About a year ago I was sat at my kitchen table with two male friends. There was a bit of a ‘bro fest’ underway. They were putting our female friends in to various categories, such as ‘cute’, ‘hot’, ‘attractive’ etc. I’m not sure how frequently guys actually do this (films tend to suggest it takes up 50% of their time) but I am conscious that it is not uncommon for women to be defined as a certain ‘type’.
Naturally, moments like the one in my kitchen have led to my wondering ‘What type of woman am I? Where do I fit in this extensive catalogue of female types? If there was a magical supermarket of women all on display, would I be weaving a basket in the organic vegetables section or batting my eyelashes and suggestively sucking sweets in the confectionary aisle?’
Or just think of the Spice Girls. Remember sitting around with your friends (boys you must have done this at some point…) and deciding which spice girl you were? Scary, Sporty, Posh, Baby, Ginger! Which girl did you want to be?
To generate ideas for this blog post I googled things like ‘types of girl’ or ‘categories of women’. Sure enough the lists came flying out (sexy, sweet, serious, cheeky, bubbly etc.) and the quizzes I could take if I wanted to find out what kind of girl I am. There they all were at my fingertips – all the different ‘types’ of women you can come across in this world. I’m yet to find the ’21 year old, British, Art Historian, Eats mountains of peanut butter, Strangely proud of her pants, Has eyebrows you could keep as pets’ category. And there’s our problem.
How on earth are women really supposed to fit in to these categories? What if we want to switch between them? What if we’re not suited to any of them?
People struggle to categorise me – I’m just not fitting these types (I once cried in senior school over the fact that my class just couldn’t seem to find a chocolate bar I would be most like – oh, tragic teenage Rachel…). It always felt like a bit of a failure on my part. I was clearly not being cute, sexy, giggly or… really anything enough to be a type. There’s a sense of security in being a (fill the blank) girl.
So, this is my starting point – what I think we need to address first and foremost. There is no way to be a woman and there is no such thing as a ‘type’ of woman. We’re all such unique souls how could there be? Yes, we all have vaginas, breasts, periods etc. but why does physical similarity (and even then think of the physical variety amongst women) imply psychological, emotional and characteristic similarities that can then be sorted in to categories?
Now, let me ask you this. Why have I started thinking of Sarah Bernhardt, Cindy Sherman and Lady Gaga all in the same brainwave? No, they have not all shot fireworks out of their bras – as far as I know… (What a fabulous female fantasy – being so powerful you can shoot fire out of your breasts. Just me?) They have all challenged the notion of what it is to be a woman, or a single ‘type’ of woman. I think that rather than going on a furious rant about my teenage trauma and the categorisation of women I would like to indulge in a celebration instead. Let’s celebrate these three women. Let’s learn from what they have shown us. Let’s all be a little more gaga.
So, firstly, Sarah Bernhardt.
‘The Divine Sarah’ was a French stage actress of the late nineteenth century. It seems extraordinary that she gained the title of ‘The Divine Sarah’ considering the intense criticism she received for her lanky, un-ladylike frame, Jewish background and bisexuality. There were numerous spiteful cartoons created by critics emphasising these so-called ‘flaws’. Yet, Bernhardt was still a sensation. How did she manage to work against her critics and thrive as a beautiful, strong, independent woman?
(Side fun fact for everyone, in her older age she had to get her leg amputated and people were offering to pay her thousands of francs to attain it and put it on display – Oh celebrity culture how strange you are! “Come on kids, we’re going to see good old Sarah’s severed leg today!” – See, people think Art History is a strange subject but I’ve just given you all such a good icebreaker for a party…)
Back to Sarah. She worked with, not against, the media. Bernhardt took the weapons of her critics and put them to her own use. Bernhardt was constantly having photographs taken of herself and controlled the public’s image of her. In terms of gender and sexuality Bernhardt was essentially an early Gaga. Thanks to her height and thin body she regularly played the role of men (for example, she performed as Hamlet more than once) and had photographs taken of herself in costume for these roles. Not only was she playing with the confinements of gender, but also embracing her status as a beanpole. This is remarkable when you consider the standard response to criticism – defiance. Bernhardt could have taken seductive photographs (and yes there were some of those in her photographic arsenal) but she also embraced her androgyny – the ultimate ye olde ‘Baby, I was born this way’ statement. These photographs scream “This is who I am. Look how amazing this thing you perceived to be a flaw is.”
Furthermore, I think the contrasting photographs she had taken of herself as emotionally tortured Hamlet, a prim high society debutant, a rugged sculptor in fabulous white heels, the raw sexual Cleopatra, befuddled Pierrot, naked under a velvet robe etc. show what kind of a woman she was – an indefinable one. She constantly morphed before the camera, and made sure that everyone could see that by purposefully having these photographs taken. Just when the media thought they had her pinned, usually through criticism, she would play to and morph out of that criticism. Bernhardt showed to the world that she was a complicated individual, capable of embodying all sorts of different characteristics.
Now, Cindy Sherman.
Sherman is an American photographer and film director. Through her artwork she specifically raises questions about and challenges the representation of women by society (Oh yes, I’m a gal sold to my subject – Art History is my base). Sherman is best known for her series ‘Complete Untitled Film Stills’ (1977-80). This series consists of sixty-nine photographs of herself. In each of these photographs Sherman portrays a different ‘type’ of woman. She appears as the neat, doe-eyed student, the domesticated, sexy, young wife, the ferocious, hard-working woman and more. Each photograph is entirely unique, with no sense of overlap between the various ‘characters’ she plays. What I find particularly interesting about this project is that you get no sense of Sherman as an individual. She completely disguises herself through these various roles. Bernhardt maintained a sense of herself as a multi-faceted character throughout her representations – they were promotions of herself. By contrast, Sherman as an individual is completely lost amongst these various female roles. I think this spoke to me in two ways.
Firstly, I was hit by Sherman’s loss of individuality. Secondly, by the way one can so freely alter their identity. Which, naturally, are linked. I think in both cases, it is clear how one can disappear and evolve in to something else through appearance. Honestly, I feel that the fundamental difference between men and women is biological (a pretty straightforward observation that even an art history student could make…) But then why is this the basis for societal beliefs in the characteristic differences between men and women? I believe that this series picks up on that. Through physical appearance alone Sherman can lose herself and find new characters. Furthermore, by showing that one person can embody all of these characters destroys them. Whilst there is a human desire to categorise a woman as one thing, it is utterly impossible and Sherman’s photographs show this.
On to my final woman, Lady Gaga.
I can remember the first time I saw (technically I should say heard, but there really is something about seeing her) Lady Gaga. My reaction was like that of many people – “What on earth is going on here??? Does she go to bed wearing outfits as extravagant as what she wears during the day? Can someone please identify a disco stick for me?” But then I thought about her a bit more and have come to adore everything she stands for. Every time she releases a new music video I’m there watching and decoding it with my friends. However, I’m not actually going to discuss her music but her appearance. When Gaga arrived on the music scene she was blowing people away, often with confusion, but she was making a statement nonetheless.
Just to give people who don’t have a degree in Gaga (seriously, if there was a course about her I’d ace it…) a little background – she has a creative team under the title ‘Haus of Gaga’ who put together her outfits, make-up, stage sets, accessories etc. For the real keen beans here, there is such a thing as Gagapedia – an extensive online catalogue of her various outfits – and if any woman has merited such a catalogue it is her. Just to name a few outfits – the bubble dress, the Kermit the frog jacket, the meat dress, the silver lobster hat, not to mention her male alter ego Jo Calderone who she has dressed as for music videos, photo shoots and award shows. All spectacularly out of the box and shocking.
I see Gaga as the ultimate example of celebration of the individual – a celebration that extends beyond gender. Just think of the contrast of someone like Taylor Swift next to Lady Gaga. Taylor is girly from head to toe – whilst I do enjoy her music, the girl vomits kittens. Lady Gaga – what is going on there? She usually transcends beyond human, let alone woman – and that is what makes her so mind blowing. Gaga is the sort of role model I want young girls looking at (well… maybe avoid some of the more sexual outfits but adopt the attitude!). You don’t have to be a little darling like Taylor; you can be a ferocious, flaming beast like Gaga! Of course, I don’t want to totally bring down Taylor – if you are naturally characteristically inclined to be of that manner then that’s the sort of person you are – but what I love that Gaga totally challenges is that as a girl you have to be this way – she claims that you are a person, you can be anything – be individual, be yourself! This brings me back to my post title. “Baby, I was born this way”. This is the song I listen to when I’m having a bad day. Yet again, this lyric reinforces what she has been saying with her appearance all along. Embrace that individual, not that type. You are a complex, beautiful being.
So what have we learnt from my BernhardtShermanGaga combination? Female ‘types’ have been a long-standing problem. But, there have been a number of fiery females out there ready to challenge them. If there is anything to be taken away from this post, it’s that gender should not be a restraint, and the ‘types’ expected from your gender should not be either. In fact, whilst discussing this topic, a male friend reminded me that the same expectations are held of men. Just think of the categories we provide for them – ‘sporty’, ‘brooding’, ‘joker’ – we should show them the respect of also not putting them in boxes – and I thank my friend for reminding me to not have a blinkered view in my discussion of feminism. I think it is easy to focus upon the female situation and forget that men encounter these problems too. So, whilst I have curved my discussion towards the female experience, let us all remember to not categorise each other. Sex is an inherent, biological difference. Gender is not. Characteristically, there should be no notions or expectations of ‘types’ of women or men.
To end this post I’ve had an idea. I would like to keep this a creative and fresh blog. Whilst writing is well and good, maybe we should branch out? Sarah would never admit this but she’s a wonderful photographer and I… I have a mac photobooth… How about we create our own BernhardtShermanGaga photographic project? Morph in to five different women each before our cameras? Not just contemplate but engage with this notion. Well, keep your eyes peeled for future blog posts… Lets see if Sarah agrees to my idea!