How being feminine and being female are two very different things, and why we need to reclaim the word feminine for ourselves!
Today, if you were to say you expected a woman to be feminine you would find yourself receiving sideways, judgment filled glances. Despite this, we unfortunately still subscribe to this notion within society. We still worship the feminine ideal, and therefore, people, and women especially (but not solely), still feel the pressure to conform to it. When I started this project I already had a clear idea that I would look at female identity, relating it to expectations within society and the contradictions that come with them. I wanted to consider the difference between the physicality of being a female human, and the mentality associated with ‘feminine’: notions of innocence and purity, being passive, submissive, delicate, soft, and pleasing to the eye.
The notion of being feminine is to be aware that you are constructing yourself for the pleasure of someone other than yourself. It is the understanding that you should always appear pleasing to the world. This makes you overly conscious of your external appearance and means that you give completely unnecessary effort to it. The consequence is the overwhelming idea that other people have more of a say in your success and happiness than you do. Because of this women typically present themselves in a submissive and obsessively controlled way: sitting with legs crossed rather than spread and keeping arms placed across their bodies – taking up as little space as possible and hiding from observation. This is also apparent in the way we treat our bodies. We try to restrict them to fit smaller moulds, contradicting our naturally female, childbearing shape, creating child-like rather than healthy, bodies.
One of the first things I wanted to research for this project was an example of when the concept of ‘feminine’ presents itself separately from the female. I looked at the gay queen scene in NewYork around the 1980’s, with it’s ‘Balls’ which could be described as extravagant beauty pageants. I saw the way drag queens, who wanted to be like “real women”, acted much more passively and self-consciously. They were men, with male bodies, but combated this by becoming very slim and by accentuating the length of their limbs, their flexibility and lightness as they danced.
I am really happy that this is where I decided to start the project as it gave me a different perspective from my own and demonstrated the impact of wanting to be ‘feminine’. However, it caused me to become side-tracked in my painting with the idea of men and women and the feminine man. This took me away from what I was originally aiming to explore.
Therefore, I decided to consider other perspectives of ‘feminine’. I wanted to consider other female artists’ perspectives on femininity, particularly those whose experiences differed from my own. I looked at Paula Rego, a Portuguese artist who has protested pro-choice women’s rights through her artwork; and Gabrielle Ladet, a young American artist who is also an activist supporting black feminism. I was fascinated by Paula Rego’s portrayal of emotion. Her work often seems to represent symbolic dreamscapes that reveal the subconscious minds of her subjects, which are usually representations of herself.
Through my exploration of all these perspectives, I realised that expressing emotion can undermine the ideal, quiet, passive, submissive ‘feminine’. It defies the idea that a woman exists purely for the pleasure of others, as it shows her having her own thoughts and feelings. I began to develop the facial expressions and postures of the characters in my paintings. I experimented with my characters looking straight back at, and questioning, the audience. Or contemplating themselves, suddenly realising that their worth lies in the appreciation of others.
By the end of my project, I had developed specific themes that I represented in my paintings. These were: the idea of being self-aware, portraying emotions, being female without being feminine, and of feeling overwhelmed. In my plan for my final paintings, I wanted the characters to seem like they had been free from the ideal ‘feminine’ before the paintings were created. However, as the audience looks at them they become aware of the expectation to be feminine. I wanted to ensure the audience experiences these same overwhelming feelings. Therefore I decided everything about the work should be exaggerated. I used an over saturated and bold colour palette. I made the contrast between light and shadow unrealistic. The paintings were created on almost life-sized canvases so that you feel unnecessarily close the figures. Finally, I added bulging curves to the edge of the canvases to emphasise the sense that the paintings are swelling into your personal space, and to make sure absolutely nothing about the work is minimal, understated or tasteful. This all contradicts all the ideas I have examined within the concept of ‘feminine’.
I don’t feel that my work has a specific audience as I hope that it affects everyone individually. I would like to think that it has resonance with a female audience, but that it also reaches people of all genders and demographic groups. Part of what I find interesting about conceptual art is that each person has their own interpretation of a work and this response can reveal things about them. Most importantly my work communicates the way I feel and I am excited to see how other people respond to it.
I am pleased with the result of this project as it has helped me to create work that I hope has the ability to arouse an emotional response. Although there were times I came to a dead end, and some ugly experimentation, this has all helped me to define what is, and isn’t, needed to communicate my concept of female and feminine. I now feel really proud of my final paintings.