Women in the Picture: What Culture Does with Women’s Bodies by Catherine McCormack
Reading Catherine McCormack’s new book is an antidote to something I didn’t know had been happening to me. I have read writers that McCormack references such as Griselda Pollock, Hélène Cixous and Barbara Creed, and their ideas informed me deeply. Yet somehow, the insidious pervasiveness of the visual dialogue of misogyny continues to colour my life.
In Women in the Picture, McCormack analyses how women have been portrayed in art through a set of popular archetypes and myths: Venus, Mother, Maiden and Monster. The messages and implications of patriarchal cultural privilege and the male gaze, within a predominantly White European agenda of control and power, are adroitly addressed. The discussion is not a simple one: how, for example, do we change the way we look, and understand what we are looking at? The book addresses this topic in an engaging way. Acknowledging the difficulty in deconstructing the power of beloved famous paintings such as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, the discussion moves through the groundbreaking, messy art of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s and examines how contemporary artists like Beyoncé play with and turn the tropes on their heads.
Feminist art is often powerfully confronting in broaching and breaking social taboos but as McCormack points out, images of breastfeeding and menstrual blood are still routinely censored on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. McCormack also explores how the imagery of social media has become separated from an awareness of the representation of women in art history, especially in images of disempowerment and control. Observe how Julia Gillard, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and others have been vilified as witches, as if we had somehow started living in the 15th century again, and how misogynistic art images help to give those negative social media images credence. This is a great introduction to an ongoing dialogue.