Earlier today, a friend of mine posted a picture, which had been put up in the gym her daughter uses at school. The poster was made as part of the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign. It aims to improve numbers of girls and young women doing sports, which is a health issue. All sounds great, right? Only problem – and what made my friend’s daughter angry – is, here’s the picture:
Now, the reasoning behind the text isn’t completely absent. Surveys of teenage girls – apparently – claim that they rate worries about their appearance as a significant reason not to want to do sport. But the poster manages to shoot itself in the foot. Taken in isolation, it only reinforces the idea that appearance (and specifically, a very particular performance of femininity) is crucial. Yes, the nails may be temporarily hidden, but let’s never forget they’re perfectly buffed and painted. Until I see the wording of the survey in question, I’ll take its results with a pinch of salt anyway – ask any group if they’re worried about their appearance, and you’re liable to prime them to believe they should be. But what bothers me most about this poster is the way it doesn’t trust you – the viewer – to decode its messages without verbal text.
That may seem rather trivial. It isn’t.
The image purports to draw its drama from the tension between what we see (the boxing gloves) and what’s hidden (the manicure). But the messages the manicure would send are right there in plain sight. The girl in the picture looks to be wearing heavy mascara and earrings already. She is already visibly performing the kind of femininity that is commercialised and dependent on modifying your appearance. The poster doesn’t just send the message that you need to be pretty while doing sport. It also conveys its own anxiety about the need to control the way women will view this image and its text. Oh, damn, they might not understand the girl is pretty without her pretty nails on show! Better make sure she’s blinking off the mascara too. The makers of the image don’t really have the confidence in their (young, female) audience to understand the caption and the juxtaposition of the visible and the hidden that it requires in order to function. The undermining effect is doubled: we get the message that we’re supposed to think being pretty matters, and we get the message, too, that the people who made this image don’t really think women are capable of decoding anything terribly visually complex.
It’s deeply depressing that a campaign that sets out to be feminist – or at least, woman-friendly – ends up reiterating the same old messages. But it’s also telling that even this message is tangled up with assumptions about the way women relate – or fail to relate – to the messages in visual culture.
For some years now, I’ve been hearing MRAs claim that objectification has now (against all evidence) become an entirely male-gendered problem. Women, so the story goes, have begun to act as sexual aggressors. The conspicuously dull Cosmo centre-fold has single-handedly done more harm to men than centuries of misogyny did to women. Poor, timid Daves and Steves must now contend with in the oestrogen-heavy atmospheres of the woman-dominated nail salon, mothers’ meeting or rape crisis centre, wincing each time a loud, drunk woman called Sonia hoiks up her skinnies over her bum crack and pinches his nipples suggestively. You get the picture.
It’s not a new idea. Back in the thirteenth century, Robert of Blois writes sternly that women should police their excessively visual desires:
“She should not gaze at a man, as the sparrowhawk gazes at the lark.”
This is exactly how I picture a predatory woman: taloned, feathered, and slightly inclined to shit on her perch if the going gets tough.
Medieval literature, theology and scientific writing is full of claims about women’s intensely visual orientation, their affinity – both as a result of nature and as a result of (lack of) education – for pictures and images. Some writers claimed that medieval women were innately more fixated on sex than men, and more easily sexually stimulated – perhaps especially by physical and visual material – than men; others stressed the predatory nature of women’s visual activities.
Women’s responses to visual culture were, as a result, heavily policed. Their sight itself was held to have profoundly powerful, sexual, and dangerous power. The Franciscan Peter of Limoges offers a delightfully piece of pseudo-science:
“It seems probable that some kind of poisonous rays are given off when a woman looks at a man lustfully, for then a libidinous vapour arises from the heart of a woman up to her eyes. From then on, the vapour infects her visual rays … whence the infection enters the heart of the man.”
These writers’ monitory attention to women’s visual energies are, plainly, an excuse for policing women’s actions, thoughts and identities more generally. Relating sight to a whole network of stereotypes of women as more earthy, physical and embodied, these writers represent women’s visual attention as a source of danger, a source of excessive sexual desire.
It’s a delightful irony that, in modern-day culture, women’s relationship to visual imagery is policed in precisely the opposite direction – rather discrediting the pseudo-scientific language of both medieval and modern commentators. Contemporary pop culture pieces on sexuality insistently claim that women are “just not very visual,” “less visually stimulated,” “less image-focussed”. Even when one slightly suspects what may be meant is “not interested in the kinds of images you, scientific reviewer, imagine might be sexy,” the claim gains tenure through endless repetition.
An example from pop culture – or rather, the responses to this example that I saw – illustrates the way this claim functions to push women into accepting themselves as the non-default viewer, the viewer who cannot be expected to respond properly to visual material.
A friend linked to one of those repeatable quizzes that claim to identify something improbably complex about your psyche, your cognitive processing or your life history: in this case, your sexuality. This particular quiz was based on those images that trick your eyes, the ones we’ve all played with at school. Instead of the standard eye-trick images of an elderly woman and a young girl, or a vase that’s also two faces, what you saw was more along these lines:
The title of the article from which this came was “Can this quiz really tell your sexual orientation based just on images,” and the answer, I think we can safely say, is no. But you don’t really need to know the accuracy of the quiz in order to recognise – as you begin to click through it – how it is supposed to work. You, the viewer, should respond by seeing naked women everywhere, even in the most mundane images of voluptuous mountain ranges, suggestively curvaceous architecture and vaguely pubic trees. Should you achieve this mighty feat, you’ll discover you are, in fact, attracted to women. Or as the quiz result puts it, ‘straight’.
Of course, the quiz doesn’t need to work to hold our attention (and we probably know, not very deep down, that there’s no reason it should work). We are supposed to recognise, as we click through this quiz, the message that sexual attraction to women’s bodies is a powerful visual force that literally determines the way in which viewers see and interpret the world. We’re not supposed to notice – or respond to, or find our reactions are shaped by – the objectifying dynamic here through which women’s bodies are quite literally represented as part of the landscape, the architecture, the vegetation. But that’s part of the message too. It’s a message that reinforces the idea that women cannot be trusted to act as the default viewer, the viewer who needs no guidance to arrive at his interpretation, the viewer who is not hampered by nagging doubts about objectification.
The images I’m looking at – the poster campaign, the pop quiz – are a problem not just because they objectify. They’re a problem because they come with an ingrained narrative about women’s visual processing that teaches us to distrust what we see, that teaches us that we are not reading images the way the viewer should read them, that teaches us we cannot be trusted to make the ‘correct’ interpretation.