Article | “Breastmilk, Exposed Bodies, & the Politics of the Indecent”

Breastmilk, Exposed Bodies, & the Politics of the Indecent

Emily Wilbourne
Queens College and The Graduate Center, CUNY


This essay was written as the keynote presentation for a graduate student conference on “Indecent Musicology,” held at New York University on March 26, 2016.1 I would like to thank Marcus Pyle and the conference’s other organizers for the invitation to speak and for the call-for-papers, which not only produced several excellent student responses but encouraged me to think about my own work and our current intellectual climate in ways that I found highly productive. As I revised this paper in the wake of the 2016 US election, the question of the indecent seemed more pertinent than ever: the success of certain egregiously indecent forms of political discourse demands attention, as does the widespread failure of liberal and left-wing outrage as a means to police acceptable behavior. If unabashed indecency has been a key tool to dismantle oppression (as epitomized by gay pride), Trump has flipped the script. No longer the raucous sexual menace, insidiously undermining the sanctified space of the white, heterosexual, nuclear family, the loose coalition of the left—women, queers, people of color, immigrants, single mothers, academics—has been painted as thin skinned and over sensitive, too busy with identity politics and political correctness to have noticed the visceral anger of “real” Americans.2 When it comes to indecency, the familiar poles of “right” and “left” no longer cohere. It is worth asking: who gets to belong to the “moral majority” in an era where the swastika has returned to intellectual currency?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines indecent as “grossly improper or offensive,” and offers a list of synonyms demonstrating exactly how closely the term relies on a context of bodies, their exposure, and sexual impropriety: “bawdy, blue, coarse, crude, dirty, filthy, foul, gross, gutter, impure, obscene, lascivious, lewd, locker-room, nasty, pornographic, porny, profane, raunchy, ribald, smutty, stag, trashy, unprintable, vulgar, wanton, X-rated.”3 The indecent is tightly tied to corporeality, and what counts as indecent depends upon a shared and often publicly configured understanding of propriety. In this paper, I explore the logic of indecency and the extent to which indecency functions as a boundary, rendering legible certain (bodily) acts and differences, and—where successful—enforcing conformity. I am particularly fascinated by moments in which an individual’s body or bodily acts are understood as indecent and called out as such—against the grain of the intention of the individual concerned. Breastfeeding can (and in this paper will) serve as emblematic of this process, but the field of deployment is wide and should be understood to include both homosexuality and race. For my purposes, the explicitly non-sexual nature of breastfeeding gives it a certain utility, providing a limit case for the operations of bodily exposure and explicating other physical sites of moral outrage, such as eating while fat or walking while black. In part, too, I am drawn to the indecency of breastfeeding because I myself breastfed my son, Rex, for 18 months of the last two years, and have thus been exposed (if you’ll pardon the pun!) to the presumed indecency of my body in sometimes painful and confronting ways. Last but not least, the indecency of breastfeeding provides an opportunity for me to talk about one of my favorite operas—namely Francesco Cavalli’s Il Giasone, libretto by Giacinto Andrea Cicognini—the only opera I know of in which the act of breastfeeding serves as a crucial plot device. Analyzed in terms of indecency and its workings, Il Giasone is illuminating: the specific musical, characterological, and narrative articulations of indecency logic that manifest in the musical-theatrical work provide a sharply relevant critique of how and why certain bodies are marked as improper or offensive, with implications for our understanding of political discourses large and small.

Here the specific operations of the indecent are crucial, for the successful charge of indecency requires a web of presuppositions in order to succeed. I will make four observations. In the first instance, indecency requires a witness. To behave indecently while alone in your room is perfectly acceptable, indeed, we could define indecent behavior as the act of doing in public something that should properly be kept private. This brings me to my second observation, regarding propriety, and the extent to which indecency assumes a common or shared notion of acceptable public behaviors. For example, it is a matter of simple, common decency, to have sex or to masturbate in private; the taboo extends to discussing your sex life or masturbation practices in public, particularly where you might be overheard by an unsuspecting, non-consenting witness. Third, indecency involves the physical body: particularly its exposure, but also its functions and thus its animalistic tendencies (farting, defecating, urinating, masturbating, having sex). The animal element here is not co-incidental, and brings me to my fourth point, perhaps better understood as a corollary of the proceeding three: that indecency sits at the intersection of the body and of the moral, of the individual and of the community. “Indecency” is an instrument that polices bodily comportment, enforcing the norms of acceptable physicality and the precise location of the line between public and private.

Importantly, indecency always carries with it an implied violence: the indecent behavior offends the witness, assaulting them and implicating them in an act to which they did not and do not consent. Think of the legal category of indecent exposure, and the violent effects of indecency are clear: indecent exposure is “the crime of displaying one’s genitalia to one or more other people in a public place, usually with the apparent intent to shock the unsuspecting viewer and give the exposer a sexual charge.”4 The witness here is assaulted, implicated against their volition in a sexually charged interaction with the body of another person. The witness is innocent; the perpetrator who exposed their body is guilty. The way in which this logic extends beyond indecent exposure or indecent assault to indecency in general, however, proves more pernicious. And it is in this moment of slippage that my interest truly lies.

Let me re-configure the example I offered above: it is a matter of simple, common decency to have sex or to masturbate in private. Reconfigured: it is a matter of simple, common decency, to breastfeed in private. Or even, it is a matter of simple, common decency, to keep the display of homosexual affection private. We could generate a long if not exhaustive list of such sentences, each harnessing the same logic of shared moral authority and the impropriety of certain bodily acts. I am not trying to argue that these claims are equally valid, but that they lie on a spectrum of “indecent” behaviors, and are equally dependent on the moral horizons of the particular witness who registers the claim of indecency.

As is implied in the formulation “common decency,” both decency and indecency presume a set of shared moral values, espoused and understood by a community of like-minded individuals from which the indecent are justifiably excluded, their behavior having revealed a sick moral compass and warranting their violent expulsion from the fold. Indecency insists that the perpetrators fall into line: that they conform, they cover up, or they disappear. Thus indecency is predicated on the violence of exposure, and it naturalizes a violence of conformity, when the body that has been exposed is forcibly removed from sight and the subject of that body chastised for their indecent acts.

In Cavalli and Cicognini’s Il Giasone, we find indecency logic as an essential part of the narrative structure. First performed in 1649, Il Giasone is widely considered to be the most performed (and thus, most popular) opera of the seventeenth century.5 Though very loosely based on the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece, the plot of the opera turns on the competing amorous claims of two women, Isifile and Medea, both queens, both mothers, both lovers enamored with the eponymous hero, Giasone—to whom each have borne identical twin boys (this despite the fact that Giasone, ironically or not, is scored for castrato). Isifile, the abandoned ex, pursues Giasone with tears and imprecations; Medea, his jealous lover du jour, insists that he dispose of her rival. Giasone cannot bring himself to murder Isifile with his own hands, but is persuaded to arrange her death. He instructs Besso, a soldier in his trusty band of Argonauts, to wait on a cliff beside the sea, and to throw in whomever arrives and inquires (on Giasone’s behalf) whether his orders have been carried out. Giasone then charges the eager Isifile with the message, promising to marry her once she returns. It is at this point that the first scene I want to discuss takes place: Isifile is intent on delivering the message in order to hurry back to Giasone as quickly as possible, however her departure is delayed by her manservant, Oreste, who calls her back to feed the twins. Unfortunately, in the only commercially available DVD of the opera and all three available audio recordings, this scene is cut, so you will have to rely on my account of events. Here is the first part of the text (the translations are mine):

Il Giasone, Act III, Scene viii 

Oreste Fra i notturni perigli,
signora, ove vai tu?
Così de’ propri figli
non ti ricordi più?
L’un e l’altro languisce
per fame che atterrisce
anco i figli de i re.
Ah volgi indietro il piè!
My Lady, where are you going
among these nocturnal dangers?
Do you no longer recall
your own children?
Both one and the other languish
from hunger, which buries
also the children of kings.
Oh, retrace your steps!
Isifile Deh gli consola;
farò presto ritorno,
prima che spunti il giorno.
Ugh, console them;
I’ll be back soon,
before daybreak.


At the opening of the scene, Oreste tries to call Isifile home, passively aggressively chastising her for an extended absence. Her initial response—in tones familiar to nursing mothers everywhere—is that she’ll be back soon, but Oreste is insistent:

Oreste Col canto e con il vezzo
gl’ho consolati un pezzo,
ma fu vana ogni prova;
dove la fame impera,
la musica non giova,
e da i labri innocenti,
dal digiuno avviliti,
forman strani concenti
non so se di bestemmie o vagiti.
With song and with sweet distractions
I consoled them a little,
but every attempt was in vain;
Where hunger rules,
music provides no delight,
and from their innocent lips
from disgraceful starvation,
they make strange noises;
I do not know if they are blasphemies or whimpers.


At “Col canto e con il vezzo,” Oreste slips out of recitative, into a brief arioso recreation of his attempt to distract the children. Upon hearing his account of the failure of music to soothe the twins and the distressing noises that they apparently emit, Isifile relents. She calls on Oreste to bring her children out to meet her, at which suggestion he is immediately horrified. Though he tries to convince her to nurse in the hut, she refuses. He is to bring them outside and meet her at the fountain; and be quick about it!

Isifile L’amor mi sprona e la pietà m’arresta;
tosto qua gli conduci.
Love pricks me and pity arrests me;
Quickly, quickly, bring them here.
Sarà peggio, signora,
avranno aria di dentro, aria di fuora.
Questi non han bisogno
venir all’aria bruna
per contemplar le stelle o ver la luna,
ma di tue mamme intatte
astrologi affamati
braman di specular la via del latte.
That will be worse, my Lady!
They will have inside air and outside air!
These [infants] do not need
To come out into the dusky air
To contemplate the stars or see the moon
But of your full breasts
[They are] hungry astrologers
Who desire the sight of the Milky Way.
Isifile O figli, anime mie, del mio ritorno
gl’indugi tormentosi
a i paterni rigori
condonate pietosi;
deh torna alla capanna, amico Oreste:
di là prendi i miei figli
e alle vicine fonti,
ove ratta mi invio, a me li porta;
ma sian tuoi passi frettolosi e pronti.
Oh, my sons, my souls,
the awful delays of my return
are the paternal difficulties
to which you are condemned;
Oh, return to the cottage, friend Oreste:
from there take my children
and to the nearby fountain,
to which I will hurry, bring them to me,
but be quick about it.
Oreste Perché non gl’allattate entro ‘l tugurio? Why don’t you nurse them in the hut?
Isifile Alta necessità così comanda. Necessity commands it.


I love Isifile in this scene. I love her willingness to leave her children in order to prioritize her own desires; and I love the pragmatism with which she organizes to feed them, ensuring minimum disruption to her own itinerary. I am—as a nursing mother—thoroughly interpellated by Isifile’s behaviour. Less comfortably, I am also sympathetic with regard to her treatment at the hand of Oreste. His reaction to her decision to nurse in public, rather than tucked away in the hut, is telling. The public/private divide was far more rigorously enforced in seventeenth-century Venice than it is in the modern West. Venetian noblewomen were rarely permitted outside their houses, and the concept of nursing out in the open must have seemed particularly precocious. The exposure of Isifile’s body—so pragmatic and inconsequential in her account—becomes cause for immediate comment and an opportunistic pun on the night sky, the Milky Way, Isifile’s moonlike breasts, and her bodily fluids. Something inside me curls up a little at the edges as I am—again, and less pleasurably—interpellated. Isifile’s behavior, by Oreste’s reckoning, is rendered indecent. Her breasts are to be exposed in public and are thus a fair target for commentary and crude jokes.

It is here, in Oreste’s reactions that we can identify the workings of indecency logic. Accordingly, it is Isifile’s responsibility to cover up. Although in my analysis it is Oreste’s reaction that renders the situation problematic, it is Isifile who is to be held accountable: it is she, after all, who sees her children as only one of the tasks on her agenda; she who gives validity to her other desires; she who (mistakenly?) believes that she can broker a solution that ensures the well-being of her children without sacrificing the resolution of her other goals. Indecency presumes a community who will understand, like Oreste, that to feed her children outside is worse, literally “peggio,” than not feeding them at all. In this scene, Oreste is simultaneously the voice that insists Isifile fulfill her maternal obligations, he attempts to police the places and spaces in which her obligations may freely take place, and when she resists, he immediately objectifies and sexualizes her body as the locus of disruption.

As it turns out, stopping to breastfeed saved Isifile’s life: let us watch. This production stars Robin Johannsen as Isifile—dressed throughout in blue. The countertenor Christophe Dumaux appears as Giasone, and Katarina Bradic as Medea (dressed, in this production, in red).

Video Example 1. Besso’s task. Francesco Cavalli, Il Giasone. Vlaamse Opera, Antwerp. © Dynamic, 2012. Used with permission.

This is not the only place in the opera where Isifile’s breasts feature heavily. At the climactic moment in the drama—the emotionally charged penultimate scene—Isifile famously exposes both of her breasts to the audience and to the assembled ensemble, citing, in the process, a clichéd gesture of the lamenting prima donna’s repertoire, but also cleverly reclaiming some agency over her own body and her interpretation, as well as over the outcome of her personal story.

As embodied by actresses and singers on the Italian stage, seventeenth-century lament was an aestheticized depiction of an entire cluster of indecent acts. Lament itself was the recourse of the sexually compromised and then abandoned woman. In its raw emotion and humiliating exposure, lament was both a warning to watching women and a titillating display for heterosexual male viewers—the objectification and visual consumption of the female body thus reiterating the moral lesson for a female audience. If indecency polices the limits of the moral and the physical, the public and the private, the individual and the community, then the bodily, rhetorical, and emotional impropriety of lament testifies to a prior moral lapse: the exposure of the female body itself is confirmation of a moral failing. In lamentation, the fallen woman loses all sense of decorum: wailing in public, beating her breast, tearing her hair, rending her clothing. Like Isifile will in the scene we are about to watch, the lamenting woman exposes her breasts as proof of her sexual culpability. In the act of lamentation itself, she is thus cast as the guilty perpetrator of indecency, and the witnesses to her outburst are situated as victims, innocent of any voyeuristic pleasure they might take from her exposed flesh, and exculpated from their possible complicity in events or social conventions that might have precipitated her downfall.

A legion of literary and musicological commentators have noted the reflexive closure with which lamenting women are policed, framed, and purged of their agency, returned to a state of docile propriety: Ellen Rosand, Susan McClary, Suzanne G. Cusick, Anne MacNeil, Bonnie Gordon, Wendy Heller.6 For these scholars, lament has figured as a site of heightened interest, both for its frank spectacularization of musical intensity and female sexuality, but also for the contradictions necessitated in performance. In lament, the female performers of this era were granted a unique opportunity for female eloquence.7 In the sheer physical and affective force of performance itself, lament threatened to overflow the bounds of its rhetorical frame. Musically, laments were among the most celebrated moments of the operatic endeavor, a last stronghold of the recitative soliloquy well into the second half of the seventeenth century, and their afterlife in painting, encomiastic poetry, and descriptive recollections confirms their importance to contemporary audiences.8

The particular lament that we are about to see has attracted musicological commentary for the rich variety of its musical resources. Rosand cites “Infelice, ch’ascolto?” as a culminating moment in lament composition, drawing on and combining sections of both types of the two main musical languages of lament, recitative soliloquy and the descending-tetrachord lament aria, which emerges in the central triple-time section, at the text, “Regina, Egeo, amici.” According to Rosand, “The intensity of recitative becomes all the more expressive as it breaks free from the restraints of measured aria style, and the restraint of aria style in turn earns tension from having succeeded in reining in an emotional outburst.”9 Musically, in “Infelice, ch’ascolto?”, Isifile gets to both have her cake, and eat it, too. Wendy Heller goes so far as to say that “Isifile uses every available lament gesture” (emphasis added).10

As Heller notes, this particular lament differs from most precedents—and certainly from the mythical narrative on which the story is nominally based—in that Isifile gets to deliver her lament directly before its intended recipient. Though rejected, Isifile sings to Giasone, and not just to the sails of his distant and fast disappearing ship. “Isifile transforms a private lament-monologue into a performance,” writes Heller, “both deadly serious and steeped in irony, engaging our sympathy for the heroine’s desperation while at the same time underscoring the impossibility and absurdity of her predicament.”11 While lament was almost always a performance witnessed by both on and offstage audiences—think of the archetypal Arianna, whose vain pleas are observed by an entire crowd of fisherfolk, or Penelope in Claudio Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, attended by her nurse—in singing to Giasone, Isifile is provided with a rare opportunity for persuasive song. The self-consciousness of her outpouring helps magnify the effect of the scene, for the watching audience sees and hears Isifile, but also sees and hears Giasone respond to Isifile, and to the other characters who stand as witnesses. Isifile thoroughly exploits this double exposure of her indecency, interpellating Giasone as both witness to (and thus victim of) her unseemly distress, but also naming him as instigator of her behavior—and thus implicated as himself immoral.

Video Example 2. “Infelice, che ascolto?” Francesco Cavalli, Il Giasone. Vlaamse Opera, Antwerp. © Dynamic, 2012. Used with permission.

By the measure of lament as it is traditionally understood, Isifile’s anger, her eloquence, her presumptuous attempt to claim agency, her advertised lapse of chastity, and not least, her bared breasts should propel the narrative towards closure: così va chi troppo ama e troppo fede.12 And yet, somehow—not despite her performance but because of it—Isifile manages to change the course of the story.

In this scene, Isifile is the lamenting woman par excellence: undone by sexual desire and bereft of all propriety. Her public breakdown and her body are equally indecent, and her (onstage) audience turns away, discomfited by her shamelessness, even as her offstage audience stares agog, hanging on every word. But Isifile is also a devoted mother. As she exposes her breasts, she names them as “mammelle,” eschewing the singular, masculine breast (or seno) for the plural, imminently female alternative—the root word from which we get both “mamma” and “mammal,” and invoking the verb “mammellare,” “to breastfeed.” These are breasts that nurse babies, and in the early modern, Galenic imagination, their leakiness confirms their femininity and their uncontrollable, anti-rational nature.13 Impossibly, as Isifile embraces the animalistic practice of nursing both physically and linguistically, she lays claim to an identity position that has few precedents in Western literary culture: simultaneously Madonna and whore.

(Ironically, perhaps, “Madonna”—like Cavalli’s opera—comes down to us courtesy of early modern Italy. Literally “my lady,” the term has become synonymous with Mary, mother of Jesus, impossibly and yet emphatically “virgin” and “mother.”)

This is a rare moment in which a female character overflows the standard division of roles. By so doing, Isifile effects a break in the otherwise implacable logic that threatens to destroy her, silence her, break her into fragments and leave her for dead. Her visible body—indubitably female—is both sexual and maternal and thus suddenly, unexpectedly subjectified.

It is no coincidence that this moment is marked as poetically and musically distinct from the verse that preceded it. As I mentioned above, Isifile leaves behind the flexible tempi and responsive text expressivity of the recitative texture at “Regina, Egeo, amici,” generating a triple-time passage marked (in the bass) by the descending tetrachord and (in her vocal line) by long-breathed, arching phrases, demonstrating a newfound control over the situation. Isifile turns to the assembled crowd and interpellates them as witnesses who can testify on her behalf, even in her predicted absence. She thus refuses the position of violent instigator that indecency would ascribe to her and instead renders legible the violence that is done against her. She has already described, in vivid detail, the brutality needed to satisfy Giasone’s failed attempt on her life. Go ahead, she says, slice me open, tear me apart, torture me. This is nothing less than the violence inherent in the workings of indecency logic—the silencing imperative of conformity to socially mandated behavioral norms—and her assent the excessive performance of properly docile femininity.

As Isifile takes possession of the multivalent subject position, Madonna/whore, her intersectional status as a unique, singular individual can no longer be contained within the available stereotypes. She achieves full personhood in the eyes of the ensemble, who pay attention to her words as newly effective and no longer merely an obscene revelation of her uncontrolled, excessive emotions. She thus reconfigures herself as a participant member of a new community (“Regina, Egeo, amici [friends]”) and the violence that has been done to her becomes visible as such. Under this new regime, it is Giasone whose behavior is rendered indecent, it is Giasone who is forced to recant and make amends. By the sheer force of her performance, Isifile redraws the boundaries of community and re-centers herself within the fold. In an efficaciously Butlerian sense, Isifile seizes upon the repeating, transferable logic of indecency as a possibility for intervention, a moment to redirect or re-qualify the shared assumptions about acceptable behaviors and embodiment on which indecency relies.14 Her intervention doesn’t do away with the systematic application of indecency, but instead exploits the slipperiness of the analytic through the virtuosic visibility of her body in song and in flesh and through her unqualified embrace of two conflicting yet immediately recognizable models of female deportment. When exposed as lovesick lamentation or as maternal instinct, Isifile’s breasts are indecent, but when she claims the full somatic experience of her motherhood as well as that of her sexual desire, she reveals herself as belonging among the “decent” citizens who are therefore forced to recognize her humanity and her validity and agency as a feeling individual.

But what, if anything, does Isifile’s success offer us in our aim to think through indecency?

Firstly, Isifile reminds us that naming the problem is not always sufficient to provoke change. The disciplinary disposition that Paul Ricoeur named the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” and that Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick memorably critiqued as “paranoid reading,” promises that the detailed exposure of insidious, structural violence can guarantee our safety.15 But it can’t. And all too often—as with Isifile—the taxonomic details of the violence that has been exercised against us are easily dismissed as the excessive, embarrassing lack of self control assumed to be proper to certain persistent stereotypes: the hysterical woman, the angry black, the uppity queer. In such circumstances it is she who speaks out who is marked as indecent; the content of critique is collapsed into a violent exposure of the body that speaks. To expose such bodies (female, black, queer) is to assault the witness—who can then react with outrage and shock, loudly proclaiming their innocence and resentful of the way in which the indecent exposer has involved them, against their volition, in a seedy physical act of engagement with the body of the Other. Through an understanding of indecency we can recognize the reflexive call for the exposer to conform, to apologize, to cover up or to be expelled.

Here the logic of indecency resonates with “White Fragility” as it has emerged in response to Black Lives Matters or in the comments section of the MusicologyNow blog, revealing the presumed indecency of certain metaphorical or political exposures.16 The fragile witness to the accusation of racism can call upon politeness and decency to deflect critique: “To speak like that is just not appropriate, not the decent thing; this (public) forum is not the right place for it; and this is certainly not the right tone with which to achieve real change.” Importantly, as the study of Isifile implies, the question of what counts as indecent musicology has changed. While bodies, their exposure, and sexualized contexts are central to the definition of the indecent, musicological work that traffics in objectionable or obscene material has achieved a certain disciplinary valence. The methodological upheavals that we still call the “New Musicology” had a lasting effect on the permissible or appropriate objects of study.17 We music scholars can—and do—write about gender & sexuality, about popular music repertoires, about disabilities, about music & the body, music & violence, music & war. Mainstream US musicology has expanded, and such subjects are now well within the discipline’s purview. Yet there remain sites of moral outrage within the architecture of musicological process: certain questions that cannot be asked, and perspectives that are treated as inappropriate—as “grossly improper or offensive.” If the appropriate topics of musicological research have broadened, differently marked bodies have been absorbed into the community on the condition that they keep their physical difference private. The scholarship itself needs must remain “objective”: this is no place for an indecent display of the body, and to reveal oneself as female, as black, as queer, or Other, is to display one’s flesh. Such an exposure risks the censure of the affronted witness. We need to remember that it is only after Isifile manages to break out of the stereotyped groove in which lamenting women are confined that her audience can turn back towards her and deal with her outburst as semantic content, not just affective noise.

I also want to point out the obscenity of Isifile’s compliance with Giasone’s vindictive desire: her masochistic willingness (at least as voiced) to submit to her painful, agonizing, hideous death at his hand. Here the music helps convey the slippery ethics of Isifile’s surrender, illustrating her violent blazon with musical tropes (suspensions in particular) used to represent sexual longing fulfilled. At what cost, this music asks, do we normalize indecent assaults on our own bodies? Isifile teaches us that “indecency,” properly directed, can serve to name and articulate the ways in which violent cultural norms are internalized or written into our bodies when we fail to speak up, when we shy from confrontation, shamed into silence, into covering up—as women and minorities often are.

Third, Isifile’s successful subjectification of her body highlights the importance of interpellation, both within the narrative world of the opera (as she calls on her friends to supplicate with Giasone on her behalf) and outside it (as her and my shared experience of breastfeeding greases my identification with the character). You have to recognize someone as human to object to their inhumane treatment.

Reading Isifile’s turn in terms of indecency raises an important set of questions: what is the community in which we want to participate? Who gets to propagate the standards of acceptable behavior? What should count as indecent? What do we do when the community in which we’re located doesn’t recognize the indecency of its actions? And how can we intervene when indecency is employed to silence or wound those whom it should protect? The utility of indecency as an analytic might thus be found in the figure of uncommon decency, for as the recent election demonstrated, to expose the common indecency of the current status quo works only among a community that can recognize our shared humanity.

Isifile is useful for the clarity with which her circumstances render the force of moral approbation and the exclusion of bodily presence from the normal conversation. Both in the scene we couldn’t watch, where Oreste tries to prevent her from breastfeeding in public, and in the scene that we did, where she exposes her breasts, Isifile’s story dramatizes the ease with which the logic of indecency can be co-opted away from genuinely problematic acts of indecent assault or indecent exposure, into a larger, conservative project sustaining the genteel exclusion of gendered, raced, and queered populations. She illustrates how easily our moment of speaking to power can be defensively closed down by the logic of indecency. But she also offers a hopeful moment of intervention: spilling out from the stereotypes that would contain her, forcing herself upon the notice of those around her as worthy of their respect.

It is on this last note that I will close, with Isifile’s almost unprecedented simultaneous performance of both sexuality and maternity.

While I have some reservations about the passionate embodiment of stereotyped extremes, I remain both reassured and emboldened by Isifile’s success. She makes me want to get my tits out: to force an acknowledgement of my simultaneity as butch lesbian, as mother, and as a passionate scholar, all at the same time. With Isifile, I want to be seen in my singularity, not just as a “type.” I want my concerns to be heard. And I don’t want to be forced to cover up the bits of myself that constitute who I am.



Figure 1. Photo of the author and her son, nursing. © Clara Hunter Latham, 2016. Used with permission.


  1.  I would like to thank Suzanne G. Cusick, Clara Hunter Latham, and Maria Edurne Zuazu—three intellectual generations of generous queer women—for their helpful and thoughtful interventions into this essay. In the absence of a large musicological literature on breastmilk or breastfeeding, I would like to cite both Melanie L. Marshall, “Consuming Gaga,” in Lady Gaga and Popular Music: Performing Gender, Fashion, and Culture (New York: Routledge, 2014), 231-244; and Mary Ann Smart’s review of Adriana Cavarero, A più voci: filosofia dell’espressione vocale, in Women & Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture 6 (2005): 106-110.
  2.  The outpouring, since November 8, 2016, of recriminations concerned with identity politics has been legion; one example is Mark Lilla’s “The End of Identity Liberalism,” in The New York Times, November 20 (2016): SR1. An eloquent rebuttal is provided by Katherine Franke, “Making White Supremacy Respectable. Again,” in BLARB: Los Angeles Review Of Books, accessed 1 December 2016,
  3. Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online. Retrieved 29 November 2016 from
  4., s.v. “indecent exposure.” Retrieved June 20 2016 from
  5.  Ellen Rosand describes Il Giasone as “probably the most frequently performed opera of the entire seventeenth century,” citing multiple libretti published between 1649 and 1690, and the survival of no less than nine European manuscripts of the score, see Rosand, Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 275n39. A full bibliography of extant sources for Il Giasone are included in the New Grove article on the composer, see Thomas Walker and Irene Alm, “Cavalli, Francesco,” Grove Music Online (Oxford University Press), accessed June 21, 2016,
  6.  See Ellen Rosand, “The Descending Tetrachord: An Emblem of Lament,” The Musical Quarterly 65, no. 3 (1979): 346-359; Susan McClary, “Constructions of Gender in Monteverdi’s Dramatic Music,” Cambridge Opera Journal 1, no. 3 (1989): 203-223, reprinted in Feminine Endings (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 35-52; Suzanne G. Cusick, “ ‘There Was Not One Lady Who Failed to Shed a Tear’: Arianna’s Lament and the Construction of Modern Womanhood,” Early Music 22, no. 1, Monteverdi II (1994): 21-43; Anne MacNeil, “Weeping at the Water’s Edge,” Early Music 27, no. 3, Laments (1999): 406-417; Bonnie Gordon, “Talking Back: The Female Voice in ‘Il ballo delle ingrate’,” Cambridge Opera Journal 11, no. 1 (1999): 1-30; Wendy Heller, Emblems of Eloquence: Opera and Women’s Voices in Seventeenth-Century Venice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003) and “Hypsipyle, Medea, and the Ovidian Imagination: Taming the Epic Hero in Cavalli’s Giasone,” in Readying Cavalli’s Operas for the Stage: Manuscript, Edition, Production, edited by Ellen Rosand (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013), 167-186.
  7.  This point is perhaps made most clearly in the Gordon article cited above; a similar logic motivates Carolyn Abbate’s oft-cited article, “Opera; or, the Envoicing of Women,” in Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship, edited by Ruth A. Solie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 225-258.
  8.  See Margaret Murata, “The Recitative Soliloquy,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 32, no. 1 (1979): 45-73. On the memorialization of laments in art and poetry, see my “A Question of Character: Virginia Ramponi Andreini and Artemisia Gentileschi,” Italian Studies 71, no. 3 (2016): 335-355.
  9.  Rosand, 374.
  10.  Heller, “Hypsipyle, Medea, and the Ovidian Imagination,” 181.
  11. Heller, “Hypsipyle, Medea, and the Ovidian Imagination,” 184-185.
  12.  This quote is the last line of Claudio Monteverdi’s famous lament for Arianna, the text of which was written by Ottavio Rinuccini: “So it goes for (she) who loves and trusts too much”.
  13.  The Galenic body and its implications for musical thought are summarized by Laura Macy, in her article, “Speaking of Sex: Metaphor and Performance in the Italian Madrigal,” Journal of Musicology 14, no. 1 (1996): 1-34, and also by Bonnie Gordon, in her book, Monteverdi’s Unruly Women: The Power of Song in Early Modern Italy (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2009).
  14.  Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990).
  15.  See Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970); and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay Is About You,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 123-152.
  16.  On February 16, 2016, Pierpaolo Polzonetti published a now infamous post on MusicologyNow, the official blog of the American Musicological Society, see Polzonetti’s “Don Giovanni Goes to Prison: Teaching Opera Behind Bars” was critiqued by readers for the deployment of racial stereotypes and for an unacknowledged naïveté regarding the supposed civilizing mission of Classical music appreciation in Correctional Facilities. Polzonetti’s critics were rebuked, in turn, for strong language and for reading racism where none was intended. From there things heated up. Before moderators closed the forum, 109 comments debated both sides; MusicologyNow hosted several follow-up posts; discussion continued at; and two days later, the president of the AMS, Ellen T. Harris, penned an open letter to the society and urged members of the society to “learn from each other.” The 2016 annual meeting of the AMS included a special session on Race and Ethnicity in the Profession and the formation of a new committee charged to alleviate some of the difficulties faced by people of color within the society. The debate unsettled the relatively small field of musicology (the AMS has around 3,000 members), demonstrating both the need for music scholarship to address issues of race, and the lack of an appropriate vocabulary within the discipline with which to do so.
  17.  William Cheng makes a similar point about the wide range of currently acceptable subjects in his contribution to the colloquy on musicology and sexuality, edited by Judith Peraino and Suzanne G. Cusick, “Pleasure’s Discontents,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 66, no. 3 (2014): 840-844.