This post was written by Heather Belnap, Comparative Arts and Letters, Humanities Center Faculty Fellow
In my junior year of university, I “got woke” to feminism. And it was an aptly-titled text, Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel The Awakening, assigned in an undergraduate humanities critical theory course, that did it. Until then, feminism was to me something for my mother’s generation, a movement that had accomplished its goals and was now history (rest assured I have since thoroughly repented of such thinking). As I read of Chopin’s Edna Pontellier coming to herself, I embarked on a parallel journey. Indeed, “[a] certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her—the light which, showing the way, forbids it.”
The year 2017 will be remembered for many things, not the least of which is #MeToo, an international movement that charts the awakening to the widespread phenomena of the sexual harassment and assault of women. The objectification of women is not, of course, a contemporary development, but rather is deeply embedded in the foundational frameworks of all major world cultures. And it is imperative that we recognize that the texts constitutive of these frameworks have been central to humanities curricula since their inception (witness Greek and Roman mythology), and that they have been taught—most often far too uncritically—since the formation of the concept of a liberal arts education. It is my conviction that the advent of #MeToo is ushering in an era in which the teaching of these texts will never again be the same.
As an undergraduate student, the discussion of works such as David’s Intervention of the Sabine Women (1795-99) or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon managed to sidestep the centrality to these paintings of the violence against women by remaining safely in the realm of formal analysis. The bald realities of these pictured women were all but ignored, dealt with quickly and euphemistically (i.e. the Sabines were “taken” by the Romans in “marriage”). That these were scenes of violence against and trafficking of women was completely lost on me. In graduate school, I assisted the esteemed art historian Marilyn Stokstad, author of one of the most widely-used survey texts in the field, who took a different tactic. Rather than sidestepping a discussion, she made the bold decision to not include artworks representing violence against women, for she found the realm of Western art to be a place where such acts were too often normalized and even celebrated. (And in an era where the likes of Rubens’s Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus were standard fare, this authorial choice was a radical one.) Over the last twenty years or so since being introduced to Stokstad’s intervention, I have thought a lot about the ramifications of excising such scenes from the historical and visual record, and while I see its value, I also see its dangers. And so I have elected to teach art that represents the kidnapping, rape, and murder of women—and do so with a vengeance.
Now more than ever, we have to declare the realities of what is represented: women are not abducted or kidnapped for any purpose other than their enslavement (almost always sexual in nature); women are not “ladies of the night,” but sex workers, many trafficked; and, to bring this a little closer to home for those of us in the humanities, women in representation are frequently treated merely as objects of pleasure for the reader-spectator. If one believes, as I do, that the arts and letters are deeply imbricated in the maintenance and perpetuation of systems of oppression, we have a profound responsibility as educators to acknowledge and problematize the many texts in the Western canon that have naturalized, normalized and/or necessitated the objectification and devaluation of women.
The #MeToo movement calls upon educators in the humanities to look with new eyes at the books and plays, paintings and sculptures, films and photographs, and other material typically taught, to see if and how its seeds have been sown in these texts. Hard questions of these must be asked: how are women characterized? are women’s perspectives and positions registered and respected? are the relationships between the sexes equitable? The movement also admonishes us to introduce new texts into our curriculum—ones that show alternative modes of thought and behavior vis-à-vis women and relationships between individuals. And lastly, #MeToo urges us to commit to leading discussions on these works with candor and care, to the end of generating new understandings, to opening hearts and minds, and most importantly, to changing behavior.
Banner image Jacques-Louis David, Intervention of the Sabine Women, 1795-99, Louvre, Paris via WikiCommons