I was unsurprisingly and unfortunately accurate in my assumptions and assessment about the who, what, and how regarding this auction and its unpleasantly alienating advertisement.
We all know the endless battle of trying to maintain a clean and tidy inbox–the constant digital influx of opportunities, notifications, spam, work, and various other textually-based content that we are barely able to keep up with. I don’t know about you, but one of the ways I stem the flow is by keeping a firm grip on unsubscribing from irrelevant subscriptions. Needless to say, I found myself doing a double take–wondering what kind of sexist, objectifying garbage spam email listing I’d accidentally been added to when I scrolled through an email in my inbox containing what you’ll see in the lead image.
The Email That Motivated This Post
I couldn’t believe what I was taking in – what appeared to me as trashy, nearly pornographic, stereotypical sexualization of women actually seemed to be ad space sold on the photograph email listing to promote a photographically based online auction. I felt compelled to take a deeper dive and investigate further, though I already felt certain about what I was about to find. The opening image said it all:
An unidentifiable female body, her face cut off because it’s not about her being a person or her being human; it’s about the sexualization of her anatomy. Her breast’s nipple barely cropped out of the landing page header, in combination with the title of this disgusting exhibition is evident: the undeniable and inarguable sexualization of the female body. The “Girls! Girls! Girls!” title clearly is designed as reminiscent of glowing, luminescent signs flickering haphazardly while advertising the desires to be found within the strip club or sex shop open late on a Saturday night. The stripper vibe is very much alive, and for that to be the strongly felt sentiment of the curation, the creator of this listing is none other than (GASP) surprise, surprise… a man.
This is all about a man building a profitable platform on the objectification of women. I don’t want to waste the time or energy writing why that’s a problem when it’s been so well documented, so feel free to review the relevant info listed here, and here, and here. In my opinion, it’s also a man so oblivious to his own misogynistic behavior that he thinks this is done in the guise of highlighting “the female form as a force of nature with an array of seductive photographs,” which, most folks (and definitely most with a vagina) would tell you is inherently not the way to empower women. This Forbes article can better explain why the sexualization of women in media undermines women’s power in our greater society and the world. I wish this is where the tone-deaf nature of this online exhibition continued, but alas, I was only just beginning to uncover layer after layer of this infuriatingly-typical-white-male-obliviousness* onion.
“Her breast’s nipple barely cropped out of the landing page header, in combination with the title of this disgusting exhibition is evident: the undeniable and inarguable sexualization of the female body.”
Trying to Provide the Benefit of the Doubt, and Seeing Otherwise
I went on to look if perhaps I was just being short-sighted, making unfair assumptions without taking a proper look at the curation – I was swiftly and deeply disappointed. Just take a look at that reference of artists they chose to highlight: “Revel in the unapologetic nude in all its glory with works by some of the photographic greats including Norman Parkinson, Bob Carlos Clarke, Patrick Lichfield, Douglas Kirkland, and Marco Glaviano alongside rising stars Mariano Vivanco and Sacha Goldberger.”
“In my opinion, it’s also a man so oblivious to his own misogynistic behavior that he thinks this is done in the guise of highlighting “the female form as a force of nature with an array of seductive photographs,”
“Okay,” I thought, “perhaps they just happened to have the most notable artists in the curation be men. Surely, they’ve got female photographers represented in an exhibition about, in its own words, “women take center stage in this auction, with a brazen and powerful air of sexual flair.” 16 artists – only one appears to identify as a woman (don’t get me started if I have to explain why this is an issue to you**), and the difference in approach to showing the power and force of nature of the female figure is immediately evident.
Neither of Marianna Rothen’s*** pieces in the auction depicts any actual nudity; one uses a book as a creative tool with which to hide; the other is an inferred nude through creative usage of shadow.
The difference is tactic, aesthetic, posture, mood. Quite literally, everything is striking. I would not have needed to research the artists or look at the thumbnails of this curation to pick out the sole female artist’s work, it’s loudly announced in every aspect if you know what to look for. Her breasts aren’t pushed up in leather or latex, her head hasn’t been cut off somewhere between the neck and the nose, she’s not sexualized in pose or posture, inferred nudity is quite sufficient (as compared to the sexy Victoria’s Secret poses and countless exposed breasts and vaginas from all the male artists), she may not be immediately identifiable but she’s not faceless (and neither is the subject in the other piece included in the exhibition from this artist):
And, just in case you’re not quite seeing the discerning differences that I’m referencing, let’s take a look at some of the “empowering” imagery from the men.
Turning a woman into a literal table, stripping her down to nothing but high heels and a thong, no face is shown; you couldn’t do much more to dehumanize this woman further. I’m a bit lost, where’s the “female form as a force of nature” again? This is nothing but diminishing, you’ve taken away every element of her humanity, her dignity, and turned her into a piece of goddamned furniture. Please explain to me how that is empowering.
“I found myself doing a double take–wondering what kind of sexist, objectifying garbage spam email listing I’d accidentally been added to when I scrolled through an email in my inbox containing what you’ll see in the lead image.”
Or how about this gem? Another faceless, down-on-all-fours specimen, sexualized in all the stereotypic ways that make it basically pornographic. It screams all the elements of submission and domination with her corset and absence of underwear, while he’s still fully dressed. Clutching her from behind, the roughness evident by his fingers gripping in. I mean, clearly, it screams female empowerment, because what’s more “brazen and powerful” than showing literal domination of a woman by a man? eye roll
And let’s not forget this fantastically sexual Kate Moss ‘portrait’ (even though her face is the furthest thing from the camera). Lingerie, sexy pose, the heels (the staple of the sexy female), the tantalizing thigh highs and spread legs, leaning back on a table, inviting you with sultry eyes?
These photographs aren’t about the woman as a sexual force of nature, but rather an object of sexual desire, as seen through the lens of men, over and over again. Sexualized, objectified, dehumanized – rinse, wash, repeat, with just about every single male artist on the roster chipping in. From the repetitive pattern of kitten heels with thigh highs and naked women wrapped in bed sheets, to exposed, naked bodies with missing faces/cut off heads, and bodies completely turned into inanimate objects, the inherently sexual thread weaving through all of this patriarchal pieces is easy to follow and quite evident.
“These photographs aren’t about the woman as a sexual force of nature, but rather an object of sexual desire, as seen through the lens of men, over and over again.”
A Plea for Female Participation
Is inherently celebrating the sexuality of the female form problematic? No, certainly not. However, when women are nearly or completely absent from conversations of this nature, most likely you’re not being as progressive or empowering as you think. You’re certainly not taking into account the female perspective of female sexuality, which is inarguably the most critical component to the whole thing. Why men think they are in the position to speak on the “female form as a force of nature” when at best most men have gotten the most superficial taste of what it’s like to be in the body of a woman (and even then, it’s still from the outside looking in), no man can speak to the experience of what happens below the surface of her skin. And yet, for some reason, most men (and clearly too many male photographers) equate having permission to touch with inherent insight to the deepest corners of the feminine sex drive or female mind. Here’s a pro tip: if you want to create an exhibition about “female form as a force of nature with an array of seductive photographs. Women take center stage in this auction, with a brazen and powerful air of sexual flair,” step one is ask yourself if what you’re trying to promote is really helping, neutral, or hurting by reinforcing more of the same in problematic ways (this would be a textbook case of the last option). If you find yourself saying either of the latter two, perhaps re-evaluate what you’re trying to say, why, and if it’s actually a worthwhile contribution to the conversation. Step two is invite women to participate – have a female curator. Have more female artists than male artists. Have diversity among the women – LGBTQIA women, Jewish women, women of color, international female artists, Native American women (I could go on and on) – because reducing women to a one-note perspective when we are a global community made of different cultures and nationalities and ethnicities that blend and combine in a myriad of ways and our relationship to our sexuality is just as varied in nature.
Here are a few suggestions:
- Show the power of older women still proudly embracing their sexuality despite society spewing the sexist nonsense that they’re no longer alluring or desirable now that they’ve grayed and wrinkled a bit in the most natural of ways.
- Highlight the beautiful strength in disabled women who still love and show off their bodies and don’t allow their personal hindrances to hold back their sexuality.
- Promote the power and positivity of women who have had mastectomies in the pursuit to prevent cancer from claiming their lives after already claiming the most basic identifiable feature of their sexuality (her breasts, ya knobs, if you still don’t catch my drift).
Showing women’s “brazen and powerful air of sexual flair” doesn’t mean she herself must be inherently sexual, and most men seem to conflate the two. It means how she embraces her own sexuality, and that can exist independently of exhibiting herself sexually. So, naturally, a man would fail to recognize the relationship of a woman with herself, as men most frequently are sexualizing women in just about every capacity.
And I’ll predict, as is usually the case in all stories sexist, should the curator or male artists read this criticism and reflection of their objectification of women, it most likely won’t be met with dawning realizations and apologetic acts. Chances are I’m about to find myself on the receiving end of angry words from one of these guys mansplaining to me how they’re honoring and elevating the female form.
“…invite women to participate – have a female curator.”
*Before jumping to the male curator’s defense, look at the image he chose to use on his own website to represent himself – please take careful note of the images he has hanging on the wall behind him, as well as the shirt he deemed appropriate for a portrait session.
**If you’d like to learn more about this point then check out these articles from Psychology Today, Dsitractify, Feminist Like Me, Everyday Feminism, NMWA, Another from Feminisit Like Me, and Huff Post.
***We reached out to Marianna Rothen and as of yet have not received a response.