A plague of women’s backs

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Caspar_David_Friedrich_The_wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

I read an interesting article in the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review by Chloë Schama, in which she writes, “A plague of women’s backs is upon us in the book cover world.” Indeed, they are: just have a look at the array of covers shown in the article as examples. Schama details some possible reasons for this trend, but there is so much more to be said about it.

This may seem like a bit of a leap, but I view the “plague of women’s backs” on book covers as an indicator of something larger and something we seem to be unable to shake off when it comes to how we represent women’s bodies within our culture: as empty, anonymous, generalised, passive, vacant vessels; as objects. I don’t see much difference, for example, between this book covers trend and the ongoing fascination with the dead female body in fashion. Vice’s insensitive ‘suicide’ editorial featuring fashion models as dead female authors is only the latest of what is a continual trend, if not fetish, in the fashion world: the fixation with the corpse-like female body, languishing in a pale, deathly sickliness, that is marketed as ‘ethereal’ femininity. I acknowledge the appeal of this aesthetic (hey, I often enjoy it too), but there’s always a little voice in the back of my head that reminds me that it still amounts to idealising women and their bodies when they are emptied of meaning and life: that is, when they are turned into anonymous objects lacking an individual identity and a will of their own.

So back to women’s backs and their faceless anonymity. If you think about it, this is also a type of ‘murder’. In our love of the anonymously ‘mysterious’ woman whose face you can’t see, in our fascination with the curves of her back displayed for our voyeur’s gaze, and in our appreciation of women’s bodies as inherently passive, we are essentially perpetuating a cult of female self-less-ness that began centuries before modern book cover design and fashion editorials.

Another manifestation of the empty and passive female body is of course the ever-romantic idea of woman-as-muse. Although I know many women (and men) find the idea of a muse highly romantic, I agree with Angela Carter’s famous assertion that calling yourself a muse or a goddess is simply flattering yourself into submission. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the female muse was a particularly alluring symbol in art, and she became aligned with this ghostly, deathly aesthetic of ‘ethereal’ femininity that is still so popular today. But just as importantly, she highlighted how women were really ‘valued’: as beings whose function it is to please, inspire, support, care for and serve others, all under the beautiful guise of anonymous female flesh. The ideal woman was, essentially, a blank canvas: empty.

So this trend is not really anything new. But it is something that remains disturbing and appealing at the same time. It shows us, perhaps too uncomfortably, how we really like women within our culture: as passive things lacking in selves. There is aesthetic pleasure in these book covers, just as there is visual pleasure (and artistry) in many fashion editorials. But I can’t help feeling this pleasure comes at a cost when it stands on the backs of women (quite literally in this example). Schama notes that “these books offer only skin, which is all surface.” I would add they also offer women who are only hollow surface. That should make us feel uncomfortable, right?

P.S. I’ve chosen a famous ‘back’ image for this post, but of a man: Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818). I guess the tone of this image contrasts with the tone of the many covers featuring women’s backs. He is master of all he surveys, she is waiting for meaning to be imparted to her by the external force of somebody else’s “imagination” (like a perfect muse); he is a symbol of Romantic individuality and will, she is a symbol of “mystery”.

4 comments:

Claire McNeill said...

Hi Hila,
I've never commented here before but I love your work. I also read this article, and at first my thoughts were similar to yours, that these sorts of faceless images were unfortunate and contributed to a diminishing of women. But on reconsideration, I've come up with a different way to look at it, one that is a bit more psychological as it has to do with books. I think these book images are common because it alludes to the aesthetic of a character without necessarily doing it for the reader; it allows a window into a character without taking away the joy that is constructing an image via the author's words.
And I do think these images are quire beautiful. They're pretty common on tumblr, and I think the reason why is because they make it easier for the photo's audience to imagine herself within, to supplant the faceless body with a form of her own, to BE in the photo in a way that wouldn't be allowed if a face were clear and present. It makes imagining easier and thus it resonates.

Claire McNeill said...

Hi Hila,
I've never commented here before but I love your work. I also read this article, and at first my thoughts were similar to yours, that these sorts of faceless images were unfortunate and contributed to a diminishing of women. But on reconsideration, I've come up with a different way to look at it, one that is a bit more psychological as it has to do with books. I think these book images are common because it alludes to the aesthetic of a character without necessarily doing it for the reader; it allows a window into a character without taking away the joy that is constructing an image via the author's words.
And I do think these images are quire beautiful. They're pretty common on tumblr, and I think the reason why is because they make it easier for the photo's audience to imagine herself within, to supplant the faceless body with a form of her own, to BE in the photo in a way that wouldn't be allowed if a face were clear and present. It makes imagining easier and thus it resonates.

Rick Wilcox said...

timely, crisp, well done

Hila said...

Hi Claire: I can see your point, and on one level, I agree with it. I think both our interpretations can sit side-by-side with each other without necessarily conflicting. The line of thought that drew me to consider the gender aspect of these images was primarily to do with the fact that it's often women, and their bodies, that are used as precisely this 'blank canvas' that allows readers/viewers to supply meaning onto their anonymity and blankness. This bothers me, because it indicates something larger about how we generally use women's bodies within our culture. Just think about it: why is it, more often than not, women who are the bodies upon which to project our own desires, meanings, interpretations? Why are we rendered blank? Why is it so easy for us to use the female body in this manner? I think these are worthy questions to consider.

Thanks for taking the time to comment, I'm really curious about who actually reads this blog!