Representations of Women, Sexuality, and Capital: Considering Questions of Credibility and the Body in a Global World

Laina Saul

Advisor: Alison Landsberg, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Debra B. Bergoffen, Roger N. Lancaster

Nguyen Engineering Building, #1605
April 10, 2018, 11:30 AM to 01:30 PM


Early in the twenty-first century a headline appeared in Western media, “Ugandan MP Offers Free College for Virgins.” A few years later, a different headline proclaimed, "Giving Birth outsourced to India: As Commercial Surrogacy Takes Off, Rent-a-womb Trend Fuels Debate." This college for virginity trade was directed at Ugandan schoolgirls, and required "virginity testing," a move that was ostensibly a strategy to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS. The "rent-a-wombs," were Indian women providing surrogacy services to Westerners, for fees substantially less than surrogates in the West. In each of these instances, the sexual embodiment of certain young girls and women of the global south was available for open and explicit discussion in the mass mediated Western public sphere, raising significant questions both about the instrumentalization and the signification of gendered bodies under global Capitalism and about the power of the Cosmopolitan ideal. In this dissertation, I examine these cases through a careful reading of Western and non-Western media, interviews, memoirs, historical accounts, and governmental reports. The "naming" of these women according to the instrumentalization of their gendered bodies in language sets a limit on what can be understood, on who may be seen as people, as "credible" subjectivities. It also represents and hides a larger agenda in which these women, have been put into positions of commodity exchange, both locally and globally, and become tools for the expansion of neoliberal agendas. However, I argue that though the women's publicized sexuality purportedly refuses their fully realized embodied subjectivity, and contributes to how they are named, it is in fact the case that resisting this categorization, resisting their positioning as "only" victim, leads them to reclaim their subjectivity. This reading allows me to challenge the way that language is bound and shaped according to the needs of power and capital. This dissertation challenges claims regarding the relationship between power and the production and manipulation of intelligible bodies, and produces a new paradigm that can be used to understand formations of subjectivity. In so doing it contributes to discussions that question the validity of the “cosmopolitan ideal” and demands an accounting of the existence and nature of the "global subject." Pursuing these questions challenges some longstanding ideas about the privileging of creativity over survival, and incites questions regarding the criteria that determines which human beings may be perceived as capable of acting as fully realized embodied subjects in a global world.