Feminist Art – Representation of Womens Bodies in Art , Rap and Film Essay

In today’s society most people don’t know the difference between being a women and a feminist. It might be because history doesn’t bother to tell herstory. In academic environments women don’t make the cut to be included in textbooks or curriculums. Throughout history women weren’t considered “important” enough to contribute to society. They were inferior in every aspect; the inequalities that women suffered gave birth to feminism. When analyzing art, literature, theatre, and performance at the microscopic level, one can differentiate between what came from a women and what came from a feminist. Through the analysis of different women artist, authors, performers, and comics’ one will be able to know why these works of art are feminist or not feminist.

What makes someone a woman? A woman is a female human being, someone biologically born with a vagina. Most people think that because someone is a woman, that automatically makes them a feminist. However, a feminist can be a man or a woman. It is not strictly for women. According to the Webster dictionary, feminism is the “advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” Feminist try to achieve equality among men and women. In order to understand the differences between women products and feminist products one must know the reasons behind feminism. Feminism is divided into three waves. The first wave feminism dates to the late 19th and early 20th century in regards to woman suffrage. The second wave feminism dates to the early 1960s in the United States in regards to “civil rights, sexual liberation, childcare, health, welfare, education, work, and reproductive rights including the right to abortion” (Nair). The third wave feminism dates to the early 1990s in regards to race, gender, and the failures of the second wave feminism. Within feminism there are different levels, they range from liberal feminist to radical feminist. All feminist have a common goal, to reach equality among men and women.

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Feminist art reflects women’s lives and experiences through the lens for social change. Feminist art is different from women’s art in the sense that the artist want to make a political statement. Most feminist art has a background of pain, injustice, and oppression. Every painting, every shape, every color has a specific meaning. In feminist art, all aspects of the artwork have to be considered, everything has a political statement. The most famous piece of feminist art is Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. The Dinner Party was tribute for women around the world that changed the course of history. The shape of the table was a triangle, commonly known as a symbol of equality. Thirty-nine respective women had plates of their own.

They were represented in flower-like sculptures that resembled the vulva. Judy Chicago specifically used the vagina imagery to acknowledge womanhood and to set the stage of the life women have to live. The dinner plates itself represent the roles of women in society, the stay at home mom always cooking and preparing dinner. However, each woman had something different that represented them and their work. At the National Museum of Women in the Arts displayed Virginia Woolf’s plate. Virginia Woolf’s plate is a perfect example of how Judy Chicago depicted her overcoming male-dominated literature. The purpose of the dinner table was to show people that women are powerful and that they have contributed to society. Judy Chicago’s art can be categorized as women empowerment. Other feminist artists such as Magdalena Abakanowicz have a different approach.

Abakanowicz’s Four Seated Figures in an interesting piece of art. The sculptures reflected the tragedies of World War II. The four figures are both headless and handless reflecting her direct experience. What makes this piece of art feminist rather than women art is the fact that the figures are genderless. “They represent the human race rather than men or women of any specific nationality, color, or creed. They are naked, exposed, and vulnerable (…)” (National Museum of Women in the Arts). The message Abakanowicz is trying to send is that all people regardless of whether they are men or women are shaped by war and political upheaval. Everyone is affected by the tragedies of war, so why gender so important in society? Abakanowicz wanted to show the universality of war. Feminist art will always have a political statement in regards to women. On the other hand women art is art made by women.

What is the difference between men art and women art? The only difference is the fact that the artist is a man or a woman. When observing Anna Hyatt Huntington’s work no one will be able to tell whether the sculptor was a man or a woman. Huntington is mostly known for her animal sculptures, such as the Yawning Panther. The Yawning Panther is considered to be universal due to the fact it relates to nature. There is no political statement behind this piece of art. The same can be applied to women literature, which many consider it art.

Women literature can be written for entertainment or to educate people. However, feminist literature is written to show the male-dominated world that women can be great writers and the struggles women face. In Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, she claims “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” (Woolf). During that time period there weren’t a lot of women writers. Those who were writers had money and were able to access education. Even in today’s society women are preoccupied with raising their children that they don’t find the time to write fiction. For that reason, A Room of One’s Own is considered feminist literature. Other feminist authors include J.K Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series. She is known to give the women strong roles; they have equal opportunity to education, sports, and careers. When taking about women roles, one can look at women theatre and feminist theatre.

Shakespeare’s sisters hosted a play called The Gaming Table by Susanna Centlivre. The Gaming Table is considered to be women’s theatre. It was a play about women gamblers and how they were dominating in a man’s game. Although the women characters had strong roles, The Gaming Table is not considered feminist theatre. What would have made The Gaming Table a feminist play is the ending. In the play, the women learned their lessons about gambling and they all lived “happily ever after”. A feminist ending would’ve taken a different approach. The women would’ve still continued gambling to show the men that they aren’t the only ones who know how to gamble. This goes in hand with feminist performances and/or films. The film that I found most appropriate for feminist performance is A Question of Silence. This film depicts the stereotypes of women in the fact that they aren’t capable of murdering a person. What makes this a feminist film is the fact that three women who never met each other murdered the owner of the boutique, who in fact is a man.

In the film, men clearly believe they are superior to women. One guy said “as for economics all women know is how to hold out their hand for cash; and open their legs as a reward” (Gorris). Another example is when the prosecutor was questioning the psychiatrist’s credibility because she is a woman. There is so much political meaning to this film. One can’t ignore the prejudices women face. The difference between a feminist and a woman is that feminist are people who want to change society and act on it. Women realize the inequalities and might to change it but they aren’t advocates for women equality. People may categorize some women as feminist when in fact they aren’t. Many mistakenly say Margaret Cho is a feminist comic, when in fact she is a woman comic. Her humor is not one that many may get, it’s vulgar and weird. However, that doesn’t mean she is a feminist comic. Feminist comics use comedy as a mean to bring social awareness. A perfect example of a feminist comic is Robin Tyler.

Feminism is only a political ideology; it isn’t a way of life or a means to degrade men. Feminism is not anti-men. Feminist ultimate goal is for society to see and treat women as equals. Someone’s sex or gender shouldn’t be the determining factor when deciding whether a piece of art or literature is worthy to be exhibited. Being a feminist is simply being a humanitarian; advocating for human rights, women rights. All humans should be treated equally. Like Magdalena’s Four Seated Figures we should see the world with genderless lens.

Representation of Women Bodies

The representation of women bodies hasn’t changed much from what was perceived centuries ago. Although there might be a few differences from ancient times and modern day, women bodies are still seen as inferior. The representation of women bodies differ by time period and region. However, there is only a marginal difference among societies. The most popular representation of women bodies are in music and/or mass media, art, films, and performances. Within each category there are male and female perspectives to the women body. It is merely impossible for every single person in this planet to have the same view on women bodies. That being said, it is inevitable to miss the bigger picture of the representation of women bodies. All women bodies are seen in one way, shape or form as objects.

For hundreds of years, women bodies have been perceived as men’s property. Around 1800 B.C. the Code of Hammurabi defines rape as a property crime. “Under this code, convicted rapist must pay for ‘damaged goods’ to the raped woman’s husband or father” (Weitz). Although this code of law was thousands of years ago, women are still considered men’s property in many places around the world. In ancient times, women weren’t considered equal at the biological level. Women bodies were considered a type of deformity, as if it was some sort of mutation to be a woman. The well-known philosopher, Aristotle “contends that embryos become female only if they have insufficient ‘heat’ to become fully human” (Weitz). Since the very beginning women bodies have had a negative connation to them. Early Christians saw women bodies as bodies of temptation, sexual desire, sin, and even dangerous to “men’s souls”. The representation of women bodies has progressively gotten worse. The difference between the representation of women bodies in the past and the present is the exposure. In the past, women bodies were represented as inferior through texts and lectures. As time passed, women bodies were exposed to the public in forms of art and public displays.

The women representation in art wasn’t to admire her natural beauty, but, to be seen as an object of sexual desire. Women models were only objects; they weren’t seen as human beings. As Linda Nochlin would put it;

“There exist, to my knowledge, no historical representations of artist drawings from the nude model which include women in any other role but that of the nude model itself, an interesting commentary on rules of property: that it is alright for a (“low”, of course) woman to reveal herself naked-as-an object for a group of men, but forbidden to a woman to participate in the active study and recording of naked-man-as-an object (…)” (Nochlin).

It seems that women were only good for modeling nude. That goes to show you that women weren’t given much praise. To be posing naked and being aware that people are looking at you is much more degraded than it seems to be. Although artist may say that being nude is a form of art, they can’t explain why there are more women models than men models. Women are stripped down to their most natural form to be observed by men. “She turns herself into an object ̶̶ and most particularly an object of vision: a sight” (Berger). In Ways of Seeing, John Berger specifically calls out male artists who paint women nude. He says as followed: “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” (Berger). In past art and even modern art, women bodies continue to be dismembered. According to a famous 16th century painter, Albrecht Durer, the ideal nude is constructed by taking the face of one body, the breast of another, the legs of a third body, and so on until the painter creates a nonexistent body. This trend can be seen throughout the music of today and mass media, such as advertisement.

Everyone can agree that rap music has the most degrading lyrics about women. Women are objectified and given animal characteristics. The three main parts of a woman’s body that is of utter importance to rappers are the breast, vagina, and butt. Those three body parts are separated from the woman herself, they are of more importance than the woman as a whole. A woman’s butt is probably the most objectified body part. A perfect example is when Ludacris tells a woman to “shake her money maker”, referring to her butt. In Obie Trice and Eminem’s song Lady, Eminem raps “pass my pussy around like its Ja Rule’s jewelry”. These are only two instances out of the hundreds of songs that represent women body parts as objects. Other than rap songs objectifying women, advertisements do it more overtly. Companies advertise their products by using woman. There have been a lot of instances in which women are used as tables to display products. Continuing with the trend to dismember woman bodies, the majority of ads only use the bottom half of a woman’s body. They typically don’t show the woman’s face. What is worse than objectifying women, is representing them as animals. Women are called bitches, which we all know means a female dog. They are called all sorts of animals. In Tyga’s Make it Nasty song, he raps “I like how she merry-go-round round the pole”. It is clear that he is referring to a woman as a horse.

Music and the media depict woman as sexual beings. Their bodies are sexualized in every aspect. Generation M was a perfect documentary in informing people how woman bodies are represented sexually. In the documentary one can observe how in the video game, Grand Theft Auto, women are depicted as prostitutes then later killed. The same can be said about films. Almost in every movie there is a woman dressed very promiscuous or has no clothes. With this type of representation people get the wrong idea about all women. People get false hopes thinking that what is seen in the movies is what an average woman will look like or act like. Now that we touched based on the negative representations of woman bodies we can move on to the positive representations.

The most positive representation of the woman body, better yet the vagina is the art work of Judy Chicago. Judy Chicago successfully represents the vagina as flower-like or butterfly-like piece of art. This type of representation empowers woman and makes them feel better about themselves. Another positive representation can be the Vagina Monologues. The Vagina Monologues represents the woman vagina accurately. Each monologue is a true story of someone’s vagina. I would consider the Vagina Monologues as a positive representation of women bodies because all the monologues portrayed the “real” vagina not the mainstream vagina. The mainstream vagina is much more sexualized.

The representation of women bodies has definitely had more negative consequences than praise. Turning any human into a thing is almost always the first step towards justifying violence against that person. Objectifying women has created more violence towards them. The way they are represented by media leads to misogyny. That being said, women are represented as fragile, vulnerable, and sexual icons. Women can’t seem to get away from that stigma. Women may have the right to vote, the right to work, the right to an education, and think that they have reached equality. However, women are far from reaching equality. Women are still being degraded through the media and society accepts it. It is a major setback to what feminist are fighting for. Unless media changes the way women are represented, women will continue to be the second sex.

Extra Credit

From the minute you are born, you enter a gendered world; a place where everything is categorized and labeled; a place where people have to act a certain way to conform to the norms of society. That being said, everything you see or hear is gendered. When you look at advertisements, films, or even looking at art is gendered. What exactly does gender mean? Gender is a “system of classification that describes characteristics and behaviors that we ascribe to bodies, and we call those characteristics and behaviors ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’” (Green). And gender role is the public, social, and perceived expectations of gendered acts or expressions. (Project). Gendered is simply the bias towards the female or male sex. Thus everything that is seen is either masculine or feminine; it is hard to find the in-between, the neutral point. Furthermore, in “Ways of Seeing” John Berger discusses how art is gendered, more specifically European art. In “The Oppositional Gaze” bell hooks discusses how films are gendered towards Black Women. In all of their discussions one can really see how looking is gendered.

“Ways of Seeing” has probably been one of the most influential texts regarding gendered looking of the 20th century. Berger points out how in art, women aren’t given the same opportunities to be present or to “look” as men. He distinguishes between the surveyor and the surveyed, which are two distinct elements of a woman’s identity. A woman has to “survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men” (Berger). What Berger is saying is that women can only be surveyors of themselves; they have to change themselves to mold the expectations of men and society. This is prevalent today in the sense that women are always expected to change their looks to attract men. Advertisements directly tell women that they need implants, makeup, perfume, sexy clothes to be accepted by everyone. Continuing with women being the surveyor of themselves, men are also surveyors of women. They “survey women before treating them” (Berger). Men can survey women but women can’t survey man. Berger clearly makes the connection with art, especially painting the nude.

“One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male; the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object̶ and most particularly and object of vision: a sight” (Berger).

In European art, women are frequently painted in the nude; they aren’t painted for art purposes but painted for the male gaze. This goes to reflect the woman’s submission to the “owner of both woman and painting”, which we all know is the man. Art is extremely gendered. In the past, women weren’t allowed to paint nude men, or even nude woman. As if seeing the nude was privileged to men. The women that were presented in paintings were almost always depicted as fragile or evil, in terms of temptation and sin. When nude they are almost always looking in the mirror, looking at themselves. Staring at the mirror is considered feminine. So people expect women to be self-centered because they spend hours looking at the mirror. Either way, looking at art is gendered towards women.

In “The Oppositional Gaze” bell hooks asserts that black women need to look at cinema and media with that type of lens. She encourages women to not accept the stereotypes in the films, but to critique them. At the beginning of the chapter, bell hooks creates a connection among children, slaves, and women. Children are taught not to look or stare at things, but adults can. Slaves were punished if they stared at their master, slaves had no rights to looking; however, their white masters did. And finally, women can’t gaze, but men can. In regards to the representation of black women in films, they were always nurturing, or obedient to the white women or even so men. The “gendered relation to looking made the experience of the black male spectator radically different from that of the black female spectator.” (Hooks). When black males became independent film makers, they represented black women as objects, for the male gaze.

This was a result of black men not being able to gaze at white women. That being said, black women in the films are “to be looked at and desired as ‘white’” (Hooks). The way black women were represented didn’t allow them to move up in society. Because people saw what the black women were doing in the films, they assume that is what is true. Society then has certain expectations from Black women, well women in general. Bell hooks quotes Anne Friedlberg, “identification can only be made through recognition, and all recognition is itself an implicit confirmation of the ideology of the status quo” (Hooks). Everyone wants to identify to something, and that something is what society perceives of you. To identify as a woman, people think of all the things, emotions, roles associated to that gender, femininity. That is why bell hooks suggest women to critique the roles women are given in films. Women need to stop accepting roles that are stereotypical and degrading to women.

By using Berger’s and hook’s principles of looking, I am able to pinpoint how all things are gendered. For example, in Switched at Birth, both moms don’t have strong independent roles. Katherine is a stay at home mom, and is very passive. A characteristic associated with women. Her husband John is a big, tall, muscular man who is a retired Third-Baseman. In the TV series, he is the big decision maker. He doesn’t like his wife making decisions without consulting him first. This is also common to masculinity.

Switched at Birth is only one example of the thousands of films, shows, art, and advertisement that are gendered. At this time in age, one would think that there would be quality and neutrality, however, society is progressively getting worse. Girls grow up thinking that they have to fit into certain gender roles; they have to identify themselves feminine. And if they don’t, then it is considered taboo. Nothing can ever be genderless; everyone wants a feeling of belongingness. With gender, people can identify themselves, even if it means living up and accepting the stereotypes.

Works Cited

A Question of Silence. Dir. Marleen Gorris. 1982.

Berger, John. “Ways of Seeing .” London : Penguin Books, 1972. 45-54, 62-64.

Green, Jamison. “How Do You Know?” Becoming a Visible Man. Vanderbilt University Press, 2004. 1-15.

Hooks, Bell. “The Oppositional Gaze.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992. 115-131.

Nair, Sanjay. Rise of Womanhood. n.d. 20 March 2012 <http://www.rise-of-womanhood.org/history-of-feminism.html>.

National Museum of Women in the Arts. 4 Seated figures. Washington, D.C, 2002.

Nochlin, Linda. “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Women, Art, and Power and other Essays . New York: Harper & Row, 1988. 145-178.

Project, Gender Identity. Transgender Basics. New York City, n.d.

Weitz, Rose. “A History of Women Bodies.” December 2000. Feminist Women’s Health Center. 23 March 2012 ;fwhc.org/roseweitz1.htm;.

Woolf, Virginia. “A Room of One’s OWn.” October 1928. [email protected] ;http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/;.