584: Weekly Position Paper #11: Questioning the Private Body

Three essays in Freedman and Holmes’s collection The Teacher’s Body: Embodiment, Authority, and Identity in the Academy center around pregnancy. All three essays call into question dominant narratives and conceptions surrounding pregnant bodies. Noting the dis-ease of others around her pregnancy, Amy Spangle Gerald explores how being pregnant affects her authority as a teacher and scholar, arguing that it’s important for pregnant teachers to talk about pregnancy in the classroom. Kimberly Wallace-Sanders explores pregnancy through the lens of the public-private distinction, exploring how a pregnant body erodes this distinction, making her private life public. Allison Griffon extends Wallace-Sanders’s focus on the public/private dichotomy by noting the ways in which pregnancy reinforces certain normative heterosexual scripts.

Griffon’s discussion in particular helps us to understand the ways in which privacy, including the privacy of our bodies, is publicly mediated. She questions her own complacency in the narrative that women can be successful despite pregnancy (203) as well as the normative heterosexual narratives that she works in. Citing Robyn Wiegman’s “On Being Married to the Institution,” she notes that public enactments of family-making, such as pregnancy, exclude certain kinds of experience and have a certain privilege of being legitimate in public (205). This is a nuance missed by Wallace-Sanders, who rightfully sees pregnancy as disrupting the norms of the public/private distinction but overlooks the ways in which her body is already public. She writes that “My body threatened to reveal my secret and make my private life public” (190) and that she, her husband, and their expected baby “were becoming a family—in public” (189). These statements imply that our bodies and families are a priori private until a woman becomes pregnant. What Wallace-Sanders misses that she was already becoming a family in public: dates, engagement, marriage are all public in many ways. The ability to have a family in public is predicated on the heterosexual privilege to claim that your family is a private matter—a privilege that Griffon understands is not available to many in society.

My point here isn’t to simply point out Wallace-Sanders’s heterosexist assumptions about privacy, but rather to call into question the humanist notion of a private body altogether. Other essays in this collection give us hints that privacy is publicly mediated: certain diseases is disabilities are private because of public shaming, while others are forced to be public because of visibility; students interact with teacher’s bodies differently, respecting bodily boundaries differently based on perceived sexuality, for example.

This entry was posted in English 584 Rhetoric Writing and Identity (Fall 2008), Feminism, Gender, Privacy, Queer issues and theory. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 584: Weekly Position Paper #11: Questioning the Private Body

  1. Chris says:

    I’m curious why you say that “family as a private matter” is a heterosexual privilege. I’d say that, at least until recently, it’s been the normal expectation that non-heterosexual families *must* keep their family matters private.

  2. Michael says:

    Chris, I agree with you that non-heterosexuals *must* keep their family matters private.

    What I’m trying to say, though not so clearly, probably, is this:

    First, that family-making is never fully private; it is mediated by public discourse, and families are created in public spaces: date, weddings, pregnancies, child education, and so forth.

    Second, Heterosexual families can appeal to privacy while in public and expect to be perceived as private. Non-heterosexual couples who are trying to create a family do not have the privilege of saying, and in effect making, their families a private matter. I’m speaking, of course, in very broad strokes.

    Examples: A heterosexual couple holds hand in public. No one bats an eye — it is a private relationship held in public and seen as private. A homosexual couple holds hand in public, and it can never be perceived/seen as private.

    A heterosexual couple has a child and enrolls them in school. The goings on of the family are still perceived as private, and the school does not care about the family. A homosexual couple has a child and enrolls them in school. Now, this is a public concern.

    Put simply, non-heterosexual families must lay claim to privacy in order to protect themselves, but this claim will most often fail, because they are constantly under public scrutiny (again, broad strokes). It’s a privilege to lay claim to a private family and not be concerned about publicity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *