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  • Catherine Robb & Annemijn Rijk

Work Like A Woman: a reflection on Woman's Work

This essay is an intimate, philosophical reflection of Dr. Catherine M. Robb on the art installation Woman's Work, created by choreographer Annemijn Rijk. The installation is comprised of six separate screens that show six women from different backgrounds and generations. Each of these women is seen walking on a steel beam, positioned at a great hight, that functions as a catwalk. This narrow and frightening catwalk represents the oppressive nature of the standard image of women.

“Insofar as we learn to live out our existence in accordance with the definition that patriarchal cultural assigns to us, we are physically inhibited, confined, positioned, and objectified.”

Iris Marion Young, ‘Throwing Like a Girl’ (1980, p. 152)

In her essay ‘Throwing Like a Girl’ (1980), the philosopher Iris Marion Young explores how a woman’s bodily movement and orientation is affected by the social structures of patriarchy. The threat of objectification, manipulation, and the male gaze, all work together to limit and constrain the way that women use their bodies. In response to these threats, women experience their bodies as a contradiction. On the one hand, our bodies are constrained and manipulated by these social structures, yet on the other hand, our bodies are the things that allow us to express our agency, and break free from the limitations imposed on us. The tension between constraint and agency often remains hidden, repressed inside the body and unable to be articulated. What I find captivating about Woman’s Work is that it makes this tension and contradiction visible, as something that can be experienced for ourselves.

From the moment we enter the installation, we are encouraged to wait, to open ourselves up to what will be experienced on the other side of the wall. From this place of anticipation, from the space we have been asked to create for ourselves, we are then confronted with immersive moving images of women who have no choice but to navigate across a fixed and impenetrable beam. The term ‘patriarchy’ is an abstract and controversial concept, but as a physical representation, the beam helps us to experience what this concept implies in practice. As a pervasive social structure, patriarchy threatens to objectify, inhibit, and manipulate a woman’s agency. We too can see, touch, and hear the beam for ourselves: it is something that takes up space and dictates how we move around it. I am made aware of how I move my own body in relation to the beam: do I dare to walk over it, on it, touch it, or have I mindlessly allowed the beam to dominate the space I have been invited to fill?

Iris Marion Young explains the different ways that women move their bodies in response to the limitations imposed by the conditions of patriarchy. Women carry their bodies in “constricted space” – rather than engaging and extending the whole body, opening out into the space around it, the movements are instead restricted and uneasy. The body is experienced as something that cannot always be trusted, a “burden” which must be “dragged” along with us, but also something that needs to be “protected” from the world. When women do move their bodies, they will often experience a self-consciousness that disrupts their ability to move freely and act confidently to achieve their goals. There is a hesitation and uneasiness between the body and its surroundings, with movements that are awkward and uncertain.

The choreography of Women’s Work gives us the opportunity to experience the urgency of these movements and limitations as expressed in the bodies of other women. On the beam, the dancers accentuate the determination needed to extend and open their bodies, with strenuous movements that require both physical and mental strength. Hands are used to help knees bend and legs drag themselves forward, arms are painstakingly and slowly stretched beyond the side of the body, as if being constantly held back by unseen forces. Fingers tentatively pry themselves from the hand, and toes curl first before the foot feels safe to move. Faces are hidden from view, and it takes time before the body turns itself to be completely visible. Arms are sharply raised high above the head with a defiant smile, but this brief sign of confidence quickly turns into vulnerability. Movements are interrupted and broken, yet repeated again, and again.

The screens that portray the experience of these other women might just as well be mirrors. I see myself in each of these women, I feel their struggle as my own. I find myself wanting to reach out and offer my own body to help navigate the terrain of the beam. I question whether I am doing enough, and if I have also been part of the problem. I am reminded of experiences when I have self-consciously felt my body as a burden, as something to apologize for, when I have had to retreat from an unwanted gaze. Woman’s Work confronts us with women’s bodies working through the contradiction of being held back, yet still defiantly opening themselves to the world. With this work, we see arms outstretched beyond the spatial limitations of the beam, whole bodies walking forward with hands grasping ahead, bodies opening outwards, reaching up on the edge of their toes. I experience that defiance as my own, encouraged by the determination, vigilance, and effort that each of these women represent. Now I know that I too have this unrelenting defiance and desire within me, to get back up again and again, and again.


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