Femininity & Visual Culture

Image: courtesy of Lindenberg Monroe bergspot.deviantart.com/

Femininity & Visual Culture

by Bethany Lester, Arts editor

Modern life is seen on-screen. We live in such a visual culture that we have become accustomed to, and subsequently trust enough to be subjugated by, the images it depicts and the messages it conveys. Whilst being exposed to exaggerated phantasmagorias on a regular basis we become desensitised to the absurdity of what we are looking at, by means of acculturation and – perhaps more simply – getting used to it. We should not accept these depictions for gospel truths, just like the old saying that tells us not to believe everything that we hear or read (perhaps you shouldn’t believe what I am saying, either); our receipt of the visual media affects our perception of everyday aspects of life, perhaps most importantly ourselves and one another.

There’s a convolution of the understanding of the (biological) sex and (cultural) gender boundaries between the male and the female, the masculine and the feminine. These ‘blurred lines’ are stigmatic in their own right and subsequently have a further negative effect on the sexism that is evident in society. How does society depict the woman? How do you view the woman? A goddess? A muse? A mother? A lover? A housewife? A nag? A whore? Or none of the above? I can’t tell you what to think of a person, I can’t tell you what to think about anything, but I can try to unpick some distortions in the understanding of the modern, western female.

John Berger had it said that ‘Men dream of women. Women dream of themselves being dreamed of. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. And behind every glance there is a judgement.’ Now, I believe this implication of the woman as a narcissist is absolutely true, but why is she so? I hasten to add here, before any offence is taken, that this claim should not be understood as a spiteful taunting of women and instead appreciated as a ridiculing of male dominance and its crippling effects; it is as much a declaration of female narcissism as it is of male obsession. It is wrong to suggest that the female is innately self-conscious to the point of extreme vanity, much the same as it is wrong to suggest that this is applicable to only females, however in order to understand the complexities in the gender barriers we must appreciate and accept that the woman in society has currently, as has done throughout much of history, had to adopt the role as the subject (who then gets objectified, but that’s another tale for another time.)

We are taught from day one that we are to impress others and this can be pursued through a variety of methods, for the male it is often displayed through dominant acts of control and for the female often by a superiority of beauty. And so from early on the boy has a desire to desire and the girl has a desire to be desired, and that coincides quite well, don’t you think? By allowing yourself to be judged upon your rate of attractiveness, you allow another to make such superficial judgements and subsequently both you and the other are allowed to care for little else.

This has created the woman as we may view her today. Vain, self-interested, self-conscious, dieting, made-up… because if she isn’t these things, what else would she be? There’s a man-trap that has manifested itself in society which subjects women who do not adhere to the stereotype of a ‘female’ to a life of being stereotypically not-‘female’; she who does not become overly conscious with her appearance refrains from the subjection of any of the understood feminine personas, and through fear of the unknown and the ease of it, she is outcasted.

And so here we have the real woman, not the metaphorical female who we have been speculating and exampling, but a real woman of the world. Let’s adopt these discussed social and cultural traits onto her, let’s imagine it is she that is to decide between a life of social exile or not; it’s not too much to ask of anyone, these are real women in the real world, of all ages and backgrounds, challenged with this decision every day. I write with the hope of empathy, not of shame or pity, with the hope that as we can collectively begin to unpick and understand the role of the female in our society we can appreciate what it is that she does and what had led her to do so. As Cady Heron once said, ‘It’s better to be in The Plastics hating life than to not be in The Plastics at all.

If the spectrum of aesthetic judgement runs from absolute beauty to absolutely ugly, for these are not feelings, what we evoke is subsequent inadequacy. And if the antithesis to inadequacy is adequacy, she who is absolutely beautiful is absolutely satisfactory and cannot exceed the limits of judgement and yet she can so easily fall behind them. And perhaps this is why a woman does what she does. Women are not narcissistic by choice but rather more by a marriage of instinct and acculturation. A modern (wo)man’s survival of the ‘fittest’.

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