Multifarious is back in the New Year, and for this one, we decided to go with a theme: art and the female body.
Ginnis: The Perfect Vagina is a 2008 British documentary that explores why some women decided to undergo vaginaplasty. In it, vaginaplasty, or labiaplasty more specifically in this case, involves the cutting of a woman’s labia to make them more “aesthetically pleasing.” Now, of course, you may wonder what in the world that means, but just think traditional porno vulvas, hairless, smooth, “delicate.” The documentary features artist Jamie McCartney who makes plasters of women’s vulvas. His piece “The Great Wall of Vagina” is designed to change female body image by displaying numerous plasters of different vulvas. These plasters come from a range of women, cis to transgendered, mothers and non-mothers, etc. By focusing solely on the vulva, what is usually deemed sexual becomes nonsexual and a point of identification for viewers — “hey, my vag kind looks like that one…and that one!” It challenges our ideas what vulvas are “supposed” to look like and opens us up to difference. In short, ain’t nuthin wrong with your vulva.
Kate: Heroic Body Types is a short comic by Jessica Garvey (@JessicaGrrrace), an indie comics maker, that I’ve found particularly relevant after reviewing the 7-minute Superhero Workout app by Six to Start. In a series of tweets that culminates with her linking to the art, Garvey describes her work as a reaction to a troubling problem within superhero culture:
I included the comment in that screencap because, sadly, @brentlemen misses the point, and so Garvey goes on to explain the fallacious reasoning behind this false equivalency:
What I like about Garvey’s artwork is that she is able to articulate in two panels the visual disparity for female characters when it comes to body type when juxtaposed with character type. Of course, there are and have been female superheroes whose body type is not the one illustrated above — but never one with the same status as the women depicted above. And, of course, as soon as a superhero female gets a boyfriend, she’s no longer allowed to be fat. The work is situated in the context of a culture that still has difficulty wrapping their heads around — or at least representing visually — that women have a variety of body types.
Kelly: Man Ray’s Ingres’ Violin. Critical? Maybe. But still sexist? Oh, yes.
The photo is a riff on Ingres’ “odalisque” paintings (white ladies with budget turbans, basically). Man Ray just took it one step further by portraying a woman’s body as a musical instrument — that is, as an artistic object instead of the subject of or inspiration for art.
In my more charitable moments, I wonder whether he was critiquing Ingres’ portrayal of women, implying that it objectified rather than celebrated them. But for the most part I see it as a step backward that disguises itself as a step forward. The Orientalism of the odalisque paintings didn’t do anyone any favors, but at least the women in them got to be portrayed as people — albeit exposed, agency-less people. Man Ray’s lady-violin, however, portrays the female body as a valuable but transient tool through which men create immortal art.
This seems to be the choice presented to us by a lot of mainstream visual art, whether on gallery walls, in comics, or anywhere else. We can be rendered sexually submissive in a supremely outdated way, or we can be wholly objectified in the name of progress.
I want to end this on a hopeful note. I really do. But considering that the Manara Spider-Woman cover was published just last year, that somebody distributed this party invitation less than five years ago, and that a huge national magazine decided this cover was a good idea, I don’t know if I can.