American Univesity of Beirut

Feminism and Art: A Perfect Symbiosis

Karim Hout

On top of channeling new and unconventional forms of self-expression, feminist painters wanted to rewrite art history throughout the mid-nineteenth century. Indeed, artists confronted the lack of female representation in the worldwide canon–the collection of works considered representative of a period or genre, beginning a quest to end male dominance in historical, cultural, and artistic documentation. The overarching purpose of this article is to create a space for female-centered portrayal, reveal the erasure of women's achievements in art, and encourage every woman to express herself freely.

Dating from 1940, the revolutionary artwork is entitled Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair and was painted by the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. The latter created this self-portrait shortly after her divorce from Diego Rivera. Hence, unlike previous self-paintings in which she emphasizes her feminine qualities, in this one, she decides to abandon her feminine image in favor of a desire to be self-sufficient and independent of men. I will start by examining how Kahlo's painting disrupts gender stereotypes by displaying the artist's unusual, “non-feminine" physical traits. After that, I will investigate the gender dynamics that underpin the painter's “masculine" attire and demeanor.

To begin with, the painting rejects societal norms by challenging the conventions of the “feminine" physical features of beauty and sensuality. First, Kahlo defies the traditional beauty standards set for women through her facial hair. Indeed, by proudly growing a unibrow and a mustache, the artist challenges traditional female grooming conventions which state that a woman's facial hair should be trimmed on a regular basis and always kept neat and clean. “I will not restrict my self-expression in order to match your image of what a woman should look like," Kahlo's unibrow represents in the feminist canon. Having a shock of dark hair is a statement that she opposes assumptions of what is and is not attractive. According to societal standards, each gender should meet some criteria for their hair; while short hair is linked with a more masculine image, long and flowing hair is often associated with a highly feminine illustration. In the artwork, Kahlo's hair appears to have been chopped very short, appearing very “masculine" and thus not conforming to gender norms. She painted herself seated in a chair, with a pair of scissors in her hand and her hair scattered on the floor; hair strands are strewn in the background, each with its own charm. Moreover, the twisting hair seems to become animated, writhing on the ground now that it is cut away. Kahlo is sitting on a chair with an empty look. Her anguish is compounded by the fact that the area around her is deserted.

Reflecting on this scene, I believe that, through her painting, Kahlo is “murdering," with the scissors, an important symbol of her feminine physical traits, which is her long hair. Personally, I consider that this act of self-haircut is a gesture of independence from conventional standards. Kahlo cuts her hair to free herself from gender constraints; she is no longer beholden to societal conventions and has now regained control over herself. Furthermore, her facial expressions convey a sense of ease and peace because now that she “killed" the last symbol of femininity in her physical appearance, the painter is liberated from all the pressure and constraints that patriarchal standards imposed on her in the past. She is also liberated from the fatigue that comes with trying to conform to societal norms.

All things considered, masculinity and femininity have traditionally been thought of as two opposite extremities of a single dimension, with masculinity on one end and femininity on the other. High masculinity, under this view, entails the absence of femininity, and vice versa, implying the absence of any neutral ground. Kahlo's painting is shocking at first, but it ultimately becomes revolutionary as the artist defies one gender stereotype and embraces the other. Kahlo morphed herself into both Frida and Diego, absorbing the force and masculinity she saw in him and incorporating it into her own figure. While the painter's physical appearance is the primary way through which she challenges gender conventions in her artwork, it is vital to note that her clothing and body language also convey a lot about her antagonism to the traditional feminine image.

The contrast between Kahlo's clothing in this portrait compared to the usual “feminine" dresses is striking. In fact, while typical “feminine" clothing consists of revealing colorful outfits such as skirts and sleeveless tops, the painter depicted herself wearing an oversized dark man's suit with a brown shirt underneath it which is the typical “male dress-code". The suit's black uniformity and the landscape's drabness contribute to a mood of melancholy that dominates the scene. By wearing this suit, Kahlo crosses the barriers between femininity and masculinity, which is symbolic as it constitutes a challenge to patriarchal conventions. Indeed, I consider this conduct as a direct protest of the painter against “proper dress norms" that society imposes on individuals based on their gender identity. Moreover, Kahlo's body language conceals a lot of gender dynamics; the painter's sitting position is very masculine. In fact, we can see that her legs are spread wide apart, taking up a lot of space, she's “manspreading." Indeed, manspreading is a manly way of sitting when it comes to social positioning and gender-based cultural standards. Dominant men appear to spread out the most, taking up more space and displaying their power and independence. Women are taught to sit with their legs crossed or closed from an early age to convey timidity, shyness, and softness, all of which are qualities that portray the stereotyped picture of women and to protect what is in between her legs. They're also taught that spreading their legs demonstrates a lack of morality and is unladylike.

This picture is a masterwork. Lyrics and musical notation for a song are painted on the top of the artwork. Kahlo's body language and gestures simultaneously convey vulnerability, authority, and self-awareness. The painting can be read in a variety of ways. It is, first and foremost, a sign of her recent divorce and her new existence as a single woman. Indeed, Kahlo is “reborn" after her divorce. Rather than succumbing to the traditional notion of divorced women as failures, she defied the stereotype, Kahlo uses her divorce to rise from the ashes and establish herself as a free, independent, and strong woman capable of facing any challenge on her own. Her androgynous appearance and dress choices might also be interpreted as an indication of her identity as a queer woman who defied gender stereotypes. In fact, Kahlo was openly bisexual and has inspired generations of LGBTQ artists.

To conclude, Kahlo's painting challenges societal conventions and denounces the traditional feminine image by depicting a distinct representation of her physical characteristics, dress, and body motions. First, by chopping her hair short and leaving her facial hair ungroomed, the painter challenges gender conforming notions of beauty today and defies existing gender conventions. Moreover, the painter denounces gender norms by “crossing the barrier" between femininity and masculinity through the adoption of “masculine traits" in the way she looks, dresses, and behaves.

Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair depicts Kahlo's defiance of gender conventions while also emphasizing her personal and professional independence. It reminds me of recent tabloid photographs of pop singer Britney Spears shaving her head in rebellion of the media's unfair and suffocating portrayal of her by mainstream society and even certain members of her own family (a recent documentary film, Framing Britney Spears, examines these concerns and events in great detail). The similarities between Britney and Frida are beautifully depicted in Sarah Maple's artwork titled If I loved you it was because of your hair. Now you no longer have your hair, I don't love you anymore.


Photo credits:  Frida Kahlo, Self portrait with a monkey, 1938. Mudec Milano, 3 maggio 2018. Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA-4.0

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