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AbeBooks Member Since 1996
About this Item
Publisher: Random House, New York, NY
Publication Date: 1999
Dust Jacket Condition: NF
Edition: First Edition
About this title
The photographs by Annie Leibovitz in Women, taken especially for the book, encompass a broad spectrum of subjects: a rap artist, an astronaut, two Supreme Court justices, farmers, coal miners, movie stars, showgirls, rodeo riders, socialites, reporters, dancers, a maid, a general, a surgeon, the First Lady of the United States, the secretary of state, a senator, rock stars, prostitutes, teachers, singers, athletes, poets, writers, painters, musicians, theater directors, political activists, performance artists, and businesswomen. "Each of these pictures must stand on its own," Susan Sontag writes in the essay that accompanies the portraits. "But the ensemble says, So this what women are now -- as different, as varied, as heroic, as forlorn, as conventional, as unconventional as this."Estratto. © Riproduzione autorizzata. Diritti riservati.:
Undertake to do a book of photographs of people with nothing more in common than that they are women (and living in America at the end of the twentieth century), all-well, almost all-fully clothed, therefore not the other kind of all-women picture book ...
Start with no more than a commanding notion of the sheer interestingness of the subject, especially in view of the unprecedented changes in the consciousness of many women in these last decades, and a resolve to stay open to whim and opportunity ...
Sample, explore, revisit, choose, arrange, without claiming to have brought to the page a representative miscellany ...
Even so, a large number of pictures of what is, nominally, a single subject will inevitably be felt to be representative in some sense. How much more so with this subject, with this book, an anthology of destinies and disabilities and new possibilities; a book that invites the sympathetic responses we bring to the depiction of a minority (for that is what women are, by every criterion except the numerical), featuring many portraits of those who are a credit to their sex. Such a book has to feel instructive, even if it tells us what we think we already know about the overcoming of perennial impediments and prejudices and cultural handicaps, the conquest of new zones of achievement. Of course, such a book would be misleading if it did not touch on the bad news as well: the continuing authority of demeaning stereotypes, the continuing violence (domestic assault is the leading cause of injuries to American women). Any large-scale picturing of women belongs to the ongoing story of how women are presented, and how they are invited to think of themselves. A book of photographs of women must, whether it intends to or not, raise the question of women-there
is no equivalent "question of men." Men, unlike women, are not a work in progress.
Each of these pictures must stand on its own. But the ensemble says, So this is what women are now-as different, as varied, as heroic, as forlorn, as conventional, as unconventional as this. Nobody scrutinizing the book will fall to note the confirmation of stereotypes of what women are like and the challenge to those stereotypes. Whether well-known or obscure, each of the nearly one hundred and seventy women in this album will be looked at (especially by other women) as models: models of beauty, models of self-esteem, models of strength, models of transgressiveness, models of victimhood, models of false consciousness, models of successful aging.
No book of photographs of men would be interrogated in the same way.
But then a book of photographs of men would not be undertaken in the same spirit. How could there be any interest in asserting that a man can be a stockbroker or a farmer or an astronaut or a miner? A book of photographs of men with sundry occupations, men only (without any additional label), would probably be a book about the beauty of men, men as objects of lustful imaginings to women and to other men.
But when men are viewed as sex objects, that is not their primary identity. The traditions of regarding men as, at least potentially, the creators and curators of their own destinies and women as objects of male emotions and fantasies (lust, tenderness, fear, condescension, scorn, dependence), of regarding an individual man as an instance of humankind and an individual woman as an instance of . . . women, are still largely intact, deeply rooted in language narrative, group arrangements, and family customs. In no language does the pronoun "she" stand for human beings of both sexes. Women and men are differently weighted, physically and culturally, with different contours of selfhood, all presumptively favoring those born male.
I do this, I endure this, I want this ... because I am a woman. I do that, I endure that, I want that ... even though I'm a woman. Because of the man dated inferiority of women, their condition as a cultural minority, there continues to be a debate about what women are, can be, should want to be. Freud is famously supposed to have asked, "Lord, what do women want?" Imagine a world in which it seems normal to inquire, "Lord, what do men want?"...but who can imagine such a world?
No one thinks the Great Duality is symmetrical-even in America, noted since the nineteenth century by foreign travelers as a paradise for uppity women. Feminine and masculine are a tilted polarity. Equal rights for men has never inspired a march or a hunger strike. In no country are men legal minors, as women were until well into the twentieth century in many European countries, and are still in many Muslim countries, from Morocco to Afghanistan. No country gave women the right to vote before giving it to men. Nobody ever thought of men as the second sex.
And yet, and yet: there is something new in the world, starting with the revoking of age-old legal shackles regarding suffrage, divorce, property rights. It seems almost inconceivable now that the enfranchisement of women happened as recently as it did: that, for instance, women in France and Italy had to wait until 1945 and 1946 to be able to vote. There have been tremendous changes in women's consciousness, transforming the inner life of everyone: the sallying forth of women from women's worlds into the world at large, the arrival of women's ambitions. Ambition is what women have been schooled to stifle in themselves, and what is celebrated in a book of photographs that emphasizes the variety of women's lives today.
Such a book, however much it attends to women's activeness, is also about women's attractiveness.
Nobody looks through a book of pictures of women without noticing whether the women are attractive or not.
To be feminine, in one commonly felt definition, is to be attractive, or to do one's best to be attractive; to attract. (As being masculine is being strong.) While it is perfectly possible to defy this imperative, it is not possible for any woman to be unaware of it. As it is thought a weakness in a man to care a great deal about how he looks, it is a moral fault in a woman not to care "enough."
Women are judged by their appearance as men are not, and women are punished more than men are by the changes brought about by aging. Ideals of appearance such as, youthfulness and slimness are in large part now created and enforced by photographic images. And, of course, a primary interest in having photographs of well-known beauties to look at over the years is seeing just how well or badly they negotiate the shame of aging.
In advanced consumer societies, it is said, these "narcissistic" values are more and more the concern of men as well. But male primping never loosens the male lock on initiative taking. Indeed, glorying in one's appearance is an ancient warrior's pleasure, an expression of power, an instrument of dominance. Anxiety about personal attractiveness could never be thought defining of a man: a man can always be seen. Women are looked at.
We assume a world with a boundless appetite for images, in which people, women and men, are eager to surrender themselves to the camera. But it is worth recalling that there are parts of the world where being photographed is something off-limits to women. In a few countries, where men have been mobilized for a veritable war against women, women scarcely appear at all. The imperial rights of the camera-to gaze at, to record, to exhibit anyone, anything-are an exemplary feature of modern life, as is the emancipation of women. And just as the granting of more and more rights and choices to women s a measure o a societys embrace of modernity, so the revolt against modernity initiates a rush to rescind the meager gains toward participation in society on equal terms with men won by women, mostly urban, educated women, in previous decades. In many countries struggling with failed or discredited attempts to modernize, there are more and more covered women.
The traditional unity of a book of photographs of women is some ideal of female essence: women gaily displaying their sexual charms, women veiling themselves behind a look of soulfulness or primness.
Portraits of women featured their beauty; portraits of men their "character." Beauty (the province of women) was smooth; character (the province of men) was rugged. Feminine was yielding, placid, or plaintive; masculine was forceful, piercing. Men didn't look wistful. Women, ideally, didn't look forceful.
When in the early 1860s a well-connected, exuberant, middle-aged Englishwoman named Julia Margaret Cameron took up the camera as a vocation, she usually photographed men differently than she photographed women. The men, who included some of the most eminent poets, sages, and scientists of the Victorian era, were posed for their portraits. The women-somebody's wife, daughter, sister, niece-served mostly as models for "fancy sub)ects" (Cameron's label). Women were used to personify ideals of womanliness drawn from literature or mythology: the vulnerability and pathos of Ophelia; the tenderness of the Madonna with her Child. Almost all the sitters were relatives and friends reclothed, incarnated several exalted or her parlormaid, who, suitably icons of femininity. Only Julia Jackson, Cameron's niece (and the future mother of the future Virginia Woolf), was, in homage to her exceptional beauty, never posed as anyone but herself.
What qualified the women as sitters was precisely their beauty, as fame and achievement qualified the men. The beauty of women made them ideal subjects. (Notably, there was no role for picturesque or exotic beauty, so that when Cameron and her husband moved to Ceylon, she virtually stopped taking pictures.) Indeed, Cameron defined photography as a quest for the beautiful. And quest it was: "Why does not Mrs. Smith come to be photographed?" she wrote to a friend about a lady in London whom she had never met. "I hear she is Beautiful. Bid her come, and she shall be made Immortal."
Imagine a book of pictures of women in which none of the women could be identified as beautiful. Wouldn't we feel that the photographer had made some kind of mistake? Was being mean-spirited? Misogynistic? Was depriving us of something that we had a right to see? No one would say the same thing of a book of portraits of men.
There were always several kinds of beauty: imperious beauty, voluptuous beauty, beauty signifying the character traits that fitted a woman for the confines of genteel domes ticity-do cill ty, pliancy, serenity. Beauty was not just loveliness of feature and expression, an aesthetic ideal. It also spoke to the eye about the virtues deemed essential in women.
For a woman to be intelligent was not essential, not even particularly appropriate. It was in fact considered disabling, and likely to be inscribed in her appearance. Such is the fate of a principal character in The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins's robustly, enthrallingly clever bestseller, which appeared in 1860, just before Cameron started making her portraits. Here is how this woman is introduced, early in the novel, in the voice of its young hero:
... I looked from the table to the window farthest from me, and saw a lady standing at it, with her back turned towards me. The instant my eyes rested on her, I was struck by the rare beauty of her form, and by the unaffected grace of her attitude. Her figure was tall, yet not too tall; comely and well-developed, yet not fat; her head set on her shoulders with an easy, pliant firmness; her waist, perfection in the eyes of a man, for it occupied its natural place, it filled out its natural circle, it was visibly and delightfully undeformed by stays. She had not heard my entrance into the room; and I allowed myself the luxury of admiring her for a few moments, before I moved one of the chairs near me, as the least embarrassing means of attracting her attention. She turned towards me immediately. The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window-and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps-and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer-and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!
Reveling in the presumptions and delights of the appraising male gaze, the narrator has noted that, seen from behind and in long shot, the lady satisfies all the criteria of female desirability. Hence his acute surprise, when she turns and comes toward him, at her "ugly" face (it is not allowed to be just plain or homely), which, he explains, is a kind of paradox:
Never was the old conventional maxim, that Nature cannot err, more flatly contradicted-never was the fair promise of a lovely figure more strangely and startlingly belied by the face and head that crowned it. The lady's complexion was almost swarthy, and the dark down on her upper lip was almost a moustache. She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead. Her expression-b right, frank, and intelligent-appeared, while she was silent, to be altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomest woman alive is beauty incomplete.
Marian Halcombe will turn out to be the most admirable character in Collins's novel, awarded every virtue except the capacity to inspire desire. Moved only by generous, noble sentiments, she has a near angelic, that is, archetypally femmine, temperament-except for the troubling matter of her uncommon intelligence, her frankness, her want of "pliability." Marian Halcombe's body, so ideally feminine that it is judged ripe for appropriation by a (presumably male) artist, conveys "modest graces of action." Her head, her face, signifies something more concentrated, exacting-unfeminine. The body gives one message, the face another. And face trumps body-as intelligence, to the detriment of female sexual attractiveness, trumps beauty. The narrator concludes:
To see such a face as this set on shoulders that a sculptor would have longed to model-to be charmed by the modest graces of action through which the symmetrical limbs betrayed their beauty when they moved, and then to be almost repelled by the masculine form and masculine look of the features in which the perfectly shaped figure ended-was to feel a sensation oddly akin to the helpless discomfort familiar to us all in sleep, when we recognise yet cannot reconcile the anomalies and contradictions of a dream.
Collins's male narrator is touching a gender faultline, which typically arouses anxieties and feelings of discomfort. The contradiction in the order of sexual stereotypes may seem dreamlike to a well-adjusted inhabitant of an era in which action, enterprise, artistic creativity, and intellectual innovation are understood to be masculine, fraternal orders. For a long time the beauty of a woman seemed incompatible, or at least oddly matched, with intelligence and assertiveness. (A far greater novelist, Henry James, in the preface to The Portrait of a Lady, speaks of the challenge of filling the "frail vessel" of a female protagonist with all the richness of an independent consciousness.) To be sure, no novelist today would find it implausible to award good looks to a woman who is cerebral and self-assertive. But in real life it's still common to begrudge a woman who has both beauty and intellectual brilliance-one would never say there was something odd or intimidating or "unfair" about a man who was so fortunate-as if beauty, the ultimate en...
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