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Women as Fantasies & History of Catcalling (Why it's not a Compliment)

Since I started with photography I have always been taking nude photos. And when I started this MA course I asked myself ‚Why?‘. I have always considered nude photography beautiful. I loved the curves, the shapes, playing with lights and shadows on the body, etc. And as I’m saying this, of course I mean the female body. There is an abundance of female nudes in the art world and beyond. The answer to the question ‚Why?‘ is not that they are beautiful (and of course they are!) but they are everywhere. Some more inspirational than others sparked my interest and I decided to be a nude photographer. One could argue that there is an abundance of landscape photos, too, so if I was interested in landscape I would have become a landscape photographer. I would agree, there is nothing wrong with being interested in the body, becoming a nude photographer and being inspired by photographs that surround us. However, the question is; what do these inspirational female nudes say about women? I have never questioned where my ideas for poses were coming from because they felt so natural. But they were not. At least not all of them – I would see the poses somewhere, store them in my subconscious mind and apply to my work later. They were invented by somebody else. By whom? The female nude was the ever-recurring subject in the European oil painting. We have been living in a patriarchal society where women were inferior to men for millenniums. So it comes as no surprise that women didn’t have the same rights and opportunities as men. The art world was a male dominated world. The female nudes were painted by men – for men. „In the average European oil painting of the nude the principal protagonist is never painted. He is the spectator in front of the picture and be is presumed to be a man. Everything is addressed to him. Everything must appear to be the result of his being there, it is for him that the figures have assumed their nudity. But he, by definition, is a stranger - with his clothes still on.“

(Berger, 1972, p. 54)

What is very typical for these female nudes is the way how the subject is painted – usually reclining, passive, coy, rarely looking at the viewer, drifting away from the world, etc.

It is also known that the academic painters who portrayed nude would combine the most beautiful parts of many different bodies to create the most beautiful ideal form.

However, nudity was considered indecent and to paint a real nude woman would be shameful for the artist and the model. In order to paint female nudes that would be publicly accepted, the portrayed subjects had to be rather mythological, biblical or other-worldly. That’s why there were a lot of Venuses, Nymphs, Odalisques and Dianas. In other words the subjects had to resemble Western women as little as possible.

Fig. 1 : Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, The Wave and the Pearl, 1862 Fig. 2: Diego Velázquez, Venus at Her Mirror, 1647-1651 Fig. 3: Henri-Pierre Picou, Venus, 19th century

What does it mean? The women in those paintings are not real women. They are fantasies.

When coloured photography was invented it quickly replaced oil painting as a tool that can reproduce the colour, texture and tangibility of objects. There was an area which adapted this tool – advertisement.

Advertisement uses the same visual language as these female nudes. Yes, they are not nudes anymore, but they still represent women in the same way. Women are still reclining, passive and drifting away from the world. They are still rendered to perfection, however now the tool for it is called Photoshop. And mainly they are still not presented as real women.

Sut Jhally in his film The Codes Of Gender argues that women in advertisement are not represented the same way as men. In the common positions that women utilize it would be difficult to defend yourself and therefore you are dependent on the safety of the surrounding. They are submissive and powerless positions. They also became sexualised – they are conventionalised expression of availability.

Men in advertisement are presented in the opposite way. They are standing upright, looking out at the viewer, always prepared and in control of the situation.

Great example of the fact that women are not presented as real people in ads would be Paul Marciano’s statement. He is a co-founder of Guess, known clothing brand. Marciano is in love with the past (American West) and would like to reinforce some of the ideas of the past into the present days.

„Women are treated with respect, but it is assumed they know their place, which is supportive and their function, which is often decorative.“

(Guess Jeans Book in Jhally, 2010)

He goes on:

„We always use models. It’s difficult to find real women who fit what we are trying to say. Real women, they are not as cooperative as real men.“

(Marciano in Jhally, 2010)

So the men in Guess’s ads are real, but the women are not. They are still mere fantasies.

Fig. 4: GUESS by Marciano Campaign Spring Summer Campaign, 2012 Fig. 5: GUESS by Marciano Spring Summer Campaign, 2014 Fig. 6: Gillette Venus for woman advertisement

Sut Jhally explain why the way how women (and men) are represented is an issue.

„These representations may look normal, but they communicate powerful ideas surrounding femininity and masculinity. They were chosen for prominence – the ideas they communicate are from someone’s imagination. People are behind cameras, giving instructions. There is no such a thing as natural or neutral image.“

(Jhally, 2010)

There are a lot of ways of being a woman and there are a lot of ways to portray that. But what will happen if women keep being presented as subordinate objects of desire? It will create a climate which would normalise this way of representation and set it as the only and right way of being a woman – the one with perfect body, flawless skin, completely smooth, always available, etc.

And what happens to the women that don’t fit this very narrow and limiting criteria? They might become depressed. Some might become obsessed with thinness, which could lead to anorexia and bulimia. Some might spend a lot of money on beauty products. But mainly some might start objectifying themselves, by utilising the well-known poses to prove themselves and to others that they can be just as hot and sexy as the women from advertisement, magazines and other media.

What pisses me off about it is how much as a culture we are confused about femininity and female sexuality. I share my work on social media and many times I came across moments of frustration as my naked photos had been deleted. Why? Sexual content. However, what I couldn’t understand was why those sexy suggestive selfies of clearly sexual nature, uploaded by millions of women every day don’t get deleted, too. Nakedness without any sexual context is deemed indecent and therefore restricted, whilst sexual behaviour is trivialised and publicly accepted as long as the intimate body parts are covered up.

Fig. 7: Image on social media Fig. 8: Image on social media Fig. 9: Image on social media

Women grow up in an environment that teaches them that the way how they appear to others but mainly to men is crucially important in their lives. As my favourite quote from John Berger says:

„Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed is female. Thus she turns herself into an object of vision: a sight.“

(Berger, 1972, p. 47)

However, in addition to their appearance a new important aspect of female life has been added up – their sexuality.

In a lot of adverts, music videos, films, etc, the female bodies are reduced to a single body part on which the attention is focused. Especially in music videos we can see a lot of shaking asses, or boobs without any connection to the rest of the body and to the woman herself. The images are even more explicit when the women are of colour.

Fig. 10: Nicki Minaj, Anaconda, 2014 Fig. 11: Nicki Minaj, Anaconda, 2014 Fig. 12: Nelly, Tip Drill, 2003 Fig. 13: Nelly, Tip Drill, 2003

Femininity is connected to sexuality. The disconnected body parts communicate false ideas about women – it disregards them as human beings with intellect, emotions and other qualities. Sut Jhally explains in his film Dreamworld 3: Sex and Power in Music Videos:

„The complexity of a human gets crowded out by one dimensional definition of femininity based on a single story of the body. We all want to be watched, and we all look at other people as subjects of our sexual desires, it’s part of being a human. But in our culture the women are presented as nothing else. “

(Jhally, 2007)

Have I also mentioned that music videos and advertisement share the same visual language with porn? Some porn directors decided to change their careers and started shooting music videos. An example of this transition is Gregory Dark who went from shooting porn to shooting music videos for Brittney Spears, Mandy Moore and others.

How do these images affect us in real life? As I have already mentioned, the images work they way into the inner identities of young women, and they start sexualizing themselves. However, the images work both ways – they don’t just teach about femininity, they tell a powerful story about masculinity, too.

„Men are tied to power, intimidation and force. These ideas of men’s entitlement for women become glamorized and normalized in our culture, we have to ask – what effect they have on real life behaviour of men and women? These images rob women of their humanity and create environment where attacks against them are not treated seriously. They cultivate attitudes that legitimate assaults as self-deserving and provoked by the victims.“

(Jhally, 2007)

I would like to jump back right at the beginning of this article – my own work. The more I questioned the photographs I took of myself the more I began to see patterns. A lot of the poses (not all of them!) were conventional and not created by me. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, however I have realised that the way I portray my body in some of my photographs is not the same way I really see myself and my body. At the moment I’m having a little break from shooting myself, because I would love to continue shooting myself naked – in the end of the day, it’s been part of my life for nearly seven years and it has become a lifestyle. And I enjoy being naked, it’s a form of liberation, especially when I shoot outdoors! However, I want to find a way to portray my body the way I see it – I would like to apply „my-own-gaze“ to the photographs.

Instead, I have decided to focus on a different project – the sexual harassment of women in public spaces such as catcalling, groping, upskirting, stalking, whistling, etc. The way how women have been represented in our culture is a culprit of how women are treated in real life.

I chose harassment in public spaces like catcalling, stalking, upskirting, groping, etc. for a few reasons. Firstly, street harassment, is not a crime in the UK (I know upskirting and groping are). I found that shocking, because you would be fined for littering but not for harassing women in the streets. Secondly, a lot of women don’t bother to report the incident they have experienced because in many cases they believe it wasn’t a crime enough to bother the Police. And thirdly, these toxic attitudes about entitlement to women and normalization of this sort of behaviour in the public can lead to worse things, like violence against women.

I was asked a couple of questions and here I’m going to respond to them. The first question was; Why it’s not a compliment? This is clearly referred to catcalling and wolf-whistling.

I did a small research on the origin of these two words, and I was surprised. I thought cat calling would be somehow related to the connection of cat = pussy and pussy = vagina. However, the result I found speaks different. In the 18th century the term „catcall“ would be an expression of disapproval of someone's performance on stage (usually theatre or public forum). It comes from cat + call because the whistles and jeers would resemble an angry cat. The term gained a sexual meaning in the 20th century, however the idea remained the same – the catcaller is vocally judging and giving feedback to another person.

Wolf-whistling is a form of catcalling. Originally designed to herald the arrival of a wolf among sheep and their shepherds. However, it was employed as a form of wolf’s attraction in Avery's cartoons, where the wolf goes into a nightclub, and he is so overwhelmed by the beauty of the singing woman that he can’t control himself. He starts whistling at her, slaps the table. His tongue rolls out of his mouth, etc. It is just a cartoon, meant to be funny, but it already communicates some ideas about the relationship between men and women.

Fig. 14: Red Hot Riding Hood, 1943 Fig. 15: Red Hot Riding Hood, 1943

So why is it not a compliment? The meaning of both words is an approval (usually by men) of someone’s appearance (usually women). My question is; Why would it be a compliment? Why do I need a stranger’s (usually it is men outside of one’s relationship) approval that my appearance is good enough? Good enough for whom?

If I make myself look good, I do it for my own pleasure. It is natural and absolutely fine wanting to look attractive and I can make my own judgement whether I have achieved it or not. My body is not a subject to public opinions, especially not to the extent of needing to be informed by strange men that I did a good job with my looks. Comments on somebody else‘s body is a very intimate matter, and when receiving these comments from complete strangers it crosses the borderline between a compliment and harassment. I get it, some women might like it. But ask yourself a few questions: Would women do it to someone (men or women)? Would men do it to other men? See the double standard?

This gets me onto another problem in our society – victim blaming. If a woman is attractive and perhaps dressed provocatively (whatever it means to you, this is subjective) and gets harassed, it must be her fault because she was asking for it. Wrong. Nobody is asking for it. However, not everyone pays much attention to the fact that the perpetrator took the advantage of her. Anne Munch explains in her seminar Rape Myths on Trial that men should get offended by the statement „She was so hot, I couldn’t help it.“ Because it puts them in a position of a beast that has no control over himself. But men can control themselves, because not exercising this behaviour is a choice. (Same thing applies to when a woman was drunk, or walking alone – she still wasn’t asking for it.)

This is what Lynn Phillips in her film Flirting with Danger calls looking for „a perfect victim“.

„We talk about blame as though as it is a zero-sum game. So if a woman has even 1% of responsibility (tries to look hot, walks at night, walks alone, etc.) it is as though it is 100% her fault, and he bears no responsibility.“

(Phillips, 2012) The second question was why I focus on women only. This was my reply:

* It is not 93% but 97% of British women. Fig. 16: Facebook Screenshot

When I was sharing some information about my project on Facebook in order to find women who would like to contribute, it sparked an interesting conversation!

Fig. 17: Facebook Screenshot Fig. 18: Facebook Screenshot

I was shocked when the woman said that she perhaps is not attractive enough. This is a proof that people still view catcalling as a form of compliment. However, harassment has little to do with appearance (although it can be a factor!), it is rather a form of holding control/power over somebody who is in a disadvantage. Unfortunately for women, we are in a physical disadvantage, so the threat of being harassed is prevalent.

Bibliography: Figures: Fig. 1: Fig. 2: Fig. 3:,_Henri_Pierre_-_Venus_-_19th_century.jpg Fig. 4: Fig. 5: Fig. 6: Fig. 7: Fig. 8: Fig. 9: Fig. 10, Fig. 11: Fig. 12, Fig. 13: Fig. 14: Fig. 15: Fig. 16: Facebook Screenshot Fig. 17: Facebook Screenshot Fig. 18: Facebook Screenshot Text: Berger, John, 1972, Ways of seeing, p. 54 Guess Jeans Book in Jhally Sut, 2010, The Codes Of Gender Marciano, Paul in Jhally, Sut, 2010, The Codes Of Gender Jhally, Sut, 2010, The Codes Of Gender Berger, John, 1972, Ways of seeing, p. 47 Jhally, Sut, 2007, Dreamworld 3: Sex and Power in Music Videos Origin of catcalling: Origin of wolf-whistling: Munch, Anne, Rape Myths on Trial, 2012 Phillips, Lynn, Flirting with Danger, 2012 Documentaries I recommend to watch: Dreamworld 3: Sex and Power in Music Videos The Codes Of Gender Rape Myths on Trial Flirting with Danger

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Owen Evans
Owen Evans
Aug 05, 2021

Excellently written and great constructive views.

Lucie Nechanická
Lucie Nechanická
Aug 05, 2021
Replying to

Thank you!

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