• Evie Edwards

How are Contemporary Photographers challenging traditional approaches to Gender and Identity?

Updated: Jan 21

Society’s approach to Gender and identity has changed throughout history, from the Upper Palaeolithic period, into the 1700s and right up until present day 2020. This essay will explore and reflect on the changing views and thoughts of society and focus on the ideologies of the Feminist Movement which have aimed at acheiving equal rights for women. It will be looking photographers who have challenged traditional approaches and will consider how people like Mary Wollstonecraft (A British philosopher and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), Hannah Wilke (American photographer) and Frida Kahlo (Mexican Artist), through their work, helped raise awareness of and have challenged the way society sees women.

Artwork has long been used to depict the idealised female form and in the last century photography has also become a powerful means of communicating strong messages about the female image and identity,

however, these have at times proven to be both positive and negative influences in the way society views women. Throughout history women have mainly been portrayed in sex stereotypical roles such as wives, mothers, daughters and mistresses, and often even eroticised. This is called the ‘Male Gaze’. A feminist

theoretical term coined in 1975 by the film critic Laura Mulvey, where artwork is made by men, for the eyes of men, and where women are sexually objectified.

Figure 1: Giorgione and Titian (1510) The Sleeping Venus by Giorgione and Titian

Figure 2: Memling (1485) Vanity

Figure 3: Bronzino, A. (1545) Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time

An early example of this is The Sleeping Venus, by Giorgione and Titian (Figure 1), a painting depicting the Goddess Venus reclining in a sensual nature, and it is one of the first full-length female nude to be painted. Another example of this is Vanity by Memling (Figure 2) a full length nude holding a mirror. The Web

Gallery of Art comments,

The purely erotic character of the nude is indeed exceptional for its time. This is the only example in which the female genitals are shown uncovered. (Krén and Marx, n.d.)

In his book Ways of Seeing, John Berger says:

You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, you put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure. (Berger, 1972 p.51 - Figure 2)

This quote from Berger theorizes that Memling painted the woman naked because that's how he desired to view her, and by putting the mirror in her hand Memling suggests she’s naked because she wants to look at herself, that she’s ‘vain’ or it’s about ‘Vanity’ rather than the male desire for which Berger believes it was painted . He also talks about another painting of venus and cupid, and comments on the fact her body's arrangement has nothing to do with them kissing, but to display her body to the male onlookers, and to appeal to their sexuality (Berger, 1972 p.55) (Figure 3)

The painting was sent as a present from the Grand Duke of Florence to the King of France, The boy kneeling on the cushion and kissing the woman is Cupid. She is Venus. But the way her body is arranged has nothing to do with their kissing. Her body is arranged in the way it is, to display it to the man looking at the picture. This picture is made to appeal to his sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality. (Berger, 1972 p.55)

An earlier example of the objectifying of the female form is of statuettes discovered, in 1908, by archaeologists dating back to the stone age that depict goddesses (Figure 4). Venus of Willendorf (figure 4) is believed to have been carved during the stone age. When more statuettes started being discovered during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries archaeologists referred to them as ‘Venus Figures’ as it was believed extensively that these representations of nude women with extravagant sexual features were supposedly an early depiction of a fertility goddess [these figures were relatively small, which indicates that they could’ve been made to be easily portable and made from a variety of materials like ivory, clay and bone]. Which would link the body shape to what they viewed as the perfect woman and what they thought women should look like/their depictions of feminine beauty, which is very much the opposite today where the media promotes the desirable body to be that of supermodels - long skinny legs, thigh gaps and flat stomachs.

However, Catherine McCoid and LeRoy McDermott considered the fact that the statuettes may have been created by the women themselves as self-portraits - this theory comes from the fact that these would be the proportions that the women would see if they were looking down at themselves - and would have been the only way they’d have been able to view themselves (which would explain why they have no facial features). (McDermott, 1996). Other interpretations suggest they’re depictions of a priestess or their ancestors which some archaeologists have proposed could constitute evidence of obesity during this era (Dixon & Dixon, 2011 p.1)

Figure 4: Unknown (c.24,000 BCE – 22,000 BCE) Venus of Willendorf

In more recent history, during World War Two, the iconic image of the Homefront woman was depicted as strong and independent taking on the work of the men, showing women working in the fields, defence plants and volunteering in war-related organisations, all whilst managing their households. This was a hugely positive step in the rise of the female presence in society and the way in which women were perceived, The Homefront women’s radiant complexity ‘simultaneously homemaker and society girl, scholar, and worker, dainty and athletic’ (Buszek, 2006 p.223)

The Homefront women got their name when the men were enlisted to fight during WW2, and these women became the inspiration for pin-up artwork as they “can do everything” (Gabey, 1944). The ‘Pin-up Era’ began to emerge during this time and the female image began to be mass produced to appeal to popular culture and the men at war, however, this turned the powerful Homefront image of women into a sexualised object for the ‘Male Gaze’. Even though women proved they were just as capable as men at doing jobs, once the war ended and men arrived home the women were replaced again by men. Many TV shows, films, books etc. that were based in the fifties, depict men getting up early to go to work and getting home late, and women domesticated, staying at home, cleaning and looking after children.

In More Work for Mother, Ruth Schwartz Cowan wrote that psychiatrists, psychologists, and popular writers of the era critiques women who wished to pursue a career, and even women who wished to have a job, referring to such ‘unlovely women’ as ‘lost’, ‘suffering from penis envy’, ‘ridden with guilt complexes’, or just plain ‘man-hating’ (PBS, n.d.)

Working women were very much looked down on by society and viewed as neglectful mothers ‘abandoning’ their household/family to have a career. Starting in the late 1970’s American photographer Cindy Sherman, started producing work, taking conceptual self portraits of herself in very gender stereotypical clothing, to try and call attention to the stereotyping of women in tv, films and magazines. (Figures 5 - 7).

Figure 5: Sherman, C. (1978) Untitled Film Still #84

Figure 6: Sherman, C. (1978) Untitled Film Still #14

Figure 7: Sherman, C. (1977) Untitled Film Still #2

In Contrast, during the same time period as WW2, in Mexico, Frida Kahlo, an artist who specialised in self-portraits was producing over 150 pieces of work, ranging from paintings to sketches, depicting both pain and passion whilst also showing off and celebrating her Mexican roots in bright, bold colours. She’s loved by both Mexico (for her attention to Mexican culture) and by feminists for showing such real and raw emotion and pain, and the reality of what it was like to be a woman between 1907 and 1954.

Her artwork centralises around her life experiences - she was disabled by polio as a child and in an accident at 18 which caused her lifelong problems and pain. A running theme for her work is both pain, and self-portraits [out of 143 paintings, 55 of them are self-portraits]. She also looks at themes of class, post-colonialism and race within Mexican society. Figure 8 is a self-portrait done by Kahlo called The Broken Column, it expresses her agony and suffering in a horrifying but simple way: her body covered with nails poking into her body, showing the constant pain and agony she experienced, as well as the earthquake-like split down the middle of her body revealing the ‘broken column’, her spine. It’s completely broken up into pieces as she’d experienced multiple fractures (along with a shattered pelvis a broken foot and a dislocated shoulder — she had 30 operations in her lifetime.); she’s shown wearing a surgical brace/corset fitted around her middle looks as if it’s holding her together, stopping her from completely falling apart, and fabric draped/falling loosely around her hips leaving her breasts and torso completely exposed which when linked with the fact she’s crying, shows a lot of vulnerability and raw emotion.

The background for this painting’s very desolate and looks lonely like there isn’t particularly anything going on. A quote from Kahlo confirms that she experienced much isolation which is very apparent in this painting

I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best (Kahlo).

Although so much pain and negativity is spoken through this painting, you can’t help but notice that despite this, she’s standing with confidence, her posture is not that of someone in pain, her facial expression shows determination, confidence and resilience to keep going regardless how much pain she’s in, which is a reason why Kahlo is such an inspiration and looked up to by many.

Figure 8: Frida Kahlo (1944) The Broken Column, 1994

Feminism is a belief that women should be equal to men in all areas of life (politically, economically and culturally) and has been separated into three ‘waves’. The first wave of feminism was the suffragettes fighting for women's rights to vote. The 1960s saw the second wave of feminism which focused on creating equality and eradicating discrimination, this was also when the hippie movement began as a counterculture to mainstream life. This is when the Feminist Art movement emerged with female artists like pioneer, Judy Chicago (a feminist artist and author) who’s most famous work is Dinner Party (Figure 9) which was a tribute to the history of women - showcasing 39 place settings for 39 women both mythical and historical. Chicago’s website says:

her goal was to introduce the richness of women’s heritage into the culture in three ways; a monumental work of art, a book and a film because she had discovered so much unknown information. (Chicago, n.d).

This piece stood out among male art work (which was predominantly quite vulgar towards women, and made by men for the male gaze) as it showcased and celebrated women, both those included in the work and those who contributed towards it.

Figure 9: Chicago, J. (1974-79) Dinner Party

Figure 10: Chicago, J. (1974-79) Fertile Goddess, Ishtar and Kali place settings from Dinner Party 1979

Hannah Wilkes (1940-1993) a feminist, modern and conceptual artist/photographer in the 1970’s, created the S.O.S (Starification Object Series) one of her pieces was a vulva (Figure 11) made out of thick leathery material, attached to the wall by small hooks ‘like drying meat’ (Williams, 2019). In her article Hannah Williams describes the edges of the leather as ‘rippled like petals’. The female body is used widely in art and is often misrepresented, however the vulva is only really seen in feminist art. It can be seen and interpreted in different ways 1. Vulgar and redraw like drying meat, not overly attractive or appealing to look at - ‘It made me think of women, death and the utter strangeness of the body’ (Williams, 2019) and 2. It can resemble a flower, the material being used looking free and flowing both in terms of the way it's cut and the way they’ve been pinned together, Williams also described it as flower-like as the edges mimic them.

Another piece Wilkes produced was a performance piece where she gave out chewing gum to the audience and asked them to hand it back once it was soft, she then fashioned the gum into a Vulva/representation, and then stuck it to her body and face. The photographs taken were in black and white which made her look quite off-putting and bizarre as at first, it’s not completely obvious what is stuck to her body. These photographs are incredible as they’re not the usual ‘pretty’ portraits of models, (a lot of her work featured either imagery of the vulva or her own naked body). Wilke says that she uses chewing gum ‘because it's the perfect metaphor for the American Woman — chew her up, get what you want out of her, throw her out and get a new piece’ (Wilke) this quote suggests that men view women as objects. Disposable playthings they can use and then dispose of when they’ve had enough, moving on to a new woman when it suits them. It portrays the belief that men have/had little respect towards women and the way they should be treated, which is what Wilke wanted to show through her performance pieces (Figures 12 & 13).

The poses in this series of photographs (figures 13), look like the style of photographs used in either pornography or fashion magazines as they are very editorial in style and poses that show-off and emphasise the women’s sexuality. As Wilkes was an attractive woman, that would catch a man’s attention, she used this to her advantage, but by covering herself in chewing gum distracts from this and creates quite a disturbing image to look at, as at it is not obvious, at first, what is stuck to her and it challenges the observer to change the way they view the photograph and rather than ignore the chewing gum on her body, look at the meaning behind it, the ‘sensual fetishes and unsightly scars emblematic of the power, and also the stigma, of the female sex.’ (MoMA, 2019)

Figure 11: Wilke, H. (1970) Untitled, 1970

Figure 12: Wilke, H. (1974) Hannah Wilke, S.O.S. Starification Object Series. 1974

Figure 13: Wilke, H. (1974) Hannah Wilke, S.O.S. Starification Object Series. 1974

Figure 14: Jakhu, A. (2020) Truck Art Empowers Female Rights in Pakistan. Desiblitz. 7 January 2020.

Figure 15: Jakhu, A. (2020) Truck Art Empowers Female Rights in Pakistan. Desiblitz. 7 January 2020.

The Female Gaze is a feminist theoretical term representing the gaze of the female viewer and a generation of women who have grown up in a world full of social media and selfies. There has been a new wave of women who are using photography, the internet and the female gaze to explore self image and contemporary art to give women a voice and challenge female representation in society.

One such contemporary art movement is Truck Art in Pakistan. It’s a colourful and cultural phenomenon that isn't only eye-catching because of its bold and vibrant colours, but also the portraying and empowerment of women and young girls from Pakistan. Many of the artists draw their inspiration from females within their families (Figure 14). The art is specifically targeting themes of education, child marriage, domestic violence and child labour. It has become more popular as more artists and drivers get involved in wanting to raise awareness of these issues, and make a difference for the women in their society.

Samar Minallah, a human rights activist from Pakistan (also a documentary filmmaker), has been responsible for helping establish the empowerment of women through truck art. Many of the trucks in Pakistan showcase this magnificent artwork which includes bright floral designs, and poetry alongside the female empowerment messages. For example Figure 15, shows a painting of a woman holding a blackboard, a lot of them have this and written on them are quotes like:

Baba, mujay sona aur chaadi nahin, kitaab aur qalam la car do [Father, don’t bring me silver or gold, but bring me a book and pen] Ilm taqat hai, Ilm roshni hai [Knowledge is power, knowledge is light] Kitabain ghar ka chiraag hai [Books are the lamps that light up a house] (Jakhu, 2020)

These were written to try and inspire women and give them hope, whilst raising awareness about the need for education for women. In the short form of A Vindication of The Rights of Woman, Zoe Williams wrote an introduction where she says:

A woman deserves the education that a man would have. If she is denied it, the loss is not just hers but all of society’s (Williams, 2015 p.ix)

The best investment a country can make is that of educating females, it benefits not only the individual, but also their families, enabling them to be able to provide better living conditions and lead healthier lives with a higher chance of escaping poverty. The economy would notice positive change, as females contribute towards enhancing the growth of economic development. By restricting females access to education, a country is stopping progress and change from happening. UNESCO, particularly, was campaigning for this in April 2019, and the Girls’ Right to Education Programme (GREP) is helping to ensure that women and girls are receiving education across Pakistan. As a result, the local communities have welcomed the use of truck art which has made a huge impact in supporting the education programme.

In A Vindication of the Rights of women Mary Wollstonecraft says:

I don’t want women to have power over men; I want them to have power over themselves. (Wollstonecraft, 1792 p.43)

Even in the 1700’s women recognised that they should’ve had more rights, including rights over their own body, and it seems inconceivable to think that in 2020, some countries still don’t allow women the right to do, what we consider, basic things like dance in public (Indonesia) as it ‘fuels male desire’ and just ‘is not right’, In Iraq the gender gap is widening as violence against women is increasing, whilst they’re also limiting the fields that women can go into. In Jordan, women do not have the same economic opportunities men do, however Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan is an incredibly active advocate of women’s empowerment both within her country Jordan and abroad.

I really think that women ought to have ·parliamentary· representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed without being allowed any direct share in the deliberations of government. (Wollstonecraft, 1792 p. 87)

Having female representatives within governments is vital, without representation how do women efficiently and effectively help change the society they live in? Men cannot properly speak on behalf of women and their rights the same as women can’t effectively speak on behalf of men. As we’ve seen throughout history women have had to fight to be heard, which again shows that men cannot and weren’t speaking out for women, they didn’t fully understand why women wanted education, the freedom to work, to vote, to think for themselves, because they’d been taught to view women as homemakers. However, once women began to get a foothold in society, change started happening. Unfortunately, in some countries, especially in the middle east, such as Pakistan this change is taking a little longer to happen, which is why it's important for people like Queen Rania Al Abdullah continue to use their status as a platform and a voice to speak out for those women who cannot and for the truck artists to continue to be advocates for girls education.

In previous years Samar Minallah has used truck art to spread awareness of missing children (her project called Truck Art Child Finder) as the trucks would travel up and down the country to parts where the media cover was non-existent, for this she won the LIA (London International Award) award for in 2019. (Webdesk, 2019).

When the education has been the same, where is the difference between the sexes? (Wollstonecraft, M. 1792 p. 16)
Girls and boys would play harmlessly together if the difference between the sexes hadn’t been drilled into them long before nature makes any difference. (Wollstonecraft, M. 1792 p. 29)

Both of these quotes, written in the seventeen-hundreds prove that equality between the sexes was

recognised over two hundred years ago and yet shockingly little appears to have happened worldwide to create equal opportunities for both men and women, Wollstonecraft in the first quote explains that she

believes the only difference between men and women is the education they receive, the only thing that makes men slightly more superior to women is their knowledge and that’s only because they’ve deprived women of the chance to share the same knowledge. The second quote points out the fact that another reason men thought they were inferior is that it had been ‘drilled’ into them for generations, they didn’t know any difference, it's how they grew up seeing their mothers, sisters etc. being treated this way so they thought it was normal.

There is much work and many people you can look to on the topic of feminism. Many amazing artists and women throughout history have stood up for women rights and independence from the perceived need to be with a man. Furthermore, the way in which women’s bodies are viewed has evolved over time, for example in the stone age/upper Palaeolithic period curvy, full bodies were viewed as being desirable and it symbolised fertility, and a larger woman was seen as more suitable for childbearing, whereas in the 1900s particularly in the Nineties it was suggested it was more desirable to be thin, and have a small appetite, especially with a trend called Heroin Chic. In 2017 ‘RibCage Bragging’, became a new trend set by celebrities and began being shown all over social media, however, in stark contrast, in 2020 there is now a lot of advocates for body positivity and women are encouraged to embrace their curves again as it’s becoming ‘trendy’ to be a full/curvy woman which is a much healthier goal and inspiration for young girls rather than trends that promote eating disorders and unhealthy eating/exercising habits.

In the 20th century, a lot of feminists began being more vocal with their art and perforce art with people like; Frida Kahlo, showing raw pain and emotion through paintings and depictions of her life events in such a powerful way to encourage the viewer to look deeper into the meaning of her work, Judy Chicago, celebrated women and their achievements, accomplishments, and talents both mythical and historical and recruited the help of many female artists, and Hannah Wilke, creator of S.O.S, and a woman who recognised that she was attractive and used that to her advantage by changing the way men look at imagery the female body. These women are now respected names that are looked up to and celebrated by feminists for the work they’ve produced in the fight against the male gaze, the lack of women’s rights and the overcrowding of grotesque and vulgar art of the female body created by men for men. It is thanks to women like Samar Minallah, Queen Rania Al Abdullah and also movements like #SheDefends, who’re honouring Middle Eastern female activists, and the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and supporting the survivors of sexual violence, that different areas of the world and cultures, are realising that they need to educate, stand up for, and support their women. However, even though change is happening in many countries and cultures, it is astounding that there continues to be countries in the world that don’t give women their full human rights, and even in the UK there are elements that still require change.

List of Figures:

Figure 1: Giorgione and Titian (1510) The Sleeping Venus by Giorgione and Titian [painting] Available from: https://blog.singulart.com/en/2019/11/14/the-history-of-sleeping-venus-by-giorgione-and-titian/ [Accessed 17 March 2020]

Figure 2: Memling (1485) Vanity [painting] Available from: https://www.wga.hu/html_m/m/memling/3mature4/26vani11.html [Accessed 17 March 2020]

Figure 3: Bronzino, A. (1545) Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time [painting] Available from: https://www.reproduction-gallery.com/oil-painting/1525256031/venus-cupid-folly-and-time-1544-by-agnolo-bronzino/ [Accessed 19 March 2020]

Figure 4: Unknown (c.24,000 BCE – 22,000 BCE) Venus of Willendorf [online image] Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venus_of_Willendorf#/media/File:Willendorf-Venus-1468.jpg [Accessed 17 January 2020]

Figure 5: Sherman, C. (1978) Untitled Film Still #84 [photograph] https://www.moma.org/collection/works/57236 [Accessed 19 March 2020]

Figure 6: Sherman, C. (1978) Untitled Film Still #14 [photograph] Available from: https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/cindy-sherman-b-1954-untitled-film-5558033-details.aspx [Accessed 19 March 2020]

Figure 7: Sherman, C. (1977) Untitled Film Still #2 [photograph] Available from: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/56515 [Accessed 19 March 2020]

Figure 8: Frida Kahlo (1944) The Broken Column, 1994 [painting/online image] Available from: https://www.fridakahlo.org/the-broken-column.jsp [Accessed 25 January 2020]

Figure 9: Chicago, J. (1974-79) Dinner Party [online image] Available from: https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/dinner_party [Accessed 17 January 2020]

Figure 10: Chicago, J. (1974-79) Fertile Goddess, Ishtar and Kali place settings from Dinner Party 1979 [online image] Available from: https://www.judychicago.com/gallery/the-dinner-party/dp-artwork/#14 [Accessed 17 January 2020]

Figure 11: Wilke, H. (1970) Untitled, 1970 [online image] Available from: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-hannah-wilkes-naked-crusade-subvert-patriarchy [Accessed 22 January 2020]

Figure 12: Wilke, H. (1974) Hannah Wilke, S.O.S. Starification Object Series. 1974 [online image] Available from: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-hannah-wilkes-naked-crusade-subvert-patriarchy [Accessed 22 January 2020]

Figure 13: Wilke, H. (1974) Hannah Wilke, S.O.S. Starification Object Series. 1974 [online image] Available from: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/102432 [Accessed 22 January 2020]

Figure 14: Jakhu, A. (2020) Truck Art Empowers Female Rights in Pakistan. Desiblitz. 7 January 2020. [online image] Available from: https://www.desiblitz.com/content/truck-art-empowers-female-rights-in-pakistan [Accessed 9 January 2020]

Figure 15: Jakhu, A. (2020) Truck Art Empowers Female Rights in Pakistan. Desiblitz. 7 January 2020. [online image] Available from: https://www.desiblitz.com/content/truck-art-empowers-female-rights-in-pakistan [Accessed 9 January 2020]


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