Reviewed: big beautiful female theory, Eloise Grills, Affirm Press
‘I, too, am lured by confession, the light and heat of the memoirist striptease’, writes Eloise Grills. Her illustrated memoir, big beautiful female theory, has all the above: confession, light, heat, a body variously arranging and revealing itself. Painting, collage, reflections and poetry coalesce in a hybrid of critical theory guide, comic and zine. Dreamy illustrations burst from sad blue and grey into peach, green, yellow; warnings, jokes and epiphanies are etched in blood red and neat black letters. Dozens of Eloises sprawl, write, eat, fuck, lie prostrate, her face peering out over and over as she places herself—intellectually and figuratively—in conversation with it all. Blazing with feeling, the book is ecstatic, exhaustive self-expression, drenched in watercolour and hectic sincerity: William Blake edits Rookie magazine.
The recurring selves in these essays act as a funhouse mirror for the artist’s own amusement, refracting intimacy, torpor or defiance as she chooses. A ‘carnivalesque exploration’, the blurb calls it, and it is—a carnival of the self, gleeful spectacle of her vulnerability. In a talk with Express Media, Grills observed the unique way comics can map the discord between the layers of the self, the entanglements of its internal and external worlds.
And here is this book’s central, messy tension. In the same talk, she laid out a compelling argument for the sort of god-mode self-excavation undertaken in big beautiful female theory: ‘unguarded access into other people’s ways of thinking’ as a tool of radical empathy, to unveil truths about how we live and love. But alongside this sits the question of performativity: who this furious explication of self is for, and what it means to do any of it for ‘an audience of not-me’.
A major theme in Grills’s body of work hasbeen the way culture frames female deviance—or rather, frames anything that is ‘not male’as deviant. Even if ‘the male gaze’ is a tired concept, well-explored in art since Laura Mulvey (who features) articulated the idea in the 70s, it’s precisely because patriarchy has not been smashed that those who are not coded as ‘men’ continue to be objects of scrutiny in contemporary society. Men intrude—physically or otherwise—in public places and private reveries. Diet culture pathologises the body; a ‘problem’ for which the neoliberal market offers consumer solutions. Women are told authenticity is something we ‘owe’—and simultaneously that we’re not real until we’re ‘perfect’ (‘like Susie Orbach said,’ Grills writes,‘being fat means you have to wait till you’re thin to live’). The urgent pressure of this logic cuts through the book’s visceral humour, a hyperreal litany of wishlists, procedures and dismantled women: ‘Tell me … I’m just as real as all of god’s green creatures’.
Even as Grills problematises physical authenticity, she determinedly situates the Real in the body,—its folds, softnesses and crevices—interrogating who exactly gets to assign desire or disgust. She might spike ‘the absurd idea that we could ever say what we are’, or the pressure we put on ourselves to be coherent to others. Still: ‘I want to be understood, I want to be legible’. Nestled here is a dilemma that exceeds the book: how do we articulate the parts of ourselves not within our control? Memoir as self-enaction can unwittingly turn into self-defence, making the case only for one’s most ideal side, leaving out the uncontrolled elements for fear they’ll undermine your credibility. And this, Grills seems aware, is boring to read.
One tactic to avoid it: expose your most embarrassing and painful bits, and so perhaps, write around your constricting tendencies towards shame. Another tactic: cut out the middle man and enact your own gaze on yourself, ‘like a camera like a bee’. Another: surround yourself with generative artists and thinkers, make your own communal, personal museum, and publish it. In these essays—confessionals of love and anxiety, teen guilt, hubris, fears of personal and artistic inadequacy—Grills tries them all.
In ‘The fat bitch in art’, she gives Susan Sontag’s famous line a plaque: ‘In place of a hermeneutics of art we need an erotics of art’. big beautiful female theory offers one version of what such an erotics could be, responding to the world with the impulse to create. Not so much political manifesto as aesthetic petri dish, it’s a talisman, offered up: ‘A gift, a wart I’ve sold you, yours to deal with.’
Imogen Dewey is a writer, editor and journalist.