Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Throwing Like A Girl

For any who may be interested, Iris Marion Young wrote a (now quite famous) piece called "Throwing Like a Girl: A Phenomenology of Feminine Body Comportment Motility and Spatiality" in which she describes how Merlau-Ponty's description of the 'lived body' (most notably, in Phenomenology of Perception) differs for women.  This difference is not merely a difference in observed behavior but, consistent with Merlau-Ponty's account of an embodied being in the world, it strikes right at the heart of the lived experience.

So, for example, the Merlau-Ponty quote from the Heft reading, "The body is the vehicle for being in the world, and having a body is, for a living creature, to be intervolved in a definite environment, to identify oneself with certain projects and be continually committed to them" (Merleau-Ponty, 1963, p. 82), is for Young different in men and women within the context of a patriarchal society.

This is of particular importance to the Heft reading because the ideas of ecological psychology are clearly in line with those of Merleau-Ponty.  As such, Young's critique of Merleau-Ponty may be relevant to this approach, particularly in the later sections of the paper in which Heft discusses how functional meaning may be culturally derived and how perceptual learning is shaped by many variables (including exploration - which Young would claim to be inhibited in women - and age).

The intentionality found in Merlau-Ponty's works, and accordingly, the works of Heft and Gibson, describes goal-directed actions and the projection of movement.  However, Young would say that such actions, and indeed even the projection of such actions, are inhibited in women due to a hesitancy instilled through one's culture.

Young justifies her claim with the observation, for example, that women frequently refrain from moving with their entire body and reach such that while a limb might move outward into the world, the rest of the body remains immobile.  This indicates a tension between the intentionality of reaching to accomplish a projected end ('I can' in Merleau-Ponty terms) and a questioning of that intentionality (or self-imposed 'I cannot').  Such tension between movement and non-movement thus renders the body disconnected, preventing the bodily unity Merleau-Ponty emphasizes as foundational to one's relationship with the world.

This carries over to the spatial realm, since for Merleau-Ponty, space is not merely an objective space, but a lived space, one into which a body extends and moves in an intentional manner (Merleau-Ponty, 1963, p. 117, 161).  Given the restricted nature of feminine bodily movement, it follows that a woman's surrounding space is enclosed and seemingly confining, for it remains unutilized through the hesitancy and limitations of her movement (and projected movement).  For her, a distinction is thus made between a 'here' and a 'yonder', which Young describes as a uniquely feminine 'double spatiality' (Young, 1990, p. 40).  This is a particularly important point because according to Merleau-Ponty, the body not only exists in space but constitutes space such that it is the source of spatial relations (Merleau-Ponty, 1963, p. 117, 164).  However, for Young's feminine bodily existence, the body is both a spatially constituting subject and a spatially constituted object, with emphasis on the latter, since her body is positioned in a space that "does not have its origin in a woman's own intentional capacities" (Young, 1990, p. 41).

Essentially, Merleau-Ponty's portrayal of the lived body as transcendence in "pure fluid action, the continuous calling-forth of capacities that are applied to the world," does not hold for feminine corporeality, which is instead a "transcendence that is at the same time laden with immanence" (Young, 1990, p. 36).  My claim is that this difference in lived experience must carry over to our understanding of ecological psychology and the description of affordances in defining our perceptual experience.  The relationship between functionality and the object, between animal and environment (or in other words, the relational concept) must be understood in a way that takes into account different ways of being-in-the-world, of which Young's feminine embodiment is one example.

As a side note - I don't think Heft (nor Gibson) would necessarily object to this point, I just wanted to bring it up since it was an idea not addressed in his paper.

Another note: The picture is of Mo'ne Davis who became famous after pitching a shutout in the Little League World Series.  Needless to say, I don't think she suffers from the inhibited transcendence described by Young, at least when it comes to baseball.

Heft, Harry (1989). Affordances and the body: An intentional analysis of Gibson's ecological approach to visual perception. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 19(1):1-30.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). The Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. (C. Smith, Trans.) (Original work published 1945).

Young, I. M. (1990). On Female Body Experience: 'Throwing like a girl' and other essays in feminist philosophy and social theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


  1. I found this a really interesting piece Genevieve, the next time I sit on a bus or train with my legs wide apart, taking up as much room as possible, I'll bear this in mind!

    1. I responded to this, but it seems to have accidentally deleted itself (poor internet). Sorry if you get it twice!

      Anyway, thanks for your comment, Michael! So much of what we've been talking about deals with some kind of situated embodiment, and I thought Iris Marion Young may provide some interesting food for thought in this area. I appreciate you taking the time to read it! I'll also be adjusting my position on the bus, perhaps by lying across the seat. Together we will take down the patriarchy!