Rosemary Betterton                                      

Reader in Women's Studies

Institute for Women's Studies

Lancaster University

Lancaster LA1 4YW   UK

Tel. 0044 (0)1524 592892   







Prima Gravida: Reconfiguring the Maternal Body in Representation 1


The subject of the maternal body has become a significant site of feminist enquiry across disciplines ranging from biology to philosophy. 2

Equally, the representation of 'fetal personhood' through new imaging technologies such as ultrasound, have been scrutinized by feminist critics who have remarked upon the absence of the physical body of the mother within such representations. 3

Less well remarked, are the ways in which pregnant women are currently being represented in the media and women artists are representing themselves as subjects of the birth process within forms of visual culture. 4


In this paper, I focus on pregnant figures who seem to constitute certain Limit points in the representation of maternal embodiment: the 'phantom' pregnant body; the elderly prima gravida, and the woman who undergoes abortion. I will explore some signifying practices by women in which pregnant embodiment is represented, in different ways, as disturbing to the given order. I am particularly interested in how these representations thematise the maternal body as impossible: the paradox of a pregnant woman who is not, or cannot be, a mother. In each of the visual texts under discussion, 'being pregnant' is represented as an un-natural state, as a cultural rupturing of feminine and maternal norms. This seems to offer a useful starting point from which to interrogate the relations between prevailing discourses around the maternal subject and the unstable subject of pregnancy, between what is representable and what remains undisciplined and pathologised in discourses of motherhood.  I hope this will provide a point of entry into thinking through some of the methodological, theoretical and political issues involved in the cultural analysis of maternal embodiment.


Conceiving of Pregnancy


Before looking at the three pregnant 'figures', I will outline briefly some of the methodological and theoretical problems that thinking through the pregnant body entails. In choosing to address visual culture, my methodological assumption is that there are forms of sensate knowledge that can be derived from visual practices and material processes, which are not entirely reduceable to cognitive traditions. I also assume that aesthetics can be a site for political critique: to examine representation is to examine how social relations are constituted and re-constituted within and through culture. As Marsha Meskimmon suggests, different forms of representational practice can offer 'potentially novel models for the articulation of female subjectivity outside the binary tradition which defines women solely in relation to men.' (Meskimmon 1996:7)  Here, my strategy is to engage in some depth with several visual texts and the questions that they raise. The rationale for choosing these texts is to counter two prevailing arguments often present in feminist criticism: that that pregnant embodiment has no tradition of representation within western culture and that representations by women will automatically question prevailing norms. 5



I start with a desire to de-naturalise - or at least resist the Naturalisation - of body of the mother as it is framed within prevailing western discourse. It seems necessary to begin by making a distinction, analytically at least, between the pregnant and the maternal body. The rationale for this is both empirical and theoretical. Empirically, because not every pregnant body becomes a maternal body: the existence of surrogacy, abortion, miscarriage and still birth to require an analytic splitting off of pregnancy from motherhood.  

In conceptualising pregnant embodiment outside the frame of essentialism, That is an untheorised emphasis on a pre-existing female body, I want to resist a Foucauldian reading of the pregnant body as a discursive text, since this cannot fully account for the lived proximity of the body and its material processes.

I don't want to throw out this particular baby with the bath water).6  As long as the heterosexual/young/ fertile/ able-bodied and white pregnant body remains privileged in western representation from the Virgin to Madonna, it seems a political necessity to analyse other pregnant bodies. In place of that normative body, I want to explore a concept of pregnant embodiment that is neither wholly natural nor yet wholly technologised, that is marked by temporality, situated in particular spaces and places, and is constituted through specific historical, cultural and economic formations. It is a flesh, therefore, that is inscribed with sociality.

How then can a different conceptual framework be developed through which to look at the pregnant body?  In western culture, the pregnant woman is conceptualised primarily as a vessel, a receptacle and an envelope for a foetus, a conduit or a passage, and pregnancy as a condition which must be undergone in order to produce a baby. She is represented as a container for an Other being, or as subjected to a process that is beyond her control. Neither concept pays attention to the embodied viewpoint of the pregnant subject, nor to pregnancy as a process in itself.  I argue that the pregnant subject disrupts a particular model of singular sexed subjectivity in two ways. The pregnant subject is simultaneously one and two: a co-existent self and Other. She is sexed as female but also, potentially at least, has a sexed male Foetus within one and the same flesh. Feminist philosophers such as Christine Battersby have begun to explore the model of the 'birthing self' as a means of thinking through female subjectivity in positive terms:


We need to think individuality differently, allowing for the potentiality for otherness to exist within it as well as alongside it. We need to theorise agency in terms of potentiality and flow. Our body-boundaries do not contain the self; they are the embodied self. (Battersby 1998 57/8) I shall now look at how certain representations of pregnant embodiment by Women might also offer such new models of subjectivity.


The 'Phantom' Pregnant Body


In Paula Modersohn-Becker's Self -Portrait on her Sixth Wedding Day, 1906, she depicted herself pregnant, naked from the hips up, her arms gently encircling her swollen belly. Uniquely, Becker signed and inscribed the canvas I painted this at the age of thirty on my sixth wedding day. P.B.', the date marking the fifth anniversary of her marriage on 25 May 1901. But the painter does not show herself in a natural state. She represents herself as pregnant when she was not, at the precise point when she had decided to abandon her husband, Otto Modersohn, in northern Germany and remain working as an independent artist in Paris. To interpret this self -portrait by Becker, as some critics have done, as 'looking forward to motherhood' is to misunderstand her project (Nochlin 1978:67). This misunderstanding is probably over-determined by her actual pregnancy in the following year and her death following the birth of her daughter, Mathilde. Rather than depicting the dutiful wife and mother that this sanitised version of her biography invokes, letters that refer to her lover, the sociologist, Werner Stombart, and her estranged husband, make it clear that actual motherhood was not on her mind. 7  So why did she imag(in)e herself to be pregnant?  In an earlier analysis I read this painting through the concept of the Maternal outlined in Julia Kristeva's Stabat Mater (1980). At that time, this seemed to offer a way of investigating, as Kristeva put it, 'the subject, the mother as the site of her proceedings.' (Kristeva1980:237). However, Kristeva's own conclusion that the mother as subject cannot exist except as 'a thoroughfare, a threshold where "nature" confronts "culture"' (Kristeva 1980:237), was at odds with my own research on the representation of motherhood by women artists, which showed them to exist as both artistic and maternal subjects. At that time, I held together this contradiction between Kristeva's authority and my own findings by foregrounding the contradictory unity of the image itself (Betterton 1996).  I want now to re-read the image rather differently, in a way that also marks an epistemological shift in my own thinking from psychoanalytic theory towards feminist philosophy. In her 1990 essay on 'Pregnant Embodiment', Iris Marion Young describes pregnancy as: 'a paradigm of bodily experience in which the transparent unity of self dissolves and the body attends positively to itself at the same time as it enacts its projects.'(Marion Young 1998:274).

The pregnant subject is de-centred or doubled between 'her body as her self and not her self.' (Marion Young 1998:274) 8 But in the case of this image, the doubling of the body is not of the pregnant subject/foetus that Marion Young describes, and yet the mirror image that we see in the reflected gaze of the self portrait is evidently a form of double. Who then is this phantom Other, the pregnant subject that Becker imagines her self (or not her self ) to be? In her book, Imaginary Bodies, Moira Gatens argues that 'the self emerges in opposition to (on some views, in relation with) an other...the (m)other' (Gatens 1996:32).  She suggests that this self is always socially constructed in relationship to another rather than given by nature: 'This body image is a double of sorts which allows us to imagine or reflect upon ourselves in our present situations - but it is also invoked in what allows us to project ourselves into future situations and back to past situations. (Gatens 1996:35) In Becker's case, this body schema allowed her precisely to 'imagine or reflect upon' herself; to project herself into a potential imagined future body as well as, simultaneously, to discard her past self given in the textual inscription, 'on my sixth wedding day'. The (m)other with whom she is in relation (or opposition) is not her own mother, but her imagined self as mother. This perhaps can also account for the self possession of the portrait, this is a self that is depicted outside of the sexual economy of the male gaze.


The 'elderly prima gravida'


Becker was 30 when she painted her Self  Portrait, thirty one when she died as a result of complications after childbirth, relatively old to bear a first child in the first decade of the twentieth century. There is an absence of cultural representations of older women and this is even more marked in relation to the older pregnant body. I shall now focus on a figure of pregnant embodiment that seems to constitute a discursive limit in representations of pregnancy. In the term that was attached to my own file after giving birth for the first time at forty: the figure of the 'elderly prima gravida'. This seems to be a useful starting point from which to interrogate what is excluded from prevailing representations of pregnancy: the unseemly body of the older pregnant woman, as it is routinely pathologised in medical discourse. In the media, older pregnant women, whether by choice or through fertility treatment are thematised as selfish or abnormal - unless they are celebrity pregnancies. 9 In order to examine this cultural revulsion associated with the aging pregnant body, I want to turn to two theoretical tropes: the grotesque and the monstrous.

In Rabelais and his World, Mikhail Bakhtin argues that the material body is considered grotesque because, unlike the ideal body, it does not correspond to'the aesthetics of the readymade and completed.' On the contrary, its traditional components are 'copulation, pregnancy, birth, growth, old age, disintegration and dismemberment...contrary to the classic image of the finished, completed man, cleansed as it were of all the scoriae of birth and development'  (Bakhtin 1968 25). He famously cites as examples, the terracotta figurines of pregnant senile hags in the Kerch collection:  There is nothing completed, nothing calm and stable in the bodies of  these old hags. They combine a senile, decaying and deformed flesh with the flesh of new life, conceived but as yet unformed. Life is shown in its two-fold contradictory process; it is the epitome of incompleteness. And such is precisely the grotesque concept of the body. (Bakhtin 1968 25-6).

We can note the contrast of 'decaying and deformed' old flesh with 'the flesh of new yet unformed', is a trope familiar from horror genres: the monstrous mother who births the living dead. This trope has been read in various ways by feminist critics but predominantly, following Kristeva, as examples of the abjected monstrous feminine, the maternal body as the site of horror 10 Yet, for Bakhtin, the figurines represent a 'principle of growth...This is the ever unfinished, evercreating body, the link in the chain of genetic development, or more correctly speaking, two links shown at the point of where they enter into each other.' (Bakhtin 1968 26)  Instead of being abject, these aged pregnant bodies represent the feminine principle, the carnivalesque 'woman on top' turned critically, in the form of laughter, against official culture; as Bakhtin writes, 'Moreover, these old hags are laughing.' (Bakhtin 1968 26). The laughter of Bakhtin's hags is subversive; it is 'the people's ambivalent laughter (that) expresses the point of view of the whole world; he who is laughing also belongs to it.' (Bakhtin 1968 12)   But, as Mary Russo has shown, such figures are also deeply ambivalent for: 'women and their bodies, certain bodies, in certain public framings, in certain public spaces, are always already transgressive - dangerous and in danger.' (Russo 1986 216).  And, while Russo suggests that the grotesque 'might be used affirmatively to destabilise the idealisations of female beauty or to realign the mechanisms of desire', this is necessarily a tricky enterprise (Russo 1986 221).  It is precisely this kind of transgression that Cindy Sherman has enacted in her staged photographic self  portraits over the last two decades.

Moving away from her initial use of irony and realism, she has more recently used props and prosthetics to explore horror genres. In Untitled # 250, as with Bakhtin's figurines, the figure of the 'hag' is pregnant and senile. She births or defecates a string of sausages between her amputated thighs but, unlike Bakhtin's, Sherman's figure is not laughing. What makes this image so disturbing is its violence on and violation of the figure's body through exposure to the gaze. I know this is not a body; it does not pretend to be anything but artificial body parts. What disturbs me is the look; she can see me looking at her and her glare accuses rather than refuses the gaze. She is both phallic and castrated, aggressive and passive, violent and violated. Sherman figures her laughter in a very different way from Bakhtin's figurines. It is directed against me, not with me, in a way that is disturbing to a female viewer. Does this disturbance disrupt discursive accounts of pregnancy within dominant culture or is it disturbing at a subjective level, a gash in the visible; a cut which cannot be sutured and which disturbs the subject 'woman'?

Rosi Braidotti suggests what structures this discomfort: She notes the Origins of the term teratos in its double sense in Greek of both prodigy and demon, as that which evokes horror and fascination and as such, is structurally ambiguous. From Aristotle into the nineteenth century, popular and bio-medical beliefs made links between the monstrous and childbirth. Monsters were: linked to the female body in scientific discourse through the question of biological reproduction. Theories of conception of monsters are at times extreme versions of the deep-seated anxiety that surrounds the issue of women's maternal of procreation in a patriarchal society' (Braidotti 1996:139)

Monstrous births could be linked to women's sexual excess or perversion, Mixing of different sperm or of different races, intercourse during menstruation, eating forbidden food and demonic possession - or in a modern version of the theme, toxic or genetic contamination. The maternal imagination had the power to kill or deform the foetus merely through the act of illicit reading or looking. Women through their maternal function had to be disciplined to control their desires  for the wellbeing of the child - not unlike modern day injunctions on pregnant women not to smoke, drink or take drugs.11 The pregnant body, both then and now, is thus conceptualised as both protective container for the fetus and as dangerous conductor of pathogens and negative emotions, a discursive pathology which renders the pregnant woman an unstable, potentially sick subject. In this way, Braidotti argues, the monstrous helps to organise structures of difference: sexual, racial, human/non-human, sacred or mutant, in a Same/Other binary central to the construction of the Enlightenment subject.

This raises the problem of using such discursive structures as a means of transgressing norms of femininity. If the pregnant body is already pathologised as monstrous and abnormal, then to display it as Sherman does, is to risk confirming  the structure which denies the older pregnant subject her subjectivity. While the public space of the gallery may be a safe one for women to enact symbolic transgression, older women who transgress the codes of fertility are not so easily forgiven.

More usefully, Braidotti discusses the idea of 'promising monsters' or the monster as a process: 'I would like to propose a redefinition, the monster is a process without a stable object. It makes knowledge happen by circulating, sometimes as the irrational non-object.' (Braidotti 1996:150). One work that addresses the problematic of the pregnant body as involving a temporal process 'without a stable object' is Susan Hiller's photographic work, Ten Months, 1977 79, a piece made when she was 36-7 after her first and only pregnancy.12 It is based on the journal and photos she took during her pregnancy 'as a record of the internal and external changes of that period. As someone who was already a mature artist and aware of the metaphors of creativity that comes out of pregnancy, I was interested' (Hiller 1996 47-8). The work is in ten units following the ten lunar months of pregnancy, each unit made up of a typed text and twenty eight black and white photographs of her pregnant belly, 'the section of the body you couldn't talk about, the pregnant part' (Hiller 1996 49). At first sight it appears to be an abstract sequence and its complexity only emerges with the written text .The piece works at a number of levels; visually it refers to the lunar landscape; indexically to the body's changing shape, and ontologically to the pregnant subject and her creativity. The problematic that the work addresses is the dichotomy between the pregnant object and artistic subject:


TWO/ She must have wanted this, this predicament, these contradictions. She

believes physical conception must be 'enabled' by will or desire, like any

other creative process.

      (Pregnant with thought. Brainchild. Giving birth to an idea)


TEN/Ten Months

      "seeing" (& depicting)........natural 'fact' (photos)

      "feeling"(& describing).......cultural artifact (texts)

(Susan Hiller Ten Months 1977-79)


However, at the same time as questioning that split, Hiller herself risks confirming it by the way in which she positions the first person speech of the pregnant subject in the written text while the fragmented body is positioned as a separate object of visual representation.  In giving words to the pregnant subject, she thus reconfirms the 'part that cannot be spoken'.


The woman undergoing abortion


In contrast to Hiller's work, Paula Rego's figures of women undergoing abortion in Tryptych, 1998, have no words of their own. But, unlike the visual rhetoric adopted in anti-abortion campaigns, Rego gives her figures their subjectivity. Her paintings explore emotional traumas, conflict and passions through staged narratives acted out by anonymous characters and have been described as 'dramas without plots' and 'narratives without endings' (Rego 1998). She often draws on fable as a vehicle for symbolic representations of experiences like incest or abortion, which are difficult to express in words. These paintings are always staged, drawn from the same models and often using the same studio props. Set in artificial interior spaces, the three panels appear to depict the neutral space of a hospital trolley, a clinic, and featureless bedroom. The same model, differently dressed, appears in each panel and, although the figures' clothes can be read as those worn by an older woman, a schoolgirl and a mature woman, age differences are barely suggested. Rego evokes a language of gesture and expression in which the meaning is left ambiguous. Unlike Hiller's representation of pregnancy as a dual temporal process, regulated physically and subjectively fluid, here, time has stopped. This moment seems suspended, out of time, cut from the flow of normal life and fixed in the spaces of bleak and claustrophobic rooms.  The trauma of the event is marked by the banality of the setting in the absence of the key signifier of pregnancy: the swelling belly.  Rego stages the invisible drama of a pregnant subject for whom motherhood is not a possibility.

I'll draw this together by way of a very brief and provisional conclusion. In each of the three 'figures' I have explored, the pregnant subject is represented as disruptive of the feminine and the maternal as ideological forms through an differently imagined or experienced body schema. These pregnant bodies are doubled, self and Other, grotesque and monstrous, or experienced as a process which can be either productive or unproductive of a child. These representations, I suggest, offer the potential for imagining the pregnant body outside the framing concept of motherhood within which it has been subsumed. In doing so, they offer a way of thinking about the pregnant woman not as a vessel or thoroughfare for a new life, but as an independent subject of the procedures of pregnancy.  In Donna Haraway's terms, these may be seen as new 'figurations', attempts at more adequate representations of female experience that may create feminist forms of knowledge (Haraway 1997).








Bakhtin (1986) Rabelais and His World, London

Battersby (1998) The Phenomenal Woman: Feminist Metaphysics and the

Patterns of

Identity, Cambridge

Betterton (1996) An Intimate Distance: Women, Artists and the Body, London

Braidotti, (1994) 'Mothers, Monsters and Machines in Nomadic Subjects, London

Braidotti, (1996) 'Signs of Wonder and Traces of Doubt: on Teratology and

Embodied Differences' in R. Braidotti & N.Lykke (eds. ) Between Monsters,

Goddesses and Cyborgs: Feminist Confrontations with Science, Medicine and

Cyberspace, London.

Gatens, M. (1996) Imaginary Bodies, London

Haraway (1997) Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan_Meets_Oncomouse,


Hiller, S (1996) Thinking About Art: Conversations with Susan Hiller, London

Kristeva (1980), 'Stabat Mater' reprinted in TMoi (ed.) The Kristeva Reader,


Marion-Young (1990) 'Pregnant Embodiment' reprinted in D.Welton (1998) (ed.)

Body and Flesh: a Philosophical Reader, Oxford

Meskimmon (1996) 'The Monstrous and the Grotesque', make 72

Nochlin, L. (1978) Women Artists 1550-1950, Los Angeles




1 A version of this paper was first given at the research seminar,

'Motherhood: the Politics of Reproduction and Representation', Institute for

Women's Studies, Lancaster University, 9.6.2000. It is not a report of

findings, but a site of investigation into ways of framing research on

cultural representations of the maternal body and comes out of a continuing set of interests in how women have represented female embodiment in visual

culture. It also returns to concerns with questions of maternal identity and the aging body - in which I also figure myself. (Betterton1996)


2  For example, see Kristeva (1980, 1986), Marion-Young (1990), Irigaray

(1993), Haraway (1990, 1994), Braidotti (1994, 1996) and Battersby (1998).



3 For example, see Jacobus (1990), Creed (1990) Petchesky (1991), Franklin

(1991), Kaplan (1992), Hartouni (1992), Stabile (1992), Zimmerman (1993)

and Betterton (1996).


4 . See Tyler, I (2000) 'Stetchmarks: Celebrity Skin and Pregnant Embodiment '

in S.Ahmed & Stacey, J. Skin, London, Routledge, and Sieglohr, U. (1998)

Focus on the Maternal: Female Subjectivity and  Images of Motherhood, London :

Scarlet Press


5 Images of pregnant women can be found in 15th century Italian painting,


example, Piero della Francesca's Madonna del Parto, San Sepulcro, and

Leonardo da Vinci's famous anatomical drawings of the embryo in the womb. In other cultures, for example, of the Olmec in Latin America and peoples in West

Africa, much more explicit representations of naked pregnancy and birth are



6 As a working hypothesis I have found useful Elizabeth Grosz'

description of biology as 'an open materiality, a set of  (possibly infinite) tendencies and potentialities which may be developed, yet whose development will necessarily hinder or induce other developments and trajectories.'(Grosz 1994:191)



7 These letters, found in the 1980s in archives of the former East.Germany,

were excluded from the 1980 American edition of her Letters and Journals. See

Diane-Radycki make 72 (1996)



8 MarionYoung discards Kristeva's psychoanalytic framework, but retians her

concept of the split maternal subject (Marion Young 1998:276)


9 For example, media treatment of a 58 year old woman who bore twins after

fertility treatment in Rome was exemplified in the title of the British

Channel Four Despatches programme that followed the case, Granny's Having a Baby. This contrasts with the celebration of the pregnancies of the British Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Booth, and of the singer, Madonna, both in their



10 See Creed (1990) for an analysis of the monstrous maternal feminine in

the film Alien.


11 For a useful analysis of modern prohibitions on pregnant women, see

McNeil & Litt (1992).


12  The reception of this work was comtemtious since it subverted both the traditionally sentimental imagery of pregnancy and the contemporary