Feminist Aesthetics: Epistemic Justice and A Clockwork Orange

Still from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971)

tw: rape, sexual assault, violence

In parts one and two of this series, I combined feminist aesthetics and metaphysics to look at how feminine passivity is sexualised in different art forms (from cinema to high art) in a way which draws parallels to pornography and ultimately affects feminine subjectivity. 

In part three, I examine Talk to Her (2002) as a case study which complicates feminist aesthetics and sexualises female passivity. Part four will examine two other case studies: the novel and film formats of A Clockwork Orange, originally written by Anthony Burgess and then adapted cinematically by Director Stanley Kubrick.

Epistemic Justice is unfairness related to knowledge. Coined by British Philosopher Miranda Fricker (2007), it refers to “a wrong done to someone specifically in their capacity as a knower or as an epistemic subject”. In Talk to Her (2002), Almodovar dabbles in cinematic ‘Immoralism’ by preventing the audience from realising that Benigno is a rapist, and therefore denying the narrative and the audience ‘epistemic justice’.

This denial of the audience’s ability to object to the character’s actions and the grave sexual violation creates an epistemic injustice in artworks and produces a consequent silencing effect. Denial and absence lead to the audience’s inability to critique objectification as they lack the power to assert any kind of oppositional gaze.

Female subjugation is sometimes aestheticised, dismissed and romanticised in artworks, positioning the woman viewer to accept the sexualisation of passivity, which she can absorb into her narcissistic gaze. Arguably, some works which include elements of objectification are not damaging in this way because they do not masquerade their problematic transgressions, and the spectator is consequently able to analyse any one-dimensional representations of the women depicted.

Fricker’s notion of epistemic injustice allows us to see where some works utilise objectification in order to direct the audience’s attention to its silencing effect on women, which arises primarily from a reduction of their subjectivity. In this case, the works could often be categorised as feminist because part of the creator’s message would be to emphasise the harmfulness of objectification.

However, even if a work does not deliberately coincide with feminist concerns by drawing our attention to objectification, it can nevertheless portray the problematic aspects realistically. This kind of artwork is less damaging to public perceptions of female autonomy and the woman’s sense of her own self because, even if it does not actively encourage a feminist critique, it nevertheless enables the possibility for reflection.

Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange (novel) is an example of artwork that reduces women to their embodied existence, yet it is less problematic in terms of epistemic injustice than Talk to Her (Brady 2009). The narration uses a teenage slang called ‘Nadstat’ to help paint women as tools for hedonistic and sadistic pleasure. Arguably, while Burgess may not have intended to masquerade the violent reality of rape, this language is one of invisibility, which could potentially lead to the silencing of the ethical problems inherent in the objectification of women.

“We could tell she would creech murder given one chance, so I was round the counter very skorry and had a hold of her, and a horrorshow big lump she was too, all nuking of scent and with flipflop big bobbing groodies on her…So we had her down on the floor and a rip of her platties for fun and a gentle bit of the boot to stop her moaning. And, viddying her lying there with her groodies on show, I wondered should I or not, but that was for later on in the evening” (Burgess 2012:16).

They contemplate rape after savagely handling her body parts but then settle for bullying her and sexually gratifying themselves “later” by raping someone else. The random rape and aggressive attacks on women, rather than serving some kind of plot-driven purpose, are motivated solely by the ‘fun’ they gain in attempts to affirm their brotherhood (Hoyng 2011:164-6).

Undressing is always a violent action in the novel and clothes, symbols of civilisation and protection, are constantly ripped (Burgess 2012:37). Alex peppers his commentary with an analysis of “devotchka’s” (women’s) body parts, contrasting the young “ptitsas” from the “starry ptitsas”, or “baboochkas” (grandmothers), yet ultimately assaulting them all. While the droogs (his gang) do not discriminate, they nevertheless assess and appreciate the women’s’ physical appearance, particularly in relation to their breasts or “groodies” (Burgess 2012:27). Gender business and misogyny is the rule, not exception, in Burgess’ world, where women’s bodies are “commodities to be passed around from ‘brother’ to ‘brother’” (Hollinger 2000:93).

In contrast to Almodovar, where female passivity is disguised in the folds of the film, Burgess explicitly draws attention to the gang’s blatant objectification of women, where sexual violation is completely normalised. An uncomplicated reading would point to the novel as a work where women’s autonomy is more endangered and a woman reader could thus feel alienated. However, Almodovar’s virtual ‘silencing’ of Alicia’s passivity and the aesthetic treatment of her unconscious body in Talk to Her romanticises rape in ways which Burgess avoids.

The female spectator is far more likely to identify with the portrayal of Alicia as a body that takes domain in the men’s sphere because of its beauty. Although Burgess’ women characters are not mentally explored, Almodovar seems to portray Alicia as an active character yet the film treats her passively when she regains consciousness. In contrast, Burgess provides ‘epistemic justice’ by clarifying that the gang does not respect either gender’s subjectivity and highlights their mental dysfunction, whilst Benigno is spiritually elevated despite his mishaps. Perhaps, the verisimilitude of the events depicted and the creation of Burgess’ so called “hot book” contributes to the “hot” sexual ardour which fires the market of modern pornography (Evans 410), suggesting that these objectifying depictions could encourage the violence of a reader’s sexualising gaze towards women.

However, Burgess ultimately utilises this objectification to show how the spectacle of brutality itself can brutalise (Evans 410). Perhaps the descriptions of the rape, while brutal, allow the reader to realise the reality of what the droogs engage in and sympathise with the women as victims. In contrast to Almadovar’s diminishment of the rape to a morally and aesthetically complex plot point, the rapes in Burgess’ novel are far from inducements of erotic pleasure. The sexual abuse of the ten-yearold devotchkas with “padded groodies and red all ploshed on their goobers” (Burgess 2012:49) is graphic and disturbing as their age is highlighted, along with the droogs’ abhorrent pedophilia.

Likewise, after Alex is conditioned to despise violence, he feels “sick” at the sight of “a very cally devotchka but with very bolshy groodies on her, and some of the eating vecks tried to grab her, going haw haw haw while she went he he he” (Burgess 2012:144). Whereas the same scene used to have a positive effect on him, Alex ultimately wants to return to a normal life and his earlier treatment of women, while not obviously condemned by the novel, is also not condoned.

In contrast to Almodovar’s immoralist approach, Burgess can tell the stories of the victims by confronting the reader with the violence of these scenes rather than merely eroticising them. Although the novel’s controversial elements and portrayals of objectification are not ‘feminist’ in any way, Burgess also does not subliminally promote the misogynistic misdemeanour of the droogs. A Clockwork Orange has no real women characters and those which do speak are merely catalysts to the phallo-centric narrative. However, while they are reduced to sexualised caricatures, a woman reader is not encouraged to desire or accept her own sexualisation because Burgess alienates the audience from the narrator’s casually violent eroticisation of women.

Nevertheless, the use of language in its othering of girls and women presents a different kind of silencing to Talk to Her; itveils the reader from fully imagining the sexual objectification of women in a way which plain English would allow by somewhat disguising explicit descriptions portraying gore and sexual abuse. In this way, our constructed knowledge of the text also provides a lack of epistemic justice. The very use of terms such as ‘ptsitsas’ and ‘devochkas’ also alienate women into a purely sexual category which would not be taken as seriously if English slang words were used, as the reader could easily dismiss them. Nevertheless, Talk To Her not only silences its sexual violence, but presents it as an aesthetic element of the film aimed to usurp our moral stigma towards Benigno’s character in ways which Burgess does not do with Alex.

When Alex dreams, he is “shut in the bliss …God, I knew such lovely pictures. There were vecks and ptitsas, both young and starry, lying on the ground screaming for mercy, and I was smecking all over my rot and grinding my boot in their litsos” (39). The violence exerted on the two genders do differ, as the rape of women involves male sexual gratification. However, objectification is not limited to the female body and Alex collects both men and women (‘vecks and ptitsas) as trophies (Hoyng 2011:166). The use of Nadsat to refer to women’s sexuality does not disguise objectification in the same way in which the omission of rape in Talk To Her does. Because the language makes the violent scenes less graphic, the potential for readers to read the rape scenes pornographically or erotically is also limited and the focus is more on the droog’s careless brutality rather than the feminine body. Therefore, the positive epistemic justice in the novel means that women readers are not persuaded into subconsciously ‘othering’ themselves through Burgess’ representations in a way which promotes de Beauvoir’a concepts of feminine narcissism and self-objectification.

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange

When it comes to Stanley Kubrick’s film-adaptation of the novel, however, the artistic license for violent objectification seems unjustified. While it mirrors the novel in showing how the droogs’ evening events are ‘funny games’(Hoyng 2011:164), the aesthetic quality of the violence is extremely sexualised and the objectification of women cannot be defended by any aesthetically motivated thesis (Staiger 2003:46).

This aestheticization of objectification does not merely silence rape, like in Talk to Her, but actively eroticises the passivity of women by explicitly focusing on the female body. To a woman viewer, this could subconsciously translate as an idea that female passivity and male dominance is sexy and desirable (Bauer 2001:25). Unlike the other two case studies, Kubrick’s intentions appear to be the sexualisation of women which cannot be relinquished through ideas of ‘epistemic justice’; the violence is not depicted as damaging because it is sensationalised through the focus on the objectified feminine figure.

Whereas Kubrick defended his film through the depictions of violence in the novel (Staiger 2003:46), Walker’s intertextual comparison points out many subtle changes which eroticise the women in the film, suggesting that the nude women characters are “astutely used as commercial window dressing” (Staiger 2003:53). The girl raped by a rival gang in the novel is only ten years old and is neither stripped naked nor has developed breasts, in contrast to the actress in the film who is modified to fit normative feminine ideals. The cat woman in the novel who lives in an antique house is also younger in the film and is introduced in a ‘grotesque yoga position’ and surrounded by phallic, sexual décor which encourages the spectator’s sexual thoughts in relation to the art projects, inviting ideas of victim blaming, that the victim ‘asked’ for the rape (Staiger 2003:51).

Sex, sexual violence and genitalia is far more central to the film’s mise-en-scene and plot, especially as the male characters’ physical characteristics remain mostly unchanged, transforming the novel’s “sheer heartlessness” into “sex sensation” which acts as grotesque eye candy for the viewer (Staiger 2003:45).

As the Korova Bar is not described by Burgess, the set design, which includes lifelike sculptures of naked women used as furniture, is Kubrick’s fantasy (Staiger 2003:51). In one of the scenes, Dim addresses the sculpture directly and uses her nipples to dispense milk. Aesthetic objects are almost anthropomorphised and given lifelike qualities: a snake crawls between a painted, naked woman to connote penetration, a giant phallus is hit by Alex, and sculptures of women in the mansion kneel on pedestals, spreading their legs and pushing out their breasts towards the spectator (Kramer 2011:11).

According to the moralism debate in art, a representational artwork’s ethical defect could be seen as marring its aesthetic value by ethicists, if its vices outweigh its virtues and it solicits a response that one ought not to have (Eaton 2008:21). However, Almodovar and Burgess portray the relevance of an anti-ethicist perspective which posits that art can be valued on the basis of its morally flawed commitments, if these flaws are integral to conveying the meaning of the artwork (John 2006:345). Although both artworks potentially aestheticize feminine passivity, the objectification depicted is related to the message of moral complexity within the narratives. In contrast, Kubrick’s appropriation of Burgess’ novel eroticizes passivity without aesthetic justification and encourages women to self-objectify themselves from the lens of the other.

Kubrick’s emphasis on female objectification and sexual violence is, unlike Burgess, not simply a means to a deliberate, philosophical end. Rather, the sexualisation of the film adaptation is commercial exploitation of women. As the objectification of female bodies is also buried under layers of formal properties, it is subliminally promoted in a way which would encourage women to dismiss, or even romanticise, it along with fantasises of sexual violence.

It is the omission of the women’s stories, as people, which silences them and presents their bodies as mere aesthetic objects rather than valid persons. Therefore, although the female body is used in all of the aforementioned case studies to primarily move the male narrative forward, Burgess’ novel does not omit the damaging reality of rape in the way which Kubrick and Almodovar’s films sexualise, romanticise and dismiss it.

References

Brady, M. (2009) ‘Book Review’. Analysis. 69(2): 380–382.

Biswell, A. (2012) ‘Introduction’. In: Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Penguin: xxi-xv.

Burgess, A. (2012) A Clockwork Orange. Eds Andrew Biswell, Penguin: 16-170.

Kramer, P. (2011) A Clockwork Orange. Palgrave:Hampshire: 7-11.

Hollinger, V. (2000) ‘A Language of the Future’: Discursive Constructions of the Subject in A Clockwork Orange and Random Acts of Senseless Violence.’ In: Andy Sawyer and David Seed, eds. Speaking Science Fiction. Liverpool University Press: 93.

Hoyng, P. (2011) ‘Ambiguities of Violence in Beethoven’s Ninth through the Eyes of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange’. The German Quarterly, 84 (2): 164-66.

Staiger, J. (2003) ‘The Cultural Productions of A Clockwork Orange’. In: Stuart McDougal, ed. Stanley Kubrik’s A Clockwork Orange, CUP: Cambridge: 39-54.

Stills are used from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971).

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