The Body Beautiful
|Keywords||Acculturation, Adolescence, African-American Experience, Aging, Arthritis, Body Self-Image, Cancer, Caregivers, Childbirth, Children, Communication, Depression, Disability, Disease and Health, Doctor-Patient Relationship, Empathy, Family Relationships, Freedom, Grief, Hospitalization, Human Worth, Illness and the Family, Illness Narrative/Pathography, Individuality, Loneliness, Love, Memory, Menstruation, Mother-Daughter Relationship, Mother-Son Relationship, Mourning, Narrative as Method, Ordinary Life, Pain, Patient Experience, Power Relations, Pregnancy, Psycho-social Medicine, Racism, Rebellion, Scapegoating, Sexuality, Society, Suffering, Surgery, Survival, Time, Trauma, Women's Health|
This documentary, narrated alternately by the daughter-filmmaker and mother whose stories it tells, focuses on how two women move apart and together while experiencing, respectively, adolescence and mid-life. The mother has cancer, a mastectomy, and then rheumatoid arthritis, and these experiences intertwine thematically and structurally with the narrative of the mother-daughter relationship.
Another provocative juxtaposition cross-cuts scenes from the daughter's modeling career (and the social and erotic body that context constructs for her) with scenes of the mother's illness, stigmatization, and erotic daydreams. Both women come to a new awareness of the social meaning of mastectomy within heterosexual and same-sex contexts by the documentary's end; they also come to a place of recognition of the mother's personal and social value and the nature of their relationship.
This film is a generative example of how our various bodily and social identities are built and given meaning concurrently. The mother's illness, pregnancy, depression, and happiness are inextricable from each other; the video's pathography is inseparable from the rest of family life.
One important message is that "patient" bodies are also social bodies, that the meanings a social body accumulates may well be more powerful than the meanings produced in a clinical setting, and that health professionals should excavate and give full consideration to the social and interpersonal meanings of illness and disability. The patient experience is represented through brief, disturbing hospital scenes and a periodic "medical voice" giving advice about mastectomy. These are provocative elements, but seem like straw men because they are so dated.
Another key message of the film is that while illness and atypical embodiment do not inherently erode sexuality, the woman whose body is marked as ill or disabled is treated as if she were no longer sexually functional. And, as the sauna scene beautifully documents, same-sex environments may not be any more inclusive. An unexplored, but available message in the film is the relationship between different kinds of stigmatized identities ("race" and disability).
The nudity in this film, especially in scenes involving the mother and daughter, disturbs some viewers. In a class on breasts and breast cancer, students ranked this the most effective of three works that engaged the issues. It works well taught with Robert Hass's prose poem, A Story about the Body (see this database).
|Running Time||23 minutes|
|Video Source||Women Make Movies. (212) 925-0606 x360;Fax (212) 925-2052;462 Broadway Suite 500WS, New York, NY 10013. www.wmm.com|
|Miscellaneous||Best Documentary, Melbourne Film Festival|
|Annotated by||Holmes, Martha Stoddard|
|Date of Entry||10/16/01|