Edited by Muireann Crowley
Illustration by Holly Summerson hollysummerson.wix.com/arts
Recently, I started searching for interesting contemporary writers for my creative writing module. This was so I could draw inspiration from up and coming writers to improve my own writing. I came across Patricia Lockwood, an American essayist and poet. Her poem ‘Rape Joke,’ (2015), was the work that first invited me to explore her comedic and absurdist style of writing. Drawing on her own experience, Lockwood, in ‘Rape Joke,’ presents the common stereotypes associated with rape incidents and the perpetrators themselves, questioning whether it is acceptable to joke about sexual assault. Reading this persuaded me to buy her collection Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (2014) in which she tackles many current topics, like the media, gender and identity, in a fascinating and innovative way, making her work relevant to contemporary society. The poem I will be focusing on in this essay is ‘Perfect Little Mouthfuls,’ in which she presents the current issue of the impact of societal expectations on young girls, which I feel is very relevant today, especially with the power of the media in contemporary society.
The title ‘Perfect Little Mouthfuls’ is important as it is indicative of how women are sexually objectified today and are moulded to fit a model of perfection. The poem commences with the persona posing the question: ‘what have we dumped in the ocean?’ The ‘ocean’ represents the societal views of women and thus she equates the current issue of ocean pollution with that of the way societal expectations pollute young girls’ minds, who act as the dolphins in this scenario. The persona states that the ‘dolphins have begun growing breasts’ referring to young girls who are now becoming women. The metaphor of dolphins is relevant as they are highly intelligent creatures. Lockwood is presenting how young girls would be this intelligent if they could only learn about the real world and the oppressive values it holds. She states that nipples are the ‘brains of the breast’ and the fact that they are hidden away presents the societal view that women are preferred when they mindlessly follow expectations. Furthermore, the imagery of women’s breasts is furthered when she highlights ‘they are more playful ( / ) than the rest of the dolphin put together,’ suggesting that it is a woman’s breasts that determines her worth and that they are the most valued part of her body. This fetishisation of women’s breasts thus leads young girls to adopt these societal expectations and believe their worth is based on how physically attractive she is to men.
In the next section, the persona describes how men ‘rejoice’ over a ‘calendar of dolphins,’ referring to nude calendars and the unrealistic expectations they set of women’s bodies. They present the idea of a perfect woman, ‘bursting ( / ) the surface of the water (…) with the glitter of nature.’ Immediately, this conjures an image in the reader’s mind of the typical calendar pin-up girl, that men would gawk at, describing what a (beautiful) piece she is. This objectification of women is still present today. Lockwood then furthers this by presenting how men with ‘extra desire can pay one hundred dollars ( / ) to ride them.’ The way ‘extra desire’ can be commodified or turned into a form of labour in which the worker is objectified or instrumentalised suggests parallels with the exploitation of sex workers. This thus presents how, in today’s society, female beauty is consumed and treated as a commodity.
Shortly after this, Lockwood writes, ‘A triangle pokes above the water ( / ) and says better shapes below.’ This refers to the shapes of a woman’s body beneath her clothes and how seeing part of a woman’s body is a clue as to how she will look underneath her clothing. The most ‘sought-after shapes’ are ‘circles’ or ‘teardrops,’ again referring to beauty norms which women must strive to conform to. The word ‘teardrop’ is interesting, however, as it is multi-layered; it has negative connotations of the unrealistic ideal of the ‘perfect’ body shape and of the pain and suffering women go through, such as cosmetic surgery, to alter their bodies to meet these arbitrary expectations,
Following a line break, we are told about a mother who ‘gets a glimpse of her mutating daughter.’ The verb ‘mutating’ is suggestive in a variety of ways. One of which being how girls ‘mutate’ as they go through puberty, through changes in their bodily appearance and functions, such as breast development and hormone changes. It could also refer to the girls’ views and bodies ‘mutating’ to fit society’s expectations; both suggestions are enough to invoke anxiety in the mother. The ‘gasp’ she produces represents her shock and fear of what will become of her daughter when she steps foot in the real world. Lockwood then chooses to end the poem by bringing back the idea of nipples – ‘add nipples the brains to the breasts’- to encourage young women to learn about the real world and inform themselves because they would become unstoppable forces: ‘now the dolphins will be smarter than all of us (…) ( /) let’s give them a fresh new pair ( / ) of eyes to read this’.
This poem would fit into many university modules across a range of subjects, such as Sociology, Gender Studies and English Literature, due to the way it addresses how women are institutionally objectified in contemporary society. Instead of skirting around the subject, it is very to the point and direct, presenting the issue clearly and strongly throughout which makes it different to other poetry that deals with the same issues. It is highly relevant to young women, making it a valuable read for students studying the subjects aforementioned. Furthermore, like the rest of her poems, ‘Perfect Little Mouthfuls’ is stylistically intriguing and a fun read which it why I highly recommend it as a great addition to any curriculum regarding contemporary fiction and/or gender.
Lockwood, Patricia. ‘Perfect Little Mouthfuls.’ Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, Penguin, 2014, pp. 55-56.
About the author:
Phoebe Anson is a first-year English Literature student at University of Sheffield. She studied Performing Arts, English Literature and Psychology at A-level before deciding to continue her studies in English Literature. She has strong interests in women’s literature, contemporary fiction and creative writing, as well as Modernism, Existentialism and Romanticism.