Anatomy of a Mermaid: Subverting the performative image of the pregnant woman
Author: Adriana Páramo Pérez
Format: Video Essay
Duration: 9′ 7″
Published: February 2021
In the play Anatomía dunha serea Galician actress Iria Pinheiro uses parody to share the experiences of obstetric violence she went through during and after childbirth. Humour has been commonly used in films to portray pregnant women. However, this has helped to perpetuate a performative image of this experience rather than subverting the imaginary. I filmed Pinheiro’s play and creative process to look at how she uses parody to subvert the portrayals of the pregnant woman and, with this paper and video essay I aim to open up a conversation about how to portray this uncomfortable topic on screen.
How does the play Anatomy of a Mermaid use parody to subvert the performative image of the pregnant woman?
How can I portrayed this on the screen?
Iria Pinheiro, prior to creating the play, started by thinking how the image of the pregnant woman that exists in society is mostly constructed through the ideas we get from films. I explore how the play Anatomía dunha serea is subverting this, specifically how Pinheiro uses parody to recount her traumatic experience, and how I might use my practice to tell her story.
In the play Anatomía dunha serea / Anatomy of a mermaid (2018) Galician actress Iria Pinheiro performs the experiences of obstetric violence she went through during labour. The episiotomy that was practised on her caused her injuries for more than two years not allowing her to perform daily life activities. She was discouraged from starting a lawsuit against the Spanish National Health System by her lawyer as there had never been a successful case before. Therefore, the actress decided to overcome her physical and emotional pain through creative practice by devising the theatre play.
Although it is not within the scope of this analysis to explore how obstetric violence comes into place, to better understand the disruptive nature of the play I will refer to a few details that draw on the unconformity around this subject. In 2007 Venezuela became the first country in defining by law obstetric violence, understood as the appropriation of a woman’s body and her reproductive processes by medical staff through abusive practices that result in the woman’s loss of autonomy (Asamblea Nacional de la República Bolivariana de Venezuela, 2007). The existence of this type of violence in Spain is still being called into question, as argued by the Spanish Society of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians in an Email to David Gómez (SEGO, 2018) that described it as an unacceptable scientific concept. In addition to this, as recently as 2020 the UN condemned for the first time a case of obstetric violence, which happened to occur in Galicia (Spain), after a judicial process of 11 years.
Anatomía dunha serea is an autobiographical theatre play and should be understood within the context of documentary theatre in Spain. This term encompasses plays of a variety of types but they all draw from factual sources and have a socio-political nature. In order to fully understand the importance of Pinheiro’s performance within documentary theatre practice in Spain, I will contextualise how this play was born. Anatomía dunha serea was made as part of ‘A Berberecheira’, a lab by theatre company Chévere, created as part of the Spanish National Theatre Award (2014). The company, based in Galicia (northwest Spain), has been active for over 30 years creating plays known for their social nature and the use of subversive humour. ‘A Berberecheira’ was a unique and disruptive project in the Galician theatre scene between 2016 and 2019, born to develop projects by people outside the company that otherwise would not have the means to do so within the constraints of the Galician theatre context (Chévere, 2019, p.8). Furthermore, it meant another step in Chévere’s documentary theatre practice, which they developed since Testosterona in 2007, putting the focus on autobiographical plays. Anatomía dunha serea was the third and last project created within the lab, the only one by a woman, and the first time that Chévere portrayed the topic of obstetric violence. Anatomía dunha serea would not have been possible without ‘A Berberecheira’ lab. The play is a one-hour long monologue recounting Pinheiro’s traumatic story using mainly scenes of parody. Not only did Chévere back Pinheiro’s experience of obstetric violence – a topic we’ve seen is found controversial in society – but they also encouraged the use of humour as a device to make social and political claims.
Chévere Theatre Company and actress Pinheiro gave me full access to follow their creative process as part of my investigation. I filmed them for over three months including script writing sessions, rehearsals and the premiere. After having had a look at the material, I realised they used parody to depict a very different image of the pregnant body from what we would usually see in films. I decided to start my video essay with a compilation of clips from films that use parody to portray women giving birth to then compare these to three scenes from the play that show parody as used as a disruptive device.
Parody is commonly understood as a comic device that imitates and exaggerates. Scholars (Hutcheon, 1985; Dane, 1988; Phiddian, 1997) agree that parody exaggerates existing models with the critical purpose of deconstructing reality and giving new meanings to performative elements. However, as Butler argues parody is not always subversive:
There must be a way to understand what makes certain kinds of parodic repetitions effectively disruptive, truly troubling, and which repetitions become domesticated and recirculated as instruments of cultural hegemony…What kind of gender performance will enact and reveal the performativity of gender itself in a way that destabilizes the naturalized categories of identity and desire? (1990, p. 139)
The representation of labour in comedy films has repeatedly and consistently offered an inaccurate representation of reality, contributing to, creating and repeating a stereotyped portrayal of the pregnant woman. Activist and writer Jesusa Ricoy Olariaga (2018) states that films have often helped to perpetuate the performative image of the pregnancy experience. In her childbirth classes she asks the group to list all the ideas they get from films around child birthing. Her conclusion from doing this exercise over time is that – through films – the image that society has of child birthing is that of a pathological and dangerous event in which the mother acts selfishly and hysterically (p.76).
I argue that parody in the play Anatomía dunha serea is indeed subversive because it takes the gendered performative experience of the pregnant woman and resignifies it, disrupting the image of the pregnant experience that has been perpetuated.
I take three parody scenes from the play to illustrate why parody here is disruptive. I juxtapose the labour scene in the film Knocked Up (2007) with the parody Pinheiro does of this in rehearsals (this scene would not be included in the final play but I consider it relevant to study it here). Katherine’s Heigl character in Knocked Up is ridiculing the ‘pregnant woman’ experience whilst Pinheiro is ridiculing the portrayal of the pregnant woman that has been perpetuated through films. Pinheiro identifies performative elements being perpetuated – that are also mentioned by Ricoy Olariaga (2018) – such as infantilization, hysteria and fear and exaggerates them to create disruption.
The two other scenes I include in the video essay take the subversive nature of parody forward by introducing dark humour that according to Ron (in personal communication, 11 February 2020) confronts the audience more directly than parody. Pinheiro performs the moment of her delivery by recreating a puppetry show. Here, she uses the puppets to impersonate the medical staff and turns the moment of her labour into a parody by exaggerating their behaviours. She introduces dark humour as she places herself as a puppet helped by the position she is in on the stretcher, hyperbolising how she was dispossessed of her own control in the moment of the delivery. The last scene is a parody of a teleshopping segment in which Pinheiro gives an exaggerated performative portrayal of an obstetrician as if he was a TV presenter. Here, dark humour comes into place as the banality of such TV spaces is used to explain how the obstetric tools are used on the female body, and specifically on her own.
On a theoretical level, the video essay contributes to performance and feminist humour studies as I explore how Pinheiro’s performance creates disruption through parody, opening up the creation of other portrayals. It also contributes to understanding the relevance of Chévere’s documentary theatre practice in Spain and their role in enabling Pinheiro making this play. In terms of practice, the video essay shows how emotion can be used to think critically, and I will now expand on this.
Bertol Brecht was one of the pioneers in creating documentary theatre plays. He was opposed to the theatre that was being produced at the time and defined it as ‘culinary’ (Brecht, 1964, p.35) because it provoked entertainment and relief just like food did. Instead, he believed theatre should not entertain but should help to think critically. Similarly, to Brecht filmmaker Jill Godmilow sees traditional documentaries as ‘pornography of the real’ (Godmilow, 2002) because they place people as voyeurs getting pleasure from other subjects’ suffering instead of providing the key to understanding how a reality is constructed. By using parody, the play Anatomía dunha serea does not make the audience ‘weep’ (Godmilow, 2017) and at the same time does not fall into being mere entertainment as it challenges the audience to think about reality anew. In this way, I reflected on how I could approach my practice to enable critical thinking. Following Brecht and Gomilow’s ideas I did not want to exploit traumatic events. Instead, I filmed Pinheiro’s creative process to let the performance drive the story. However, during the filming Pinheiro did share with me the emotional journey she went through when experiencing obstetric violence. I realised I was not able to portray Pinheiro’s story without empathising with her emotionally. Precisely for this, her story had an impact on me as a woman and as a filmmaker. It changed my perspective on the idea of childbearing, and I wanted to contribute rethinking how the pregnant woman has been portrayed in films as well as in society. Contrary to Brecht and Godmilow’s ideas engaging emotionally helped me in the process of wanting to know more about how reality is constructed.
Video Essay presented at Conferences:
Screening Violence Conference by Coventry University, 2019.
Annual Conference Association of Hispanists in Great Britain 2020 (postponed to 2021 and online due to COVID-19).
Film Festivals (A work in progress version of the documentary was presented at):
Women at the Centre Film Festival, as part of the International Papilomavirus Conference 2020 (online due to COVID-19).
In my video essay I show how the play Anatomía dunha serea uses parody to resignify the pregnant body. As a filmmaker I attempted to put the focus on Iria Pinheiro’s creative work rather than on her emotional process. However, Pinheiro’s story had an impact on me as a woman and, as I was filming, my own personal journey started. This is why I decided to insert myself in the video essay.
Professor Grant (2013) says about the video essay ‘we are not only producing new knowledge but we are expanding what that might be. And I think it does involve affect, feeling, emotion’. When I interviewed Pinheiro (18 September 2018), she shared with me that she went into labour at 38 years old being ignorant about her body and enabling abusive situations without even realising. Although her story showed me how traumatic labour could be I felt enraged that something similar could happen to me and I had a growing desire to know more about this reality. I felt enraged that something similar could happen to me and I realised that this video essay, which started as an analysis on subverting the image of the pregnant woman, was developing into something more personal. I decided to film myself exploring how to best portray my body; looking directly at the lenses, reflecting myself on a mirror and using hand paint as an intermediary device. By filming this visual process, I wanted to reflect on how the play affected me internally, changing my views on childbearing and how I see myself as a woman. Although Pinheiro’s story showed me how traumatic labour could be I felt I had a growing desire to know more about my body and to contribute to stop abusive situations from being normalised.
The play’s journey shows there is a need to talk about the pregnant experience in a way that we are not used to. Anatomía dunha serea went on to win the 2019 Galician Theatre Award Maria Casares for best playwright and performance, it toured around several Spanish cities and Pinheiro got invited to numerous talks on obstetric violence at educational institutions. However, in the interview I conducted with Pinheiro (18 September 2018), she states that the goal of the play was ultimately to contribute to creating a law that would regulate obstetric violence in Spain. In the same way, I see the video essay can also turn into something more transcendent. I would like to create a documentary on Pinheiro’s work and story to engage audiences outside Academia and continue the conversation about how abusive situations around the pregnant body have come to be normalised. I see the documentary as another piece in the string to make visible the need to change policies in the public health and judicial systems and eventually shift perspectives in society.
Asamblea Nacional República Bolivariana de Venezuela (2007) Ley orgánica sobre el derecho de las mujeres a una vida digna libre de violencia. No 38.668. Gaceta Oficial de la república bolivariana de Venezuela. Available at: https://www.acnur.org/fileadmin/Documentos/BDL/2008/6604.pdf [Accessed 3 March 2020].
Brecht, B. (1964) Brecht on theatre: the development of an aesthetic. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Butler, J. (1990) Gender trouble, London: Routledge.
Chévere (2019) A Berberecheira: laboratorio de creación escénica de Chévere. Santiago de Compostela: Chévere Theatre Group.
Dane, J. A. (1988) Parody: critical concepts versus literary practices, aristophanes to sterne, pp. vii-261. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press.
Godmilow, J. (2017) Reels for radicals Screening: Post Realist Film Night with Jill Godmilow. New York: A.J. Muste Institute. Available at: https://vimeo.com/225196187 [Accessed: 17th December 2018].
Godmilow, J. (2002) ‘Kill the documentary as we know it’, Journal of Film and Video, 54 (2/3), pp. 3-10. University of Illinois Press on behalf of the University Film & Video Association. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20688376 [Accessed: 23 December 2018].
Grant, C. (2013) ‘How long is a piece of string? On the practice, scope and value of videographic film studies and criticism’, Audiovisual Essay Conference, Frankfurt, Germany, 23-24 November. Available at: reframe.sussex.ac.uk/audiovisualessay/frankfurt-papers/catherine-grant/ [Accessed: 20 March 2018].
Hutcheon, L. (1985) A Theory of Parody. The Teachings of Twentieth-century Art Forms. New York : Methuen.
Mulvey, L. (1975) ‘Visual pleasure and narrative cinema’. Screen 16(3), pp 6-18. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/screen/article-abstract/16/3/6/1603296?redirectedFrom=fulltext [Accessed: 15 February 2018].
Ocampo, E. (2020) ‘La ONU “condena” el maltrato en el parto de una gallega’. El Faro de Vigo, 11 March.
Phiddian, R. (1997) ‘Are parody and deconstruction secretly the same thing?’. New Literary History. Philosophical Thoughts. 28 (4) Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/20057449 [Accessed 20 March 2020].
Ricoy Olariaga, J. (2018) Partos de película. Mujeres de ciencia ficción. Isla de San Borondón: Liliputienses.
SEGO (2018) Email from Sociedad Española de Ginecología y Obstetricia / Spanish Society of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (SEGO) to D. Goméz (gynaecologist at the Complexo Hospitalario Universitario de Ourense and member of the board of the Psychosomatics Section). Available at: https://us18.campaign-archive.com/?e=e52bacb293&u=fbf1db3cf76a76d43c634a0e7&id=5a73a608b8 [Accessed on 4 April 2020].
FILMS FEATURED IN THE VIDEO ESSAY
Baby Mama (Michael McCullers, 2008, Universal)
Friends 8×24 (Keving Bright, 2002, Warner Bros)
How to be single (Christian Ditter, 2016, Warner Bros)
Knocked Up (Judd Appatow, 2007, Universal)
Lethal Weapon 4 (Ricard Donner, 1998, Warner Bros)
Nine Months (Chris Colombus, 1995, 20th Century Fox)
What to Expect When You Are Expecting (Kirk Junes, 2012, Lionsgate)
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement
This is an interesting and provocative meditation on childbirth structured around Anatomía dunha serea (2018) (Anatomy of a Mermaid) created by the Galician actress
Iria Pinheiro. Focusing on a more specific aspect of popular representations of women and the body – primarily addressing the act of childbirth and the cliches of ‘hysterical’ behaviour frequently perpetuated around this – the piece becomes a launching pad for exploring broader issues of the macro and micro aggressions that have been aimed at women’s bodies, as well as for considering issues of appropriation and medicalization.
The short film is thought provoking, with well-chosen clips to illustrate the project’s primary concerns in a manner both entertaining and potentially disturbing. The material with Pinheiro (performance and interview) further highlights the interventions of the theatrical work and ideas behind it.
Issues for revision relate to writing and expression (both in the research piece and in the film’s titles), which will be addressed separately. I would suggest working closely with the journal’s editorial team. In terms of broader conceptual issues, there might be a slippage at times in the research statement between images and stereotypes of the pregnant woman and representations and popular scenes of childbirth. It would help to differentiate these terms when they appear, as necessary, since they are not always quite the same thing in representation (for example, the opposite and equally problematic image of pregnancy as a Madonna figure). It would also be helpful to further elaborate on processes of ‘answering’ or speaking back to popular cliches as a means for reclamation or re-appropriation of stereotypes – stressing the ways that parody becomes a political act and seemingly ‘neutral’ or even ‘comic’ images of childbirth are reframed, therefore exposed here for their culturally constructed and politicized nature. I would also suggest adding a conclusion to the written element, in order to bring the key themes, research questions, and broader aims of the project full circle.
In all, a piece that addresses an important but critically neglected and therefore still largely ‘invisible’ problem in women’s representations.
Review 2: Invite resubmission with major revisions of practical work and/or written statement.
This video essay provides a valuable document of the performance Anatomy of a Mermaid by Berberecheira Lab. The video essay locates the performance within an appropriate scholarly and cultural context, ensuring that the research aims of the production are foregrounded; this is enhanced by the detailed research statement from the film-maker/scholar, which contextualises the play further. The video essay gives an insight into both the performance and the creative process, as well as providing an analysis of the use of parody as a means of subverting dominant narratives around childbirth. The video essay is engaging and enhanced by a clear aesthetic and evocative soundtrack. It is hard to see what the research aims are for the video essay as a distinct research output in its own right, instead this film and research statement serve as a very useful document and contextualisation of a project undertaken by Berberecheira Lab. As a document rather than a research output, this film still has significant academic value and is a good fit with Screenworks’ stated aim to publish “practice research that produces new knowledge in Communication, Media and Cultural Studies, Art and Design, Performing Arts and related fields”. The juxtaposition of extracts from mainstream cinematic portrayals of childbirth with the rehearsal footage of re-enactments of these scenes by Pinheiro, and the quotes from Ricoy and Butler, serve to highlight the performative power of parody as deployed within Anatomy of a Mermaid.
The film-maker states, both within the research statement and in the closing moments of the video essay, that she changed her own perceptions around obstetric practices as a result of her exploration of Anatomy of a Mermaid. It would be useful for the film-maker to expand more on her own subjectivity in relation to the work and this could be a very fruitful area for development in her proposed future projects. The research statement explores the position of the viewer and the role of documentary, particularly in relation to Godmilow’s exposition on the role of documentary film ‘outside the pornography of the real’ but there is no clear exploration of this within the video essay and no in-depth analysis of the implications of this position within the research statement; as a result, this element of the research statement appears to be very under-developed.
On a minor note, more care needs to be taken with the writing in both the research statement and the titling/subtitling of the film.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.