Hey, I’m Cute, Too!

Over at Jezebel, they’re having this discussion about Ellen von Unwerth’s photos. In fact, her whole book of photos of women is available for free on the internet. It is completely not safe for work. Not even a little bit. Boobs, gals comparing pubic hair, touching themselves, touching each other, bending over so you can see their underwear, tugging cutely on said underwear–on and on and on.

And the discussion over there is interesting, about whether photos like this are less problematic because they’re taken by a woman, about whether they’re vulgar, about whether they’re exploitative, about whether, in other words, it’s the same sexist shit on a different day.

For me, I experience the images as playful and as women performing playful and sexy for other women. I’m sure I’m biased, but I feel like I can tell that those photos were taken by a woman. They’re sexy, but in this “we’re doing this with you” way, not in the performance-y “we’re doing this for you” way of photos of women taken for straight men.

“Imagine you’re us or here with us, doing this, too.” is what I feel like I’m being asked as a viewer.

And the thing is, I really want to.

But after 400 pages of photos, I realize I can’t.  The “you” invited is not me.  It’s not a lot of women. And the more photos you see, the more you realize what a very narrow slice of womanhood is represented here. And yet, I can’t  help but feel like the emotions being expressed are pretty universal–women want to be funny and at ease with each other and ourselves. We want the ways we’re intimate with each other (not just sexually, but sexually, too) to be recognized and recognized as having value. Women are so often set against each other that seeing photos of us in which that’s not the case is pretty awesome. I think.

And I want to see myself that way, too. I want to be the cute girl in the flouncy skirt straddling the man in the top hat in some Moulin Rouge fantasy world. Or I want to see women who look like me doing that. I want to see women who look like my mom and her friends sitting at the piano naked. I want to see more women of color. I want to see women who don’t have perfect bodies.

And yet, I know this is a kind of bullshit want.

Opening up the gates so that we can all be sexy doesn’t really get us past the whole “women are for sex” problem.

So, I don’t know. I was hoping when I started out this post I’d end up somewhere, with some understanding, but I didn’t. I did get to look at naked pictures, though, so that’s something.

9 thoughts on “Hey, I’m Cute, Too!

  1. Opening up the gates so that we can all be sexy doesn’t really get us past the whole “women are for sex” problem.

    Maybe it doesn’t get us there, but maybe it can point us in the right direction. I’m not suggesting that the woman who took the photos you’re talking about (I can’t look at them from this particular computer; I’ll have to check them out at home) intentionally limited her parameters of ‘beauty’ to that which you describe. But what is limiting her vision? Did she only have access to models of a particular size and shape?

    I can’t get inside the artist’s head, but if she was attempting to be original or subversive, on the surface it seems to defeat the purpose if she’s trying to do so by perpetuating the status quo of a standard of beauty that is unrealistic to the vast majority of women.

    I don’t know if I can express this in a few more words, so I’ll try to be blunt: if we challenge the media boundaries of what is sexy– not just in depicted behavior, but in depicted physical appearance– can’t that be part of an attempt to create a more egalitarian societal space in which women can exist as sexual and social beings? Isn’t that attempt, if it’s done effectively, empowering to all who can participate (as creators and consumers)? I don’t think your want is bullshit, B. I think you were reflecting it off something that you perceived to be lacking in the art. Maybe that’s the source of your misgiving, not your own desire. I can give you a more informed opinion when I’m able to see the nakedness with my own mind.

  2. Though I agree the photos are fun and don’t seem exploitive, they still have an air of sexuallizing women as a whole, in sort of a “Look, even privately, and sometimes even with only other women, all women concern themselves with sex and sexuality.” And it’s hard to defend the argument that women are more than that when these types of books are out.

    (Trigger warning)
    It’s like a prostitute can’t charge a man for rape when she isn’t “working” because at other times she gets paid for sex. Completely different situations, but the patriarchy can’t quite grasp that yet.

    Not saying the photos shouldn’t exist of course, because I do see the quality and intent in them, but I do think they make things more difficult.

  3. Sam, I’ll be interested in hearing what you think when you see them.

    Peach, I owe you one because between this comment and the discussion I had with the Professor, I’m starting to get a handle on what’s bothering me. I feel like there’s something nice about the ways that women’s sexuality is portrayed in those photos, something silly and exciting and hot. Something that I would like to feel able to be recognized as participating in.

    I, too, want to be a sexual being in a way that’s bold and ridiculous and silly and self-assured and I want others to see that in me.

    But not that only.

    But, and that’s a big one, even if individuals see me as sexy in those ways, I don’t feel like society does.

    It’s like this. I get that it’s bullshit–that being seen as beautiful or sexy or whatever is problematic, at best, and feeds into the idea of women as the sex class at worst.

    But the desire to be seen as something of value, even if what’s valued is a bullshit construct, is awfully strong for me. I mean, I can write it out here and see it for the ridiculousness it is.

    But it still acts on me in really, really profound ways.

  4. Well, they may be taken by a woman. Wouldn’t be the first time women stabbed each other in the back.

    I just googled a few of the pics and saw the series called “Revenge”. Not only are some of them BLATANT rip-offs of another photography whose name escapes me…I’ll google it in a minute…they’re just more of the same old pseudo-erotica objectification a la Playboy.

    They don’t make any new or daring statements about female beauty or sexuality. They merely parrot what’s been out there for years. Which is doubtless why you feel alienated.

    I don’t hang out in many openly feminist circles because I don’t often feel that I fit in. So I don’t know if what I”m about to say counts as pure feminism or is more of my libertarian b.s.

    But in my 40 years of living it seems to me that there is this school of thought among some women that as long as one of us gets to that male-dominated place it’s a victory. Even if we victimise people along the way and act in the same corrupting manner as the men we decried who held the position before us. It’s like “as long as it’s a woman we’re taking shit from, that’s progress.”

    It’s why I’m a bad feminist, I think. Because to me the progress isn’t in exchanging the gender of the dominant party–it’s changing the ideals and manners of the dominant party.

    So woman photographer or not, those pictures are the same shit we’ve had for years.

  5. I was just over at The Adipositivity Project site and something just now occured to me, after having looked at both sets of photos so closely together.

    Fat nudes are different.

    I mean, they’re all different from each other. Each fat nude body has its own curves, its own lay of the land. With a thin body those differences are much more subtle, so you get a more uniform feeling from looking at those women. A kind of idealised comfort. There’s nothing threateningly unknown about a thin female form. But us fat girls? Some have round tummies, some have tummies that fold. Some have large asses, other have those flatter, more egg-shaped buns. It’s like you can either look at 100 pictures of the beautiful beach or look at 100 pictures of various locations around the world–cities, farms, mountains, rivers and lakes. The beach is more idealised.

    I think that “real” ness is part of why fat women are less objectified in pornography and erotica. It’s much harder to objectify something unique.

  6. “It’s why I’m a bad feminist, I think. Because to me the progress isn’t in exchanging the gender of the dominant party–it’s changing the ideals and manners of the dominant party.” – Uh, I’m reasonably certain that makes you a *good* feminist, but they haven’t put me in charge of handing out the membership cards. ;)

  7. wow, i loved this article you say alot of the things i wish to articulate..
    I too believe that the scope of sexiness is too narrow.
    I wanted to post all these photos on my blog of women who I think are sexy but i too fall victim too only showing this one view of sexuality that you can’t help think was created by a man…ugg the more i go on the more silly i sound…
    i liked what you said…:)

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