I like to think I’m in control of my own body. My days (like most people) are a compilation of choices and adornments that I inflict on my person. I choose my own clothes, decide how much to fill in my eyebrows, brush my teeth, and apply one of my many different drug store lip balms
I like to think I’m in control of my body, but even so, I can’t pretend I am not subjected to a never-ending onslaught of modifying eyes. I can feel the agency that I have in myself crumble when left to the judgement, and disregard, of my peers and society at large. I’m never really in control. So much of what I do feels very Elle Woods-esque (the protagonist of legally blonde), like how she switched her entire career trajectory and applied to Harvard Law just to win the approval of some hot, pompous asshole.
Of course, I am not alone in this feeling. Societal pressures and the male gaze affect all women, respectively. How do we cope? Where can we find solidarity? How do women gain any semblance of agency or personhood?
Many female artists of the 20th century can answer your prayers. Not only did so many of these women make great art, they did so while enduring a male-dominated space that perpetually delegitimized female art. Frida Kahlo is one of the most accessible and respected artists today, but during her lifetime, when she got her own press in a 1933 newspaper article, she was not given respect, nor agency, going as far to be referred to as the “Wife of the Master Mural Painter” (Diego Rivera) opposed to her own name.
Barbara Kruger, for example, a print and graphic design artist, is known for her political and social critiques. In her piece Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face (1981), a bust of a woman is shown, except her gaze is downcast. She appears docile and without strong emotion.
Barbara Kruger, Your Gaze Hits the Side of My Face, photograph and type on paperboard, 18 7/8 × 15 3/8 × 1 3/4 in, 1981
Not only does this allude to the Hellenistic interpretations of women done exclusively by men, the piece also comments on the ever-present male gaze and its effect. The use of “your” forces the viewer to see themselves complicit in the othering of women. Good on you for being confrontational, Barbara.
Marina Abramović, a Serbian performance artist, has done work that addresses the relationship between viewer and artist for decades. In one of her most notable performances, Rhythm 0, Abramović allowed the audience to use 72 objects on her body in any way that they would like. Some of these objects were relatively harmless, such as a feather or a rose, yet others had more capacity to do harm, such as a knife or a gun. She stood motionless for six hours.
Marina Abramović, Rhythm 0, still from recording of performance, 1974
The audience cut her clothes, stuck thorns into her abdomen, and at one point an audience member even pointed a gun to her head.
What is so powerful about this performance is the way it illuminates how lack of agency can affect someone, and how so many people are simply at the mercy of their environment. It makes the audience reflect on how dehumanization can breed hostility. Although Rhythm 0 makes a strong case for the lack of power humans have over their lives, there are many ways in which members of society attempt to reestablish control.
One commonly cited source of self empowerment is none other than the selfie. Is it vain? Empowering? Who cares? I really don’t know. What I do know is that photographer Lotte Jacobi produced one of the best selfies to date without the help of an iPhone. I know that sounds like a line straight from a political comic meant for chronophobic baby boomers, but Jacobi’s self-portrait speaks for itself.
Lotte Jacobi, Self-Portrait, photograph, 1929
At the time this photo was taken in 1929, the world of photography was extremely pathologized. Most photographs were taken for medical purposes in which the subject had no control over how they were presented and were more than likely dehumanized in the process. Lotte Jacobi’s self-portrait is so radical because she chose the time, place, and tone of the photo, and in doing so gave autonomy to herself. There is no influence of the male gaze, only her stare that seems to dissect my femininity with a painful accuracy. Ouch.
Although women have always needed to fight for respect, power, and agency, there are dozens of female artists that demonstrate talent and a capacity for success. Lynda Benglis, Georgia O’Keefe, Judy Chicago, Hannah Hoch and the list goes on. Through their art, there is an opportunity to learn the value of female autonomy.