Mammographies: The Cultural Discourses of Breast Cancer Narratives

Mammographies: The Cultural Discourses of Breast Cancer Narratives

Mary K. DeShazer

Language: English

Pages: 258

ISBN: 047211882X

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


While breast cancer continues to affect the lives of millions, contemporary writers and artists have responded to the ravages of the disease in creative expression. Mary K. DeShazer’s book looks specifically at breast cancer memoirs and photographic narratives, a category she refers to as mammographies, signifying both the imaging technology by which most Western women discover they have this disease and the documentary imperatives that drive their written and visual accounts of it. Mammographies argues that breast cancer narratives of the past ten years differ from their predecessors in their bold address of previously neglected topics such as the link between cancer and environmental carcinogens, the ethics and efficacy of genetic testing and prophylactic mastectomy, and the shifting politics of prosthesis and reconstruction.

Mammographies is distinctive among studies of contemporary illness narratives in its exclusive focus on breast cancer, its analysis of both memoirs and photographic texts, its attention to hybrid and collaborative narratives, and its emphasis on ecological, genetic, transnational, queer, and anti-pink discourses. DeShazer’s methodology—best characterized as literary critical, feminist, and interdisciplinary—includes detailed interpretation of the narrative strategies, thematic contours, and visual imagery of a wide range of contemporary breast cancer memoirs and photographic anthologies. The author explores the ways in which the narratives constitute a distinctive testimonial and memorial tradition, a claim supported by close readings and theoretical analysis that demonstrates how these narratives question hegemonic cultural discourses, empower reader-viewers as empathic witnesses, and provide communal sites for mourning, resisting, and remembering.

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theorization.6 Lord positions hair presence and absence as a queer feminist issue and a culturally inflected symbol of gender identity. “Looking Backward,” the narrative’s prologue, orients reader-­viewers by explaining that Her Baldness (subsequently HB) first appeared on “the day my hair lost the last battle,” this persona having decided to “launch herself into the void like Yves Klein (who, after all, faked the photograph) or Thelma and Louise (who couldn’t be allowed to live in America) or

corporate structure” whose ideology prevents many physicians and researchers from envisioning “a science free to explore a holistic, interactive, and preventive modeling” of breast cancer (69). The argument that Eisenstein develops consists of ten areas that the medical establishment often fails to consider, including awareness that breast cancer is both an individual and a socially constructed disease, that mythologies of the breast and its cultural fetishizing negatively affect medical

popular culture and deficient in seriousness of purpose. As Hillary Chute notes in Graphic Women, “some of the most riveting feminist cultural production is in the form of accessible yet edgy graphic narratives”—­a postmillennial genre that offers a new aesthetics of gendered self-­representation (2). As one salient example of this type of cultural production, Engelberg’s narrative constitutes what Chute characterizes as a “cross-­discursive form,” a capacious medium in which “words and images

cat had a lump, but . . .” (np). Miriam’s narrative, rendered in a word stream at the top of each square frame, acknowledges her increasing irritation at such comments. Her downturned mouth and the thought bubble that appears in frame two raise the cartoon’s blame-­ the-­victim motif: “Are they saying I’m being overly dramatic? Am I worrying over nothing?” When the physician’s phone call comes with the news that it is indeed breast cancer, Miriam has two simultaneous reactions: “Oh my God! I

grieving process, that she edited the book “with [Sontag] in mind, as if she were standing behind me, saying what she would like to see in it” and that, if alive, Sontag “would champion the work” (np). Part of the ethical ambiguity of these images rests in Leibovitz’s silence as to whether she had Sontag’s permission to take and to publish such intimate, sometimes graphic photographs; the standard code of ethics in public photography requires photographers to acquire their subject’s consent for

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