On Feminism: Romantic Femininity

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

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I was watching the film Perfume last night and it occurred to me how heavily it borrows from familiar art imagery of women, typically associated with The Pre-Raphaelites. And then I started thinking about all the other films that similarly do so. There are plenty of examples of these types of visual and thematic representations of female characters on screen: it’s a type of languid, passive and romantic ‘ideal’ of feminine beauty. But Perfume is one of those films that alerts its viewer to the creepy edge that accompanies such imagery. Often, this mode of femininity is based on an idealisation of a ‘dead’ representation of women’s bodies. Perfume’s story of a serial killer who collects the scents off beautiful women’s bodies seems to highlight how many other romantic representations of women’s bodies are likewise ‘killing’ women metaphorically.

You’ve probably noticed how Tumblr is infiltrated with such romantic images of femininity: women and girls lying in languishing poses, ghost-like and sometimes, resembling prettified corpses. I get the appeal of such romantic imagery, because I enjoy looking at paintings of women done by The Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian artists. Dead and dying women like Ophelia, The Lady of Shalott and Juliet were very popular with The Pre-Raphaelites and other Victorian artists, and the more I examine them, the more uncomfortable it makes me feel about what they say about idealised femininity in our culture.

My admiration of the skill and beauty of Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian paintings is also accompanied by an uneasy feeling about the implications of such images when it comes to gender. One of the reasons I enjoy studying costume films is that they allow me to see how we inherit and recycle ideas about gender from the past. These ideas don’t just die-off in the land of history, they are re-used and re-imagined in the present. For me, the countless romantic images on Tumblr are like an extension of the kind of paintings The Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian artists created. Similarly, I often find myself drawing comparisons between their art and modern films in their representations of femininity. For example ...

1. Romeo and Juliet :: Mariana in the South by John William Waterhouse

Femininity as containment and death ...

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2. The Martyr of the Solway by John Everett Millais :: Perfume

Femininity as desired dead object ...

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3. The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse :: The Phantom of the Opera

Femininity as a romanticised sacrificial lamb ...

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4. The Mirror of Venus by Edward Coley Burne-Jones :: Cracks

Femininity as an aestheticised ‘tableau’ ...

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5. Romeo and Juliet :: Juliet by Philip H. Calderon

Femininity as idealised wide-eyed innocence ...

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6. My Sweet Rose by John William Waterhouse :: The Phantom of the Opera

Femininity as a ‘rose’ waiting to be ‘plucked’ ...

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7. The Phantom of the Opera :: The Lady of Shalott by Sidney Harold Meteyard

Femininity as a languishing passive ideal ...

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8. I am Half-Sick of Shadows - said the Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse :: La double vie de Véronique

Femininity as contained desire ...

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The comparisons I see here between these images of women in film and art aren’t simply to do with similar poses, colours and styles of dress, but more significantly, to do with themes and ideas. What they all have in common is certain representations based on the stereotypical ‘ideal’ of women as beautified forms of dead, contained, innocent and passive femininity. This ‘ideal’ is something that we think we have moved beyond in our modern world, embracing new ideas about what it means to be a woman. But I beg to differ, because I see it everywhere and I see it dominating.

The thing is, I understand the appeal of these images. It would be hypocritical of me to criticise them without stating that I enjoy them too. When I critique such imagery, I think people interpret this as me trying to spoil the fun of their enjoyment. That’s not it at all. When feminist critics attack the gender implications of such imagery, they aren’t trying to ‘spoil’ anyone’s fun. What they are doing is trying to understand how and why these images persist, and what harm they are doing to women. This comes with an acknowledgement that part of the reason why such images of women are popular is because they are indeed appealing. But I think there’s a way to use these images and enjoy them that doesn’t result in ‘dead’ and stereotypical representations of women.

Jane Campion’s Bright Star for example is a film that draws heavily from the legacy of romantic images of femininity, but that also does something new with it. Campion uses familiar gender stereotypes on behalf of women’s narratives. I would personally love to see more films like this, because it shows me the potential to indulge in and be entertained by beautiful images of women without the uneasy subtext of feeling like I’m also watching something that demeans women. I guess I’m greedy, I want my cake and to eat it too.

46 comments:

Leah said...

I don't remember if you ever posted about Cracks before. I have a vague feeling you might have, or maybe in one of your comparisons...

Either way, I remember that movie making me extremely uncomfortable, but I can't (still) tell if it is for these reasons that you have eloquently espoused, or because Eva Green did a very good job in the character.
Do you think we were supposed to feel uncomfortable in parts? Her whole persona ended up being a romanticised, unrealistic version of femininity.

Hila said...

Leah: I posted on Cracks twice I think, I'll have to check my archives. Green's character made me feel uncomfortable too. I think this was partly because she was such a manipulative, but attractive, bully. Another side of it was of course that she was imitating an ideal persona which she could not live up to. I do know what you mean though about the film in general - I was torn between liking it aesthetically, but feeling uneasy about its tone. Maybe that was indeed the point.

suzie said...

This is a really though provoking post. You've drawn my attention to something I'd not actually noticed before; a subtlety in imagery that is, quite possibly, demeaning to women. Sadly, tumblr et al are awash with romantic femininity, it is a sign of our times perhaps?

Monica said...

these images, as pure visual art, are so stunning and beautiful. i think part of their appeal comes from our inner subtext, that softness is an inherent Feminine trait we can own and be proud of.
but yes, the troubles arise from the subtext implied - not softness, but weakness.

the images that get my goat these days are of the modern femininity.
the girl who saves, or at least helps save, the day, but is clad in leather, or tight clothing, or exposed clothing....

rose ready for plucking or dominatrix - sexual object either way.

İpek said...

I loved this post. I also enjoy the romantic femininity, sometimes way too much I'm afraid. But somehow this fragile, beautiful, dreamy and ghostlike image of women must be imposed by man - thinking that the majority of these artists were male and even though the subject differs, the idea of woman is somehow always delicate and elegant.

And I absolutely LOVED Cracks. I watched it without even knowing what I was watching, came across with it on web and just say 'alright let's try' because, well, Eva Green. But it was wonderful, Green's character was unsettling and very well done.

Hotly Spiced said...

I love Jane Campion's work with The Piano being my favourite. I think that movie said a lot about how women were thought of and treated during the 19th Century.

Sophia said...

This post rose a notion in me that I knew it existed but somehow had been forgotten. There’s a good reason for that. My working medium is photography and I remember studying the Pre-Raphaelites up closely in my academic years. This study resulted in a body of work that draw a certain amount of attention and showed clearly how society still is caught by similar aesthetics. Since then the subject came up in a series of conversations regarding the struggles I had (but others also) defining an adequate paradigm to use when working with portraits of people and trying to establish aesthetics that will compliment most facial structures. Soon, I realized that many renowned photographers of our time where actually basing their angles right on the traces and steps of those masters. Mainly I guess because those studies where pretty thorough having been developed through centuries of observing the human flaws and qualities, aesthetically speaking. All I’m saying (in a far less eloquent way than yours so I hope I make sense) is that I was trapped by those images too and idealized them because society neither has liberated itself from them nor is willing to do so. I haven’t seen this particular Jane Campion’s film you mention but I certainly want to know that there are artists that have not only understood what you are talking about but are able and willing to go a step further.

tara-lynn (good night, day) said...

thank you for all your insightful, & provoking blog posts, love your blog & loved this particular post immensely! tara-lynn

Lauren said...

Wow, what a great post! I too had never noticed these similarities and my mind is blown. I have countless tumblr images with a languishing female and for whatever reason, it never crossed my mind how similar they are to the pre-raphaelites and Victorian paintings. But I am so glad it crossed yours! Your comparisons of the modern film still to the paintings are fantastic, and I am definitely going to be watching for more of these type of images on tumblr in the future. Thank you for this great post!

rooth said...

Beautified forms of dead - that is incredibly creepy. I had never noticed it but it's definitely there, now that you point it out. I really love being a contradiction to all of these and love that my parents raised me to be that way. There is really a sense of being different though and it shouldn't be the case

Pinelopi said...

I can see what you are saying... I don't like myself a passive feminine icon that is fragile and beautiful. The movies, though, are based on novels that were written when such social models prevailed.
I like pictures of women on tumblr that are linked to death...i produce such illustrations...I am aware of the fact that such images are something like fashion and that they are currently popular. But that's how everything works nowadays. It's up to us which line we follow and admire. I try to make something new and pictures that I have on my mind but eventually my works resemble other artists...

Blaze said...

Gorgeous images! I love how well they match too! It just goes to say there is nothing new under the sun! :)

Sasha said...

First, Perfume really put me on edge. I was completely unprepared for it and am convinced I need to re-watch it to appreciate any of it.

Second, I love the way you encourage thought about film and art, especially in relation to culture. This post was really just brilliant.

Bethany said...

You have such a way of bringing two things side by side that I had never thought to connect before, that I felt but couldn't put my finger on. So much to reflect on here. Thank you!

Megan Champion said...

I always feel more enlightened every time I read something you have so thoughtfully out together.

I too, love these images, and somehow have always felt them wholesome, yet mildly disturbing.

I love how even something that I enjoy, say high fashion, I cant also dislike so much or judge so harshly.

Thank you for sharing with us Hila.

Hopefully I will be able to do a bit of catching up tonight.

Camila Faria said...

Is it possible to identify these images as demeaning to women and still like them? (because I really do like them) What a conflict... I guess it's not that horrible, if at least you acknowledge they're stereotypical representations of women.

sara kristen said...

Hila, I cannot express how much I love and appreciate this post, not only as an art historian, but also as someone who enjoys (some of) these kinds of romantic and beautiful images of women even as I am conflicted by them – for the same reasons that you describe. I recently thought that his scene from Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/movie/melancholia/stills/3/) directly references Millais' Ophelia, but the comparisons you draw are so much more nuanced. Although it is not something I really think about or explore in my own work, I truly respect your instinct for identifying similarities between films and other cultural works and untangling these histories.

I love visiting your blog and reading your well-crafted, researched, and insightful criticisms, particularly when they are as relevant to contemporary (visual) culture as this one. While I can immediately detect your scholarly approach behind them, you present them in such a way that is not at all “pretentious” or “stuffy” (I am thinking of your previous post on the Beauty of Contradiction and the story you related about having a PhD), but that is easily accessible to any of your readers. This is not always an easy thing to achieve, especially when you also seem to captivate many of your readers, but you do it beautifully.

melancholyswan.com said...

The women represented by the PRB (including Elisabeth Siddal who internalized their mythology) often were always-already dead or insane. Ophelia, The Lady of Shallot, Juliet, Isabella, etc. loose their minds and their lives as a consequence of their erotic desire. (I wrote a paper on the subject some time ago) I view the works with a mixture of admiration and horror, especially Millias' Ophelia, whose placid, flaccid face will soon choke in the brackish water.

Craig said...

This is good, thought provoking writing and thank you for sharing, Hila.

One picture (and the underlying notion of disfigurement) that always put me off watching the film was the one for "Boxing Helena". There are notions of both death and containment, which does seem to relate to what you have said here. However, in doing harm but not killing, it seems as if the male captor also wants to suspend the moment of death somehow.

Here is a link to the picture http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:FennBoxingHelena.jpg

{stefanie} said...

Hello,

I just want to comment because I am a filmmaker. I understand your point about demoralizing women in the paintings but I don't think that the filmmakers are 'copying' this on purpose and have the same intent.

The majority of filmmakers, when in the pre-production process, will look for images or art that evokes a feeling similar to what they're hoping to catch onscreen. Sometimes an image will get chosen because of the lighting, sometimes for the composition, sometimes for the pose (all of which you have demonstrated with your image comparisons, although I think the Phantom of the Opera boat image is coincidental, because there was actually supposed to be a river under the opera house. It's based on the Palais Garnier in France which was actually built on a river). A lot of times, the images chosen will come from old artworks because it will have exactly what the filmmaker wants in a scene. Filmmakers are essentially painters, but instead of using pigment, we use light, so artworks are usually a form of inspiration for us, but the underlying implications are often not taken into consideration. We mostly just look at the image and say, "yeah, I think this will evoke the feeling I want the audience to have".

I don't want to refute you and say that this is only purely coincidental; I do see things within the media that I find to be sexist or racist or wrong as well. In fact, one of my hopes (as a Latina filmmaker) is to change the image of "Spanish women as maids or homewreckers" in the media. But I just had to point out that a lot of the image similarities come from the research process before the film even is made.

I do find it interesting that you've noticed such things. I certainly hope there are more people like you out there, you'd be my target audience since I hope my films provoke thoughts as deep as these.

Cheers!
Stefanie

Maša said...

great comparisons! I'm crazy about pre-raphaelites, especially Waterhouse. I also enjoyed Campion's films but I haven't seen Bright Star yet.

If Jane said...

film has often turned to painting as an inspiration beyond just the representation of women etc.
interesting post and here's an interesting coincidence (i read this just the other day)
http://knell63.hubpages.com/hub/Pre-Raphaelite-Women

Hila said...

Stefanie: Hi Stefanie, thanks for this comment and for your perspective as a filmmaker. I approach these films with the full knowledge of the production process that goes on behind the scenes of all films. I’ve spoken to filmmakers and researched films for many years. So while I don’t have the experience of a filmmaker myself, I am aware of the kind of decisions they make in order to produce a film and the practical process of filmmaking. I think, however, your own approach is from a very literal perspective about the films I talk about here. I think there are several ways to approach films. While I take into consideration the specific decisions and intentions of individual filmmakers when analysing films, I also place films within their wider social, cultural, metaphorical, historical and ideological contexts. So you know, even if the comparisons here are a coincidence on the filmmaker’s part, I really don’t care. Because I’m not analysing them here from the perspective of the filmmaker, I’m analysing them from the perspective of certain representations of women that persist in our culture. I don’t think it’s possible to pin down the meaning of a film to a single interpretation based on the filmmaker’s intentions alone, because films are also a product of culture and ideology and may display the cultural preoccupations of their times unconsciously, without the filmmaker’s knowledge or intentions.

This is actually an issue that has come up with my students in the past: how can we argue something about a book or a film if that was not the author’s or filmmaker’s original intentions? For example, we examine many Victorian novels now from the position of feminism, Marxism and postcolonialism. These concepts and ideas would probably have never have occurred to the authors of these Victorian novels when they first wrote them. But does that make these interpretations ‘wrong’ or ‘coincidental’? I don’t think so. Because what we are analysing here is culture and ideology as it is evident in the text, not the author’s intentions. Sometimes a film or a book say far more than their original creators intended or even thought of themselves.

I once went to a writing festival where an author was asked by a reader whether she was thinking of the structure of a Haiku when she wrote her novel, because that’s how the reader interpreted the book. The author said no, that never occurred to her, but that didn’t make the reader’s interpretation wrong, simply because the meaning of a book (like a film) does not reside in the author (or filmmaker) alone. I don’t think films are static things, they change in meaning as their audiences change, and while I always find it interesting to consider what the filmmaker’s original intentions where and what kind of practical production decisions went on behind the scenes, I don’t restrict my interpretation of a film to these considerations alone. A filmmaker is part of a culture and a society like everyone else, and as such, he/she is exposed to the same ideologies about gender that may infiltrate the logic of his/her film unwittingly and unconsciously. That’s the level of my interpretation here. I am not suggesting that these filmmakers are directly and intentionally ‘copying’ the paintings – that’s far too much of a literal reading, and I have no way of knowing this for sure. What I am suggesting instead is that certain ideas and representations of femininity are evident in the similarities between art and film here, that are worth exploring and delving into deeper.

Good luck with your filmmaking career, I wish you every success – it’s a tough business!

T C said...

you made such a great post, the images are wonderful!

Hila said...

Suzie: I think it's always pretty much been a sign of the times - at least, from the nineteenth century onwards. That's what I find interesting I suppose: how strongly these ideas persist, even when the original historical context that brought about these ideas has long since passed and is no longer relevant. That being said, I do understand the appeal of these images, which is why I'm conflicted.

Monica: yes, that's a point I find difficult to explain too, without being told I'm completely contradicting myself. The thing is, I think we're still stuck in the old 'virgin versus whore' mentality, and our current 'ethereal lass versus dominatrix' models of femininity are simply an updating of that. Until things are more equal between men and women, it's hard for me to read the current mode of over-sexualisation of women as 'liberating', because it often just ends up feeding into negative ideas about femininity.

Ipek: I hope I don't make people feel bad for liking this imagery, because I like it too. My point is that perhaps there's another way to enjoy it (and create it). And it's a fairly complex topic, I'm not sure I've done it justice here :) I loved Cracks too - Green did such a good job with her character.

Hotly Spiced: That's the lingering thought for me too from The Piano - it's one of my all-time favourite films. I don't know why I haven't reviewed it on my blog yet ...

Sophia: Thanks so much for this comment, I understand what you're saying here. I think it's really difficult to step away from long-held traditions and perspectives - not only in art, but generally in society and culture. It's like being suck in a loop where we assume that because this has always been so, it will continue to be so. When I analyse these things, I'm trying to put the power and agency back in our hands, because we're ultimately the ones who create and determine these things.

Hila said...

Tara-lynn: Thank you!

Lauren: thanks! I've been noticing this on tumblr for a while.

Rooth: yeah, I can't help noticing the creepy edge to some of these imagery, even if it is beautiful.

Pinelopi: Yes, you're right, which is why I'm interetsed in why these images form the past and adaptations of these particular kind of novels are so very popular today. And I think it's possible to create something new from them - to insert this type of imagery into a different logic.

Blaze: Thanks!

Sasha: Thank you Sasha. I wasn't prepared for Perfume either when I first read it. I was reading it an an airport, expecting something 'light', and then got creeped out. But I also admired the author's skill.

Bethany: Thank you! To be honest, I thought this was an obvious comparison and that I would be accused of re-hashing familiar material :)

Megan: I can't judge it either, because I enjoy it too.

Camila: That's the same conflict I have, because I really do like the paintings and the aesthetics of the films. I guess no one said the answers to these dilemmas would be easy or simple ...

Sara: You have no idea what this comment means to me. Straight after I published this post, I said to myself: 'ugh, no one will bother to read this, you sound so much like an academic'. I get accused of that a lot, but the truth is, I can't blame my style of writing and expression on academia, because I've always pretty much been like this :) You should see some of my high school essays - flowery language and all! So to hear from someone that my posts are actually accessible is a huge relief because I often get told I'm 'intimidating'. I certainly don't mean to be. Thanks so much for saying this.

And yes, I noticed the similarity between Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Millais' Ophelia - in fact, it's so strong, I don't see how anyone can miss it. I have problems with Lars von Trier's films and the way he uses women's bodies. It irritates me when these issues are glossed over by critics who go on about his work as if it exists in some pristine aesthetic land of 'genius' filmmaking.

Hila said...

melancholyswan: I would love to read that paper! I approach these works with the same feeling of admiration and horror - I guess that proves my previous 'contradiction' post. It's hard for me to have an uncomplicated and straightforward response to such works of art.

Craig: Thanks so much.'Boxing Helena' disturbed me so much when I saw it, and I can definitely see why you would link that film to what I'm saying here. There seems to be this preoccupation in our culture with fixating on women on the verge of death, or in a state of morbid passivity. That's the underlying gendered subtext of much of these films and images for me. That picture you've linked pretty much represents that mixed tone of aesthetic beauty and morbid fascination.

Masa: then you should definitely see it, it's a great film.

If Jane: Thanks for the link, I haven't seen this. And yes, you're right, the comparisons extend beyond just the representation of women, although for me, that's the most interesting side of it.

TC: Thank you!

Thea said...

The images are amazing! Very cleverly done :) x

Chiara said...

What an interesting and beautiful post, Hila. Thanks for having such a brilliant intelligent gaze on things, and for sharing it with us :)

C said...

Ahh, this is brilliant. Though set a more contemporary period, the representations of romantic femininity you're discussing here also call to mind The Virgin Suicides. It especially resonates with the idealization of a "dead" representation of women, with the neighbourhood boys' obsession with the beautiful, unattainable Lisbon sisters, and how they continue to imagine their ethereal existence after their untimely deaths. After watching that film, I was trying to distill what the combination of the themes and visual imagery were communicating together, and your discussion here really brings up some relevant ideas.

I haven't seen Perfume, though people have recommended it, but it seems to also be playing up that sinister feeling that lurks underneath the languid, "dreamy" aesthetics of this brand of romantic femininity.

Pink Bunny said...

Thank you Hila. I love reading your essays.

Hila said...

Thea, Chiara, Pink Bunny: Thank you!

C: The interesting thing about The Virgin Suicides is that the film adaptation is steeped in this romantic visual imagery, and I wonder how much of it is critical. The book, while utilising this feminine persona, also critiques it at the same time. There was so much more depth in the book, even if the film was utterly beautiful.

Tracey said...

This is so interesting Hila. I love how you always leave me wanting to explore new films or re-watch films I've already seem to analyse them all over again.

PS. I adored Bright Star for so many reasons. I don't think it's greedy to want your cake and eat it too when it comes to female imagery.

TeaButterfly said...

hello Hila,

I believe this is my first comment on your blog. Thanks for an very deeply interesting post.

When you said "these ideas don’t just die-off in the land of history, they are re-used and re-imagined in the present." it really struck me! Because I have been thinking of History as something of the past, that doesn't necessarily influence us (I've studied History and Art History in college but these thoughts never occurred to me before).

Thank you for an eye-opening post!

-Vic

Chuck said...

I just (right now) watched the new Lana del Rey video and it is EXACTLY this. Femininity as suicidal passivity. It totally freaks me out.

In other news, I love Bright Star too. So many wonderful performances and so aesthetically perfect. I saw it at the cinema and cried so much that people started staring... x

Chuck said...

Also, there is a v interesting modern poem with a male Lady of Shalott, half sick of shadows, but I cannot remember who wrote it or what it is called. Oops! x

caeruleaflagrantia said...

What Chuck says about Lana del Rey is true, I liked the song and then I watched the video and I felt incredibly uncomfortable with its portrayals.

You just gained a new follower :)

Hila said...

Tracey: I hope it's not too greedy, I don't like having to choose between enjoyment and critique.

Vic: well, thank you for visiting and commenting!

Chuck: Lana del Rey really annoys me for this reason. The thing is, she's also perfectly aware of what she's doing and what kind of imagery she's self-consciously utilising. So she should know better. Her videos really irritate me, as does her whole manipulated persona.

I cried at the cinema watching Bright Start too - although I wasn't the only one, so it wasn't too embarrassing. And I haven't heard of the male version of the Lady of Shalott, it sounds great - must hunt it down, thanks.

caeruleaflagrantia: thanks! Yes, I agree with Chuck too - her videos leave me feeling both uncomfortable and angry.

sherryyo said...

I just want to say this post was the loveliest introduction to your blog! I came over from Miss Moss and have truly been enjoying your posts, particularly since I am currently tangled up in the life of academia as well. Your writing is really captivating, as are the photos you include. You posted this on my birthday, so I'm going to consider it a bday present even though you don't know me. haha!

vegetablej said...

I'm a bit late to this conversation. I read your post a while ago but I decided to have a think about it and you know how that can go. :)

These stereotypes of femininity are disturbing in that they throw right in our faces what the ideals of some proportion of the population were and still are. I do think the arts are still guilty of perpetuating them, notably TV, which is a cesspool of bad feminine models lately.

One thing that disturbs me is that young women seem more susceptible to emulating these unhealthy images. We see that a lot in modeling, the music industry, and acting. I cheer every time I see the balance of strong females in any of these mediums.

In videos I always wonder how much of the clothing and imagery is chosen by the artist and how much is imposed by industry image-makers drawing from the dark waters of history. I think when we get more great women directors, writers and producers we will start to see more variety in perspectives of women and femininity and I can't wait for that to happen.

I don't think we have to fault ourselves for finding art beautiful; it was carefully designed to be so, but we can appreciate the artistry of the image and still shudder at what it implies.

"Perfume" sounds loathsome. I think one thing we can do is to vote with our pocketbooks.

Hila said...

sherryyo: Thank you! and yes, let's pretend that it is a birthday gift from me :)

vegetablej: While we're on the subject of femininity on TV, one of the most annoying modern versions of heroines on TV shows that I find equally problematic is the 'neurotic modern woman'. It's like a way of saying that modern women just really don't know how to deal with life, and like the writers of the show are saying: "they wanted freedom, and look what a mess they made out of it! Can't get a man (because that's supposedly the ultimate purpose in life for all women), can't deal with the stress of work, don't procreate like 'normal' women!" Sort of like Bridget Jones. I'm so sick if this, it's such crap, and it falls in line with all the familiar stereotypes associated with romantic femininity.

Actually, 'Perfume', while disturbing, is I think a critique of this mode of romantic femininity. Although I wonder how many people saw it as such ...

Alexandra said...

That's interesting!

But I think women (and now men,too) genders perception have always been distorted. I don't think pre-rapahelite art and aesthetics, on paintings and/or movies, is worse than any magazine with skeleton girls OR any porn movie.
Not that I absolutely defend old art "because old times were better", but if you accuse such art of showing a a distorted feminity, what about everything else?

And what IS feminity if not a bit of all these things melted together ?

What about traditional European tales such as Bluebeard? What's the role/view of feminity in those? IN snow-white, women are either stupid youngsters or old jealous hags!

I have noticed, working on tales with my pupils that often, little guys are clever (Hansel, Little Thumbling, Jack and the bean...) and girls are dumb/desobedient (snow-white, cinderella, goldilocks...)

So... I don't know. It's true, but also an incomplete analysis.
I am very interested though.

You can also extend the debate to gothic imagery which is inspired from that XIXth contemplative romantic imagery, but which is even visually stronger in terms of displaying/expressing death through women.

I also think it's good that death shows in, in our society, whatever the medium. And I'm not surprised that medium is women. (You know, "witches" and sorceress... and all that jazz that is yet, another debate and interesting thing to speak of)
I just am glad that in a very Chritian society, where death is depicted as something bad and completely out of our lives, (which is a shame),it appears somewhere. Because it is merely a part of life. Representing it, to me, is accepting it.


It reminds me of that book I'm reading on how feminity is perceived through varied cultures :

http://www.amazon.com/Women-Wolves-Clarissa-Pinkola-Est%C3%A9s/dp/0345409876

I'm sure you'll like it ;)

Thanks for an interesting post.

Hila said...

Alexandra: I’m not trying to ‘accuse’ nineteenth-century art of being any worse than other forms of stereotypical femininity (either historically, or now). I’m simply trying to discuss what I view to be similarities between this particular style of art and modern films. I’m not about playing games of ‘what’s worse’, but exploring links with the past. I also don’t claim to be providing a comprehensive analysis of all known forms of gender representations in this post, just a particular kind. I can’t write about ‘everything else’ in one post. My posts tackle a single subject at a time, I can’t comprehensively address everything to do with feminism and femininity in one little post. Even if I write till I’m old and grey, I will probably never say all there is to say about this subject. So of course it’s going to be an incomplete analysis, I’m not perfect, and neither is my writing or analysis. If you read my other feminism posts, you’ll see I do actually write about femininity and gender politics today. It’s just that I chose to focus on this particular type of romantic femininity, because I started seeing the visual, thematic and ideological links between paintings and films. I’ve done a lot of research and writing on gender in fairy-tales and Gothic works too, although I haven’t yet posted about it. My blog is something I write on the side, I don’t always have time, unfortunately.

Thanks for your comment, I hope it sparked some thought about these paintings.

Alexandra said...

I know I probably went a bit off-subject as I clearly understood the precision of your post! I just wanted to add a little to think about around that subject.
Thanks again, no offense intended ;) I tend to speak passionately about stuff and people take it badly, hope it's not your case ;)

Hila said...

Alexandra: Ah, I see :) I'm sorry if my response came across as defensive then. Sometimes I give people the benefit of the doubt too much and get rewarded with abusive language and questioning of my intelligence and blog. I'm sort of tired of that at the moment, perhaps it's comment-fatigue. So maybe I'm overly sensitive at the moment. But I didn't mean to take it out on you. I think I understood though that you didn't mean any harm, and I certainly didn't mean any in my response.

Well, the amount of ways this topic could be expanded upon are endless, you're definitely right there! The Gothic, the fairy-tale mode, religious iconography ... the more you think about it, the more the connections spring up.

Stella said...

This is an absolutely terrific blog post. I've just stumbled onto this blog after looking up pre-raphaelite influences in film, and I'm glad to have found something that consciously explores this connection through a feminist framework. I'm now in an awkward position of trying to reconcile my love for the pre-raphaelites and their influence in films - it struck me while reading this that Sofia Coppola, one of my favorite filmmakers, is someone who heavily utilizes these aesthetics to great effect in her movies - with an acknowledgement of their mixed implications. But you're also right in saying that the subtext is key. In re-thinking the case of "Perfume," for example, the viewer knows that the dehumanized, "beautified deadness" (great phrase, btw) of the various women in the movie appear as seen through the eyes of a most unreliable serial-killer narrator, who is startled to discover his own "deadness" when he finds that he lacks a scent. It's arguable that the imagery of all these beautiful, dead women lingers on purpose to emphasize how they appear to the murderer - not as actual desirable women, but the carriers of the scent he covets, and thus he desires women for solely the insentient pleasures they can provide. I think it would be really problematic if the movie tried to disguise that as something else, but it makes it quite clear that the viewer is supposed to be creeped out by this all-the too-literal representation of women's bodies coveted as inanimate objects. I'll have to take a bit longer to ruminate about my beloved Sofia, on the other hand, as it is a bit difficult to say whether she adds substance to her swooning imagery or glorifies it or both.

Also, this post made me think of this shot from The Hours right away, a pose I love for its aesthetic grace, but feel half-scornful towards for its somewhat absurd romanticism and half-admiring towards its attempt to capture a woman's complex and difficult struggle with depression and thoughts of suicide. http://tiny.cc/36fcgw