The monster and the corpse: puppetry and the uncanniness of gender performance

Purcell-Gates, L (2013) The monster and the corpse: puppetry and the uncanniness of gender performance. In: Centre for Research into Objects and Puppets in Performance Symposium: Woma/en in Puppet Theatre, 1 November 2013, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, London, UK.


Following a work-in-progress performance of Wattle and Daub's puppet opera ‘The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak’, as artists and audience mingled in the theatre bar for informal feedback over drinks, one male audience member expressed annoyance at the design of the only female puppet in the show: 'You need to make her lips and cheeks red, and give her some hair,’ he explained, ‘otherwise we can't tell she's a woman.' This ambiguity is telling; no one complained that the male puppets’ genders were confusing. Much more labour must go into representing a puppet as female, revealing the myth of ‘neutrality’—the neutral body is, in fact, read as male. This raises the question of the role of ambiguity when a ‘neutral’ puppet insists on being female. Both Freud’s unheimliche (1919) and Masahiro Mori’s uncanny valley effect (1970) link the uncanny with ambiguity; as dead-yet-animated objects, puppets therefore find an easy home within this designation. A closer look reveals intersectional issues at play; Leigh Johnson, for instance, has linked the uncanny valley effect with racial ambiguity (2009). I wish to push this link further by examining the uncanniness of the apparently ‘neutral’ puppet body—a puppet lacking clear female markers such as long hair, breasts, red cheeks and lips—performing as female. Connecting the construction of neutrality (the sterile body of the corpse, unmarked by non-normative identity signifiers) to anxieties surrounding contamination, I link this contamination to the monstrous body of the ambiguously female, overflowing in signification. I suggest that while puppetry is a site for gender bias via the myth of neutrality, it also represents a subversive site with the potential to trouble and reveal such identity constructions, through a productive uncanniness that asks us not just to experience, but to linger within the ambiguity of the monstrous body.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Divisions: Bath School of Music and Performing Arts
Date Deposited: 10 Oct 2018 09:22
Last Modified: 15 Aug 2021 09:42
URI / Page ID:
Request a change to this item or report an issue Request a change to this item or report an issue
Update item (repository staff only) Update item (repository staff only)