During my studies, I have been thinking about how woman and men are represented within their gender and in using dichotomies such as weak/strong. I have chosen to analyse an image in which the female character was purposely designed to be strong. I thought this would be interesting to then see if the male characters were portrayed as weak and, if so, how weak compared to the females?
In Representing Women by Linda Nochlin, she address’ the role of the myth of woman warrior in seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth century paintings. I have chosen an example which she also uses to convey how the woman warrior was represented; Eugene Delacroix’s 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People.
This painting from the time of the French revolution used females as a vehicle to convey political ideas . A mostly bare breasted patriarchal female leads on an angry group of Parisians, over partly naked, injured and dying aristocratic soldiers. She has a passionate youth beside her and a distressed female looking up to her. Her face is determined, slightly worried, still soft, yet largely unemotional for the face of a classical nineteenth century woman. She has the soft skin, naked breasts and a dress of a weak female. But her pose standing above, looking down onto and leading the civilian men give her the other part of the binary opposition, strength. This is an image of a woman representing a dominant role, she has taken on masculine traits, and she is out to concur and led, not settle differences and heal. Liberty was purposely designed to express masculine qualities; in this painting she represents half of the dichotomy strong, while the injured, subdued aristocratic men represent the weak; an opposite when considering the gender binary opposition of weak/strong.
Gill Saunders in Joseph Kestner’s Masculinities in Victorian Painting recognised that the ‘nude’ is synonymous with the ‘female nude’ because Nakedness connotes passivity, vulnerability; it is powerless and anonymous so in comparison to the binary opposition weak/strong, the nude is seen as weak. Bram Diljskani in The collapsing Woman and solidarity Vice in Idols of Perversity; Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle also recognises the weakness that the female nude portrays; passive feminine eroticism is shown in eighteenth century paintings. In this painting it is not only the bare-breasted Liberty who appears naked, the dying soldiers in the foreground are naked below the waist, exposing his skinny legs and hinting at his exposed penis. This vulnerability is shown as humiliation and weakness.
Here Nochlin raises an interesting point that many of the images of the female warrior became negative rather than positive; images became irrational, hysterical and emotional rather than emancipated and heroic. The logical, concise warrior mould was not built of a woman. Ideas of warriors contain masculine traits courage, determination and strength. Female qualities tend to be negative, at least in this context; emotional, malevolent and also weak. In the late eighteenth century to nineteenth century, the male warrior is a valiant solider, a gallant knight and a classical hero.
In terms of propaganda, the image of the weak, irrational female became used to describe the enemy in Revolutionary politics. Although I believe that Delacroix’s depiction of Liberty was to represent the spirit and the character of the Parisian people rather than glorifying or attempting to inflame a political event.
In 2001 a Drug Company, used this empowering painting in an advertising campaign for their breast cancer medication; Taxotere . The tri-colour flag which represented liberty and freedom was replaced with the colour pink which has become intrinsically linked with breast cancer, through awareness campaigns. The guns, muskets, the dead, naked and dying have been removed and so have half of the gendered binary oppositions, weak. This “Leading the fight against advanced breast cancer” advertisement now contains a strong, powerful female figure searching for help and a cure against breast cancer. Is it the modern view point or the seriousness of the cause that has removed the ‘weak’ from this image? It can be said that this illness makes the sufferer extremely weak, but in these times it is also when everyone comes together for strength. This advertisement has tried to express the same feelings of power, hope and strength that the original painting represented. This advertisement wants to give strength to the weak female suffers of breast cancer.
Even though the binary oppositions of masculine and feminine may become less defined due to changing attitudes and sexual equality in western society, there is still something taboo about men expressing feminine qualities and women showing masculine traits. This is even more apparent when fabric and feminine crafts involved.
In conclusion, we have seen how gendered binary oppositions are useful in breaking down and understanding meaning of sex and gender, as well as how masculinity and femininity are represented in popular culture. The dichotomy weak/strong has traditionally as well as stereotypical understandings with gender; many different things also make up how we see masculine and feminine, emotions, physical appearance, roles and actions. Gendered binary oppositions provide a framework to examine and reflect on these concepts.
Article by Scott Tim and Stanford, Neil “Killing me Softly- Myth in pharmaceutical advertising” http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=535992 (accessed October 6, 2007)
Dilijskani, Bram. “The Collapsing Woman and Solidarity Vice in Idols of Perversity; Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle.” In The Gender and Visual Culture Reading Brick. 2007.
Nochlin, Linda. Representing Woman. New York: Thames and Husdson Inc. , 1999.