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Ways of Seeing

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.

Tagged: change · images · interpretation · john berger · sexism · society · text · ways of seeing
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