Not a Dirty Secret: On Some Cases of Bulimia in Cinema
Eventually they arrange their lives so they can spend hours each day hunched over like that, their highly trained minds telescoped around two shameful holes: mouth, toilet; toilet, mouth.
– Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth
The cinematic representations of bulimia nervosa are few in number. Their very rarity, however, sheds light on the relations between the private body and the public (social, historical, cultural, and cinematic) body, as well as between the private, external, ostensibly visible body, and the internal, invisible, repressed body. Both Hunger Years (Hungerjahre in einem reichen Land, dir. Jutta Brückner, Germany, 1979) (the film’s original title literally translates into Hunger Years in a Land of Plenty) and Girl, Interrupted (dir. James Mangold, US, 1999) depict the female bulimic body as a resistant body. They do so by presenting a network of conflicts between the private, external/internal body and the public body. These, of course, are different in each case. Hunger Years, Brückner’s autobiographical movie, describes the bulimia of the (anti)historical body. The bulimia attests that the body itself has a history, but not in terms of historical continuity. Rather, the female body in Germany in the 1970s creates resistance to the historical body with which the explicit, and particularly the implicit, public discourse affiliates it. That is, the bulimic body of the 1970s creates itself as a body that is resistant to the intergenerational transition of the Nazi-fascist male, and particularlyfemale, body. In Girl, Interrupted, it is the psychocultural bulimic body that carries the mark of sexual abuse and incest in the mid-1960s American family. The bulimic body is the total inversion of the physical model of sexual excess of the 1960s. Bulimic excess replaces sexual excess, an exchange that is tragic because of the incest. The bulimic body as a rebellious body creates interactions not only with the supposedly liberated physical model that the 1960s culture of sexual freedom propagated but also with the model of the political body engaged in political struggle. Just as it resists the sexual revolution, as well as its perverted manifestation within the family unit, it also presents itself as apolitical.
This article has four parts. The first examines the marginalization of bulimia by the current corporeal research in order to describe fully its characteristics and etiology. The second analyzes the two cases of bulimia (Hunger Years and Girl, Interrupted), with emphasis on the perception of the body, and describes, for comparison’s sake, one case of bulimic-type anorexia (Life Is Sweet [dir. Mike Leigh, UK, 1990]). In the third part, I will link the first two parts by proposing a recorporealization of the Lacanian mirror stage. Finally, I will propose that the bulimic body is the ghostly shadow of any woman’s body, implicitly regulating her conception of the feminine body, of, in other words, herself.
A Body without Interpretation
Bulimia nervosa (BN) and anorexia nervosa (AN) are extreme corporeal phenomena characterized by the physical transformations they entail; the surplus body excesses (surplus body images, surplus contradictions between these images); the high level of abjection latent in the body that carries the disorders; the addictive nature of the disorders that necessitates performative reinscription and deinscription of corporeality; the disorders’ relation to questions of power; and their epidemic nature. These eating disorders, unique both in their bodiliness and in being genderrelated, have reached the level of an epidemic that threatens social order — though the great majority of the canonical psychosocial and cultural research, especially from the mid-1990s onward, does not treat them as a necessary element in discussing the corporeal body.
The few studies that have treated eating disorders as part of a “return to the body” or, for example, as part of hysterical epidemics, focus drastically more on AN than on BN. Apart from this distortion, the research is also characterized by the sweeping categorization of the two disorders as one, as well as by its difficulty in presenting the etiology of BN. Hence, one of the main aspects of BN as a disease — its concealment by the woman as a “dirty secret” — could also be said to characterize the research. One explanation for why the research has gone along with excluding or marginalizing bulimia requires a broader notion of the term modern illness. Unlike AN, BN has almost no history, and no roots in ancient mythology. Even if the two scandal expos.s in the media (the 1983 video about Jane Fonda being bulimic, and particularly that of Princess Diana in 1995) constructed mythicizing processes involving a feminine cult of a “new” kind, these cases did not suffice to create a myth about the illness. There also are no canonical literary narratives centering on characters who suffer from BN.
This cultural vacuum is also a geographic one. Bulimia is a modern illness whose geographic source remains unknown, not because it is impossible to locate the initial reports of its outbreak, but because of its invisibility. Hence, the spaces of its existence are inevitably the internal spaces, both in the intrabody sense (the mouth, the esophagus, the digestive system, the vomiting mechanism) and in the intradomestic sense (the kitchen, the toilet, the sink).
Bulimia’s invisibility provides another explanation for why the contemporary corporeal research overlooks the disorder. The bulimic struggles with visibility: the overeating and vomiting that occur concealed in the privacy of the intrabody, intradomestic space reemerge into visibility in the external bodily space (balding, tooth depletion, etc.) and in the extradomestic space. It is precisely the media’s incapacity to expose the visibility — either of the body/space or of the temporality, so that BN remains invisible even when the facts about it are discovered — that reinforces its nature as a mental epidemic. Bulimia, that is, produces an oxymoron: it offers a fearful image without visibility in a public space that depends on visual spectacle.
Another characteristic of the disorder is the tension the bulimic maintains between two competing body images: that of the external and that of the internal. This is not the tension that determines anorexic behavior, between “how she wants to look” and “how she looks” (“too fat”). It is the tension between the internal body image based on feelings of depression, guilt, selfcriticism, lack of control, satiation, disgust, connectedness-tothe-bathroom, mess, fear of weight gain, and dysphoric mood states — and the external body image, which projects emotional balance, acceptance, control, lightness, cleanliness, aesthetic diligence, order, and postcatharsis. In BN, the body ceaselessly creates two bodies, each with its own image, and destroys them (the internal one as a vision, the external one by means of the cycle) — and on and on. In each eating-vomiting cycle, both must be recreated. This dichotomy is one prime feature of BN. Additional characteristics are not related to visibility. Unlike all the epidemics that have become a spectacle in the public space, bulimia does not involve a threat of death. In other words, this is a nonacute, that is, chronic epidemic. What accounts for these traits of bulimia? The existing body of research, for its part, offers two main explanatory frameworks: the psychoanalytic one focuses on the bond with the mother, while the sociocultural one emphasizes dependency on the “cult of thinness,” or the bulimic body as a medium of protest against the consumer self. The bio-psycho-social model, however, offers no explanation of the choice mechanism, either for the recourse to food or to vomiting, and it does not, as Charles E. Rosenberg points out, account for “the movement from propensity to habit to pathological mechanism.” The gap between the definite characterization of BN and its etiological indeterminacy, which I will call the etiological paradox, widens the range of possible reasons for BN’s exclusion and marginalization in the contemporary corporeal research. Bulimia is difficult to understand not only because it is a modern disease that lacks contexts but also because of the etiological paradox.
Bulimia in Film
On the one hand, the small number of films that show representations of bulimic women reflects the ongoing partnership in crime with the social (and academic) processes of concealment, marginalization, and exclusion of bulimia — in other words, with the interpretation without body that characterizes both the psychoanalytic-feminist research since the 1970s and the contemporary corporeal research. However, it is possible that in recent years (as in the examples I mentioned from America’s Sweethearts and Elephant) at least the images of bulimia have gradually begun penetrating (even if this does not involve bulimic women and the human drama associated with the disorder) the screen.
The Tin Drum: Bulimia Nervosa, Pregnancy, Abortion
In what way will the films transform the invisibility of bulimia to visibility? Will this be the repellent visibility of the abject? The pity-arousing visibility of the feminine secret? Or will it take some other form? And, in particular, do the films that represent bulimic women offer corporeal insights that are consonant with the disorder? I will begin by discussing the representations of bulimia in the film The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel, dir. Volker Schlöndorff, Germany, 1979). This text is located, in my view, at an intermediate point between the texts that will be discussed later in this article, which center on an image of a bulimic woman, and the texts I will not discuss, which present random images of bulimia.
In a well-known scene in The Tin Drum, the Nazi husband (Mario Adorf), his wife (Angela Winkler), the wife’s lover (Daniel Olbrychski), and the boy Oskar (David Bennent) are strolling at the seashore. While the woman, Agnes, is vomiting from the sight of the head of a dead horse placed in the sea to catch eels, her husband, Alfred Matzerath, buys the eels that roil within the head. At supper, their abusive relations are manifested by his forcing her to eat the eels. At first she desperately refuses, but with the help of the erotic-exploitative mediation of her lover Jan Bronski — who calms her weeping by fondling her until her weeping changes to moans of passion — she eats the entire tray. Life within death becomes death within life. This binge is the culmination of the erotic-exploitative, emotional-exploitative, and sexual elements surrounding the female body, which are displaced onto the eels, as well as onto the voyeuristic Oskar’s gaze. Agnes achieves control of the family scene in a distorted fashion, namely, only via the loss of control entailed in vomiting and eating. After Agnes reveals her pregnancy, after a series of attacks in which she overeats and vomits sardines and herrings in a recurring echo of the incident with the eels, she commits suicide. The suicide is a substitute for the cycle of overeating-vomiting, without purification.
The scenes involving bulimia (the seashore scene, the scene of eating the tray of eels, and the scene of overeating the sardines) show the woman’s protest by means of eating and vomiting. She protests, first, against the authority of her husband and his attempt to control her via food. Second, she protests against the pregnancy (even if the fetus is the child of her lover, not of her husband). Agnes refuses to continue the family dynasty, and perhaps even the family triad. The eating of a full tray of eels also signifies the swallowing and vomiting of Alfred’s sexuality, which she perceives as repellent. On the one hand, ravenously eating the sardines and herrings to the point of nausea and vomiting them is an extension of the defiance involved in eating the eels. Agnes consumes the abomination so as to get rid of it. On the other hand, the text presents the eating not only as uncontrolled bulimia but also as the normative behavior of a pregnant woman. This ambiguity, then, raises the question of how to relate to Agnes’s bulimia.
Note that the scene of fishing for the eels, with the vomiting that anticipates the interactions of the family triangle, appears in the text immediately after the scene of the Nazi march, in which Agnes’s husband participates. By means of juxtaposition, The Tin Drum associates the rise of the Nazis with the change occurring in the family unit. That unit is founded on extreme political-sexual contrasts in the triangle (a woman with an indistinct political identity, a Nazi husband, a Kashubian lover, and the child of the three, who at this stage of his growth defies the Nazis). Beginning with the eel-fishing scene, a process of change begins whose main element is the growing isolation of the husband. This isolation is already hinted at in the composition of the shots in the fishing scene (Agnes, who vomits, and the lover who fondles her on one side of the frame; Oskar and the drum in the middle; Alfred and the eels on the other side).
In my view, in the world of the German Nazi family, the ambiguity regarding Agnes’s behavior (BN or pregnancy or both) does not amount to suppressing BN through the normative condition of pregnancy. On the contrary, the ambiguity emphasizes the BN with its symbolic aspects as an anti-Nazi reaction. Recall that in contrast to the imagined body of AN, which is the body of a girl who has not matured, the imagined body of BN is her prebulimic body. That is, it is the body after sexual maturation but without the cycle of fertility that is associated with this maturation. Bulimia creates a simulation of two imagined processes: pregnancy and abortion/miscarriage. The only normative situation of exaggerated eating and vomiting among women is that of pregnancy. For the bulimic, the body nourishes itself (and not another body, that of the fetus) and vomits the nourishment (not because of the fetus within it). That is, for this body, the stomach, rather than the womb, has centrality. The body of the bulimic woman produces an imaginary periodicity while destroying the natural periodicity related to fertilization processes. Paraphrasing Bryan S. Turner, we can say, “The body is busy, the womb is not.” Thus the ambiguity intensifies the disorder. Or, more precisely, BN leads, by nature, to the negation of pregnancy. The epic breadth of The Tin Drum does not enable one, interpretatively, to build the meaning of the whole text around BN, but in the text’s ongoing resistance to Nazism and to the depravity of the Nazi family, BN and Agnes’s negation of pregnancy play a central role.
The drum — which serves as a substitute empowerment and extension of the distorted body of Oskar (in the period of sexual preadolescence when he is still an anti-Nazi rebel) — functions analogously to the BN, which serves as an empowerment and extension of Agnes. In contrast, however, to the distorted-visible body of Oskar, the bulimic body preserves its invisibility. Schl.ndorff’s text makes visible only one element of the disorder — overeating. The vomiting is not seen on the screen. Thus while the consequences of these eating episodes arouse disgust and revulsion in the spectator, Agnes’s body remains, particularly in the eel scenes, tempting and delightful. That is, the invisibility is also maintained by creating a separation between the representation of the body and the representation of the disorder. For the spectator experiences a doubled response: voyeuristic fetishism entailed in viewing Agnes as a woman (as do, alternately, the camera, the lover Bronski, and the boy Oskar) and the revulsion induced by the ravenous eating. This latter revulsion does not, however, involve a strong sense of nausea in the spectator; the editing displaces the heavy sexual overtones of the scenes to the eels themselves.
The Tin Drum, as a text that belongs to the intermediate category in terms of the centrality of BN, conveys ambiguity about the female body. On the one hand, it reproduces the invisibility of BN (offering the visibility of overeating but not of vomiting), and it creates, by reproducing the intrusive gaze in regard to the bulimic woman, a separation between the body that arouses desire and the disorder that induces revulsion. In this it collaborates, even if partially, with the concealment processes of the bulimic body. On the other hand, it presents a physical system of bodily images that is projected onto the physicality of the woman and that empowers her (the severed head of the horse, the roiling body of the eels, the ossified-ceremonial body of the husband, the avaricious sexual body of the lover, the distorted body of Oskar, the compressed body of the herrings). This system of images creates a bodily symbolic level in which the projection onto the woman’s body marks the contrast (between the vividness of physicality and the abstraction of symbolism). The result is a subversive recorporealization of the female body. The strong physical bodily feeling in these scenes yields an unequivocal statement. Agnes’s body subverts objectification (both by the male gaze and by Nazism) by becoming a body that swallows (and vomits). It thereby subverts — physically — the hold of Nazism on the woman, on motherhood, and on the family unit.
The Tin Drum demolishes the etiological paradox with a set of physical images whose power maintains the symbolicmetaphorical dimension associated with them as a physical dimension. But this emphasis on the physical is also ambiguous. On the one hand, this is a displacement of the direct causality that I discussed above (the choice, precisely, of eating/vomiting) onto a physical event (the eating of eels) with symbolic implications (repression, a substitute for male sexuality, abuse via revulsion, etc.). This displacement makes a textual discussion of etiology infeasible. On the other hand, this is a “natural” displacement. In the world that is depicted, the eels that have been ensnared in the head of the dead horse indeed arouse nausea, and thus the choice of eating/vomiting appears “only natural.”
An emerging cardinal question is whether Hunger Years, in which the bulimic teenage girl is at the center of the narrative, offers, in contrast to The Tin Drum, apt corporeal insights into BN from a number of standpoints. Those include the nature of the visibility, an explanation for the entire disorder’s cycle, and a nonseparation between the representation of the bulimic body and the representation of the disorder.
Hunger Years: The (Anti)historical Body
In Hunger Years, Brückner’s 1979 autobiographical film, the narrator, a thirty-year-old woman, describes in voice-over her teenage years in Germany from 1953 to 1956 — the so-called golden years of the economic recovery. Ursula (Sylvia Ulrich), the persona of the director, lives in a world of irreconcilable tensions: historical tensions (her parents and her teachers refuse to answer her questions about the past), social tensions (in this period, for instance, the Communist Party is declared illegal, and while a cabinet minister on the radio conveys a calming democratic message, we see documentary footage of beatings, arrests, and persecution), psychological tensions (the mother openly expresses hostility, rejection, and alienation while exerting compulsive control of her home, and the father does not provide any haven from this distorted womanhood), and sexual tensions (the home is full of sexual repressions and anxieties). Thus the parents oppose dancing lessons and new clothes, and they unequivocally forbid Ursula to meet boys. When she violates the prohibition, she is, in an ambiguous scene, raped by an Algerian man in a park. The gradually mounting tensions lead her to suicide, during an attack of overeating, at about the age of eighteen.
The people surrounding Ursula, particularly her mother, repress the knowledge that she is suffering from BN. This repression of bulimia is underlined not only in the world that is depicted but also in interviews with Brückner, in her own personal writing,  and in the main articles that have been written about the film. How, then, can Hunger Years, as an autobiographical text, portray the BN that is kept secret even by its director on the extratextual level? The scene in which Ursula discovers that her father has a lover marks the first time that the viewer is exposed to BN. In the scenes involving the adultery, the paucity of dialogue among the members of the household renders food the primary — and mute — mediator of their relations. The camera distance, the composition, the framing, and the lack of any music in the soundtrack make for a subtle representation of BN. In all these scenes, the composition emphasizes the human emptiness surrounding Ursula, in contrast to the filled spaces where food is always beside her. The compositional sense of emptiness undercuts or attenuates the sense of surplus conveyed by the eating.
But greater subtlety lies in additional cinematic strategies. First, the film shares the viewpoint of the heroine. At the peak of the adulterous event, the camera views in close-up the trembling Ursula, late at night, sitting facing the garbage can into which she has angrily thrown the cake that her father had brought to console her. The viewer shares her focus on the cake in the garbage can. This common viewpoint does much to mitigate the sense of revulsion the spectator may feel when Ursula takes the cake out of the garbage can to eat it secretly in her room. Second, the ravenous eating is filmed from afar and hence does not arouse disgust. The camera creates distance “for” the heroine so as to maintain our identification with her. Accordingly, the vomiting remains invisible.
Further Repercussions: From the Abandoned Girl to the Femme Fatale
Like the other heroes and heroines in the New German Cinema, as Thomas Elsaesser has described, Ursula must deal with questions of authority in connection to her parents. The solutions, as is characteristic of the New German Cinema, are to direct aggression outward in the form of murder, or inward in the form of suicide. Her BN is analogous to the facial paralysis of the heroine in the film Germany Pale Mother (Deutschland, bleiche Mutter) by Helma Sanders-Brahms (Germany, 1980), or Juliane’s choice to emulate the force-feeding that her sister undergoes in prison as she puts a feeding tube in herself in the film Marianne and Juliane (Die Bleierne Zeit) by Margarethe von Trotta (Germany, 1981): all are symbols and inscriptions on the body. Bulimia, facial paralysis, and the insertion of the feeding tube are inscribed on the body in a way that Elizabeth Grosz calls “counterstrategic reinscription.” In her words, “[the body,] as well as being the site of knowledgepower . . . is thus also a site of resistance, for it exerts a recalcitrance, and always entails the possibility of a counterstrategic reinscription, for it is capable of being self-marked, self-represented in alternative ways.”
I suggest that when we speak of grappling with questions of authority via the parents by murder, suicide, or both, we are speaking, first of all, of the body as mediator. The question that precedes analysis of these films is whether the male directors’ movies are distinctly different from the female directors’ films in their treatment of the body and, through it, of the past.
Parental abandonment is the central experience of both the male and female directors of the New German Cinema in the generational, autobiographical, and textual senses. But in the films of the male directors, it is inscribed only on the juvenile/ male body, paradigmatically by the character of Kaspar Hauser. It is not inscribed on the bodies of most of the abandoned-girl characters. The abandoned-girl and teenage-girl characters created by the leading directors (e.g., Alice [Yella Rottlander] in Alice in the Cities [Alice in den Städten, 1973], the daughter of Frau Gabler [Brigitte Svoboda] in The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick [Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter, 1971], Mignon [Nastassja Kinski] in Wrong Move [Falsche Bewegung, 1975], in the films of Wim Wenders; Renate Epp [Andrea Schober] in The Merchant of Four Seasons [Der Händler der vier Jahreszeiten, 1971], Gabriele von Kant [Eva Mattes] in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant [Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant, 1972], or Marie [Ulrike Vigo], the out-of-wedlock daughter of Lola in Lola [Lola, 1981], in the films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder) do not bear the experience of abandonment on their bodies. The abandonment breaks the bodies and souls of the boys and of their adult-male counterparts. It does not have that effect, however, on the girls. Accordingly, in the films of the leading directors, the body of the abandoned girl is not a main channel for the undermining of the patriarchal order.
In the female directors’ films, however, the body of girlhood or of teenage girlhood clearly bears the mark of the historical past, both in terms of the experience of abandonment and in terms of the resistance to the Nazi and post-Nazi patriarchal order. Whether it is a collaborator/victim — like the body of Lene (Eva Mattes), the mother in Germany Pale Mother — or an extreme opponent of the past/victim — like the body of the girl Ursula in Hunger Years — the female body bears the mark of nearness to the Nazi-fascist historical body (via facial paralysis in the first case, and bulimia in the second).
Bulimia becomes for Ursula the only possible path to the integration (containment) of the contradictions in the world outside her body — like the father’s adultery or the teacher’s having belonged in the past to the League of German Girls (Bund Deutscher Mädel). The girl has no benchmarks for authenticity of identity, apart from personal fantasies, and she bends under the load of political-economic-social-emotional messages. Since these are impossible to digest, both literally and metaphorically, Ursula, like Agnes in The Tin Drum, swallows and vomits the German society in which she lives, even at the point of her suicide. The body that carries Ursula from the private sphere to the public sphere has become cumbersome; it fails to mediate physically between the worlds, which for it are the same thing. They do not allow it to grow, to shape its identity, but only to fatten. But the body also carries on it symbolic, intergenerational mediation (or, more accurately, resistance to mediation). The mother explains to her daughter that sex is a terrible necessity, and that the inevitable pregnancy is no less terrible. Is the reduction of the woman to the role of childbearer linked to the symbolic role of the woman as mother in the Nazi period, and is this reduction still dominant in the 1950s? The mother exudes acquiescence to this role, and she thereby continues, in my view, to be both the perpetrator and the victim of the system. It is not only she who cooperates with the patriarchal notions and their fascist overtones but also the teachers, one of whom sings a Nazi song. Ursula, isolated, rejected, and depressed, lives only to be able to eat and vomit every night.
This symbolic fattening — without giving birth — is the bulimic body’s reaction to the bourgeois-fascist meanings imposed on it. According to these meanings, it must become a social body. The BN in Hunger Years (as in The Tin Drum) is the text’s statement against the childbearing body. Ursula’s body protests, to use Judith Butler’s conceptualization, against the coerced transgenerational performance of the woman as childbearer. The concealment of the BN is the opposite of the exposure of the collective experience of pregnancy. The mouth is not the extension of the womb as Luce Irigaray suggests; rather, in this society, and in these years, it is its opposite. And the digestive system is the opposite of the reproductive system.
The duality of the bulimic body, which involves the innerconcealed- secret body and the external-visible body, is the complete opposite of the radical physical duality of the I and the other during pregnancy that Iris Young points out. Yet the two dualities are seemingly dependent on the gaze. Accordingly, it is clear that the bulimic body — in contrast to the female body in pregnancy — remains devoid of all physical capital. Ursula’s body is the female body of the second generation in Germany, which declares — via BN — the mothers’ generation to be perpetrators because of their denial of the past, and which does not see them as victims of Nazism. They are regarded as perpetrators in two senses: both vis-.-vis racial others and vis-.-vis their daughters as others. The daughters are others because the bulimic body of the second generation represents resistance to the Nazi-fascist female body, whereas the mother’s body is nothing of the sort. This, in other words, is a body that resists not only the Nazi and post-Nazi patriarchal order but also the Nazi and post-Nazi matriarchal order. The BN of the female character in Hunger Years is not only unique in that the text interprets its reasons (anti)historically; it also points to the monstrous aspects of a culture shaped not only by father-men but also by mother-women. The maternal collaboration, which transmits the denial of the past in all its dimensions, from generation to generation, is disrupted by Ursula’s (anti)historical body.
But BN is not only an image that influences the discourse of the past in Germany. It becomes part of the cultural discourse of the 1970s, during which the film was made; these are the years that shatter utopian dreams of rehabilitation (as Theodor Adorno maintains). The bulimic woman is therefore the opposite of the femme fatale. This figure is not a product of postwar male anxieties that in the worldwide male cinema created the femme fatale; rather, it is the feminine response to the postwar influence of masculinity and femininity on the so-called second generation.
The Psychocultural Body: Girl, Interrupted
James Mangold’s film takes place in a mental institution in the late 1960s. The bulimic teenage girl, Daisy (Brittany Murphy), eats only broiled poultry from her father’s delicatessen, and via his intervention she is released from the institution and lives in her own apartment. Her two friends, Susanna (Winona Ryder) and Lisa (Angelina Jolie), flee the institution and visit her. During the visit, Lisa reveals the double secret connected to Daisy — her addiction to BN and laxatives, and incest. Daisy commits suicide, Lisa returns to forced hospitalization, and Susanna, the protagonist, is released and takes up the life of a writer.
Bulimia is Daisy’s form of rebellion against the therapeutic establishment that collaborates with her father, against her father, and against the incest. But this is a silent, intrabody rebellion. The only visible signs are the plates full of poultry parts that accumulate under her bed in the institution, and her clandestine buying of laxatives. Her BN is a silent testimony to the other, hushed-up secret — the incest. But since the drama is conveyed from Susanna’s viewpoint, Susanna’s narrative constitutes testimony that its voice silences, the voice of BN. Evidently Susanna’s literary imagination, as a consciousness that organizes the materials of the story, is a neutralizing/normalizing substitute for testimony on BN (and incest). The testimony on BN and on incest is displaced to the literary testimony; both the BN and the incest remain invisible. Substitutes for their invisibility function on two textual levels — on the level of voice through Susanna’s narration, and on the level of the body, through the emphasis on Lisa’s alluring sexuality. The sexual temptation and the sexual surplus of Lisa’s image obscure their total opposite, manifested in the personality and body of Daisy.
Despite its unique representation of BN, Girl, Interrupted is a reactionary text in regard both to its attitude toward BN and to its univocal etiology of the disorder (incest). Even if this is a progressive explanation more characteristic of the 1970s (the “tempting father” and not the “tempting daughter,” according to Judith Lewis-Herman and Lisa Hirschman), the text itself subverts this explanation via a number of strategies. First, the film never shows the father from a near distance. He is almost unseen, his facial features remain unclear. Hence the film does not allow the viewer to develop feelings of abhorrence toward the father. Accordingly, it emphasizes the girl as “interrupted” (and not the father, or the patriarchal institution that collaborates with him). Likewise, the text creates an unequivocal dichotomy involving a notion of sin and punishment for each of the girls. Its attitude toward both the bulimic girl who is a victim of incest (Daisy) and the supposedly reckless psychotic girl (Lisa) is negative. Both are punished, one by suicide, the other by electric-shock therapy and ongoing hospitalization. In complete contrast, the text accepts Susanna as a “good girl” who recovers from reckless sexual behavior in the past and accepts that judgment until she is released. The same psychological treatment in the same repressive patriarchal institution that collaborated with the abusive father is presented as redeeming Susanna from the travails of the past and setting her on a new course.
The psychocultural bulimic body, which bears the mark of sexual abuse and incest in the American family in the mid-1960s, is presented as the total opposite of the physical model of the 1960s culture of sexual freedom, and perhaps also of the 1990s. Bulimia is associated with invisibility, with sin, and with punishment. The text does not present the bulimic, rebelling body as a political body engaged in struggle, but rather, in reactionary fashion, as a body silenced unto its final destruction.
The Psychosocial Body: Life Is Sweet
Life Is Sweet is a tale of everyday survival in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Andy (Jim Broadbent) is a professional chef who buys a decrepit burger van. His wife, Wendy (Alison Steadman), helps out at a restaurant owned by a friend, Aubrey (Timothy Spall). Of their daughters, one, Nicola (Jane Horrocks), suffers from bulimic-type AN and is also obsessed with men and Marxism, while the other, Natalie (Claire Skinner), an apprentice plumber, is tomboyish and dreams of escaping to America.
In Life Is Sweet the psychosocial, bulimic-type anorexic body is exposed. It is a body inscribed with the experience of both the middle and working classes in Thatcherite Britain. The inability of middle-class people to escape economic deterioration is manifested, for example, in the ruined burger van that Andy buys in an attempt to realize his dream of getting rich. But it is manifested as well by Nicola’s bulimic-type AN, as well as by the other side of her dream, both literally and metaphorically — that is, in her sister’s daily opening of blocked toilets. Toilet blockage is, after all, the other extreme of overeating, and it symbolically connects the two sisters.
Even though Nicola’s body is clearly the body of an anorexic girl, her bulimic behavior is dominant in the text in terms both of drama and character, much more so than her anorexic refusal to eat. The film presents no images related to AN. Instead her refusal to eat, her leaving the college where she was an excellent student at age seventeen, and her forced hospitalization after the doctor predicts that she will die in a few weeks (characteristics cited in the literature on AN) come through in dialogue, as backstory, which has no effect on the visibility of the disorder.
Life Is Sweet contrasts completely with the films discussed so far, which show bulimic girls but avoid exhibiting the full visibility of BN. Hunger Years presents only the overeating, and Girl, Interrupted presents, on the level of visibility, only the results of eating. In other words, both of them keep the dirty secret. According to the principles of depicting BN that I discussed earlier, it is no wonder that Life Is Sweet, which centers on an anorexic girl, is the only text that offers full imagery of the disorder. Eschewing any commitment to the secret from the start, it visually exposes overeating accompanied by vomiting. The spectator sees Nicola in her room taking out a locked suitcase full of sweets (something the title, Life Is Sweet, ironically hints at), eating them ravenously, and then vomiting into a small bag. This is followed by a cut to her sister Natalie’s room. Together with Natalie, we hear what is happening next door — the sounds of chewing and, particularly, the sounds of vomiting. This auditory evidence will lead to the sister’s uncovering of the secret and to an emotional upheaval in the family’s relations.
Life Is Sweet undermines the paradigms of spectatorship — pleasure, desire, fetish voyeurism, spectacle. This representation of bulimic-type AN is a physically repellent representation: anti-erotic, it negates and replaces the female fetishistic-voyeuristic look with the breaking of the mirror. In contrast to Hunger Years and Girl, Interrupted (and also to The Tin Drum), only in Life Is Sweet is the bulimic not separated by the intrusive gaze from the act of eating itself. Nicola arouses physical disgust and abhorrence, and the spectator cannot separate the complete female character from any of her physical aspects.
Unlike Hunger Years and Girl, Interrupted, Life Is Sweet refuses to posit underlying psychological reasons for Nicola’s situation, or for Natalie’s choice to rebel against the feminine image. The family unit is not portrayed as repressive, and the family interaction becomes more empathetic to Nicola as the story progresses to its culmination in the talk between Nicola and her mother. The empathy is linked particularly to the balance that the text creates in regard to the imagery involving Nicola.
The painful revulsion, and perhaps even the physical resistance that Nicola arouses in the spectator, are balanced by the scenes that occur in the restaurant of the friend, Aubrey. His attempt to succeed as a restaurateur is marked for failure from the start by the choice of a grotesque, repellent meal from a menu rich in horrors, a meal that symbolizes more than anything the incompatibility of the dream of a British-style gourmet and the economic reality. The imagery connected to Aubrey mitigates Nicola’s and provides a basis for the theme of a bulimic environment, which symbolizes the rupture of the dream of economic betterment. Leigh’s satire is not directed at the yuppie culture of consumption, but rather at Britain, a country in which the rich got richer while the poor got poorer (with 20 percent of the people living under the poverty line), reversing a forty-year pattern in which incomes were gradually becoming more equal. The food-addicted environment typifies Aubrey; the father, Andy (who is addicted to chocolate); and Nicola (and also, differently, Natalie). Accordingly, and in contrast to the attitudes in Brückner’s text, the British family is not blamed for Nicola’s bulimic-type AN. The revelation of the secret creates a possibility of life for the girl and her family, not of death. In contrast to Hunger Years and Girl, Interrupted, Life Is Sweet enables restoration, as well as family reconciliation.
Summary: The Cinematic Nature of Bulimia Nervosa
Despite the differences among these films, they all create an alternative discourse that transforms the cinema’s common construal of the female body as a pleasurable body. The international cinema continues to privilege a nonspecific female body as the object of its fascination. The cinema, that is, cultivates a very particular kind of illusion about the female body: repressing its nonsexual materiality and conveying it as a uniform entity. The representation of BN alters this attitude toward the body.
On the metaphorical level, both Hunger Years and Girl, Interrupted perceive the history in which they find themselves, and which they depict, in bulimic fashion — as suicidal overeating, which does not permit any purification for the woman, the society, or the spectator, who seeks catharsis; or as the vomiting of the society in a recurrent attempt to be purified of it. Even when the female body is understood in patriarchal-repressive terms, as in Girl, Interrupted, it remains a nonrecuperative, nonassimilated body. Both in Hunger Years and Girl, Interrupted the bulimic body represents the moral attitude toward repressive social history.
The bulimic body is, first of all, the material body and not the social body. Bulimia blatantly marks the inevitable interface between the social-discursive body . la Michel Foucault and the material body that matters . la Judith Butler. As Kathleen Canning notes, the body is no longer nonmaterial or subject to processes of dematerialization. On the contrary, and notwithstanding Foucault’s conceptualizations, the alternative feminine discourse constructs the body as something reacting back to and affecting discourse. In Hunger Years and Girl, Interrupted the swallowing-andvomiting body ruptures the notion of the social order as a familiar physical order. It does not enable the social order to base its power on a (female) body that is falsely complete, clean, alluring, and so on. This unique subversion of the social body produces a new discourse in which the bulimic female body does not foster social stability.
In my view, the importance of Hunger Years and Girl, Interrupted lies in their representing the bulimic body both as a moral argument and as a cry for help. Julia Kristeva expresses it thus: “[‘I’] expel it. But since the food is not an ‘other’ for ‘me’ . . . I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which ‘I’ claim to establish myself. . . . ‘I’ am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death. During that course in which ‘I’ become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit.” Although the films that present bulimic women show the unpleasurable, unassimilable, materialistic, antisocial, morally radical body, they only partially answer the cultural need for a recorporealization of the female body, something the research discourse, on its different levels, has not answered to this day. The cinema, however, has a special pertinence for the bulimic body because of its capacity to reveal hidden worlds. Even more important, the cinema can contribute to the shaping of a richly multifaceted representation of the phenomenon. This reciprocal exchange between cinema and the bulimic body may depend on the particular relationship between bulimia and literalization.
In the third part of this article, while bearing in mind the partial and flawed representations of bulimic women in films, I will return to research. In my view, the repression of BN in contemporary corporeal research and the roots of the etiological paradox should not be ascribed only to the lack of contexts for understanding the disorder and its characteristics. The problems also stem, as Gail Weiss observes, from “limitations of phenomenology and psychoanalysis in general for an adequate characterization of female corporeality.” It appears, then, as if a remarkable, demanding tangle underlies these limitations. In that connection, I maintain that these limitations in theory are largely attributable to the repression of corporeality in the fundamental concept of the mirror stage. Despite their various controversial readings of Jacques Lacan, the researchers who interpreted the mirror stage — from Jane Gallop and Butler to Grosz and Weiss — share in this repression.  Moreover, this projection bears significant implications with respect to cinematic motives at large, and within the BN perspective in particular.
The Mirror Stage: Subject without Body
The topic of the repression of the corporeal body from the mirror stage starts with the laws of the physics of the mirror and the laws of the physiology of the human eye. As we know, and as the illustration pictured here demonstrates, the object and its reflection cannot be superimposed onto each other since in the mirror the left hand becomes the right hand. Figure 2a illustrates a person looking in the mirror and his/her image constructed behind it. The corresponding top view is shown in figure 2b. The person is illuminated by a light source (not shown), and therefore reflected lines of light are transmitted from the person in all directions. Those striking the mirror are reflected at an equal angle. The image is constructed behind the mirror at the intersection of the imaged lines (see, for example, the transmitted lines T-1 and T-2, their corresponding reflected lines R-1 and R-2, and the construction at the intersection of the imaged lines I-1 and I-2). The person standing before the mirror and looking at him- or herself is seeing the light reflected from his or her right and left arms, R-1 and R-3, respectively, and the light reflected from his or her head, which is facing the mirror. His or her eyes, therefore, build the image behind the mirror plane from the imaged lines (e.g., I-1 and I-3). Therefore, if the person is waving his or her right arm, the image appears to be waving its left arm.
Looking in the mirror does not entail simultaneity and immediacy of identity between the I and its reflection. I do not experience my corporeal body at the moment of reflection. To create the moment in which I am identical with my reflection in the mirror, an additional perceptual activity is needed. I must, of course, “change” the right to the left and the left to the right. That is, I must relocate my body according to a number of dimensions: its contours, its boundaries, its surface, and its extent. This is a moment of corporeal reorientation in which a mirror crossing occurs. To perceive the reflection in the mirror as a steady, straightforward reflection is to repress the opposite. Over the past fifteen years of Lacanian criticism dealing with the reflection in the mirror, the prevailing concepts depend on the space of the mirror and not on the body. Concepts such as across, against, and in front need to be replaced by definitions that express a bodily rematerialization — sides of the body, left side, right side, body size, surface, and contour of the body. If I do not take into account the opposite in concepts of the body/the mirror, I will never be identical to myself in the mirror. This is not a matter of cubist identity in the noncorporeal Lacanian terminology (for example, “coherence” and “unity” versus “the body in pieces,” le corps morcel.). Instead this involves identity in the sense of where the body begins, ends, extends, and is directed.
The research dealing with the mirror stage (both psychoanalytic and feminist) represses the stage of the opposite, regarding it as taken for granted. It focuses on the crisis of alienation, on the méconnaissance. So far, discussion of the mirror stage has not emphasized the corporeal body, but rather the subject. Even though the establishment of the subject is described in supposedly physical language (for example, “the body in bits and pieces,” l’hommelette), this is only purportedly a physical language. Actually, it is a metaphorical description of the body that is intended to explicate the processes of establishing the ego/subject at the cost of repressing the corporeality of the body. The set of contrasts that are prevalent in the description and interpretation of the mirror stage (subject versus object, I versus not-I, coherence versus incoherence, the fragmented body versus the totalizing body, the decentered body versus totality with a center, etc.) are based on this repression. They do not advance understanding of the material body outside of the processes of subjectivization. This is despite the fact that only the rematerialization by the opposite enables construing the level (metaphorical or postsynecdochical) of the establishment of the subject. (That includes its projections — for example, transcending the self as center, according to Jean-Louis Baudry in the first case, or understanding the subversion of the transferable imaginary morphology of the lesbian phallus, according to Butler in the second case.)
The repression of the body’s corporeality occurs not only on the level of the space of the mirror but also on the level of time. The subject’s formation is described as a moment of simultaneous identity. Actually, it is not so. The relocation by the opposite is also a crossing of a gap in time (and, therefore, a mirror crossing). The viewer must also temporally pass the vanishing point (between the before-opposite and the opposite) so that it will indeed be selfsimilar to its reflection. The opposite makes possible the sense of centricity. One can locate the center of oneself and oneself as center only if the contours are clear and straightened. If so, it is clear that one is oneself the viewer, not that the reflection in the mirror is looking at one. At the moment of before-the-opposite, as Slavoj Žižek expresses it, “I am gazed at.” Does the moment of the opposite not portend the transition noted by Lacan (and Žižek) from the Imaginary and Symbolic order to the Symbolic and Real?
Does not Lacan’s repression of corporeality serve exaggerated notions of the centricity of the subject — of the temptation entailed by it and by the identification process? What notion can be counterposed to his claim that “the subject [is] caught up in the lure of spatial identification,” so that the virtual dimensions of space can be replaced by the dimensions of the body? The repression of the opposite manifests not only fascination with the subject but also the attempt to overcome, via noncorporeal concepts, the uncanny element of the fear of disappearance. That is, at the vanishing point, literally and metaphorically, the disappearance of the body (and of the ego) is possible at the time of mirror crossing. A corporeal reading of Lacan inevitably creates a sense that the fear of being trapped in the mirror, trapped in the fascinating objectification of the fragmented self and not necessarily of the coherent one, leads to a constant emphasis, both by Lacan and his interpreters, of the crisis of alienation entailed by the mirror stage and by the construction of subjectivity.
The inversion process does not pertain when one relates, as do Baudry and Christian Metz, to the cinema as a mirror — that is, to a process of secondary identifications (with images on the screen). Does the inversion exist in the case of primary identifications — that is, according to Metz, with the self/with the camera? The answer is not clear cut. In any case, what emerges is that the repression of the corporeality of the body (directions, sides, boundaries, surface, size, symmetry) by the theory of the apparatus and by psychoanalysis enabled the metaphor of the mirror to replace the metaphor of the window. A corporeal reading of the mirror stage, along with the theory of spectatorship based on its reproduction, introduces a constant element of disorder into this metaphorical reproduction. After all, the stars of the cinema, the imagoes that appear in movies on the facing screen, are not made to my measure. Is not the repression of the corporeality of the mirror stage, and of its reenactment in the viewing process, one of the main sources of the distorted body image of the spectators? These, as we know, take part in the dynamics of cinematic mirror relations both in the cinema itself and in noncinematic cultural products. The taken-for-granted nature of the inversion process, which has caused it to be theoretically repressed, contravenes the viewers’ actual attempt to fit. That is, at the heart of the experience of spectatorship in the cinema as a mirror stands the corporeal incompatibility between the viewer who retraces the mirror stage and the cinema that ceaselessly creates imagoes. This is a basic disruption of identification that stems from recognition, not misrecognition, of the body.
Thus, in keeping with the need to investigate further the tensions and contradictions that the body arouses (as in studies by Terence Turner, Grosz, and Kathy Davis), I suggest reconsidering the bulimic body, both literally and metaphorically, as a radically female body. The bulimic body recreates the distinction between the two kinds of bodies — “his body” and “her body.” As noted by Anne Witz, it is known that the body became a “third term” that undermines the distinction between gender and sex. But that is not all. The basic power of the bulimic body as “her body,” as a new discourse about women, lies in the fact that the knowledge is acquired via the body, via feeling. Despite the tragic results of the rebellion against the social body, which the films discussed here well demonstrate, bulimic physical knowledge is unique in being nonhegemonic.
The obsessive, unclean, nonillusory, incomplete bulimic body, which lacks a capacity for fetishism and which turns the feminine spectacle into a painful vision, needs to become part of the research discourse, as does the tension between viewing and the coercion of the gaze, the experience of seeing the broken mirror. The question of whether the representations of the bulimic woman arouse womanphobia (not in the sense of the femme fatale or of the feminine-monstrous . la Barbara Creed, but as a subversion of conventional representations of the woman or the mother) is in my view irrelevant. This is because of the urgent need to overcome the repression and to revisualize BN both in the research discourse and in public space.
Conclusion: A Ghostly Body
This article proposes a return to the body in more than one sense. The first sense is that of a revisualization of the bulimic body, as described above. Such a revisualization constitutes an urgent cultural necessity. Second, the return to the body requires grasping that the bulimic body is a paradigmatic body, the ghost of women in contemporary society. The bulimic body clearly belongs to the upper middle class. Hence it also constitutes both the opposite and the shadow of the fat, poor body of the lower-class woman, including in the US, that of the African American and the Latina woman. Extending Naomi Wolf’s basic argument from domains of gender to domains of class and ethnic affiliation means tragically making the bulimic body all the more longed-for, given the economic inability of women of this low social class to allow themselves the consumption that bulimia demands. The antifat campaigns on reality shows like Flab to Fab and the present hysteria about body mass or slimness in health contexts are all further manifestations of the subtle, but constant and emphatic, reference to the bulimic body. The nonbulimic female body should be viewed as a body that is essentially prebulimic. The bulimic body accompanies women in the different life cycles and in their typical crises. Actually, every woman is at all times at least a potential bulimic, or a prebulimic, since every magazine or discourse about the body beautiful exists thanks to the ghost of the bulimic body — in other words, thanks to or in reaction to this impossible entity, the longed-for, the desirable. The whole diet-slimnessfashion- beauty-lifestyle self-concept is implicit here. Even when the bulimic body does not exist (is not seen), it stands as the ghostly reference point. In other words, contemporary culture establishes an impossible identity centered on the body: not the anorexic, spectacular body, but precisely the clearly unrepresented and repressed bulimic one that is the ghost of contemporary female identity, one both crucial and limiting to any thinking about the ethics of the female body. As a container of all sorts of contradictions of this kind, the bulimic body is emblematic of all sorts of aporia, and it is no wonder that the different feminist paradigms, including the key one of the mirror stage, have repressed it.
It appears, then, that there is an objective need to rescue it from the kitchen/toilet/sink, from those dirty, secretive spaces without mythicization, and from its ghostly site. One potentially superb channel for realizing this rescue is the cinematic medium.
is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. Her research and publications deal with trauma discourse, the New German Cinema, American Vietnam War movies, and feminist-corporeal theory. Her current research focuses on Israeli and Palestinian films on the Intifada.
I am grateful to Thomas Elsaesser for his supportive insights regarding an earlier version of this essay. Thanks also to Camera Obscura’s anonymous readers for their comments and helpful suggestions, and especially to Sharon Willis for her invaluable editorial guidance. This article is an expanded version of a lecture I presented at the international conference of the Department of Cinema and Television of Tel Aviv University, Israel, 2000, titled “Not-to-Be-Looked-at-Ness.” I am grateful to Amit Kesar at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his help in preparing the illustration of the mirror gaze.
- In 1980, in the third edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III), bulimia nervosa was defined as a syndrome in its own right. In 1994, in the fourth edition (DSM-IV), bulimia nervosa is characterized by “repeated episodes of binge eating followed by inappropriate compensatory behaviors such as self-induced vomiting; misuse of laxatives, diuretics, or other medications; fasting; or excessive exercise. A disturbance in perception of body shape and weight is an essential feature of both Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia Nervosa” (539). An episode of binge eating is characterized by both of the following: (1) eating, in a discrete period of time (e.g., within any two- hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat during a similar period of time and under similar circumstances; (2) a sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (e.g., a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating). The binge eating and inappropriate compensatory behaviors both occur, on average, at least twice a week for three months (549). In my view, so far in the cinema there have been only two cases of teenage girls suffering from bulimia nervosa. I refer to those texts in which the disorder of bulimia is clear cut, the bulimic girl is central to the narrative, and the depiction of bulimia constitutes a major layer of the text. In this article, I do not analyze scenes of bulimic behavior appearing in any particular movie in a way that is adventitious, onetime, with no further development, and does not occur as an essential aspect of the character or of the development of the drama. See, for example, the breakfast scene in Joe Roth’s film America’s Sweethearts (US, 2001): Kiki (Julia Roberts), who is described as someone who suffered from being overweight in the past and solved it by dieting, gorges herself during the breakfast and announces to Lee (Billy Crystal), after spelling out to him her problems with love, that she “is going to throw up right away.” This event has no consequences in the text, from any standpoint. The text does not raise the question of whether the heroine succeeded in maintaining her weight by means of vomiting. See also the vomiting scene in the girls’ bathroom in Gus Van Sant’s film Elephant (US, 2003). Inspired by the tragedy of Columbine, this film describes one ordinary day in the life of a high school in Portland, Oregon, before a violent incident rocks the students and faculty. The bathroom scene shows how the high school girls habitually vomit in the most trivial fashion, as a clear part of the routine of their lives and of their coping with pressures.
- I refer not only to the internality of the female body as it is generally described in the research in the context of sexuality or birth, that is, the genitals or the womb, but also in the context of the digestive system, the repressed internality. The common approach in the research is represented, for example, by Catherine Waldby, following Gail Weiss: “The interior of the female body has long been marked in West European culture as a social site, a place of sexuality and maternity” (Catherine Waldby, “Biomedicine, Tissue Transfer, and Intercorporeality,” Feminist Theory 33 : 241). See also Gail Weiss, Body Images: Embodiment as Intercorporeality (New York: Routledge, 1999).
- Most of the different kinds of threats to social order, from AIDS to organ transplants to the culture of tattoos and plastic surgery, are not gender dependent.
- Janet Polivy and Peter C. Herman report, like the rest of the researchers, a constant rise in the number of bulimia patients, speaking of “BN patients outnumbering AN patients by at least 2 to 1” (Janet Polivy and Peter C. Herman, “Causes of Eating Disorders,” Annual Review of Psychology 53 : 189). In Elaine Showalter’s view, as a result of the media attention by feminist authors and literary critics, “anorexia became epidemic. By the 1990s, some researchers recognized that publicity accorded to anorexia and bulimia was creating a secondary wave of patients, and that men too were developing eating disorders” (Elaine Showalter, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media [New York: Columbia University Press, 1997], 22). These data, of course, are in inverse proportion to the marginalization of bulimia in the research, as I describe below.
- Mike Featherstone, Mike Hepworth, and Bryan S. Turner, eds., The Body Social Process and Cultural Theory (London: Sage, 1991); Bryan S. Turner, “Recent Developments in the Theory of the Body,” in Featherstone, Hepworth, and Turner, The Body Social Process, 1–35; Bryan S. Turner, The Body and Society, 2nd ed. (London: Sage, 1996); Chris Shilling, The Body and Social Theory (London: Sage, 1993); Thomas J. Csordas, “Introduction: The Body as Representation and Being-in-the-World,” in Embodiment and Experience, ed. Thomas J. Csordas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 1 – 26; Elizabeth Grosz, Space, Time, and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies (New York: Routledge, 1995); Elizabeth Grosz, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994); Moira Gatens, Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power, and Corporeality (London: Routledge, 1996); Vicky Kirby, Telling Flesh: The Substance of the Corporeal (New York: Routledge, 1997); Weiss, Body Images.
- Because of its far-reaching influence, I chose Judith Butler’s 1993 book to help indicate the beginning of the theoretical shift in the field, that is, the transition to “fleshy matters.” See Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993).
- Showalter, Hystories.
- See also, for example, Dying to Be Thin (US, 2000), the documentary film by the director Larkin McPhee of WGBH/ Boston. While in the opening the director declares her intention to deal with eating disorders, the film devotes eight minutes out of an hour to bulimia and the other fifty-two minutes to anorexia. The question of whether the documentary cinema or the television programs that were made on the subject since 1979 also share in the phenomena in the research is beyond the scope of the present discussion.
- Showalter mentions two cases, without specific indications regarding Princess Diana, and without analysis of them (Hystories, 21). Princess Diana gave a one-hour television interview that was broadcast in November 1995 without consulting the palace. She was interviewed by Martin Bashir, a journalist with the BBC current affairs program Panorama. In this interview, Princess Diana talked openly for the first time, among other subjects, about her bulimia: “I had bulimia for a number of years. And that’s like a secret disease. You inflict it upon yourself because your self-esteem is at a low ebb, and you don’t think you’re worthy or valuable. You fill your stomach up four or five times a day — some do it more — and it gives you a feeling of comfort. . . . Then you’re disgusted at the bloatedness of your stomach, and then you bring it all up again. . . . And the thing about bulimia is your weight always stays the same, whereas with anorexia you visibly shrink. So you can pretend the whole way through. There’s no proof.” See the full interview at www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/royals/interviews/ bbc.html.
- Compared to tuberculosis in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (New York: Knopf, 1927), for example. See, on this matter, Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1978) and AIDS and Its Metaphors (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989).
- According to the APA, “Bulimia Nervosa has been reported to occur with roughly similar frequencies in most industrialized countries, including the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Africa. . . . In clinical studies of Bulimia Nervosa in the United States, individuals presenting with this disorder are primarily white, but the disorder has also been reported among other ethnic groups” (DSM-IV, 548).
- This invisibility remains until a very late stage, which sometimes lasts years, with, in particular, balding and massive damage to teeth being apparent to the viewer from outside. Other physical symptoms, such as damage to the regularity of the monthly period, remain invisible. According to the APA, “Recurrent vomiting eventually leads to a significant and permanent loss of dental enamel . . . menstrual irregularity or amenorrhea” (DSM-IV, 547 – 48).
- In complete contrast to this invisibility, see Susie Orbach’s theory on the horror that anorexia arouses in those who view it: “Anorexia is a spectacular and dramatic symptom. To encounter an anorectic woman is to be confronted with turbulent and confusing feelings. . . . Compassion turns to fear and a wish for distance; a need to dissociate oneself from the painful sight” (Susie Orbach, Hunger Strike: The Anorectic’s Struggle as a Metaphor for Our Age [New York: Norton, 1986], 97).
- Even though DSM-IV includes the vomiting among other compensatory behaviors, it stresses that “many individuals with Bulimia Nervosa employ several methods in their attempt to compensate for binge eating. The most common compensatory technique is the induction of vomiting after an episode of binge eating. This method of purging is employed by 80% – 90% of individuals with Bulimia Nervosa who present for treatment at eating disorders clinics” (546). Accordingly, in analyzing bulimia below, I will relate mainly to vomiting. This compensatory behavior appears in Hunger Years (and in Life Is Sweet). In Girl, Interrupted, the bulimic girl is addicted to laxatives. The conclusions regarding vomiting or the choice of laxatives are similar because of the nature of the compensatory behavior — in contrast, for example, to excessive exercise.
- Gerald F. M. Russell, “The History of Bulimia Nervosa,” in Handbook of Treatment for Eating Disorders, ed. David Garner and Paul Garfinkel, 2nd ed. (New York: Guilford, 1997), 11 – 24.
- “In the modern world of consumerism, we can also think of two medical conditions — bulimia and anorexia nervosa — as two individualized forms of protest which employ the body as a medium of protest against the consumer-self” (Turner, The Body and Society, 178).
- Charles E. Rosenberg, Explaining Epidemics and Other Studies in the History of Medicine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 288.
- Recently these disorders have received, in my view, a greater number of verbal mentions in the cinema. See, for example, the scene in My Life without Me (dir. Isabel Coixet, Spain/Canada, 2003) in which the neighbor, Ann (Leonor Watling), tells the heroine of the film, Ann (Sarah Polley), about her difficulty as a nurse at being exposed to female anorexic and bulimic patients.
- See Orbach, Hunger Strike.
- Turner, The Body and Society.
- We learn of vomiting, as of overeating, that lasts several weeks from the words of the husband, Alfred. In other words, this is information conveyed via dialogue and nonvisual information.
- Ursula’s mother speaks in one breath about the fact that she does not eat in the family circle but then every evening “demolishes” the contents of the refrigerator and vomits.
- Patricia Harbord, “Interview with Jutta Brückner,” Screen Education 4 (1981 – 82): 48 – 57.
- In a conversation I had with Jutta Brückner in May 2000, she acknowledged to me that she was indeed bulimic in her adolescence and hid this fact both in interviews and in her writing for years. See Jutta Brückner, “On Autobiographical Filmmaking,” Women in German Yearbook 11 (1995): 1 – 12; Ingeborg von Zadow, “Interview with Jutta Brückner: Feminist Filmmaking in Germany Today,” in Triangulated Visions: Women in Recent German Cinema, ed. Ingeborg Majer O’Sickey and von Zadow (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), 95 – 102.
- Barbara Kosta, Recasting Autobiography: Women’s Counterfictions in Contemporary German Literature and Film (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994); Margaret McCarthy, “Consolidating, Consuming, and Annulling Identity in Jutta Brückner’s Hungerjahre,” Women in German Yearbook 11 (1995): 13 – 33; Susan Linville, Feminism, Film, Fascism: Women’s Auto/biographical Film in Postwar Germany (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994).
- Thomas Elsaesser, New German Cinema: A History (London: British Film Institute, 1989).
- Elizabeth Grosz, “Inscriptions and Body-Maps: Representations and the Corporeal,” in Feminine, Masculine, and Representation, ed. Terry Threadgold and Anne Cranny-Francis (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1990), 64 – 65.
- In this analysis I will deal only with the canonical films of the leading male and female directors.
- I refer to the hero of Werner Herzog’s film Everyman for Himself and God against All: The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser (Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle, Germany, 1974). For an analysis of the masculinity of the New German Cinema, see my forthcoming book “Defeated Masculinity: Post-traumatic Cinema in the Aftermath of War.” Not a Dirty Secret • 179
- Apart from the case of Angela, who suffers from paralysis in R. W. Fassbinder’s film Chinese Roulette (Chinesisches Routlette, Germany, 1976), this physical event is not an outcome of her direct partnership in the experience of abandonment, as in the case of Oskar in The Tin Drum (for him, his abandonment of his parents by his refusal to grow precedes their anticipated abandonment of him), but it of course illuminates the relations of the family and of the lovers. This film is subversive in every respect regarding the group of films centering on girls that are surveyed here.
- See a description of the organization in Claudia Koonz, Mothers in the Fatherland: Women, the Family, and Nazi Politics (New York: St. Martin’s, 1987), 193 – 96.
- Adelheid von Saldern asserts that “in the everyday realities produced by German Fascism, ordinary men and women became complex and contradictory combinations of both victims and perpetrators” (Adelheid von Saldern, “Victims or Perpetrators? Controversies about the Role of Women in the Nazi State,” in Nazism and German Society, 1933 – 1945, ed. David F. Crew [London: Routledge, 1994], 157). The author surveys what she calls the Historikerinnenstreit, that is, “the ‘female’ side of the ‘Historikerstreit,’ ” the conflict among historians regarding the meaning of the Third Reich and the Holocaust for German history (159). Controversial interpretations of the role of women in the Third Reich include, for example, Gisela Bock’s concept of all women without distinction (Aryan, Jewish, and Gypsy) as victims of the regime — as opposed to Koonz (Mothers in the Fatherland), for example (Gisela Bock, “Racism and Sexism in Nazi Germany: Motherhood, Compulsory Sterilization, and the State,” in When Biology Became Destiny: Women in Weimar and Nazi Germany, ed. Renate Bridenthal, Anita Grossmann, and Marion Kaplan [New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984], 271 – 96). Such interpretations also include the common gender distinctions in feminist criticism, whose misleading nature von Saldern, in this case, demonstrates. See, for example, Margarete Mitscherlich’s claims about the weak superego of women that caused them to identify excessively with oppressive men, and so on (Margarete Mitscherlich, Die friedfertige Frau [The Peaceable Sex] [Frankfurt: Fischer, 1985], 152). Against Bock, Koonz, and Mitscherlich, von Saldern adduces Karin Windaus-Walser (see “Victims or Perpetrators,” 154; Karin Windaus-Walser, “Gnade der weiblichen Geburt? Zym Umgang der Frauenforschung mit Nationalsozialismus und Anti-semitismus” [“The Grace of Being Born a Woman? On Dealing with Women’s Research Regarding National Socialism and Anti-semitism”], Feministische Studien 6 : 111). Gender interpretations subservient to essentialism of a new kind can be found not only in the debate that von Saldern describes but also in contemporary feminist criticism, such as Susan Linville’s reading of Mitscherlich’s paradigm regarding “the inability to mourn” (Linville, Feminism, Film, Fascism, 1 – 20). See Gisela Bock, “Antinatalism, Maternity, and Paternity in National Socialist Racism,” in Nazism and German Society, ed. David Crew (New York: Routledge, 1994), 110 – 40; Joyce Marie Mushaben, “Collective Memory Divided and Reunited: Mothers, Daughters, and the Fascist Experience in Germany,” History and Memory 11 (1999): 7 – 40.
- Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).
- Luce Irigaray, “This Sex Which Is Not One,” trans. Claudia Reeder, in New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (Brighton, UK: Harvester, 1980), 99 – 106.
- Iris Young, “Pregnant Embodiment,” in Body and Flesh: A Philosophical Reader, ed. Donn Welton (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1990), 274 – 85.
- Judith Lewis-Herman and Lisa Hirschman, Father-Daughter Incest (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983).
- Leonard Quart, “The Religion of the Market: Thatcherite Politics and the British Film of the 1980s,” in Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism, ed. Lester Friedman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 15 – 33. See also Thomas Elsaesser, “Images for Sale: The ‘New’ British Cinema,” in Friedman, Fires Were Started, 52 – 69.
- Kathleen Canning, “The Body as Method? Reflections on the Place of the Body in Gender History,” Gender and History 11 (1999): 501.
- Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 3.
- Weiss, Body Images, 9. Below I discuss psychoanalytic limitations but not those of phenomenology, both because of the dominance of psychoanalysis in feminist and cinema research and because of limitations placed on the scope of this article. Not a Dirty Secret • 181
- A discussion of the gender disparities that stem from the repression of corporeality would exceed the scope of this article.
- Jane Gallop, Reading Lacan (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989); Butler, Bodies That Matter; Grosz, Volatile Bodies; Weiss, Body Images.
- On the transition from the ego to the subject in the early and later writing of Lacan, see Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977); Butler, Bodies That Matter. Maurice Merleau-Ponty hints at a process of “inversion,” though he, too, does not describe it in corporeal terms: “In short, he must displace the mirror image, bringing it from the apparent or virtual place it occupies in the depth of the mirror back to himself, whom he identifies at a distance with his introceptive body” (qtd. in Weiss, Body Images, 12).
- This is according to Gallop in Reading Lacan, 79.
- Butler, Bodies That Matter, 79.
- Jean-Louis Baudry, “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus,” in Film Theory and Criticism, ed. Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen, and Leo Braudy, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 301 – 12.
- Butler, Bodies That Matter.
- Slavoj Žižek, The Žižek Reader, ed. Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Wright (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999).
- Lacan, Écrits, 4.
- Butler makes a comment that in my view implies repression: “The body in the mirror does not represent a body that is, as it were, before the mirror: the mirror, even as it is instigated by that unrepresentable body ‘before’ the mirror, produces that body as its delirious effect — a delirium, by the way, which we are compelled to live” (Butler, Bodies That Matter, 91).
- See Baudry, “Ideological Effects”; Christian Metz, Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier (London: Macmillan, 1982).
- Terence Turner, “Bodies and Anti-bodies: Flesh and Fetish in Contemporary Social Theory,” in Csordas, Embodiment and Experience, 27 – 47; Grosz, Space, Time, and Perversion; Kathy Davis, “Embody-ing Theory: Beyond Modernist and Postmodernist Readings of the Body,” in Embodied Practices: Feminist Perspectives on the Body, ed. Davis (London: Sage, 1997), 1 – 23.
- Anne Witz, “Whose Body Matters? Feminist Sociology and the Corporeal Turn in Sociology and Feminism,” Body and Society 6 (2000): 1 – 24.
- Barbara Creed, The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1993).
- Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth (New York: Anchor Books, 1991).
weitere Texte zum Film
von Régine-Mihal Friedman
in: Frauen und Film, Heft 62, 2000
von Kristina Jaspers
Veronika Rall in: Frauen und Film, Heft 62, 2000
In: Arbeitshilfe Film des Monats der Jury der Evangelischen Filmarbeit, 198o
Aus den Pressematerialien des „Kleinen Fernsehspiel“, gekürzt in: „50 deutsche Fernsehfilme“ Hrg. Martin Wiebel, anlässlich der Ausstellung im Deutschen Historischen Museum.
Helma Sanders-Brahms zu dem Film von Jutta Brückner
Gespräch mit Jutta Brückner über ihren Film „Hungerjahre.“
Das Gespräch mit Jutta Brückner führte Erika Gregor
von Claudia Lenssen
In: Frauen und Film, Heft 31, 1982
von Régine-Mihal Friedman
in: Frauen und Film, Heft 62, 2000
von Kristina Jaspers
Veronika Rall in: Frauen und Film, Heft 62, 2000
In: Arbeitshilfe Film des Monats der Jury der Evangelischen Filmarbeit, 198o
Aus den Pressematerialien des „Kleinen Fernsehspiel“, gekürzt in: „50 deutsche Fernsehfilme“ Hrg. Martin Wiebel, anlässlich der Ausstellung im Deutschen Historischen Museum.
Helma Sanders-Brahms zu dem Film von Jutta Brückner
Gespräch mit Jutta Brückner über ihren Film „Hungerjahre.“
Das Gespräch mit Jutta Brückner führte Erika Gregor
von Claudia Lenssen
In: Frauen und Film, Heft 31, 1982