The Unusual Genealogy of the Visible Woman

The visible woman exists in many different incarnations, from along-running children’s toy to a museum attraction to the digital assemblage of a sectioned human body. In all of her forms, the visible woman suggests an enduring desire to achieve complete bodily transparency, particularly in the case of the female body.

The American visible woman has roots, oddly enough, in Weimar Germany, where Bruno Gebhard was the curator of the German Hygiene Museum in Dresden. In 1937, Gebhard emigrated to the United States. He became the first director of the Cleveland Health Museum, arranging to have a number of German exhibits reproduced, including a model of a transparent woman. This model, named Juno, was the first life-sized visible woman to be displayed in the United States. She inspired a legion of imitators.

This project (a work in progress) traces the various manifestations of the visible woman in American culture. I argue that the enduring popularity of the visible woman testifies to the continuing attraction of corporeal transparency and malleability.

Read about Bruno Gebhard.

Visit Juno’s current home.

See the Smithsonian’s page on the Visible Woman toy.

Thomas Edison Films about Tuberculosis

Between 1910 and 1915, Thomas Edison’s film company made six films about tuberculosis in collaboration with the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis. They’re often called the Red Cross Seal films because they also advertised the stamps.

The six films are:

  1. The Red Cross Seal, 1910
  2. The Awakening of John Bond, 1911
  3. Hope: A Red Cross Seal Story, 1912
  4. The Price of Human Lives, 1913
  5. The Temple of Moloch, 1914
  6. The Lone Game, 1914

I note that these films had to negotiate two big changes at the same time: the stylistic transition from early silent film to narrative film, and the transition from earlier notions of disease transmission to current ideas about germ theory. I argue that narrative and germ theory perform similar functions in these films. Both arrange people and places into logical chains of cause and effect, and both attempt to make sense of a disorderly, arbitrary world.

You can find my essay in Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States, edited by Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible (Oxford, 2011).







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