ARH 220H, feminism, media

Vanity and the Gaze

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, 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.”

John Berger, Ways of Seeing

In all media, there are four major components: the portrayed (or subject), the portrayer (the author or artist), the portrayal (the medium and method used by the author or artist), and the portrayed to (the audience seeing this portrayal). These are all in an established hierarchy of power, with the portrayed typically having the least amount of power, if any at all, and the portrayer and the audience often having the most power. The artist is able to portray the subject in any way that they choose, leaving the subject objectified and dehumanized. Most often this occurs through the subject not looking back at the viewer, typically with their back turned or looking off beyond the edge of the work. John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, says the following regarding artists objectifying and shaming their subjects in media:

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, 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.”

I had originally come across this quote on the social media platform Tumblr, in the following post:

In the Fall semester of 2017, I was enrolled in ARH 141H, in which we studied and analyzed many of these sculptures of nude women. These kinds of statues were created by men almost exclusively in Greco-Roman culture to venerate goddesses such as Aphrodite/Venus. Originally, the statues depicting nude goddesses felt more animated, in which the goddess would be embarrassed and attempting to cover herself at being seen nude. However, as years passed, the goddesses seemed more embraceful of their true form and were no longer embarrassed at being nude.

In seeing this post on Tumblr, it reminded me a lot of selfie culture in modern day. Men, as a majority, often shame women for taking selfies and mock them for being vain, attention-seeking, and narcissistic. There’s an entire NY Times article titled “The Real Reason Men Hate Women Taking Selfies”. Here’s a selection from the article:

…“young women are simultaneously told that their self-worth depends on their appearance, but they are referred to as ‘vain’ and ‘narcissistic’ if they post selfies, which are all about appearance.”

When society is constantly telling women to make their faces look pretty with lotions, makeup and skin-care regimens, it shouldn’t be shocking to anyone that women want to show off their faces when they feel they look pretty.

It’s also far from a new phenomenon. After all, there’s never been an era where attractive female faces haven’t been one of society’s favorite things to look at. That’s true whether you’re considering the Mona Lisa in the 1500s or a picture of Cindy Crawford in the 1990s.

The only difference is that those images used to benefit (typically) the male artists or photographers capturing them. Women were supposed to be looked at but not in control of their own image or all the profits that came with it.

Selfie culture subverts that traditional arrangement.

They’re not posing politely for photographers anymore. They’re capturing their own image when they want to, the way they want to. And, if they have enough followers, they can make thousands of dollars in the process.

Men aren’t mad because the women taking selfies are putting their image out into the world. They’re mad because they’re not in control — and they’re not profiting — from those images the way they used to.

Basically, what’s gained from this article is that the detestation of selfies comes from the realization that women are becoming increasingly more in control of their own image and portrayals, and that men don’t have a say in how these pictures are taken anymore. They mock these women for taking the same pictures of themselves that men would’ve taken, but the only difference is that it is now the woman taking pictures of herself, and women are supposed to be humble, quiet, soft-spoken, and submissive. How can a woman do that if she’s confident enough in herself to take her own pictures?

So everyone, keep taking those selfies. Keep posting them to Snapchat and Instagram, and setting them as your Facebook profile pictures. Own your image. You are in control.

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