Analysis of Imperial Leather: A Review of Anne McClintock's Postcolonial Portrait

This is a writing sample from Scripted writer Amy Bravewater

In Imperial Leather Anne McClintock develops a narrative of British imperialism beginning with an analysis of the socio-cultural climate of Victorian Britain and following trails of power and discipline into Apartheid South Africa. She weaves a web of theory that reveals the intimate interrelation of gender, race, and class structures that were born in the "Age of Empire." Drawing heavily from feminist, Marxist, and psychoanalytic understandings, McClintock remains self-reflective, simultaneously inhabiting and critiquing these schools of thought and the category of postcolonialism itself. Imperial Leather is much more than a simple rejection of 19th century imperialistic ideals. McClintock uses images, personal journals, and literature to expose the foundations of contemporary neo-colonialism and race and gender politics. In particular it is her examination of both sexual and commodity fetishism and an engagement with both Marx and Freud that scrapes away the veneer of consumer culture to reveal the dialectic nature of race, class, and gender as they co-creating the rigid boundaries of subject formation. Aside from the historical intrigue, the book has important implications for contemporary forces of nationalism, power inequalities, and global capitalism.

McClintock begins her first chapter with Adreinne Rich's words: "I am not the wheatfield. Nor the virgin land" (20). Right away we are shown how gender and colonialism function together. Rich is speaking to the dual image of her gendered body as something to be harvested or conquered, and the colonial land as inherently feminine. McClintock does not have to reach far for examples showing the "long tradition of male travel as an erotics of ravishment" (22). It seems any colonizer from Columbus to Coleman's Mustard Company has utilized this gendered framework. McClintock takes a psychoanalytic tack, identifying the contradictory duality of the male consciousness upon entering this feminized "terra incognita." She describes the male conqueror as "suspended between an imperial megalomania… and a contradictory fear of engulfment" (26). In this way we can understand both male fear and male lust as driving forces of imperialism.

McClintock continues with a discussion of the regulatory power of images, whether by the mapmaker or the advertiser. She introduces the stock and trade artifacts of colonial symbology including the mirror, soap, and whiteness itself. Through this introduction arises the concept of "consumer spectacle", which exemplifies the capitalistic shift from scientific racism to commodity racism (33). As McClintock states, these images "represent evolutionary time as time without women" (39). The imagined "family of man" bleeds into the social construction of the domestic nuclear family, as well as class constructions within Britain. Any Other (poor, nonwhite, etc.), becomes known as evolutionarily regressive and thus simultaneously naturalizes the powerful group as superior and simultaneously threatens the integrity of that group.

In her second chapter, McClintock examines the journals of Arthur Munby, an upper-middle class British man who had a perverse fascination with working women. Munby's life is a nearly perfect case study to reveal the intricate boundaries of Victorian life, as his fetishistic fascination was concentrated on border crossings. His collection of drawings and images show Munby to be a man enthralled with gender, class, and race transgression. McClintock spends considerable time in this chapter examining the confused psychological origins of Munby's fetishizations, which she sees as stemming from the binary maternal object of mother and nanny. McClintock cites Munby's obsession with hands as evidence to this theory saying "those wet, roughened and reddened working-class hands bathed, caressed, chastised, and fed the Victorian male infants who would rise to power… [thus] they carry the force of a fetish" (99). Though Munby's case may be extreme, McClintock argues that he was not alone in his fetishistic views. Munby was a clear product of his times, and thus he reveals the larger flow of power that created the Victorian Age.

Class is only part of the triangular equation that supported Munby's particular obsessions. Gender, race, and the imperial conception of social Darwinism all crash together in Munby's notebooks. Most startling are the depictions of British working women as blackened, masculine, and ape-like. McClintock uses these images to lead into a discussion of the regulation of female miners on the grounds of gender and race degradation. Leaders of the day feared that women doing "unfeminine" work "would suffer "deterioration of character" (117). Because these workers were located on the borders of class, gender, and race, it was feared that they most of all would revert to animalistic, pre-human form, which of course is how the British viewed their colonized subjects abroad.

Chapter three focuses on the journals of Hannah Cullwick, Munby's wife and servant. McClintock attempts to unravel the complex power play that existed between Munby and Cullwick, and, unlike previous analysts, McClintock describes Cullwick as more than mere victim. McClintock argues that for Cullwick "fetishism was an attempt—ambiguous, contradictory and not always successful—to negotiate the boundaries of power in ways that do not yield to simple lessons about dominance and submission" (138). Instead of viewing the sadomasochistic acts between the two as simply recreating the social hierarchy, McClintock believes that "S/M reveals that the social order is unnatural, scripted and invented" (143). The many photographs of Cullwick in Munby's collection reveal much about the symbols of power in Victorian England, including dirt and whiteness, marks of domesticity, and shiny boots. It was in Cullwick's command of these symbols that we see her power revealed. As McClintock states, "she claimed the right to manipulate the theatrical signs of lowliness in order to refuse the legitimacy of their value as nature" (180).

McClintock sees the complexity of social boundary delimitation as, at its root, a function of subconscious desire. Her Freudian analysis allows for identification with and understanding of the perpetrators of imperialism. Instead of decrying their racial/gender/class structure as simply wrong, we can begin to understand how it came to be, and how we have internalized aspects of their culture in ourselves.

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York: Routledge, 1995. Print.

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Amy Bravewater
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I am a longtime writer for Scripted, having produced quality content for a variety of businesses and organizations. I have an unusually diverse professional background with speciality knowledge in European history, Africana Studies, Feminist and Queer Theory, herbal healing, and midwifery. My favorite topics to write about are travel and lifestyle.
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