Vanessa Clement

An Exploration of Femininity through Art (excerpt)

Class of: 2021

Major: Product Design BFA

Medium: Writing

Faculty: Sebastian Grant

Prompt: The assignment was to propose an exhibition centered around a topic of our choice and use the paper to explain why we chose our topics and our pieces. The objects included in the exhibition had to be pulled from the periods we studied in class, which were prehistory up until the 20th century in some regions.

H. 21 in. (53.3 cm); W. 9 3/4 in. (24.8 cm); D. 7 in. (17.8 cm)
Earthenware with slip and pigment
206 B.C.–A.D. 9
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Open Access Policy

This piece fit the assignment by combining pieces from the past and uniting them in a new context – this context being femininity within and without male oppression. My intention was to bring these pieces from all over the world together in order to create a living timeline of female depiction. By looking at where we have been, we can think about where we should be going, and try to get there while helping those who do not have as much agency as others.

“The ideals of femininity embodied by women painted or sculpted throughout time has been an evolving and unfolding story. There is no single piece that can encapsulate every approach to femininity across the world and in history. Since most of these depictions were filtered through by the men and politics dominating each culture, they typically show an idealized version of women within their society. It is imperative to note that most depictions of femininity were formed underneath pressure from the male-dominated and oppressive social system – the patriarchy. This system, present in most of history, makes women’s own interpretation of femininity and the departures from the status quo within art rare and necessary to reflect upon. By gathering all these pieces from many different periods and places into one exhibition, a timeline can be constructed of femininity’s portrayal from prehistory to the 20th century.

The pieces have been chosen due to their representation of both women and femininity in the context of their creation within and without the patriarchy’s censorship of women. With depictions throughout art history ranging from ignorant to silencing, these pieces reflect the influence men had on women’s expected behavior. Men dominating the portrayal and cultural norms regarding femininity and masculinity did not want to have their power threatened by portrayals of women expressing dominance. According to Nochlin,“Those who have privileges inevitably hold on to them, and hold tight, no matter how marginal the advantage involved, until compelled to bow to superior power of one sort or another.” (1) This power imbalance resulted in a slow but steady reclamation and redefinition of femininity across the globe, still seen today.

Looking back on this struggle through the pieces selected for this exhibition reflects this evolution, and when put together, represent a need for this fight to continue being fought.

Men controlling depictions of “good” and “bad” femininity also highlights their relationship with both masculinity and the women around them. Women’s role in their society was often in direct correlation to the men they were related or married to, creating a system that lent more power to men than women – and to some women more than others. Through this power, men were capable of enforcing their ideals of female behavior while enhancing their own ideals of masculinity through the arts that reigned supreme in each period. “The production of truth is linked to the systems of power operative in society which produce and maintain regimes of truth. ‘Truths’ circulated about female artists and femininity are produced for and maintain simultaneously produced ‘truths’ about male artists and masculinity.” (2) Because women were living in a society that did not hear their wants and needs, men ultimately decided what types of needs and wants women should have. These images depicting women in a certain light affirm the notion of femininity largely being guided by men to heighten their sense of masculinity, either by placing them in a submissive pose, or encouraging them to behave in a way that was not threatening to men. (3) Art, as a reflection of society and its values, illustrates this dilemma beautifully. As discovered in these pieces, the social status of the woman in the art often influences the type of femininity she is depicted within as well, be it young, beautiful, or powerful. How these women were depicted was affected by their relation to men and the level of femininity they could encompass without threatening the ideas of masculinity dominant at the time.

By creating this exhibition, consisting of different mediums, different cultures, and different contexts, it can unravel the parts of femininity both foreign and forgotten to the modern world. What has been gathered by this research and from the individual pieces is that no depiction is “correct.” There is no one way to define or singularize femininity. Because of its constantly evolving and adapting form, only one thing can be inferred: femininity has no limits. These pieces, some working within this idea of women as subordinates of men, some looking to break away from this idea, and some not even understanding its presence in culture at all, define many angles of femininity. With no one piece from the same time and place, this idea of fluid femininity can be fully unfolded and picked apart to reveal the way the modern and past worlds have regarded this idea of femininity within women.”

“Female Dancer from the Han Dynasty in 2nd century B.C. features a woman performing a traditional dance dressed in feminine clothing. The sculpture reflects the way women were regarded in that era, especially as Confucianism and its doctrine regarding women (The Three Obediences and The Four Virtues) began to dominate China.

During the Han Dynasty, typical feminine virtues, namely obedience and loyalty, were developed into something like “feminine ethics,” … The Three Obediences require women to obey the father before the marriage, obey the husband after marriage and obey the first son after the death of husband. The Four Virtues are (sexual) morality, proper speech, modest manner, and diligent work. (9)

These rules forced women into a narrow scope of femininity. Being able to only express emotions through their father’s or husband’s or son’s expectations cornered them into a certain representation of their gender in art and social life. The Female Dancer, as it portrays a woman behaving in a socially acceptable and revered way, confirms the harsh lines drawn between femininity and social stability under a patriarchal doctrine.”

1 Linda Nochlin. Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing, 1971, 11.

2 Griselda Pollock. Vision and Difference: Feminism, Femininity and the Histories of Art. London: Routledge, 2015.

3 Griselda Pollock. Vision and Difference: Feminism, Femininity and the Histories of Art.

9 Xiongya Gao. Women Existing for Men: Confucianism and Social Injustice against Women in China. 2003. 114-16.