29 January 2013

Gender Imagery in Film, Pt. 5: Self-Mutilation and Female Circumcision

Religion has never been a stranger to self-torture and mutilation. This is particularly true of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In his infamous work Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche states, “From the start, the Christian faith is a sacrifice: a sacrifice of all freedom, all pride, all self-confidence of the spirit; at the same time, enslavement and self-mockery, self-mutilation.”[1] In many instances, the self-torture is one that is purely psychological: fear of Hell; fear of physical torture; fear of fire and brimstone; self-censorship and anxiety over “impure thoughts;” &c. In other instances, the focus is on the physical shell. Certain sects of Catholicism have been known to practice self-flagellation as a form of repentance. Muslims, particularly radical Muslims, have been increasingly involved in suicide missions to promote their faith – suicide bombing arguably being the ultimate form of self-mutilation. Male circumcision is certainly a form of mutilation and, though it is typically performed on children and not self-inflicted, it can be if older men  decide to have it done. Female circumcision is another animal altogether, with consequences far more destructive than that of male circumcision. Perhaps it can be considered ironic, or, at the least, a contradiction in terms, that God allows us to slice skin off of our sons’ penises while insisting that our body is a temple.[2] In any event, the notion of physical mutilation is surely on familiar terms with religion.

Though Antichrist offers an overflowing handful of graphic violence in the second half of the film, it is the self-inflicted female circumcision scene that is almost certainly the most stomach churning and, arguably, the most misogynistic. If only one scene in the history of film had to be chosen to depict the culmination of hundreds of years of religious intolerance, resulting in an unmistakable fear and self-loathing instilled into the minds of women, it could be this horrendously vivid scene. By depicting an act so heinous, one that is still occurring in many cultures and subcultures today worldwide for a variety of reasons, von Trier is drawing a straight line connecting woman’s wickedness with her clitoris. The oppression of the woman, Antichrist purports, is a direct result of the intensity derived from her pleasure center. A pleasure center that, by the way, still baffles scientific minds today.

Building up to the aforementioned circumcision, She physically and emotionally tortures her husband, and begins to torture herself emotionally. Her sexual impulses drive her psychotic behavior and upon realizing that her desire for sexual pleasure is the cause of her son’s death, shown through flashbacks to the prologue, she grabs a pair of rusty shears, conveniently located underneath her buttocks. Once She has removed her clitoris, He is able to “free” countless women – women without faces, without identities, without any direct connection to Eve – from the bonds of their own self-hatred.

Despite being as gruesome a scene as any horror film one, further speculation of the entire sequence reveals something rather laughable: von Trier is a complete narcissist. As She inflicts the wound on herself, it is He who gets the credit for freeing the women enslaved to their own desires, not She. He wins. Yes, this is still misogyny, but the root must certainly be von Trier's own narcissism.
[1] Nietzsche, 250.

[2] HarperCollins, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

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