In a redemptive attempt to reclaim their own image, contemporary women are establishing what seems to be a new tradition in which they control the portrayal of their image, both subverting it and grasping control of the manipulated images of idealized women in the paintings of the Italian Renaissance – still perpetuated even in current visual culture. In portraying a true representation of femininity at their own hand, this past and present exploitation of female images is reversed, even riffed upon, and a new trend of images seem to emerge.
The ideas of L.A. based artist Audrey Wollen are at the forefront of this emerging re-adaptation of feminist-image theory. Wollen has even created a photo series in which she deliberately repeats and reinterprets images from the Renaissance and throughout the following centuries. In perpetuating the classical images themselves, Wollen told Dazed Digital that she wants to “position [herself] as part of a lineage — a history of anonymous, naked girls.” She attempts retribution, but also accepts that these objectified and voyeuristic images are utterly inescapable, both in the past and present without break in continuity. She tells Oyster Mag that, “Girlhood is in tandem with imagehood.” The objectification young women experience through images of themselves is inevitable and perhaps a nihilistic thought, but Wollen has capitalized on this realization and recognizes the power of representation it possesses. Through the pain and sadness of the feminine experience, these images are a form of protest. In an interview with Vice i-D, Wollen tells us that “Objectification itself has radical potential—we can use the products of oppression as the tools to dismantle it. I wish I could just be a person, and not a walking photograph of a naked girl. But I wasn’t given a choice.”
Wollen suggests that women’s internalized suffering should, itself be an act of protest. She proposes a theory that throughout time, women have disrupted the history of masculinity with the enactment of their own sorrow and self-destruction. Though much of it is unnoticed, this sadness can be a strategy for upturning patriarchal systems, especially when made known. Neurosis, narcissism, and neglect can all posit political resistance. “Revolt,” she says, can be personal and internal, performed through enacting our own bodies. Why should it warrant the need to mimic the masculine, combative tactics of the past? Protest can be profoundly feminine. She calls this “Sad Girl Theory” and the most accessible platform for young women to enact their sadness as protest in such a way is no other than Instagram. Could this be a modern feminist Renaissance (meaning rebirth) of sorts to subvert past systems of oppression?
Following my discovery of “Sad Girl Theory,” I realized that Wollen had touched upon something that I — as well as hundreds of other women I follow — have been enacting through our self-portrayal on social media for some time now. I put forth images that hint at my depression, depict my own silent rebellions and overall demonstrate my dissatisfaction with the injustices of the feminine experience as a universal.
Though Instagram remains the most accessible platform among the widest range of women, this form of protest is not limited to personal musings over social media. It has worked its way into the larger frame of visual culture and modern art. Films such as The Virgin Suicides, Girl Interrupted and Moonrise Kingdom, and music artists like Lana Del Rey, Sky Ferreira and FKA Twigs, even novels like Lolita, have all represented their sadness as passive but potent protest that aims to unsettle and dismantle perspectives on femininity and represent genuine experience. Petra Collins is a visual artist and photographer who portrays the subtle signifiers of femininity, shedding light upon the reality of girls and womanhood — the moments and experiences of young women that are overlooked and often concealed.
We interviewed one young woman, who prefers to remain anonymous, on her growing social media presence and personal ideology of feminine representation:
“I think that overall I’m simply refusing to plaster a fake smile on my face just because society wants me to be a nameless apparition of something young and fun and sexy. It’s just not reality.”
Instead she explains that, “reality is the pain of being female, the experiences that have shaped me, and a face and body that are mine — not anyone else’s. And so of course I’m going to photograph my tears and blow smoke in the face of my oppressors. It’s expression and it’s art.”
It’s safe to say that this trend is a reclaiming a Renaissance-like rebirth of feminine imagehood. The question remains whether or not the women who create these images will be able to ultimately sustain this redefinition in the larger framework of a long patriarchal history of image objectification and the permeating male gaze.
Barron, Benjamin. “Richard Prince, Audrey Wollen, and the Sad Girl Theory.” i-D, November 12, 2014. https://i-d.vice.com/en_gb/article/richard-prince-audrey-wollen-and-the-sad-girl-theory.
Martinez, Rafael. “Audrey Wollen On Art, Sadness & Internet Girl Culture.” Oyster Magazine, December 20, 2015. http://www.oystermag.com/audrey-wollen-on-art-sadness-internet-girl-culture.
Watson, Lucy. “How girls are finding empowerment through being sad online.” Dazed, December 2015. Accessed April 11, 2016. http://www.dazeddigital.com/photography/article/28463/1/girls-are-finding-empowerment-through-internet-sadness
Widdicombe, Lizzie. “The Female Gaze of Petra Collins.” The New Yorker, October 6, 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/the-female-gaze-of-petra-collins.
Wollen, Audrey. Repetitions. http://audreywollen.berta.me/repetitions/.