I was recently re-reading John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” when I came across the following passage:
The painting [La Grande Odalisque] was sent as a present from the Grand Duke of Florence to the King of France. The boy kneeling on the cushion and kissing the woman is Cupid. She is Venus. But the way her body is arranged has nothing to do with their kissing. Her body is arranged in the way it is, to display it to the man looking at the picture. This picture is made to appeal to his sexuality. It has nothing to do with her sexuality. (Here and in the European tradition generally, the convention of not painting the hair on a woman’s body helps towards the same end. Hair is associated with sexual power, with passion. The woman’s sexual passion needs to be minimized so that the spectator may fee. That he has the monopoly of such passion.) Women are there to feed the appétit, not to have any of their own.
Compare the expression of these two women:
One the model for a famous painting by Ingres and the other a model for a photograph in a girlie magazine.
Is not the expression remarkably similar in each case? It is the expression of a woman responding with calculated charm to the man whom she imagines looking at her – although she doesn’t know him. She is offering up her femininity as the surveyed.
But when I looked at these images, I don’t see women that are “offering themselves” to the male gaze; I see strong and confident, perhaps even defiant women. I asked a few friends about what they thought about the two images, and again, they too described my own feelings.
Berger wrote at a time when female sexuality was a lot more controlled by the male gaze than it is today (even though we still have a long way to go), so when he juxtaposes the two pictures, he naturally sees meek women. I see quite the opposite.
Which leads to the larger question, does society influence how we read things? Or does what we see influence how we read? Are photo-shopped images of people’s bodies influencing our perception of beauty, or is it our perception of beauty that creates these images?
Berger has given me a lot to think about.