Trying to look sexy? Trying to look cool? Dressing your age? Is that how women are ‘supposed’ to look? What do you think you look like anyway?
There’s something that niggles about people’s perceptions of our clothing choices. I want to give it an in-depth take, which has led to a whole bunch of pondering (not always a good sign) and I’m going to have to split this up over a couple of blog posts (at least) – and think very, very carefully about what I want to say and how I say it. Treat this as a work-in-progress; it might not even reflect my current views, let alone my final views.
There are certain cliches, stereotypes and mental shortcuts we use when we think of women (the stick figure in a dress on women’s toilet doors being a clear example). Crossdressing – for whatever motive – will pick up on some or all of these. The way women are treated or represented in culture will no doubt correlate with the way cross-dressers are regarded too. Previously, I’ve wondered if cross-dressing helps reinforce these stereotypes, ‘objectifying’ women in some way – should I feel guilty at all? (And that’s way before we get to our cliches, stereotypes and mental shortcuts of cross-dressers…)
Objects of discussion
The Venus de Willendorf is one of the oldest representations of a woman in Western European art history; she is naked.
Why was she created? As a toy? Does she represent a goddess? Was she used to instruct people on anatomy or reproduction? Was she created as a symbol of beauty for women to aspire to? Or was she carved by a lonely man desperate for company? Already, based on these ideas, this statue could be a paleolithic version of Barbie, the bible, a biology text book, Cosmopolitan or Playboy, and there’s no way of deciding if any of these interpretations are correct or not.
Whatever answer the observer comes up with will say more about the observer than the creator.
Sticking with Western art, subsequent representations of women have become more varied and sophisticated (and you can find some great interpretations of what’s going on in them here). Take an obvious example like Botticelli’s The Birth Of Venus. We can say it represents a religious figure; it illustrates a story; she might hint at standards of beauty at the time she was painted, and we can’t rule out that there might be a hint of titillation on the part of the artist (maybe there was; maybe there wasn’t). Some people might like the image, others might be put off by the nudity. I have no problems with someone else’s ‘yuk’ response, as long as they don’t impose it on others; if they don’t like it, they can look the other way. (For some people, the ‘yuk’ response extends to destroying any hint of male genitalia on statues, or disfiguring feminine features on mannequins.)
Fast forward again to modern culture (yes, I know; but I’m trying to keep this brief and focused). There’s a bit of a backlash against some of the ways women are presented in toys, television, movies, games, comics (such as the Not Safe For Work Spiderwoman – skewered here by theoatmeal.com), men’s magazines and women’s magazines. I’m leaving pornography out of this, since it is made with a specific intent; however, some people may see non-pornographic representations of women as sexualised – something I hope to address in the next blog entry.
Part of the problem is the fact that female characters are presented in unrealistic ways which their male counterparts never are – see, for example, John Scalzi and Jim Hines’ delightful, cross-dressed piss-takes of book covers (I knew I could get cross-dressing in there somewhere!). Are these stereotypes and cliches merely stylistic choices – a visual shorthand to tell the viewer what sort of character they’re looking at? Is it lazy art? Is it cruel, or demeaning? Or is it ironic, kitsch, just for fun? Are those who see problems in these images hypersensitive? Are those who don’t see problems blind to them?
I couldn’t possibly say. But I can say that the notion that poor representations of women in the media will cause them to be poorly regarded in real life does not work (at least, not as simply as you might imagine); ‘Media Effects Theory‘ gets causality the wrong way around.
Audiences… use media in their own way and for whatever purpose.
I’m not about to tell people that their opinions are wrong, but I’m not going to tell them they’re absolutely correct, either. My opinions are my own, and I might disagree with you – and this isn’t a matter of ‘being right or wrong’. As with the Venus de Willendorf, what you think probably says more about you than the image you’re looking at.
I’ll leave you for now with a picture I put together a couple of years ago (in a pose I could hold for 15 seconds, tops).
Why did I make it? To look sexy? To look cool? To show off? To make a point about unrealistic poses struck by female action heroes? Because I think this is what women should look like, obviously being a male sexist pig and all? Because I like kitsch action heroine images and wanted to copy them? To give people something to look at while they spank the monkey? Maybe I did it just for a laugh?
You could read all sorts reasons into it. I’m not going to tell you what to think or how to react. Just be aware that you could be wrong about my motives: the truth is, I can’t remember why I did it. All I can tell you is, like the story of the man who took off his clothes and jumped onto a cactus, “it seemed like a good idea at the time”.
I think the same is true any time I cross-dress, no matter what I’m wearing…
(To be continued!)