Ways of Femininity

In the novel Ways of Seeing, John Berger says that the expressions of the two women below are similar- and they are indeed similar. But does that necessarily mean that both images are a representation of offering up their femininity?

La Grande Odalisque by Ingres & Photograph from a girlie magazine.

La Grande Odalisque by Ingres & Photograph from a girlie magazine. (Pg. 55)

I agree somewhat with Berger on the idea that their expressions looks similar, but to say that they hold the same meaning seems a little far-fetched. As similar as they may look, they are from two very different time periods. The model in the famous painting by Ingres is of an odalisque, a concubine. That said, already the two women are very different in terms of why they are posing for the painter/photographer. Not only do their occupations differ, they have very different figures. The odalisque is more plump than the skinnier model who is baring her breasts unashamedly compared to the odalisque who is looking over her shoulder to create a more demure look.

As Berger also points out, “hair is associated with with sexual power, with passion”, this creates a need to decrease woman’s sexual charms so the man can feel that he is more dominant. Once again, the difference between the odalisque and the woman in the photograph have a significant difference in the fact that the odalisque has her hair tied back with a shawl of some sort and the woman from the magazine has her hair untied and free.

That said, because of the many differences that the women have, I think that the two women are not just simply representations of offering up their femininity. I think there is more to take away from the expressions. For example, the odalisque is probably being submissive to the King’s command to have her portrait done. This can be interpreted that the odalisque might not even want to have her portrait painted; she may just be acquiescing to the command of her king.

On the other hand, the woman posing for her picture in the girlie magazine is probably posing for a very different reason in contrast to the odalisque. First off, her job, as a model, is to have her picture taken so therefore, she probably wasn’t as reluctant to have her picture taken; this leads to the conclusion that she had a completely different expression when the two are compared. Also, a major significance is the fact that the model is using her hair, a symbol of sexual power, flaunting it to her full advantage to ensnare and captivate the reader of the magazine. This shows that there is a lesser power struggle in the sense that she is not submissive as the odalisque, nor is she regarded as tool-like as a woman would have been in the time period of the odalisque. Indeed, women are sexualised and objectified to this day, but when the two images are compared, it can clearly be seen that the two woman have a vast difference in the time period in which they belong as well as the audience the images were made for.

Thanks for reading this long post and feel free to leave me a comment! 🙂

1 Thought.

  1. This is a very interesting point to bring up, and I’m sorry for the late comment! We had a great discussion about this, about how ignoring the context around the pictures and just focusing on how they look might be problematic.

    You’ve pointed out some good distinctions between the two, including that the woman on the right may have had more of a say in whether her image was taken, and may have chosen to have it taken (though without knowing the history of the other image I can’t be sure, the woman on the right probably chose to pose for this picture). She also certainly seems more “in charge” in the way the image looks. One might still wonder, though, if the effect isn’t similar–even if the woman on the right has more autonomy, more say in the matter, they are both images of women as sexualized, as suggesting that the way to look at them is as sexual objects. I guess I’m thinking that even if someone acquiesces to being treated as an object, they are still portraying being treated as an object!

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