Two striking forms of subversion find expression in feminist discourses. They are the anti-narrative and parodic strategies respectively, which are aimed to fight against the patriarchal discourses.
Let’s see the anti-narrative strategies first. Feminist art practice, inspired by feminist critique, is imbued with the “carnival” spirit. As a challenge to coherent narrativity in the symbolic order, carnival is linked to Nietzschean Dionysianism for both aim to subvert all hierarchies in the official world: “A carnival participant is both actor and spectator; he loses his sense of individuality, passes through a zero point of carnivalesque activity and splits into a subject of the spectacle and an object of the game. Within the carnival, the subject is reduced to nothingness”(Moi 49).The carnival transgression as shown in this passage aims to deconstruct the unified subject. It generates the anti-narrative strategies in the postmodern culture. In Kristeva’s opinion, the carnivalesque structure parodies and relativizes the rational metanarrative, thereby threatening the hegemony of the monologic discourse (Moi 50). The carnival spirit is therefore celebrated by postmodern thinkers as the life source that renews any dominant discourse and orients them towards new perspectives. The very dialectical relationship between the dominant and carnival discourse is manifest in the contest between the patriarchal and feminist discourses. The once monologic, phallocentric discourse is now facing a serious challenge from the carnivalesque element in feminist art, which effectively employs the deconstructive strategies in postmodern culture.
According to Wolff, the techniques of postmodern art, such as self-reflexivity, alienation effect, montage, and parody in fact inherit the energetic revolution of modernist avant-garde (203). In MTV and feminist cinema, the anti-narrative technique of montage is devised to subvert the dominant narrative paradigm in patriarchal culture. According to E. Ann Kaplan, the incoherent flow of short segments on MTV transcends the dominant binary oppositions encased in classical realism (35). The hierarchy of masculine/feminine is debunked through the stream of “jumbled, hectic signifiers for which no signified was intended or has time to be communicated” (36). With the incoherent flow of images, MTV invites the spectator to participate in the Dionysian ecstasy of a decentered or fragmented self. The spectator’s schizophrenic stance therefore implies the Dionysian ego transgression, achieving the aesthetic state of “the blissful ecstasy that wells from the innermost depth of man, indeed of nature, at the collapse of the principium individuationis” (Nietzsche 36). The same challenge to narrativity finds another expression in the feminist cinema. In many feminist films, the montage technique of Eisenstein and alienation effect of Brecht are used to problematize female spectator’s identification with on-screen images of women. Such anti-realist strategies involve the female spectators’ detachment from the projected female images on screen, so that their collective fantasies can be released, achieving the Dionysian ecstasy of self-oblivion (Wolff 204). The anti-narrative art forms convey vividly the poststructuralist challenge to the humanist concept of a coherent, autonomous subject as the source of meaning. By projecting the incoherent, free-floating images of women, feminist art as manifested in MTV succeeds in dissolving the male representation of a fixed and unified female subject.
Parody is another effective strategy for feminist artists to combat the patriarchal culture in which they exist. According to Linda Hutchen, parody, by reappropriating the already existing representations, reveals that all cultural forms of representation—literary, visual and aural—are ideologically grounded (3). She discerns the subversive power of parody in feminist literary texts. Christa Wolff’s Cassandra, for example, parodically rewrites Homer’s Trojan war by transferring the narrative point of view to the formerly silenced Trojan women (101). By recontextualizing the patriarchal, monologic discourse, such a parodic rewriting adds a new perspective to the old text. The parodic visual art, paintings and cinema also effectively throw the male representation of woman into question by the strategy of intertexuality (112). According to Judith Butler, gender parody, such as drag, cross-dressing and gender performance on TV or MTV, serves to undermine the fixity of gender identity. The gender meanings, once taken up in the parodic styles, are denaturalized and mobilized as a fabrication of cultural mechanism (338). Madonna’s MTV, Material Girl, is a parody on a Hollywood film by Howard Hawks, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. By combining “seductiveness with a gusty kind of independence,” Madonna adopts the postmodern feminist stance to challenge the reification of gender relations under the patriarchal discourse (Kaplan 37). Through the fluidity of sexual identities, gender parody implies the possibility of complex and generative subject positions for females (Butler 338). In a sense, gender parody echoes Derrida’s concept of the contingent meanings of signs by transcending the patriarchal representation of an essential “woman” into discursive “women” across different space and time. In Wolff’s opinion, parody prevents feminist art from being marginalized and ignored because it is directly engaged with the dominant cultural form (203-4). Feminist artists employ the parodic strategy to represent woman as always at odds with what already exists in the patriarchal discourse, so that woman cannot be defined in any fixed form but only as the “not” of the patriarchal representation. Refusing to define a unique female identity, feminist feminist parodic artists illustrate the poststructuralist feminist critique on the discursive meanings of “woman.” The parodic form recontextualizes the dominant patriarchal discourse and effectively arouses a critical reassessment of it. It is like the Dionysian spirit, which “never comes into play as itself but only as the dialectical or symmetrical Other to the Unified Subject” (Schulte-Sasse xi). Thus, through the appropriation of postmodernism, femininst art has become a site of ideological contest to denatrualize the patriarchal representation of female bodies.
Feminist critique and art practice are significant in that both address the problem of sexual identity. With the postmodernist commitment to retrieve human dignity and rights, feminist discourses have succeeded in deciphering the hierarchical social relations where men are involved as agents while female counterparts function as their mirror. With feminist discourses, both men and women will become aware that their subjectivity is in fact a social construct. They need not take established meanings, values and power relations for granted. Feminist discourses are not particularly addressed to women. They help us to see how patriarchal power is exercised through subject positions.