Sexuality Within The Domestic Arena in Carmen García’s Housewife
Intolerant is how the Mexican newspaper El
Vigia described the attitude of the Mexican cultural center La Esquina after they censored and prohibited the showing of Carmen García’s work in 2003.
Garcia’s serial Housewife is made up by four 20 x 20 cm
digital images. Each individual composition shows fragmented images of men and
women in sexually suggestive postures. Over these images García places images
of different domestic appliances that make strong references to the domestic
chores of a household. As result we have a visual and ideological disagreement
produced by the conjunction of the nude images and the sale catalogue image of
a domestic appliance.
Also, it is important to be aware about the provocative characters
of García’s series and how she
crosses two different sets of images normally kept separately and puts them
together in “art” scenery. In addition García does this by entering dangerous
territory: the same pornographic imaginary fantasies that men use to subject
woman. García takes the imagery used, produced and imagined by men to critique
men’s portrays of sexual desire and the way they portray and represent women
inside a sexual sphere, in contrast of the standard social notion of a
When sexual images are censored within art institutions
that allegedly support the multiplicity of art, many questions emerge
surrounding the differences within the horizons of expectations that exist
regarding art and its diversity.
How far can artist go without casting him or herself out
of the artistic realm into the realm of pornography? How can an artist express
sexual dilemmas with images without offending the viewer? This paper will try
to answer these questions vis-á-vis the serial Housewife of
In order to doing so, I will take the ideas of Jauss
regarding the horizon of expectation and I will frame it within the representation
of women in 3 Mexican comic books. I think is important to center some
attention on how Mexican comics have shaped attitudes regarding women
portrayal. This discussion will be taken from Hinds and Tatum’s article “Images
of Women in Mexican Comic Books”, and its importance rest on the historic
background that will let us understand the censorship that García’s work
In part, this means I need to delimit the definitions of “art” and
“pornography” within which I am going to work.
On the subject of pornography, the term
itself carries a huge conflict that ages. Therefore in order to understand it,
I reviewed the book XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography, from
Wendy McElroy. In addition other definitions will be given also.
According to McElroy the debate within the
feminist positions on pornography currently breaks down into three coarse
categories. The most common one is that pornography is an expression of male
culture through which women are commodified and exploited. Exploited in the
idea that women have become symbols of power, status and virility. The second
approach, the liberal position, combines a respect for free speech and the third approach arises from feminists who have been labeled
"pro-sex" and who argue that porn has benefits for women.
In my search for a broader definition I
visited different web pages. In the Internet page www.dicoveryhealth.com pornography is define as “written or visual material that stimulates sexual
feeling whose primary purpose is to arouse the observer or reader.” Also its
origins are given and is it is
said the “Technically, pornography is not illegal. Sexually explicit material
that is judged in violation of the penal code is defined as obscene. [...] but
even that is not illegal unless tested by the courts and found to be obscene.”
To clarify this I visited www.cwfa.org. In this page, inside Legal Studies the term ‘illegal pornography’ was
explained. Here the term was divided in six categories.
All are explained and even have the penal codes that secure them. By reading
them few sections were of interest. First, under the section of ‘obscenity’ it
is read that the First Amendment does not protect “Hard-core pornography”.
Under ‘material harmful to minors’ it is said “It is illegal to sell exhibit, or
display “harmful” (“soft-core”) pornography to minor children, even if the
material is not obscene or illegal for adults.” Adding, in ‘cable indecency’ it
is read, “a cable programmer is liable for obscene programming.” So what we
have here are multiplicities of laws that try to prevent and encourage each
As it can be seen the field of sexual
materials is itself cross-cut by a whole series of distinctions which are used
to simultaneously legitimate or denigrate cultural forms. Now, for purpose of
this work pornography can be understood as sexual images that have the
intention to arouse sexual desire.
Before shifting to the other term I think is
important to also define the commodification of women. Its weight stands in the
acknowledgment of the current activities in social and academic spheres which
work seeks to redefine women’s role and importance in history and other arenas.
According to Adorno in his book The Culture Industry a commodity is;
the fetish character of the commodity as the veneration of the thing made by
oneself which, as exchange value, simultaneously alienates itself from
producers to consumers [...] A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing,
simple because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an
objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the
relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to
them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the
products of their labour” (38)
Adorno, via Marx,
thus argues that the consumer seeks to worship the money that he/she has paid
for the commodity. And women belong to this world of commodities, as Luce
Irigaray points out. In our social order, she writes, “women are ‘products’
used and exchanged by men. Their status is that of merchandise, “commodities.”
[...] The use, consumption, and circulation of their sexualized bodies
underwrite the organization and the reproduction of social order” (84). Through
the commodity system, women, she argues, become objects that can be purchased.
round up the commodification of women Wolfgang Haug in his book Critique of
Commodity Aesthetics study the aesthetics of commodities in late
capitalism and looks at how commodities become eroticized objects, and in turn,
how human sexuality is molded and reorganized. Desire is shaped through the
sexualization of commodities, beating into the people’s fantasies, desires and
needs; what is more “what is being thrust upon the public is a whole complex of
sexual perception, appearance, and experience” (Haug, 56). According to the
author, “commodities borrow their aesthetic language from human courtship; but
then the relationship is reversed and people borrow their aesthetic expression
from the world of the commodity” (Haug, 19).
Regarding the definition for art (I haven’t put anything yet because I have
found so many and different ones that I don’t know anymore which one will be
the correct one.
After a review of García’s work, it was clear that she is trying to
define her style by critiquing conservative notions of women’s sexuality. The
notions, which are the focus of this work, are the ones developed by the
popularity of comic books around the decade of the 80’s.
Given that García is taking the images from old comics, locating the images she
chose within these limits may be adequate. “Given comics’ great popularity, the
images of women presented in them take on considerable importance [...] these
images conform to or deviate from traditional stereotypes of Mexican women.”
The notions, which I am referring, are two. The first is the
‘mother’ and the other is the ‘prostitute.’ The ‘mother’ is delineated
according to Hinds, via Alegría, within the ideas that “woman is born into a
state of humiliation, and the cult of male worship that she practices serves to
further denigrate her position.” “the main characteristics of the Mexican woman
are her masochism, dependency and submission [...] they constitute positive stereotypes
among the general population.” (Hinds, 147-149). Consequently, the ‘prostitute’
is a “Negative stereotypes would be those of the women as witch and the woman
as wife-concubine [...] The woman as wife-concubine presents the image of the
woman who is able to satisfy the married male sexually. She is the whore or the
mistress who plays out a definite role in Mexican society” (Hinds, 149)
García enters fragile terrain when she mixes together the imaginary
of the “prostitute” (the sexual woman) with the visual referents (the domestic
appliances) of a ‘mother/wife’. She is placing together visual stereotypes that
produce a shock of expectations. Two different spheres of discourse are
obviously shown to the viewer.
Four pictures make up the serial, but only two encompass
four different levels of discourse; the others contain only three. In all the
pictures the first discourse, and the strongest, is the human figures engaged
in sexual activities. The second level of discourse to capture one’s attention
is the black silhouette of the domestic appliances. The third discourse would
be the utterances that are written down in each image, and the fourth is the
text at the bottom of the images. Each one of the images that are going to be
analyzed in this paper contains these four levels.
This fourth level of discourse is wisely used to
increase the roughness between the other levels; it is so, because they refer
to political advertisements that target social conduct as “No contamines”
and “Planifica tu familia, planificar es querer”.
The other fragment of information given in these bottom lines are lexis as
“Juego 79 – 20” and “Juego
that transport the viewer/reader to a juvenile sphere.
The first thing that we see in García’s
images is voluptuous women whose seemingly promiscuous sexuality opposes the
traditional notion of the “mother” or housewife role that is given to us by
series’ title. Hence, the first clash is the opposition between the title and
the first level of discourse. However, the discourse that has a direct relation
with the title is by the domestic appliances that are placed on top of them. As
a result we have a direct relationship between the second discourse and the
title, and a fracture of expectations between the first discourse and the
appropriates a pornographic imaginary of voluptuous women and pornographic
lexicon to help her images disassociate and achieve a different level of
association. By combining the domestic appliances and the pornographic images
García creates a fine line that creates a dialect relationship between the
representation of women as wives, thanks to the appliances, and as sexual
commodities through the pornographic imagery.
As Irigaray affirms, “mothers cannot circulate in the
form of commodities without threatening the very existence of the social order.
Mothers are essential to its (re)production (particularly inasmuch as they are
[re]productive of children and of the labor force: through maternity,
child-rearing, and domestic maintenance in general).” (183) García’s decision
to coalesce the domestic appliances, that refer to a ‘mother’ setting, with the
images of women having sex shifts the relationship, now she is relating the
appliances with a possible woman that can fulfill sexually. García is able to
create a shocking relationship that contrasts the visual language of porno with
that of domestic appliances. As Adorno argues, people have being trained by
mass culture to associate specific images with explicit concepts or ideas,
“Imagination is replaced by a mechanically relentless control mechanism which
determines whether the latest imago to be distributed really represents an
exact accurate and reliable reflection of the relevant item of reality.” (64)
Adorno’s quote helps understand how the viewer automatically connects García’s
images with the concept of pornography, that seeks to arouse sexual desires,
and ignores the author’s intentions to present her work as art, which does not
seek to arouse any sexual desire. García mishmashes images leaving them
incapable to embody a precise indication of the idea she wants to send out.
In order to explain how García’s work creates a shift of
expectations, I will to analyze two of the four images of the serial. I have
chosen number one and four because these images have the most complex levels of
The first image of the serial shows a balance
composition, where in the right upper corner the viewer can see a young blond
man in front of a woman’s open legs. On the right top corner of this part image
a dialogue box, that appears to come from the woman of the open legs, says:
“Chupa mi papayita hasta que te arda la lengua.”
Below this image one see a black silhouette of a vacuum cleaner. At the left
bottom side of the vacuum cleaner there is an image of a couple, where the man
is performing oral sex on a blonde woman, who is uttering: “!A-ah, se siente
In addition, on top of the woman’s head, García adds another dialogue box of an
omniscient observer, which reads: “Como un sediento, se clavó en medio de las
redondas piernas y succionó con verdadera desesperación.”
This dialogue has a white background that helps it to be read clearly. On top
of this box there is a black silhouette of a shopping cart. As a final touch
one can see a last phrase on blue ink centered in the middle in a diagonal line
that reads: “Culo como este no hay dos.”
The last part of this image that I will like to mention
is the information printed at the bottom of it, in which it reads: “No
”, this social
awareness line comes from the understanding that within a society we are held
by rules and norms. This last element serves as an ironic touch. Once more
García creates an amalgamation of different spheres of discourse, the social
awareness advertisement, do not litter
, relates to a variety of
different campaigns that again contrast with the rough vulgarity of the images
and the commodity character of the domestic appliances. Also this kind of
campaigns refers to the popular saying “Cómo México no hay dos
These propagandistic messages worked as an agenda within Mexican government to
encourage the idea of solidarity and progress within the city populations.
All these formal and aesthetic connections suggest a
dialectal confrontation between the formal make up of each piece and the
context that each brings. The formal make up constitutes the process by which
she decided to unite the different images and dialogue boxes she choose; and
the context is the effect produced by the conjugation of the different levels
of discourse. In the formal make up García wanted to convey a specific critique
towards women representation, but as she uses the porno imagines she creates a
clash between the visual representation of the ‘mother’ and the ‘prostitute’.
Taking the three levels of discourse as a unit, another
dialectal confrontation can be viewed if one considers the importance of the
title of the serial. It is not free of charge; there is a meticulous mean for
this, as the name of the serial is giving us a hint to associate the domestic
appliances with its function in her work. García is aiming high as she tries to
question the traditional notion that a housewife does not constitute a sexual
body. These traditional notions come from the Mexican stereotypes of women that
have been shaped by comic books, which will be taken from Harold Hinds and
Charles Tatum’s article, which reviews two different comic books.
In Lágrimas y Risas,
the writers “have created tock female characters who reflect many of the
traditional attitudes and behaviors” (151) of the stereotypes regarding the
‘mother’ and ‘prostitute’. In this comic book the ‘mother’ figure is
represented by the sex roles, which demonstrate the active/passive dichotomy in
Women are submissive, loyal, and passive in sexual decisions. On the other
hand, the ‘prostitute’ figure corresponds to the ‘witch’, “She possesses
mysterious sexual powers [...] which she uses to dominate males she comes in
contact with.” (153)
Women’s representation in Lágrimas y Risas then
promote the idea that women who are sexually curious are bad,
while women who are passive are respected socially.
Other important factor to take in account is how these women are sketched. The
dangerous women have voluptuous bodies. As a result, visually, any voluptuous
women can be targeted as “prostitute’ if her behavior doesn’t prove otherwise.
the superhero is a man that like most superheroes has impressive array of
physical powers. But almost every issue has at least one woman in a secondary
role, which plays the function of a vulnerable sex object, a villainies or a
witch. As a result, the women that are portrayed in Kalimán can mirror
the figure of the ‘prostitute’ or the ‘mother’. The second rarely appears, “The
Mexican ideal of mother, the woman of home and family, rarely appears in Kalimán.
Perhaps there is just not enough sex appeal in dear old mom.[...] mom seems to
have died some years ago.” (Hinds 150).
Another important trait that is highlighted in Kalimán’s representation of women is their provocative natures, which seek to
stimulate Kalimán. But the hero always succeeds in rejecting them in order to
stay virginal and powerful, “sexy women are all right as long as Kalimán
himself remains chaste.” (Hinds, 150). As a result, women in this comic book
are always bailed.
Given that the women in Kalimán are drawn with
sexy bodies and a sexual intentions, is difficult to conclude that the readers
would relate a voluptuous woman with the figure of a housewife. “she often is a
beautiful woman who is romantically inclined toward Kalimán and who is so
voluptuous that he is initially attracted to her” (Hinds, 151). The
representations of women in Kalimán encouraged the visual stereotypes
that shaped the viewers previous experiences. Therefore a sexy woman doesn’t
portray a ‘mother’ and vice versa.
As a result, the women that give a referent to García’s
women are strictly divided into the figures of the “mother’ and ‘prostitute’.
That within the history of Mexican comics book can provide a visual referent to
The fourth image
has also a well-balanced composition and it takes the dialectic relationship
between the domestic appliances and the pornographic picture presented to
another level, this level can be seen if the viewer relates the use of the
domestic appliance with sexual act that is shown. The first visible thing is a
couple giving each other oral sex. Exactly on top of this, one can see the
black silhouette of a large clothespin which relates to the idea of the use of
this domestic object and the position of the couple. The clothespin is used to
hold something together and the way he couple is presented they are also
holding each other.
It is also important to point out that the human figures
we are watching are not of real people, are drawings. These drawings are taken
out from cheap pornographic comics that are familiar to lower class men in
Mexican cities. One of the most important characteristics of this kind of
comics is that the ethnic people that they portray are Anglo-Saxons, something
that triggers sexual fantasies in Mexican men. By saying this, I am referring
to the common consciousness of the Mexican preference for the foreign,
which in this case would be the Anglo-Saxon women.
In this same fragment a dialogue box is present, it
comes from the woman in the sixty-nine position and she utters: “!Vente junto
this, García puts three images one over the other. As a result, the first thing
one sees is a woman with her fist near her face as if she were performing oral
sex on a woman, as she utters: “!WAAG, así!”. Under this it is seen another
couple engaged in oral sex, and on top of this image one see the domestic
appliance used to squeeze oranges. Again, García is giving us a dialectical
relation between the sexual practices presented and the use of the domestic
appliance. The dialectic relationship plays on the purpose of the orange
squeezer and oral sex, as both seek to obtain juice from what they seize.
To the left of this, the viewer can see a big silhouette
of an oven, and behind it, the same oven works as a dialogue box to read: “Que
la espesa leche bañó su rostro, al tiempo que ella experimentaba un orgasmo
utterance is in itself a parody of the language used in real life and the one
found in this kind of comics. For example the adjective used to describe the
women’s orgasm “avasallador” is not a common one, and is not believable in the
context that these comics are bought. Furthermore, it is interesting to
acknowledge that the text itself is an over accumulation that reflects on the
image under it. It replicates conventional porn; in this case the first and
third discourse are parallel. In
general, the men who buy these comics are not well educated, and hardly would
use this kind of adjective. Nevertheless the adjective itself is again a
characteristic of this kind of comic genre, which tries to create a simple
plot, easy to read that would transport the viewer/reader to another place.
The last fragment of the fourth image is a box dialogue
wich reads: “En el último momento volvió a meterse el tronco de Julián en la
boca para darle placer también”.
This utterance has a white background that helps it to be read clearly, and
refers to the image that can be seen diagonally down to its right, a blond
woman with her mouth open and her closed fist up near her mouth. This part also
contains the same parallel relationship between the first and third level of
discourse, which again reinforces the image as a whole.
The last element that I would like to discuss is the
text under the image, which reads: “Planifica tu familia, planificar es
querer”. This text has direct relationship with the sexual activities that are
shown in the image. Since the sexual actions presented in this piece are none
García shows how social discourses in society contradict
within themselves. In Latin-American countries around the 1980’s there was a
special awareness concerning the importance of having a small family on order
to be able to provide for it better. This kind of information would be written
in saleable products as chips, sodas, and etcetera. This kind of social
messages did not consider oral sex a way to “planificar”, due to the fact that
the majority of the population holds Catholic beliefs, which prohibit sexual
practices that are non-reproductive. The contradiction, which García’s images
point out, is that as the Mexican government seeks to reduce its population
with this kind of message, these same messages set off against the Catholic
Church, which thinks that sex should only have reproductive means.
As can be seen, García’s construction is not gratuitous;
she thinks carefully about how to arrange the internal composition of each
piece in order to help provide a provocative discourse that goes against the
common understanding of social roles within society. By relating the
pornographic pictures with domestic appliances on top of them, García creates
dialectal relationships that try to shake pre-establish ideas of sexuality
within a ‘mother’ sphere. In addition, by only portraying sexual activities
that aren’t specifically reproductive, García challenges the idea that sex
should occur only in the visual representation of the ‘prostitute’.
García’s work thus tries to
challenge unite the domestic and the sex arenas within the understanding of
pleasure and the commodification of men towards women and vice versa. It is important to reflect about the
discourse made by the domestic appliances and even the way that they are
portrayed is important. These appliances do not present themselves as images
easy to recognize, instead they are roughly drawn, as if they were drawn
without care or in a hurry. As well, the black silhouettes of the domestic
appliances disassociate them from the background on which they are printed. At
the same time they relate to the sphere of women inside the household. These
roughly described appliances and the title of the serial grasp one of the
dialectic relationships within the serial.
A different aesthetic principle that
García uses is the disjunction. Each one of the images is disjointed, which
helps her demonstrate the notion that sexuality is a fragmentized discourse
within society. Mexico, as Catholic country, heavily criticizes premarital
sexual relationships. Nevertheless, a huge amount of people engages in it.
The disjunction triggers the viewers go
around each picture slowly. García is achieving different things by using these
disjunctions in her work; by using the fragment García gives herself space and
room to play with the two other discourse levels that she manipulates in the
serial. If she hadn’t used these disjunctions, the use of the complete pages of
the comic would have saturated the space and would have made it difficult to
add the other two discourses. The white spaces that the disjunction gives to
each piece helps the viewer to organize visually what she or he is seeing.
aesthetic quality that this serial portrays is the use of cheap pornographic
magazines. It is important to recognize that the comics García used were made
for a male audience that seek cheap fast pleasure, since the comics fit in to
the porn genre. The comic book itself has only the purpose to arouse certain
desires, but as García uses them helps her to portray other reality. She
succeeds in taking the porno images to a different level of appreciation.
García takes these pornographic images, and as she works with them she is able
to re-appropriate them as hers; by doing so she contradicts the status quo and
succeeds in criticizing the sexual standards for women imposed by a male
dominated society. By proposing this as a critique, García tries to fracture
the idea of women just as value or utility. It is helpful to quote Irigaray:
“just as, in commodities, natural utility is overridden by the exchange
function, so the properties of a woman’s body have to be suppressed and
subordinated to the exigencies of its transformation into an object of
circulation among men” ( 187). Irigaray is saying that women are coerced to go
through a process of change to be able to stay within a commodity spectrum.
García’s images try to outline this process.
The reality that is
shown in García’s serial is maintained thanks to the social imaginary that we
as a society hold of sexuality. García shows us sex scenes with “fantasy
women”: they are good looking with small waists, big breasts, nice hips and are
performing sexual acts. But on top of these women, as if they were floating,
García pastes domestic appliances that can be as quickly recognized as the
pornographic scenes, creating an unexpected shock. As a viewer, one does not
anticipate seeing silhouettes of domestic appliances suspended on top of sexual
scenes. But by relating the domestic elements to the porno, García’s images
achieve a different reading level.
According to Reception theorist Hans Robert Jauss, every
work of art is envisions a horizon of expectations, “El horizonte de
expectativas [...] sólo nos dice como fue valorada la obra e interpretada la
obra en el momento de su aparición” (Selden 137). I make reference to this
because pornographic images have a bad reputation within its horizon of
expectations. Along with, it is difficult to the viewer to see these pictures
and not transport himself or herself into the value or porno. Therefore, as
García creates her work everything is disorganized and reorganized again but
this time the referents are deliberately misplaced.
The Housewife serial is not one that
can be read in a glimpse. It requires a cautious visual reading. The first time
I saw the serial, I was attracted to it immediately; the first thing that I
noticed was the mishmash of the two most important elements, the domestic
appliances and the sexual images. Then, as I observed each one of the images, I
took account of the different levels they manage.
reaches to create a world in itself by creating the different level that
interact together. By creating an image that is able to produce a different
meaning the artist produces its own reality, the reality of wives as fully
sexual personas. As it is said in the beginning García wasn’t expecting such a
reaction from the spectators in La Esquina.
It is important to
be aware of the role that cultural institutions have within the art system in
relation with society and its aesthetic values, likes and dislikes. These
difficult/privileged chore of constructing our artistic history. And by
censoring and banning they accomplish two very different things, one is that
they encourage the permanence of underground and/or alternative spaces that
survive in very hard circumstances or live for one night to tell the story.
Second, they triumph in keeping these different social imaginaries in a ruling
phase that isn’t real and only keeps on feeding prejudices.
Carmen García’s serial achieves its goal in maintaining
its autonomy within the art arena. She does this by considering the different
aesthetic problems she needs to face in order to accomplish it. The way she
confronts the domestic realm with the pornographic one succeeds in confronting
the social imaginary of porno and whose hold. Another issue that ironically
helped García’s serial to ascend into a more realistic realm of art is the
censorship it suffered the day it was suppose to be shown. Because of this, a
group of young artists organized the show in a friend’s house providing even
more publicity to the exhibit, since others had announced in La Esquina
the new address of the prohibited art show.
In the interview with García she expressed full
satisfaction about the outcome of the exhibit, as well she made remarks about
the attitude of the people of La Esquina and complained about the phony
attitude about being open. She also commented that her work was not the only
one that had been banned, and alleged that thankfully there was enough
organization within the artists that were showing their work so everything went
as scheduled, only on a different location. She also laughed about the extra
publicity they got, there were three articles written about the exhibit.
Another aspect that emerged during
the interview, and that I think is important to bring up, is the format she
used. She told me that she used a small format (20 cm x 20 cm) because of
economic reasons, but that if she has had the money she would had printed them
in a bigger format, she also made the remark that near where she lives there
are no stores that would be able to print big formats. I believe that this
serial would have been outstanding in a format of 2 m x 2 m. García’s work has
so many reading levels, and the way the discourses interact, it would have been
excellent to observe in a bigger format.
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Hinds, Harold E. and Charles Tatum.
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Luce. This sex which is not one. Cornell Univ. Press: Ithaca, 1985
McElroy, Wendy. XXX: A Woman's Right to Pornography.
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