Mitt Romney had binders full of women, #Hashtags has “The Art of Being Female.” Originally published March 13, 2012. Please send queries and/or ideas for future columns to email@example.com. #Hashtags provides a platform for longer reconsiderations of artworks and art practices outside of the review format and in new contexts.
If you’re young and female, I hope you’re introduced to a positive mentor early enough to build a strong sense of self-worth, because in 2012, American society still refuses to make it easy for you to maintain one. Looking at the last few months, women’s rights seem to be in retrograde, with the obvious example being the tone of the Republican campaign. But if you need more proof: so far this decade we have seen Hillary Clinton and a female aide photoshopped out of situation room documentation of the moment Osama Bin Laden’s death was announced, Fox News’ Greta van Susteren’s decision to ask Sarah Palin on-air whether she’d gotten breast implants, and an attack ad against Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Hahn comparing – even conflating – Hahn with a pole dancer.
And then last week there was that little Rush Limbaugh thing. You know, where he repeatedly attacked, on air, a woman that he first identified as “Susan Fluke.” Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student, had argued in front of Congress that private health insurers such as her own should be required to make birth control available at affordable rates. Fluke collected the stories of friends and fellow students, ultimately testifying that women rely on birth control not just for contraception, but in their treatment of other health issues, like ovarian cysts. For her trouble, Limbaugh called Fluke a slut and a prostitute, demanded that she put her sex videos online, and even suggested that by forcing insurers to provide this option, the taxpayer would take on the role of pimp.
Unfortunately for Limbaugh, Fluke turned out to be nothing like his stereotypes – he had her pegged as a ditzy undergraduate, not the articulate and thoughtful speaker that she is. Fluke met Limbaugh’s comments with a press tour of her own, putting her remarks (and his) into context and reshaping the narrative that Limbaugh had twisted, so much so that Limbaugh eventually offered a limp apology.
Despite this apology and reports of sponsors fleeing Limbaugh’s franchise, however, when it comes to talking about women and sex, the reality is that American society remains in a rut – a rut reflected not just by Limbaugh but men like Foster Friess, or even Bill Maher, whose “whoops, there’s a dick in me” segment about Bristol Palin might just be the most hateful of the three. And most women aren’t helping – take Sarah Palin’s goofy-grin-cum-struggle-to-maintain-composure after Greta dropped her implant bomb. Why not have a conversation right then and there about the inappropriate nature of the question, instead of replying, “Greta, we love you for not being afraid of asking the question,” which is the course that Palin chose. More extreme would be Whitney Houston’s flabbergasted, speechless, but round-mouthed response to Serge Gainsbourg’s explicitly statement that he wanted to f@#% her on a French morning show.
What is disheartening is that we – women, feminists, whatever we call ourselves – have already fought this fight. To take our cue from art history, we spent centuries moving beyond being the coy and quiet female Venuses of Titian and Giorgione, and now we’re back in 1865, the year Édouard Manet showed one of the most controversial paintings of the 19th-century: Olympia.
Based on Titian’s Venus of Urbino, itself thought to be based on the Sleeping Venus of Giorgione, the painting shows a nude woman, reclining yet still upright, her left leg crossed over her right, the palm of her left hand placed firmly across her genitalia so her fingers rest against her right upper thigh. She looks toward the viewer of the painting, perhaps a little downward, but only a little. Her backless, heeled slippers are sumptuous, and her gold bracelet weighty. Around her neck is a dainty black ribbon, tied in a bow, the line of which is echoed by the heavily-shadowed outer contour of the left side of her body, the darkness of which is picked up again by the skin tones of a maid (who brings a suitor or client’s flowers) and a black cat, both of which fade into the shadows of the rooms behind them.
Titian had also shocked his audiences with his painting, which, although it did tell the story of a goddess, did so in uncharacteristically sensual terms for the period. This Venus also met her viewer’s gaze head on, rather than playing at ignorance and coyness – perhaps this is what attracted Manet in the first place. Olympia shocked not for its nudity, but for its crudeness: Manet had painted a courtesan or prostitute, and not a goddess; he stepped away from finished allegories rendered in exquisite detail and allowed three nameless figures the center stage; he dared to give his Olympia a look and posture that did not invite, one in which she guards her sex instead of ambiguously fondling it for a voyeur; and, lastly, Manet had left his own hand visible, with brush strokes that (in places) fell apart under the lightest of scrutiny.
Recognizing the irony of what I’m about to say, there is a piece of Olympia, Manet’s courtesan, in Sandra Fluke. Both figures emit strength and the determination to meet detractors head on, as well as a refusal to let those detractors drive the narrative. But there is something missing, in art and in our cultural discourse on being woman and the balance of sexual power between men and women. I believe we saw it last in the 60s and the 70s with women like Angela Davis, as well as artists like Lynn Hershman Leeson and Lynda Benglis. Whatever it is, I hope we find it again fast.