Modified from Cultural Woman Value (2016 MFA Thesis)
The American woman has always been measured against problematic standards of feminine ideals. No woman, no matter how charmed her young life, can prepare herself for the onset of ignorance and prejudice embedded within her adult environment. On a daily basis, women encounter criticism aimed at their very worth as human beings. Her value should be inherent by her very existence, but her environment trains her to believe that she has to earn her human value.
How can art expose such nonsense?
How can art explore the semiotics rooted within female valuation?
Sexism is no less pervasive in the twenty-first century than it was in the 1950s. It just looks different. The female stereotypes have changed, but they are still stereotypes, and they are still just as damaging. Moving from the exterior into the interior, sexism has become harder to detect. In 1949, philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, a pioneer of second wave feminism, published The Second Sex, a groundbreaking exploration into the devaluation of women. “Not every female human being is necessarily a woman,” de Beauvoir posits, “she must take part in this mysterious and endangered reality known as femininity.”
The famed 1950s Hollywood starlet and beauty Arlene Dahl boastfully marketed her embodiment of femininity. Targeting the women of her era, she authored the book, Always Ask a Man: Arlene Dahl’s Key to Femininity (1965). Dahl advises women to develop and perfect their femininity. Littered with quotes from Hollywood men, the book instructs women to possess countless, favorable qualities. First advising women to be good listeners, the book goes on to encourage women to identify themselves with a color or special perfume, transcend themselves by listening to other people, cultivate common sense, and procure a sense of humor. Celebrity Richard Burton (most known for his tumultuous marriage to Elizabeth Taylor) prided himself on adoring all women of all shapes and sizes, but admitted, “they must be completely feminine and faintly giggly.” The book’s table of contents is filled with chapters such as Slim Down—Measure Up, How Do You Figure, Face the Facts— Make Up the Difference, and How to Dress (and Undress) for a Man. Dahl’s man-getting advice in this book essentially posits that femininity is a thing to be manufactured in order to attract men: “The very fact that you want to please men is a sure sign that your femininity is in working order.”
Both disturbed and amused by Dahl’s book, I create artwork that responds to this brand of historic attitude with parodic ratification. In 1963, feminist trailblazer Betty Friedan responded to this ill-advised attitude with biting criticism. She critiqued the notion of femininity as culturally corrupt in her radical book, Feminine Mystique. Friedan critiques the mid-century confinement of women to the domestic sphere: “In the fifteen years after World War II, this mystique of feminine fulfillment became the cherished and self-perpetuating core of contemporary culture.” Friedan identified how mass culture threatened women’s self-worth if they desired more than the pleasures of the home. Women feared the “unfeminine” label because they felt intuitively that it was the only value they had access to in mainstream American culture. Friedan described this predicament as the feminine mystique. The fulfillment of a woman’s own femininity was the highest value a woman to hope to achieve. American culture proposed a substantial increase in value to women who embraced housewifery, the femininity of the modern woman.
So what is the logic, or lack of logic, within the structure of femininity? Simone de Beauvoir suggests that the blueprint of femininity has never been patented. I believe femininity to be a cultural agreement around how we value women. Adding to its complexity, femininity is fluid. It changes with time. I refer to this fluctuating value of the woman as cultural woman value. By juxtaposing the cultural value of domesticity against its confinement, my art seeks to explore haptic inclinations and energetic restraint—a magnetic force that sits on the edge of anarchy.