Performa Punch: Subverting the Female Aggressor Trope




power, feminism, contemporary art, subjectivities

How to Cite

McKenzie-Craig, C. J. (2020). Performa Punch: Subverting the Female Aggressor Trope. M/C Journal, 23(2).
Vol. 23 No. 2 (2020): violence
Published 2020-05-13

The bodies of disordered women … offer themselves as an aggressively graphic text for the interpreter—a text that insists, actually demands, that it be read as a cultural statement, a statement about gender. (Bordo, 94)

Violence is transgressive in fundamental ways. It erases boundaries, and imposes agency over others, or groups of others. The assumed social stance is to disapprove, morally and ethically, as a ‘good’ and ‘moral’ female subject. My current research has made me question the simplicity of this approach, to interrogate how aggression socialises power and how resistance to structural violence might look. I analyse three cultural practices to consider the social demarcations around aggression and gender, both within overt acts of violence and in less overt protocols. This research will focus on artistic practices as they offer unique embodied ways to  “challenge our systems of representation and knowledge” (Szylak 2).

The three creative works reviewed: the 2009 Swedish film the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the work Becoming an Image by Canadian non-binary/transgender artist Cassils, and Gambit Lines, by artist Carolyn Craig, each contest gendered modes of normativity within the space of the Cultural Screen (Silverman). The character of Lisbeth Salander in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo subverts the aggressor female/femme fatale trope in Western cinema by confusing and expanding visual repertoires around aggression, while artists Cassils and Carolyn Craig re-draw how their biologically assigned female bodies perform power in the Cultural Screen by activating bodily feedback loops for the viewer’s gaze.

The Aggressor Mode

The discussion of these three works will centre on the ‘female aggressor trope’, understood here as the static coda of visual practices of female power/aggression in the western gaze. This article considers how subverting such representations of aggression can trigger an “epistemic crisis that allows gender categories to change,” in particular in the way protocols of power are performed over female and trans subjectivities (Butler, Athletic 105). The tran/non-binary subject state in the work of Cassils is included in this discussion of the female aggressor trope as their work directly subverts the biological habitus of the female body, that is, the artist’s birth/biologically assigned gender (Bourdieu). The transgender state they perform – where the body is still visibly female but refusing its constraints - offers a radical framework to consider new aggressive stances for non-biologically male bodies.

The Cultural Screen and Visual Representations

I consider that aggression, when performed through the mediated position of a creative visual practice (as a fictional site of becoming) can deconstruct the textual citations that form normative tropes in the Cultural Screen. The Screen, for this article, is considered as

the site at which the gaze is defined for a particular society, and is consequently responsible both for the way in which the inhabitants of that society experience the gaze’s effects, and for much of the seeming particularity of that society’s visual regime. (Silverman 135)

The Screen functions as a suite of agreed metaphors that constitute a plane of ‘reality’ that defines how we perform the self (Goffman). It comprises bodily performance, our internal gaze (of self and other) and the visual artefacts a culture produces. Each of the three works discussed here purposely intervenes with this site of gender production within the Cultural Screen, by creating new visual artefacts that expand permissible aggressive repertoires for female assigned bodies. 

Deconstructing the Cultural Screen

The history of images … can be read as a cultural history of the human body. (Belting 17)

Cinematic representations play a key role in producing the visual primers that generate social ‘acts’. For this reason I examine the Swedish film Män Som Hatar Kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women, 2009), released as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for foreign audiences, as an example of an expanding range of female aggressor representations in film, and one of particular complexity in the way it expands on representational politics. I consider how specific scripting, dialogue and casting decisions in the lead female character of Lisbeth Salander (played by Noomi Rapace) serve to deconstruct the female aggressor trope (as criminal or sexual provocateur) to allow her character to engage in aggressive acts outside of the cliché of the deviant woman. This disrupts the fixity of assigned body protocols on the social grid to expand their gendered habitus (Bourdieu).

Key semiotic relations in the film’s characterisation of Lisbeth prevent her performance of aggression from moving into the clichés of erotic or evil feminine typologies. Her character remains unfixed, moving between a continuous state of unfolding in response to necessity and desire. Here, she exhibits an agency usually denoting masculinity. This allows her violence a positive emancipatory affect, one that avoids the fixity of the representational tropes of the deviant woman or the femme fatale.  Her character draws upon both tropes, but reformulates them into a postmodern hybridity, where aggression slips from its sexualised/deviant fetish state into an athletic political resistance. Signification is strategically confused as Lisbeth struts through the scaffolding of normalcy in her insurgent gender game. Her post-punk weaponised attire draws on the repertoire of super heroes, rock stars and bondage mistresses, without committing to any. The libidinal component of violence/aggression is not avoided, but acknowledged, both in its patriarchal formula and Lisbeth’s enactment of revenge as embodied pleasure.

The visual representation of both lead actors is also of interest. Both Lisbeth and Mikael have visible acne scars. This small breach in aesthetic selection affects how we view and consume them as subjects and objects on the Screen. The standard social more for the appearance of male and female leads is to use faces modeled on ideas of symmetry and perfection. These tendencies draw upon the cultural legacies of physiognomy that linked moral character with attractiveness schedules and that continue to flourish in the Cultural Screen (Lavater; Principe and Langlois). This decision to feature faces with minor flaws appropriates the camera’s gaze to re-consider schedules of normalcy, in particular value and image index as they relate to gendered representations. This aesthetic erasure of the Western tradition of stereotyped representations permits transitional spaces to emerge within the binary onslaught. 

Technology is also appropriated in the film as a space for a performative ‘switching’ of the gender codes of fixity. In her role as undercover researcher, Lisbeth’s control of code gives her both a monetised agency and an informational agency. The way that she types takes on an almost aggressive assertion. Each stroke is active and purposeful, as she exerts control through her interface with digital space. This is made explicit early in the film when she appropriates the gaze of technology (a particularly male semiotic code) to extract agency from within the structural discourse of patriarchy itself. In this scene, she forces her guardian to watch footage of his own act of raping her. Here Lisbeth uses the apparatus of the gaze to re-inscribe it back over his body. This structural inversion of the devices of control is made even more explicit when Lisbeth then brands him with text. Here ‘writing on the body’ becomes manifest.

The director also frames initial scenes of Lisbeth’s nude body in subtle ways that fracture the entrenched history of representations of women, where the female as object exists for the gaze of male desire (Berger). Initially all we see are her shoulders. They are powerful and she moves like a boxer, inhabiting space and flexing her sinew. When we do see her breasts, they are neutered from the dominant coda of the “breasted experience” (Young). Instead, they function as a necessary appendage that she acknowledges as part of the technology of her body, not as objectified male desire.

These varied representational modes built within Lisbeth’s characterisation, inhabit and subvert the female aggressor trope (as deviant), to offer a more nuanced portrayal where the feminine is still worn, but as both a masquerade and an internal emancipatory dialogue. That is, the feminine is permitted to remain whilst the masculine (as aggressive code) is intertwined into non-binary relations of embodied agency. This fluidity refracts the male gaze from imposing spectatorial control via the gaze.


The Canadian non-binary/transgender artist Cassils also uses the body as semiotic technology to deny submission to the dominant code of the Cultural Screen. They re-image the self with bodybuilding, diet and steroids to exit their biologically female structural discourse into a more fluid gendered state. This state remains transitive as their body is not surgically ‘reassigned ‘ back into normative codes (male or female assignations) but instead inhabits the trans pronoun of ‘they/their’. This challenges the Cultural Screen’s dependence on fixed binary states through which to allocate privilege. This visible reshaping also permits entry into more aggressive bodily protocols via the gaze (through the spectorial viewpoint of self and other).

Cassils ruptures the restrictive habitus of female/trans subjectivity to enable more expansive gestures in the social sphere, and a more assertive bodily performance. This is achieved by appropriating the citational apparatus of male aggression via a visual reframing of its actions. Through daily repetitive athletic training Cassils activates the proprioceptive loops that inform their gendered schema and the presentation of self (Goffman). This training re-scripts their socially inscribed gender code with semiotically switched gender ‘acts’. This altered subjectivity is made visible for the viewer through performance to destablise the Screen of representation further via the observers’ gaze.

In their work Becoming an Image (2012- current), Cassils performs against a nine hundred kilogram lump of clay for twenty minutes in complete darkness, fractured only by an intermittent camera flash that documents the action. This performance contests the social processes that formulate the subject as ‘image’. By using bodily force (aggressive power) against an inert lump of clay, Cassils enacts the frustration and affect that the disenfranchised Other feels from their own gender shaping (Bhaba). The images taken by the camera during this performance reflect a ferocious refusal, an animal intent, a state of battle. The marks and residues of their bodily ‘acts’ shape the clay in an endurance archive of resistance, where the body’s trace/print forms the material itself along with the semiotic residue of the violence against transgender and female bodies. In some ways, the body of Cassils and the body of clay confront each other through Cassils’s aggressive remolding of the material of social discourse itself.

The complicity of photography in sustaining representational discourse is highlighted within Cassils’s work through the intertextual rupturing of the performance with the camera flash and through the title of the work. To Become an Image invokes the processes of the darkroom itself, where the photographer controls image development, whilst the aggressive flash reflects the snapshot of violence, where the gendered subject is ‘imaged’ (formulated and confined) without permission by the observer schedules of patriarchy. The flash also leaves a residual trace in the retinas of the viewer, a kind of image burn, perhaps chosen to mimic the fear, intrusion and coercion that normalcy’s violence impinges over Othered subjects. The artist converts these flash generated images into wallpaper that is installed into the gallery space, usually the day after the performance. Thus, Cassils’s corporeal space is re-inscribed onto the walls of the institutional archive of representations – to evoke both the domestic (wallpaper as home décor), the public domain (the white walls of institutional rhetoric) and the Cultural Screen.

Carolyn Craig 

The work of Carolyn Craig also targets representations that substantiate the Cultural Screen. She uses performative modes in the studio to unravel her own subjective habitus, in particular targeting the codes that align female aggression with deviancy. Her work isolates the action of making a fist to re-inscribe how the aggression code is ‘read’ as embodied knowledge by women. Two key articles by Thomas Schubert that investigated how making a fist is perceived differently between genders (in terms of interiorised power) informed her research. Both studies found that when males make a fist they experience an enhanced sense of power, while women did not. In fact, in the studies, they experienced a slight decrease in their sense of comfort in the world (their embodied sense of agency). Schubert surmised this reflected gender-based protocols in relation to the permissible display of aggression, as “men are culturally less discouraged to use bodily force, which will frequently be associated with success and power gain [whilst women] are culturally discouraged from using bodily force” (Schubert 758). These studies suggest how anchored gestures of aggression are to male power schemas and their almost inaccessibility to women. When artists re-formulate such (existing) input algorithms by inserting new representations of female aggression into the Cultural Screen, they sever the display of aggression from the exclusive domain of the masculine. This circulates and incorporates a broader visual code that informs conceptual relations of power.

Craig performs the fisting action in the studio to neuter this existing code using endurance, repetition and parody (fig. 1). Parody activates a Bakhtian space of Carnivalesque, a unique space in the western cultural tradition that permits transgressive inversions of gender, power and normativity (Hutcheon). By making and remaking a fist through an absurdist lens, the social scaffolding attached to the action (fear, anxiety, transgression) is diluted. Repetition and humour breaks down the existing code, and integrates new perceptual schema through the body itself. Parody becomes a space of slippage, one that is a precursor to a process of (re)constitution within the social screen, so that Craig can “produce representation” rather than be (re)presentation (Schneider 51). This transitory state of Carnivalesque produces new relational fields (both bodily and visual) that are then projected back into the Screen of normativity to further dislodge gender fixity.


Figure 1: Carolyn Craig, Gambit Lines (Angles of Incidence #1), 2016. Etchings from performance on folded aluminium, 25.5 x 34 x 21cm.
This nullifies the power of the static image of deviancy (the woman as specimen) and ferments leakages into broader representational fields. Craig’s fisting actions target the proprioceptive feedback loops that make women fear their own bodies’ potential of violence, that make us retreat from the citational acts of aggression. Her work tilts embodied retreat (as fear) through the distorted mimesis of parody to initiate a Deleuzian space of agentic potential (Deleuze and Guattari). This is re-inserted into the Cultural Screen as suites of etchings grounded in the representational politics, and historical genealogy of printed matter, to bring the historical conditions of formation of knowledge into review.


The aggressor trope as used within the works discussed, produces a more varied representational subject. This fosters subjectivities outside the restraints of normativity and its imposed gendered habitus. The performance of aggression by bodies not permissibly branded to script such acts forces static representations embedded through the Cultural Screen into “an unstable and troubled terrain, a crisis of knowledge, a situation of not-knowing”. This state of representational confusion leads to a “risking of gender itself … that exposes our knowledge about gender as tenuous, contested, and ungrounded in a thorough and productively disturbing sense” (Butler, Athletic 110). Tropes that define binary privilege, when dislodged in such a way, become accessible to fluidity or erasure. This allows more nuanced gender allocation to schedules of power.

The Cultural Screen produces and projects the metaphors we live by and its relations to power are concrete (Johnson and Lakoff). Even small-scale incursions into masculine domains of agency (such as the visual display of aggression) have a direct correlation to the allocation of resources, both spatial, economic and subjective. The use of the visual can re-train the conceptual parameters of the cultural matrix to chip small ways forward to occupy space with our bodies and intellects, to assume more aggressive stances in public, to speak over people if I feel the need, and to be rewarded for such actions in a social context. I still feel unable to propose direct violence as a useful action but I do admit to having a small poster of Phoolan Devi in my home and my admiration for such women is deep.


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Author Biography

Carolyn Jane McKenzie-Craig, National Art School


senior lecturer