Gladiators, Amazons, and Superheroes: Gender and the Recent Work of Linda Stein – 2010


Christina M. Penn-Goetsch

Gladiators, Amazons, and Superheroes—these figures conjure up images of strength, power and fantasy; however their meaning remains multi-layered. This complexity becomes apparent in Linda Stein’s most recent work The Fluidity of Gender, as she continues to explore the body as a narrative text with a decidedly carnal material. Stein’s text employs leather, a medium associated with the strict role playing in S/M, and follows in the footsteps of second-wave feminist and sculptor Nancy Grossman. But Stein’s goals and forms remain different, as she wraps powerful Michelangelo-inspired torsos to deliberately challenge binary assumptions that underlie sexism. These assumptions can leave battle scars that mark the body and record a history on leather that functions as human skin. Stein’s leather-clad warriors carry the evidence of past wounds as their very wardrobe and expose the colonization of the gendered body while providing a model for a new superhero in the twenty-first century.

To enter a gallery filled with Stein’s leather series is to enter into an arena guarded by three larger-than-life wall figures and a bevy of fierce muscle-bound torsos. Her life-size torsos do not rest on their pedestals as one leg advances out into space wearing updated versions of the leather cuirass of the ancient Greco-Roman soldier crossed with the more sexually-charged wear of a contemporary S/M world. Viewers become submissive in the presence of the seven-foot black leather truncated wall figures that loom above the gallery space like the Olympian gods. Their scale and the predominance of leather over rippling muscles alone intimidate the person who is forced to look up at them. But upon closer investigation, the clothing of both the torsos and wall figures resonate most distinctly with gladiators and the multiple battle scars recorded on their dark skin. Zippers, a butterfly-metal clasp or hinge, belt buckles, and printer’s plates punctuate the skin’s landscape and suggest a history of struggle. The use of found parts from purses, tote bags and suitcases as source materials fosters a sense of the past. Indeed, the baggage of a cultural history is further recorded by the luggage strap that extends across the broad back shoulders of MascuFem 681 (2010). Belt buckles open and close to the touch, while zippers both close and offer access or participation to the viewer. The visual scars adorning Stein’s torsos move these forms beyond a celebration of carnality and the power dynamics of desire toward an even more complicated challenge to our concepts of gender and a redefinition of our understanding of hero or heroine to that of survivor.

“What are masculine/feminine expectations and limitations?”
–Wonder Woman1

Multiple formal references inform Stein’s oeuvre; however, works by two artists resonate with her recent sculpture which will here be referred to as her Amazon series in contrast to her earlier Knight series. No two artists could be more different. The first, Grossman, represents one of the fore-mothers of feminist art. Grossman’s use of leather-bound heads and Stein’s leather-bound torso are in conversation with one another. But the second influence on Stein’s work, Michelangelo, stands as one of the Renaissance “Old Masters” of the art historical canon who rarely had time for interactions with women. In the case of each sculptor, manipulation of gender is key.

Stein and fiber-artist/sculptor Grossman earned degrees at Pratt Institute and are based in New York, and, much like Grossman, Stein exploits leather-clad wooden forms to comment on gender and power relationships. So often the use of leather suggests sexual desire and the threatened dominance of one over another, and this is the case Grossman’s disturbing sculptures of the late 1960s and early 1970s that took the portrait bust to a new level with tightly wrapped leather laced, belted and zipped around wooden replicas of human heads. The dialogue with S/M is obvious. Although technically genderless, the artists described these as self portraits “that refer to the bondage of my childhood.”2 If anything, the heads should have been designated female based on the model. Nevertheless, the heads often earned the designation of “he” as a pronoun and became understood as the leather men who were both in bondage and threatening at the same time. Some reactions seem definitive in assigning the male gender to the Duchamp-Hausmann inspired portraits. Joan Semmel and April Kingsley state, “The angry tension that simmers beneath the surface in …Nancy Grossman’s leather men [bursts out] and becomes an indictment of the macho male. Her figures seem to be prisoners of their own physical power and aggressiveness. Man’s face is covered because it, like his penis, is a threatening weapon.”3 Yet if one thinks and looks closely, one discovers that the work exists somewhere in “an inarticulate space between the masculine and feminine.”4 The disembodied heads made us aware of an “aggressive masquerade”5 even before Queer Theory’s icon Judith Butler argued that gender is performative. She states, “There is no gender identity behind the expression of gender: this identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expression’ that are said to be its results.”6 Our assumptions about gender roles are revealed in the reactions of the viewers. This same “performativity” becomes apparent with the clothing that codes the body on Stein’s torsos. Her work also exists in the margins.

Stein’s gender bending is no accident. All of her figures have distinctive narrow waists and curved hips designated “female,” but she makes sure that her wall-figures and torsos do not have large breasts and the backs of torsos like GenderBend 682 (2010) have the broad shoulders and narrow hips associated with those born “male.”7 Recent scholars have noted Stein’s earlier sculpture from her Knight series as challenging the limitations of gender roles through ambiguity and androgyny.8 In some ways, the leather that binds the chest of GenderBend 682 recalls the binding used by transgendered person.9 Printer’s plates recall ribs that strain against the leather. Margo Hobbs Thompson terms Stein’s gender-bending as representing a “fluidity of gender” that answers Elizabeth Grosz’s call for new kinds of bodies and subjectivities.10 Grosz frames her text, Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, as a call to action. The body functions as the site of action for challenging sexism at its core. “Misogynist thought has commonly found a convenient self-justification for women’s secondary social positions by containing them within bodies that are represented, even constructed, as frail, imperfect, unruly, and unreliable, subject to various intrusions which are not under conscious control.”11 By creating a disconnect between the corporeal and a gender stereotype, the very foundations of a patriarchal hierarchy begin to crumble.

Despite the inherent gender ambiguity in many of Stein’s current leather sculptures, her figures appear predominately female in that they do have breasts and hips. At the same time, they challenge assumptions of notions of “masculinity” as assigned to the “female” body. As Judith Halberstam has argued, this is a topic that rarely finds a home in contemporary discourse.12 Stein’s Amazons retain bulging muscles that suggest a physical strength typical of men. These are women with “masculine” traits who inspire questions. Does the body determine gender? Furthermore, should we limit our understanding of what characterizes one born “female?”

Perhaps the most obvious test of normative gender roles appears in Stein’s leather torsos that act as active agents striding out into space and twisting with a contrapposto that recalls the muscular Hellenistic Belvedere Torso that so influenced Michelangelo—the artist that inspired Stein’s early career.13 Such a comparison contrasts sharply with the gentle movement implied by the Venus de Milo reference to Stein’s earlier wall figures from her Knight series.14 Despite their missing appendages, the muscle-bound Amazon torsos become subjects instead of objects. The connection to Michelangelo’s work is particularly interesting for contextual reasons. The Belevedere Torso (2nd century BCE), once confused for an image of Hercules on the Nemean lion skin, became a model for many of the figures depicted in the Sistine Chapel.15 Allusions to this muscular form appear in both the male prophets and female sibyls that border the room’s ceiling fresco (1508-12). Furthermore, Michelangelo’s female saints found in his Last Judgment (1537-41) that decorates the chapel’s altar wall remain as muscular as any male bodybuilder could hope to be. His women appear testosterone-addicted. Michelangelo blurred gender boundaries with his representations of heroines, but he did so for different reasons. Apparently, the woman who took on masculine virtues transcended “female” frailties, and the muscular anatomy of his heroine helped convey this transformation in character.16 Stein’s subtle reference to Michelangelo’s figures may be solely based on formal qualities adopted and sublimated quite early in her artistic journey, but her use of Michelangelesque forms for her torsos seems conceptually significant and further imparts strength to figures that would otherwise seem passive without their heads, arms, or legs.

Stein’s visual conversation encourages us to consider the limitations of a patriarchal hegemony through the use of leather and found objects defining human torsos. This material represents a new shift from the metal, wood, and stone wall figures of her monumental Knight silhouettes towards a material that is even more carnal. Stein’s Knight of Plenty 553 (2006) is haptic or touch-centric in nature,17 but it is as if the viewer peers into a body that is ripped open for us to see. Stein’s Knights are “bodyguards” that stand damaged before us. The wounds of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center that inspired the Knights series have yet to heal.18 The visceral nature of the interior body is left exposed and vulnerable. In an interview with Helen Hardacre, Stein describes one her Knights, (K)night Figure 470, in a revealing way: “It reminds me of a sewing model before being draped by a tailor.”19 With Stein’s Amazon series, she has supplied the skin or fabric missing from her Knights. The skin is the leather that covers the Amazon series and illustrates the healing process through the scars that mark the surface of the sculptures. The exposed fragmented parts of the earlier Knight series remain hard to the touch, whereas leather is soft and pliable like the human body. Stein’s focus has changed. The Amazon series becomes more present for us. But there is more to her new series than some sort of individual commentary or reflection of psychological change. Indeed, her new work addresses a much broader audience engaged with popular culture in a quest to expose the dangers of how we define “male” and “female” as well as “superhero.”

“What defines bravery? What makes a hero?”
–Wonder Woman20

Linda Stein, like many women, faced a predicament as she reached puberty. As a young athletic girl, she started to be denied access to certain sports and became all the more aware of the power dynamics tied to a binary gender construction. Boys were assigned more power than girls.21 The battle for access with Title IX was yet to be implemented. Indeed, Sarah Field’s analysis of the success and failure of this fight for fairness in the athletic world would be entitled Female Gladiators in 2004.22 Feminists today continue to face an insidious battle against a patriarchal hegemony in sports and beyond. The gladiator, like those born female, find themselves in combat rarely out of choice, but often more out of necessity and a survival instinct.

The truncations of Stein’s torsos with skin-tight leather breast plates that define the musculature remind one of the wardrobes of gladiators, and this is just as apparent in her wearable sculptures. The massive leather-layered sculpture, Tough Love (2010), is brought to life and power through a model. The gender does not matter as the thick thighs, waist and pronounced pectorals impart strength to the wearer. The work is potent. To wear Tough Love is to take on the frightening persona of Willem De Kooning’s Woman I (1952) ready for combat. One can feel the breast plates that echo armor or leather cuirass of the Greco-Roman. The fringe at the back of the figure further mimics the flaps of the costumes worn by Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator of 2000.23 Tough Love is a suit for a modern gladiator ready to fight the battles that come his or her way; however, the figure should not be understood in purely aggressive terms. If we follow the models offered by Ridley or even Stanley Kubric’s Spartacus of 1960,24 a gladiator does not fight battles by choice or out of a desire to commit violence. Both Maximus and Spartacus find themselves in the arena as they fight their way towards freedom and, in the case of Maximus, revenge. These gladiators were slaves and did not readily embrace entering the arena. Instead they find themselves fighting against oppressive regime, and thus provide a perfect allusion for Stein’s Amazon Series battling with gender stereotypes and the challenges of life.

Popular films do not provide the whole story as to why people became gladiators. There were both men and women who chose this career option or were forced into the arena. Despite a rising interest demonstrated by a documentary with Lucy Lawless, a fictional novel and a children’s book,25 viewers rarely see films with females fighting in the amphitheaters of the Roman Empire on television or the big screen.26 Literary and archeological evidence suggest that at least a few women entered into the arena as female gladiators. The gladiatrix demonstrated courage and martial valor just like her male counterpart;27 therefore, this “female” successfully took on a masculine role or performance within the context of patriarchal Roman hegemony. This challenge to gender norms may explain why Dio Cassius says that the emperor Septimius Severus attempted to stop such ludicrous behavior.28 We also have some archeological evidence for female gladiators, which includes a relief from Halicarnassus from the 1st or 2nd century CE housed in the British Museum. Two combating bare-breasted women in loin cloths appear as gladiators accompanied by an inscription that indicates that neither actually won as the competition came to a draw. Their names were “Amazon” and “Achillia,” a variation on the struggle of Penthesilea and Achilles during the Trojan War.29 The name “Amazon” is significant here as it further evokes memories of women living outside the order and gender norms.

Amazons may reflect an even more accurate description of Stein’s leather series than gladiators, given their existence outside the established gender roles of the ancient world. They removed one breast in order to better wield a bow or throw a spear and chose to live in a community bereft of men.30 Herodotus shares an Amazon’s perspective in The Histories: “We could not live with your women; for we and they do not have the same customs. We shoot the bow and throw the javelin and ride, but have never learned women’s work; and your women do none of the things of which we speak, but stay in their wagons and do women’s work, and do not go out hunting or anywhere else.”31 Although they remain figures from antiquity, their ability to be active subjects living outside binary gender constructions made their story rich for feminist interpretation.

Ann Vollmann Bible compares Monique Wittig’s use of pronouns in the female ordered Amazon world of Les Guérilliéres of 1969 to the gender transformation of Stein’s earlier Knight series. Bible’s rich analysis of the novel and Stein’s earlier wall-figures contextualizes the work and demonstrates how both Wittig and Stein “break down boundaries between the female, male, feminine, and masculine” with the clear intent of dismantling a hegemony that limits individuals and values one gender over another.32 This particular power structure, therefore, becomes the foundation for sexism. But the storyline in Les Guérilliéres remains as important as the structure of language in Wittig’s analysis. Wittig here weaves a tale about Amazons.

Although Tough Love and some of the other figures in the leather series are somewhat androgynous, a predominately female presence exists. It is as if we have modern-day Amazons who adopt masculine roles and characteristics. They bear markers associated with “male jobs.” GenderBend wears silver-toned medal bars with miniature Medieval knights just below her clavicles that recall military bars, whereas MascuFem wears a single NYPD blazoned above her breasts. In each case, the hips imply a female torso, but other parts of the body are more ambiguous. The markers of gender are left somewhat confusing, and Stein furthers her blurring of gender assignments with her titles. But possible connections back to those legendary female warriors remain.

Other Amazonian references, in fact, exist. The breasts on the torsos and wall-figures such as Stein’s Guardian 697 (2010) include zippers that mimic the scars of mutilation or surgery. These zippers lead our thoughts back to the scars left behind on the Amazons that removed a breast in order to better use the bow and javelin. In contemporary terms, one easily could move beyond historical references from antiquity and be startled instead by memories of those who have fought battles with cancer or even confronted the challenges of sexual reassignment. Although we see evidence of past physical and mental scars, these contemporary Amazons are not victims. They may be patched, hinged, and buckled, but they are in the process of healing.

The connection may not be immediately obvious, but Stein returns to her fascination with a cultural superhero of 1941, Wonder Woman, in her Amazon series.33 For this reason, references to the superhero appear as part of the exhibition, The Fluidity of Gender, and on the wall-figure Justice for All 698 (2010) that functions like the Rosetta Stone for the entire series. Re-worked pages from comic strips (acrylicized paper) cover a larger-than-life wall figure that is, indeed, starting to step away from the wall. The single leg moving forward has become characteristic of Stein’s work and saves her forms from becoming static or passive. Stein not only suggests movement with the figure, she records the agency of Wonder Woman in the collaged comics. The artist covers the silhouette with a collage of scraps depicting Wonder Woman fighting, running and pondering how to fight the limitations of gender roles and make a difference in the world. She asks, “What defines Bravery? What makes a hero?,” “What are masculine/feminine expectations & limitations?,” “I always felt that girls should be as mobile as boys,” and “Would you wear a bathing suit to fight the bad guys?” These and other quotes found in the comic strip bubbles are Stein’s words. They appear again in Stein’s 2009 video for the exhibition entitled Can Wonder Woman Cra-ac-ck Gender Stereotypes? The artist updates the hero Wonder Woman’s feminist tendencies while providing a clue for entering into a conversation with her work. The re-vision seems quite apt given the recent waif introduced as the new Wonder Woman’s for DC Comics released on 29 June 2010.34

Few superheroes have crossed gender boundaries more successfully. The first DC Comics’ presentation of the Amazon princess, All Star Comics #8, describes Wonder Woman as someone who has the beauty of Aphrodite, the wisdom of Athena, the strength of Hercules, and the swiftness of Mercury—qualities associated with both the masculine and the feminine. She has “the strength of our strongest wrestlers and our best male athletes.”35 Few can match her strength. The dark-skinned Nubia, who she meets in the gladiatorial arena, is an exception.36 No doubt, these were some of qualities that led to her appearance on the cover of the inaugural issue of MS. Magazine in 1972 with the text “Wonder Woman for President.”

While some celebrated her independence from a strictly “female” role as liberating, her gender bending ways were threatening to some. Most notably, Frederick Wertham’s rants in his Seduction of the Innocent:

She is physically very powerful, tortures men, has her own female following, is the cruel, “phallic” woman. While she is frightening figure for boys, she is an undesirable ideal for girls, being the exact opposite of what girls are supposed to be.”37

Clearly, Wonder Woman’s historical challenge to gender norms makes her the ideal means for addressing the constraints or limitations placed on those designated “male” or “female.” But her physical image, particularly in recent years, is far from threatening.

The American icon, first created by William Moulton Marston,38 left her Amazon sisters in order to return justice to the world of men with a pacifist twist. Rather than kill, she binds her foes and holds them captive until they recognize their evil ways. She plays the role of a dominatrix among men,39 and one finds quite a bit of bondage taking place in the early issues and beyond.40 Our comic book heroine doesn’t look like someone involved in S/M, but Wonder Woman finds herself playing the roles of dominant and submissive—the same role playing alluded to in Stein’s Amazon series. As Mitra Emad and Kelli Stanley have argued, the symbolism of the bondage scenes reflect not only on the personal views and desires of Marston, they reflect much about the constrictions placed on women mid-century. Ultimately, the limitations assigned to her sex bind Wonder Woman.41 Despite her violent struggles, however, one must remember that Diana Prince, the superhero’s alter ego, is from peaceful Paradise Island, a place free from a violent and testosterone-laden patriarchy. Not only does she come from an Amazon world, but Prince’s bullet-repelling bracelets, lasso of obedience (later called the lasso of truth), and invisible plane allow her to fight crimes and protect herself from the physical scars of life, while her island home provides space for mental healing.

Stein’s Arrow Knight 670, like Tough Love, can be worn and allows the wearer to experience the power of the superhero imbedded in her ideas that make up the collage covering this example of wearable art. We can take on the body of Wonder Woman and experience her independence. Arrow Knight 670, here shown with the one-bared breast typical of representations of Amazons all the way back to ancient Greece and the competition of sculptors Polykleitos and Phidias,42 transforms the model into a superhero. Nevertheless, few of us can fully identify with Wonder Woman as a role model. Few of us have an sort of Paradise Island retreat, and she, like most female heroines, maintains ideal beauty no matter how many death-defying conflicts come her way. Such is not the case for the woman of the twenty-first century, who may relate more clearly to the scarred and powerful Amazons of ancient legend.

The leather clad figures from Stein’s recent Amazon series impart strength and power coupled with a history of pain and struggle; this represents the bridge between Wonder Woman and Stein’s work. Her Amazons do not celebrate an impossible ideal; rather they bring us back to reality as they call out for change. But this reality is tied to the power and vulnerability found in everyone. Stein’s torso entitled In Charge 694 (2010) represents a twenty-first century Amazon. The figure strides before us as a new hero who wears scars of experience documented by the zippers and buckles that hold her thigh, ribs, and shoulder together. Her defined muscles and apparent strength may be threatening, but we know that she will use her power for good. This particular torso requires a second look. In Charge 694 seems to swagger as the torso wears the five-pointed star of a sheriff from the Old West beneath her breasts and shotgun cartridges at her hip. But these objects are much more innocent and reflect Stein’s own pacifist perspective. The star is a Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) medallion with the female personification of Freedom overseeing the joined hands of a Union Navy and an Army veteran. At the end of the Civil War, veterans established this fraternity to help care for veterans, widows, and newly freed slaves.43 This medallion is not about gun fights or war. The so-called bullet casings found at her hip are actually compressed CO2 cartridges for seltzer bottles! There are battles to be fought, but Stein’s Amazons are not soldiers anxious for combat. Their battlefield is the arena of life recorded on the body. We, whatever our gender, can join these warriors and share in their triumphs. The key is that we are survivors. This is the very survival documented on the visceral leather skins of Stein’s Amazons.

Christina M. Penn-Goetsch earned a Ph.D. in Art History from The University of Iowa. She is currently Associate Professor of Art and Art History and Chair of Women’s Studies at Cornell College, Mount Vernon, IA.