Monthly Archives: July 2010

Historical Perspectives: To Be Nude or Naked

Laurie says:

Sociological Images linked to  art historian John Berger in the BBC documentary Ways of Seeing.

perspective on the objectification of women in European art and advertising, starting with paintings of nude women.  “To be naked,” he argues, “is to be oneself.  To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A nude has to be seen as an object in order to be a nude… they are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own.”

I didn’t note until after I played it that it was from 1972, so his oracular voice and uncomplicated perspective grated a bit. I kept wanting to make the conversation more nuanced and complex. And that oracular male voice giving us truth undercuts his point a bit. But in the context of 1972, it’s groundbreaking and brilliant, and unfortunately still true enough. These images occur over and over in contemporary advertising and art and we are mostly oblivious to their long history.

Obviously, I’ve thought a lot about images of the nude in art. Before I began Women En Large I spent a lot of time looking at historical nudes.  I wanted to be clear enough, so that I was aware of the classic cliches of specific poses and postures. One of the most anatomically striking is “the nude with the broken back.”

I did the same for the male nude when I did Familiar Men.  Although, of course (unsurprisingly) there were far, far fewer images to look at.

I was always looking for pictures that were true portraits rather then objectified pictures of unreal women. Berger says that historically there are only 20 or 30 of them.  If so, I’m surprised that I had seem most of them when I was doing my research. My favorite in the video is Titian’s portrait of his young wife hugging her breasts.

For me the best thing about it is not the commentary, but the changing vision of the female nude through time. The European art that is shown from Medieval times to Impressionism really illustrates differences in beauty standards. And the images he chose illustrate it superbly.

These are very well worth watching.  As is the third part, a discussion by a panel of women on his talk. Be patient with the introduction in the first one. The painting discussion and images happen fairly quickly

Lenses of Our Times, Obstacles to Social Change, and Mel Gibson

Laurie and Debbie say:

In her recent post on Clara Park, Laurie said, “We no longer have the 1950’s Freudian lens. Instead we have the lenses of our times that work to support the structures that run our world, and still serve to obscure the realities and complexities of human lives.” That comment got us to thinking and talking about what some of the lenses of our time might be.

What do we mean by a “lens of the times”? To pick just one example from another time, in the Victorian era, there was a law putting prostitutes with venereal disease in hospital jails, on the theory that this would prevent the spread of syphilis. This is a reflection of one major Victorian lens, that immorality was the root cause of social problems. Of course, this would only work if only prostitutes spread syphilis, while in fact infected people were passing on the infection all the time through many channels of which prostitution was only one. So there were three problems: first, syphilis didn’t stop spreading. Second, the social structure was supported: everyone else involved was effectively absolved of immorality, because the lens was pointed at the prostitutes. Third, the prostitutes who were not in jail were less able to prevent themselves from becoming infected, because they were seen as criminals: vectors, not victims.

In our time, one of the lenses that performs this function is the pathologization (sometimes medical, sometimes not) of various behaviors with social causes. There are dozens of examples: from teenagers acting out in classrooms through alcoholics and drug users to people with eating disorders may be punished, and/or assigned DSM-IV diagnoses and recommended medical and/or psychiatric treatments, including (of course) psychiatric drug prescriptions. People are urged to join 12-step groups and read self-help books. Just as the experience of Freudian psychoanalysis sometimes made a difference in the first half of the 20th century, all of these things can help now; sometimes, they transform an individual person’s life in very important ways.

Here are some of the social effects of this lens:

Pathologizing a problem doesn’t solve it, or even minimize the number of people who have it. It might increase the number of people who recover, but it doesn’t change the size of the incoming stream of people developing the problem. Nor does it change the fact that some people’s lives are irreparably damaged by the social response (such as people who are put in jail or juvie).

Placing the responsibility for the problem on individuals makes it easy not to look at social factors. We don’t for example, examine alcohol ads, billboards, and alcohol use portrayal in movies and on TV in any serious way, because we have defined alcoholism as a problem of individuals. It doesn’t seem likely that a culture who saw alcohol as a societal problem would sell t-shirts that say “I don’t have a drinking problem. I drink, I fall down. No problem.” More importantly, it allows us not to look at the fact that alcoholics get more or less of a free pass to continue living in the culture, while drug users (especially if they are people of color and/or poor) are imprisoned for a comparable addiction. (We treat prostitution similarly: being a prostitute is penalized far more than paying a prostitute, as if the two were not intertwined.)

Putting the responsibility on individuals works two ways: it can make individuals feel guilty/shameful about their problems, and seek (or not seek) individual help rather than organizing and taking social agency and it can let people place the “blame” for problems on other individuals, thus perpetuating oppression and not looking at their part in the system. In other words, an anorexic (after some treatment) might come to think her problems were entirely her fault and something she should be able to overcome with willpower, while her family or her community might also think the same thing. So, she blames herself and her culture blames her. No one then has to look at the pressures on women to lose weight, be thin, be perfect, and not have bodily needs.

Social change cannot happen unless many people can see the nature of a problem. This lens (like so many other historical lenses) keeps us from looking at what is profoundly wrong. People don’t and won’t work together to change a system if they can’t see the harm it is doing them: anything that isolates us from each other and makes our problems completely our own impedes social change. And, by definition, all systems resist social change, so they develop obstacles.

The inimitable Prof. Susurro was writing about this issue last week, while we were separately starting to talk about it.

[At an overseas (from the U.S.) mental health seminar], a famous therapist presented an in depth study on “the importance of diversity” in health practices at the seminar/conference. Despite his obvious commitment to trying to welcome diverse clients into mainstream services, it became obvious that he had started from the all-too-familiar supposition that emotional reactions to oppression were pathological. In other words, if you are angry because you live in gentrification grand central, or you are acting out in class because you are experiencing all kinds of bullying around your first attempts at gender transgression, it is because you have “maladaptive coping skills” (i.e. your anger is “inappropriate”). And if you get mad at your therapist, stop treatment, or otherwise try to seek real help by indicating the problem to someone else … oh yes, my friend, you are not only exercising maladaptive coping skills, including triangulation (when you try to get a third party to uphold your “crazy, crazy, fantasy land”) but you are CRAZY with a capital CRAZ and YYYYYY.

So she and her friends came up with a diagnosis that points out the failures of the current lens: “Mel Gibson Spectrum Disorder.”

The Disorder – Colonial Fantasy Syndrome

A disorder in which a member of the dominant culture believes that their experience is normative and any other experience is therefore deviant or abnormal despite evidence to the contrary.


Sufferers must meet 5 or more of the following criteria

1. delusions of grandeur

2. preference for a world in which the fantasy of their dominance supersedes the realities of diversity in the real world
3. an overwhelming sense of persecution or victimization
4. frequent projection (ie accusing others of the acts in which the client is actually engaging)
5. manipulation of interpersonal relationships for one’s own gain while claiming otherwise
6. egocentrism often masked as selflessness or self-interested demonstrations of selflessness
7. characterized by sublimation in which one’s sense of superiority is masked by seemingly altruistic acts toward the targeted group(s)
8. subset of sublimation defined by hypocrisy in which the sense of superiority is masked by calling out others for same or similar behavior, especially if members of targeted group(s)
9. desire to belong to a group, see one’s self as, or otherwise engage in elitist or exclusionary practices
10. engages in emotionally or physically threatening behavior with those who challenge the client’s world view
11. tendency to blame addiction for incongruencies in one’s worldview or self-image (may or may not be accompanied by actual drug & alcohol dependence or abuse)
12. willful disregard for the truth when confronted

Okay, it’s still depends on a lens. But it’s one we’d like a lot better.