Nudity, Women, Art, Media: Liberated or Oppressed?

I almost deeply regretted promising to write this post. Because what’s to love about an ever going discussion about women, beauty, their bodies, and their representation in culture. The dichotomies are still the same. Proponents of a liberation movement in which women should be empowered to celebrate their bodies argue that nudity and revealing representations are a sign of liberation, both sexual and personal. Proponents challenge the idea of empowerment and the notion that women that end up in nude and revealing representations in media have agency. It’s not liberation, the opponents argue, it’s women doing what they have to do to survive in patriarchal hierarchies long established in entertainment and other cultural and economic sectors. It’s women giving in to structures that have long objectified them, and required of them unachievable standards of beauty while driving some to eating disorders and others to perpetual dissatisfaction and low self esteem.

Actually, maybe I don’t regret promising to write this anymore. Ysttyle, Yakutti’s content platform, is about powerful self-representation — it is about the tools, the art, and the context that govern such self-representation — gender is a powerful context as far as self representation goes. So let’s get right into it.

So Irrevocably patriarchal?

“Dear Prof.,

My paper explores the representation of women in Lisa Yuskavage’s paintings. Critics have interpreted this representation differently, some accusing her of objectifying women and others applauding her efforts to give voice to women and their sexuality. My essay seeks to reconcile the two viewpoints by pointing out that a representation of female sexuality does not necessarily mean objectification, not especially in these paintings where spectating has been made uneasy and the implicit presence of the male viewer negated by the very fact that these women are decisively self-engrossed.”

I wrote this to my professor in my first writing class in college, a class rightly titled Art & the Nude, and the class that lay the foundation for my love of the social sciences. I had written on the female nudes in Degas, Rembrandt, and other earlier works, and encountered the argument of the male viewer gazing at the female nude for his own benefit. So what was the argument when a woman depicted female nudes? Was she too, unbeknownst to her, so irrevocably indoctrinated in a partriachally organized society that she failed to see her participation in stripping women of their voices, their eyes, and their general agency?

I have not resolved this question till today. Is Vivienne Westwood continuing structures of objectification and oppression of women when she poses for a nude painting? Are pop-culture artists that girls look up to advancing such oppression by doing revealing music videos and films? How much of their participation is out of choice? And how much of it is dictated by structures they have no control and/or comprehension of?

It’s a hard question. The problem with the choice argument,however, is that our societies are still indicative of women under pressure to dumb their talents down to the attractiveness of their bodies. Media outlets still bid for leaked naked images of celebrities; careers skyrocket for women that pose nude for the Playboy or that leak their own nude photographs; Instagram and Twitter have become battle grounds for women shaming other women for being too voluptuous, or too muscular or just not good enough; women of specified shapes and sizes still parade on national stages in bikinis and gowns because apparently that is what it takes for a woman to further her professional and personal goals; women still face adverse conditions when seeking equal representation in cultural industries, from difficulty negotiating equal pay to disproportionate access to representation on museum and gallery walls. The list is endless. The notion of choice is an illusion to so many women.

Seeking Solutions

Does a solution exist? I’m not sure. But I am optimistic. Artists like Yuskavage provoke more narratives on representation of female nudity in art. Artists like Nona Faustine not only challenge status quo, but they complicate it with dimensions such as race and black history. Women parliamentarians challenge the relationships between female nudity and sex appeal by controversially breastfeedingduring their floor hours. By posing for a nude painting at 68 and after a successful career in fashion, whatever your opinion, Vivienne Westwood provokes a conversation on age,beauty and choice. By exploring on mainstream television, nudity that challenges existent ideals of who can be nude and what his/her nudity should achieve, Lena Dunham further advances the conversation on women’s choices and perceptions of self.

Choice, almost complete choice (almost because it is hard to conclusively say that such a thing as complete choice exists) is the path we should be cultivating towards more liberated women, and non-oppressive representations of women in media. Whether through promoting initiatives that let enough women from diverse backgrounds take control of resources and opportunities so that it doesn’t take nudity to skyrocket a career, whether through advocating for a society that does not obsess over women’s nakedness and appearances over their other facets, whether through women individually evaluating factors that go into their decisions to be represented nude, and consciously resisting factors that undermine their choice.

photo credit: 2011–08–03 Galaxy International Pageantvia photopin(license)


Originally published at www.yakutti.com.

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