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There's a simple way to look at gender: Once upon a time, someone drew a line in the sands of culture and proclaimed with great self-importance, 'On this site, you are a man; on the other side, you are a woman.' It's time for the winds of change to blow that line away. Simple.
The stereotypical gender roles given by the society are female being feminine and male being masculine. The social expectations of male masculinity and female femininity are described by Mc Cubbin and Blum Dahl, former professors at the University of Minnesota, as "Men should be brave, strong, ambitious and aggressive, while keeping their feelings under control; Women should be gentle, nurturant, passive, dependent, and expressive of their feelings" (Mc Cubbin and Blum Dhal, 2005, 189).
The term femininity involves a social process in which a female sex is recognized with certain traits and characteristics. These traits are marked by the society the moment she is born hence, creating a sexual difference of being a woman. The construction of gender identity by our surroundings if further described by Bornstein as, "Then there's gender attribution, whereby we look at somebody and say, 'that's a man,' or 'that's a woman.' And this is important because the way we perceive another's gender affects the way we relate to that person." (1995, p. 26). A woman meant to be feminine and the degree of femininity she possesses is evaluated by the way she dresses up, the way she speaks, the way she walks, her body language and most importantly her beauty.
Paintings, fashion photographs, news photographs, pornographic images, magazines differ in the way they are utilized but, they all interconnect in the representation of femininity and the female sexuality. The photograph by a renowned photographer Horst P. Horst (See Appendix, Figure 1) will be analysed to discuss the feminist issue of measuring a females value through her appearance and the feminism, the feminist theories against it and also representing women as surreal objects.
Horst P. Horst was a German American photographer who is famous for his fashion and women photography. "The Mainbocher corset" is regarded as one of his iconic photographs created for Vogue in1939 (Koetzel, 2003). The image consists of a woman sitting on a bench seen from behind. She is wearing a back lacing corset and looking down through her right arm. The whole image encompasses a feel of a power less woman. However, when seen in different angle, it can give a different meaning altogether.
The corset, a piece of underwear, which has a long history connected to it had long been part of a female body. A female wore tight-laced corset in order to define her waist more blatantly. Fontanel depicted the transformation of a female body as a "great silky insect with outspread wings" (1997, p. 49). In addition to making the waist line more evident, corsets cause breasts to heave and make buttocks stand out creating a slender and seductive silhouette. Therefore, a female wears 'a gracious instrument of torture' so as to transform into a desired shape. Moreover, in the nineteenth century the tightly laced corsets were outrageous and lunatic and caused hindrance in the movement. Dubios in his book "An Examination of five plagues" regarded corset as one of the plagues as it causes terrible physical damage; deformation, breast sagging etc, when worn for longer duration (Fontanel, 1997). Likewise, it lends a female her femininity but, not a healthy one.
Feminists argue that 'the act of theorizing the body is especially pertinent to women' (Carson, 2001, p. 117). Moreover, the bodies of women are controlled by men and are idealized for male consumption. Beauvoir (1997) describes woman as the 'Other' and writes, "No biological, psychological or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature" (p. 295). In other words, the culture has created an idealized female body image and is represented in Horsts image.
On the contrary, the unravelled corset is recuperating the depiction of the female body from stereotyping. It is portraying women's; freedom from corset, freedom of movement and freedom from conventional gender role.
The image also surfaces the notion of surrealism. The word surreal is defined as "characterized by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtapositions". Surrealism was an artistic movement founded at the beginning of the 18th century. Andre Breton, the founder of the movement wrote a Surrealist Manifesto and described surrealism as, "based in the belief in the superior reality of certain previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dreams, in the disinterested play of thought" (Mikics, 2007, p. 292) . In other words, surrealism eradicates the borderline between real and unreal and conscious and unconscious. It is a new way of seeing the world. Hence, moving out of the ordinary and getting into the imaginary world. Surrealism: decontextualizing an everyday object and transposing it to an unusual or socially unacceptable place in order to highlight its status as sign.
Women have always been the primary subjects of criticism and display and so they are in surrealism. Horsts image focus on one of the most persistent notion of surrealism that is fetishization. The corset is a fetish object creating erotic and provocative image, thus, arousing sexual desire for the object being displayed. According to Freud, "... it is as though the last impression before the uncanny and traumatic one is retained as a fetish ... pieces of underclothing which are so often chosen as a fetish, crystallize a moment of undressing, the last moment in which women could still be regarded as phallic" (As cited in Wood, 2007, p.32). In other words, the corset accentuates female body parts and shapes her body into an hour glass figure. "The less natural her appearance, the more seductive she [...] looks" (Fontanel, p. 52). This brings up the idea of transforming women's bodies for men's pleasure. In addition, the image also seizes the moment where women is submissive and have no control over men's desires.
Feminists are against the objectification of the female body and representing it as fetishised object as seen in the image.
A more modern concept however, is that the corset allows a woman to express her sexual freedom. Women feel more sexy in a corset. It is no longer considered part of a Victorian era dress code, but simply as sexual leisure-wear. the female control over male desires, and the male's control over the female body.
Conclusion:othing is so lively, so lovely, as deathly pallor: Embracing the body, the corset frames a story to stir the emotions and set the imagination free.