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Sculpting the Woman

Muscularity, Power and the Problem with Femininity


Jamilla Rosdahl

What is femininity?

Why does the idea of femininity not seem to «fit» with muscular women?

Why are muscular women the object of such controversy and skepticism?

Why do some women build muscle despite these strong cultural reactions?

Muscular women have long been the focus of public scrutiny, cultural contempt and fascination. Sculpting the Woman interrogates the protected status of femininity as it has been rendered irrelevant to the history, theory and politics of the muscular woman. This highly original and provocative work draws on important social thinkers including Michel Foucault and Judith Butler as well as recent theoretical developments on gender, identity and the body in poststructuralism, psychoanalysis, various feminisms and social and moral philosophy. This book offers a personal insight into one of the most threatening of cultural identities: the «muscular female». Through its analysis of femininity’s complex relationship with muscularity, it explores the larger question: «What is a woman?»

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Chapter 5: What is a Woman?


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What is a Woman?

This chapter opens up the feminine discourse in feminist theory to a critical genealogical analysis. This is undertaken to provide a new conceptual framework oriented towards opening up possibilities for thinking about muscular women and for thinking about femininity as an effect or consequence of a historically specific organisation of sexuality. Within this context, Butler’s (1999) work on Gender Trouble has been very influential. A central concern throughout her writing has been a critical engagement with the notion of gender hierarchy to attempt to explain the conditions for the production of gender. More specifically, Butler’s focus is on a pervasive heterosexual assumption in feminist theory which has made certain presumptions about the meaning of woman. Although some of the theoretical moves in feminist theory have aimed to destabilise a sexual and social order by challenging a normative femininity in contemporary societies, modern feminism has continued to rely on an identity-based theory of the female body which has unintentionally served to reinforce the very binary gender system that it set out to challenge.

Here I show how modern feminist theory, in its critique of a patriarchal system, has relied on certain cultural ideational constructions and representations surrounding the female body and taken them to be somehow pre-cultural and pre-discursive, naturalistic categories specific to the woman’s body. In other words, the will to knowledge in feminist theory has reified particular identities of the feminine that have...

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