"The Girl Laboratory": The Gurlesque and Swedish Literature by Maria Margareta Österholm

by on Dec.14, 2012

[When scholarly books are published in Sweden, the authors tend to include a summary written in English. This is the summary of poet/critic Maria Margareta Österholm’s book A Girl Laboratory in Chosen Parts: Skeva Girls in Swedish and Finland Swedish Literature from 1980 to 2005, just published by the brilliant Swedish feminist press Rosenlarv.]

Girlhood is a recurring theme and problem in contemporary Swedish and Finland Swedish literature. The writings of Monika Fagerholm, Mare Kandre and Inger Edelfeldt and many other authors are full of girls not wanting or not being able to be Proper Girls. The literary girls I am writing about do not sit well with heteronormativity and try to tell other stories about girlhood. In my dissertation I explore some of the notions of fe- mininity in literature from 1980 to 2005. In this summary I will mention some of the most important aspects, starting points and elaborations of this book.

This thesis, its thinking and writing, is inspired by a wide range of feminist, queer and aesthetic theory, focusing on femininity. Because of this the very first part is an attempt to situate both the books and theories I use in Swedish debates about literature, fe- minism and femininity from the 1980’s and forth.

A crucial point of departure for me is the collaboration between literature and theory and especially how literature can be seen as theory and a way of creating knowledge. The literary texts in this thesis bring to mind Teresa de Lauretis’s views on feminist writing:

[T]hey also construct figures, at once rhetorical and narrative, that in resisting the logic of those concep- tions, point to another cognition, a reading otherwise of gender, sexuality and race. This is the sense in which these texts »do» feminist theory and are not simply feminist fiction.

I use a variation, hybrid and/or translation of queer – skev in Swedish – in my exploration of how gender is subverted and called in to question. The word skev draws on the original me- aning of queer, strange or twisted; its coinage was influenced by Norwegian and Danish attempts to translate queer. Using skev as a variation and translated hybrid of queer I also hope to capture forms of normativity not strictly tied to sexual desire – taking queer one step further but also back to the original meaning of the word. Skev, as I write about it, is a way to talk about subversive or uncomfortable girlhoods that are not easily pinned down. To elaborate skev as a theoretical notion is one of the aims of the thesis.

In the term gurlesque I found another way of thinking about and beyond proper girlhoods. Gurlesque is a mix of feminism, fe- mininity, the cute, the disgusting and the grotesque. It has everyth- ing to do with being a Riot Grrrl in the nineties and at the same time it’s not a movement or easily defined, says Arielle Greenberg, poet and literary critic who coined the term. She wanted to put a name on something she saw, a way of bringing girls and girliness to the front in literature:

[This style is]…not…limited to this work or this aut- hor, because the particular brand of sensuality/sen- timentality at work here is one which I believe is in the zeitgeist: a »gurlesque» aesthetic, a feminine, femi- nist incorporating of the grotesque and cruel with the spangled and dreamy.

I saw the same thing in literature written in Swedish. When I found the gurlesque I instantly recognized literary girls and texts I had been working with for years and finally I had a name for it. Gurlesque, as I see it, is a way of highlighting some of the more outspoken features of the girlhoods I’m writing about.

The style and form of academic writing has also been im- portant in my dissertation. I wanted the literary worlds and languages of the girls and their texts to be visible in the way I was telling their story. Inspired by the works of Donna Haraway, Laurel Richardson, Rosi Braidotti, Teresa de Lauretis, Annelie Bränström Öhman, Nina Lykke and Mona Livholts amongst others I found ways of letting literature speak into theory, to let literature be theory.

Rhizomatics, as described by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, has been one method of making the text come closer to the litera- ry worlds. In a rhizome things are connected in multiple ways and there is no strict order – mixing, growing, with no beginning and no end. It forms a root system and creates unexpected meetings, bringing seemingly different things together. Rhizomatic writing in this thesis means letting theory and literature play together, shift styles back and forth in the hope of writing something that is queer, or skevt, also when it comes to norms of academic writing.

Thinking in feminist figurations is one method I have used in my aim to illuminate how literature can do theory. Figurations, like Braidotti’s nomadic subject or Haraway’s cyborg, is embo- dying of theory, giving it flesh and form. A figuration is situated in power relations and is a conceptual persona presenting other possibilities, pushing the boundaries of the phallogocentric order. The figurations I have created are inspired by the literary texts I’m writing about and embody different forms of subversive girl- hoods. They are also situated in imaginary places – actually one of them is not a form of girlhood but a room, »The Skeva Girl’s Room». The other two are called »The Skeleton Birds in the Sui- cide Club», based on texts about eating disorders and self harm and »The Monster Girls Outside and in Between», about bodily and mental metamorphoses in the borderlines of dichotomies. The figurations are bound together rhizomatically and as a whole they form a kinship of feminist figurations, obviously related to Haraway’s.3 I dedicate one chapter to each figuration and all of them begin with a text – I call them letters – created with all the chapter’s quotes written in Swedish, a Markov text generator and my own editing. The letters function as a means of giving the figurations voice and space, showing connections, unexpected simi- larities and differences.

The first figuration, and chapter, The Skeleton Birds in the Suicide Club, I devote to literary accounts of eating disorders and self harm. In this chapter the concept of figurations takes on yet an- other meaning. Swedish literary criticism has often treated books about eating disorders as if they were a genre – a genre of low va- lue – no matter how different the books are in form and content. In this case the figuration becomes useful as a different approach. The books do not form a genre but a figuration, I say. And I want to explore the figuration, trying to understand how these books tell stories about girlhood and femininity. Storytelling is an important feature of this chapter. The books, as well as the girls in them, use speech, writing and performativity to become comprehensible but also to subvert the boundaries of femininity and call norms in to question. The performing of sickness in text can be a method of challenging both gender and literary value, creating disorderly bo- dies of text. In this chapter I also discuss eating disorders and lite- rary style as well as the concept of dead beauties.
The second chapter is focused on The Monster Girls Outside and in Between. By monster I mean something in between or/ and beyond dichotomies. Surely that can be said about almost all the skeva literary girls in this thesis but I have mainly chosen to write about the cases where this outside and in betweenness is expressed physically and substantially. The girls in this chapter grow hair like Rapunzel, turn into animals or have different kinds of hairy and furry doppelgangers or twins – some of them fully visible to the outside world, some not. The monster girls are blur- ring the lines of femininity when it comes to looks as well as emo- tions. To be or to have a monster often means to struggle with a feeling of being too much in many senses as well as using hyper- bole as a subverting tool. Many older notions about monsters are built upon heteronormative, racist, sexist and classist norms. My monster girls are related to these monsters of respectability but tell a different kind of story. The monster girls are not causing fear but rather sympathy, love and possibilities to imagine a life outside and in the middle of strict lines of gender and even the concept of humanity.
In the third chapter the figuration is not a form of girlhood but a place: The Skeva Girls’s Room. Here I explore the girl room in both imagination and as a space in the world. I use Michel Foucault’s ideas about heterotopias, a form of other-spaces, mental and physical at the same time. The room that girls inhabit can be seen as an entrapment but it can also be a room of one’s own, a kind of dream world with its own set of rules and a sense of freedom. In this chapter I write about girls creating rooms of their own through play, dolls, imagination and writing. Some of them also use silence as a way of creating a space of their own. Silence does not equal passivity and a few of the literary girls use it as a form of stubborn rebellion. In contrast with the girls in ear- lier chapters many of the girls here are not by themselves, their rooms are made up of friendships. The rooms I see in these books are almost always of short duration and often they come to an unhappy end. But, I ask, is a happy end mandatory in feminist or queer fiction? The girls tell different stories about girlhoods and thus they change how the world – in fiction and beyond – perceives them. Doll play, diaries and BFFs made of plastic, flesh or text has taken on meanings that differ from perceptions of girls as well as ideas about what counts as feminist and subversive.

In the concluding chapter I discuss how the figurations of skeva girlhoods are important for feminist theory and politics, returning to the question of the rhizomatic roots connecting literature and theory. The girl figurations are opening up spaces for trying to think femininity beyond the heteronormative order, about girls comparing, desiring, and twisting each other and other forms of girlhoods. In the developing of skev I want to emphasize that it is not a category or a label you can easily put on a literary girl. Even the girls that seem to be proper and behave accordingly turn out to be uncomfortable and rebellious in many senses. Skev has made me see normativities,emotions and resistances that cannot be co- vered by queer or for example the concept of intersectionality. Skev has provided a name for a feeling of anxiety and struggle as well as pride – forming versions of girlhood that feminism is just starting to take into account. My literary girls are part of a move- ment in literature, art, and theory – with blurry lines in time and expression – trying to think stories about femininity in gurlesque, queer and revolting fashions.

3 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    This is super interesting.

    “Doll play, diaries and BFFs made of plastic, flesh or text has taken on meanings that differ from perceptions of girls as well as ideas about what counts as feminist and subversive.” I like this idea a lot: it reminds me of the post Megan wrote a few months back about dolls in art projects and film.

    Does Osterholm have any poems in translation? I did a Google search but couldn’t find any.


  2. Megan Milks

    really want to read this book, esp the chapter on literary accounts of eating disorders and self harm. any chance of an english translation ever? sadface.

    speaking of dolls, The Memoirs of Jonbenet by Kathy Acker by Michael Du Plessis, out recently on Les Figues, is full of them. just finished it (reviewing it for tarpaulin sky) – so fun. more soon!