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"Woman, Red in Tooth and Claw":

Angry Essentialism, Abjection, and Visionary Liberation in Women's Performances

Angry Essentialism, a new trend in feminism that emerged in the 1980s, champions the notion of Female "Nature, red in tooth and claw" as a site constituting power for women. Exploiting the clash between two definitions of "Female Nature," Angry Essentialism reveals a problematic intersection between a variety of feminist and avant-garde ideals. Focusing on the performances and criticism of Karen Finley and Holly Hughes, this study argues that, if Angry Essentialism is to succeed as a feminist practice, it must historicize the image of the abject, angry Woman and interrogate the ideological assumptions that created her.

The introductory chapter describes the processes by which, over the past 2,000 years, Western culture has constructed Woman as the embodiment of chaos, darkness, mystery, and terror. Chapter One then traces a genealogy of Angry Essentialism in the history of feminist performance. Angry Essentialism is a reasonable development in feminism; however, the combination of anger and abjection that characterize Angry Essentialism is difficult to reconcile with earlier approaches. Hence, chapter two examines the influences of the poete maudit, Shamanic, and Dionysian traditions of the avant-garde, which employ physical abjection, anger, and irrationality as weapons for breaking down oppressive ideologies, and as positive creative forces. Although these traditions highlight the liberatory potential of Angry Essentialism for women, feminists must be wary. The female "power" Angry Essentialism reclaims is rooted in eons-old ideologies that construct women as monsters. As a result, a woman employing avant-garde practices in her work risks confirming the abject, "out-of-control" stereotypes that already define her.

Angry Essentialism is equally precarious for critics attempting to formulate it in feminist discourse. Hence, chapter three centers on criticism of Karen Finley to demonstrate that many concepts feminists accept as self-evident turn out to be rooted in the same essentialist ideologies they are trying to deconstruct. The final chapter addresses additional difficulties for critics concerning spectator response, concluding with a discussion of Holly Hughes's work to show that Angry Essentialism can in fact be a materialist feminist practice which dismantles essentialist constructions of Woman for liberatory purposes.


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