A Provocation By Roanna Mitchell, PhD
How technology makes our body its business: the shaping of the ‘good citizen’ from Jane Fonda to the Wii fit.
Interactive installation followed by a talk and discussion by Roanna Mitchell
Provocation for the Tapescape Catford: Intervention I
My work is all about bodies. I work as a movement director and choreographer, I teach drama students, and I am writing my PhD about the body politics of acting: what happens to actors in those aspects of their job where they have to look a certain way, or ‘sell’ their body? Does the actor own his/her own body? What expectations do we have of an actor’s body?
I also work with an organization, convened by writer Susie Orbach, called Endangered Bodies, where we raise awareness about how our culture is alienating us from our own bodies, and the dangerous affects this can have. So our social and cultural perceptions of the body are very much part of my job.
I was invited to the Tapescape intervention in Catford by its initiator John McKiernan, who asked me to talk about the technology of the videotape and its influence on our bodies. A conversation about Jane Fonda and her original workout video led to the development of this provocation. It is just that – a provocation. I would like to lay out some points and raise some questions, and I will try to tease out something of the complex web that links us and our perceptions of our bodies and society today with Jane Fonda, her workout video, and the technologies that have followed on from that.
When thinking about the body, again and again I come back to the old feminist slogan: The personal is political. Everything we do with our bodies has repercussions for the way we engage with and live as part of a society. So what does it mean, politically, that in the early 1980s masses of people were enticed by Jane Fonda’s promise of a ‘good body’ to buy a video recorder and do her workout at home? And what have those events of almost thirty years ago got to do with us, now?
Initially, let me take a little diversion before we get to Fonda, to look at what bodies mean to us today. We live in a society where a ‘good’ body is a reflection of a ‘good person’. In our society looking after your body is a moral responsibility towards yourself and the state. Your bad habits create extra cost to the National Health Service, and if you don’t represent a certain fitness ideal in relation to your age and gender, then you are under suspicion to have all sorts of moral deficiencies; you are selfish, lazy, you don’t care, you are undisciplined or under-educated. So basically: if you look fit and well, then your body represents something morally ‘good’. That, at least, is what is being implied.
The responsibility towards our own body is sold to us very much as an individual choice. The emphasis on responsibility was a political favourite in the ‘80s just as much as it is now.
Here is Prime Minister Margret Thatcher, talking to Women’s Own magazine in 1987:
I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.
And here is Prime Minister David Cameron in one of his speeches about the ‘Big Society’ in 2011:
To me, there’s one word at the heart of all this [the Big Society], and that is responsibility. We need people to take more responsibility. We need people to act more responsibly, because if you take any problem in our country and you just think: ‘Well, what can the government do to sort it out?’, that is only ever going to be half of the answer.
This notion of responsibility is a clever tool for manipulation. A sense of responsibility towards the people we love can keep us in our place. It can keep us from committing crimes, keep us in a job, in a geographical location, it can keep us pre-occupied and too busy to develop a way of doing things that might not suit the economic and political powers that be.
A sense of responsibility towards our bodies can also keep us in our place. In relation to the body, an efficient monster of a machine has developed, guiding us and keeping us on task whilst all the time letting us think that we are following our own ideas and preferences.
This is not a revelation: feminists have been discussing the role of the body in any sort of power dynamics for many years. What better way to tame and shape a smart, hard-working person who can go far, than to attack their body, to make them so pre-occupied with their body that they will expend more energy on the way they look than on what they do? And the most efficient way to get a person to that point is to make them believe that their preoccupation with their body is something personal, their own choice, their own responsibility.
Philosopher Michel Foucault speaks of this development of ‘good citizens’ through the web of power dynamics in everyday practices and subtle forms of discipline and punishment. He calls the tools that help this process: ‘technologies of the self’, and by extension we talk about ‘technologies of the body’. These technologies can be diets, fitness regimes, plastic surgery, etc. And, I suggest, the technologies that this intervention is examining, from VCR to the Wii Fit. All of these can be employed to make us ‘good citizens’: supposedly healthy, functioning, docile, and economically beneficial in a way that keeps society stable.
The call for individual responsibility in making use of these technologies of the body initially appears to follow common sense. After all, if we don’t take responsibility for our own bodies, who will? However, the responsibility called for by politicians can be read as taking place on somebody elses’ terms, and draws upon the human desire to have faith, to trust, and to follow someone elses’ guidance. And this behaviour is certainly more predictable, and perhaps more desirable for those in power. If we start questioning our faith, then we can become a risk to the orderly functioning of society. We might speak up. We might riot. We might vote differently. And that is a question of finding your own personal version of responsibility, of developing your own opinions, beliefs, moral code – your own values. I call this, for want of a better term, ‘creative responsibility’.
Creative responsibility in relation to the body is becoming more and more important, and more and more difficult. The technologies that we are talking about in this intervention are technologies that many of us engage with on a regular basis, and they are technologies that allow us to follow without needing to be creative, in a kind of ‘blind faith’. This notion of following without needing to be creative leads me to Jane Fonda, and her workout video.
Our interactive relationship with technology really took off, many people argue, with the release of Jane Fonda’s first workout video in 1982. A culture of exercise existed before these videos, in a proliferation of gyms, studio exercise classes, and Fonda’s own highly successful Workout book. However, the technology of VCR found a whole new way of making money while simultaneously shaping the body of the good citizen, and it did so through the vehicle of Jane Fonda’s exercise video.
This video encouraged thousands of households to buy a VHS player in order to be able to play her video at home. Before this point, people had rented VCR because of its prohibitive cost, and because consumers did not feel a need to watch a video repeatedly. However, Fonda’s video was designed to be watched repeatedly, in order for the exercise regime to take effect, and this was an incentive for people to buy. Thus her video contributed to altering consumer-technology relationships, but also body-technology relationships.
How were people convinced that they needed the workout video? Fonda sold her workout as a liberating act, as a woman’s right to physical as well as social, political and economic equality. This was a new and successful way of including women in the market for a new technology, by creating insecurities about the body and then offering solutions through these technologies. In a climate where the Prime Minister Thatcher stated that ‘it is our duty to look to ourselves first’, the body became a responsibility, and making use of new technologies offered multiple bonuses on this front: it creates docile bodies, it keeps people occupied and safely within their living rooms, it fuels the economy, and it supposedly protects the National Health System from unnecessary burdens. It also changes our relationships with our bodies.
Of course new technologies always shape our sense of identity, and there have been many recent debates on how the internet and new technologies change the way in which we think. But not just the way we think is changed: our embodiment is changed. Our perceptions of, and attitudes to, our bodies: Our body image.
Following an exercise video – and later mirroring computer animations with the Wii – requires no creative input, and does not encourage a responsive relationship to your own body. This means that perceptions of self are built in relation to the image you are copying, rather than a perception of yourself developing through really paying attention to what you and your body are doing, wanting and needing.
I have been doing Jane Fonda’s original workout as a little research project for this event. And the experience has been a strange mixture of hatred, fascination, addiction and pain. It is great to be able to workout without having to talk to anyone, or worry about what you look like. It is also great not to have to spend any money – I have just had to cancel my gym membership because I can no longer afford it, and so this could be a great alternative, in theory. Jane Fonda looks great, and the first exciting couple of days of engaging with the video are fun, and fill me with hope: I trust that the fitness guru knows what she is doing, and if I can be disciplined enough to follow her regime, I will develop a similar shape eventually.
However, sadly Jane is not actually in the room with me. The workout does not suit my body, and so I feel it starting to cause damage. And there is something desperate and sad about it all. Despite the whooping of her crew in the background that simulates a sense of group effort, when it is over and the screen goes dark, it is just me, sweaty, in a silent living room, feeling a little bit foolish.
Reflecting on this experience, I would suggest that these technologies have the potential to individualize and isolate us at the same time as selling themselves as tools for communication. The Wii is always advertised as a fun family event, and yet there is something lifeless about those happy families and groups of friends, in a room together, but all staring at a screen. I have to wonder: what happens to empathy? Both towards others and towards our own body? What happens to our ability to respond to the temperature, breath, flesh, reaction of a living human body?And if we lose the capacity to empathise, what happens to responsibility? Surely, following a sense of responsibility without ability for empathy has proved the most deadly version of humanity.
David Cameron connects his idea of the big society with individual responsibility, and yet this responsibility is only legitimate in accordance to what government, and the economic powers that be, perceive as right and moral.
The scare tactics around the so-called ‘obesity epidemic’ are an example for how this responsibility is played out on our bodies. The ‘obesity epidemic’ is based on heavily contested studies which proclaim that every individual whose BMI (Body Mass Index) places them in the categories of overweight, obese or morbidly obese is placing themselves and the National Health System at risk, both in terms of health and in economic terms. The publicity surrounding this so-called crisis rarely mentions the fact that the BMI index is an inadequate measure for health, and that an active person with a balanced diet may well be in the obese category without actually being at a greater risk of health than a sentient person with a poor diet who is in the underweight category. Being underweight remains the fashionable ideal, while being overweight is laden with moral stigma. The discourse on the subject – a favourite topic for the media and various health organizations – is a lucrative one for a large number of stakeholders: pharmaceutical companies, plastic surgeons, diet-and weight-loss programmes, food brands etc. They get to be part of the ‘guru’ culture, the religion of the body, which we must have faith in, and – literally – pay ‘homage’ to. Theirs is a discourse that generates anxiety about our bodies, encourages us to be constantly aware and diligent in monitoring our bodies, and re-affirms the belief that a good body is the representation of a good, diligent, morally responsible person.
Moving swiftly with the times, those technologies which are normally associated with a sentient lifestyle have developed ways of tapping into these moral anxieties about our bodies, offering us a way in which we can cure our ‘ailments’ by giving our money to the very companies who created those ‘ailments’ in the first place. The solution to lack of exercise is thus not to go out and play in the park, but rather to spend more money on more technology to keep us fit, healthy, happy, individually responsible. This spoof of the official Wii fit advertisement beautifully illustrates the point.
The echo of this is found in the diet industry, where weight-loss programmes and products are sold to us as a ‘life-style’ by the same companies which have sold us the food that the diets then forbid. Weight-watchers products are sold by Heinz, Slimming World is owned by Unilever.
The genius turn in this is that the individual can be safely kept isolated, which is the only way in which the guilt of failing to achieve unachievable ideals can be maintained. Since the VCR and Jane Fonda’s exercise video, you can now make sure you are a functioning part of society (i.e. keep yourself fit and healthy enough to contribute and not cost), while not actually having to make contact with anybody. And if you fail, you must take responsibility, and blame yourself.
These technologies of the body are sold to us as games, as entertainment, then increasingly as a cure, as part of the obligation to maintain your body (The Wii is now being used in rehab centres). But these consumer-oriented interventions are highly ambivalent. In a dangerously playful manner they embed within our leisure activities a sense of obligation, a constant watchfulness and anxiety towards our bodies. They give us an illusion of control without creative input. My collaborator, the dancer Melanie Simpson, has talked to me about children who are placed in front of a Zumba video for a warm-up, which they follow; no corrections to their execution, no creativity in their movements, simple copying. A good dance teacher will teach dancers to think for themselves, and to move for themselves. None of these technologies will ever do that, and indeed I would argue that they stunt the growth of these creative faculties.
Once again I become aware that the body, as the last bastion of the self, is increasingly being used as a source of income, a measurement of our moral conduct, and a passport for the right to be a legitimate member of society. A Big Society on these terms raises some frightening prospects, as the individual’s body becomes everybody’s business. The Daily Mail proclaimed in October 2011:
Four obese children are on the brink of being permanently removed from their family by social workers after their parents failed to bring their weight under control. In the first case of its kind, their mother and father now face what they call the ‘unbearable’ likelihood of never seeing them again. Their three daughters, aged 11, seven and one, and five-year-old son, will either be ‘fostered without contact’ or adopted.
It is worth thinking about what else underlies the ‘new you’ that these technologies are helping you shape. I do not discard these technologies – they have irreversibly become a part of many of our lives. However, we should never stop questioning how they operate. It is not as simple as just ‘I do this because it makes me feel good’. There is always an underlying social and economic agenda, even when it comes to the most personal aspects of the body. We need to think what the activities of our leisure time and our interaction with technology are doing to our bodies, our identities and our society, and what impact they are having on our role as citizens. Are we being creative, or are we simply following?
As we regard our own bodies, Thatcher’s words from 1987 echo uncomfortably, as she states: ‘There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation’.
Dr Roanna Mitchell (2013 updated) is a movement teacher, movement director, writer and researcher. Her research, based at the University of Kent, examines the body politics involved in training for, and working in, the acting profession.Roanna regularly teaches at the University of Kent, The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and Goldsmiths; she is also artistic director for Susie Orbach’s local-global initiative Endangered Bodies. Recent movement direction includes Richard Schechner’s performance installation Imagining O (2012) in collaboration with Benjamin Mosse, performed at the International Theatre Festival Kerala, India.
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