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Feminism, Pop-culture, & Selfveillance with Hannah Bonner

Sarah Marcus-Donnelly: In your essay, "Fixed in a Moment of Fierce Attention: 13 Ways of Looking at Claire Underwood," published in Little Patuxent Review, you examine your obsession with Robin Wright's character, Claire Underwood, from the Netflix series House of Cards. You write: "While devouring Wright’s filmography, I am dizzy with the succession of mediocrity, until Claire stops me still—a rupture in the reel." What is it about Claire Underwood that is so spellbinding? How is she such a departure from Wright's other work? You write: "I can’t have just a piece of Robin Wright—I must have Claire whole." Is Claire Underwood a pop-culture feminist icon?

Hannah Bonner: I think Claire Underwood becomes spellbinding (and a pop-culture feminist icon) throughout the course of the show. We meet her at a precipice in her life, her career, and her marriage in Season One. That first season her character felt very cursory. As the show progresses you see her more and more ready to unapologetically zero in on her own goals. She’s calculated, but also impulsive; she’s sharp, but also playful; she’s ruthless – much more so than Francis Underwood.

There’s something transfixing, too, about how clearly Claire understands how she’s perceived by others. This notion of being looked at as a woman is something Melissa Febos’s new essay “Intrusions” in Tin House carefully explores. Febos writes, “Women are bombarded not only with suggestions that we are always performing for men but also with prescriptions for doing so, from the moment we are able to take direction.”[1] Claire understands those prescriptions and she exploits them, manipulates them, and rewrites the rules so she no longer takes the direction, but gives the order. I never think of Claire as exploiting her sexuality per say, but as maximizing her strength strategically and seductively.

When I read Hilda Hilst’s poem in the 2018 summer issue of The Paris Review, I think of Claire: “I looked at me as though you were looking. / And it was like water / Wanting.” Claire shapes everything around her - like water she can go anywhere.

SM: I love how this essay examines the ways in which we consume celebrity. You write about watching Wright's interviews and how "none of these are the Robin Wright I want, which is to say that none of these are Claire." Can you talk a bit about the expectations we transfer onto art? Does the idealization of characters set us up for disappointment when experiencing reality? Can an actresses public appearances outside of a specific character even be counted as reality? Should the artists hold any responsibility to their audience?

HB: In some ways our idealization of celebrity and its obsessive onslaught does violence to actresses. When Simone Weil writes about violence in “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” the violence, or what Weil labels as “force,” is in rendering a living being into a “thing.” And Weil says this making of a corpse is a spectacle. I think the way in which we devour celebrities is a similar force and spectacle. In a recent interview for her new film Vox Lux, Natalie Portman describes how strange it is to have both a public and private life. “There’s a weird splitting of self,” she states, “when this is what other people can know about me, this is what is valuable for me to have just for myself.”[2] With a character like Claire, the show narrativizes her splitting of self since we see her public persona, her private relationship to Francis Underwood, and her relationship to those in her working circle. This multi-faceted perspective is so much more satisfying as a viewer because it’s calling attention to the multiplicities of the self, to public versus private life, to various versions of reality that get politicized or venerated.

SM: It is lovely how your writing uses other essays and films and memory and even a colleague's email to sift through how we can make meaning of the images we absorb. How were those specific pieces of art chosen? How do they ultimately impact how you perceive Claire Underwood?

HB: I wrote this essay during a two-week residency at the Vermont Studio Center where cell service is spotty and the days revolve around giving one optimal quiet to write and think.

Perhaps it’s cheating to use another author’s idea to describe the selection process of which pieces of art got included in this essay, but I’m currently reading Fanny Howe’s collection of essays The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation (2009) and her selection process really resonates with me. Howe notes how much the Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein influences her writing process for a particular novel due to his extensive use of montage. In a moment of frustration, Howe throws all her papers on the floor and she “began to move parts together according to theories of juxtaposition, montage, close, and distant tracking. Weirdly, all the material was there and more. These were unintended connections that created the inevitable action [Howe’s protagonist] takes in the end. The page themselves told me where they should go, the way days tell us where to go and occasionally indicate an order and a completion already innate to them” (131-132).

At the Vermont Studio Center, all the material was there. So many of the books I was reading were books that broadly dealt with ways of seeing – whether art, film, a loved one, or celebrity culture. And I’d recently watched many of the experimental films cited in that essay – so those images were still singed in my mind. And so, as it was for Howe, the texts themselves told me where they should go. It was in the process of noting all the commonalities and links between the quotations that I saw my own inherent obsession with looking, watching, surveying some thing (or person). Claire Underwood had preoccupied my consciousness ever since I first started watching House of Cards, but I think each of these essays and films helped me better understand what drives an optic obsession – and how an obsession with the thing or person seen can never be truly sated.

SM: You recently just published an essay on the TV show Girls in the Routledge Anthology HBO's Original Voices: Race, Gender, Sexuality and Power entitled "Our Bodies, Our Self(ies): Mediating and Mitigating Social Media and Selfveillance in Girls" You write about selfies being a technology of paradox because they are both intimate and distant. Can you talk to us a bit about the role you see inclusive feminism playing in supporting self-representation in the age of social media?

HB: My personal and political feelings about social media are still very much in the nascent stages. I only got an iPhone last year and have had Instagram for a year. I see a very important role that social media plays in self-representation and feminism. Singer and songwriter Meredith Graves had a post on Instagram a few days ago that included an image of graffiti on a wall that read: “In a society that profits from yourself doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act.” I certainly see Instagram as a way to control and curate your image as a way to de-radicalize self-love. @ripannanicolesmith also utilizes Instagram as a platform to analyze and constructively critique celebrity culture, what an image is, the sexualization of women, patriarchy, and capitalism. It’s a biting take on pop culture and deliciously deft – I absolutely love her mind and sense of humor.

However, I think there’s still a capital and currency with certain images on social media that can be problematic if we don’t critically engage with their visuals and what expectations those visuals perpetuate. Connie Wang, Senior Features writer at Refinery29, had a really self-referential and metatextual Instagram post last year of her backside in a bikini standing in front of the ocean. The caption read “Butt picks get like a thousand likes, easy.” And this seems to be empirically true. There’s a direct social and capital currency to social media that, to some degree, crafts a normative image of self-love that we simply reproduce, rather than disrupt. I’m not saying conforming to those postures is anti-feminist or wrong or anything of that moralizing nature –I just think it’s important to discuss. Social media is paradoxical: it’s democratizing, immediate, isolating, problematic, productive, addictive, and instructive. So just as a field like feminism is multi-valent and poly-vocal, I can only think of social media the same way. Perhaps this is all a roundabout way of saying I’m still thinking through my position to social media as it relates to feminism and radical feminism specifically.

SM: You end the above essay with an observation that both the main character on the show Girls, Hannah Horvath, and the actor who portrays her, Lena Dunham, will continue to evolve in a ceaseless state of becoming. Can you talk a bit about the concept of selfveillance explain how selfveillance contributes to or hinders our ability to "become"?

HB: I think selfveillance hinders our ability to become or develop when we are mediating and monitoring ourselves according to the expectations of being constantly under watch. Not to get too Foucauldian, but if we are recurrently aware of how others see us, it indelibly changes our behavior. I think Lena Dunham was successfully balancing her own selfveillance on the show through her presentation of her body and the way in which she as the author and the director constructed the narrative and discourse around her body on the show. I was beyond disappointed in her defense of accused rapist Murray Miller because it was something I would have expected from Hannah Horvath as a character who constantly puts her foot in her mouth. It was frustrating to see a moment where the author and character collapse in a way that directly harms feminism and the conversation around rape culture.

However, with selfveillance there’s also the opportunity for self-reflection and introspection that can be valuable. To re-evaluate one’s role in the world and our relationship to other people is meaningful work. I think of another essay Melissa Febos wrote for LitHub where she describes a writing assignment she gave her students the day after the 2016 Presidential election. She asks students to write about the kind of country they’d wish for someone the opposite of them and the kind of country they’d wish for someone they love. The last step of the exercise is asking them “to reconcile those visions into a single vision of a country where both of those realities could exist and both people would be free to inhabit them.” [3] The dialectic of selfveillance as either contributing to or hindering our ability to become is more fecund and fun for me when it’s both – and I am free to inhabit these dualities without delineation, or borders.

Hannah Bonner is a second year Ph.D. film studies student in the Department of Cinematic Arts at the University of Iowa. Her essays have appeared in VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, Bustle, Weird Sister, and The Little Patuxent Review. Her poetry has been published in Asheville Poetry Review, The North Carolina Literary Review, So to Speak, among others.

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