Katherine Henninger. Ordering the Facade: Photography and Contemporary Southern Women's Writing. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 256 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8078-5805-9; $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3112-0.
Reviewed by Mary Weaks-Baxter (Department of English, Rockford College)
Published on H-Southern-Lit (March, 2008)
Fictional Photographs of Southern Womanhood
The delicate features of a young girl in a Scarlett O'Hara-style dress standing in front of an antebellum white-columned mansion; the smiling, motherly face of Aunt Jemima on a bottle of pancake syrup; and a NASCAR mom are examples of images that have long identified the South to the world beyond the borders of the region. But, not until Katherine Henninger's Ordering the Facade has much critical attention been paid to the ways in which images have been used to create the South and the power structures within it. Henninger explains her more specific focus on southern women by pointing out that the large majority of the images that are recognizably southern are female. While these images are ones that the world beyond recognizes as "southern," inside the South, image has also played and continues to play a key role in the way girls are raised as they are taught to focus on the appearance of just about everything, including their own physical bodies. Young women are taught that "representations matter" (p. 7). In fact, "the condition of her dress, the color of her skin, the pose of her body" are signifiers of a woman's place in the South (p. 7).
Despite the fact that images of gender, race, and class structure have played obvious roles in the formulation of a southern white patriarchal society, visual culture in the South, Henninger rightly points out, has long been overshadowed by the deep-rooted label of the region as an oral culture. From such analytical studies as Waldo Braden's 1983 The Oral Tradition in the South to the companion disk to Norton's Literature of the American South (1997), orality has long been identified as playing a key part in southern literary history and culture. Examining the reasons for the prominent role of an oral tradition in the South, Henninger points to the ways in which southerners--both black and white--have gained power through oral expression, whether that be through political oration or slave song. While Henninger claims not to devalue the role of the oral in southern studies, she argues for the importance of recognizing the equally powerful images of the South and how they have shaped perceptions of the region from both the inside and the outside.
Henninger focuses her study of image specifically on photography. Making the claim that the identification of the South as a distinct region evolved alongside the development of photography, she points out how images of southern women--black and white, rich and poor--have been used and are still being used to perpetuate "the fabled 'white man's country'" (p. 8). Examining the ways that early photography was used to create gender, race, and class hierarchies, Henninger opens her study with a chapter entitled "A Short and Selected History of Photography in the South." She notes that not only has photography been used to create and perpetuate gender, racial, and economic stereotypes, but it has also played a key role in resistance efforts, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) publication of lynching photographs. In addition, this chapter examines the use of photography to circumscribe southern honor and memory, to construct communities and self-identities, and to show visual, concrete proof that the South as a unique entity still exists.
While an analysis of how photography has been used to create a hegemon in the South could itself be a compelling book, Henninger moves her study to a closer examination of the ways in which what she calls "fictional photographs" have been used to identify and limit the boundaries of southern identity (p. 2). Noting that it is only with the words that surround a photograph, a caption in a newspaper article or a descriptive narrative, that the cultural meanings of photographs are made known, Henninger explains that Ordering the Facade focuses on these fictional photographs because they can only be viewed as representations, while actual photographs can also be characterized as objective records of the past.
Centering her study on these fictional photographs of the South, and especially those by southern women, Henninger examines the ways in which a group of contemporary southern women writers have reconstructed images of women, that is, how they have "ordered the facade" of the South. In large part, Henninger explains, she focuses on women because, as so many of the critical studies indicate, the female body is often at the focus of visual representations that have been used to assert power. While Henninger notes, too, that southern women writers have long recognized the power of visual images, especially photographs, she also indicates that she chose to focus on contemporary southern women because of her interest in examining their responses to and revisions of the literary and visual legacies of the women writers who came before them.
As she moves into the heart of her discussion, Henninger begins with a chapter entitled "The Death of the Southern Male Gaze?: White Ladies' Cultured Revisionings" that describes the modern southern lady--both the real and imagined--as "occupy[ing] the uneasy position of a fetish" (p. 87). In effect, the image of the modern southern lady confirms the existence and continuing power of a lost southern past rooted in a hierarchal order based on race, gender, and class. Using Walker Percy's work as a comparison to writings by Josephine Humphreys, Rosemary Daniell, and Jill McCorkle, Henninger describes the camera in Percy's The Last Gentleman (1966) and The Second Coming (1980) as "the tool of Will Barrett's voyeuristic, and desperate, gaze" (p. 111). In the work of southern women writers, like Humphreys, Daniell, and McCorkle, women take ownership of, reshape, and revise photographs, thereby suggesting that images created in southern society are not fixed. According to Henninger, Humphreys's Dreams of Sleep (1984), for example, revises the "fetishized image of the southern lady basking in the glory of a male gaze" into an "active, contested terrain" so as to open the way for the possibilities of reconstructing and ordering facades (p. 112).
The third chapter, "Cameras and the Racial Real: Photographs as Evidence and Assertion in African American Southern Fiction," specifically considers race in the South. Examining the subject of visibility and invisibility that is central to any discussion of contemporary African American culture and discourse in the South, Henninger focuses on the work of Julie Dash and Alice Walker. Describing photography as the source of "so much psychocultural damage," especially for African Americans, Henninger examines the restorative quality of photography, particularly as an element of "cultural healing" (p. 134). The uneasy relationship between African Americans in the South and photography actually becomes, according to Henninger, "a story of fluid boundaries, mutual influences, and multiple possibilities" (pp. 134-135). For example, photography has been used to create what bell hooks has described as "ruptures" in the visual representation of the painful, often harrowing southern experience of African Americans, "ruptures" that Henninger argues Walker "celebrates" (p. 135). Recognizing the role of the visual in asserting personal and cultural identities, Walker thus elevates the visual by attributing to it "a place of trust and respect" (p. 135).
Focusing in Chapter 4 on what she titles "Envisioning 'White Trash': Excess and Access in Appalachia," Henninger deals specifically with the work of Dorothy Allison. Once again attempting to show that the boundaries of place are shaped by society and are malleable, Henninger points out that the power of Allison's Bastard out of Carolina (1992) lies in Bone's ability to move beyond the representation of "trash" that society has assigned to her. After all, she does not even shoot the photographer, Henninger notes. In effect, over the course of the novel, Bone begins at least to partially recognize her own power to control and reshape images. Pointing to the representation of the poor white as a "'freak,' 'queer,' 'grotesque,'" Henninger suggests that whereas images like these at the same time empower and disrupt hierarchical structures, Allison's work finds for the white "trash" female of Appalachia an identity of value, within both a regional and a national context (p. 138).
The final chapter of the book, entitled "Re-imaging Southern Communities, or, Picturing the Post-South," carries Henninger's argument one step further by focusing on the ways in which Anne Tyler, Ann Beattie, and Natasha Trethewey picture women as "picturers" (p. 158). What is most important about this chapter is that it considers current discussions about the relationship between postmodernism and southern literature. While studies of southern literature within a postmodern context typically center on the loss of place and individual and regional identity, Henninger concludes that in the writings of Tyler, Beattie, and Trethewey, the post-South suggests not so much "the postmodern capitalist disintegration of traditional southern 'place' or the demythologizing imposition of history upon an autochthonous essence" (p. 157). Instead, she argues, the post-South is better characterized by "an openly visible, visual contest to determine who and what will represent 'the South,' what and who can be included ... within the canon of southernness" (p. 157).
Ordering the Facade is an example of literary criticism at its best. The arguments and the focus of the book are fresh ones, and the text is engaging to read. As someone who regularly teaches rhetoric courses, I was pleased to find such an engaging study that examines the ways visual rhetoric has shaped southern literary history and culture. Ordering the Facade is groundbreaking because of its focus on the visual in the South and because of the ways it applies theory on visual representations to southern literary texts. Although, at times, I wished for a more detailed examination of the history of photography in the South and an expanded discussion of modern southern women writers (those who helped shape the legacy left for contemporary southern women), those wishes point to one of the most important strengths of the book. Ordering the Facade signals the beginning of more critical discussions of the visual in southern studies and the significant role that photography has played and continues to play in the representation of the South.
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Mary Weaks-Baxter. Review of Henninger, Katherine, Ordering the Facade: Photography and Contemporary Southern Women's Writing.
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