Tag Archives: gender studies

Why Venus Can’t Find a Modeling Gig

by Jay Parr

We have a print of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus hanging on our wall at home, and lately it occurs to me that if Botticelli’s Venus were looking for work as a model today, she would never find a job.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1486

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, c. 1486

I should clarify my credentials here by saying that I am neither a gender-studies scholar nor an art historian. On the gender-studies front, I’m basically just an all-around egalitarian … just feminist enough to recognize my own male-gaze tendencies. On the art-studies front, I did minor in visual art as an undergrad, but my concentration was in photography. I do also have a Master of Fine Arts, but the “art” in question there is putting lies on paper … um … fiction.

Oh, and I have no credentials in the fashion world, either. Beyond, that is, being subjected to its daily assaults along with the rest of us.

Rihanna looks like this?

Rihanna’s everyday look. No, really.

But compare that canonical painting to the images of women that bombard us from all directions today, and you will plainly see that this goddess–the very quintessence of feminine beauty in 1486 when she was painted–need only go through a supermarket checkout to learn just how desperately lacking she is in “feminine allure” today. The cover of any Vogue, Allure, Vanity Fair, or any of the other myriad fashion/celebrity-gossip/consumerist-culture magazines will inform her, without a single word and without a hint of a doubt, that she stands no chance of competing with the professionally made-up, professionally lit, professionally photographed, and professionally photoshopped images of feminine beauty that set the standard today.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

Just go do an image search on the word “beauty,” and guess what you’ll find. Screen after screen after screen of women’s faces, all obviously (and heavily) coated in cosmetics, professionally coiffed, professionally photographed, and then photoshopped to the point that they bear little if any resemblance to what was actually in front of the camera lens. When I did that search while working on this post, one relatively natural-looking face jumped out at me. So I followed the link to discover that no, she was actually pretty heavily made up, with perfectly plucked eyebrows and perfectly mascaraed lashes and perfectly subtle “natural” makeup, and the hair that was out of place was, in fact, that way by design. Even better, the image was an ad for a full-service spa-salon offering such treatments as laser hair removal, microdermabrasion, skin peels, spray tanning, eyelash perming, and lash extensions. No, really. Eyelash perming. Lash Extensions.

Because that’s what women look like, right? They have thin eyebrows and thick eyelashes and translucent, perfectly-toned skin and plump, moist lips and delicate little noses and big, round eyes and tiny waists and full bosoms that utterly defy gravity.

What I look like when I wake up.

What I look like when I wake up.

Even the hippie-living magazine that somehow found its way into our house is guilty. What’s the biggest headline? SEXY SKIN! What’s the standard set by the cover? A healthy and unusually attractive young woman peering over her naked, smooth-skinned shoulder, with straight white teeth peeking through her smile, subtle “natural” lip color, “natural” makeup on her sun-kissed and lightly freckled cheeks, perfectly threaded eyebrows, and what would not be too much of a stretch to describe as something of a come-hither look in her eyes. Oh, and what was that about the out-of-place hair being that way by design? Yeah.

Birth of Venus detail

Detail of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus

And that is why Botticelli’s Venus cannot find a job. I mean, just look at her. Her brows are okay, I suppose, but her eyelashes are too anemic, and her skin is too motley, and her nose is too crude and lumpy, and her mouth is too small and her lips are too blurry, and her chin is too big, and her jaw is too heavy, and her hair is all split ends and tangles (but not wild enough to be interesting), and with her brownish auburn hair and medium-brown eyes and dun skin-tone, she’s all one washed-out color. No punch. No pizazz. No waifish, delicate, might-be-dead-tomorrow magnetism here. No sir.

And that’s just her face. Look at her figure through the eyes of the porn fashion industry and you’ll see that her belly’s too soft and her waist is too thick and her breasts are both too small and too low, and her shoulders are too sloped, and her arms are too thick, and her hips are too square, and she could use a manicure.

Keira Knightley warming up in her sequined shrug.

Keira Knightley warming up in her sequined shrug.

I mean, she doesn’t look at all like Keira Knightley on this cover of Allure, so heavily made up and post-processed that the closer you look the more she looks like a video-game avatar. Ms. Knightley doesn’t even look plastic here. Because she doesn’t even look that realistic. She looks like pure CGI. Oh, and what’s with the open fly and the sequined bolero jacket with nothing in between? Correction, nothing but body makeup and post-processing. Is this the new fashion? ‘Cuz I work on a campus with a lot of young women on it, and I ain’t seen no one walking around dressed quite like that.

I’m reminded of the first viral video of that Dove “real beauty” campaign, which, despite getting some harsh criticism from pretty much every direction, actually did a little bit to maybe get people thinking about just how realistic the images in that supermarket checkout (or on that billboard) really aren’t. At least for a moment.

Is it any wonder we have a distorted standard of feminine beauty in our culture? When the high-fashion publications and high-fashion advertising bombard us with images that are more fiction than fact? When even the “real” images are so idealized? When Venus herself looks frumpy and plain?

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Abraham Lincoln, 1858

Not that men in the public eye are entirely exempt from unrealistic standards of (and undue emphasis on) physical beauty. It’s certainly to a lesser extent, and less all-consuming, but I have a feeling that no one who looks like Abraham Lincoln would stand  much of a chance of being elected president these days. The fashion industry does have its unrealistic images of masculine beauty, of course. Open any high-fashion magazine and you’re going to see the images of the guys with their waxed chests and shaped eyebrows and flawless skin, because the ideal for either gender is a post-pubescent physique, minus the hormone-ravaged skin, with prepubescent hair growth (i.e., none to speak of). And the cosmetics industry does keep making attempts to get its toe in the door of the male market, with some success (skin care, shaving accoutrements, deodorants, gray-hair color and the like), but not nearly to the extent that it dominates the female market. A guy who’s out on the weekend unshaven in rumpled clothes and bed head is still just being a guy on the weekend. A girl who does the same thing is being unkempt and needs to clean up her act. No double standard there at all.

Thinking about this issue makes me miss that little Quaker college six miles west of here where I finished my bachelor’s degree. The traditional college years are an age when a lot of people experiment with nonconformity anyway, so combine that with an institution that was founded by nonconformists and actively encourages individuality and nonconformity in its students? It’s a thing of beauty, let me tell you. You’re more likely to find a copy of Adbusters lying around than a copy of Vogue. Attractive young women eschewed cosmetics, cut their hair into wake-and-go hairstyles, grew out their armpits, unibrows, mustaches, and leg hair, dressed in comfortable clothes and comfortable shoes, and headed out to class. Or to question authority. Or both.

I dug around for a while trying to find a picture from those days, but the closest I could come was this image of English-German author Charlotte Roche looking like she could have been one of my classmates there.

Charlotte Roche

Charlotte Roche

Around that time there was a billboard in town for a laser hair-removal “clinic” with a heavily-retouched photo of a hairless young woman in a postage stamp of a bikini, smooth pits open to the camera, with the legend, “You didn’t shave. You didn’t have to.” I wanted to make a spoof of that ad, same image same pose, same bikini, same legend, only with one of my classmates who was just as fit as the model in the original, except, and this is the important part, spectacularly furry.

But we’re all brainwashed. We’re so saturated with the industry’s definitions of beauty that our capacity for critical thinking just doesn’t even bother to kick in, because we see no reason to question it. I don’t think I realized quite how bad it was until just now, when I was doing the search that led to the Charlotte Roche image. Almost everything I found on the internet was ridiculing those women. Because clearly any woman would have to be a bit crazy to admit she had hair in her armpits. Or on her legs. Or in her pants. Or that she had a little bit of fat protecting her abdomen. Or that her breasts were lower than her pectoral muscles.

And that, my friends, is why Botticelli’s Venus can’t find a modeling gig.

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus,

Alexandre Cabanel, The Birth of Venus, 1863

Cabanel’s Venus, on the other hand, might manage to find work, at least as a plus-size model. I mean, she does kinda look a little like Christina Hendricks.

On Talking Trash (and lovin’ it!)

By Carrie Levesque

So unless you’ve been living under a rock (or used your spring break to take a much-needed vacation from all media, and if so, good on ya!), you’ve probably heard about Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, calling her a ‘prostitute’ and a ‘slut’ for her testimony at a hearing related to the controversial federal Health and Human Services contraception mandate.  In the uproar that has followed Limbaugh’s comments (numerous online petitions and the withdrawal of dozens of sponsors from his radio program), though few, if any, have defended his abusive rant, conservatives have been quick to remind us of similar attacks liberal commentators have made on women like Sarah Palin and Laura Ingraham.

That ‘liberals do it, too’ does not in any way excuse Limbaugh’s behavior (especially since Limbaugh is somewhat unusual in having done what he has done repeatedly, and has even made sexist remarks against another young woman since the Fluke debacle, which is impressive, even for him).  But this tit-for-tat deflection is actually a relevant point when considering the larger question.  When Limbaugh insists he ‘did not intend a personal attack’ on Sandra Fluke, I can almost believe him, considering the casualness with which we throw around names like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ (and worse) in our media.  It only takes about 10 seconds of searching this topic on the web to find plenty of examples of male commentators (liberal and conservative) who have been chastised in recent years for choosing to attack female public figures with sexualized epithets.  Which leads me to the questions: why do they do it, and why do we put up with it?

The line between ‘news’ and ‘entertainment’ has become so blurred in our society that one wonders whether there is a line at all anymore, or if it isn’t all, with few exceptions, ‘infotainment.’  Limbaugh, and conservative commentators like him, simply deliver what their most dedicated listeners expect: a snarky, no-holds-barred skewering of all things Left.  As Neal Boortz’s tagline (“Somebody’s Gotta Say It!”) suggests, the success of these shows rests on the commentator’s willingness to say the outrageous, to offer the brashest, crudest version of a ‘truth’ that the ‘mainstream’ media lack the cojones to utter.

It’s not any different on the Left.  Bill Maher famously called Sarah Palin a c*nt (among many other very rude, sex-related remarks).  This crude talk excites listeners; it boosts ratings, and isn’t that what it’s all about?  Sadly, too often the people we look to to comment on current events are entertainers and calling female public figures demeaning and sexualized names is, for many consumers of ‘news’ media, entertaining.

I’ve partly answered the second question in answering the first.  Many of us put up with this because, frankly, it doesn’t offend us; few might admit it, but many of us don’t see the harm.  To me, it’s similar to an article I read in the Greensboro News & Record last Sunday about mudslinging in political campaigns.  Everyone complains about it, yet politicians continue to run attack ads and negative campaigns because it is proven to work.  Studies show that we may say we are not influenced by a candidate’s negative campaigning, but truth is, we are- those doubts Candidate A wants to plant in your mind about Candidate B find their mark.  Candidates are rewarded for bad behavior, as many of these sexist commentators are in the long run, provided they don’t push that envelope too far.

Similarly, people who continue to listen to Maher and Limbaugh probably would not say they condone their most over-the-top remarks, or that their dismissal of these comments as ‘no big deal/just entertainment’ does not in any way contribute to the persistence of misogynistic attitudes toward women in public life.  There will be a bit of finger wagging about ‘making better word choices,’ but mostly the issue will be treated as an individual’s unfortunate gaffe and not an issue with our larger society.

But this is not just about ‘making better word choices.’  While it would be a vast improvement, I don’t think it’s going far enough for people to still think their misogynistic comments but not say them.  We need to work toward a media culture where people, public figures particularly, approach one another and the issues with enough respect that they don’t even let their emotions get to a place where they would think to call people those names (you know, the most basic standards of professionalism the rest of us work with).  Maybe that’s not realistic, but I don’t think it’s a bad standard to work for.

This just in: the UNCG Women and Gender Studies program is showing a documentary this week, Miss Representation,  which “challenges the media’s limiting and often disparaging portrayals of women,” portrayals which “contribute to the under-representation of women in influential positions in America,” (WGS flyer) on Wednesday, March 14 at 7pm. This post may not come out in time to get you there, but you can check out the website to find out other ways to view this documentary.