There is no such thing as a free range chicken.

Domestication of the chicken probably dates back to at least 5000BC and firm evidence is traceable at around 2000BC. Domestic chickens’ ancestry can be tracked back to four species of wild jungle fowl from Southeast Asia. The Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus or Gallus bankiva) is the only wild species in the world today. The chicken belongs to the genus Gallus of the family Phasianidae. Domestic chickens are simply classified as Gallus domesticus. There are as different to their antecedents as feral wolves to pet dogs.

The ‘sport’ of cockfighting had a large influence, not only in the domestication of the chicken, but also on the fowl distribution of the world. Centuries of selection and breeding for numerous extremes, mean that chickens now exist in 350 combinations of physical features and, although the purebred poultry industry served as the foundation for the development of the commercial industry, the two ends soon developed birds for very different purpose.

While the purebred exhibition industry continues to select and breed birds for standard conformations and plumage colours, the commercial industry has eclipsed and developed specialized hybrids for meat and egg production. The purebred birds of today are mainly raised as a hobby. The commercial poultry industry has developed into a science, which produces highly nutritious meat and eggs with extreme efficiency.

The term free range is mainly used as a marketing ploy, rather than a husbandry term, meaning something in the order of, low stocking density, pasture-raised, grass-fed, old-fashioned, humanely treated, yada yada.


European Union regulations stipulate that, in order to be classified free range, birds have continuous daytime access to open-air runs, mainly covered with vegetation and not used for other purposes except for orchards, woodland and livestock grazing. They must satisfy the conditions specified in Article 4(1)(3)(b)(ii) of Directive 1999/74/EC whereby the maximum stocking density is not greater than 2500 hens per hectare of ground available [or one hen per 4m2] at all times and the runs are:

‘not extending beyond a radius of 150 m from the nearest pophole of the building; an extension of up to 350m from the nearest pophole of the building is permissible provided that a sufficient number of shelters and drinking troughs within the meaning of that provision are evenly distributed throughout the whole open-air run with at least four shelters per hectare’.

A behavioural definition of free range is perhaps the more useful. Self harm.  Whereby a bird will chew upon its own flesh, often in the breast area. Unfortunately, as the area of mutilation becomes lacerated, nerve and tissue damage can result, causing increased discomfort, and hence the bird chews on itself even more. Although the breast area is the most commonly seen area affected by self-harm, some birds have been known to consume one or more of their own toes.

According to Ray Foot, Foot’s Eggs, Stourton Caundle, Dorset, the most effective measure of preventing self harm is ‘to give the birds good grass range’. ‘De-beaking’ exists to prevent this behaviour in birds not on free range, and the need or not for this can be seen as a litmus test for whether their environment is sufficiently free-range-like.

But are they free in any true sense? No. They are, quite definitively, not. The first entry of the Oxford English Dictionary for the word reads thus: ‘Free: Pronunciation:/fri:/adjective (freer /fri:ə/, freest /fri:st/) able to act or be done as one wishes; not under the control of another’

Darwin did not mean the survival of the fittest to eat. In a truly Darwinian sense there is no longer such a thing as a free range chicken, and now there never, ever can be.

Any idea of chicken volition may cause much mirth, after all why would they, if all the articles of Directive No 1274/91 are met, want to have to fend for themselves? Get out from under the cock and roam off?

Poultry’s malcontents may face de beaking, but de bunking 7000 years of cultivation is not easy with a brain the size of a pea. It’s nigh on impossible with one the size of cantaloupe melon.

Anthropomorphist, moi?

Imagine the scene, way back when, when the first human to cook and eat such a bird took the first bite and announced “MMMmm tastes like chicken”.

Cavewomen were succubus. It’s their fault the penis is so darn ugly.

Male genital form tells us all we need to know of the antics of our female forebears. Large testicles, in a relative context, produce large volumes of semen, dislodging the seminal deposits in the vagina left by previous occupants. The large glans and prominent coronal ridge of the phallus scooping out rival sperm.  Men are adapted for sperm competition. Women for sperm selection.

Naturally any cavewoman favoured physically able, healthy and attractive men. Attractive men are more sexually exciting, the female orgasm allows a woman to place the sperm of one man over another.  A natural selection.  Orgasm draws semen up into the reproductive tract thereby increasing the chances that the man who floats her boat will win the race to fertilize. Within the culture of the Consanguine family one might imagine that woman and not fate determined the survival of the ‘fittest’.


From here we can easily see the tenuous links that would lead to the leap. The leap of concluding the female orgasm to be the reason why homo sapiens endured. Did Neanderthal gels not get good enough sex?

To your caveman his pregnant female was life itself. The foetus within her ensured his longevity. Child bearing and childbirth were hazardous. Health poor, life short, no pension, no ASDA, and offspring often the only means of survival. A pregnant mate was a valuable thing. A possession worthy of protection.

I know where this is heading. There is no such thing as a free range woman.

Gender Role Evolution

In The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State Friedrich Engels’s challenges ethnographic and historical evidence of women’s inferiority. Engels argues that women and men were equal in prehistoric times and that gender inequality originated with the advent of private property.

For Engels, ownership of property created the first significant division between men and women in which the woman was inferior. His explanation of the evolution of the ‘Civilised’ relationship, which brings us from sexual free for all, through familial groupings to polygamy and finally monogamy sets out an inexorable inevitability in the formation of gender roles.


That form evolved out of the ‘Pairing’ family at the dawn of civilization. Polygamy was still common amongst men, but no longer women, who have the role of keepers of the household and ‘guardians of legitimacy’. Based on the supremacy of the man, Pairing’s express purpose was to produce children of undisputed paternity, so demanded because these children later come into their father’s  property as his natural heirs. Engels goes on to argue that Monogamy grew out of the need for the bourgeoisie to protect property amalgamated through arranged marriage. These marriages without ‘sex love’, based on property rights and forced monogamy only led to the proliferation of ‘immorality and prostitution’.

“The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said “This is mine,” and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: ‘Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody’.”

— Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754

Therefore the proletariat, the only class free from these restraints of property were, as a result free from the danger of moral decay, in sex-love relationships and happy in monogamy. As the basis for a political manifesto this seems now to be a somewhat reductive argument and one I have no time to counterpoint here. However, the social revolution which Engels believed was about to happen he also believed would eliminate class differences, and therefore the need for prostitution and the enslavement of women. But this is not the only reason Marxism has continued to fail.

Promiscuous cave dwellers. The origin of the family from Consanguine, through Panuluan to Pairing. The manifestation of inequality, the development of gender roles. Far more than 7000 years of husbandry. Starting to envy the chicken yet? I know I am. Just what exactly is a pophole and how do I know if I am close enough to one?

But there are no more sabre tooth tigers. All property is not theft [sic] and the evolution of the heterosexual relationship is not the root cause of all of the unrest in the world today.

Gender Role is as meaningless a juxtaposition of two words as Free Range.

Gender Role Resolution

Whilst still ‘in the cave’ roles were allocated in an orthodox, fit for purpose, manner. The sex of each individual will have impacted upon this division of labour. Sex is genetic. With the advent of expectation, gender emerges. Gender is memetic.

Sex biological, while gender is socially constructed. But the phrase ‘socially constructed’ has been worn so thin by overuse that it passes through the brain without impact. The problem with thinking of gender as a set of social categories is that it ignores the individual. Gender is also part of how we understand ourselves. Dimorphic assignment of gender is diminutive. Not definitive, these are distinctions. Sex from gender. To eradicate the spectre of social construct from gender understanding it must be individualised. There are as many genders for people to ponder on as people to ponder upon them. Martine Rothblatt in her book The Apartheid of Sex  {Harper Collins, 1995], offers;

 “a deconstruction of sexual identity into objective, ungenitally infected elements”

Is the division of people from the moment of birth as either male of female a form of sexual segregation as pernicious as racial apartheid? Rothblatt asserts it so and posits that there are not just two sexes, but;

“subtle differences in body type and behaviour that we traditionally describe as more or less male or female, though such differences are rarely linked to one’s genetic sex.”

Judith Butler in Gender Trouble [Routledge,1990], argues that early feminists made a rod for their own backs by trying to advance that the women of the world were a group with common characteristics and interests. This performs;


”an unwitting regulation and reification of gender relations’

Thereby reinforcing a dualistic take on gender relations. Gender is relational and is more efficably   seen as a fluid variable which shifts and changes in different contexts and at different times;

“There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; … identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.”

Gender is a performance; it’s what you do at distinct times, not who you are.

Certain cultural configurations of gender have seized a hegemonic hold but Butler’s call for subversive action in and of itself, the ‘Gender Trouble’ mobilization, subversive confusion, and proliferation of genders through individual identity performance has not so far led to any sea-change in gender norms and the de bunk of binary society.

Likewise in the gender dialectics of Dis-identification, whereby all pretence and presumption of gender is suspended at an individual level, the most subtle conception of which is again advanced by Butler;


 ‘the uneasy sense of standing under a sign to which one does and does not belong’

Disidentification refers to a dialectic in which one both identifies and counter-identifies with a given subjectivity at the same time. Ruling out any possibility of definition in any specific signifiers such as Woman, or indeed Feminism. Therefore, it is an ontic, referring to specific moments in which we are aware of a sense of misrecognition and unease. 

“to be and not to be.” Jose Medina

The sense that the human race has outgrown its own social contructions. As a personal journey, growth tool or even analysis technique, this mindset has unlimited potential.

Global potential? Nada. No wrecking ball this.

Foetus Envy

Thus Post Identity Theory, the premise that post-modern society requires post-gender identity signifiers to adequately indicate that a person may dwell past the point of gender identity is also problematic. The resultant obliteration of the Other would be, in the habitual human world, divisive.

But not without precedent . The following article appeared in the Telegraph on the 6th of April this year;


“First homosexual caveman found:

Archaeologists have unearthed the 5,000-year-old remains of what they believe may have been the world’s oldest known gay caveman.

Archaeologists believe they have discovered a ‘transsexual’ or ‘third gender grave’ in the Czech Republic. The male body – said to date back to between 2900-2500BC – was discovered buried in a way normally reserved only for women of the Corded Ware culture in the Copper Age. The skeleton was found in a Prague suburb in the Czech Republic with its head pointing eastwards and surrounded by domestic jugs, rituals only previously seen in female graves.


“From history and ethnology, we know that people from this period took funeral rites very seriously so it is highly unlikely that this positioning was a mistake,” said lead archaeologist Kamila Remisova Vesinova. “Far more likely is that he was a man with a different sexual orientation, homosexual or transsexual,” she added.


According to Corded Ware culture which began in the late Stone Age and culminated in the Bronze Age, men were traditionally buried lying on their right side with their heads pointing towards the west, and women on their left sides with their heads pointing towards the east. Both sexes would be put into a crouching position. The men would be buried alongside weapons, hammers and flint knives as well as several portions of food and drink to accompany them to the other side. Women would be buried with necklaces made from teeth, pets, and copper earrings, as well as jugs and an egg-shaped pot placed near the feet.


“We believe this is one of the earliest cases of what could be described as a ‘transsexual’ or ‘third gender grave’ in the Czech Republic,” archaeologist Katerina Semradova told a press conference on Tuesday. She said that archaeologists had uncovered an earlier case dating from the Mesolithic period where a female warrior was buried as a man.


She added that Siberian shamans, or latter-day witch doctors, were also buried in this way but with richer funeral accessories to appropriate to their elevated position in society. “But this later discovery was neither of those, leading us to believe the man was probably homosexual or transsexual,” Semeradova said.”

Certain cultures have recognized third gender people for millennia. For example The Hijras of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh,  who have gained legal identity and are biologically male but do not identify themselves as such. Some Native American tribes had people that early French explorers referred to as ‘berdache’, a pejorative meaning ‘effeminate,’ who were biologic males who performed male and female roles. There were also women who occupied male roles in other societies, the Sworn virgins of the Balkans and in Polynesia, there is still a group of third gender individuals called Fa’afafine.

In such cultures a third gender or sex embodies an intermediate state between men and women, a state of being both, the state of being neither/neuter but never Other. This ability to effectively cross or swap genders and still remain within the walls of society’s church is what factions of Western culture have been striving for but not gained enough of to matter.

The existence of transgendered humans is nothing new. Whether a conscious choice or an unplanned genetic slip up. Androgyny has entered the vernacular and is oftentimes a desired look in the cyclical trends of popular culture. However, Western society still stigmatises transgendered births and transgender choice.

There is an enduring schism in human relations. It lies along one axis and one only. The ability to incubate. To bring a human foetus to term and bear it live and viable.

Within the social schizophrenia of gender dualism this one sorts the men from the girls. I am put in mind of the iconic Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the scene, at the arena, when the main protagonist group discuss a man’s right to have babies;


“FRANCIS: Yeah. I think Judith’s point of view is very valid, Reg, provided the Movement never forgets that it is the inalienable right of every man–

STAN: Or woman.

FRANCIS: Or woman… to rid himself–

STAN: Or herself.

FRANCIS: Or herself.

REG: Agreed.

FRANCIS: Thank you, brother.

STAN: Or sister.

FRANCIS: Or sister. Where was I?

REG: I think you’d finished.

FRANCIS: Oh. Right.

REG: Furthermore, it is the birthright of every man–

STAN: Or woman.

REG: Why don’t you shut up about women, Stan. You’re putting us off.

STAN: Women have a perfect right to play a part in our movement, Reg.

FRANCIS: Why are you always on about women, Stan?

STAN: I want to be one.

REG: What?

STAN: I want to be a woman. From now on, I want you all to call me ‘Loretta’.

REG: What?!

LORETTA: It’s my right as a man.

JUDITH: Why do you want to be Loretta, Stan?

LORETTA: I want to have babies.

REG: You want to have babies?!

LORETTA: It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.

REG: But… you can’t have babies.

LORETTA: Don’t you oppress me.

REG: I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb! Where’s the foetus going to gestate? You gonna keep it in a box?!”


As with much of Python the hilarity of the situation belies the socio-political content. It is my personal assertion that there will be no end to ‘gender trouble’ until a man can bring a viable foetus to term.

It’s all a matter of Foetus envy.

Biological human males do not have the anatomy needed for natural embryonic and foetal development. The theoretical issue of creating a male ectopic pregnancy by implantation has been addressed by experts in the field of fertility medicine and, while theoretically plausible, it has never been attempted and would be difficult to justify, even for women lacking a uterus, owing to the extreme health risks to both the parent and child.

Dr Robert Winston, a pioneer of in-vitro fertilization, told The Sunday Times that “male pregnancy would certainly be possible” by having an embryo implanted in a man’s abdomen – with the placenta attached to an internal organ such as the bowel – and later delivered by Caesarean section. So the question is not can it be done, but can it be survived.

Of course it has already happened in the USA. A Transgendered woman, legally living as a man, bore a son in October 1999 following random sperm donations and Thomas Beatie, another transgender man, has borne three children to his wife, who is infertile.

The idealism of Post Identity Theory, transcending roles and Gender Disdentification can all only be ideals until woman is freed of her position of vessel, font of life. Womb.  Egg producer.

Gender as Performance

If gender is a performance, an enactment, a scripted part then rewrites are possible. Aren’t they? In Feminism’s second wave, ignited by the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in us 1963 and stoked by its main proponents to establish equality, the rewrites were clearly defined, sometime achieved, but narrow in effect. Feminism’s Third Wave went through the script with a bright red pen. The gender dichotomy was subject to scrutiny in every quarter .

“Performance is not a difficult concept to us [women]. We’re on stage every moment of our lives.  Acting like women. Performance is a declaration of self – who one is. . . . And in performance we found an art form that was young, without the tradition of painting or sculpture. Without the traditions governed by men. The shoe fit, and so, like Cinderella, we ran with it.”
 Cheri Gaulke


“When women use their own bodies in their art work, they are using their selves; a significant psychological factor converts these bodies or faces from object to subject.”
 Lucy Lippard


“Performance can be fuelled by rage in a way that painting and sculpture cannot.”
 Judy Chicago


“Like no other genre, performance art stands for the liberation of traditional power structures and gender relations in the arts and society at large.”
 Barbara Clausen


“If one can generalise about the plethora of approaches and subject matter that make up feminist performance art so that it can be shown to have one overall intention, I believe it is the same as the one literalised by Hermine Freed’s 1974 film Art Herstory: to ensure that women are heard as well as seen, that they act under their own volition, tell their own stories and speak their truths. This purpose may not always be articulated in words, but can be conveyed in a gesture as basic as Schneemann’s return gaze when playing Manet’s Olympia or as playfully provocative as Annie Sprinkle showing us her cervix.”
Oriana Fox

Annie Sprinkle’s cervical display in the Public Cervix Announcement. Katy Dierlam’s turn as a Fat Lady in Helen Melon at the Sideshow, Orlan’s surgical transformations in La  reincarnation de Sainte-Orlan and Sarah Kane’s psychotic stream-of-consciousness in 4.48 Psychosis all figure heavily in  STAGING REVOLT: FEMINIST PERFORMANCES OF THE ABJECT BODY [Amanda McCoy 2009].

In which McCoy argues that the aforementioned performances are ‘revolting’ in the dual sense that they are both disgusting and politically challenging;

 “while situating the female body as abject, grotesque, or out-of-bounds may not initially appear transformative—and may at times seem to bolster a tradition of misogynist representations of women—I see subversive possibilities in a body that lacks containment. Feminist performances of abjection can destabilize the concept of corporeal identity as an essential, fixed feature of the material body; exaggerated, parodic performances of female uncontrollability, contagion, and

spillage underscore the extent to which language constructs the meaning(s) we attach to

any given body.”


Her dissertation is largely devoted to a consideration of how revolting feminist performances can re- invent the vocabulary used for the relationship between the material body and culture, thus attempting to rewrite the vernacular of gender roles and representations. But she also problematizes the physical and emotional harm knowingly imposed upon themselves by the artists by process, and she asks whether issues of ethics make it impossible to champion ‘revolting feminist performances’ without deep reservation and to question the position of feminist critics who champion this type of work without acknowledging the implications of promoting a practice that effectively harms women.

Whilst revolting feminist performances are potentially transformative articulations of the relationship between the material body and gender roles they are also potentially self destructive and may be viewed as analogous with ‘female hysteria’.

However the shift away from any attempt to create only positive, politically correct representations of women is an opportunity for female performers to employ entirely new devices, to express a wider variety of voices, experiences, and identities, and evidence an even wider range of seemingly-

innocuous cultural representations of woman. Whilst society’s view of the acceptable form for woman narrows by the decade the pile of bodies on the Other side grows;


“Othered bodies are in fact valuable, beautiful, and natural—[but] such a position continues to rely on simplistic, essentialist, and exclusionary binaries that fail to adequately capture the complex and shifting process of identity negotiation. these performances dismantle the notion of the body as a static entity that can be held indefinitely in some fixed, perfected, desirable state, but instead insistently represent the female body as “a phenomenon in transformation, an as of yet unfinished

metamorphosis” (Bakhtin 24). The female body—the idea of “femaleness” itself, with all

it’s concurrent interstitial identities—is a body in flux, and consequently it is a body that

can never be systematically knowable”.


Even to herself?

While the performer in such context may have the freedom to say and do things that are socially unacceptable in others, she may sacrifice to this freedom the re-emergence of ingrained cultural anxieties about female uncontrollability, unruliness, indefinable qualities and disquiet with gender roles and limitations;


“Performers might use disgust as a representational strategy that disrupts the objectifying, desiring gaze at the female body-on-display and forces spectators to experience the performing body in a new way—as a body that can repel desire, and cast away the gaze—but in so doing they simultaneously validate certain longstanding linkages between female corporeity and abjection. “

A history of diagnosing intelligent, rebellious women as hysterical if they failed to fit comfortably into their prescribed gender roles is not long past and the derogatory associations of emotional weakness, coupled with high and increasing instances of depression, can  inevitably interfere with artistic intention.

The performance artist Francesca Steele has been living her practice for the last two years [Appendix A];


“Initially I responded to Kathy Acker’s question in an essay about her own bodybuilding practice: ‘Is the equation between destruction and growth also a formula for art?’ (In Bodies of Work, 1997; originally published in Kroker and Kroker [eds.] The Last Sex: Feminism and Outlaw Bodies, 1993) Like Acker, I am transforming my body through the manipulative practice of bodybuilding which is based on the destruction and re-growth of muscles and using this to generate and inform a deeply personal creative practice (in her case, writing and in mine, live art). My performance practice-as-research methodology involves following a typical bodybuilder’s training regime and diet as an art practice, in dialogue with critical, cultural and historical studies of women’s bodybuilding. By re-framing these physically inscribed actions, I hope to position my practice as ‘both a doing and a thing done’ (Diamond, 1995), allowing space to interrogate the conventions of the female body as represented in live art historical contexts.”

Her practice considers the re-appropriation and subversion of body-based gender stereotypes through the making of performances that revolve around the strategies and techniques of bodybuilding.  Reconfiguring and presenting her body as a cross-gendered paradox, enabling a reading of her form that attempts to blur the binary oppositions inherent in patriarchal hegemonic cultures. She examines what parallels there might be between processes of bodily trauma and regeneration, the raw materials of bodybuilding, and the processes of making feminist art by utilizing strategies of endurance that often appear to override skill, craft and aesthetic considerations. All the time in killer heels.

My concern for Francesca mirrors that of McCoy’s ethical dilemma when entering into a dialogue on work she evidently finds exciting but disturbing. Having worked with her at a number of points throughout her transformation into Miss Plymouth 2010 my concerns are not, I believe, without foundation.

Competitive bodybuilding has two main elements, the work that you put into your body, lifestyle, food and exercise and the showmanship of posing and performing on stage. Steele’s original intention for the piece, apart from the durational act of bodybuilding was partly to do with;

“investigating masculine and feminine beauty; what attributes a female could take on or borrow from masculinity and where these boundaries between feminine and masculine lay in terms of the aesthetic of the body. I gave myself the goal to compete to give me a real objective to work towards and to help me to try to follow the process to the best of my ability, and also for the work to exist in the world of bodybuilding rather than just that of art. During the process most of my goals have changed as I have begun to understand more about competitive bodybuilding and can contemplate more of what its potential is within my art practice”. [Interview with Simon Keitch on the occasion of performing ‘Routine’ at the Pigs Of Today Are The Hams Of Tomorrow at Royal William Yard in Plymouth January 2010 with the Marina Abramović Institute for Preservation of Performance Art].

I recently interviewed her with the intention of updating myself on progress, performance and publicity. I had questions.

I wondered originally if her intentionality had changed throughout the process?


“I don’t think the essence of my intention has changed – I wanted to use the body itself as material and use bodybuilding as the manipulative process. Through the duration different things have become more important which weren’t quite so obvious to me as they are now – the exploration of gender in an aesthetic (and chemical) way, the issues that relate to bodybuilding and how it relates to self harm and how this is a clear lineage in female performance work particularly the marking of the body….”


“the sport is very basic – you train like this, eat like this and your body changes… Making finished pieces of artwork is a lot more complicated process. Though competing is more complicated -you work on lacking body parts, shed everything unnecessary, and do what it takes to complete the body – there is a visual selection process that goes on, a critical eye over the body and your natural structure – this correlates with the making, fine tuning, and consideration which makes the “finished” piece. “

An original assertion to maintain a blog throughout the process fell by the wayside, the all consuming focus of the regime altered entirely her outlook on life and the need for documentation became irrelevant. Her training her focus, her body the document.

There is other documentation, some of it she has not as yet, felt comfortable showing. This also relates to why the blog entries stopped, which apparently was not intentional. There were questions that she could not answer and a need to remain honest in her work;

“- and at the time there began to be things I was unsure of, some of this was around the drug use related to the sport.”

I asked about the duality of artist and bodybuilder. Was this hard to maintain? If there is little separation between your ‘lived life and the works I produce’ what space does Francesca Steele now inhabit offstage?


“Initially I didn’t tell anyone at the gym that I was an artist, it was difficult enough being pretty much the only female that trained there regularly! I don’t hide it now, but I also don’t go into great detail. The people that help me know and always have – but they also know me very well now. There really is no separation between life and artwork – particularly so with this work, it is an ongoing exploration, which I cannot step out of and go home or back to my life, like with usual performative works. It is extreme. It has impacted on or ‘diverted’ my lifestyle, my relationships, how I spend my time and probably my future health. I am an artist that uses my own body, this is the space I inhabit – this has always been essential in my work, it is not the first time I have taken risks with my body for artwork. There is a reason why some artists need to use their own body, maybe there is something pathological about this. I need to use myself as an example, as author and object.”


And now I felt I was getting somewhere. When I first met Fran she presented her, then future project, at the symposium Bodyscapes [the Kube Gallery, Poole, Dorset, May 2009] and openly alluded to a problematic relationship with food. Whilst possibly reductive, I connect Fran’s ability and success in exercising vice-like control over her body with earlier, less resolved, attempts.

Eating disorders are usually not considered self-harm because the resulting tissue damage is ordinarily an unintentional side effect. However, the boundaries are not always clear-cut when in some cases behaviours that usually fall outside the boundaries of self-harm may indeed represent just that if performed with explicit intent to cause tissue damage. Fran has legitimised her earlier transgressions through art.

An earlier distorted self-image has led to actual distortion of her body image. Possibly not just aesthetically. How far does the cross-gender paradox go? I have read accounts of hormonal changes and a cessation of menstruation, is this stripping her body of its biological purpose a step on the road to Post-Identity or another attempt at exertion of control?

Hard training, constant dieting and a desire to achieve a better looking physique are all common elements that can come into play in a disorder known as the Female Athlete Triad. The components that comprise this disorder are osteoporosis, menstrual dysfunction and eating disorders and its most common occurrence is within the fields of appearance related sports such as gymnastics, figure skating, ballet and bodybuilding.

The effects of the disorder can be devastating , bone density seems to be the biggest issue long term. In the short term fertility is an issue for obvious reasons, but the body can bounce back when fat deposits, weight, and normal exercise and nutrition patterns have been re-established.

Has Fran successfully re-gendered? Is this androgyny? Gender-role transcendence? Post-identity?

Nuts? By, albeit hopefully temporarily, circumventing the cycle that is the foundation stone of her gender role through her own agency has Fran succeeded where all else have failed? By removing the catalyst of her objectification, subjugation and role as possession has Fran rewritten herstory? [sic]

Successfully rewritten the gender role dichotomy? And all the time in killer heels?

But if, as Kathy Acker posits, we can only view life through a ‘lens of sexuality’ and the idea of a neutered Western society is impossible, has she circumvented that? Or is she now the only Other?

Arguably, her personal circumstances, a single woman with no children, have allowed her to exercise such agency, but at what cost to her future health and happiness? Steele’s almost offhand reference to such a compromised future I find disturbing but has she, in the truest sense of all, freed herself from the confines of gender roles and given herself free range?

To McCoy this is a ‘misperformance’ of a cultural stereotype of femininity, at times indistinguishable from the very stereotype it seeks to dismantle. Regardless of what a performer intends or hopes to accomplish by self-consciously constructing herself as ‘unruly woman’, ultimately the successful communication depends on the viewer’s reception and perception of the performance.

There is a risk that for, spectators outside discursive communities, performances of this oeuvre are simply a spectacle that reinforces the cultural ascendancy of the normative male body and a sense of the ongoing violability and volatility of the female.

In the same manner that enforced stasis has reconfigured the working function of Steele’s body does constructing ‘revolting’ images so insistently have an impact on a performer’s sense of her own embodiment? Is it possible to dwell within abjection over a continuing  period of time, more or less permanently, in Orlan’s case, and not begin to feel abject. What came first? The woman or the egg?

Even those receptive to feminist body-based performances might reasonably ask whether self-harm represents a genuine political revolt or whether it simply reinforces the female body as a site of violence.


“Performers who engage in self-harm are frequently dismissed by their detractors on the grounds that their difficult work is sensationalist and attention-seeking at best, and a manifestation of masochism and mental illness at worst. In fact, questions about the mental health of these practitioners circulate time and again in writing about revolting performances; who would deliberately harm herself for art’s sake unless she was clearly unwell? This is a dangerous question for the performer to contend with, since she risks losing her agency if her ability to make sound decisions about her own body is in doubt……….madness, hysteria, and mental illness represent particularly dangerous territory for performances to tread, since these labels effectively silence women and remove them from representation altogether. There is yet another risk, then, that a performer could lose her ability to speak and to be heard altogether given the mode in which she has chosen to perform.” McCoy, again somewhat reductively.

Our all pervasive lack of choice cannot be usurped by parodied actions of self harm or body control. These actions are forced upon us by the very codex we seek to crack. This very dichotomy reigns Steele back in. Curtails her free range, and is her pophole.

Post Feminist Masquerade

In his paper ‘The Lady Doth Protest Too Much’ [2008] Dr Jonathon Dean of the Gender Institute at LSE uses disidentification as an analytical tool when approaching an interrogation of the character of gender relations in a contemporary British context. Dean argues that a ‘backlash’ to the Second and Third Wave is too reductive an argument for the current prevailing attitudes of young women to Feminism and the construction of ‘hegemonic feminine subjectives’. He widely cites Angela McRobbie;

“feminism has been mainstreamed into a wide variety of institutions throughout civil society, such that feminism is “taken into account” across a wide variety of domains. However, this very “taken into accountness” occasions the undoing of feminism by invoking it as something no longer relevant and necessary. McRobbie argues that within the context of a widespread acceptance and disavowal of feminism, to “count” as a girl today requires, she argues, a ‘ritualistic denunciation’ of feminism (McRobbie, 2004: 7). Thus, the pervasive “taken into accountness” of feminism is such that it does yield something of a spectral, background existence, such that young women’s identification with feminism is one that therefore must be (to quote Butler again) ‘levelled and buried again and again.’ This dialectic between “taken into accountness” and disavowal can, I believe, be usefully captured by the term ‘post-feminist disidentification’


And further;

“For McRobbie, there are two key means by which post-feminist disidentification is manifest. The first is the ‘post-feminist masquerade,’ whereby women who have entered the previously male-dominated worlds of work and education are compelled to disavow the potentially destabilising social effects this may yield by ironically adopting a ‘masquerade’ of conventional femininity. She contends that ‘this new masquerade refers to its own artifice, its adoption by women is done so as a statement, the woman in masquerade is making a point that this is a freely chosen look…. The masquerade disavows the spectral, powerful and castrating figures of the lesbian and the feminist with whom they [the women adopting the masquerade] might conceivably be linked’ (McRobbie, 2007a: 725). This in some respects represents a paradigmatic case of disidentification: whilst the bodily practices of women within the public sphere carry the traces of a potentially socially threatening identification, this potential is disavowed through the adoption of an exaggerated and hyperbolic performance of conventional femininity and repudiation of feminism.

The second strategy through which women disidentify with feminism, so as not to endanger the hegemonic gender regime is via the adoption of the position of the ‘phallic girl,’ who takes on certain elements traditionally associated with normative masculinity, but within a context where, again, the figures of the lesbian and the feminist are repudiated. For McRobbie, the phallic girl is assumed to have gained equality with men, and thus feminism is assumed to be old-fashioned, no longer relevant. On this basis, some features of traditionally patriarchal privilege (such as greater sexual agency, participation in the labour market, socially sanctioned heavy drinking) are afforded to young women, but on the proviso that critique of hegemonic masculinity is withheld. Consequently, the ‘post-feminist masquerade’ and the ‘phallic girl’ are both presented as strategies or options available to young women in which certain post-feminist freedoms are available for enjoyment, but on the proviso that the basic structures of masculine privilege are not radically put into question.”

Dean’s paper posits that: the notion of post-feminist disidentification not only helps characterise contemporary gender relations, but also enables a critical purchase on certain aspects of contemporary feminist discourse, to him the relationship between second and third wave feminism is increasingly a site of disidentificatory relations. Within the discourse of feminists who identify as third wave, there is a predisposition to viewing it as a new, more diverse and all-encompassing space, in contrast to the second wave which is presented as domineering, narrow and puritanical ‘like an overly strict mother’.

Attempting to redefine gender roles in such a state of complicity and conflict could become dangerously divisive and open to ridicule. Do Post-Feminist arguments effectively  de beak woman?

We may have never had it so good. Ladies.

Not Waving but drowning

One of the earliest modern uses of the term Post-Feminism was in Susan Bolotin’s 1982 article for the New York Times “Voices of the Post-Feminist Generation”.  Interviews with women who largely agreed with the goals of feminism, but did not identify themselves as feminists. In which the author asks;

“Are we [Feminists] nothing but the anomalies of a radical decade?”.

Contemporaneously American feminists, such as Katha Pollitt or Nadine Strossen, Post- Identically consider feminism to hold simply that ‘women are people’. Views that separate the sexes rather than unite them are considered by these writers to be sexist rather than feminist and the feminist movement to be gynocentric  and misandrist.

If Second and Third Wave Gender Role rewriters have failed is that in entirety? Is post-feminist disidentification the death knell for Feminism? Should our energies be diverted now towards ideas of Post identity? On a level that spans both male and female need? Rewriting the entire book on gender and not just the pink pages? Should Fourth Wave Feminism admit the boys?

If we fully embrace discourse of multiple gender identity, Post-Identity and accept post-feminist disidentification as a consequence of the dualism inherent in the very approach of Feminists from railings to ‘railings’ must we eschew Feminist ideals for those of the Humanist? Is embracing sexual androgyny within Western culture, de stigmatising transgender in all its manifestations and embracing the legacy of a pre-existent Third Sex the most non binary way forward?

Do the endeavours of Francesca Steele, her forebears and contemporaries show us the futility and inherent personal risk in the de bunking of gender? Can humanism de beak woman?

Is the, inevitable, advent of viable male pregnancy the only solution to the gender role dichotomy?

How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Are we are perpetuating our own delusional state if we believe we exercise free will as we rage against the machine that is us?

There is no such thing as a free range chicken.

With thanks to Francesca Steele...