Written by Georgia Smith
The theory of much late twentieth-century and contemporary feminist thought pertains to images and abstractions as modes of worshiping the female ideal. Such images are replete with contradictions; attempting to amalgamate the extremely sexual and innately docile, dicing between women-as-object and the sanctity of the mother, they are perhaps the most symbolic of the futility of the female condition. A product of the perpetual evolution of the social and political articulation of femininity by patriarchy, prevailing thought relates to the female body as an image, a spectacle, to be consumed – an image too often shaped by ‘the sexist bathing pool’ of mass culture. Such considerations mark a shift from traditional, albeit vital, social and economic analyses evident in the works of Friedan and Greer yet retain several of their assumptions, primarily the predominance of servicing male desire. However, historical and contemporary expressions of patriarchy allude to the role of the female body as an image, especially within the political sphere, as something significantly less passive. Such images are only partially about consumption. Men are more than voyeurs – they see themselves reflected in these images, constructing themselves in their reflections. Masculinities are thus reliant on such images, this being the source of their political potency across temporal and cultural moments.
The suggestion that images of the female body may not be as passive as broadly acknowledged in traditional feminist analyses of patriarchy does not equate to greater agency. In fact, the reflective capacity of the female image may be the ultimate symbol of objectification. The female body is consumed to the point of constitution. Such images are mirrored in foundational cultural images, take the following biblical description:
“So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.”— Genesis 2:21–22
In fact, the tale of Adam and Eve hinges on Eve’s sin – Adam conducts himself only in relation to her actions. To borrow De Beauvoir’s phrase, women are not necessarily the second sex, simply an extension of the first. Second Wave feminist thought has established the notion of objectification and its interplay with twentieth-century western political and popular culture. Kate Millett’s seminal Sexual Politics opens with a searing deconstruction of the prose contained in Henry Miller’s Sexus. Distilling Miller’s disgustingly violent sex scene (rape may be a more adequate descriptor), Millett treats the prose with a clear eye, exploring the function of the female body in fiction – dominated, desperate, slutty yet subdued – extending her analysis to the works of Norman Mailer and Jean Genet. Always concluding that the female body is an image dictated by male ascendency.
In noting the work of Millett, objectification and its disparate function for male and female consumption can be explored. Beauty is the ultimate intra-sexual female discourse; a genuine preoccupation with beauty (and palatability) emanates from its position as the preeminent value system for women and its consequent role at the basis of all female public life. Women do not perform; they masquerade as disparate fictions of themselves in line with the expectation of male validation. Objection to such a theory may be questioned by Atwood’s reflection that:
“Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”
The intricacies of prescribed female behaviour are acute fictions with the aim of the production of a static image – in which instance may this be branded as any progression from the prison of the domestic sphere?
Continuing with the theme of fictions, Barthes’ essay Strip Tease extends a reading of the act of strip tease as based on an inherent contradiction: “woman is desexualized at the very moment that she is stripped naked.” The emphasis on anticipation and eroticism as a form of “delicious terror”, is symbolic of the broader consumption of the female body as a political image. All images are reliant on fictions or imaginings liable to fracture in the face of reality. As Virgine Despentes ponders, “this blissful white woman constantly being waved under our noses…Is someone I’ve never encountered, anywhere. I suspect she doesn’t exist.” The potential for fracture is what constitutes the inebriating quality of such images, they are a mode of comprehending sexual relations, an assertion of conformity. In consuming them and reflecting them in the case of men, and embodying them in the case of women, validation is secured. Despentes’ King Kong Theory negotiates sexual binaries through the perception of reassurance, lamenting further that “the over-marketing of femininity seems like an apology to men for the loss of their prerogatives, a way of reassuring ourselves by reassuring them.” A phenomenon Jablonka traces from antiquity in his analysis of the “crises and backlashes of the masculine.”
The philosophy and politics of sexuality supposes several questions pertaining to what constitutes ethical sex and gender relations, one of the most significant discourses available for questioning the role of images in reality and practice. As noted in Amia Srinivasan’s work on sexual politics, the salience of power, status and ‘epistemic asymmetry’ is widely acknowledged as a factor attracting younger women to older men of authority, establishing and acknowledging sex as a vicarious relation between women and men. A tendency which perhaps accounts for our broad cultural preoccupation with teacher-student relationships. If such images of power are recognised as sexually salient in relation to men, why is the salience of the female image not recognised as something equally vicarious? The perception that legitimate masculinities of domination are supposedly self-sufficient is perhaps a factor.
The forbidden and transgressive in imagining attraction demands deeper philosophical questioning of the nature of desire beyond questions of consent – what should the function of desire be? Srinivasan’s invocation of Freud’s transference theory is significant here, the suggestion that romantic feelings may be genuine yet clouded by projected infantile or societal desires, speak to a notion of desire based on exchange, not simply of pleasure but the potentially asymmetrical transference of power for the currency of youth. Critiques of such conceptualisations may demand a return to the purely biological or pre-political, failing to recognise the formativity of socialisation; as Millett suggests, sex is a “charged microcosm of…the values to which a culture subscribes.” While other functions appear equally problematic, championing equality is inherently restrictive and allows the completely transgressive to remain taboo. Regardless of the ethical merits of such conceptualisations, and the debate surrounding ethics and infringement on personal choice, the image of the female body as a reflective device for hetero-normative masculinity is deeply implicated in such a view of desire. As noted above, the vicarious sense of power or knowledge young women might feel as a consequence of a real or imagined relationship with an older male may be inversed but for alternate perceptions of status. Proximity to a female perceived as attractive in line with broad societal standards is for masculinity a proclamation of status and honour; through her perceived beauty they vicariously gain social and political recognition. A phenomenon largely evident within celebrity culture.
As such, the political and social use of the image of the female body has an illustrious career, transcending temporal and cultural boundaries. Shifting from the individual to the collective, Angela Davis’s work on sex and race in America offer a particularly potent example. The Myth of the Black rapist, in the context of the post-Antebellum American south, conditioned social and political attitudes to both Black men and women. Much consequent political mobilisation was based on protecting the sexual sanctity of white women, a moral crusade with an often-minimal relation to female safety. Such images existed instead as fronts for calls to male prestige, the rape of a female symbolic primarily of the rape of an individual masculine honour, and thus the ultimate transgression of hierarchy.
Femininity is not a singular image. As femininity is reflected in the pool of masculinity, the inverse naturally occurs. It is abundantly necessary that feminist philosophies of sex and gender interrogate both the masculine and the feminine, continually demanding deeper questions of sexual and political ethics. The masculine-feminine dichotomy is one of ultimate dependence, only in distilling all approaches may such binaries be ultimately transgressed.
Atwood, Margaret. 1993. The Robber Bride. Canada: McClelland and Stewart.
Barthes, Roland. 2000. Mythologies. London: Vintage.
Davis, Angela Y. 2019. Women, Race & Class. London: Penguin Classics.
Despentes, Virginie. 2021. King Kong Theory. Great Britain: Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Jablonka, Ivan. 2022. A History of Masculinity: From Patriarchy to Gender Justice. Great Britain: Allen Lane.
Millett, Kate. 1977. Sexual Politics. London: Virago Press.
Srinivasan, Amia. 2021. The Right to Sex. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.