The Insidious Role of Culture in Dominating Women

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Before I read A Dialectic of Sex[1], I had never really thought about culture. What it means, how it comes to be and how it relates to women’s place in society. The dictionary defines culture as; “the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a society”. Suggesting culture is a basis from which society functions. But what role does it play in women’s oppression? 

Firestone’s study of “(Male) Culture” improved my understanding of the reality around me. It illustrates that culture is created by men, inspired by women. Three areas immediately come to mind where I observe men innovating and women, arousing that activity. That is in;

  1. The idolised muse and artist pairing,
  2. Popular culture’s portrayal of women as prompts for male activity, and;
  3. Women’s work that reflects a male viewpoint  
  1. The muse and artist pairing present women as docile 

A muse is defined as: “a person or personified force who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist”. 

In the fashion industry, you hear of designers, usually male, choosing a muse, usually female.[2]This often framed in a way that gives the impression this is a privileged role for a woman. She is chosenout of many to be the face and body that personifies the designer’s vision. This sets an odd power structure which represents women negatively. He is the dominant and she, his object to dress. Others take a less strict view on this. Take thisForbespiece. It takes an encouraging posture on the role of the muse by listing designers with their sources of inspiration that include parents and children. Certainly, these are people one might view to have had positive impact on the designer, a positive definition of inspiration. 

Not to be confused with that of male designers like Hubert de Givenchy who drew from women like Audrey Hepburn. Her role was stationary while he innovated culture. 

Josephine Hopper posed in Edward Hopper’s painting Morning Sun

This article in Stylist magazine[3]also takes a positive view of the muse. It uncovers Josephine Hopper, the wife of the famous American painter, Edward Hopper. As the model in his work between 1923 to his death in 1967, it interestingly informs us, Josephine was an artist. Before she met and married Edward she lived off her work. Indeed, it was her knowledge and connections in the arts that helped promote Edward’s work. However, the article, like the blog above, is still more interested in her role as the muse, claiming; “There is something incredibly powerful about an artist’s muse.” 

The powerful seems to be the person creating. Men who construct how we view the world. A construction not limited to the things we wear but also how we see women. Audrey Hepburn is better remembered for the little black dress before her acting and humanitarian work with UNICEF. As a muse, she is reimagined by Givenchy. Limited to rousing, her power came directly from him, the creator. As Simone de Beauvoir put it;

The Muse creates nothing of her own; she is a wise sibyl making herself the docile servant of a master.”[4]

2. Popular culture portrays women as motive for male activity 

From James Bond to Superbad, the media demonstrates men’s direct link to culture under which women’s participation is reduced to objects that inspire men’s actions.

We see men playing the heroes, showing stereotypical behaviors of masculinity. Women often playing parts unnecessary to the storyline. There instead to prompt men into action. 

We see this in the Mission: Impossible franchise. Since 1996, little has changed in this dynamic. It is heavily male. Both on and off screen. The creators, writers, directors and recurring characters are male. I imagine the intended audience is also male, women imagined unnecessary in active exploits. This imagining is illustrated on the screen where women are largely uninvolved in the mission. 

The first film presented women as active members in the mission. Since then, women have been presented on the outside. As romantic interests who the hero must save when thier safety is threatened. In MI 2, Thandie Newton’s character demonstrates this use, in addition to being used sexually to capture the bad guy, a honey trap. When her sacrifice extends further, injecting herself with the deadly disease to withhold it from the bad guy, the hero is provided further opportunity to demonstrate his boldness. Her transformation from an independent and canny thief to a sacrificial lamb is not explained. 

In MI 3, the threat to the safety of Ethan’s (played by Tom Cruise) female recruit is the basis for his return to action and threat to his wife’s safety is what keeps him in it. 

MI 5 and 6 have offered a slight change to the women represented, on the surface at least. The character played by Rebecca Ferguson, whilst incidental to, is actively involved in the mission. She exhibits attributes accustomed to male characters, for example, rescuing Ethan. But this is as far as the change goes. In both rescues, she jeopardises her own mission and exposes herself to danger. Her motives behind this selfless act going unexplained. The disappointment continues in M1 6. Instead of establishing her as an individual, here, she is positioned to replace Michelle Monaghan as Ethan’s love interest.

3. Women’s imagination tends to reflect a male viewpoint   

Firestone’s analysis tells us that women’s work is created to appeal to the male gaze. Because women have to compete with men on men’s terms. 

Take the TV show, Ray Donovan, a testosterone filled series that exhibits excessive male aggression. It is the story of an Irish-American fixer to LA elites. A man who juggles complicated family dynamics while managing demanding clients. A man who does a lot. It is a show intended, in my view, to appeal to men. A celebration of men’s work.

Interestingly, the show’s creator is a woman, Ann Biderman. She created complex male characters, including Ray’s three brothers and father, all established around their personal circumstances.

However, her female characters offer no improvement to the standard woman male artists normally offer. This include Ray’s wife, a stay at home mother and his teenage daughter. Both women exist outside the show’s main activities. Economically and emotionally dependent on Ray, they waver between resisting their situation and accepting it. The wife’s resistance usually portrayed in a childlike manner. Acting out to gain Ray’s attention, for example. Attempts to breakaway are never serious nor about establishing themselves independently. Rather a search for male attachments. The show does not reflect on the women’s excluded position seriously. 

In conclusion: Representations of women as docile and inactive, indicate behaviors forced on women by society. Behaviors created and idolised through men’s work. Work that represents an unexplained belief that women’s role is to motivate men. Uninvolved in the construction of society’s ideas and customs but a source these are shaped upon. A belief that doing is the right of men. Instructed in thinking this way, women reveal a male perspective in their work. Thus, unauthentic innovators. This says the solution to male culture is not merely having women in active positions. It is having women conscious of this culture, women who look to transform this. 


[1]By Shulamith Firestone, 1971, chapter 8 

[2]http://www.papermag.com/our-10-favorite-designer-muses-of-all-time-1427575452.html

[3]Title; “The muse who was overlooked as an artist”, by Anna-Marie Crowhurst. Issue 407, 14 March 2018. Stylist.co.uk. An interesting fact, the National Gallery in London houses 2,300-piece collection and only 21 of them are by female artists, The Soul of a woman, in The Economist issued March 16th, 2019. 

[4]Chapter 3 ‘Myth’, The Second Sex, 1949 

2 Comments on "The Insidious Role of Culture in Dominating Women"


  1. The Combahee River Collective argued in 1974 that the liberation of black women entails freedom for all people, since it would require the end of racism, sexism, and class oppression.

    Reply

    1. Thank you for introducing these women to me – so much to learn from them.

      I could not agree more with that point. This is why I believe any movement that does not put Black women at the centre lacks seriousness.

      Thanks again,

      Milly

      Reply

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