Blackness, history & love · Books · Colonisation · Gender · Performance & Arts · Political

Searching for the human

WomenWomen by Annie Leibovitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In advanced consumer societies, these ‘narcissistic’ values are more and more the concern of men as well. But male primping never loosens the lock on initiative taking. Indeed, glorying in one’s appearance is an ancient warrior’s pleasure, an expression of power, an instrument of dominance.

Sontag’s essay for this book moves restlessly over the surface of its subject, opening cans of worms and leaving them to wriggle uncomfortably into our consciousness, leaving a impression of something well-begun but half-done. Perhaps this is the intention: ‘Men, unlike women, are not a work in progress’. The profoundly felt absence is, as Sontag says, justice for women.

While she discusses attractiveness and the male gaze, her remarks really only consider White woman-ness. When she describes the threatening aspect of female sexuality, beauty-as-femininity and masculinity-as-strength, there is no attempt to consider how Black, Latina, Asian etc women’s (and men’s) sexualities are constructed against the White feminine ideal as deviant, which is disappointing in a book that features many Black women.

‘In a few countries where men have mobilised for a war against women, women scarcely appear at all. The imperial rights of the camera – to gaze at, to record, to exhibit anyone, anything – are an exemplary feature of modern life, as is the emancipation of women’

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This casual identification with the ‘imperial'(!) freedom of the camera to gaze on the other with woman-emancipation is ill at ease with the first sentence. To me it seems odd that she mentions women outside America, where the entire photography project was conducted, while neglecting the fraught issues of race (and social class and even celebrity) that Leibovitz seems to have considered in choosing her subjects. Images of the Williams sisters, Jamaica Kincaid watering her garden wearing a frown that resists reading, and a beautiful Yoruba woman with her children carrying themselves proudly on a beach in Florida bear the ongoing history of racism. The White women here have felt themselves human in front of Leibovitz, whatever Sontag says; their faces declare it. In contrast, the Black women never gaze back carelessly at the White woman holding the camera, but resist her, fend off the ‘imperial’ gaze. Maybe I am only projecting here.

Among all the images of actresses and politicians off-duty, and astronauts, athletes and miners in their uniforms, Leibovitz has made the decision to depict three ‘showgirls’ in their work-wear alongside their everyday selves, in both modes as it were. This sudden doubling perhaps anticipates and cuts off narrow assumptions about these women and presents questions about the experience of performance, but if showgirls can only become human outside their costumes, the status quo (fear of female sexuality, the whorephobic aspect of misogyny) stands unchallenged. The disruption fails to awaken critical consciousness to the fact that every appearance before the camera must be performative, lulling us back into passive consumption. Not that this isn’t an enjoyable book, but if I can’t say anything combative, I usually say nothing!

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