Critiques of gender roles

Perhaps you are thinking that all I have been talking about is just history. It's not relevant today. Unfortunately, I believe that we have a long ways yet to go, while I also believe that we've come a long way. Gender roles are not as stable, not as oppressive as they once were. I'd like to end by looking at some of the challenges to the roles we have seen.

Here is Mary Cassatt's Woman in Black at the Opera. The obvious contrast to this painting is Renoir's La Loge, 1874.

Left: Mary Cassatt, Woman in Black at the Opera, 1877-78
center: Renoir, La Loge, 1874

Renoir's painting depicts the usual situation: at an opera or concert in France, the woman sat in the front of the balcony or box while the man sat behind her. This was so she could be seen. And here the woman's date/husband actively looks. In Mary Cassatt's version, femininity is associated with looking, with an active alert gaze. (Note that across the balcony the male is looking at her.) As Nochlin says, "She holds the opera glasses, those prototypical instruments of masculine specular power, firmly to her eyes, and her tense silhouette suggests the concentrated energy of her assertive visual thrust into space" (Nochlin 194). She holds the fan in her other hand, the object that women were supposed to wield--not opera glasses.
Laura Knight's Self Portrait of 1913 asserts that women painters can take on the male prerogative of depicting the female nude and in the last few decades a number of women artists have established reputations painting the male nude.

About a decade ago, when Faith Ringgold was about 61, she imagined herself as a young desirable woman, a model for the artist Matisse.

Ringgold, Matisse's Model, French Connection, Part 1: #5, 1991

An African American woman, she says she learned to see herself as desirable. She says: "I love playing the beautiful woman, knowing that I am steeped in painting history. . . . I ask the question. Why am I here posing like this, and what would HE think if I took out my glasses and started to read a first edition of Tolstoy's War and Peace or Richard Wright's Black Boy" (Cameron 135). Her self-definition includes both beauty and intelligence.3

Frances Benjamin Johnson, in 1896 explored gender definitions in her photographic self portrait. Posed as a male, with mannish cap, cigarette and tankard, she crosses her legs in an unfeminine manner. Victorian women did not smoke, drink, or heaven forbid, show their petticoats. And Romaine Brooks, a Lesbian artist, presents herself as a dapper young gentlemen. Gay artists, similarly, have challenged gender definitions.

Center: Frances Benjamin Johnson, Self Portrait, 1896
right: Romaine Brooks, Self Portrait, 1923

Some artists critique the hallowed definitions. Two world wars and the war in Vietnam have put in perspective one definition of masculinity, too often associated with power and violence.
Otto Dix's Self-Portrait as a Soldier is at a far remove from heroic representations of military men.

Otto Dix, Selbstbildnis als Soldat (Self-Portrait as a Soldier), 1914, ink and watercolour on paper

These soldiers look like identical automatons. Marcel Gromaire, La guerre (War), 1925 and C. R. W. Nevinson, Returning to the Trenches, 1914-15. And soldiers in gas masks look even more dehumanized. Otto Dix, Assault under Gas, 1924
In Joint, Arneson depicts figures representing the military-industrial complex over the entombed figure of Peace. Those powerful males supporting the military are seen as grotesque.

Robert Arneson, Joint, 1984

Just as masculinity has often been identified with power, so too has femininity been associated with beauty. Here Audrey Flack takes on one of the most powerful icons in the second half of the twentieth century, Marilyn Monroe.

Audrey Flack, Marilyn (Vanitas), 1977-78

The painting is subtitled "Vanitas," and the painting is filled with symbols reminding us of transience and mortality--the hour glass, the watch, the full-blown rose, ripe fruits, candles burning down. If a woman defines herself in terms of external appearance, she's in for trouble--say at about 40 (50 if she's lucky).

Artists take on religion too, especially when they see it as perpetuating gender oppression. Yolanda M. Lopez, a Mexican-American artist, rebels, by imagining herself as the Virgin of Guadalupe--a kind of revolutionary goddess in tennis shoes. Instead of woman as Eve, as temptress, as prostitute, she replaces patriarchal religion with a contemporary woman clutching a snake, a symbol of pagan powers. The two other panels of this triptych depict her mother and grandmother.

Yolanda M. Lopez, Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe, 1978

I want to end with this work. One of my favorite contemporary paintings is this Self Portrait (1980) by Alice Neel, painted when she was eighty years old; she presents herself as object just about as unerotic as you can get. So much for the female nude body as the site of male obsession! Like the men and women in Sanford's photographs that we saw at the beginning, she has taken control of her own image. She has defined what it means to be a woman and herself.

Go to page 7: Footnotes and Work Cited

© 2002 Mary Ann Sullivan.

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