compromising positions

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       In contemporary society, there are an abundance of images of women and men

that we, as citizens of the world, are confronted with on a daily basis. From the

advertisements posted on walls and billboards, to the magazines that can conveniently be

found gazing out from the racks in the checkout line at the grocery store, these

illustrations of life work to shape our conceptions of beauty, gender and sexuality, and

what we view as “normal”, whether we are aware of their doing so or not. It is through

these images that society allows itself to be manipulated, shaping the way that men view

and portray the opposite sex, therefore influencing the way that women see themselves

and expect or desire to be seen by others. Often we pride ourselves on the fact that more

and more people in society today are becoming aware of these limitations and

expectations that are put on the female sex. But a look at images of both genders helps to

give a greater understanding that, although the situation has improved, the goals and

mindsets of both men and women in society are not far from those that were in existence

centuries ago. All that a person needs to do to see this is to pay attention to the fashions,

media, and advertisements that abound in our culture.

       A common theme throughout the historical interactions between the two genders

is the desire for men to have control over women, and the world of fashion is prime

evidence for this. For many years it was a male-dominated industry, allowing for a few

men to have almost complete power over what women “chose” to wear, which of course

was influenced by what the designers debuted as their fashions for the year. As Susan

Faludi wrote in the chapter “Dressing the Dolls: The Fashion Backlash” from her book

Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, “It was not enough that

women buy more clothes; they had to buy the clothes that the couturiers told them to buy.

Designers wanted to be in charge of „dressing women,‟ as the Council of Fashion

Designers of America phrased it.” (Faludi 172). Using women like their own personal

Barbie dolls, designers could lead them to wear more feminine or masculine outfits. This

was evident in 1987 when Christian Lacroix attempted to popularize the “High

Femininity” fashion, which idealized the 19th century Victorian look, producing dresses

covered in “twenty pounds of crinoline and taffeta” (169). Women were becoming

increasingly independent and gaining more and more rights in both the workplace and

their personal lives, which resulted in these paranoid men attempting to put them back

into a place where they could still comfortably control them. In a quote from Faludi‟s

book taken from a Victorian male‟s testimonial, “If you want a girl to grow up gentle and

womanly in her ways and her feelings, lace her tight.” (173). Not only does this speak of

the attitudes of the fashion industry, but also the desires of every male out there, serving

as yet another excuse allowing them to justify the restrictions that they put on women.

       Alongside controlling them, men wanted to be able to sexualize females. Part of

the process of doing this involved creating the desire in women to wear items that they

were convinced made them feel sexy and confident, which were really just a ploy on the

part of men to have women wear these. An example of this is Victoria‟s Secret, begun by

a man as “a store to cater to his gender” (190). In a truly deceiving way, he was able to

convince the public that the store was run by a woman, who would show the American

women what she liked to wear. As Faludi says, quoting the creator of the store, Roy

Raymond, “[…]women bought this very romantic and sexy lingerie to feel good about

herself, and the effect it had on a man was secondary.” (191). Considering that this came

from a man who had no idea what it was like to wear any of these items that gave women

this so-called “freedom”, leads me to pose the question that must have been on many

women‟s minds when they were getting dressed: Who would willingly wear a garter belt

or a corset, without the male population urging them to?

       Fashion photography is another world that has often been used by men to

manipulate the societal image of women. As in the work of both Helmut Newton and

Guy Bourdin, women can be seen in awkward situations and positions that provide an

eroticism to male viewers that is evident in much of the rest of the fashion world as well.

As Rosemary Betterton wrote in her book Looking On: Images of Femininity in the

Visual Arts and Media, “Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton have applied the conventions

of the erotic photograph in order to „make strange‟ or challenge some of the

„stereotypical‟ notions of femininity and female sexuality which inform the dominant

conventions of fashion photography” (Betterton 62). These images often put females in

compromising positions, allowing men yet another way to have control over them.

Newton shows this through his image Self-Portrait with Wife and Model (done in 1981),

which not only shows the fragmented back of the model, but reveals more about the

scene through the reflection of the entire front of the woman in the mirror. The artist can

also be seen in this reflection, while his wife observes from the side. Examples of this

type of work can also be seen in the black and white images by Bourdin, showing women

in sexualized positions with parts of their faces hidden, helping to objectify them. Though

the use of light and shape give these figures an artistic beauty, the fact that they are

women being photographed by a male artist cannot be overlooked, partly due to the

exaggeration of their feminine characteristics, such as the thighs and hips in the image on

the left, and the breast in the one on the right. Another work by the same artist uses the

complimentary colors of red and green to cause the woman to stand out. Alluding to the

sexual and victimized nature of the position she is in, the look on the face of the model

which is reflected in the mirror she is looking into, serving as a reference to the vanity

and importance of beauty in her gender, shows her discontentment with being in such a


       Media is another way in which images of women and men are shown. Used as an

incredible tool to reach vast numbers of people, examples exist very effectively in the

form of magazines. It is here that the manipulations of the female sex and the

expectations that are made of her can be seen, whether in a product geared towards men

or women. Supposedly aimed at women, Cosmopolitan can be viewed as a way that men

have been able to control the way that women are portrayed in images and the media.

With article titles littering the cover, the majority of them have to do with relationships

with men or how to better please a man, and the ones that have more of a self-help

purpose are relegated to the bottom of the page in smaller print. It is headlines such as

“Be a Sex Genius!”, “Little Mouth Moves that Make Sex Hotter”, “The Silent Way He

Shows He‟s Whipped”, and “Weird Male Behavior Decoded” that show the obsession

that even the seemingly powerful and independent women of our world have with

pleasing and understanding men, especially in regards to sex.

       Magazines geared towards men still use most of their pages to show images that

promote the idea of women as sexual creatures who exist for male pleasure. They tend to

skip the emotional cover stories that the women aim for, and instead immediately grab

the attention of their readers with lines such as “What You Can Learn About Sex From

College Girls”. It must be said, though, that while the insides still boast image after image

of nude females, the cover pages do a better job than the comparable women‟s magazines

of attempting to acknowledge current affairs and the world around them, with articles

such as “Has the FBI Come Unglued?” and “Mind and Body: Why Some People Get

Sick and Others Don‟t”. So even in this society where women claim that they are more

independent and empowered than ever before, there is still an obvious reliance on the

acceptance and approval of the men who remain the dominant gender.

       It is true that many women are doing their best to combat this image, with a prime

example being Oprah. Having created an empire that is built around giving women

strength, confidence, and power, her magazine is a reflection of this. They focus more on

daily life of an average woman, instead of the idealized sexual being that men tend to

imagine. Her article titles on her cover are evidence of this, including such things as “9

Ways to Heal the World…by Shopping!”, “Two Foolish Habits of Otherwise Smart

People”, and “3 Simple Questions that Solve Every Dilemma”.

       The photographs taken by Robert Mapplethorpe that were commissioned by Lisa

Lyon after she became a world champion body-builder are also examples of the way that

media can be used. His entire series, entitled Lady: Lisa Lyon, done in 1983, shows her as

she wished to be portrayed in the peak physical condition of her life. The images can be

seen as both sexualized and beautiful, providing a great juxtaposition since the feat that

she had accomplished was such a masculine one. Many of the photographs show her in

unnatural positions, often working to abstract her so that the form of the figure is what is

most important, instead of the feminine details of the figure itself. Even though the series

was done by a male artist, it seems more reasonable to see a woman in these positions

since they were her idea and choosing.

       “The visual is particularly important in the definition of femininity, both because

of the significance attached to images in modern culture and because a woman‟s

character and status are frequently judged by her appearance.” (Betterton 7). This quote

by Betterton addresses the last issue to discuss, which is how images of women and men

are used in advertisements. According to her, women have typically been shown as either

“housewife or whore”, alluding to the fact that “women‟s place was really in the kitchen

or in bed” (20). These ads have led women to believe that beauty and sexuality are the

most important things. While this comes from a male perspective, with the goal of

making women into what men want them to be, nowadays more women are attempting to

use this same sort of thinking, but with a different goal. The idea is that if women feel

more beautiful, they will have more self-confidence, and therefore be able to make and

achieve more goals.

       One of the most obvious examples of this in contemporary advertising is in the

new ad campaign currently being used by Dove, the “Campaign for Real Beauty”.

According to the article “Dove‟s Campaign for Real Beauty” on the Media Awareness

Network website, it was begun as a result of statistics they found after polling women

that showed that “More than two-thirds (68%) of women strongly agree that „the media

and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women can‟t ever

achieve‟,” and “The majority (76%) wish female beauty was portrayed in the media as

being made up of more than just physical attractiveness.” Incidentally, the product that

they are trying to sell with this campaign is firming cream, something that is used by

women to feel more beautiful and better about themselves, insinuating that they need to

fix the problem of cellulite while simultaneously saying that they are beautiful the way

that they are. This aside, the idea of everyone being beautiful is one that has benefitted

the women of the world already, and the emotionally driven commercials lead women to

feel so empowered just by being who they naturally are that the point is still a good one

to make. This campaign by Dove is just the first of many that are sure to follow, which

place the emphasis on the female beauty within, and an acceptance of who they really


       While many aspects of life have changed for women over the centuries, there are

many things that remain the same. This includes the manipulation by men of the images

that fashion, the media, and advertisements produce, and therefore that women have of

themselves and expect others to have of them. Many improvements have been made, but

there is still a long way to go before this cycle will be completely broken.