Saturday, 10 July 2010

Female readers: a question for you

John Berger, in the book 'Ways of Seeing', gives quite a general description of the presence of a man, and that of a woman. I found it quite a bold argument to be making and wondered if you'd like to tell me how very wrong or right he is.

Berger's description of a woman's social presence is that she is always accompanied by an image of herself – in effect, she has two views of her life; a view from her own eyes and the imagined view that others will have of her. It sounds almost like a split personality; a woman might be going about a menial task but, in her mind, she is going through all of the ways she may be perceived by bystanders: criticizing herself here, praising herself there.

According to the author, men survey women before interacting with them in order to understand how they should be treated. This is the main difference he points out: men exert onto others, and women control how they are treated themselves – men view women, and women view themselves. Apparently it is the woman's tendency to survey herself in the first place that gives her some control over how she is treated by men. He claims that most actions of a woman are therefore accompanied by a purpose – to provoke others to treat them/act/react in a certain way. So, dare any female reader agree?? Do you often feel eyes on you? If so, Berger would argue it is your own way of protecting yourself. Leave a comment if you like.

I can understand why Berger makes this argument; I've heard plenty of male songwriters singing about a woman – how they see her, what they want to do for her etc. I think there are much fewer female songwriters who have written about a man in the same 'active' way; in fact I think modern society still, unfortunately, sees the 'wanting' of love as passion in men but desperation in women.

Another example to back his claim would be the long history of nude paintings. Nude – not naked – because 'nude' suggests the outer shell of a naked person. It's a state of mind in the model that blocks the viewer from 'stealing' anything from them. In painting the male view of the female (who, in turn, sees herself in the viewer's eyes) is commonplace and rarely do we see such a treatment of male models, unless it's an image of Narcissus and his river, say.

Images to feed your thoughts. Try replacing the women with men in your mind.


  1. i think, i'd have to agree.
    it's something that just happens, subconsciously.
    you can't control it.

    really interesting.

  2. Thanks Margg, I was counting on your comment : )

  3. Hmm. I can only speak for myself, but I'd say that I do carry around a construct of myself (both physical and intellectual) that I expect others to see, though this merges and separates from my internalized self intermittently. As far as physical appearance goes, I think women learn to speak through appearances and to be relatively self-conscious -- but not to the extent that they are passive in judging the appearances of men and other women.
    Personally, from what I've read of men's perspective, it seems that men also expect people to react toward them based on the image they project, though that may involve a different set of personal qualities, and a different set of expected actions.
    As for the portraits, if society frowns upon women living by themselves and making their own livings as painters, but allows them to serve as ornaments, then certainly we will see more paintings by men of women than the other way around. I guess what I'm saying is that there is some truth to the idea, but I think that it's more learned than innate.
    What I wonder is, (men), do you feel you construct a perceived identity to elicit reactions as well, or do you feel that you spend most social effort interpreting appearances to judge the way that you should act?

  4. Thanks for your comment. I think, to comment on my own feelings, I share a lot of what the author describes in women; I perked up immediately when he mentioned the notion of watching oneself from an outside perspective. I often do a similar thing and consider what people are seeing when they look at me – I'm rarely analyzing others. I like to play against some women though; you sometimes find women who blatantly expect all eyes to fall on them. So, I never even look at them and see how they react – whether they become more active as if to seek attention or recede as if they've failed themselves. Then again, that depends on whether they'd value attention from me in the first place, doesn't it. Perhaps it more or less comes down to whether we're right in saying that the 'men should chase the women' and never the other way around.


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