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Feminist Aesthetics in Feminist Theory: A Recent Case Study
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Naomi Zack

This is how I described my Topics in Feminist Theory course for Spring 2005, to students:

The course will be based on several conversations in recent 2nd and 3rd Wave Feminism: commonality and differences among women; requirements for feminist psychological, social and political theory; beauty; women’s autonomy and oppression; the relevance to existent women of “French Feminism.” My [March 2005] book, Inclusive Feminism: A Third Wave Theory of Women’s Commonality will used for ongoing thematic structure. Other texts and handouts will include chapters in Peg Brand, ed. Beauty Matters, Toril Moi, Sexual Texual Politics, and a choice of supplementary selections by Linda Alcoff, Elizabeth Spelman, Marilyn Frye, Iris Young, Sigmund Freud, Jean-Paul Sartre, Julia Kristeva, Christine Delphy and Judith Butler. Undergraduates can expect to read about 60 pages a week, graduate students about 90. Course work will consist of lectures, participation with dialogue and 5 short papers from a wider set.
The class consisted of 7 graduate students and 25 undergraduates; 8 men and 23 women. Only 7 of the undergraduates were philosophy majors while 4 of the graduate students were. In my opinion, 6 or 7 of the students would have identified as persons of color. Given this diversity in discipline, gender, educational level, and race/ethnicity, I wanted to establish a common discussion forum at the outset. The first subject, Women’s Beauty, occupied us for three weeks, giving students a chance to get a sense of me, one another and the rigors of an advanced philosophy course. I also wanted to determine the views relative to feminism which students already held and their analytic skills. And most important, I wanted to find a hook to get the course motivated toward feminist inquiry and goals. I put my lecture notes on Blackboard and devoted much of the class time to discussion. My own approach to feminist aesthetics is through theory and I think that feminist aesthetic theory is a kind of critical cultural theory.

I distributed copies of Vogue and Vanity Fair on the first day and began with a comparison of the judgements of obscenity made by Vermeer’s wife in the movie, Girl with a Pearl Earring and by the American public about Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” on Super Bowl Sunday 2004. This was also the subject of a paper I was to give soon (Monroe Beardsley Memorial Lecture at Temple University) and I posted my paper on Blackboard. After going over the syllabus, I showed images of Janet Jackson, Vermeer’s painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Scarlet Johannson posing as its subject, Vermeer’s relatively unerotic, Portrait of a Young Woman Seated at the Virginals and the recent use of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring in an eye drop ad in Parade Magazine. We then fast-forwarded to key scenes in the movie, Girl with a Pearl Earring and the discussion focused on external determinants of beauty and obscenity (which I suggested was the opposite of beauty in mass entertainment), the element of sexuality in popular images of beauty and the importance of marketing and consumption in the use of images of women’s beauty.

The ice broken, the next class was spent talking about how standards for beauty are externally determined. I suggested to students, referring to the magazine images, that race itself was no longer a barrier to media commodification and that even images of oppression could be used to market beauty products as well as uphold idealizations of the family as a consuming unity. This quasi-neutral Marxist analysis vis a vis feminist interpretations set up the specifically feminist discussions of aesthetics and aesthetic theory that would occupy the next two weeks. Students who submitted papers for this first unit showed a good grasp of the external economic determinants of beauty standards.

Over the next three classes, we discussed chapters in Peg Brand’s Beauty Matters. Students were skeptical. In considering Brand’s interpretation of Carrie Mae Weems’s study (from her “Kitchen Table Series”) of a black woman and little girl applying lipstick, they did not think that the empty chair in the photograph invited the viewer to identify in terms of race and gender. They first denied having a concept of glamor in the sense of kitsch discussed by Kathleen Higgins, although later acknowledged the concept when I asked them to reflect on how they would feel if they were to meet a famous person who they admired aesthetically. They did not agree with Marcia Eaton that knowledge of the ecological havoc wrought by the weed loostrife would or should cancel an immediate judgment of its beauty. They did not agree with Kaori Chino that the Japanese impersonator of Western female movie stars, Yasumasa Morimura, was himself beautiful, or that Warhol’s “Marilyns” represented a further male rape of this “pitiful” icon. Kathleen Higgins’s discussion of healthy beauty and radiance made several students uneasy because they thought it was didactic and forced. Arthur Danto’s distinctions between aesthetics, art, and beautification or what he called “the third realm” between nature and art, were considered useful. Hilary Robinson’s exigesis of Luce Irigaray’s notion of women’s unexpressed inwardness was met with more skepticism. However, when I suggested that women in becoming beautiful and sexually desirable in our society now approach the project externally, through standards determined by men, instead of through their own desire, a light went on. It was our first shared feminist insight. This notion of absent women’s autonomy, in a dimension that concerns them so personally – beauty – was exactly the hook I had hoped for to get the class motivated toward feminist inquiry and goals. And it was beautiful: We had gone from aesthetic theory as cultural criticism, to aesthetics, and finished with the kind of cultural criticism that motivates feminism insofar as it is critical theory. (This pedagogical circuit supported my view of feminist aesthetic theory as a form of cultural criticism.)

Our last class on Women’s Beauty was conducted by graduate students as a discussion of the articles by Noel Carroll, Anita Silvers and Peg Brand (“Interview with Olan”). They shared the following critical concerns: Carroll’s claims about black stereotypes in the media were dated; Silvers did not explain how beauty standards could shift to valorize people with disabilities; Olan’s claim’s for autonomy were not supported by her suffering through plastic surgeries. The second paper for the unit on beauty asked students to write about this: “Not everyone can be beautiful. Deal with it.” The responses were all critical of the ways in which women’s beauty is rendered a scarce but highly sought after commodity in our culture, attained through the acquisition of other commodities.

2005 © Naomi Zack

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