The Feminine Architecture

Photo Credit: Ryunah Kang

On the streets, I stand tall and straight. I was built from reinforced concrete and steel, then clothed with brown bricks in stretcher bonds for aesthetics. I am a ten story apartment building, housing two households on each floor, with a vertical staircase dividing the two. Families of four, single moms and their children, newly married couples, and elders with silvered hair, all make life, maintain life, and generationally replace life in my embrace [1]. 

I have a relatively good reputation around my neighborhood. Many people desire me. It’s definitely for my well-kept facilities and proximity to public transportation, but my elegant, brick outer wall surely plays a role. Intrusive stares often appraise me from top to bottom. They usually belong to men who wish to settle down and raise a family [2]. The power of their gaze attracts real estate agents, who will then turn their brains inside out to make the most profit out of me. The agents will successfully attract more and more stares from those who are in search of a nice apartment. Some succeed in claiming their ownership, and some find satisfaction with rent. 

This game of gazes makes me yearn to accommodate more and more families. However, since I am too short and too full to fit in more, I try to spit out some of the households already occupying a space within me. People moving out leave unsightly scratches as they drag their furniture out of their rooms. The staircase they leave through aches as if stomach acid had burnt through my throat. But that’s alright because at least I’ve lost some weight [3].

Building managers start to get worried that the messy scrapes might lower my value. They don’t want to let loose any more lives. So they tidy my halls by hiring janitors. To keep away the possibility of mischief, they also hire security guards. If you ask me, the security guards aren’t so bad because, you know, we need some necessary work of social stabilization [4]. But, the janitors! They are a bit “genocidal.” I’ve never seen them using contraceptive pills and intrauterine devices (IUDs) for cleaning white brick houses [5]. 

But what can I do? I have no choice. I am, in fact, a building after all [6].

[1] Tithi Bhattacharya, a professor of history and the co-author of “Feminism for the 99 Percent: A Manifesto,” defines social reproduction as “the activities and institutions that are required for making life, maintaining life, and generationally replacing life.” In short, she puts it as a “life-making” activity. It involves not only giving birth but also all the other activities that are required to sustain that life, such as cooking, educating, and washing. The capitalist binary of production and reproduction undervalues the role of social reproduction because, as Bhattacharya comments, “capitalism is a thing-making system, not a life-making system.”

[2] Aminatta Fona, the author of the memoir “The Devil That Danced on the Water,” sees “the gaze” as a “power.” In her article “Power Walking,” Fona points out that men and white people “stare because they can, by the gift of the power vested in them by their membership in the ethnic majority.” On the other hand, women are subjected to those gazes and are made to behave in certain ways. Broadly speaking, this subjugation can be an implicit coercion of “feminine” qualities or social reproduction to meet the ends of capitalist profit-making.

[3] Constrained by the gaze of others, women’s gaze projected on themselves are often distorted to further constrict themselves. Eating disorders are a good example. One cannot look at oneself without the compulsion to meet the “socially accepted” standards of the body. The statistics that “women have 1.75-3 times as high lifetime prevalence for anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder (BED) as compared to men” clearly exhibit the gendered nature of eating disorders that mirror the power dynamics of “the gaze.”

[4] In the same article, Fona highlights that “good practice in personal safety — telling someone where we are going, allowing ourselves to be escorted home and not walking alone at night — all add up to an effective form of social control,” under the name of “necessary work of social stabilization.” Therefore, control over the female body can take dubious forms. 

[5] A more obvious form would be birth control. Abrogation of abortion rights has not only stripped away women’s bodily sovereignty but also disproportionately affected low-income women to have reduced access to relevant healthcare services. Applying a racial lens to birth control issues, we can also notice that family planning has been mostly required for people of color women, while white women were left out of the discourse. Moreover, contraceptive pills and IUDs have been tested on the bodies of women of the South, while those of the North were fighting for access to them. Women-of- color feminists capture this situation in one word: “genocidal.” 

[6] What choice can the feminine architect make over her own body? As Ross, Guiterrez, Gerber, and Silliman say in their book, “Undivided Rights,” “‘choice’ implies a marketplace of options in which women’s right to determine what happens to their bodies is legally protected, ignoring the fact that for women of color, economic and institutional constraints often restrict their ‘choices.’” Similar constraints seem to apply to the female body in general, considering who stares and simultaneously decides the right to abortion. The unwanted dwellers in the feminine architecture seem to be staging a scripted play of “choice.”

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