On Feminism: Romantic Femininity

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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 VĂ©ronique

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.