Toying with History: Quality of Representation

[This is part four of a thesis paper about the series Toying with History.  Here is the master post.]

Omission inflicts all the evils of censorship: it stifles first action, then words, and finally thought itself. Censorship is even harder to detect when masked with a simulation of representation. Examining the state of gender parity in our culture does not touch on the difference between the quantity of women’s representation and its quality.

Let us begin once again with the federal government of the United States. In the previous section, I used the Supreme Court painting as an example of artistically assessing gender parity. We have yet to elect a woman to the presidency, so there is no representation in the executive branch to record. Many more women have been incorporated into the federal legislative branch. Here, however, the question of quality of representation becomes relevant. I do not mention this as a criticism of these legislators’ legitimacy or qualifications. What I question is the quality of their reception into the highest legislature of our nation. How do these elected officials’ treatment compare with that of their fellow legislators?

How telling is it that there were no dedicated restroom facilities for the women of the House of Representatives until 2011 (McKeon)? It was as ridiculous and petty as the persistence with which female politicians are assessed on the attractiveness of their suits rather than the strength of their rhetoric. Dr. Caroline Heldman and Dr. Lisa Wade argued that this phenomenon and its effects on women’s success in politics escalated along with increasing media consumption in the United States (157). These sociologists used Sarah Palin’s failed vice presidential campaign to demonstrate the double-edged sword of objectification for female politicians: attractiveness makes a candidate more noticeable, but voters also tend to assume that an attractive woman is less capable (Heldman and Wade 156). Mass media pay disproportionate attention to any political woman’s appearance, as shown by media coverage of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Power dressing for women (and detail)
Fig. 3. Power dressing for women (and detail). Watercolor. 45” x 54.5”. 2014.


While no particular woman stood out in the 2014 midterm elections as much as Palin or Clinton did, Heldman and Wade’s observations on the slowed increase in women’s incorporation into political offices correspond with the results of the election’s overall results. As The New York Times reported, “the election did set a record of sorts: Next year, more than 100 women will serve in Congress for the first time in history. But women in both parties say the growth is incremental and the numbers are disappointing” (Stolberg). Women still make up less than a twenty percent of our federal legislature.

In a 2014 appearance on The Daily Show, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand described her recent book Off the Sidelines by saying that “Women’s voices need to be heard, and that’s what this book is about.  It’s about the need for women to be heard on all the issues that affect them and that are important to them, because they’re not.” Her book recounts the unprofessional ways she has been treated by fellow senators. It succeeded in garnering attention from the feminist blogosphere. It has also sparked an all too familiar backlash of victim blaming. Even when women achieve prominence, these role models are treated in unenviable ways.

Harassment is a typical response to women who speak out about sexism. This provides an apt link between the treatment of women in politics and women in pop culture. Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency webseries balances her enthusiasm for video games with distaste for the games’ endemic sexism. The series earns her an unenviable amount of headline-worthy online harassment. Despite this harassment, she continues to develop her crowdfunded Tropes vs. Women series. Sarkeesian uses films and video games to explain tropes like: “Women in Refrigerators” (whose importance to the story consists in how the men in their lives mourn them), “Damsels in Distress,” “The Smurfette Principle” (in which stories include a single, tokenistic female character), and “Women as Background Decoration.” The patterns she describes also appear in literature and the canon of art history.

Ubiquitous as these themes are, the current state of affairs is not uniformly bleak.  Children’s entertainment contains a notable exception to the rarity of women in film and television: Disney princess movies. Not only do these films constitute their own animated canon a century in the making, but almost all derive from fairy tales and history. It is highly significant that the plots of Brave and Frozen—the two most recent Disney princess films—depend on relationships between female family members. This is not meant to say that we should prioritize family values over romance. Instead, such plots’ existence asserts that women’s interactions with one another are as valid for consideration as how women relate to the men in their lives. The sheer amount of feminist critique that follows each Disney princess film is testament to how profoundly this franchise affects young women in this country. My own series of paper doll paintings would have been incomplete without these princesses. Incredibly, I found that merely depicting their hairstyles sufficed to make the princesses identifiable to most viewers. For good or ill, these fictional princesses are formative role models for the average girl in this country.

(little) Girl Power
Fig. 4. (Little) Girl Power (details). Watercolor. 45” x 73”. 2014.


Let us turn to YA literature to consider another notable example of how the quality of women’s representation has considerable impact. In 2014, a number of individuals contributed to The Queen’s Readers: A Collection of Essays on the Words and Worlds of Tamora Pierce. Most essays highlight aspects of Pierce’s fantasy novels that emphasize women’s agency. This book is neither scientific nor academic, but it would be a mistake to dismiss this collection. Its essays provide rich anecdotal evidence of what we would gain from greater and better representation of women and people of color in entertainment. Despite having read Pierce’s Tortall series many times, I failed to notice the strong correlation between these stories and my adult opinions until reading essays like these. Pierce’s bildungsromans for girls tackle a surprising number of serious feminist concepts. Without referring to these terms directly, her novels include the impostor syndrome, rape culture, body image, gender roles, and the fact that there is no one correct way in which to be an empowered individual.

Time and again, essayists in this collection reiterate the personal significance of whichever character was the first time they felt represented in fiction. In “Seeing Myself,” Ayarri Brisbane credits one of Pierce’s books as the first book she read with a protagonist who resembled her.  As Brisbane explains, “She is someone of importance to the plot. It’s only been in later years that I realized that just like Daja, I am important to the plot” (67). Tamora Pierce’s fantasy novels are not textbooks on racial diversity or gender theory, but—like the Disney princesses—they have proved startlingly memorable to fans.

A fruitful way to understand the importance of quality representation is to contrast these feelings of empowerment with the effects of disempowering representations. One phrase with which to describe the latter is the male gaze, which was developed by film theorist Laura Mulvey. When correctly understood, the emphasis of this gaze is not the state of being visible, but rather a person’s awareness of being seen. That awareness has consequences. Michel Foucault’s brilliant analysis of prisons and schools in Discipline & Punish illuminates how the awareness of being seen affects the behavior of those who know themselves to be under surveillance. A person under surveillance is vulnerable to judgment and punishment. Through examining systems of control, Foucault reveals how “It is the fact of being constantly seen, of being able always to be seen, that maintains the disciplined individual in his subjection” (187). Foucault’s text is the quintessential investigation of how the gaze polices modern society as a whole.

John Berger also examines this dynamic in Ways of Seeing. This art critic adds a gendered component to Foucault’s philosophical analysis of the gaze when he points out that “Women are depicted in a quite different way from men—not because the feminine is different from the masculine—but because the ‘ideal’ spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him” (64). In a final appeal to his readers, Berger asks that:

If you have any doubt that this is so, make the following experiment. Choose from this book an image of the traditional nude. Transform the woman into a man… Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image, but to the assumptions of a likely viewer. (64)

His essay shows the ubiquity of the male gaze in the European and American art canon and advertising, but leaves the effects or consequences of those assumptions up to his readers. As Marshall McLuhan put it in The Medium is the Massage, ”Humor…does not deal in theory, but in immediate experience, and is often the best guide to changing perceptions” (92).

This strategy has been particularly effective regarding sexism in the comics industry. The mission statement for The Hawkeye Initiative is Noelle Stevenson’s 2012 suggestion: “How to fix every Strong Female Character pose in superhero comics: replace the character with Hawkeye doing the same thing.” Blogs mocking sexist comics may seem trivial, but subverting female superheroes in this manner proved effective as well as hilarious. Milo Manara’s variant cover for Spiderwoman #1 offended many in August 2014. As Rob Bricken of the science fiction blog io9 concluded, the cover was “a big no-no for an industry still trying to remember that women exist and may perhaps read comics and also don’t want to feel completely gross when they do so.” A week (and many gender-swapped parodies) later, Marvel’s editor-in-chief issued a qualified apology (Alonso). Within a month, The Telegraph announced that Marvel comics had canceled two upcoming covers by Manara (Arnoldi). Marvel and DC, the powerhouses of comics publishing in the United States, both have a long, sexist history to overcome. Their growing willingness to publish comics with female superheroes as the main character is an important first step, but that representation is worse than omission when executed badly.

The ways in which female characters, authors, directors, politicians, and artists are treated within their respective industries is as crucial as allowing them to exist. In the arts, women’s bodies have often been used as vehicles for propaganda. Prominent examples include Rosie the Riveter from World War II and Marianne from Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People from the French Revolution.

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (and detail)
Fig. 5. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité (and detail), watercolor, 45 x 48″, 2014.


Neither female figure displays traditionally feminine strengths. Norman Rockwell’s version of Rosie the riveter is less iconic than J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!” poster, but it is preferable in several ways. In their essay “Secrets of a Feminist Icon,” Dr. Gwen Sharp and Dr. Lisa Wade point out that, “Ironically, the iconic image that we now imagine as an early example of girl-power marketing served not to empower women to leave the domestic sphere and join the paid workforce, but to contain labor unrest and discourage the growth of the labor movement” (83). Rockwell’s version, by contrast, offers a much more robust and independent figure. Even though Delacroix’s female figure exhorts men to battle (in her original painted context) while Rockwell’s Rosie pauses to eat a sandwich, both proffer images of women successfully breaking out of their traditional roles.

Fall (and detail)
Fig. 6. Fall (and detail). Watercolor. 45” x 58”. 2014.


The vigor of these figures contrasts with the enervated Bouguereau I appropriated for Fall. In Fall, I repainted the central figures from Alphonse Bouguereau’s 1886 Return of Spring. Bouguereau’s oil painting features an exquisitely rendered sexualized female figure, which is completely typical of his oeuvre. I experience something akin to Bartky’s “double ontological shock” whenever I view Bouguereau’s art. My adult self notes the commodification and objectification of women’s bodies, and the parallels between the putti behavior and rape culture. At the same time, I remember how uncritically my naive younger self enjoyed such artworks.

As these paintings show, the presence of women in the artistic canon is no more an automatic indicator of equality than it is anywhere else. As Bartky says:

Philosophical reflection—indeed, any reflection—is always already rooted in some inherited schema or, as is more commonly said today, in some text; these texts are bound to be class-, race-, and gender-biased. Hence, we must approach our tradition with deep suspicion; we must test its claims against our own hard-won insights; we must sort and sift among its materials to see what we can use and what we must discard. (19-20)

Absurd as it is to suggest by omission that women are lesser, it is also outrageous when the only alternative is to omitting women is to objectify them. Right now, we are still sorting through our cultural artifacts to determine what to keep. Having examined the ways in which the quality and quantity of women’s representation affects individuals, it is now time to consider some of the ways in which we affect tradition by recycling it.

Next: Means of Representation

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