Dead Women and Gendered Death in Visual Culture

Devaleena Kundu's picture
Type: 
Call for Papers
Date: 
November 30, 2022
Subject Fields: 
Journalism and Media Studies, Women's & Gender History / Studies, Popular Culture Studies, Literature, Social Sciences

The upcoming focus issue of MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture seeks papers offering critical and creative insights into representations of dead women, the dead female body and gendered death. The mounting demand for death-centric shows, films, music videos, and texts has made it obvious that death sells. However, as bell hooks argues, typically ‘the death that captures the public imagination … is passionate, sexualised, glamorised and violent’. (2021 [1994]) More often than not, it is the death of a woman.

The gendered politics of corpses raise questions about spectatorship, the communal act of seeing/witnessing and the socio-cultural factors catalysing the proliferation of such content. Why are death representations so heavily gendered? How do we react to the death of women in visual culture? What are the factors warranting the glamorisation and sexualisation of female death? Illuminating global perspectives, this issue will examine how gendered ideologies are often central to the representations of death and dying.

‘Part of the equation between femininity and death,’ notes Elisabeth Bronfen, ‘resides precisely in the fact that Woman as man’s object of desire (objet a) is on the side of death not only because she repeats the always already lost primordial mother but because she so often serves as a non-reciprocal ‘dead’ figure of imaginary projection.’ (1996 [1992]) The conjunction of death and femininity upholds a fascinating ambivalence between desire and destruction. Representations of the female corpse have been of interest to scholars, in particular feminist scholars, in a range of fields and disciplines, including death studies, film studies, television studies, gender studies, art history, psychoanalytic studies and more. This is in part because of the increasing proliferation of images of dead women in our mediatised society, and partly because images of dead women and their attendant socio-political meanings can be identified in so many different cultural contexts.

In the US, Foltyn has examined the place of the female body in fashion and advertising, using terms such as ‘corpse porn’ and ‘corpse chic’. She argues that the twenty-first century ‘is the corpse’s cultural moment’, with ‘magazines featur[ing] striking, eroticised tableaux of ‘cadavers’ modeling clothing’. (Foltyn 2008: 165) That graves and/or corpses was one of the recurring motifs in America’s Next Top Model, one of the longest-running TV shows, goes on to show how glamorised depictions of death and the dead body, particularly the female body, are enticing to the popular imaginary. Elsewhere, M. Elise Marrubio has analysed depictions of dead Native American women in film demonstrating that ‘the cinematic beauty of film can either overshadow or emphasise the very real racist and sexist agendas of the film narrative iconography’. (2016: ix)

​​In India, scholars have commented on women’s bodies being tightly bound up with community honour. (See Das 2007) Based on Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s poem written in 1540, the recent Hindi film Padmavat (2018) depicts the act of Jauhar (self-immolation) committed by Queen Padmavati. When her King was defeated in the battle, to preserve her honour, she decided to sacrifice her life and perform Jauhar. While ample screen time has been devoted to building the idea of transition from life to death when the Queen approaches the stake wilfully, the ‘annihilation of the body’ has been left up to the imagination of the audience as the film ends with the shadow of Queen Padmavati entering the firepit. How does honour translate itself into death here? What leads to the aesthetic representation of transition barring the annihilation? What other texts from different countries, cultures and traditions raise questions about the representation of dead women, the female corpse, or gendered death in visual culture?

What are the gender politics and risks of readily available images of dead women in the global context? Analysing television, Helen Wheatley points out that often ‘the corpse is rendered the spectacular object of a simultaneously fascinated and appalled gaze’. (2021) Both Joanne Clarke Dillman (2014) and Ruth Penfold-Mounce (2016) argue that such visual representations of dead women are naturalising. Furthermore, Dillman identifies the proliferation of dead women on screen in the 2000s (and beyond) as being connected to profound ambivalence about women’s changing roles in society. She shows that screen representations depicting dead women often ‘feed on the expendability of women’ globally. (2014: 123) And finally, Penfold-Mounce states that the rise in TV ‘Crime Porn’ effectively glamorises and normalises violence against women. (2016) How might this be addressed? Where is it mitigated in visual culture? Where is it reinforced?

We wish to investigate representations of female deaths and corpses to interrogate whether such depictions are symptomatic of a culture that situates the female body as complementary to the male and treats femininity as a spectacle. The issue will contribute to such debates by bringing together critical reflection and creative work on popular culture, art, film and other related fields.

We welcome research and creative work in all formats. Proposals might include but are not limited to the following subjects:

  • Comparative and/or cross-cultural representations of dead women
  • Diseased and decaying female bodies
  • ‘Corpse chic’ vis-à-vis the abject corpse
  • Unidentified female dead bodies
  • Female death/dead bodies in painting/graphic narratives/cartoon illustrations/anime/science fiction
  • ‘Corpse-porn’
  • Gendered death in news and social media
  • Non-visual narratives challenging the dominance of visual representation of dead women
  • Deliberate presence/absence of the female corpse in visual culture
  • Queer and gendered deaths in visual culture
  • ‘Feminine’ vs. ‘masculine’ death
  • Audiences, gaze and the female dead body—spectatorship, voyeurism, necrophilia
  • ‘Snuff’ film and/or its popular culture reiterations
  • Female deaths and corpses on streaming services and in marketing materials
  • Race/class/caste divide in representations of female deaths and dead bodies
  • Deaths of female celebrities in the news and other media reports
  • Witnessing a familiar female corpse vs. an unfamiliar female corpse
  • Visual representations of the dead female body in the Victorian era
  • Erotica & female death

Focus Issue Guest Editors:

Devaleena Kundu (School of Liberal Studies, UPES, Dehradun, India)

Bethan Michael-Fox (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the Open University, UK)

Khyati Tripathi (School of Liberal Studies, UPES, Dehradun, India)

Proposal Submission:

Your proposal should consist of:

  • A proposed title of your submission
  • An abstract (250-500 words)
  • A short bio for each author (100 words)

Submit one PDF to contact@maifeminism.com & gendereddeath@gmail.com

Please use this subject title in your submission email: ‘Proposal: Dead Women & Gendered Death in Visual Culture’.

Proposals Deadline: 30 November 2022.

Authors will be notified by the end of December 2022.

Full Submissions Deadline: 30 June 2023 (subject to prior proposal acceptance)

Proposed Publication Time: Spring 2024

Contact Info: 

Focus Issue Guest Editors:

Devaleena Kundu (School of Liberal Studies, UPES, Dehradun, India)

Bethan Michael-Fox (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, the Open University, UK)

Khyati Tripathi (School of Liberal Studies, UPES, Dehradun, India)

You can email us at: gendereddeath@gmail.comcontact@maifeminism.com

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