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Gender in the MirrorReview - Gender in the Mirror
Cultural Imagery and Women's Agency
by Diana Myers
Oxford University Press, 2002
Review by Marilyn Nissim-Sabat, Ph.D., M.S.W.
Sep 11th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 37)

Diana Myers' Gender in the Mirror is an eloquent, insightful, and sustained plea for feminists to adopt a new, or perhaps more accurately, radically intensify an existing method of combating sexism. The book is an unusually continuous whole—much like an extended essay: all of its chapters, while covering diverse thematic materials, nevertheless bear directly on Myers' central thesis. Additional, more substantive and uniquely valuable aspects of the book will be discussed below, followed by a critical evaluation.

Myers' central thesis concerns what she refers to as cultural "figurations." Figurations are the internal representations of cultural schemas. The author maintains that cultural figurations generate the internal oppression that sustains the status quo. Her view is that feminists should attack the cultural figurations themselves head on. "Feminists", Myers writes, "have discounted the power of the figurational detritus of patriarchal culture too long."  She acknowledges the importance of "progressive institutional changes", e.g., equal opportunity, family-friendly workplaces, battered women shelters, and welfare. Nevertheless, these changes "cannot do the whole job." (189). Such changes must be supported by "a feminist discursive politics aimed at making imagery available to women that would help them shed the bonds of internalized oppression." Concretely, feminists should identify oppressive figurations and put forth counter-figurations that will challenge, and thus aid in overcoming, the oppressive ones.  In Myers' view, oppressive figurations, which serve above all to frustrate women's "agentic needs"(189) must be replaced by non-oppressive figurations. The author is, thus, extremely clear in delineating her main focus: undoing internal oppression. Because intense focus on internal oppression might lend itself to the (in this case incorrect) charge of victim-blaming, Myers stance is, it seems to me, admirably forthright and courageous.

A unique feature of Myers work is that in addition to providing detailed analyses of extant oppressive figurations, some of which will be discussed below, she provides realistic suggestions for viable counter-figurations and means of disseminating the latter.

Consistently with Myers' view that oppressive figurations "impede female autonomy", her book opens with a discussion of agency. The author navigates this issue in terms of feminist voice theory which "must furnish an account of how one gets in touch with oneself and finds one's voice" so that women can stop "lip-synching the ominous baritone of patriarchy" (17). Towards this end, Myers provides an interesting and useful annotated list of agentic skills in order to "provide feminist voice theory with a credible epistemology and to articulate an implicit theory of autonomy" (20). The list includes introspection, memory, communication, imagination, analytic, self-nurturing and other skills.

In Chapter Two, "The Rush to Motherhood: Pronatalist Discourse and Women's Agency," Myers calls into question "culturally transmitted mythologies of rapturous motherhood" that "subsidize this blithe refusal to reflect" (34). The culturally transmitted figurations in question here are those that compromise women's agency by occluding the option of having no children and imposing powerful negative sanctions on those who do opt for no children. Such figurations and sanctions generate the "blithe refusal to reflect," i.e., to consider all options rather than view motherhood as inevitable. Myers' incisive prose clarifies: "... pronatalist discourse... harnesses highly directive enculturation to unconscious processes and protects the resulting psychic structures from change by codifying standard-issue...self-narratives "(46).

Chapters Four (The Family Romance: A Fin-de-Siecle Tragedy) and Five (Lure and Allure: Mirrors, Fugitive Agency, and Exiled Sexuality) are the conceptual and discursive central chapters of the book.

The title of Chapter Four alludes to the Freudian paradigm of familial relations focusing on its implications for girls. Myers maintains that "both feminist therapists and advocates for victims of sexually abused girls have reason to develop alternatives to the family romance" (78); moreover, "it is time to displace the family romance and to replace it with tropes that support feminist emancipatory aims" (80). These quotes should convey to readers of this review the ambition for and determination to achieve liberation that animates Meyers' passionate prose.

Meyers subjects the entire recovered memory debate and its implications for Freudian theory to intensive analysis. In the evolution of Freud's version of the family romance, the fantasy life of girls, according to Myers, is viewed as dominated by fantasies of incestuous love, then incestuous seduction, then sadistic incest. Meyers' aim in this chapter is to move beyond the recovered memory debate that is mired in the: "'Did it happen, or didn't it?'"(79) construal. This debate is an inevitable consequence of the family romance figurations and results in terrible suffering for women who may have no option that would enable them to determine whether or not they were actual victims of incest. Meyer's concludes, however, contrary to some feminists, that "Feminist analysis and activism cannot dispense with memory" (90). Therefore, Myers concludes, feminists must work towards eliminating the trope or figuration known as the family romance. She writes, "...if this trope were taken out of circulation, there would be no more reason to doubt memories of childhood sexual abuse than there is to doubt memories of affectionate paternal nurturance"(92). (Readers of this review should be aware that Myers' discussion in this chapter, which I have drastically truncated, is extremely nuanced and very scholarly. It is an excellent and unique contribution to the recovered memory debate.)

In Chapter Five, Meyers' brings to the fore the trope of the mirror that gives the book its name. In this fascinating and brilliant chapter, double the length of any other of the book's seven chapters, using the myth of Narcissus as an extended trope Myers meticulously analyzes the devastating effect on female agency of culturally constituted figurations of female narcissism and the historical representation of these figurations in images of women and mirrors.  Summarizing her discussion of the history in western culture of psychological and artistic representations of women's narcissim, Meyers points out that

Woman-with-mirror images and narratives of feminine narcissism collapse the self into the mirror. The not psychologically differentiated from that which it represents—the woman. Unlike Narcissus, who believes he is in love with a beautiful, submerged other, women are positioned to believe that they will perish if the image in the glass disappears. (123).

Following this, Myers presents, with pictorial illustrations, a fascinating discussion of counter-representations or refigurations of women-with-mirrors by women artists Mary Cassatt, Carrie May Weems, performance artist Orlan, Claude Cahon, and Sam Taylor Wood.  Myers' interpretation of Cassatt's Women in a Loge is by itself  reason enough to read the book.  Myers concludes her interpretation as follows: "Spacially and psychologically repositioning the mirror in this way refits woman-with-mirror imagery to serve as a vehicle for simultaneously portraying the value women place upon intellectual stimulation and their repudiation of narcissistic frivolity" (130). Concluding this chapter, Myers writes: "...if women are to achieve authentic narcissistic agency, culturally recoding women's narcissistic subjectivity is vital, and feminist artists are showing the way" (146).  


In the first paragraph of this review, I expressed the view that it would be incorrect to evaluate Myers' concern with undoing internal oppression as victim blaming. I meant to indicate thereby that internal oppression is a reality and that developing processes and methods of undoing both present and future internal oppression is essential for any liberatory theory and praxis. Myers' book is a major contribution to this task.

However, in the effort to constitute an efficacious liberatory praxis, it is obviously important to investigate the processes in and through which cultural figurations become internalized and thus constitute internal oppression. Myers assumes, correctly, that such processes of internalization occur; her book is about creating, promulgating, and disseminating alternate tropes that will enable internalization of liberatory counter-figurations. Here again, Myers assumes the existence of processes of internalization of cultural tropes. However, she apparently does not see these processes themselves as potential sites of resistance, or even of comprehending the nature of these processes as an aid to resistance. At least nowhere in the book, with one exception, does she suggest this, even as a research program. The exception is Myers reference to the work of  LaPlance and Pontalis, who characterize original fantasies related to infantile sexuality as taking the form "of skeletal, impersonal, present-tense scenarios....[which] facilitates psychological assimilation of these fantasies" (quoted by Meyers, p. 84).  This statement alone is pregnant with meaning and potential in discerning the processes of internalization. Interest in originary processes of psychological assimilation also leads towards a philosophical-psychological perspective and attitude like that of Husserlian phenomenology.  Moreover a perspective like that of Husserlian phenomenology can preclude charges of relativism. Such charges can be brought against Myers' perspective in that merely substituting one set of internalized cultural figurations for another does not ground the philosophical, political, cultural, ethical, or psychological preferability of one over the other.  While Myers does discuss reasons why she believes that certain figurations are non-oppressive while others are oppressive, the reasoning does not necessarily inhere in the internalization, even if, as Myers maintains, agentic skills leading to willed emotional investment are deployed in the internalization process.  In other words, though Myers calls seriously into question solutions emanating from liberalism, she does not, on the other hand, clearly aver that what is needed is a total transformation of society.  How else can figurations that figure as liberatory praxis maintain their directedness towards liberation unless directed also towards total transformation?   

In her discussion of the cultural figurations and their internalized representatives that cluster around the psychoanalytic phrase "the family romance," Myers confines her discussion of psychoanalysis to Freud. This is problematic for it removes from consideration a nexus of ideational directions that could shed light on the nature of agency.  For contemporary psychoanalysis, for example the relational view of Mitchell, Aron, Benjamin, and others, the movement from the seduction theory to fantasy embedded in psychic reality does not rule out or diminish the role of both father and mother in the etiology of neurosis. This in itself holds out the possibility (actually the process is already well under way in clinical theory) of refiguring the family romance.  Parental failure does not necessarily take the form of overt or covert seductive acts or more attenuated sexually tinged behaviors; psychological abuse, in the form, e.g., of persistent demeaning and attacks on the self of the person can generate such fantasies of incestuous seduction as well.

What is missing from Freud but very much present in contemporary psychoanalytic clinical theory is this: since Freud placed little importance on parental failure in his conception of the etiology of mental disorders, he did not recognize that a good outcome in therapy requires that the client recognize, become aware of, the impact on her of parental failure. It is in and through this recognition that the client can recover her agentic self.  Or, put another way: it is crucial to address the extent to which oppressive cultural figurations are sustained, not only in and through the occlusion of options and suppression of reflection;  in addition to, and in collusion with these,  it is necessary to recognize that the person, under severe adverse pressure, performs an act of inner assent to the demands on her produced by parental failure: this act of inner assent is coeval with self-blame.  

These caveats notwithstanding, Gender in the Mirror is a very, very, fine treatise that should be widely read and discussed.


© 2003 Marilyn Nissim-Sabat


Marilyn Nissim-Sabat, Ph.D., M.S.W., Professor Emeritus, Department of Philosophy, Lewis University, Romeoville, IL , Clinical Social Worker, private practice in psychodynamic psychotherapy, Chicago, IL, Member Executive Board, Assoc. for the Advancement of Philosophy and Psychiatry


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