‘Men look, women are looked at,’ said John Berger in his seminal 1972 documentary series Ways of Seeing, and in this one sentence, Berger summarised the relationship between men and women, and the objectification of women by men. From Susannah being looked at by the Elders, to Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass, women in art have been continually portrayed as not only objects of desire, but objects to be owned.
One might like to think that feminism, and women, have come a long way, not only from the bra-burning days of the ’60s and ’70s, and the power-suited days of the ’80’s, that saw women in positions of power in the city, and in politics; even from the days of early suffrage.
Yet one has only to look at a daily newspaper, a woman’s magazine, a Hollywood movie, let alone a man’s magazine, to realise that the objectification of women is as rampant (and I use that word deliberately) as it has ever been.
Even in the world of ‘High Art’, paintings such as Lucien Freud’s of a pregnant Kate Moss still portray woman as something that can be looked at, desired, owned.
One would most definitely like to think that women have come a long way since Rousseau stated, in typically succinct fashion, that ‘the doll is the peculiar amusement of the females; from whence we see their taste plainly adapted to their destination.’ One presumes Rousseau was talking about baby dolls, little girl dolls, to be played with and dressed up in pretty clothes, to sit quietly, prettily and well dressed in a corner, unobejcting and unobjectionable, good practise not only for motherhood but womanhood; but he could equally as well have been talking about that most contemporary of dolls, the Barbie – curvaceous, well dressed and pretty, with a wardrobe of clothes that would enable her to follow any career, from astronaut to vet, sexy but sexless, epitomised by the most recent addition to the sisterhood, Burqa Barbie, so that all girls feel represented in a globalised 21st century. All girls that are curvaceous and well dressed, pretty and sexless and quiet, anyway.
Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of European feminism, believed that as long as men saw women as trophy wives, and took mistresses, that the oppression of women should continue, yet she did not solely blame men, believing also that women were complicit in their own objectification, and referring to them as clay figures to be moulded by men. Girls, Wollstonecraft believed, were enslaved to men through their social training. With the coming of post-feminism, one could hope that women had finally broken this male-oriented patriarchal perception of them, but it seems in fact to be the reverse. Young women expose more and more of themselves, stating that they are in control, and they may show as much flesh as they wish in this post-feminist world, but one cannot help but think that Wollstonecraft was right – women still base their worth on how much a man values them, and on precious little else. Barbie may be a 21st century astronaut, but unless she is busty and beautiful, Ken will not be interested, and Barbie will be worthless, both in her own eyes and those of society.
In this essay, I propose to explore how feminism and post feminism have influenced my development as an artist, and to question how the media’s continued portrayal of women as a commodity has affected other contemporary artists, both positively and negatively.
‘The goal of feminism,’ said an early spokeswoman, ‘was to change the nature of art itself, to transform culture in sweeping and permanent ways by introducing into it the heretofore suppressed perspective of women.’
Barbie as a symbol of woman as object can be found not only in contemporary art, but also in contemporary literature; she has moved into everyday speech as a contemptuous comment on glamorous women (‘She’s nothing but a Barbie doll!’ is a derisive criticism aimed at a woman perceived to be beautiful but dumb, ironic when one considers how it is precisely this image that is being sold to us by the media!) Mattel may market Barbie as a modern career girl, far more independent than the original 1950s clothes horse, but is she as complicit in the objectification of modern women as Mary Wollstonecraft stated over 200 years ago?
The London based photographer Alex Kliszynski would seem to agree with Wollstonecraft, and has directly questioned such attitudes in a body of work that combines the imagery of pornography with Barbie dolls.
The instant reaction of the spectator is one of revulsion, a feeling that something is not right. Such a highly sexualised child’s toy is obscene, but maybe that is the intended point of the artwork? Barbie is the ultimate commodified, sexist, male-fantasy view of what women should look like. She has a tiny waist, long legs, and enormous breasts. However, oddly, if you think about it, this highly sexualized body actually lacks sexual parts, or the parts of the body we would see if she were fully nude. She has no vagina. Her breasts have no nipples. In addition, Action Man, an idealized, sexualized male specimen, has no penis and no scrotum. By placing a sexless doll in a lascivious and crude position that should show all the sexual organs but doesn’t, Kliszynski is making a comment on the dehumanising of women (and men) by media led objectification; it is his intention to call attention to that disconnection , to make the viewers aware of the sexualized images of women and men that Barbie and Action Man dolls trade in.
However, I think there is another, yet more sinister, way of reading Kliszynski’s art work. The dolls are a monstrous combination of human and plastic; even the title of the work is ‘Human Barbie Dolls’, suggesting an abnormal mixture of the two. It is possible to understand Kliszynski’s piece as a comment on the modern phenomena of body dysmorphia, a disorder that causes a person to believe there is something terribly wrong with an aspect of their face or body, and which often leads them into a series of cosmetic surgeries. Kliszynski’s human Barbies symbolise this body dysmorphic tendency prevalent in so much of (western) society, this desire to turn the human body into a work of art, a perfection of flesh and plastic to match the abnormal perception of idealised beauty encouraged by the media.
In her poem, Barbie Doll, Marge Piercy makes much the same point:
This girlchild was born as usual
and presented dolls that did pee-pee
and miniature GE stoves and irons
and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy.
Then in the magic of puberty, a classmate said:
You have a great big nose and fat legs.
She was healthy, tested intelligent,
possessed strong arms and back,
abundant sexual drive and manual dexterity.
She went to and fro apologizing.
Everyone saw a fat nose on thick legs.
She was advised to play coy,
exhorted to come on hearty,
exercise, diet, smile and wheedle.
Her good nature wore out
like a fan belt.
So she cut off her nose and her legs
and offered them up.
In the casket displayed on satin she lay
with the undertaker’s cosmetics painted on,
a turned-up putty nose,
dressed in a pink and white nightie.
Doesn’t she look pretty? everyone said.
Consummation at last.
To every woman a happy ending.
Both Kliszynski and Piercy have recognised the detrimental effect on the mental and physical health of women (and men) of society’s objectification of the human body. By constantly portraying an idealised myth of not just the body but the very role of women in society, the media (and sections of the art world) have created a culture which views the body in it’s natural human state as somehow wrong and abnormal.
Equally, both Kliszynski and Piercy have recognised the complicity of women in this culture; the girl in the poem is healthy and intelligent, born ‘as usual’, presumably ‘normal’ in all respects, and yet she accepts the truth of her low value in society because she is not perceived as physically perfect. Only in death, with her nose cut off and a cosmetically enhanced ‘putty’ nose in place instead, can she be seen as ‘pretty’. Her value as a strong and useful member of society is non-existent in a world that refuses to see past her face.
Kliszynski himself has said that ‘the main body of my work is a number of human-dolls that aim to raise questions about the numerous images of the objectified and idealised body that we see in the mass mediaâ€¦I came to make this work as a reaction to the lowest-common-denominator approach to masculinity taken by the media which serves and perpetuates the ‘lad’ or ‘raunch’ elements of our culture. Curiously this ‘lad/raunch’ culture seems also to be embraced by many young women; a phenomenon which seems contrary to a properly progressive understanding of gender and identity in a post-feminist era.’ (http://lostinasupermarket.com/2010/09/barbie-porn-seriously/)
‘Lad magazines’ such as Maxim, Stuff and various other UK-based magazines intended for teenage boys and young men are notorious for endorsing a highly commodified view of the world – men and boys are encouraged to buy lots of ‘bling’ like cars, stereo components and expensive suits etc. By their very placement in such magazines, in ‘glamorous’ soft-porn poses, female models become as much merchandise as the gadgets featured in the articles; and as the reader ‘must’ own the right phone to attain status, so he must have the ‘right’ woman.
Yet this attitude of the body as commodity is ironically trapping men as much as women, and both sexes are in a crisis of identity. Men are met on a daily basis with conflicting images of themselves, from the traditional Action Man role of husband, father, provider, patriarch, to the more sensitive, metro sexual Ken, whose status, like that of Barbie, is defined by how he looks and what he owns. This crisis is as important for men as for women; statistics show that young male suicides are increasing, there is a high rise in cases of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in males, crime statistics are rising, divorce rates are going through the roof, and with mothers routinely given custody of the children even the role of fatherhood itself has come into question, exacerbated by the rising number of fertility clinics and the ability for women to so easily be single parents.
Role models such as Ken and Action Man are without doubt as harmful to young men as a role model such as Barbie can be to young women. No longer seen as breadwinners, or the head of the family in a patriarchal society, men are frequently represented in the media by characters such as Homer Simpson, a chauvinistic, ignorant man who is depicted as very lazy and obsessed with food; his son Bart, often cruel to his sister, is discourteous and ill behaved. He alternative is often portrayed as Ken, an idealized, de-sexualized male with only the acquisition of material items his goal, fast cars and fashion his only interests. Even television shows like Sex and the City imply that men are just there for the sexual gratification of women. It portrays men as tactless, stupid beings that are only there for female entertainment and pleasure. These negative portrayals are as damaging to both genders as the comparative attitudes to women, rooted as they are in gender objectification and the denial of identity. Alternatively, could we welcome this shake-up of traditional gender images? Could it not be that multiplicities of roles are now establishing themselves in modern society?
Toys such as Action Man often stereotype men in aggressive roles, and this convention has been questioned in the work of Susan Hiller, who explores social conditioning and attitudes to childhood in her work Punch and Judy.
Punch and Judy looks closely at the brutality of slapstick comedy. First filming segments of live Punch and Judy shows the artist then transposed these images on the walls of a square room inviting the viewer to stand in the room with the puppets’ images looming over them, the puppets acting out violently as so often seen in their performances. Hiller examines how such stereotypical role-play in toys reinforces the assumptions placed on boys and men and how they should act in society.
Where feminism fought against such patriarchal, capitalist belief systems, post-feminism seems to be buying right into the ‘raunch culture’ that Kliszynski highlights.
I would define ‘Raunch culture’ as the whole juvenile, ‘laddish’ culture that includes the lads’ magazines as well as strip clubs, prostitution and the celebration of prostitution, highly sexualized adverts and a general attitude that what’s best about female empowerment is that more men get to see more women naked. Berger referred to it as ‘the male gaze’, Kliszynski as ‘raunch culture’, but I believe they are very similar, and it seems to be embraced by many young women, who accept whole-heartedly the entire condescending nonsense of ‘girl power’. According to Wollstonecraft, men have widened what should be merely a biological gap of physical differences into a sociological gap: ‘But not content with this natural pre-eminence, men endeavour to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for the moment.’ Women, it follows, cannot help but be ‘intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses, pay them.’
Has Barbie, in representing the most materialistic aspects of modern day culture, encouraging a stereotypical image of womanhood, become a remorseless goddess of modern society? A doll without any social conscience (or conscious), reliant solely on material belongings to bring her happiness, worshipped by millions, representative of a culture that objectifies and vilifies women, no aspect of her suggests any form of spirituality, or higher morality.
When Mary Wollstonecraft accused women of their own complicity in this stereotypical view of their gender she caused ripples of anger and irritation down the centuries. How could a ‘so-called’ feminist turn on her own sex with such accusations? And yet, when one takes the time to think about it, one can see how right she was. Girls play with Barbie dolls bought for them by mothers and aunts, and will, to echo Rousseau, grow up to give Barbie dolls to their daughters, thus fulfilling their ‘destiny.’ They are complicit in the encouragement of stereotypical values. But what is the alternative? A girl may play with the ‘stereotypical’ toys of girlhood such as dollies and prams, all pink and sparkly, mass marketed products imposed on them by a performative oriented society, or she may play with the male version of such consumer items, Action Man, cars, trains, guns . . . But what message is actually being sent? If a girl plays with Barbie dolls, she is viewed with contempt for being a ‘typical’ girl; if she plays with stereotypical boys toys, she attains value in the eyes of society, for being more like a boy. No matter what she does, Barbie girl can never achieve social value by being a girl, and post-feminism has been complicit in such social values.
Consuming Passions was published in the ’80s, author Judith Williamson’s theory is hardly common knowledge, most likely because it is threatening. She deduces that, contrary to the ideal posed by Mattel and Barbie, “the desirable shape for a woman . . . is that of a boy.”
The highly idealised Barbie has not been without competitors, however. In 1998, Anita Roddick started an Anti-Barbie campaign, under the guise of self -esteem.
Roddick started marketing posters of a doll called ‘Ruby: The Real Deal,’ with posters in the UK shops she owned, all depicting images of the generously proportioned doll with the attached slogan: ‘There are 3 billion women who don’t look like supermodels and only 8 who do.’
With the intention of challenging stereotypes of beauty and countering the pervasive influence of the cosmetics industry, and with a tongue in cheek approach, the underlying message was far more serious and could easily be applied to the stereotypical image of woman and the way western culture objectifies women. ‘Ruby’ started a worldwide debate about body image and self-esteem, but she was not universally loved. In the United States, the toy company Mattel sent a cease-and-desist order, demanding the images of Ruby were removed from American shop windows because she was making Barbie look bad, an admission surely, that Barbie’s impossible to achieve figure was detrimental to girls in comparison to the more realistic Ruby? In Hong Kong, posters of Ruby were banned on the MTR (Mass Transit Railway) because the authorities were concerned they would offend passengers. Like Barbie, Ruby was a de-sexualised toy, having no nipples, genitalia or pubic hair; other advertisements on the MTR which showed surgically enhanced, partially dressed female models, were allowed to stay. It is hard not to jump to the conclusion that it was the realistic portrayal of the female body that was offensive (and to whom? the male commuters?); in a world where the female body is perceived to be a purchasable status symbol, the male buyers were presumably offended by the depreciation in value of their idealised fantasy.
Feminist artist Helen Chadwick (1954-1996) made many works that dealt directly with the role and image of women in society. In ‘Ego Geometria Sum:The Laborers X’ created in 1984, she had large replicas of children’s wooden bricks transposed with images of her naked self. One may read many meanings into this artwork: is Chadwick struggling with the weight of her own image? By superimposing her naked image onto a child’s brick, is she suggesting that she is nothing but a plaything, a toy? She appears to compare herself to a troll doll, held by the hair in a disembodied fist with an inane grin on its face. The troll doll is ugly and deformed looking, and Chadwick is implying that this is how society views her, and womanhood in general, from childhood onwards, if one does not conform to how society wishes one to be. All is not without hope though; Chadwick also portrays a door on one side of the brick, suggestive not only of closure, but also of the potential to open, to allow something in, or something out; a means of escape. As a Jungian archetype, the door also is representative of the feminine, with all the implications of a symbolic opening. In this artwork, is Chadwick exploring issues of entrapment and escape?
Several of her works address the role and image of women in society using a wide range of materials, such as flowers, chocolate and meat. She questioned the role of the female body in art as a decorative object; just as decorative and aesthetic ideas about art themselves had been questioned in the 20th century. In 1990, she worked again on themes of sexual identity and gender with her Cibachrome transparencies entitled ‘Eroticism’ which depict two brains side by side.
On the surface, this is yet another apparently simple, if stunning, piece of work, but like the brain itself, this piece contains a multiplicity of layers, waiting to be explored and teased out. The work shows two brains, side by side, mirroring each other. On the sides adjoining, the brains are enlivened by what appears to be blue sparks, or flashes, suggesting brain activity. According to The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism, blue is the colour of the intellect, and of spirituality; it is the medium of truth. In Eroticism, Chadwick is playing with the idea of ‘a meeting of two minds’, an attraction based on the intellect and the emotions. Yet we also associate the colour blue with something a little bit naughty, a bit risque, like a ‘blue movie’, and I would suggest that Chadwick was also bearing in mind the idea that the brain is often referred to as the largest sexual organ in the body. For Chadwick, in this piece at least, it is the attraction of two people based on a meeting of intellect and commonality that is important, not the outward appearance so vital to society.
In the 1790s, when Mary Wollstonecraft was writing A Vindication of The Rights of Women , she argued for the need for more civil rights for women, a cause which she believed could only be achieved by permitting women a better education. She argued that a woman was capable of any intellectual feat that a man was provided with and that her early training should not brainwash her into deference to men. Wollstonecraft believed that men discourage women from achieving the same education that they receive routinely, and as long as women are denied this education, they can never hope to achieve equality with men. She builds on this lack of equal education for women in her argument adding that all men (contemporary to her) have a general lack of respect.
Two hundred years later, in the 1970s, women were still fighting to achieve this basic level of respect and equality in the academic and artistic worlds, and it was the 1970s that saw the beginnings of a new art movement, the Contemporary Feminist Art Movement. The movement was inspired by demands for social, economic and political change and by the desire of female artists to try and force art galleries and museums to establish a fair representation of their work; there were very few female art teachers at that time, though the majority of students were female. It was common and widely accepted for art exhibitions to contain the works of men only, women being discriminated against openly, with some having to face the double discriminatory blow of also being black. Faith Ringgold (b.1930), an American artist, was told she could only exhibit in the museums devoted to African American art after all the black male artists had had their shows.
By the 1970s, feminists and artists had started forming consciousness awareness groups that demonstrated at galleries and museums to expose some of these sexist practices, and opened galleries together for more exposure of their works.
With feminist artists wanting to go further than equal representation, their works were often full of political and social content crying out for political change. The women’s movement in America had one such artist by the name of Judy Chicago. Born in 1939, Chicago often reflected on issues relating to the lack of female representation in her work, saying ‘Because we are denied knowledge of our history, we are deprived of standing upon each other’s shoulders and building upon each other’s hard earned accomplishments.’
Many female artists voiced these opinions at that time, wishing to transform traditional fine art and sculpture to include feminist awareness, with many exploring the female body with the intention of reclaiming the sexualised images that had been created by the male artist that preceded them. Chicago’s piece ‘Dinner Party’ called out for both art critics and establishments (and the Establishment?) To readdress the fact that so many female artists had been and were being excluded from art history texts used to educate the (largely female) art students currently attending the art education. This large work depicts a banquet, the settings embroidered representations of the vulva in a style appropriate to the women being represented, women Chicago wished to honour, with a further 999 women engraved in gold on the floor tiles. The geometric shape of this piece is fascinating, with the table laid out at a triangle, representing the tri-partite nature of women, the maiden, the mother and the crone. Indeed, an upside down triangle has long been used in paganism to represent the feminine.
This work has gone a long way in encouraging women artists to reclaim their identity in representing the female form, and readdress the frequent degradation of female genitalia previously represented in male-created art.
The Dutch artist Christina Camphausen (b. 1953) is another example of a female artist intent on reclaiming for women the representation of the female genitalia, publishing a book of her work with the vulva as sole subject. Entitled ‘Yoni Portraits’, it is filled with delicate drawings revealing the vulva in all it’s beauty and variety, images that are sometimes realistic and sometimes symbolic.
Taken from ancient Sanskrit, the word Yoni refers to the vulva and womb and better describes femininity than its clinical counterpart (vagina) or its crude pornographic variants (cunt); in India’s sacred language it carries an inherent respect for this intimate part of a woman’s body which is lacking in English. In the book’s accompanying texts, the artist makes clear that there is nothing about the Yoni to be ashamed of. Rather, it is a body-part which in many cultures has had very different connotations of power, beauty, fertility and delight.
Of her motivation, Christina says:
With my work, I endeavour to assist in restoring the Yoni to her
rightful and original place of honour, and to induce everyone to
regard her with respect, to recognize her beauty and magical power.
Though the last decades make it seem that our modern societies are
sexually liberated, there still rests a taboo on this intimate part of our
bodies. In general, women enjoy more freedom than they used to have,
yet it surely is no advance in self-determination that many contemporary women have their intimate, lower lips corrected in order to conform
to some artificial standard prescribed by cosmetic surgeons or
professional nude models in glossy magazines.
To make artwork with the vagina as your subject is still a very brave act, as it is a subject that is often considered inappropriate and generally thought of within the context of pornography, and, in almost all cases, for the exclusive pleasure of men. Many feminists have attempted to remove these prurient connotations by encouraging us to consider vaginas, something not to be ashamed of, but as powerful and expressive components to be proudly protected as an assertive and positive manifestation of our being. Exhibitions are now starting to show that this has changed dramatically in recent years, with many artists who have incorporated imagery of the Vagina in their works exhibiting together.
One such exhibition, organized by Francis M. Naumann and David Nolan, and entitled ‘The Visible Vagina’ took place on January 28, 2010 at the David Nolan Gallery in New York and included artworks by people ranging from Judy Chicago and Nancy Grossman to Robert Mapplethorpe and Pablo Picasso. The most interesting aspect for me is that there was such a strong male presence in the exhibition, and indeed it was arranged by men, a potent sign of how things have progressed.
The most striking work in the exhibition for myself has to be the work of Sarah Davis and the piece ‘Britney (Notorious),’ for amongst over one hundred artworks, very few of which objectify women or suggest a salacious use of imagery, this piece, a painting identical to a paparazzi-type photograph taken of the music star, hovers between art and porn; indeed, in its representation of both, it beggars the question of how art and porn can be addressed within feminist issues.
If we accept that art is intended to stimulate the spectator on many levels, academically and emotionally, and that porn is needed to stimulate on a purely sexual level, I wonder how this transformation from paparazzi photograph and all the connotations of furtiveness, spying and secretiveness to painting can alter ones perception.
I would like to believe that the artist who views Britney Spears as a strong, confident, self-made woman is a feminist who has staged the initial photograph to “reclaim” her identity by exposing her vagina just as in ‘Yoni Portraits’, believing there is nothing to be ashamed of by showing the power, beauty, fertility and delight this body part represents. Often in the media gaze, Spears is used as an example to criticise young women today, nothing but a Barbie doll. Her abilities as a mother, her career and social life are frequently held up to public scrutiny. Men that are in the public gaze however, may be criticised for their affairs, heir drug dependency, their fights etc., yet rarely for their dress code or indeed for their roles or abilities as fathers. This is a gender bias that has become commonplace and widely accepted.
In addition, when Spears chose to wear a revealing dress and decorate her body with piercings and tattoos, the tabloids turned on her viciously, and accused her of mental illness when she publicly shaved her hair off. I feel though, that Spears was sending a message, via the media, about her sense of identity and her value as a woman. By shaving her hair off Spears was questioning the male perception of femaleness and femininity; she was a Rapunzel trapped by her beauty in a tower created by the male gaze. The only way to take control of the situation and to escape, was, like Rapunzel, to chop off all her hair and reassert her own identity away from social expectations and the media’s critical portrayal of women. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger explores the difference between nudity and nakedness, suggesting that when one is nude, the spectator (and there must be one) merely sees the human body unclothed. When one is naked, the spectator (even if that is only oneself) sees the real essence of the person. Nakedness is far more intimate than nudity. When Spears cut off all her hair it was as if she had removed a disguise, and showed herself to the world fully naked, expressing her inner self. It is this aspect that Davis has picked up on in her piece of art: Britney Spears as a model of sex positive feminism, the un-Barbie goddess of post-feminism.
Sex positive feminism, also known as sexually liberal feminism or sex-radical feminism began as a movement in the 1980s. Many women became involved in a direct response to the efforts of anti-porn feminists such as Andrea Dworkin, as they argued that pornography was the centre of feminist theory for women’s oppression.
This period is known as the ‘feminist sex wars,’ a time of heated debate between anti-porn feminists and sex-positive feminists, between the notions of the sex industry as an abusive and violent environment for women and the beliefs in women’s ability to choose to be highly sexual beings – and raises the question of who is exploiting who?
When Spears posed for a statue by American sculptor Daniel Edwards (b.1965) for the pro-life movement, she was once again steeped in the controversy of ‘is it art or is
it porn?’ Entitled ‘Monument to Pro-Life’ this work is a full size sculpture of a naked Britney Spears in childbirth. The sculpture shows Spears on all fours on a bearskin rug, her mouth slightly open and her eyelids heavy, looking as if she is about to cry out. There is no indication of pain or pleasure; it is not at all indicative of sexual provocation or pornography. Her hands lie wrapped around either side of the head of the bear, as if she is using it to act as a medium to the spirit world communicating with the animalistic urges childbirth conjures up. Yet the media has criticised this piece, stating that: ‘Britney’s in a position that most would sooner associate with getting pregnant than with giving birth.’
I believe that in some ways things have deteriorated rather than progressed: the beauty industry and the porn industry, in their own sometimes-converging ways, have caused a lot of that. Going back to the early ’70s, as women began to enter the workforce in larger numbers, some of that earning power was used against them by aggressive beauty product marketing. The result has been an increasing focus in the last three decades on dieting, an explosion in both sexes