Talk girly to me: Language, images, and the paradox of feminism
Toward the end of the film “Notting Hill,” Anna Scott (played by Julia Roberts) gets into an argument with William Thacker (played by Hugh Grant) about paparazzi photos taken of them in their underwear. William tries to calm her down by telling her that it’s no big deal, but she hits back by saying, “Every time anyone writes anything about me, they’ll dig up these photos … I’ll regret this forever.”
Therein lies the power of images. Looking at the word’s etymology, “image” shares one of its origins, the Latin imitari (“to copy, portray”), with “imitate,” which associates the word to the act of duplication and the making of a likeness. The innate reproducible characteristic of an image gives it an almost immortal quality — an image never dies; it just gets reproduced exponentially through generations.
Aside from this immortality, another important characteristic of an image is its ability to seem real. In Greek mythology, Narcissus saw a reflection of his own face in the water and found himself so fascinated with his own image that he failed to remove himself from admiring it, eventually starving himself to death. Images, no matter how questionable, always appear to hold truth.
The power of an image belongs to those who make it, as well as those who view it. Because of societal power structures that have historically favored men, a large part of the accessible imagery in our recorded history skew towards their perspective. The “male gaze” is a term coined by Laura Mulvey, a feminist film critic, to refer to the depiction of women and the world in visual arts and literature through a masculine point of view. Even more traditional narratives have always portrayed women in relation to men, suggesting that the woman exists as a subordinate due to her lack of phallus and inability to transcend it. Her “lack” becomes a vessel upon which man projects his fantasies, wherein a woman bears meaning given to her, but also cannot make her own.
Hillary Clinton recently made history by being the first woman nominated for the U.S. presidency by the Democratic party — yet her narrative is never without mention of her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Kim Kardashian, whose social media acumen recently delivered a major blow to Taylor Swift’s career, still has the association of having her success attributed to two things: her sex tape with an ex-boyfriend and her current husband Kanye West. Taylor Swift, on the other hand, tried to steer into the skid in an attempt to flip the narrative by writing openly about her own relationships and heartbreak — something that countless male musicians like Ed Sheeran and John Mayer have been and are celebrated for doing — and despite receiving numerous awards for her music, she is often reduced to a “crazy” bitter ex, with any type of news about her accompanied by a running list of all her ex-boyfriends. Why do we repeatedly fail to talk about these women without relating their achievements — their mereexistence — to men?
When men (and women) complained about the “overreactions” to that magazine cover, what they failed to realize was that the very thing they were fighting so hard against was their own doing — as if saying, “How dare these women have all these opinions about what we should and shouldn’t be doing like we haven’t been treating them this way for the last 200,000 years!”
Despite this, women fight to change their representation in the images and roles perpetuated by media because these images portray what’s deemed as acceptable, what’s normal. Societal norms create images yet images also create the self-image of those subjected to them. It’s a vicious cycle that makes the fight for representation so difficult.
At the height of the issue about PULP magazine’s latest cover featuring the band Sud, a close male friend told me that he wasn’t sure that it deserved all the hate merited towards it because all of it has been done before. He has a point; it has been done before — but it’s probably why that cover was a big blow to many women and members of the LGBTQ community who thought that things were getting better. It’s 2016, the year Kylie Jenner dubbed “the year of realizing stuff.” It has been done before, which only supports the idea that it didn’t need to be done again.
When men (and women) complained about the “overreactions” to that magazine cover, what they failed to realize was that the very thing they were fighting so hard against was their own doing — as if saying, “How dare these women have all these opinions about what we should and shouldn’t be doing like we haven’t been treating them this way for the last 200,000 years!” Mulvey also writes about female spectatorship, saying that women either view things as passive spectators or with a point of view forced upon them by men. In the same way that I am writing this piece in English — in order to be understood by a wider audience — women are forced to speak and act in the language of men in order to be understood. Feminism in itself is a paradox, forcing women to fight against the very language it utilizes. It is not enough that women work hard to change cultural norms; the need to be seen as men’s equals needs to come with a language and the images to express it. The stories of the oppressed can only be told in the language of its oppressors for so long.
Originally published in: http://cnnphilippines.com/life/culture/2016/08/04/male-gaze-essay.html