Trapped by Sight

I recently read an article (link below) that explores the relationship to the current chart-topper “Blurred Lines” video, and its use of nude female models, with the history of art that, for hundreds of years, has expressed the beauty of the nude female. In this article was a quote from art theorist John Berger: “men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at[…] The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”


With this quote in mind, along with the reader of Butler, I was drawn to the segment of chapter 14 where Reno is left to wander the Valera house by herself while the Valera’s go to a meeting. “I looked up at the portrait of the grandfather. He was trapped in a never-ending vigil up on the wall. I felt like we had that in common, somehow. The predicament of being trapped” (Kushner 257). With this quote, snuck in at the end of a paragraph in the middle of the chapter, we get the start of an answer as to why Kushner chose to include the Valera chapters in this book. “That the body is a set of possibilities signifies (a) that its appearance in the world, for perception, is not predetermined by some manner of of interior essence, and (b) that its concrete expression in the world must be understood as the taking up and rendering specific of a set of historical possibilities[…] The body is not a self-identical or merely factic materiality; it is a materiality that bears meaning” (Butler 521). For “The Flamethrowers,” the chapters about Valera are meant as an actual concrete expression of a life lived, to contrast the chapters about Reno and her malleable state of self – a life in movement. However, in this scene, we see that Reno does not see herself in this way, that for her, her role in her own life is just as static, as unmovable, as the life of Valera. This reveals to the reader that, despite her artistic intents and the unconventional company with which she keeps, that Reno still feels herself held to that gender role of what “woman” is in relation to the men around her; making herself believe that she is, like the painting of Valera’s grandfather, an object to be viewed.


Something that I am still trying to interpret is the purpose of including Reno’s inability to relate Valera’s mother’s cruelty with “femininity and its rituals” (Kushner 257) in the same paragraph involving the quote above.

2 comments on “Trapped by Sight

  1. I’m interested in two aspects of your post because I had slightly different initial reactions to both Reno’s feeling of being “trapped” like Valera in the painting and to her statement about not associating Sandro’s mother’s cruelty with “femininity and its rituals.” Your ideas have made me re-think mine, so I thought I’d share mine with you as well.

    You relate Reno’s “predicament of being trapped” to her gender role, and while I certainly see gender as a force that could be restricting Reno now that you’ve mentioned it, my initial reaction to the statement was to assume that Reno might be more restricted by her seemingly aimless wandering through her artistic life. She doesn’t seem to have a focus, and that’s the first thing that I thought of when she said that she felt trapped just like the Valera in the portrait. I immediately felt that she must have been referring to being trapped in a life with Sandro where she doesn’t have full control of her own endeavors – especially what type of art she wishes to create. Sandro helps to push her in various directions, and even when she makes her own choices (like going to Italy), his influence is constant (he goes with her to Italy, they stay with his family, he advises her on how to create the art). She’s not really independent. So, I suppose this is very easily relatable to her role as female. Your ideas have brought me around to the same conclusion.

    Still, I want to focus more on what Reno says about the portrait. She says Valera is “trapped in a never-ending vigil” (257), and then she says they have that in common and clarifies that she means that they have “the predicament of being trapped” in common. But why does she use the word vigil? It’s clear in regards to the portrait: Valera in the portrait is always awake; his eyes can’t close – he just stares. But how is Reno in a “never-ending vigil”? She may be trapped by her gender role or by her art, but why does she feel as though she can never sleep? What’s keeping her in a “vigil” like the portrait?

    The other instance in which I had a slightly different interpretation than yours was in regards to Sandro’s mother’s cruelty and its relation to “femininity and its rituals.” I found it interesting that you asked about Reno’s “inability” to relate Sandro’s mother’s cruelty with “femininity and its rituals” because my initial reading of that sentence didn’t give me the impression that Reno couldn’t relate the mother’s cruelty to the rituals of femininity but rather that she just didn’t relate the two things. It seemed to me that Reno was saying, in that sentence, that she didn’t blame the rituals of femininity for making Sandro’s mother cruel. Rather, Reno seemed to think that Sandro’s mother’s cruelty was inherent, or at least independent of any of her other qualities (such as her focus on feminine rituals). I’m not sure which of our readings of this sentence was intended, but I don’t think it matters. I’m happy that your reading gave me reason to reread this paragraph and take a closer look at what Reno was really thinking as she wandered through the Valera house.

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