Thursday, September 9, 2010

Writing off women

“’s possible that the viewer might take in the book first and move upward to her décolletage.”

It’s been almost two months since I’ve made a post. My life has taken on a greater degree of chaos while I’ve balanced two overlapping roles: outgoing art librarian at Purchase College north of Manhattan and incoming textiles student at Sheridan College southwest of Toronto. The colleges are eleven hours apart if traffic is good. Apartment hunting, writing an entrance exam, battling mold on items in storage…it has all been a whirlwind. My new commute involves the Go Train instead of the Metro North Train. The main difference is access to stray copies of the free Metro newspaper, which I decided to skim yesterday.

My attention was caught by the headline, “Writing off women?” The brief article is about the relegation of female-authored fiction to chick lit. My intention is not to comment on that issue, but to comment on the presentation of it. Unfortunately, the online version of the article does not include the image I discuss below.

An accompanying photo takes up more room than the text of the article. It shows a young, blond, Caucasian woman lying stomach down on the grass while reading a book. It made me yearn for summer, which—at least in Canada—seems to have disappeared amazingly fast. Then I looked closer. The caption mentions Pulitzer Prize winning author, Elizabeth Strout, but does not clarify if the woman is her. The real Elizabeth Strout is about 30 years older, though similarly blond and Caucasian. This image, presumably a stock photo, is a curious choice.

Our fresh-faced reader could do wonders for libraries as a poster child for literacy. Clad in all white (tank top, pants/shorts, and even her bra, whose strap is visible), she exudes innocence. Her mascara-laden lids and lips saturated with colour guide the viewer’s eye towards her ample cleavage and finally, to the book. That, after all, is the real object in the image, right? Or, because she consumes only the top right corner of the image and the rest is grass, it’s possible that the viewer might take in the book first and move upward to her décolletage. Either way, she rivals the book as the focus.

Interestingly, the book’s pages appear virtually empty. One page is entirely white while its opposing page has a blur of text. I am reminded of Reese Witherspoon’s vapid character in Pleasantville discovering words in the previously blank classics that filled her high school library. I’m also reminded of Medieval Books of Hours, those ornate volumes that women—often illiterate women—toted as accessories of sorts. If I think that far back into art history, I may as well reflect on her demure expression, a commonplace strategy to make female subjects seem capable of being overcome. Her gaze is fixated on the book, and not on the onlooker. She is up for grabs.

As a librarian and as a feminist, I am perplexed by the sexualization of reading in visual culture. I don’t mean to imply that beautiful and sexy women don’t read. However, if the editors are attempting to empathize with, or at least, represent the viewpoints of female authors bothered by male dominance in the industry, they would do well to use an image that doesn’t fall into gender traps, or perhaps they could feature one of the three women mentioned in the article/caption.

Source: ----, “Writing women off?”, Metro News, September 8, 2010, p. 31. Print.

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