Feminism four

I’m starting to formulate an understanding of feminism – firstly I am unsure though whether it should be Feminism or feminism, or whether that matters at all. Secondly I think I may form other understandings of feminism, in that what follows is a singular distance travelled in one direction, there are, I appreciate, many more directions that I could and may travel.

Of course I had a notion of the position of a ‘woman’ in society – John Lennon expressed it as ‘prone’ – and for many years I had always took that notion at it’s simplest level, the woman ‘laid out’ for the male, supplicant, available, subservient, exhibited much as ‘she’ has been for centuries by artists, nude or semi-nude for the gaze of the male. These notions weren’t conscious, they had been implanted by conditional means that seeped into subconscious via a multitude of visual, cultural and, now I think political mechanisms designed to keep the quo in stasis. However Lennon’s statement could be read as women’s political position in the patriarchal society as that of “prone”. Prone, by gender to under achieve, by their ‘other’s’ standards; to come second (if at all).

Much of ‘art’ until the democratization of the creation of visual media was destined for the privileged classes; patrons commissioned art for various reasons, to deliver their aggrandized view of themselves as a statement, to ease their passage to a better afterlife and not least to provide visual imagery for private, onanistic pleasure behind closed doors. Much as ‘Landscape’s’ traditional aesthetics have been driven by those with the ability to enjoy those landscapes, other than those who were destined to view them as toil, the view of the supplicant female entered the public consciousness by the same means of travel. When museums and mass printing became available the available aesthetic meant that what was extant, as visual imagery, became the de-facto norm in the lower reaches of the class system.

I am also coming to the notion that in our patriarchal, capitalist, consumerist economy, the objectification of the female image serves to reinforce those same value systems that have kept the male as the dominant role, bread winner, politician, King, President, Major, God. It all points to the same place, about three feet off the ground in a fully mature male body.

Reading De Lauretis’ book “Alice Doesn’t – Feminism Semiotics Cinema”, was a struggle at first – the usual issues with semantics covering semiotics, Marxian theories etc etc – but after a while, and by essay three: “Snow on the Oedipal Stage” things started to fall into place, pennies started to drop, it seems that what I had taken for granted may well be conditioning; either of a social/cultural or of a political kind. That, for example, I have always found the shape of a breast a thing of beauty could be associated with the Freudian notion of an Oedipal reaction, but nevertheless I still find that curve a thing of beauty, the same beauty of curve that I can see in so many commodities – especially those designed for male consumption, which is perhaps why we see it so much in visual media. That the breast has been iconified in Western media, and particularly by American mainstream media, and hence the motion picture, however I’m not sure why it is that don’t seem to have the relationship with the breast that the ‘media’ seems to assume that should have. My relations with the breast have been normal as far as I know, I was breast-fed, along with my twin sister – “turn and turn about” was how my mother described us, swapping over to ensure we got the same level of feed whilst both feasting at once. My wife breast-fed both our sons and she was not one to scurry away and hide in some ‘feeding station’ to do so (but that is her relationship with the breast and not mine). Femininity and body issues are though a current concern of mine and in particular the breast; I am working on a project to do with breast cancer, my wife had it, my sister had it, my mother had it and one of our best friends recently died of it, so it is current. The notion of breast therefore isn’t anywhere near as sexual for me as I suspect it may be for a lot of other people – male or female. But I am conscious that it is, in visual media, a strong symbol of sexuality.

If we look at Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting, “Cupid complaining to Venus”, about 1525 Oil on wood at the National Gallery we can see two bodies, one naked one nude; one a cupid figure, the other a young nubile epilated beauty. This beauty, or her like, has been painted a great number of times by this artist for a variety of clients and it would be unlikely that these commissions would have been on public view and, probably, not in a public place within the privacy of their owners premises. This nubile model is stated in a pose as to reveal most parts of interest to a male only gaze. Provocatively lifting her arms away from her body, twisting her pelvis towards the viewer and inviting our view. Compounding this immodesty is her wantonness demonstrated by her complete disregard for the infant cupid figure at her feet. This wretched child is being attacked by bees, it has clearly disturbed a bees nest that it is now, for whatever reason, holding. The infant is looking upwards imploringly to the young woman for help, but our Eve is ignoring him. This child, this young boy, isn’t a challenge to the viewer, the woman clearly is performing for the viewer’s alpha male gaze – we have as a viewer no challenge from this infant boy, any sense or potential of maternal feeling is subverted by her apparent need to serve her viewers needs and desires, that those needs are likely carried out in privacy of a secluded place and in a singular activity is perhaps seen as ‘job done’.

Why then would Tom Hunter develop his own rendition of the image? The Cranach image isn’t a particularly classical study, it is one that has been constructed for very little purpose other than for arousal I suspect. Developing a constructed image that professes to subvert the notion of class, as Hunter has done before and since, could have been accomplished with a range of different pieces, not least by the work he did on the Dutch masters such as Vermeer.


Girl’s Sex Acts in Club:Court.Cop:’It can only be described as having Sex through Clothes’ reprinted by kind permission of the artist Tom Hunter’

Hunter’s image, references the painting by Cranach the Elder and depicts another young and nubile young woman, but instead of associating her with the notion of motherhood, this young lady has the dubious pleasure of being associated with the male gaze’s vision of her – of a woman who is there purely for the pleasure of the male gaze, and one assumes the private pleasure thereafter. Hunter’s female has a fully-grown male observing her, perhaps pleading to her not for protection from the sting of the bees prick but for use of his own. This male’s gaze portrayed in the image is twisted and turned in order to get a better view, leaning forward craning his neck to peer upwards to her vagina, he has no interest in her breast, nor anything that accompanies her genitalia. She though only has eyes for us, She doesn’t recognize the man’s presence, her gaze is for us, the viewer that has expressed a desire to look at her, or perhaps for the viewer who is the ‘owner’ of this print of her, bought and sold. Could this though be a feminist vision where the viewer is reminded of consequence of his gaze, of his commodifying gaze that makes a product out of the subjugation of women? Or is it, this depiction of the naked and not nude, what De Lauretis has it in her introduction to her book Alice Doesn’t?… “Let’s say that this book is about woman in the same manner as science fiction is about the future….From the present state of scientific theory and research, the science fiction writer extrapolates and projects the possibilities that, were they to be realized and concretized into a social technology, would effect an alternate world; that future, then, being at once the vanishing point of the fictional construct and its specific, textual condition of existence, i.e., the world in which the fictional characters and events exist. Similarly here woman, the other-from-man (nature and Mother, site of sexuality and masculine desire, sign and object of man’s social exchange) is the term that designates at once vanishing point of our culture’s fictions of itself and the condition of the discourses in which the fictions are represented. For there would be no myth without a princess to be wedded or a sorceress to be vanquished, no cinema without the attraction of the image to be looked at, no desire without an object, no kinship without incest, no science without nature, no society without sexual difference.”

The road goes ever on.

8 thoughts on “Feminism four

  1. Thanks Keith, but this is already the fourth instalment……It is a bit like the slow peeling of years of retinal cover, the slow ‘unstopping’ of light, though I’m unsure if there will be a final reveal because the more one looks the more one sees.

  2. I’m being really simplistic here I know but why does a man looking at a nude woman always have to be about subjugation? If that’s the case, what is it called when a woman looks at a nude man, or a man looks at a nude man?

    • I hate these tough questions! I’m lost in a sea on confusion, since your question came in I’ve been out – have shot two rolls of film and nearly decided to develop them before coming back to this. The weak answer, from my perspective, is of course that it would normal genetically for the male to find the female attractive (and some say the reverse might also be true). That the male should gaze on a naked (I’m choosing these words carefully) woman and find her attractive, but not want to subjugate her is perfectly reasonable from my perspective – and I suppose from vast majority of males. Here’s the but. But, the female has ben subjugated by the male, the maleness of society through the ages, maybe the ancient Greek women had a slightly better time of it, not really sure. That today’s society is dominated by the ‘phallic structures’ of power and control places the female in a place that is subordinate to men. Esler’s 1 billion and counting. That two women every week are killed by their partners or husbands in the UK. That there needs to be women only rail carriages and busses in many countries across the world. That the majority of humans trafficked for any reason let alone for sex are women. That we have a parliament that has less and less women in it (and the men increasingly are coming from all male schools). That. That. That… So why can’t a man be more like a woman (to paraphrase a well known ditty)? Because it would yield power and control and one of the many ways that the Male has exerted that power over the Female is by sexual dominance. The use of rape as a weapon of war is as old as the penis – only humans do it. That a Male can look at a Female and not want to subjugate is perfectly feasible, but so much ‘art’ that has utilised that female form has done so from a dubious purpose that the line is a very blurred one.
      It isn’t an answer I know. It isn’t always about subjugation, but the two pieces of ‘art’ presented here are about subjugation in my view. The Cranach is about about how the Female is served up for private consumption, and the Hunter – at best – is a comment on both the voyeur in the frame and the spectator as voyeur.. I say at best, because if it isn’t then I can only assume that Hunter has created the picture for the likely effect it will have from a marketing perspective – and that wouldn’t be good would it?

  3. I’m thinking as I type here (never a good idea), and it seems a dangerous thing to say in a group of photographers, but I wonder if the fact of it being a photograph automatically invites a difference in power? After all, the person in the picture is being looked at, and can’t look back at us. And we’re usually (!) clothed, and in these photos with a sexual element, they’re not. It’s even more pronounced when it’s just a body part – there’s no person to relate to. They become a container for our imaginings, projections and fantasies. So whether you or they are male or female, there’s an implicit invitation to feel more powerful than them, I think?

    • Thanks for more things to think about Sue! One of the points that I’m trying to get straight in my mind about the objectification of the body, and in respect to the ‘female’, is that the ‘male’ viewer’s ‘gaze’ is both a power play and a metaphor for the position of the male in the capitalist society we live in; that the female nude is (generally) denuded of power, and has, since the practice of figurative art, placed the female in a subjugated position as a commodity. We find the trope of the female nude in our consciousness because it was developed through centuries of male dominance by people who had the power and the money to develop it for their own purposes? Just as the aesthetic of landscape picturesque was developed into a set of rules by someone from the privileged classes in the late eighteenth century, that today’s prole’s adhere to without question. The nude female is their for our ‘gaze’ and our ‘power’ as a viewer is an heirloom of all those countless nude studies through the age. Cranach provided quite a few to paying punters who felt – quite rightly in their view – that these objects were owned exclusively for private viewing. Do I mean that these responses are conditioned response? Yes, I think so, but surely they are more than just that? Primitive?
      As for the thought about photography, I’m still considering that one in respect of visual imagery. A painting was, until the invention of a printing process, a unique artefact, a singular event, whereas the photograph, and particularly in today’s world, is a ubiquitous medium; and so what I’m wondering is whether the power play is magnified by the instances of production or whether the act alone of a nude study, irrespective of volume of production, is the power-play?

  4. I agree with all you say, John. I’m not exactly sure what you mean by ‘primitive’ though? And I’m interested to see how modern technology is being used in this way too. Sexual photographs and videos of (mainly) women are put on the internet and sent as texts by (mainly) male partners and ex-partners as surely some sort of power play. It doesn’t matter how famous you are, either. I heard Joanna Lumley saying to young women not to do it – they need to own some responsibility for doing it, I think, even if it is part of a response to peer pressure when they’re young, or pressure from a partner. I’d like to avoid making the women into simply victims here as that robs them of their/our power to do anything about it.

  5. Pingback: Feminism | John Umney - Documentary

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