Il Corpo Delle Donne

Disclaimer: I’m uncertain about my argument at the end of this article. I think the point stands, I’m just worried that in the way I’ve phrased it I come across like a bigoted obsessive… Which (I like to think) I’m not. So with that in mind…:

Watch this video. (it’s okay, you can watch it in English). And watch it all the way through if you can – it’s 24 minutes well worth watching.

I don’t really have much more to say about the video itself, but I am harping on the same old tune again – how true is this of worldwide representation of women? Is this an extreme example, or do you think there are similarities to be seen in the media of say, America, or England? I know what my answer is, and I don’t think I’m “training” myself only to see sexism everywhere – I would say that the image offered to us of what a ‘woman’ is today is far, far narrower than it has been for a very long time.

This might be an argument that people disagree with, but in the middle of that video (sorry, it’s 24 minutes long, but it really is worth watching all the way through) the narrator mentions that it’s okay to use the outdated stereotypes of the past in order to laugh at them, only if you really know the risks. I think the implication is that actually these supposedly outdated stereotypes are not really all that long-gone. Maybe in fifty years’ time or so, we will be able to laugh at this era, because we will have reached equality. Until then, I think it’s dangerous; it’s restricting women’s options, and similarly men’s options as well. If the vision of ‘what is a woman’ is restrictive, then so, too, is the vision of ‘what is a man’, although oddly enough that definition, I’d argue, is gradually broadening in a way that femininity isn’t.

Why, for example, are so many “anti-ageing” products targeted at women? Yes, there are some aimed at men, but not nearly so many. Why are men allowed to age and women not? The vulnerability of the unaltered face is an idea I find profoundly moving; it’s something that women in the media seem to be denied.

And one other thought. This may not be a very popular idea. But: we all laugh at sexism, right, because sexism’s clearly outdated. Which means that it’s hilarious to portray a woman as a ‘dumb blonde sex symbol’ because we all know better than that. Right? In contrast, racism. That’s bad. So why aren’t the outdated stereotypes of what differentiates the races used in comedy to the same extent? It would be shocking, yes?

Doesn’t it come to the same thing, though? The stereotype which classed non-Europeans as ‘inferior’ and ‘sub-human’ opened the door for the slave trade. As anyone with half a braincell knows, that was/is an utterly nonsensical idea.

I am not comparing the subjugation of women with the slave-trade, by the way. But, surely it would be really rather sickening to see a black person in a TV Comedy played out in an Early modern/Early 20th Century stereotypical/racist way?

So why is it acceptable to present women through that same tunnel vision?


  1. John

    I agree, there’s often a blurred line between comedy routines that laugh at sexism and those that laugh with it. Often the comedian will present a facade of not really believing in sexism, yet he will still appeal to sexist ideas to get laughs. There are times however, when it genuinely is the sexism that’s being parodied, and this kind of comedy can be really good, and often helpful for exposing taken-for-granted prejudices.

    The point about vulnerability of faces is a really good one – I hadn’t properly thought of it like that before. As a man I definitely don’t feel any pressure to hide my real face, and I’m sure this will still be the case when I’m old. Yet the prevalence of makeup etc for women even in what many people claim is today’s gender equal society is astounding. I think the video you posted was highlighting a lot of the most extreme cases to make its point, but it’s definitely a major issue. I know some feminists who will argue that there’s nothing wrong with a woman taking pride in her beauty and enjoying being beautiful if she so wishes. But surely an ideal world would be one where physical qualities did not elicit judgement?

  2. clare mohan

    John, I know what you mean about how in an ideal world we wouldn’t be judged by our appearances. However, I believe it’s a natural impulse to want to be physically attractive in order to (biologically speaking) attract a ‘mate’. But I think that drive to physical attractiveness is one that affects everyone, regardless of gender. So with that in mind I think it’s perfectly reasonable to wish to be physically attractive, and to use make-up and other cosmetics for your own benefit.

    Where this creates a problem is when (in the market-driven society in which we live) those cosmetic products are presented to us not as options there if we wish for them but as absolute necessities, without which we as women (well, those of us here who are women, perhaps) are not quite wholly ‘female’. That’s where the problem lies, and even if you strip away the really obvious elements of that, there is so much that goes right down to the root of the way in which our society works which is almost impossible to get at or define.

    [on another note, utterly unrelated to this article (sorry) I was just listening to something on Women’s Hour where a child psychologist believes that it is mothers and not fathers who are absolutely responsible for their child’s psychological well-being, and therefore working mothers (doesn’t matter about fathers) are causing untold damage to their children. I’m rather disgusted by that… On the other hand, it’s utterly unrelated to this discussion so never mind…]

  3. ceridwen

    I think the thing I’m confused by here is the idea that the “natural impulse to want to be physically attractive” is somehow related to make-up, fashion, or any other form of mask.

    Make-up is an invention, a product, and a mask. It is a commodity aimed solely at women; it is specific to certain time periods, and certain cultures.

    Of course I don’t have a ‘problem’ with people wearing make-up or certain kinds of clothes. It would be hypocritical and ignorant for me to make any judgement on an individual’s lifestyle.

    But when we talk about a “natural impulse” to be beautiful, why do we assume that it is therefore “natural” to associate this drive with a commodity solely advertised at women. Insecurity is now a product to be sold.

    I would like to argue that the “natural impulse” to be beautiful takes very different forms in different cultures. Take some queer subcultures, for instance; the models used in queer media often have ‘naked’ faces, which can be found more sexually attractive than the adorned face. It’s all a matter of perception. Make-up is the product of a the male world of commerce perceiving beauty to be that found in the adorned face – and, most importantly, the face adorned with products.

    Advertising allows us to believe that beauty = the consumption of beauty products. Advertising also allows us to believe that buying such products is a “natural impulse”. But each era and each culture has its own definition of beauty, and I’d like to note that the media that dictates beauty in the West is also the media that is owned by a patriarchal, capitalist system. Yes, we all have the “choice” to buy into it. But I think that propaganda is a very powerful thing.

    When we write about ‘fat vs thin’ and eating problems on G.A, we often say that patriarchal propaganda fuells insecurity, and dictates what size is considered beautiful. I would say that so-called ‘beauty products’ fall into the same catagory – but it’s harder to argue this, because it doesn’t cause any physical harm to buy razors, mascara, ‘concealer’ and lipstick.

  4. clare mohan

    Yes, I suppose you’re right. But make-up and cosmetics can be used in the most beautifully artistic ways (and by that I’m not talking about the everyday “‘concealing’ blemishes, correcting flaws, and ‘enhancing’ natural assets” school of make-up) so that the human face (whether male or female) becomes something slightly Other, through the means of makeup, and yet this is not such a transformation that it isn’t used by people in the every day [does that make sense?]. I’m not sure what my point is here other than that make up isn’t always/wholly about insecurity or that it isn’t always a negative expression of someone’s feelings about their beauty.

    However, I do agree that the use of make up advertising which plays on the ingrained idea of the stereotypical ways in which a woman must look and builds on those insecurities is probably inherently a bad thing…


  5. ceridwen

    I agree that make-up can be used in artistic ways. I don’t have a problem with make-up for its inherent “modifying” qualities.

    If males and females voluntarily bought mascara and drew handlebar moustaches across their foreheads, or painted their chins purple, then I’d concede to the idea that make-up is currently used as an extraordinary modification-tool. And hurray! As well.

    But I’m pretty certain that the goals are: bigger, darker eyes; redder, poutier lips; whiter, clearer skin; concealed wrinkles; perfectly shaped eyebrows; blushed cheeks. These vary in their order of importance, according to the fashion world, and the market.

    I wont bang on. The point I’m making is old and dull; but yes, the day that both men and women voluntarily create face art for self-expression is the day I stop going on about female advertising subjugation. Bring on the handlebar mustachios.

    • clare mohan

      No, you’re absolutely right. I wish it weren’t the case, but it is. Which is rather frustrating. I do also think that we should start the campaign for handlebar moustaches on foreheads. Life would be more interesting if that were popular…


      • beva

        there are plenty of alternativeish communities- Burning man associated scenes, the salon rouge burlesque night a bit, where there is a current of radical self expression and making art out one’s body that, in comparison to mainstream, avoids the gendered inequality of body presentation. Many women do wear moustaches, men wear fancy dresses as much as women at dressing up times, and much extreme painting happens. There’s still an extent to which more women care more about looking sexy rather than silly than men…. but the division along aesthetic taste and perfectionism is stronger than along gender lines and not entirely aligned. yay for genderqueerer body presentations, and the places where they’re the norm, and may they expand… on a cheery note : )

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