Allegorical Figures

The local commuter paper ran an interview today with John Currin, a painter who deals in explicitly physical and sometimes pornographic images of women. (The first picture on the linked slideshow, actually, is NSFW.) I find his work interesting, if sometimes (deliberately) disturbing; I wouldn’t exactly count him among my favorite painters but I have no beef with the guy. However, I found this bit of the interview rather telling:

Express: The majority of your work is of the female figure. Why is that?

Currin: The simple answer is that I enjoy looking at women more than I enjoy looking at men, but the more pretentious answer is that I find it easier to think of metaphors and allegories when I’m using women in paintings.

This got me thinking. Part of the reason we show such public interest in — and sense of entitlement to — women’s bodies is that they’ve historically been used to represent things that are at once greater and smaller than “individual woman.” When we’re accustomed to women’s bodies signifying virtues and values and cultural mores — instead of signifying, you know, a woman’s body — it’s no wonder we start to feel they’re public property.

Imagine walking into a museum room containing representative samples of figures in the history of Western art. Some of the female figures you see will be representing Venus, the Madonna, and so forth — but many will be allegories of love, virtue, chastity, poetry. Think of the Graces: three women usually represented from front, back, and side, a 360-degree view of the female form. That’s what “grace” is. Think of the Muses. Think of the Sistine sibyls (not to mention Brittania), who are not just qualities but places. Male figures appear in these paintings too, but almost always as gods or Biblical figures, people with names. Men are characters, women are symbols.

They’re still symbols today. The female bodies used in advertising rarely stand for actual people — they mean “smooth,” “tasty,” “appealing,” “sexy,” “expensive,”  “new and improved.” Half the time they don’t even have faces, just a flank or a bust being used as a backdrop — the Nymph of the Liquor/Aftershave/Cereal/Beer. That repugnant series of Bacardi ads got one thing right: they gave their female images names and characteristics (at the expense, of course, of dignity — can’t have them getting too uppity). Most advertising bodies and body parts don’t even get that far. The much-maligned Headless Fatty is the other side of this coin, of course; she’s not a real person, but a metaphor for gluttony or ill health or consumerism or the downfall of society (if not all of the above).

Is it any surprise that women’s bodies are treated as a public concern? The entire culture is accustomed to seeing them used as metonymies for our highest (and lowest) values. The long historical pedigree of anti-woman sentiment means that the fact that women’s bodies contain women’s minds has always been elided, in favor of metaphorical elevation or degradation. We always have to stand for something, and what we stand for is  everyone’s business.

This is why objectification isn’t just the province of misogynists, by the way. Often you’ll hear Nice Guys protest that they don’t objectify women — no, they worship them! So instead of just being sexual receptacles, women stand for all that is good and beautiful in the world. How original. How healthy.

In some ways we’ve come far from Elizabethan sonnet cycles where the beloved is Virtue and Wisdom Personified, but in other ways the female body is still being treated like Humpty Dumpty treats words — it means whatever people want it to mean. How do you get people to get their figurative thought off your actual figure? That’s probably a long and complicated process involving, more or less, overthrowing the patriarchy. As we get back control of our bodies and images, we’ll regain control over what they signify. Until then, just remember that you don’t have to be somebody’s metaphor. Don’t stand for just “standing for” — your body deserves more than a symbolic existence.

64 thoughts on “Allegorical Figures

  1. Fantastic piece!

    You lot at SP teach me new words. Metonymy metonymy. And I know loads of words, me. I totesy even MADE UP a new word yesterday and am going to publish it in a paper.

  2. I have to admit I didn’t quite use metonymy right. Using a woman to represent virginity might be metonymy; using her to represent, say, vodka is just a metaphor. But I like the word enough to shoehorn it in. :)

  3. So instead of just being sexual receptacles, women stand for all that is good and beautiful in the world. How original. How healthy.

    Zing! Totally. Do you suppose these Nice Guys could possibly IMAGINE that it might be kind of stifling to have to stand for all that is good and beautiful? Because it seems like a pretty easy concept to grasp. And yet.

    Re: metonymy. What’s the other one that sounds like Schenectady?

  4. I don’t know what the word for it is, but one thing that annoys me like crazy is ads that just have people, almost always women, y’know, just there. Hanging out in the ad looking happy or whatever. And my reaction is, “AND…?? What are you trying to say?” What’s the worst is peoples’ faces staring out from the page, in closeup, with some sort of expression that I’m supposed to associate with the product. It’s incredibly lazy. It’s like babies are putting together these ads. I feel like it’s skipping right over any sort of rational to be using the human face and form to sell a product and going right for, “This person expresses how we want you to feel about this product.” Lazy, annoying, exploitative of both model and viewer.

    My annoyance grows out of my having cut my teeth learning about how women’s images are used egregiously and willy-nilly just to sell things. Even non-sexually, it’s offensive in its acquiescence to the idea that the picture of a woman can be used to make anything better, whether or not it actually fits. It’s like the face of a pretty woman is supposed to say it all. “This pretty woman is smiling next to the name of our product, so you should love it and buy it.” But, again, I look at these ads and go, “So she’s smiling. AND…?? So what?”

    Hey, advertisers: Women should not be used as random decoration to make you look better. At least give me a reason why that lady in the ad is smiling.

  5. jeebus, i meant “rationale why they’re using” in my first para, instead of “rational to be using.” The hope of my using “metonymy” correctly recedes ever more rapidly.

    Also, I’m not wearing the right prescription glasses today.

  6. Good God, I just re-read this:

    The long historical pedigree of anti-woman sentiment means that the fact that women’s bodies contain women’s minds has always been elided, in favor of metaphorical elevation or degradation. We always have to stand for something, and what we stand for is everyone’s business..

    Brilliant.

  7. Lovely, thoughtful, eloquent piece of writing as usual. Isn’t it interesting that in using women as symbols they can only be described in superlatives or perjoratives, personifying one or the other end of the spectrum–never simply as human with both good and bad qualities. As you noted, even when objectifying in superlative terms, it’s still ultimately depersonalizing. And of course, in the visual arts, there’s an added layer of societal standards of beauty being used as allegories for qualities that have nothing to do with or cannot be necessarily deduced from appearance–virtue or chastity, to use examples from above (except of course us fatties are necessarily chaste, because who would want to fuck us?). Ha. Sigh. Personally, I don’t want to be a symbol for anything but me.

    PS–it was worth a little fudging to use metonymy. Heh.

  8. Lu, your comment made me think of random “insert ethnic group here” people shoehorned into ads to show “diversity.” Not that I think ads shouldn’t show diversity, but so often it’s terribly clear that somebody said, “so, we need to include a black woman, and an asian guy….” without any real thought other than the need to “show diversity.”

  9. You know, this may be one for the fridge. I’m having a hard time right now coming to terms with my approaching-middle-aged-and-matronly-looking body. (I’m only 31 and three quarters, but pregnancies really added symbolic years to my body. And by that I don’t mean that it made it bigger – though it did, slightly – but it just gave me a far more middle-aged figure. And in the last year especially I notice that my skin has lost elasticity like whoa.)

    I wanted to say more but there’s actually a poop problem I need to deal with.

  10. Wow, FJ. I love this post. Aesthetically, I love, love, love classical art, but the more I made my own art, the more I came to realize that it’s exactly as you say- the women portrayed are not simply beautiful individual women as illustrated by men, they represent collective values (usually for women, seen as important by men).

    It’s interesting because representations of the male body in classical art seem to have their own standard, but one with a more individualized implication, free of moral or societal implications. Like The Discus Thrower or Michelangelo’s David could be seen as strength, and The Thinker could obviously be seen as intellect- qualities that are certainly desirable and encouraged for men, but which are their prerogative. Virtue and chastity and maternity and innocence, however, as represented by all those Madonnas and Graces and Muses and Persephones, were REQUIREMENTS for women. Because if women weren’t like the Madonnas and Graces and Muses and Persephones, they were like those creeptastic Northern Renaissance and Flemish paintings of Lot and his daughters.

    p.s. I like the link to the Nice Guys article too. Totally in agreement that Nice Guys are not to be trusted, but kind of fearing that in light of recent experiences, I may have been acting like a Nice Girl. How pitiful and embarrassing!

  11. such a good article, fillyjonk. it reminds me of a conversation i had (when i was waaaaaaaaay back in my undergrad) with a women’s studies student who was interested in some victorian literature (my specialty). “can you recommend something with a really interesting female protagonist?” she asked. i was about to rattle of a whole whack of titles, like “tess of the d’ubervilles” and such, but she added, “i want to read something about a woman, not Woman in the abstract.” it blew my mind not a little. it was a really important step for me in becoming a critical reader and thinker.

    you know, i watched the pilot of “the big bang bang theory” a few nights ago, and there was something about it that just struck me as being off. and today i figured it out what it was. the show’s about two male scientist-types (they have all the nerd signifiers, like glasses and too-short pants, but it’s not really explained what they DO), their cute, thin, white, blonde, ditzy neighbor, the unrequited love one scientist has for said neighbor, and the resulting hijinks. not only does the NiceGuy mythos come into play (surely the pretty blonde will one day reward the schlubby scientist for his devotion?), but the female character has no development in the set-up. she exists in the pilot only to represent all the desirable things that our hapless heroes don’t have – excitement, warmth, sex.

    maybe the show gets better? as i said, i only watched the pilot, but it didn’t inspire me to watch any more.

  12. Thank you for this. Seriously, thank you. I’m an art student, and whenever I try to bring up issues of objectification, exploitation, or miscogyny in others’ works, I feel like I’m running into a wall built of hundreds of years of western art historical tradition.

  13. Angela, you’re right about the typical sitcom setup on The Big Bang Theory. (Add in the Jewish guy who still lives with his overbearing mother, and the Indian guy who can’t talk to girls unless he’s drunk!) It did get better, and there’s been some good character development since. I love that show and it cracks me up. I like it more when Penny calls the guys on their assumptions about her intelligence (it’s happened!), and her banter with the very socially awkward Sheldon (who, so I’ve read, could be interpreted to have Asberger’s). I’m sure you could chalk a lot of it up to token lines, especially for the sake of the plot-of-the-week, but as far as sitcoms go these days, it’s underrated. IMHO. :-)

  14. The irony is some men think this is something we should be grateful for. Our gender has so much more meaning and importance as symbols of things! It offers us so much power! Why are we pissed off?

    Well, because the symbolism being projected onto women as Madonna, Grace, Virgin, Whore, or whatever is still largely coming from men and still erases the individuality of the woman.

    I suspect a lot of this is at the heart not just of the entire advertising industry (see any ad for baby products where the mom is invariably the media ideal of the suburban and almost always Caucasian middle aged mother, every beer commercial that throws a young thin woman in for any reason), but the denial of choice movement as well. Women not being persons but symbols of what is good also means any woman who doesn’t meet the standard is the opposite of the good symbols, as someone else already pointed out. And since no woman in her right mind could want to reject the Madonna symbol (the religious figure, not the singer) anyone who does is a harlot, trollop, fallen woman, etc.

    It’s conveniently binary. Individual persons are messy and complex and full of virtues and flaws. It’s a lot harder to make big blanket statements about a group of people we think of more as individuals than as members of a group, and in turn it’s harder to be discriminatory or pass laws that harm people we regard as individuals versus doing the same thing to an abstract (a group, a set of symbols).

    Which is why people becoming individuals to the public is important. Having a member of a group become familiar and known and unique breaks apart the ability of people to think of a group as a monolith. You see it happen over and over again.

    DRST

  15. “this is something we should be grateful for” – this is something MEN THINK we should be grateful for.

    *headdesk*

  16. Okay, most Elizabethan sonnet cycles personify the beloved as Virtue and Wisdom Herself . . . which makes me even more fond of this Shakespearean one. :-)

    My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
    Coral is far more red than her lips’ red:
    If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
    If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
    I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
    But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
    And in some perfumes is there more delight
    Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
    I love to hear her speak,–yet well I know
    That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
    I grant I never saw a goddess go,
    My mistress when she walks, treads on the ground;
    And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
    As any she belied with false compare.

  17. Okay, now I’m done with the poop problem and hopefully can finish my thought, although I’ve just had a verrrrrrrry strong mint julep.

    A “matronly” body, to me — and VERY MUCH in spite of myself — symbolizes happy self-sacrifice, a narrowing of options, a shrinking of mental horizons, a restriction of one’s world *from* the great buzzing universe out there with its possibilities and things to discover *to* the confines of home and hearth.

    Again, let me stress that I don’t want this to be the case. I don’t want to think this. I know that by thinking that, I’m insulting people I love, and even people I just like. And even people I don’t like, who deserve not to be insulted for this.

    But, you know, I’ve been carefully taught that there are only a few options for the social meaning of a female body, and I’m watching my body come to resemble one of those options that really really does not fit how I imagine myself. I imagine myself as someone still investigating problems and making discoveries and seeking out new things to learn. But then I don’t see someone who looks the part.

    It’s sort of like — and I wish it were not like — discovering that an athletic shoe company has a logo all done up in Elizabethan fonts and flowers. It doesn’t fit what they sell. Who is this home-and-hearth person looking back at me in the mirror? And why doesn’t her logo fit her brand? Because obviously SHE isn’t off making discoveries, snarking at people, crafting a delightful turn of phrase, having great sex, or making cool friends.

    And I hate that I think that. It’s a very very very wrong thing to think. Plus, I actually REALLY don’t want to denigrate tending home and hearth — though I fear I’ve done so many times, even here. I know now that it’s hard work requiring physical and psychological resilience that I never imagined. At the same time, I know that I’ve heard them be denigrated, many many many many many many times, because it’s work filed under “female.” (Which, you know, means that it’s both crap work that a monkey could do, but also SO SUPER PRECIOUS WONDERFUL PINK BOWS AND PUPPIES.) And those messages took; what can I say? So secretly, I still don’t want my body to symbolize, to the wider public, that kind of work. I want it to symbolize quirky intellectual charming hipster things, and instead there’s this.

    Okay, sorry for writing a novel. Like I said, strong mint julep.

  18. carolatina, glad to hear that TBBT gets better, and that it opens up from the pilot – i’d heard, actually, that it was hilarious and intelligent, and i just didn’t get that from what i saw. what you’re describing sounds much more interesting, and less generic.

    and speaking of generic/allegorical figures! BUST magazine posted a link on their blog to a flash cartoon that both horrifies, fascinates, and amuses me – it posits a role reversal in the heteronormative “family” sitcom (you know, ‘everyone loves raymond,’ ‘king of queens,’ ‘life according to jim,’ etc etc etc) in that the wife is fat (and accordingly schlubby, unattractive, gluttonous, and so forth) while the husband is thin (and hot, and domestic, and competent). i don’t quite know what to make of it, but it’s certainly demonstrative of pop-culture stereotypes/archetypes.

    http://www.bust.com/blog/2009/06/05/role-reversal.html

    and there’s a comment there from SP commenter/BUST intern liza! hi, liza! (waves) i love all the stuff you’ve been posting on the BUST blog! i like to think that if i lived in NY we’d be friends :)

  19. (apologizes in advance for monopolizing comments)

    i want to read something about a woman, not Woman in the abstract.

    it was nicely put, wasn’t it? it was even better when I’ve-Forgotten-Her-Name-Women’s-Studies-Student said it, because she didn’t feel the need to add “in the abstract” – since, erm, she didn’t have the obnoxious habit of speaking in primarily lower-case and getting her quotation marks tangled up.

    So secretly, I still don’t want my body to symbolize, to the wider public, that kind of work. I want it to symbolize quirky intellectual charming hipster things, and instead there’s this.

    oh, wow, A Sarah, i can really identify with this, and i don’t even have kids. before FA, i really felt my body was coded “frumpy secretary” because of my fat, and not “vivacious go-getter, ” which in my mind was symbolized by a long lean flat-chested kate hepburn/dianne farr silhouette. and this just piles conflict on conflict because hey, you know what? administration is not necessarily creative or fun but it is DAMN HARD WORK that gets trivialized, NOT because it isn’t necessarily creative or fun, but because it’s been done by women.

    yet another reason why, i think, it’s so helpful to look at these kinds of symbols, and unpack them. have i said thank you to fillyjonk yet? thank you fillyjonk.

  20. This is why objectification isn’t just the province of misogynists, by the way. Often you’ll hear Nice Guys protest that they don’t objectify women — no, they worship them! So instead of just being sexual receptacles, women stand for all that is good and beautiful in the world.

    Until they get turned down for a date. Then, they’re just heartless bitches.

  21. This is a fucking awesome post.

    For anyone interested in further reading about gender and art history, I cannot recommend John Berger’s Ways of Seeing strongly enough. It will rock your world. And it’s theory that’s actually easy to read!* Anyway, the thing that this post reminded me most strongly of is his famous assessment of gender in most classical painting: “Men act, and women appear.”

    *suck it, Judith Butler

  22. In some ways we’ve come far from Elizabethan sonnet cycles where the beloved is Virtue and Wisdom Personified, but in other ways the female body is still being treated like Humpty Dumpty treats words — it means whatever people want it to mean.

    Claps slowly for fillyjonk.

  23. I’m watching my body come to resemble one of those options that really really does not fit how I imagine myself.

    Oh, god, A Sarah, you have just summarized in one sentence so many of the thoughts that I’ve been wrestling with for quite some time now. I have this definitely getting towards middle aged body, but I still see myself as vibrant and alive and so damned full of possibility….and everything outside of me is telling me that part of my life is over.

    I’d love to see a posting on women/age/size, and I’ve even thought about proposing one assuming I could ever come up with some kind of central thesis.

  24. That really made me think of this:

    http://contexts.org/socimages/2009/06/16/dear-the-ladies-dont-die-cause-then-who-would-we-look-at/

    It took a picture meant to signify beauty, and turned it into an objectification, but really both cases were objectifications because the Birth of Venus isn’t about the goddess of love and beauty who cheated on her husband with the god of war because her husband was disabled and unsexy, but using a female figure to represent an ideal. And then, of course, an advertisement basically saying that the best thing that women give is their beauty, because men can’t fill that role.

    Great post.

  25. Both this post, and A Sarah’s comment, do a very good job of outlining things I have vaguely *felt in the past, but never actually intellectually articulated.

    Particularly

    I’ve been carefully taught that there are only a few options for the social meaning of a female body,

    A lot of it really does come down to this, doesn’t it?

  26. ASarah: that was beautifully stated; a woman is not a symbol;we are real in our personalities . We may sometimes include goodness, nurturing and hateful spite in our realms; but we are changing beings, not limited to any one virtue, or non-virtue. What we want is more respect than understanding. Part of the mystery, we weave, we love, we comprehend paradox and sublimity, and the frailty of humannnnesssss. Yes, and feel in our bones sweetness and death:
    children and old people, being the same.

    The weight of my breasts is a burden to me, but some kind of signal to mankind. Why God, a 38DDD? IT’S LIKE A BILLBOARD

    NURTURE HERE FEEL BETTER neon neon

    The expression of feelings makes men often crumble , so we are the substitute mammary. We get to do the grieving for them- too many times.

  27. Re the Big Bang Theory – I love this show and its probably the funniest thing I’ve watched in ages. Maybe I find it especially funny since I’m a huge geek – I think a lot of the jokes are very geek-specific and might not make as much sense to non-geeks.

    However, the one thing that I have noticed and commented on numerous times is the fact that Penny (the blonde girl) is ALWAYS wearing short skirts and singlet type outfits, while everyone else in the show (even Lesley, the “frumpy” scientist girl) is usually in pants and long sleeves. To me its kind of jarring because its so weird (but not unexpected I suppose) – does her appartment have its own tropical microclimate or something?

  28. FJ, this was so brilliant. I love the way your mind works! I’ve honestly never given much thought to the fact that a woman is often used as metaphor for some intangible thing, like grace or nuturing. It reminds me a little of men who refer to thier cars/trucks/boats as “her”.

  29. Great job. It can be really difficult trying to convince people that the pedestal is just as harmful as the pit. A Sarah and other theologickal types, ever read “Alone of All Her Sex” by Marina Warner, about the Virgin Mary? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    I’m fascinated with feminized place concepts. Roma, Europa, la belle France, Mother Russia, etc. Fun fact: there’s even an allegorical representation of the United States. Her name is Columbia, as in District of (where there are approximately 10,000 representations of her). She does double duty by representing not only the land itself but also our national ideals. (As her name comes from Columbus, you might think she should represent the Americas as a whole, but like the name “America” itself, this is one we like to hog.) But please, don’t confuse her with Liberty or Freedom. They’re completely different, obviously.

    I’ve got a lot of fancypants ideas about where this came from and how it’s been used throughout history. But I’ll confine myself to pointing out, as I do as often as I can, that there’s a naked female breast on the Virginia state (or should that be commonwealth?) flag.

  30. right-effing-on, FJ.
    women as public property is something i’ve been ranting about a lot lately, so thanks for this. it’s refreshing to see it framed in disciplines other than the ones i’m personally qualified to frame them in – and i am no art history major.

    also?
    @Lu –
    “Even non-sexually, it’s offensive in its acquiescence to the idea that the picture of a woman can be used to make anything better, whether or not it actually fits.”

    abso-fucking-lutely.

    and now for glass o’ wine number two …

  31. “Men act, and women appear.”

    Reminds me a little of this study that just came out:

    When participants in an experiment looked at photos of women’s and men’s faces looking sad, afraid, angry, or disgusted, with a sentence beneath the image purporting to explain the emotion (“buried a family pet” for a sad face, for instance, and “was threatened by an attacker” for a fearful one), they offered starkly different explanations for the emotions: that women in the photos felt sad, angry or afraid because they were “emotional,” but the pictured men felt those emotions because they were “having a bad day”—even when the expressions and their explanation was identical.

    Men do things and react; women just are.

  32. Hmm. This is all so interesting. It makes me think about how others read my own recent art, and the women in it. The women are, of course, me. The shape of their body is just the shape of my body. (Lately I’ve been telling a lot of my own stories.)

    To me, they are characters. But to the rest of the world they may symbolize all kindsa stuff.

  33. Thanks, Milli, for the link to the Soiciological Images birth of Venus thread! I was bewildered by the number of men in that thread who Just. Didn’t. Get. It. even after it had been explained in short words seven or eight times and kept bleating “But it says women are beautiful! How can that be sexist?”

    FJ’s piece made me understand where this attitude comes from: it’s easy for men to just not realise individual women exist for their own sakes.

  34. i was about to rattle of a whole whack of titles, like “tess of the d’ubervilles” and such, but she added, “i want to read something about a woman, not Woman in the abstract

    Not to sidetrack, but Tess is a great example, because she doesn’t even mainly represent Woman either. She’s Innocence and Tragedy and Nature and Rusticness (it so is a word) and Thomas Hardy’s Ishoos. (though to be fair, a lot of his men are like that as well).

    It annoys me that I don’t look ‘radical’ and never well. I can’t even manage ‘bleeding heart liberal’. My face is wrong, my hair is wrong, my body’s wrong and my clothes (that I like to wear) are wrong. I’m more a 24-year-old middle class middle England radio-4 listener WI member-in-waiting sort of look. Which is fine, because I am probably all those things BUT I am also lots and lots of other things and no-one would know by looking because people are so fucking tied up in what the media and society has told them. (If I had short hair or very long uncut hair and a tie-die t-shirt and long skirt, for instance, my claims to be a feminist would be taken more seriously).

  35. Don’t stand for just “standing for” — your body deserves more than a symbolic existence.

    Wow. If that statement doesn’t get straight at the heart of the issue and provide a heaping dollop of empowerment I don’t know what does. This whole post is really brilliantly put. Even in literature where you’d think it’d be harder to omit names, female characters are often nameless and are not as much people as they are symbols, or even plot turners. Heck, even Guinevere had a name and wasn’t so much a person as she was a plot point, which I think is pretty telling given a look at the end of the story. The moral of Arthurian tales is: “When women don’t play the roles given to them by society, whole societies collapse.” The story of Helen of Troy has a very similar patriarchal lesson.

  36. It annoys me that I don’t look ‘radical’ and never well. I can’t even manage ‘bleeding heart liberal’. My face is wrong, my hair is wrong, my body’s wrong and my clothes (that I like to wear) are wrong.

    Yikes, me too. Also, I’m married. To a man. Just one. Therefore I can’t really be a feminist or a tree-hugger or a rabid gay-rights supporter. Never mind that this weekend is my SEVENTH Gay Pride Parade (Chicago! Yay!) in three years. Perception is effed up, eh?

    I do manage ‘befuddled intellectual’ pretty well, though.

    Angela, what book did you recommend?!? You’re keeping us in suspense!

  37. essen, right on re: tess. i’d say that pretty much all hardy’s characters are allegories, to some extent – very fitting and appropriate that he turned from novels to poetry in later life.

    stephanie, i think i pushed “tess,” but i also came up with “the tenant of wildfell hall” by anne bronte – the eponymous tenant is an abused wife fleeing her alcoholic husband. it was completely out of its time. not even ahead, just out – it was so radical, so unreal for this sort of thing to happen in a realistic novel. the reception at the time, i think, was that the book was “sensational,” more like an adventure story than a character study. now it’s quite an important book in feminist criticism.

    to return to women, their bodies, and what those bodies stand for – this conversation reminds me of an idea i tried to vocalize with limited success back in ye olden undergraduate days. victorian women characters like tess, like laura fairlie in “the woman in white”, – i used to call them “cupcake women.” they were fragile, delicate, lovely, pristine and yet luscious, inducing appetite. they were perfectly put together, small, carefully assembled. and they suffered for being so deliciously pretty. their virtue was smashed, perfect frosting smeared and crumble-y, devoured messily as they were caught up in male appetite.

    as you can see, i still have problems phrasing this vague analogy / cutesy metaphor. but you know, reading FA has deepened my understanding about thematic links between food, desire, women’s bodies, the act of consuming . . . i wish SP had been around when i was writing all those essays!

    oh and richelle! there’s “marianne” too – the face of the french republic. the allegory is so strong that the french govt’ uses REAL WOMEN to “embody” her – brigitte bargot, catherine deneuve, sophie marceau . . .

    http://www.france.com/docs/472.html

  38. Better to think than to merely look like you think. Who cares whether random other people are impressed? You don’t think for THEM.

    I’d just as soon not give people a reason to suspect that there’s anything interesting going on in my own personal skull.

    And most of the people who *look* like they think do less of it than one would expect. ;)

  39. From my previous experience with this artist, I thought he was trying to make a statement against objectification of women in art, by making blatant the implied statements we get from artists about women.

    For instance, in his painting (which is in the slideshow) “The Bra Shop,” he goes so far as to use a different rendering style, with chunky brushstrokes and little detail, for the face, whereas everything else in the painting is very smooth. My first viewing of this painting was a lightbulb moment for me. This painting made obvious to me the lack of importance of a woman’s face, character, thoughts, and actions in art in a way that all the headless, armless female torsos, all the listlessly reclining nudes, and all the supplicating draped ladies couldn’t.

    So reading that article, and realizing that he’s actually probably not a feminist and is just as guilty as everyone else in the world of thinking of women as concepts and/or objects instead of actual people is disheartening to me. :(

  40. I am 30 and have 2 children. Cutting my hair to 1/4 inch short all over gives me SO MUCH MORE personal space – and makes me taller, apparently.

    I always had long hair before.

    Women’s symbolic bodies, hmm.

  41. I think this must actually be my favorite piece here so far. It says so many things I’ve never been able to get straight and put into words on my own.

    It also makes me feel strangely better and less angry about the world, for some reason. Maybe because I understand some things better.

    Thank you.

  42. Approached from another angle:
    HOW DOES OUR LANGUAGE SHAPE THE WAY WE THINK? [6.12.09]
    By Lera Boroditsky

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/boroditsky09/boroditsky09_index.html

    “Look at some famous examples of personification in art — the ways in which abstract entities such as death, sin, victory, or time are given human form. How does an artist decide whether death, say, or time should be painted as a man or a woman? It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist’s native language. So, for example, German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman.”

  43. Jumping in late as usual, but:

    I’m watching my body come to resemble one of those options that really really does not fit how I imagine myself.

    Not only do I COMPLETELY relate — I look like earth mother meets frumpy, and feel much more like earth mother meets hipster meets intellectual meets punk meets hippie — but I also think this comes back around to some of the FA stuff.

    As a fat woman, I often think that my body is misinterpreted, because of all the things that we as a culture do and do not believe of fat people and fat women. Like, there have been times in my life (oh, hell, probably still at some level) when I’ve desperately wanted to be described as “willowy” or “lithe”, simply because I thought it was more in line with the hippie I wanted to be perceived as.

    My best friend had a boyfriend who I got along fine with, but I knew he had said some icky things about some other fat folks he knew in the past. Meanwhile, he liked me just fine, and I knew it was because he had gotten to know me, through forced exposure, because of my friend. At the time, this both pissed me off and made me incredibly sad (mostly pissed me off), because it suggested to me that “my best qualities are not immediately evident” aka, I was nice but ugly. And that he wouldn’t have gotten to know me if not for my friend, and would have just interpreted my body, my appearance as “not worth knowing”. And while I believed then and now that that was wrong wrong wrong, I desperately wanted to have a body that others might interpret in a way that was in line with my personality.

    FA and fatshionista have given me a way to look at fat people and see beauty in its myriad forms, which helps big-time. Sadly, that doesn’t always make other people see me differently, but at least it gives me confidence, which is noticeable. So now i look like earth mother meets frumpy with confidence!

  44. It’s sort of like — and I wish it were not like — discovering that an athletic shoe company has a logo all done up in Elizabethan fonts and flowers. It doesn’t fit what they sell. Who is this home-and-hearth person looking back at me in the mirror? And why doesn’t her logo fit her brand? Because obviously SHE isn’t off making discoveries, snarking at people, crafting a delightful turn of phrase, having great sex, or making cool friends.

    Holy crap. This is sort of the way I’ve felt almost all my life about my body and my personality, sort of a cross between this and the Fantasy of Being Thin. I’ve always felt that the way I look always either gives off the impression of someone too young or too old, rarely do I ever feel like I look like the 24 year old I am. Add on to that that I always felt my personality was far too incongruous with itself and it was hard for me to figure out who I was. On the one hand, I’m competitive, funny and athletic. On the other hand, I’m shy, incredibly dorky and terribly self conscious. Neither of which did I feel were a totally validated set of personality traits given that I wasn’t your supposedly “typical” thin athletic girl and I wasn’t petite in conjunction with shy and dorky. My body ruled how I perceived myself and so since I’d always been told bodies like mine were worthless so was I.

    I can’t believe it’s only now I realize why for so long I felt like such an anomaly, such a freak, weirdo who just couldn’t be one thing wasn’t the fact that I WAS a freak weirdo, it was just that I was a human who happened to have a lot of interests. For so long I wished I could mold my body and my personality into one congruous symbol, something that “made sense” not a person like me full of contradictions. I didn’t even care what that mold was after a while, I just thought being one set of traits would just make everything more simple. And I tied a lot of this narrowing of interests with my fantasy of being thin. What I never realized was that I was trying to be a symbol, I was trying to be exactly what society had always said women were. I was trying to make myself into half of what I really was, just for acceptance.

  45. A while ago I went to a museum in Paris that contained only works by Picasso. And in the middle of touring the museum I became so enraged and disgusted I started to shake, because about 90% of the works depicted only women’s bodies being sundered, twisted, and torn apart for the sake of his artisic vision*. This phenomena enraged me, and I couldn’t get away from it, it was all around me and inescapable in the museum -women’s bodies were only symbols, objects, belonging to other people instead of belonging to the women themselves. It was like being stuck in a funhouse mirror of horror, and what made it the most surreal and horrible, was that absolutely no one else in my touring party saw any problem with it.

    *Nothing against Picasso, product of his times, etc, but it doesn’t make the observation any less real.

  46. Allegorical personifications in Western culture are mostly female because in Latin abstract nouns are feminine in gender. It’s a grammatical joke, and one which pretty much makes mincemeat of po-faced linguists who are always insisting that grammatical gender is NOTHING TO DO with biological sex. People have pretty much always joked around with the overlap between them. But did the grammatical joke come about *because* women’s bodies are widely considered to have less integrity than men’s? And if Latin abstract nouns had been masculine in grammatical gender, personificatory allegory would have taken a rather different form? I think it’s a fascinating question, but I’m not sure the answer to both is definitely yes. I think allegory empties bodies and fills them with significance regardless of sex — something violent has been done to the bodily integrity of Rodin’s Thinker just as much as Botticelli’s Venus (perhaps more so, because the Rodin is cheesy as well as cheesecake.) Good book on theis is Gordon Teskey’s _Allegory and Violence_. Much better than Marina Warner’s rather overhyped _Monuments and Maidens_, to my mind. But I am an allegory geek.

  47. Thank you for writing this FJ! One of my favorite allegories to wrestle with is “Mother Nature.” i fear that I might get some flack for this, but speaking as a fat feminist who works in a university setting amongst other feminist students and staff members, I often find the Mother Goddess (as a metaphor, rather than a religious figure) to be used as a commentary about what women should be. I deliberately do not use the phrase “Mother Earth” because I find the metaphor disingenuous and violent in a lot of ways: “Mother Earth is being raped!” as a way to extoll people into caring about environmental issues and debates. I agree very much with taking action in protecting our natural resources and pushing for sustainability, but I reject the usage of “rape” in this case – the Earth is not a human being. The Earth is not raped. Destroyed, depleted, and misused, yes. Raped, no. Women get raped (and men, but mostly women). That type of metaphor I think is dehumanizing in that it simultaneously dilutes the meaning of the contemporary usage of rape (ie the unwanted sexual penetration or assault of a woman against her will) and does not accurately represent the damage that we do to the earth, nor does it convey that we are destroying OURSELVES, not some metaphorical woman.

    The long rambling point is that I wish people would rethink how their language dehumanizes, even when they’re trying to be a Nice Guy, and read all of these “womanly” or “motherly” traits onto my body or anyone else’s. Big breasts and a substantial girth do not a “natural mother” make, and I am not a Goddess. Just a person.

    P.S. That Judith Butler shout out made me laugh aloud in my office, where other colleagues are having a retreat. Totally worth it.

  48. so much to think about here….

    my only comment at the moment is to repeat a sentence I heard totally out of context (no idea what the discussion was about) :
    “I’d totally read “Tess of the Baskervilles”, I mean just from the title you know she’s a bitch!”

    non sequitorily yours,
    Lily

  49. God, yes. I’m so tired of well-meaning friends telling me my hips are womanly and child-bearing. That’s not what they mean; my fat just happens to land there.

  50. Great post. Another point might also be the relative invisibility of the female form in post-Impressionist work. Where the female body becomes mainly a vehicle for formal experimentation, and must give up its own materiality as a result. That’s basically what all of those *male* art historians are saying when they claim that the subject doesn’t matter as much as the form for the avant-garde.

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