Is there a war on women’s bodies? It is this question that drives Verónica Gago’s (2020) analysis on sexist violence. Gago poses that we should see the endless escalation of violence against women not as a private conflict that happens only in the household, but rather as a total war on the female body that pervades every layer of society. Doing so allows us to see gendered violence as a systemic and structural problem, intentionally (re)produced by the patriarchal hegemony, while also showcasing the localised form violence takes on each particular body (Gago 2020, 59-61). As such, this leads Gago to the conclusion that the battle of violence against women starts and ends by breaking free from the heteronormative hegemony of today’s society. How, then, is this process initiated? Where does it start? In what follows, I will explore the answers to these questions as found in the works of Gago and singer-songwriter Fiona Apple.
Adopting Simone de Beauvoir’s famous statement that one is not born but rather becomes a woman, Verónica Gago argues that “becoming-woman alerts us to a theft” (2020, 79). Becoming-woman essentially entails to conform to the heteronormative meaning of the word. As such, society takes possession of the female body “in order to produce a two-part, binary organism, thus making us into a body that is not our own” (Ibid.). However, she claims, becoming contains revolutionary potential. Instead, the Nietzschean notion of ‘becoming who you are’ is the first step to freeing oneself from the dominant – and indeed, violent – hegemony (Gago 2020, 80). It is this sentiment in particular that is taken up in Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters (2020).
Reminiscing about several different situations, Apple tells the story of breaking free from one’s metaphorical prison. One of these is an unhealthy, abusive, and asymmetrical relationship that Apple is afraid to end – “I know what you can do, and I don’t want a war with you” (Ibid.). Throughout the song, Apple realises that this relationship holds her back emotionally and personally and proclaims – ushered in by the clashing of a cymbal, while the melody intensifies – to “fetch the bolt cutters, whatever happens, whatever happens” (Ibid.).
While the music dwindles again, Apple tells us about her experience with sexism in the music industry: “While I’d not yet found my bearings, those it-girls hit the ground. Comparing the way I was, to the way she was. Saying I’m not stylish enough and I cry too much.” (Apple, 2020). While writing from and about an entirely different context, Apple echoes an important point made by Gago: the system will make use of whichever (violent) means necessary to discipline women in conforming to the heteronormative mould, to “becoming-woman” (Gago 2020, 79). This point is emphasised when Apple tells us that she “grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill”, but that these were “shoes that were not made for running up that hill.” (Apple, 2020). Yet, she declares: “I need to run up that hill.” (Ibid.). Powerfully expressed through a sudden polyphonic explosion, Apple affirms her mission of self-realisation. She tells us: “I will, I will, I will, I will, I will.” (Ibid.). Consequently, with a final clang of the cymbals, she professes to ‘become who she is’ and “Fetch the bolt cutters, whatever happens, whatever happens” (Ibid.).
An important remark must be made here. The Nietzschean ‘becoming who you are’ is accomplished individually. It is a process in which the ‘I’ simultaneously realises and creates itself by taking ultimate responsibility for who one is (Look 2001, 9). This self, having been shrouded and corrupted by outside influence, is uncovered. For Apple, however, this self-realisation must always work in tandem with the ‘other’. Throughout Fetch the Bolt Cutters she emphasises the role of ‘them’ in her finding of the ‘I’. Particularly the line “I thought being blacklisted would be grist for the mill. Until I realized I’m still here” showcases the paradoxical nature of being outside of discourse. Becoming who you are cannot be about isolating oneself. For Apple, self-realisation must always happen in relation to, as well as in conjunction with the other.
There is a war on women’s bodies. How do we fight it? Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters and Verónica Gago’s Feminist International offer similar answers to this question. In particular, both argue that self-realisation is the first step in the battle against systemic sexism. Rather than becoming-women conform the heteronormative system, women must become who they are. They must fetch the bolt cutters and cut themselves loose. Of course, this is not an easy process. The war on women and their bodies is not easily ended, and the way to peace is far from close. Yet, these analyses offer two relatively hopeful accounts of the cessation of this war, in which disruption and subversion through self-realisation are key for the transformation of the system.
Apple, Fiona. 2020. “Fetch the Bolt Cutters.” Track 3 on Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Epic Records.
Gago, Verónica. 2020. Feminist International: How to Change Everything. Translated by Liz Mason-Deese. London: Verso.
Look, Brandon. 2001. “Becoming Who One Is” in Spinoza and Nietzsche.” Iyyun: The Jerusalem Philosophical Quarterly 50: 327-338.