Goddesses & Monsters: Femininity & Materiality

I loved todays session of constellation. I chose Cath Davies’ 5 week intense course Goddesses and Monsters and luckily got my first choice. I was drawn to this course firstly because I have thoroughly enjoyed every lecture I have received from Cath in my time at Cardiff Met so far, and her lectures are always incredibly thought-provoking, compelling and enjoyable. I was also drawn to this course after reading the module overview and hearing head of level 5 constellation Martyn Woodward discuss it briefly at the introductory lecture for constellation this year. Last year, I struggled with many of the concepts in my constellation modules and as quite a visual and literal thinker and doer it was quite difficult to wrap my head around some of the theories being presented, many of which seemed too far fetched and pointless for me. Goddesses and Monsters is right up my street. Todays discussions of femininity and materiality, female sexuality and sexualisation, corporeality and feminine ideals, sex and gender stereotypes vs reality sparked my interest for all five hours and I am already looking forward to next weeks lecture.

We began by looking at Pygmalion, a greek myth which deals with constructions of the feminine ideal and the idea that there is an ideal female. There are themes throughout of gender construction, embodiment and gender stereotypes; we looked at these things, how they are constructed and how they can be challenged. A big motif used is the idea of corporeality and the comparison of flesh and blood with the textures of the materials mentioned. Taken from Cath’s presentation: the myth offers insight into key tropes relating to gender configuration and discourses of materiality when creating representations in visual culture. 

Contradictions

The whole story of Pygmalion and his relationship with his sculpture as well as women in general is full of contradictions and stereotypes. For example, Pygmalion is repulsed by the defects nature had bestowed in such abundance upon the female character and so he creates his own ideal women without these defects. He does not agree with prostitution; women who have made their bodies and their reputations common property. He thinks of himself as above them for the pure fact that he does not use their services. However, Pygmalion then goes on to create a women who is supposed to be subservient and submissive in responding to all of his sexual desires. Let’s not forget, the first thing Pygmalion does when his sculpture it brought to life is have sex with her and make their child. When he is in a state of awe and hesitantly rejoices and fears he is deluded, the lover persistently tests out his heart’s desire. 

Materials, Functions and Meanings

There is an interesting use of various materials throughout the myth of Pygmalion, used to draw associations with certain kinds of people. Pygmalion describes the prostitutes as being a small step…to turn to unyielding granite. Granite is made a negative material here by being applied to a negative subject. The idea of granite has connotations of being coarse, unrefined, hard and disobedient. Cracks are visible and it is durable and hardwearing. This is a different material to that of Pygmalion’s ideal women sculpture, which is carved from snowy, white ivory – pure, clean, smooth, soft, highly priced and delicate without blemishes and resembling flesh. The ideas of pure and clean are related to virginity. The irony is that Pygmalion wants a virgin, but he also wants to have sex with her. This is another contradiction and an example of Pygmalion’s ridiculous demands that determine a women dirty and unclean if she is not a virgin, though she should have sex with a man if he wishes. We are able to perhaps understand the negativity towards the prostitutes; women who use their bodies as currency because they are intelligent enough to understand that there is a demand by men. This knowledge of their own sexuality makes women seem strong and intimidating, unattractive to men who are far more attracted to the innocent virgin figure. Beeswax is mentioned as a description associated with women. A material which changes state when heated and changes shape, there are ideas of women having to change themselves for men. At one point, Pygmalion calls his statue his wife and says he did not dare to say ‘the ivory maiden’ because ‘maiden’ suggests being single and unattached, and Pygmalion wants to assert authority and ownership over his creation.

Associations With Being a Woman

The myth of Pygmalion ultimately describes a woman who would not exist without the existence of men, suggesting the dependance of women on men. It is repeated expressed that women are expected to be submissive and passive, existing for the happiness of men. The idea of Pygmalion’s sculpture being carved from his vision of an ideal woman eludes to the idea that women should shape themselves to fit a man’s criteria and should become whatever they want them to be, therefore making a woman who makes her own decisions and is aware of her own personality and sexuality is unattractive and unwanted. Women who have had sex are believed to be dirty and used; a contradiction with the fact that men want a virgin to have sex with. The myth also offers insight into what it supposedly means to be a woman, which in this case involves the naked body being decorated. Pygmalion decorates his statue with clothes and jewellery so that he can take it off. Covering the female body gives the man something to remove, similar to unwrapping a present, it makes the female body more desirable. Women are there to be looked at and observed, like a statue, while men always do the looking. Females that are silent, passive and stasis are non-threatening and desirable.

We then went on to connect these theories and observations taken from the myth of Pygmalion to modern film and music culture. First we looked at the infamous still of Marilyn Monroe from ‘The Seven Year Itch’.

marilyn-monroe

Marilyn is dressed in white, being representative of purity and innocence. Her stance in the image is flirty and seductive whilst also being shy and coy, as she diverts her eyes away from the observer and attempts to push her dress down. Pygmalion wants a women who is sexual and attractive but blissfully unaware of it, portrayed perfectly by Marilyn in this image. In the film, the character Monroe plays stands on the grate because it is something she claims to have enjoyed from when she was a child. This immediately infantilises Monroe, as she is unaware of the sensuality of the act and is oblivious to those watching. The fact she is wearing heels adds to the sexuality of her stance, creating the ideal figure and accentuating her legs. Monroe is looking away from the camera and not meeting male gaze. This shows her lack of participation, as she is seemingly unaware of those watching her, creating a sense of innocence.

 

We then spoke briefly about ‘Charlie’s Angels’, a film that I love. Cameron Diaz plays a typically ditzy but sexy blonde who is desired by men but is unaware of it. Amongst many others, there is a scene in which Diaz rides a mechanical bull in a bar and all of the men are transfixed, meanwhile she is just having a good time. The men’s reaction helps the audience understand the sexualisation of the act, while the character is not entertaining the sensuality of what she is doing and is simply enjoying herself.

Hugh Hefner and the playboy bunnies was unpicked in detail, and we discussed the relevance of the girls being labelled bunnies. Bunny, first of all, is often a name given to rabbits by children, infantilising the women. ‘Bunnies’ are innocent, cuddly and cute, and most importantly of all, they are prey. They are harmless and unthreatening, which relates back to the desires of Pygmalion, who lusts after a woman unaware of her sexuality and therefore non-threading in a sexual encounter. Hefner transforms women to all look the same, changing their hair colour and paying for their cosmetic surgeries. Hefner moulds women into the image of what he likes. Women consent to this, this is true, but under the delusional hope of reaching unrealistic standards of beauty.

At the end of the lecture, we were left with many different questions to consider, some of which we will be pursuing in future lectures and others arose through discussion of other topic areas. Hopefully, I will explore these in the coming weeks and discover my view on the answers to these questions.

What qualities signify glamour and beauty? What are the textures and forms that characterise femininity? How is desirability constructed? How can these representations be challenged within visual and material culture? What makes lingerie, lingerie? Why is it different to underwear? What are recurring features in each image? What is being suggested about lifestyle? What does femininity signify in these images therefore?

 

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