OH WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DIFFERENCE MAKES:
GENDER IN THE VISUAL ARTS

Mary Ann Sullivan


NOTE: This was written as an illustrated lecture for a Bluffton College Forum. Since the first year students were studying gender and since all were required to attend this forum, I conceived of them as my audience. As much as possible I have made this informal and conversational and I have attempted to eliminate theoretical jargon, although I apparently couldn't avoid using the "male gaze." Paragraphs in blue below are portions that I deleted for reasons of time from the talk.

All the pictures can be clicked on to enlarge them.

TABLE OF CONTENTS (click below to go to the page)

Introduction
Page 2: Gender definitions in portraits
Page 3: Depictions of male and female nudes
Page 4: Depictions of Motherhood and Fatherhood
Page 5: Gendered working roles
Page 6: Critiques of gender roles
Page 7: Footnotes and Works Cited

Introduction


A few years ago when I was working on an article on women photographers I saw an exhibit by Elise Mitchell Sanford. Her photographs intrigued me for a number of reasons, not least because they represented a collaboration between the photographer and sitter and gave the sitter an opportunity to try on a new identity. Sort of like Halloween memorialized in art. In some cases the assumed identity took the sitter back to an earlier era. Here is a send-off of the popular pin-up poster (on every GI's locker door in World War Two) of that era's J Lo, Betty Grable; and here the sitter chose to "be" Marilyn Monroe.

Left: Elise M. Sanford, Margaret Deppen as Betty Grable, 1990; center: Betty Grable poster; right: Elise M. Sanford, Nancy Adams as Marilyn Monroe, 1992

A special thanks to Elise M. Sanford for allowing me to post these images on the web.

In both of these cases the not-so-young sitters recall one of the dominant gender roles for women in the 40s and 50s, that of sex-kitten. Some sitters chose to be more distinguished figures--Mother Teresa, for example, or here, the Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, impersonated by a female sitter.

Elise M. Sanford, Margaret Killough as Thurgood Marshall, 1992

One woman chose to be FDR and one man chose to be Eleanor Roosevelt.

Elise M. Sanford, Natsu Ota Taylor as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1992
Laurence Larson as Eleanor Roosevelt, 1992

Figures from popular culture also figured in these sitters' fantasies: Babe Ruth (a woman sitter) and Julia Child (a male sitter).

Left: Elise M. Sanford, Anne Braxton as Babe Ruth, 1992; center: photograph of Babe Ruth; right: Elise M. Sanford, Frederick A. Kalister as Julia Child, 1992


What Sanford's sitters can do for "a red hot minute," as one of my FYS students says, is choose an alternate identity, in some cases cross-dressing, as most of us can't do in real life. In real life our culture defines for us appropriate gender roles, roles which are sometimes restrictive and difficult to escape. Today I want to examine some of these gender roles as seen in the visual arts. In most cases these works of art merely reflect the ideas and definitions of their society. Gender, after all, is a social construct. In a few cases, however, we see a critique of gender definitions, especially as we look at more contemporary art works. I am going to deal with this topic in (roughly) chronological order, but as we look at the historical works of art, I want you to consider to what extent these gender definitions still apply today.



Go to page 2: Gender definitions in portraits


© 2002 Mary Ann Sullivan.

Page maintained by Mary Ann Sullivan, sullivanm@bluffton.edu