of the annual Forsythe Prize to reflect on their award-winning work. This week’s post is from 2017’s honorable mention Emilia Sanabria, for her book Plastic Bodies (Duke, 2016).

In early November of last year, Judith Butler was attacked during her visit to Brazil. She was in Brazil as a member of the organizing committee of a conference on “The Ends of Democracy,” held in São Paulo. Her visit drew protests from the Catholic extreme-right who assumed she was in Brazil to speak about gender and undercut catholic family values by questioning the biological “facts” of sex.

In Plastic Bodies, I show how the biological facts of sex and – more broadly – the givenness of bodies are routinely troubled in Brazil through a range of techniques that include diets, work-outs, pharmaceutical hormone use, plastic surgery[1] and the extreme medicalization of birth.[2] The book takes as point of departure the neo-feminist proposal that women free themselves from the biological obligation to menstruate replacing this within the wider economy of bodily plasticity in Brazil. Starting from an ethnography of contraceptive practices, it explores the policing of the boundary between nature and artifice and reveals how the body’s capacities are molded, manifested or policed, and to what ends. The book explores how hormones are “sexed” through medical discourses and popular uses. They are nodes through which people come to understand sex and gender in fluid ways, contributing to a sex/gender dynamic that is not binary and cannot be neatly mapped onto male and female bodies.

A bowl labelled "Testosterone" is filled with a white powder.

Pot of powdered hormone for the crafting of subcutaneous hormonal implants. Salvador, Brazil

Yet such fluidity is being violently resisted. Butler’s effigy was burned by protestors, along with a pink bra and she and her partner Wendy Brown were assaulted at São Paulo airport while catholic crosses and Brazilian flags were brandished and they were told to “go to hell.”[3] This event perhaps conveys what the now banal statistics of gendered and sexual violence in Brazil often fail to. Such targeted demonstrations of violence evoke the momentous conservative backlash that is staged through social media in parallel with phenomena such as #metoo that seek to publicize the scale of sexual harassment. What this investment of neo-conservative activism in the digital sphere reveals is just how fragile the hard-fought victories for LGBQT and women’s rights are and how ardently they need to be defended. Butler later told the press she understood the protesters to be defending Brazil as a place where the family remains heterosexual, abortion illegal and reproductive freedom inexistent: “They want boys to be boys, and girls to be girls, and for there to be no complexity in questions such as these.”[4]

In Plastic Bodies, I trace the emergence of a (pharmaceutical industry-driven) discourse concerning the purported “unnaturalness” of regular menstruation.[5] Menstrual suppression using uninterrupted hormonal contraception is seen as a means of returning the reproductive organs to their “original” state. It involves the use of pharmaceutical sex hormones, from extended regime oral contraceptives (Seasonique™, Lybrel™) to hormonal injections (Depo-Provera™), implants (Implanon™) or intra-uterine devices (Mirena™), all of which reduce or suppress regular menstrual bleeding episodes. The practice is widespread in the Global South as part of the arsenal of birth control strategies to contain the population boom. Brazil, where the ethnographic research for Plastic Bodies was carried out, has been the theatre of experimental hormonal practices for decades yielding much of the experimental data on the basis of which the abovementioned treatments were approved for Western markets. Hormonal menstrual suppression explicitly recognizes the hybrid quality of menstruation and seeks to purify this through the rationale of a technical return to nature. Bodies, it appeared, not only receive new form and content from their environments, but are plastic. That is, they give themselves (new) form through such transactions, while enduring. Rather than side with or against the idea that menstruation is a natural feature of women’s bodies, I thus explore how arguments are structured in this polarized arena. My objective in the book is to show how the very category of the “natural” is put into question in Brazil through an analysis of this discourse around menstruation. Both the recognition of the body’s cyclical nature and the practice of using hormones to suppress menstruation construe the body as plastic.

In the foreground is a sculpture of a red woman with black hair smoking a cigar. In the background is a painting of a woman in a long flowing dress.

Yemanja and Pomba Gira, Salvador, Brazil. Photograph by Emilia Sanabria

Plasticity points to a radical tension between biological contingency and technological possibility. At stake here is a debate concerning the function of the uterus and the hormonal fluctuations of the menstrual cycle beyond reproduction. This indicates the extent to which the noncyclical (male) body remains an implicit norm, for any variation thereof is seen to require assessment in terms of potential function, gained or lost. For, as my feminist colleagues are quick to note, sperm production in the absence of reproduction is not qualified as “unnecessary” or “wasteful,” let alone pathological.

In Plastic Bodies, I propose that grounding a feminist resistance in women’s anatomy is risky and deeply problematic. It relies on an apolitical understanding of biology that is oftentimes blind to race, trans-, queer- and non-reproductive personhood. Yet the move away from the natural is not straightforwardly emancipatory. Rather, the answer seems to lie in the distinction between plasticity and flexibility. For to recognize plasticity, would mean to recognize not just one pole of plasticity (the capacity to receive form) but – simultaneously – the capacity to endure, to yield a constraint to such demands. The promise of plasticity thus defined is that it has this “both, and” capacity to bring together two otherwise opposed meanings. The tension between them is what constitutes the force of this concept and, I believe, its political promise.

In this sense, I am particularly honored by this Honorable Mention for the Forsythe Prize which celebrates feminist and STS scholarship. I hope that the concept of plasticity, as I have explored it here, can serve as a tool among the repertoire of feminist responses to continue to trouble neoconservative appeals to immutable biology.

[1] Edmonds, A. (2010). Pretty Modern: Beauty, Sex, and Plastic Surgery in Brazil. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press

[2] McCallum, C. (2005). Explaining caesarean section in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. Sociology of Health & Illness, 27(2), 215–242. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9566.2005.00440.x

[3] She told Inside Higher Ed: “It was of concern to see so many people driven by ignorance, opposing a theory that in no way resembles the caricature, and engaging in effigy burning, recalling the hideous tradition of burning dissidents as ‘witches.’ I understand that the puppet/poster representing me included both a witch’s hat and a bright pink bra, signifying gay or trans life in some way. I am not sure they thought about what it meant to accuse me of being both a witch and trans. If I am trans, then I would presumably be a man, but if I am a witch, I am presumably a woman. It seems they were engaged in a bit of gender trouble of their own.”

[4] Judith Butler interviewed on being attacked in Brazil, Nov 13th, 2017 for Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/11/13/judith-butler-discusses-being-burned-effigy-and-protested-brazil

[5] The menstrual suppression debate is founded on two interconnected claims. The first consists differentiates the menstrual bleeding pattern experienced by oral contraceptive pill users from “natural” menstruation and suggesting that the former, because of its artificial nature, is dispensable. The second claim denaturalizes regular menstruation, arguing that this is a “new biological state”, since “in the past” or in “tribal” contexts women reached menarche later, had more children, and breastfed them longer than “modern” women do.

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