Sexual difference is considered to be one of the most obvious things in the world, yet is also the least clearly defined. Biologically, gender is determined by what sexual organs an individual possesses; this does not however dictate what it is to be male or female, nor the gender roles normally accepted by society. Many post-structuralist theorists, such as Simone de Beauvoir, have suggested that ‘performance’ of playing a particular gender role is something enforced by expectations from society. De Beauvoir discussed the roles of women extensively in her book The Second Sex, which was recently summarized into a short animation as part of BBC Radio Four’s History of Ideas series. It could be argued that de Beauvoir’s concepts of beauty and function, fabricated and assigned by society, make the woman a designed object. I wish to investigate the idea of ugliness and womanhood through this theory with a design history and aesthetics lens.
De Beauvoir writes of the societal pressures on women to conform to publicly valued notions of beauty and unrealistic expectations of an idealised perfect woman who, according to Beauvoir, is a sexualized figure intended for the pleasure of the male gaze. By reaching this pinnacle, she is placed on a pedestal of perfection and is subject to increased attention. Much like women in posters adorning teenage boys’ rooms across the country, this elusive female becomes only an image rather than ‘a someone’. In this train of thought, by striving to achieve beauty we are striving to become an object. Whilst this is clearly too simplistic, it is perhaps how some onlookers would understand a woman’s motivation to appear attractive – for the enjoyment of others rather than themselves.
In a similar argument, Laura Mulvey, a feminist film theorist, uses psychoanalysis to highlight how social fascinations are reproduced within films; by doing so she is attempting to highlight the patriarchal structure of society. In her analysis she draws attention to the gendered gaze of the camera:
‘Film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle.’
The camera is aligned with a male protagonist’s gaze upon the female subject. This gaze is ‘the unconscious element in the image that stops and freezes life’- the individual being viewed becomes merely an object one looks upon as a voyeur. In terms of the cinema, which Mulvey argues is simply an exaggeration of everyday life – ‘a particular illusion of reality’, the structure is simple: ‘woman as image, man as bearer of the look.’ These roles are continually presented within films; female leads are styled to appear simply as a beautiful figure, with little responsibility to the story. They do not add to the plot but actually halt it, appearing purely to create visual pleasure. In this way women play their ‘traditional exhibitionist role[…]simultaneously looked at and displayed.’ A recent example of this is the film, The Avengers. In the early publicity images the one female Avenger (Black Widow played by Scarlett Johansson) is depicted in a highly sexualized way in comparison to the heroic characterization of her male counterparts. She takes a rather stationary pose in the background of the image, with her breasts and bottom both highlighted. Meanwhile, her male companions are foregrounded in the centre in dynamic poses. While some have argued that the male characters are also sexualized, the notion that the single female hero in this movie would be reduced to eye-candy for the men watching the movie is disappointing. Women objectify men just as much, but the criteria is somewhat different. Due to the long standing practice of the woman as the bearer of the look is hard to escape; whilst the male characters may be sexualized for a contemporary female audience, the males, no matter how beautiful, are in charge of driving the plot
In criticism of this image many people posted doctored versions of the poster showing the male characters in a similar pose to Black Widow. It could be argued that by highlighting how ridiculous the Black Widow pose looked when her male counterparts adopted it, the individuals who uploaded the images were demonstrating the continuing inequality in treatment between men and women. Perhaps due to some of the criticism of this image, later publicity photos and concept-art showed Johansson in less sexual poses and some even went on to celebrate The Avengers as a feminist film.
Mulvey begs the question: ‘how to fight the unconscious structured like a language…while still caught within the language of patriarchy?’. In her own cinematographic work she is trying to create a new system within a very phallocentric medium, where to be female is no longer considered to be something lesser than or other to the role of male. She aims to undermine patriarchal society by mimicking its practices and unveiling its oppressive nature, much like the edited Avengers posters. The audience is no longer seduced by ‘visual pleasure’ behind which the misogyny of the cinema is hidden. Mulvey wants to heighten our awareness of the systems we are subconsciously operating within.
The idea of woman as a consumable object for man, as presented by Mulvey, is influenced by Gayle Rubin’s view of womanhood. Rubin applies Karl Marx’s theories of capital and commodities to consider the treatment of woman and how they are exchanged like other consumable goods. This theory suggests that objects are given value in relation to what they have but other items lack. Following the rules of commodity exchange, the phallus (and therefore males) gain status as it is something that females do not possess; females are then considered the lesser sex. This obviously links to Freud’s theories on the Sexual Researches of Childhood, the phallus dictates value and place in society. Rubin suggest that women are gifts given in a homosocial relationship, as it is always men exchanging women. In this way, a woman is only given value by her perceived ‘use’ – her exchange value – the worth bestowed on her by society. She also has a ‘use value’, which is decided by her natural traits, but this is usually lost behind the exchange value. This dialogue of values places women in a limited selection of roles that Rubin outlines as follows:
‘She only becomes a domestic, a wife, a chattel, a playboy bunny, a prostitute, or a human dictaphone in certain relations. Torn from these relationships, she is no more the helpmate of man than gold is in itself money.’
The male and female functions in society are completely incomparable. Man is the giver or receiver and woman is the gift – there is only one sexual economy and women are excluded from it.
Whilst this is a somewhat dystopian view of contemporary society and many women and men alike would argue that they do not feel women exist purely as objects, the sheer fact that imagery such as that of the Avengers poster still occurs, suggest that the objectification of women is still an acceptable practice. So what is to be done to prevent all women from becoming mere objects of desire and being recognized as humans with their own agency and capability to return the gazes placed upon them?
In a previous post I spoke of the way that objects disrupt their ‘object-hood’ when they are unattractive or do not function wholly as anticipated. Is this the same with women? Perhaps we all have to join in the already very vocal call to arms and all throw away our razors, abandon the make up and whack on comfortable trainers. Perhaps by no longer aiming to be attractive, or even striving to be as unattractive as possible, we can remove ourselves from the risks of being merely gazed at. Much like the Avengers poster being adapted to show each of the superheroes in different roles, women can adapt their appearances in order to change how they perform in society. Let the ugly woman rule supreme!
Apart from all those designers, make-up artists, hairdressers etc. who would be out of a job (those poor things), this idea is highly problematic. This battle cry of ugliness would merely create new societal expectations of how women should look – ‘if you do not have hairy legs and you are wearing makeup then you are clearly no woman or feminist’. This concept is based entirely on the idea that women merely beautify themselves to appeal to the opposite sex. As well as being rather heteronormative, it is based on the assumption that women only strive for beauty in order to attract men or that men are the only people who focus on the aesthetics of an individual. It also excludes the idea that the ugly woman can be equally as objectified (or animalized) – I dread to think how many times I have been called a ‘fat sh*t’ or ‘ugly bitch’ by charming men. We are a race who are clearly moved and influenced by aesthetics; this is proven by the mere fact that so much has been written on the experience of the sublime and beauty. As we have discussed in previous posts, there is clearly a strong aesthetic reaction to ‘things’. As inferred by The Smiths lyrics I have quoted in the article title, present society does favour attractive people. Whilst personality is a huge factor in who we are attracted to, it seems fair to suggest that one is most likely to approach someone and learn about their personality if they are visually appealing. In this instance, ugliness is not the answer against objectification. Ultimately, women are not objects and so we cannot gain our agency by being ugly, like my green teapot.
I believe the key to changing the objectification of women lies within de Beauvoir’s comments on femininity:
‘A woman isn’t born a woman, rather she becomes one […] what it is to be a woman is socially constructed, it is through other people’s expectations and assumptions that a woman becomes feminine.’
Whilst this can seem somewhat restrictive as she is claiming that womanhood is made by society, it also can be considered as liberating. The sheer fact that our experiences are not the same as someone who lived in the Tudor era (or any other era) illustrate that what is acceptable in society is an ever-changing phenomenon. If society dictates how a woman behaves, then surely behaving outside of society’s framework will change what society is. Many feminist thinkers such as Judith Butler have written about this idea of subversion through performance. Using the practice of dressing in drag as her example, Butler argues that by ‘performing’ particular gender stereotypes in an exaggerated way the stereotypes can be somewhat subverted. An excellent example of this is the character of Dr Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror Picture Show:
One could argue that Tim Curry is playing the playboy bunny Rubin’s model of women’s roles. If men can overstate and subvert the objectified visions of women like Kevin Block’s adapted Avengers poster (or ‘Dave’ in MoneySuperMarket’s recent advert) then surely women can too. An obvious example is the Lolita subculture, as explained by a ‘Lolita’:
‘Frequently, female sexuality is portrayed in a way that is palatable and accessible to men, and anything outside of that is intimidating. Something so unabashedly female is ultimately kind of scary—in fact, I consider it to be pretty confrontational. Dressing this way takes a certain kind of ownership of one’s own sexuality that wearing expected or regular things just does not.’
Of course, one does not have to become part of a subculture in order to own a subversive ‘performance’. In this sense society is the designed ‘thing’. Anyone can be a feminist, just as anyone can be ugly or beautiful, from those who do not believe in altering their physical appearance in any way, to those who cover every inch of their skin in make-up. If each of these people are striving to live their lives on their own terms, rather than those dictated to them by societal expectations, then they are actively transforming the assumptions of what it is to be female. There is no wrong way to be a woman.
Some articles satirising stereotypically gendered reports:
Recommended Reading/Further Information:
The Vagenda provides feminist critiques of representations of women in the media.
Please leave any suggested reading in the comments; we would love to see it!
 Scripted by Nigel Warburton, Voiced by Harry Shearer, ‘Feminine Beauty: A Social Construct?’ A History of Ideas, Historian Simon Schaffer on Beauty and Evolution, BBC Radio 4, 7th November 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02b95yv  MULVEY. L, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Visual and Other Pleasures, pg 14.  Bracha ETTINGER. B.L, ‘Fascinance’ and the Girl-to-m/Other Matrixial Feminine Difference, Psychoanalysis and the Image, pg 60.  MULVEY. L, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Visual and Other Pleasures, pg 18.  MULVEY. L, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Visual and Other Pleasures, pg 19.  MULVEY. L, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Visual and Other Pleasures, pg 19  The argument that men in the Marvel film are sexualised too was iterated in much of the social media commentary at the time of the promotional art’s release.  MULVEY. L, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Visual and Other Pleasures, pg 15  MULVEY. L, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Visual and Other Pleasures, pg 16  RUBIN. G, The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex, Towards an Anthropology of Women, pg 158  The Smiths, ‘A Rush And A Push And The Land Is Ours’, from Strangeways, Here We Come, Rough Trade, Released 28th December 1987  Scripted by Nigel Warburton, Voiced by Harry Shearer, ‘Feminine Beauty: A Social Construct?’ A History of Ideas, Historian Simon Schaffer on Beauty and Evolution, BBC Radio 4, 7th November 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02b95yv  Ellie, quoted by Dodai Stewart in ‘In Her Own Words’, Jezebel, 30th September 2008, http://jezebel.com/5056920/in-her-own-words Lolita fashion originated as a Japanese subculture where the clothing was inspired by Victorian era dress. The subculture has become an international phenomenon with various sub-styles evolving, such as Punk-Lolita, Sweet-Lolita and Gothic-Lolita.