I was late to arrive to the latest version of Star Trek (2009) but, what I did discover when I saw it was that the narrative of the marked body has, disappointedly, not changed. In the latest installment, the Romulans, an alien race, are made known of their antagonistic position through, among other things, the tattoos which cover their faces.
Hollywood’s tendency to depict the marked body, the injured, scarred, or tattooed body, as antagonistic is not without its lineage. Robert Bogdan begins his book, Freak Show, with a reference to how most Disney movies use a distinguishable mark (or, in some cases, a physical disability) to visually assert a character’s evil nature (think Scar from The Lion King and Captain Hook from Peter Pan).
After watching Star Trek, I am left demanding: why is negativity of personhood conflated with bodily marks or deformities? Disability theorist Paul Longmore asks a similar question in the way cinema portrays disabilities. I acknowledge the importance of this work, and I cannot help but return to the skin.
Skin is indeed a place where bodily conversations take place. Skin records and offers narratives in a vocal, pronounced way. The ways in which Hollywood portrays marked flesh, in turn labeling the character who bears it as abject, is unrelenting. The root of this narrative mingles with the beauty discourse’s mythic perpetuation of pure, unmarked skin as the ideal. Within this discourse, the abject becomes that which disciplines, that which threatens and demands bodily uniformity.
Feminist photographer Jo Spence boldly denies this rigid and unrelenting standard in her photography. Upon the completion of her mastectomy, Spence refused reconstructive surgery. Subsequently, nude photographs of her body became the focus of much of her work. Presenting her body post-mastectomy is an act which at once contests the status of abjection that is relegated to the marked body. Spence’s act disrupts the power dynamic in that she presents a body objecting to being the abject. I view Spence’s work as a direct challenge to the repetitive
display of marked and scarred bodies as Other. We are made privy to the space and scar that is left behind by the scalpel. A position that hegemony would traditionally dictate as victimhood (here, readings about what the breast, and a lack thereof, signifies for essential femininity abounds) is strategically juxtaposed with the sign Spence carries which reads, “Victim?”
The question mark asks us to reconsider, to re-examine the immediate correlation between scars and personhood. Here, we return to what I found most frustrating with the portrayal of Otherness in Star Trek (2009): it drew upon the tired visual trope that renders the marked body as morally corrupt, dangerous, and horrid. Spence provides us an alternative, one which repositions the mark as transformative. The pinkness of raised flesh is determined beautiful, as worth capturing on camera.