I See You – Alicja Żebrowska: The Mystery is Looking

In a time when body dysmorphic disorder fuelled by online pornography, strict Western fashion trends, and specific perceptions of beauty motivate more and more (completely healthy) young women to undergo female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS)[1] Alicja Żebrowska’s 1995 film The Mystery is Looking truly deserves to be called must see. In less than two minutes Żebrowska’s witty piece addresses such complex issues as the externally imposed vision of beauty or the assumption that “motherhood is intrinsic to adult female identity”.[2] With a playful twist Żebrowska shifts power from the phallic male gaze to the traditionally silent and sightless vagina.

In her 2015 Guardian article[3] Syreeta McFadden contemplated the issue of the representation of female genitalia on Greek and Roman statues. Her main concern was that while there are many different, diverse representations of penises: “curled and flaccid, pert and alert, balls dropped and shrunken”, there are no vulvas, no protruding labia. Besides a few “modest dents around the pelvic bones of the statues” there is no suggestion that vaginas existed.  Referring to Jane Caputi’s 2004 book Goddesses and Monsters: Woman, Myth, Power and Popular Culture, she states that “while the phallus is deified, its female symbolic equivalent […] is everywhere stigmatized.” The patriarchal cultural notion of femininity did not and does not allow the vagina to be openly shown as it is cast as profane, obscene, and ugly. Even sexualized woman are expected to discreetly cover their vulvas and let men unfold them when they are ready to take them into their possession. By opening the vagina’s eye Żebrowska immediately overwrites this dominant cultural code and confronts the viewer with the deceptive quality of the traditional connotation.

Żebrowska’s desire to deconstruct the fake myths surrounding the female genitalia has antecedents among female moving image artists. Carolee Schneemann notorious for her boundary-breaking art practice and its challenges of canonized misconceptions around the female body, never hesitated to put the vagina center stage. By giving the vulva (most frequently her very own) different roles, she forced the viewer to rethink his limited views of what female genitalia “was supposed to be”. In her Interior Scroll performance piece first presented in 1975 she pulls a small, folded paper scroll from her vagina while reading a text aloud (Kitch’s Last Meal, 1973-76). Her performance was interpreted as an outraged protest “at the ways in which explicit films made by women continued to be pigeonholed and reduced to “erotic films” consumed by men.”[4] By incorporating numerous images of vaginal opening, clitori and oral pleasure, Barbara Hammer’s Multiple Orgasm (1976) returns the power to woman to control and enjoy her own sexuality. Among many others these films question gendered behaviours that have been assigned to women and overwrite stereotyped images of the female body, whose unrealistic and even dangerous[5] representation of feminine beauty has had a powerful impact on the way women see themselves.

While Żebrowska’s The Mystery is Looking definitely follows in the footsteps of the these international moving image artists, it also refers to a specific Polish issue from the early nineties: the abortion ban and its influence on education, gender roles, and body representation. Following the announcement of the ban, a decision of the Ministry of Education introduced religious instruction in schools and in 1992 parliament passed the Respect for Christian Values in Mass Media Act.[6] This rhetoric, deeply rooted in Catholicism, represented a sexual authoritarianism that was “justified by a biological perception of sexual differences: nature determines gender and sexuality and thus they are not subject to any public deliberation”[7] Any deviation from the norm was regarded illegal and cause for social ostracism. Żebrowska’s film (along with her previous work, Original Sin, 1994) is a declaration of war against the repressive power of the government. With these morally subversive images, she destroys the fake narratives defining female sexuality and by sharing her own sexual vision she restores a segment of endlessly diverse reality.

When giving birth to an artificial eye, Żebrowska also urges the viewer to separate motherhood from female identity. The assumption that motherhood is intrinsic to adult female identity implies an absence for any woman who by choice or by chance is not a mother.[8] Therefore one cannot and should not accept the belief that a woman must become a mother to fulfil female adulthood. By showing her whole naked body, her legs pulled up with the glass eye staring at the viewer from her vagina, Żebrowska calls out the Church’s rules for sexual restraint and mocks its message regarding giving birth as a duty for women. The setting emphasizes the idea that “women who are not mothers have their own creative spirits to birth and bring into the world”[9] and for this they should not be condemned or judged.

Even though her subversive, maybe even bizarre images are have their own witty humor, the initial nervousness and discomfort caused by the film’s grotesque imagery pushes the viewer towards introspection. Why does one find the images repelling or obscene? Why does one shy away from an eerie metamorphosed vagina? Would a dolled-up penis trigger the same reaction? Then again why is it more upsetting to see a close up of a female genitalia?

Żebrowska’s Mystery of Looking is indeed a must see work in the 21st century Western societies where the convention of the female body being an object of male desire still prevails. Not only does it influence the media representation of women but also leaves its mark on education. In most countries it is still extremely hard to find a reliable source of information on the vulva and young women are pressured by the aggressive imagery surrounding them. Together these forces transmit and support impossible and fake ideals, causing many women to develop body image issues. Żebrowska’s thought-provoking, yet decodeable and even funny moving image develops a more diverse image of the vagina and contributes to the deconstruction of the false idea of the “normal” form.

Written by Dorottya Szalay
English proofreader: Johannes Wachs

View film online at Filmoteka Muzeum

[1] Simonis M, Manocha R and Ong JJ (2016) “Female genital cosmetic surgery: a cross-sectional survey exploring knowledge, attitude and practice of general practitioners”, BMJ Open, June/2016
[2] Morisson, Valérie (2012) “Women’s art in Ireland an

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