Putting a “positive spin on objectification” and subverting stereotyped femininity is the aim of a new book, with the author’s research including attending readings of fairy tales by naked performers.
Jacki Willson, lecturer in cultural studies at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, saw Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette in 2006, became fascinated by its “anarchic femininity” and “got quite annoyed that it had been totally panned by the critics”. Two years later, she published a book called The Happy Stripper: Pleasures and Politics of the New Burlesque.
It was these two experiences, she said, that led her to embark on a further book devoted to the question: “Can you use femininity, as it’s been appropriated and stereotyped, subversively?” In Being Gorgeous: Feminism, Sexuality and the Pleasures of the Visual, Dr Willson aimed to develop “a politics that embraces the sensual spectacle of being gorgeous, but not without acknowledging the violence of imposing a restrictive ideal”.
She celebrates a range of “artists and artistes” who exemplify “women’s movement in visual culture from being sex objects to self-determined art objects”.
The book takes in Tracey Emin and Lady Gaga; recent burlesque performers who parody and exaggerate every aspect of traditional feminine glamour; sculptures by Karla Black that use “a distinctly ‘girly’ palette of eyeshadow, lip gloss, nail varnish and powder-pink pigment”; and even a performance piece by Israeli artist Sigalit Landau where a hula hoop made of barbed wire spins around a young woman’s waist.
In the course of her research, Dr Willson also went to see a show called “Naked Girls Reading Fairy Tales”, part of “the world’s most salacious and magical literary salon”.
Although Dr Willson hates the “pornification” of contemporary culture and omnipresent images of naked women, she does not accept the view (associated with feminist critics such as Laura Mulvey) that “‘the gaze’ and objectification are all negative. No, it’s not necessarily negative. I’m trying to put a positive spin on objectification. I’m saying that women can use it in a positive way…Stereotypes have to be challenged, critiqued and exploded in order for people to start thinking about them.”
Dr Willson asks in Being Gorgeous: “What happens if visual pleasure becomes a shared politicised narrative?”
She continues: “If we dispense with academic feminist assumptions regarding the ‘politics’ of the gaze and allow ourselves to be pulled into the whirligig of vibrant colour, lip gloss, carousel horses and false eyelashes, what happens then?”