Vanity by Memling
You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.
The real function of the mirror was otherwise. It was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight.
From Ways of Seeing by John Berger.
From toilet walls to looming advertising billboards women have been sexualised and objectified in the name of art (and commerce) since man could scribble on dirt. I have my doubts about contemporary visual culture too. There is the fashion scene where emaciated adolescents represent the national desirable body and there are the kick back campaigns by ‘real women’ like Colleen Rooney bringing size 14 back to the beauty industry.
How should women be represented in visual culture?
After the recent furore surrounding John Inverdale’s sexist comments about Marion Bartoli it seems our society is still struggling to figure out the answers to this important question.
Some might say that the problem lies in sex. When a women is represented as being a confident, thinking, independent creature in control of her sexuality then the balance is being restored. A popular feminist view is that women need to be represented as powerful and successful and that passivity is the issue that needs to be challenged.
The problem is that whatever side you support you end up propagating a myth.
The myth that women can have it all. Or that they can’t.
The myth that women are there to be looked at.
The myth that men are the powerful sex.
The myth that ‘real’ women have stretch marks.
The myth that in order to do justice to women they have to have lawyer potential and resent living at home with their 2.4 kids. Implying that all clever women suffer from Housewife Syndrome.
It’s reductionist and we are bombarded by it. The common denominator is that both men and women have been guilty of discriminating against the other sex but I can’t help but think that throughout history and in a patriarchal society / world, women have had it worse. Dustin Hoffman experienced a revelation in a particularly unique way.
Given the challenges, can you think of any photographers representing women in an interesting way?